When is Adultery only a Venial Sin? Ask Jeff Mirus

In a new post here, Jeff Mirus now claims that the sin of having sexual relations within a second non-marital union (a type of adultery) can be only a venial sin, if one partner is “under duress”. The duress is supposedly found in this situation, that the other partner will leave the family unless they continue to have sexual relations. So Mirus thinks that if your illicit “spouse” will leave you because you refuse to continue to commit adultery, the sin can become only venial. “Hence the man or woman in question continues sexual relations, in effect under duress, to ensure that his or her children are not deprived of one parent.”

What a severe distortion of Catholic moral teaching!

First of all, adultery is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Nothing can make the act objectively a venial sin.

Second, an objective mortal sin can be reduced in culpability to an actual venial sin, if full knowledge of the grave immorality of the act or full deliberation (full consent) is lacking. But when an act is both intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, nothing else can reduce the culpability to an actual venial sin, and the act always remains objectively a mortal sin.

Third, according to the teaching of the Magisterium, duress does not necessarily reduce an objectively grave sin to venial culpability. Under Pope Innocent XI, a decree of the Holy Office (now called the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), on 4 March 1679, condemned the claim that:

“A male servant who knowingly by offering his shoulders assists his master to ascend through windows to ravage a virgin, and many times serves the same by carrying a ladder, by opening a door, or by cooperating in something similar, does not commit a mortal sin, if he does this through fear of considerable damage, for example, lest he be treated wickedly by his master, lest he be looked upon with savage eyes, or, lest he be expelled from the house.” [Denzinger, n. 1201.]

In the above example, the servant is under considerable duress, as he might lose his home. This is a greater degree of duress that Mirus proposes. And the servant is only cooperating in the sin; he is not himself committing the grave sexual sin. Yet the Magisterium has condemned the claim that said servant “does not commit a mortal sin” due to duress.

Therefore, according to magisterial teaching, the duress that Mirus proposes does NOT reduce the sin of adultery to an actual venial sin.

Fourth, it is true that a couple in a second union, after divorce and remarried (without an annulment), might not be guilty of actual mortal sin, if they do not fully realize that their union is illicit and that their sexual acts are gravely immoral. But this reduction in culpability would be due to a lack of full knowledge.

By contrast, in the situation Mirus proposes, the one partner is termed by him as “the repentant spouse,” implying that this partner to the union realizes that continued sexual relations is a type of adultery. You cannot repent from a sin, if you do not realize that it is a sin. But then, despite this knowledge, Mirus justifies the adultery, calling it only venial, on a claim of duress. That is not how duress works in moral theology.

Duress can reduce culpability, if it causes a person to misevaluate the morality of a situation. But in Mirus’ example, the “repentant spouse” has correctly evaluated the morality of the situation. Duress can cause a person to lack full deliberation, if, due to duress, a person must make a quick decision, and therefore the deliberation is not full. But given a situation in which one person full realizes that a sexual act is adultery, full knowledge and full consent are not reduced by the supposed duress that your illicit lover might leave you, so that you must raise your kids as a single parent.

Jeff Mirus has a poor understanding of Catholic moral doctrine. But he thinks himself fit to judge Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Saint John Paul II, and Pope Paul VI. The arrogance of the modern-day Catholic commentator is astounding.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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