Moral Obligations and Duress

What happens if an act is a sin, but the sin is committed under duress?

First of all, the act remains objectively sinful. An act is a sin based on the three fonts of morality, as they arise from and apply to that choice of the human person. Duress can only affect the subjective aspect of the sin, that is to say, the degree of culpability. Actual sin is an objective sin committed with culpability. And culpability is based on knowledge that the act is objectively immoral, and freedom of the will in choosing the act.

An objective mortal sin is only also an actual mortal sin (which causes the loss of grace and deserves punishment in Hell) if three conditions are met: (1) the act is objectively gravely immoral, (2) the person had full knowledge of the grave immorality of the act at the time of the sin, (3) the act was chosen with full deliberation, that is, with full freedom of will.

However, duress can affect the degree of knowledge or freedom of will, and sometimes make an objective mortal sin not also an actual mortal sin. When under the threat or fear of violence, or some other serious pressure, a fallen sinner may find it difficult to evaluate the morality of an act impartially. And as a result, he may decide that an act is not immoral, or is not gravely immoral, due to duress. His judgment is affected, because he is in the fallen state. And thus, he commits an act mistakenly thinking that it is not a sin or at least not a grave sin.

Duress can also affect the freedom with which the person acts, so that the deliberation is not full. As a result, again, the objective mortal sin would not be also an actual mortal sin. Fear or anxiety over a decision can cause the freedom with which a person acts to be less than full.

Does any degree of duress make an objective sin not also an actual sin? No. A small degree of duress is not sufficient to reduce the culpability of the act substantially. An actual mortal sin is not reduced in culpability to an actual venial sin by a very limited type or degree of duress. In the fallen state, very many sins are committed with some duress. We are under some pressure or influence to commit the sin. That fact alone does not imply that the person is free from culpability or that the act is not an actual sin.

Moreover, an act can still be an actual mortal sin, even if the duress is grave. A Christian who renounces Christ under threat of death or torture might still be guilty with a full culpability. As Christians, we are expected to do good and avoid doing evil, even at great cost.

The evaluation as to whether an act was committed with full knowledge and full freedom of will is a matter for conscience and for the confessional. We can discuss this topic in general terms, but it is a difficult judgment to make, even in one’s own case. Only God can judge our souls.

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

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17 Responses to Moral Obligations and Duress

  1. Marco says:

    It has been claimed that, for example, if a woman or a man is divorced and remarried and she/he is with a partner who is not catholic (or that is only a nominal catholic) and wouldn’t accept the obligation imposed by Familiaris Consortio 84, ruining the family and the eduction of the children, this specific divorced and remarried could be free from actual mortal sin due to the fact that he or she is not free to act otherwise without a further guilt (and this is linked to Amoris Laetitia 301 where it was claimed that someone can be in such a situation).

    It was my compatriot Buttiglione who make this claim.

    For example, in this http://www.lastampa.it/2017/10/03/vaticaninsider/ita/inchieste-e-interviste/la-correctio-metodo-scorretto-non-discutono-condannano-VSBiQj8z9TVDxisQYvfXpI/pagina.html?zanpid=2352599751121544192 article he writes

    “Pensate ad una donna che vorrebbe fare questa scelta di castità ma l’uomo non vuole e se lei gliela imponesse si sentirebbe tradito e se ne andrebbe distruggendo il legame d’amore in cui crescono i figli. Chi rifiuterebbe le attenuanti soggettive ad una donna che continui ad avere rapporti sessuali con il suo uomo mentre d’altro canto persevera nel suo tentativo di convincerlo a compiere una scelta di castità?”

    Let me translate that for you

    “Just think about of a woman who is willing to make the choice of living chastely, but her man doesn’t agree and if she forced him to accept it, he would feel betrayed and he would break the relationship of love in which their son are growing up. Who wouldn’t admit that such a woman can benefit from the mitigating factors if she keeps facing sexual relationships with her man while persevering to convince him to make the right choice?”

    I find this argument pretty convincing and, if you ask me, this is one of the mitigating factors which can be applied to the divorced and remarried.

    At the end of your article you write

    “The evaluation as to whether an act was committed with full knowledge and full freedom of will is a matter for conscience and for the confessional. We can discuss this topic in general terms, but it is a difficult judgment to make, even in one’s own case. Only God can judge our souls”.

    But i think that only God can judge our soul with absolute certainty. But for the moral certainty (which is the only certainty we can have about our state of Grace or the one of another person) i think that Confession should be enough.

    Otherwise, if the priest in the confessional wasn’t able to form a judgment of moral certainty, Amoris Laetitia would not be applicable, i think.

    Am i wrong?

    Another question: what if the priest makes a mistake and he thinks that a divorced and remarried doesn’t carry the full guilt for his objective mortal sin when this is not true?

    My question is: would this divorced and remarried be freed from actual guilt because the priest has deformed the conscience of this faithful, or this faithful will go on to eat his own judgment?

    Thanks in advance, Ron.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t agree with Buttiglione. The woman knows that her acts with the man are a sin. There may be some reduction in guilt, if she misunderstands the moral law and has good intentions. But not every reduction in degree of guilt is sufficient to make an actual mortal sin only venial. There are degrees of sin within actual mortal sins.

      If the priest makes a mistake, the person might have reduced culpability, due to that misinformed judgment. But the mistake of the priest is probably not sufficient, in many cases, to make the act no longer an actual mortal sin. I know, from my own confessions, that I put my own judgments of conscience above any advice of any priest.

      I should note that I don’t agree that the divorced and remarried should receive Communion. I’m defending the Pope against charges of propagating heresy, while disagreeing with his judgment of the prudential order.

    • Marco says:

      “I don’t agree with Buttiglione. The woman knows that her acts with the man are a sin. There may be some reduction in guilt, if she misunderstands the moral law and has good intentions. ”

      Yes, and in this case i think that her freedom could be weakened as well.

      That is, she knows that her acts are a sin, but she is not free at the moment to act otherwise. I think that this can be applied as well. What do you think?

      If a divorced and remarried doesn’t destroy the new family he or she is condemned to eternal hell fire? Because the problem is that if you force FC84 to a partner who isn’t catholic or is only a nominal catholic, the family will be destroyed.

      ” But not every reduction in degree of guilt is sufficient to make an actual mortal sin only venial. There are degrees of sin within actual mortal sins.”

      Yes, i was wondering if these mitigating factors can be applied to the divorced and remarried and if they can be enough to decrease culpability the the level of actual venial sin.

      If the answer is no, how could the Pope propose what he propose in Amoris Laetitia?

      “If the priest makes a mistake, the person might have reduced culpability, due to that misinformed judgment. But the mistake of the priest is probably not sufficient, in many cases, to make the act no longer an actual mortal sin. I know, from my own confessions, that I put my own judgments of conscience above any advice of any priest.”

      The thing is: if the priest fools the woman to think that she can continue to live more uxorio with her husband without being guilty of actual mortal sin, how could she be guilty?

      Mind you that I’m not talking about a woman who goes to a laxist priest in order to receive a cheap absolution, i’m talking about a woman that sincerely confess her sins and obeys to what the priest says.

      “I should note that I don’t agree that the divorced and remarried should receive Communion. I’m defending the Pope against charges of propagating heresy, while disagreeing with his judgment of the prudential order.”

      Ok, but the thing is that, if claiming that allowing the divorced and remarried to Communion (when they are not guilty of actual mortal sin, that is) is not heresy (and i agree with that), then it has to be possible to form at least a reasonable moral certainty about their culpability.

      If that is not the case, the application of Al would be very dangerous. But i don’t believe that the Church can put the souls of her faithful in jeopardy, so something doesn’t add up.

      What do you think?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Your comments are long and have too many questions, which would take too long to answer. Try to keep at least the questions focused on one or two points, please. So, I can’t take the time to answer each point.

      Let me just say that, some couples do not believe that they sin mortally by the second union. They mistakenly see it as a real marriage, and they do have concern for their spouse and their children. So they might not have full knowledge, despite the intellectual knowledge of what the Church teachings. Full knowledge for full culpability is more than merely reciting the rules. So the Pope is saying, and I agree, that in many cases the person is not committing an actual mortal sin; the sin is reduced to actual venial, despite being objective mortal sin.

    • Marco says:

      And i should add this to my second post (which is currently under moderation).

      You wrote

      ” But not every reduction in degree of guilt is sufficient to make an actual mortal sin only venial”

      But let me ask you this: if being in a situation of objective mortal sin, having the desire to live accordingly to the will of God, and realizing that, at the moment, you can’t do that because otherwise you will destroy your family, damaging your son, if this situation doesn’t allow for a reduction of culpability to actual venial sin, then what does?

      I mean, if even a woman like this is most likely guilty of actual mortal sin, then I’d say that it’s nearly impossible for the divorced and remarried to be in the state of Grace, because even if this situation doesn’t reduce the guilt enough, then i don’t know what does.

      I mean, Amoris Laetitia was not written to be a mere intellectual argument, it was written to be put into practice by the confessors. But if it turns out that it’s nearly inapplicable because the divorced and remarried, even when they benefit from mitigating factors, are most likely still guilty of actual mortal sin, then what’s the point of this document?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Knowing the difficulties that will arise if you avoid grave sin does not make the sin actual venial, not necessarily. What usually happens is that the couple are not devout practicing Catholics, and so they don’t really believe all that the Church teaches. But they still turn to the Church for some help. And the Pope is saying we should welcome them.

      Eventually, the conservative view will win, and persons guilty of objective mortal sin will not be permitted to receive. But as a necessary result, this will mean that most Catholics cannot receive, due to contraception, abortifacients, sexual sins, and heresies. The standard proposed by the AL critics cannot be applied only to the divorced and remarried. And when it is applied to all mortal sins, most Catholics will not be able to receive, including the signatories to FC (since they are bearing false witness against the Pope and committing schism).

    • Ron Conte says:

      I think many of them have sufficient mitigating factors to be not guilty of actual mortal sin. But the mitigation factors are internal subjective ones, affecting knowledge and deliberation, not the factual situation that they will lose their new “spouse” and cause distress to the children.

    • Marco says:

      ” Let me just say that, some couples do not believe that they sin mortally by the second union. They mistakenly see it as a real marriage, and they do have concern for their spouse and their children. So they might not have full knowledge, despite the intellectual knowledge of what the Church teachings. Full knowledge for full culpability is more than merely reciting the rules. So the Pope is saying, and I agree, that in many cases the person is not committing an actual mortal sin; the sin is reduced to actual venial, despite being objective mortal sin.”

      Yeah, i get the full knowledge argument, Ron, but i was focusing on the deliberate consent as well. If a person wants to live accordingly to the will of God but he or she realizes that he/she is not free to do that right now (for the reasons explained by Buttiglione and myself, for example).

      I was focusing on the deliberate consent for another reason as well: you correctly said that ” Full knowledge for full culpability is more than merely reciting the rules” and of course i agree.

      But the thing is: if you belong to the Catholic Church, that is, you believe that she is the real Church of Christ and she can’t teach you wrong on this matters, how can you claim that yo don’t have “full knowledge”?

      Knowing for certainty that an act goes against the will of God should be enough.

      Of course things change if you are led to think that the Church teaches otherwise and that you can freely live in a situation like this because in your specific case it doesn’t go against God’s will; things change even if you don’t belong to the Catholic Church and you don’t believe in her moral authority.

      But how can you believe in God, and believe that the Catholic Church is his Church, and at the same time claiming that you don’t have full knowledge when you go against his will?

      This is not a rhetorical question, i’d really wish to know that.

      Mind you that i’m not saying that full knowledge cannot be applicabile in this. It’s just that i think that the deliberate consent can be more applicable.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Lack of deliberate consent applies more in cases where the person’s behavior is affected by fear, anxiety, longstanding sinful habits, and the like.

      “But how can you believe in God, and believe that the Catholic Church is his Church, and at the same time claiming that you don’t have full knowledge when you go against his will?”
      That is what happens. Look at the signatories, who are often well-educated or even teachers of the faith, yet when the Church teaches something they disagree with, they say it is wrong. This is no different from the liberals who behave the same way, rejecting any teaching contrary to their own mind. It is the sin of pride.

    • Marco says:

      ” What usually happens is that the couple are not devout practicing Catholics, and so they don’t really believe all that the Church teaches.”

      Yes, but I had not that example in mind. I was thinking about a man or a woman who has returned to the faith after having lapsed, and that wants to conform himself/herself to God’s will, but he/she can’t do that because his/her partner is not a faithful catholic and he/sh wouldn’t accept an unilateral imposition of chastity.

      I think that in that case the mitigating factors could be applied, that is, this person is not really free to act otherwise.

      If that wasn’t the case we would have to believe that it’s better for someone to be a non faithful, so he or she can benefit from the “full knowledge” mitigating factor, and i think this would be a huge paradox.

      “And the Pope is saying we should welcome them”

      And I agree, but we should help even the faithful Catholics who had lapsed and had gone astray. Otherwise it would be absurd, if being unfaithful puts you in a better situation.

      ” Eventually, the conservative view will win, and persons guilty of objective mortal sin will not be permitted to receive. But as a necessary result, this will mean that most Catholics cannot receive, due to contraception, abortifacients, sexual sins, and heresies. The standard proposed by the AL critics cannot be applied only to the divorced and remarried”

      We’ll see what happens, but i fully agree that “The standard proposed by the AL critics cannot be applied only to the divorced and remarried”.

      “I think many of them have sufficient mitigating factors to be not guilty of actual mortal sin. But the mitigation factors are internal subjective ones, affecting knowledge and deliberation, not the factual situation that they will lose their new “spouse” and cause distress to the children”.

      Of course. The act of adultery, being an intrinsece malum, can never be excused in and of itself, that is, it can’t become a justifiable act.

      My tought was that the situation of the hypothetical woman Buttiglione was talking about, can affect one’s deliberation even if you have the full knowledge.

    • Ron Conte says:

      “I think that in that case the mitigating factors could be applied, that is, this person is not really free to act otherwise.”
      Sorry, but no. That is not how mitigating factors work. Just because avoiding sin is difficult, does not mean that the sin is venial, rather than mortal. If she fully realizes, now that she has converted, that she must not have relations in the current union, then she sins if she does. She has to refrain or divorce, regardless of the cost, per VS.

      “The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honour of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.”

  2. Marco says:

    @Ron

    ” Lack of deliberate consent applies more in cases where the person’s behavior is affected by fear, anxiety, longstanding sinful habits, and the like.”

    I tought that in this case it may apply, that is, in such a case the affection developed for the new partner, the fear of losing the new family and hurting the children ecc, can affect the person’s behavior diminishing his/her freedom.

    I didn’t say that the situation proposed ipso facto diminished the freedom to act otherwise, i just said that it can happen for the reasons stated above.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Maybe that could affect the fullness of deliberation and knowledge. It’s hard to say.

    • Marco says:

      Of course it is, expecially since we are arguing from hypotheticals, we are talking about a real person that we really know.

      My main point is that, if Al has to be put into practice, the confessors have to be able to form at least a moral certainty about the imputability of a person, in order to know how to act.

      If Amoris Laetitia 302 states that

      ” Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases”

      Followed by Amoris Laetitia 305

      ” Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end. Discernment must help to nd possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits.”

      Then i think that it is implied that confessors could and should be able to form a moral certainty in order to make the judgment about the possibility of helping a person living in a a situation of objective mortal sin with the Sacraments (because the footnote 351 clarifies that, when the Pope wrote that the divorced and remarried could receive Church’s help, he meant the Sacraments), and in order to do that, his moral judgment has to include this person’s culpability, that is, he has to understand if this person is guilty of actual mortal sin or not.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I think the confessor’s role, in this regard, is to advise the penitent, in their judgment of conscience. He can’t really decide, and it’s not his role to decide if the penitent falls short of actual mortal sin. Though he can decide whether to give or withhold absolution.

    • Marco says:

      He can’t decide but he should be able to form a moral judgment.

      Otherwise the penitent is left to himself and if he makes the wrong decision he will commit sacrilege.

  3. Matt Z. says:

    This is a useful post especially in these times. For example, there are those on both sides that read the CCC on masturbation incorrect. One side says that masturbation is not intrinsically evil and the other side says that the CCC contradicts other Magesterial Documents. Both are not true. Masturbation is and remains intrinsically evil as always taught by the Magesterium. The last sentence in 2352 is talking about culpability and is not changing the teaching of prior Magesterial Documents.

    CCC
    2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”
    To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.

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