Fr. Ryan Erlenbush, of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Montana, makes the reprehensible claim that “most non-baptized children” — and this would obviously include the children of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist families — “commit a mortal sin as their first rational action.” This claim is found on Fr. Ryan’s blog, the New Theological Movement, under his pseudonym, Fr. Reginaldus, in the post: Can children commit mortal sins?
The claim is stated in the comments section of the post. However, the grave theological errors that support this claim are found in the body of the post.
In the comments section, Fr. Reginaldus (i.e. Fr. Ryan) is discussing the Sacrament of Confession. Fr. Ryan states:
Fr. Ryan: “I agree with you that, in the case of a baptized child, it is highly highly unlikely that they will commit a mortal sin before adolescence. However, in the case of a non-baptized child, I am quite certain that their first rational act will either be a mortal sin or an act of supernatural virtue which brings with it the forgiveness of original sin through an implicit baptism of desire. [for my part, I suppose that most non-baptized children commit a mortal sin as their first rational action…hence the great need for evangelization and infant baptism]”
This reprehensible claim implies that most Jewish children commit a mortal sin as their first rational action, about the age of seven. It implies that most Muslim children commit a mortal sin as their first rational action. It implies the same about children from Buddhist, Hindu, and all non-Christian families. And it further implies that, before the Christian Faith and the Sacrament of Baptism were established, that most of the children of the entire human race committed a mortal sin at the age of about seven. Fr. Ryan’s claim about non-baptized children is a false accusation of immense scope!
Is there any support for Fr. Ryan’s position in Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, or the teachings of the Magisterium? Not at all. Does the holy Catholic Church teach that most unbaptized children commit a mortal sin at about the age of seven? Not at all. The holy Catholic Faith has never taught such a foolish idea. And Fr. Ryan does not even attempt to claim that Sacred Tradition, or Sacred Scripture, or the Magisterium support his claim.
His sole basis for this false claim is an erroneous opinion expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica (written in the 13th century). Fr. Ryan frequently bases his theological assertions on Saint Thomas. This approach would be praiseworthy, if he were interpreting and critically evaluating the ideas of Saint Thomas in the light of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium, in the light of both faith and reason. He does not do so. Instead, Fr. Ryan treats the opinions of Saint Thomas as if these were infallible; he accepts them without question, even when they contradict reason or subsequent teachings of the Magisterium. Now I’m certain that, if you ask Fr. Ryan if the opinions in the Summa Theologica are infallible, he will say: ‘No’. But I observe that he treats these opinions like dogma nonetheless. If St. Thomas asserted an idea, in the 13th century, as a theological opinion, Fr. Ryan will find someway to claim that it is true — all things to the contrary notwithstanding.
Since St. Thomas is a Doctor of the Church and a Saint, should we accept his theological opinions without question? Certainly not, for several reasons: 1) His opinions in the Summa Theologica are theological opinions, not teachings of the Magisterium; 2) his opinions were written before the Councils of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II; 3) his opinions were written before the very many magisterial documents issued since that time; 4) his opinions were written in the 13th century, and so cannot take into account the development of doctrine and theological opinion since that time; 5) his opinions were written in the 13th century, and so cannot take into account advancements in human knowledge (biology, psychology, other sciences) since that time.
But on the question of original sin, there is yet one more reason why we should not merely accept St. Thomas’ opinion uncritically and unquestioningly. St. Thomas, writing in the Summa Theologica about the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, expressed an erroneous opinion, that Mary was conceived with original sin and was only saved from original sin after conception. Now at the time that St. Thomas wrote, the Magisterium had not yet definitively taught the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. So his erroneous opinion was not, at that time, a heresy. But his error still shows that, on the topic of original sin in particular, the Angelic Doctor was capable of very substantial error.
St. Thomas’ claim about young children and original sin is almost as weighty an error as his denial of the Immaculate Conception.
“I answer that, It is impossible for venial sin to be in anyone with original sin alone, and without mortal sin. The reason for this is because before a man comes to the age of discretion, the lack of years hinders the use of reason and excuses him from mortal sin, wherefore, much more does it excuse him from venial sin, if he does anything which is such generically. But when he begins to have the use of reason, he is not entirely excused from the guilt of venial or mortal sin. Now the first thing that occurs to a man to think about then, is to deliberate about himself. And if he then direct himself to the due end, he will, by means of grace, receive the remission of original sin: whereas if he does not then direct himself to the due end, and as far as he is capable of discretion at that particular age, he will sin mortally, for through not doing that which is in his power to do. Accordingly thenceforward there cannot be venial sin in him without mortal, until afterwards all sin shall have been remitted to him through grace.” (St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 89, A. 6).
The errors in the above quote are several. Now it is true that a human person cannot commit actual sin, venial or mortal, without some understanding of morality, and this requires reason. An objective sin, venial or mortal, committed without any knowledge (and, for adults, without any negligence in seeking to know) of the immorality of the act is not an actual sin. Prenatals, infants, and young children are incapable of committing actual sin, because they cannot understand right from wrong. But St. Thomas errs, first by assuming that the use of reason comes upon the child all at once, not gradually.
As any mother who has raised children will tell you, and as modern child psychology confirms, young children gradually develop the ability to reason. You cannot reason with a two year old, because a two year old cannot reason. But you can reason a little with a three year old, and a little more with a four year old, and so on. The ability to use the faculty of reason is gradual increases; it is not an all-at-once event. By comparison, the ability to walk arrives in a less gradual manner than the ability to reason. Parents will make note of the one day when the child took his first steps. They remember the exact day and hour. They have pictures of the event. But the dawn of reason in the child does not occur in one moment, or on one day, or even over the course of a single week or month. If it did, certainly the parents of the child would note the day or week or month with amazement and pride, just as they do for walking. But such is OBVIOUSLY not the case!
From a theological point of view, God creates the rational soul at conception. From conception, the human person has the God-given gift of reason (and the God-given gift of free will). Although the ability to exercise the rational ability of the soul gradually develops along with the development of the body and mind, the gift of rationality is from conception; it is inherent to the soul. This point is not an opinion, but a doctrine of the Catholic Faith. God does not give the soul rationality at about age seven (the so-called ‘age of discretion’ or ‘age of reason’). The soul has had the inherent faculty of reason and free will from conception. And this is why the use of reason is a gradual increase, and not an all-at-once event. The ability to reason was gifted from conception, and the development of the body and mind over time allows that inherent ability to be expressed.
The second error of St. Thomas in the above quote is based on the first error. He thinks that the ability to reason occurs all at once, not gradually, and so he concludes that the human person is then immediately capable of mortal sin.
“But when he begins to have the use of reason, he is not entirely excused from the guilt of venial or mortal sin. Now the first thing that occurs to a man to think about then, is to deliberate about himself. And if he then direct himself to the due end, he will, by means of grace, receive the remission of original sin: whereas if he does not then direct himself to the due end, and as far as he is capable of discretion at that particular age, he will sin mortally, for through not doing that which is in his power to do.” (Ibid.)
But as anyone who has actually raised children or worked with young children will assert without doubt: children substantially younger than seven are capable of knowing right from wrong to some extent, and are capable of freely choosing to do something that they understand, to a limited extent, is wrong. They are capable of the limited use of reason, with an ever increasing ability, long before seven years. And they are capable of committing venial sins (small sins), long before they understand right from wrong sufficiently well to be at least theoretically capable of mortal sin. The evidence from objective fact is overwhelming. It is not the case that young children suddenly become capable of reason and of mortal sin, while previous to that moment they were incapable of any reason and incapable of any sin, even venial sin. St. Thomas’ position is contrary to reason and observable fact.
So the foundation of St. Thomas’ argument is patently false. Therefore, he arrives at the incorrect conclusion, that at the supposed moment when the child all-at-once becomes capable of reason and of mortal sin, the child is then forced by this circumstance to either choose God, thereby immediately obtaining a Baptism of desire, or to choose mortal sin “through not doing that which is in his power to do”, in other words, by not immediately considering himself, the existence of God, the moral requirement that he direct himself and his acts toward God, and by not immediately acting on that supposedly obvious set of insights and requirements. Now while these things may seem obvious to a Saint and Doctor of the Church after many years of prayer and study, it is absurd to claim that every seven year old immediately understands these moral requirements, and must immediately either obtain a Baptism of desire or commit a mortal sin of omission.
More could be said in criticism of this section of St. Thomas’ remarks. But since the entire foundation of his argument and its main conclusion are thoroughly refuted, the above comments suffice.
Now as for Fr. Ryan, his error is not as easily excusable as that of St. Thomas. For the Angelic Doctor lived in the 13th century, and lacked all of the theological insights, doctrines and dogmas, and human knowledge that we today have available. Fr. Ryan sins by ignoring sources other than St. Thomas, and he further sins by treating the Summa Theologica as if its opinions were a set of dogmatic canons. Fr. Ryan accepts the 13th century opinions of St. Thomas without critical thinking, without comparing those opinions to the teachings of faith and the insights of reason.
Fr. Ryan assumes that the human person reaches the ability to reason all at once, not gradually. He further assumes that the human person is immediately capable of mortal sin: “that first rational act will either be one of implicit faith or a mortal sin.” How can a human person’s first rational act be of implicit faith? Must he not first consider various points of knowledge and teaching, and then consider the existence of God, and then consider what God’s will might be? Would it not take more than a moment or one hour or one day or even one year of extensive consideration before realizing that the human person must accept faith in God (or whatever the phrasing of the implicit desire for Baptism would be)? It is absurd to claim that the first act of a human person, suddenly given the ability to reason, would be the monumental act of implicit desire for Baptism (without any prior considerations leading to that desire!!) or else an immediate mortal sin of omission by not reaching that lofty height of reason in an instant.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time had fairer and more reasonable conditions for salvation, even though “they bind up heavy and unbearable burdens, and they impose them on men’s shoulders. But they are not willing to move them with even a finger of their own.” (Mt 23:4). The impossible burden that Fr. Ryan puts upon the shoulders, not of men, but of seven year olds not raised in the Christian Faith, is exceedingly heavy and is certainly not a burden that he himself could have lifted at that age.
Jesus taught this truth: “Allow the children to come to me, and do not be an obstacle to them. For of such is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 18:16)
But the teaching of Jesus Christ carries no weight at all with Fr. Ryan, not when the Angelic Doctor has uttered an opinion to the contrary.