Jacques Maritain Center : Elements of Moral Theology


§ 1. Respect of persons.

Is it a sin?

That question is answered by the Divine law (Deut. i. 17), "Ye shall not respect persons in judgment." It is opposed to distributive justice, whose equality requires that diverse benefits be given to diverse persons in proportion to their worth. But, instead of merits or fitness something else may be considered; as, in bestowing office, wealth or relationship, or party claims, and the worthiness of the candidate may be totally left out of view. This is "respect of persons." The person may have claims of one kind when he has none of another kind. Consanguinity may constitute a claim as an heir, when it gives no claim to civil or ecclesiastical office. And what is respect of persons in one relation, is not so in another. The question is not of worthiness simply -- say, a good moral character -- but of worthiness relatively to the honour bestowed.

And since respect of persons violates the proportion which distributive justice requires, it is evidently a sin.

The greater the matter in which justice is violated, the greater the sin.

And since spiritual things are more precious than temporal things, respect of persons is a greater sin when Church offices are bestowed than it is in "politics." Yet the distinction just made is to be remembered. For he who most abounds in the spiritual gifts of grace is simply and in himself the most worthy; but relative worthiness has relation to the common good, as in the choice of a bishop. He who is less holy and less of a theologian may be able to contribute more to that common good on account of his executive ability or power of influencing men, etc., etc. And since spiritual offices are ordained for the common good, it may be no respect of persons to prefer him who is less advanced in a holy life to one who is more advanced.

But if the reason for preference is not germane to the matter, the law of God is broken (S. James ii. 1) -- "Hold not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, with respect of persons."

What shall we say of honour and reverence?

One may rightly receive these not only on account of some merit of his own but for another's sake, even if he be in himself unworthy, as magistrates and prelates, who represent God and the community over which they preside. So also parents and masters are to be honoured as in a certain way participating in the dignity of Him who is Father and Lord of all. Old age is venerable as a sign of virtue, although that virtue may be absent. Riches may be a mark of higher station in the community (or possibly of eminent talents of an honest sort); but if the rich man is honoured solely on account of his riches there is the sin of respect of persons (S. James ii. 1).

The judge is corrupt who allows respect of persons to influence his judgment.

§ 2. Homicide.

Notice, first (and especially with reference to an old Manichean error reviving in certain quarters), that it is lawful to kill the brutes for food of man.

In the natural order of things, the less perfect is for the use of the more "developed." {1} Plants are for the use of animals; the brutes for man's use. And food is among the chief uses. Vegetable life, accordingly, is destroyed for the food of herbivorous animals; and beasts, according to Divine ordinance (Gen. ix. 3). for the food of man.

Brutes have not rational life, so as to govern their own actions; their nature constitutes them instruments for the use of rational creatures, including food.

Is capital punishment rigid?

Every part of an organized whole is ordained for the good of that whole. If the health of the whole body of a man require the amputation of some member of it, because it is mortified and is corrupting the other parts of the body, it must be cut off. And each individual in society is a part of the whole community. Therefore, if any man through his crimes be dangerous to the community, corrupting its most vital existence, he is laudably and rightfully killed in order that the common good may be saved. "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Cor. v. 6).

(1) The Lord (S. Matt. xiii. 29) commanded that the tares be spared in order that the wheat might not be injured by rooting out the weeds. Something like this may happen in times of widespread anarchy or rebellion, when the extermination of wrong-doers will involve many innocent persons in their fate, so that they cannot be put to death without grave injury to the common good. But this case is an exception to the law that public safety may require the execution of criminals.

(2) Human justice, as far as possible, imitates the Divine and God sometimes defers His penalty of death, giving time for repentance, and sometimes cuts off the transgressor in the midst of his sin. Human justice, in like manner, cuts off those who are most pernicious to others, but gives them space for repentance, and spares others whom it may hope to reform, who have not injured society so gravely.

(3) It may be true that, considered in itself, it is wrong to take human life, because we are bound to love all men, even sinners. But a man, naturally free and existing for himself in the dignity of a man, may reduce himself to bestial slavery (Ps. xlix. 20). A man may become worse and more injurious than a wild beast; and he is as justly cut off from life.

Such was the Old Law (Ex. xxii.), and such is the Gospel law (Rom. xiii. 4).{2}

Is it right for a private person to take human life?

To kill the malefactor is right as ordained for the preservation of the life of the community; therefore, in every organized and civilized community, this office belongs exclusively to those who have the care of the common good.

But killing a murderer or horse-thief is very useful to the community, and may not any man do what is useful for the common benefit? I answer that he certainly may, provided that he do harm to no one. But if this doing good to the community requires the doing harm to some part of that community, it must he through the judgment of one who has the charge of that community.{3} Lynch law in organized communities is an offence against the state and against God.

Is suicide lawful?

It is mortal sin for three reasons. (1) It is unnatural, contrary to natural self-love, and to charity, which requires that each one love himself as the creature and image of God. (2) Man belongs to the community, and in killing himself he inflicts an injury on the community of which he is a part. (3) Life is a gift from God, and subject to His power only, whose are the issues of life and death. Therefore he that deprives himself of life sins against God.

(1) In one way it is a sin against charity, but in relation to the community and to God it is a sin against justice.

(2) Even a malefactor is not judge or executioner in his own case.

(3) Perhaps the most plausible argument for suicide in certain cases is that since it is lawful to incur a less danger in order to avoid a greater one, one's own death may be a less evil than misery or disgrace, and be rightly chosen instead of the worse condition. But I answer that free-will makes man master of himself, and he can lawfully dispose of himself so far as those things are concerned which are ruled by his free choice. But the passage from this life to a better one is not subject to his free-will but to Divine power. So it is not lawful for a man to kill himself in order to go to Paradise. Similarly, also, it is not lawful to commit suicide in order to escape the miseries of this present life, for its last and greatest evil is the death of such a being as man is. Suicide is choosing a greater evil in order to escape a less one. (This argument, taken singly, hardly seems to reach the case of shortening incurable sufferings.) Likewise it is not lawful to kill one's self on account of sin committed, both because he cuts short his time for repentance, and because he is not judge in his own case of the penalty to be inflicted for his sin.

In like manner, it is wrong for a woman to kill herself in order to escape violation. For she ought not herself to commit the greatest crime in order to avoid another's crime. It is the mind, not the body, which can be polluted.

Again, one may not kill himself to escape temptations, for we may not do evil that good may come or evil be avoided. And, further, this apprehended evil is an uncertain one, for God is able to preserve in the hour of trial.

Judge and jury must proceed according to evidence, even if they have private information that the evidence is false.

If they find the innocent guilty of a capital offence, it is not they who kill the innocent, but those who bear false witness against him. The private information is to he used in another quarter (sc., the executive).

The sheriff and the executioner are simply the ministers of justice, and if there be no manifest injustice in the sentence, their private knowledge does not affect the question of their duty. It is not they who kill the innocent if he suffer by a regular sentence of law.

Is it lawful to kill another in self-defence?

An act may have two effects, one of which is intended, the other being aside from the intention. But moral acts get their specific character from the intention of the agent. Now, from the act of self-defence two effects may follow; viz., the preservation of one's own life and the killing of the assailant. An act of this nature, if its aim be the preservation of life, is not illicit, because self-preservation is nature's first law. But such an act, with good intention, may become illicit if it be not proportionate to the end (exceeding that end in any manner, or deviating from it). Therefore, it is wrong if any one in self-defence use greater violence than is absolutely necessary. One is not bound to neglect a moderate defence in order to avoid the killing of another, for a man is more bound to preserve his own life than that of another man. But it is illicit to intend to kill another without public authority. With that authority a man may refer his act to the public good and intend to kill, as soldiers do in time of war.

When the apostle (Rom. xii. 19) says, "Avenge not yourselves, but give place unto wrath," he prohibits that defence which has the motive of revenge, as the shooting a burglar while escaping.

Accidental homicide.

What is casual is neither intended nor voluntary. And because every sin is voluntary, casual actions as such are not sins.

But it may happen that what is not actually and per se willed or intended, is so per accidens, because whatever removes hindrances is in that way a cause of the consequences. Hence, he who does not remove those things from which homicide results, when he ought to remove them, incurs in some manner the guilt of voluntary homicide. This may happen either when one is engaged in illicit acts which he ought to avoid, or when, being lawfully employed, he does not use due diligence. In either case, if from his action the death of a man result, he does not escape the guilt of homicide. But it is otherwise if he be engaged in lawful business and use due precautions. Accidental death is not imputable to him.{4}

§ 3. Theft and robbery.

The natural right of property.

The Psalmist says (Ps. viii. 6), "Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet;" i.e., man's feet. Man's ownership of external things is a law of nature. But those things may be viewed, first, as regards their own nature; and this is not subject to human power but only to the Divine. But also we may consider the use of things, and so man has natural dominion over them, because through reason and will he can use them for his own benefit as if they were created for him. And this natural dominion over other creatures, which belongs to him as endowed with reason in which is found the image of God in man, is set forth in the very creation of man (Gen. 1. 26).

But this dominion goes further; it is the right of individual personal property -- that is to say, first, man has the right to manage and dispose of outward things, his personal possessions. This power is necessary in the proper conduct of human life, for three reasons (1) Every one is more solicitous in managing what belongs to himself alone than in that which belongs to everybody, because, shunning needless labour, he leaves to another that which is everybody's business; (2) human affairs go on more orderly when each has his own business to manage, while there must be confusion if every one indiscriminately attend to everything; (3) in this way greater harmony is likely to be preserved when each knows what is his and what he has to do with it.

In the second place, this dominion gives the power to use external things. In this respect man has no right to treat them as if they were exclusively for himself alone; he is bound to use them as the common possession of all, being ready to communicate them for others' necessity (1 Tim. vi. 18).

(1) Communists say that by the law of nature all things are common, and that "property is robbery." But I deny that natural right dictates that all things be held in common, and that nothing shall be held by any one as his property. But I grant that any existing distinction of possessions does not rest on the law of nature, for it is a matter of human arrangement; it rests on positive law. Property is not contrary to natural right, but things are divided as they are now distributed according to what is superadded to the law of nature (sc., according to jus gentium).

(2) The rich man does not act wrongfully in keeping what in the beginning was common to all, if he also share with others in the fruits of his possessions; but he sins if without distinction he exclude others from the use of them.

What is theft?

It is the secret taking of what is another's. The unjust keeping of what is another's is an injury of the same kind, and to be included in the same general title.

Both theft and robbery imply involuntary loss; but in the one the loser is ignorant of the act of taking, in the other he loses through violence.

Is theft always a sin?

It is so, first, because of its opposition to justice which renders to every man his due, his own. And, secondly, it is a sin because of the sinful guile or fraud which the thief employs.

What shall we say of one who finds what is not his own, and secretly takes possession of it? Is he a thief? What is found may never have had an owner, as uncut gems and pearls; or it may have been lost so long that no claimant of the property can be found. Then it naturally belongs to the finder, unless civil law limit his right; but it is limited only after judicial sentence.

Again, the finder may sincerely believe that the thing has been abandoned by its recent owner; he is no thief if he keep it after due inquiry. Otherwise the keeping is undoubtedly theft.

Is theft mortal sin?

The apostle (1 Cor. vi. 10) says that thieves shall not "inherit the kingdom of God." Theft is opposed to charity, because it does harm to our neighbour, and if it were universal human society would perish. As contrary to charity in which is the spiritual life of the soul, it is mortal sin.

What is to be said of stealing trifling things? They may, possibly, be so trifling that if the owner knew of the act he would not think that it did him injury, and he who takes can presume that his doing so is not against the owner's will. So far there may be no mortal sin; but if be have the iutention of stealing and doing harm to his neighbour, the theft of even little things is mortal sin. So is even consent to the thought of doing so.{5}

Is it right to lake another's property in case of extreme necessity?

Human law cannot derogate from natural or Divine right. Now, according to the natural order instituted by Divine Providence, the things of this world are ordained for the supply of man's necessities, and the division and appropriation of things, which are based on human law, cannot hinder man's necessities from being relieved in this way. Therefore what some have in superabundance, by natural right is due to the support of the needy. "It is the bread of the hungry which thou keepest; the clothing of the naked which thou shuttest up; the redemption of the miserable is the money which thou usest in 'speculation'" (S. Ambros., Serm. 64, De Temp.).

But because the needy are many, and all cannot be assisted by the same things, the dispensing of such things is entrusted to the owner of property that he may do his share in relieving want.

If, however, there be urgent and extreme necessity (peril of life), then one may rightly relieve his need from another's goods without waiting for the owner's permission, and this is not robbery or theft. Such necessity makes to be his own what he immediately needs to save his life. And in case of similar necessity on the part of his neighbour which he himself is unable to relieve, he may do the same for his brother. (Restitution, however, must be made when that necessity is passed.)


This implies violence and compulsion through which another's property is taken from him. But in society no private individual has this right, but only public authority; therefore whoever, acting as a private citizen, takes another's goods by violence is a robber. Executive authority is the guardian of justice, and can use violence and coactive force only according to the prescriptions of justice in fighting against public enemies, or punishing malefactors. What is taken through such violence is not robbery, since it is not contrary to justice. But unjust taking by those who use public authority and so pervert it, is robbery, and the wrongdoer is bound to make restitution like any other thief or robber.

In war, fighting for plunder and lawless depredation are common forms of robbery which demand restitution.

Why is robbery a graver sin (and more severely punished) than theft?

First, because there is more of the involuntary in the former on the part of him who is deprived of his own; and, secondly, there is not only the loss of goods, but great probability of personal disgrace or injury (and natural consequences add to the gravity of a crime).

§ 4. Injustice in legal proceedings.{6}

Is it right for a judge to act contrary to what he privately knows?

He is vested with public authority and acts officially; therefore he must judge by what he officially knows, not by his private information. He follows public laws, Divine or human, as the case may be, against which he can admit no arguments. But in the special case before him he has testimony of various kinds, which is the sole ground of judgment. His private knowledge will guide him in searching more strictly the evidence, and perhaps indicate where additional evidence is to be found; but his final decision can rightly rest only on the testimony officially laid before him.

God alone judges with proper authority; human judges have only delegated power, and are bound to restrict themselves to its limits.

Is a man bound to bring crimes of which he has knowledge before the cognizance of the proper tribunal?

There is this difference between fraternal denunciation, of which we have spoken above (page 227), and accusation, that in the former the amendment of a brother is the aim, but in the latter the punishment of crime. But the penalties of this present life are not sought for on their own account, because in this world is not the final retribution; but they are medicinal, contributing either to the amendment of the criminal, or to the good of the commonwealth, whose good order is sought for in the punishment of criminals. Therefore, if the crime were such as tended to the public detriment, a man is bound to make accusation of the criminal, if he have sufficient proof of the offence. And this detriment may be either bodily or spiritual. But if the sin be doing no injury to state or Church, as the case may be, or if there be not sufficient proof of the crime, there is no obligation of bringing accusation, for no one is bound to that which he cannot carry through in due manner.

This principle applies to laymen in their relations to the priesthood, and to priests in their relation to their bishop, if all be done out of charity.

Friendship is no bar to duty in this respect. To reveal secrets and cause evil to a friend is against fidelity, but not if they be revealed on account of the common good, which is to be preferred to any private good. Therefore no secret may be kept (even though secrecy has been promised) to the injury of the community. Besides, that is not altogether secret which can be proved by sufficient testimony.

But injustice may insinuate itself into accusation in the form of malicious calumny imputing crime falsely, or as prevarication, when the nominal accuser fraudulently attempts to impede the course of justice; or as tergiversation, when he totally desists from what he has begun (being frightened or bought off).

May the criminal accused plead not guilty?

(Here S. Thomas has in view the criminal process of most European, especially southern, countries. The accused is bound in justice to answer truthfully all questions lawfully asked, or, at least, not to tell a lie. But he may refuse to answer, or appeal to another court. But under Anglo-Saxon institutions the plea of "not guilty" is, no doubt, understood to be the demand for the production of evidence in the case, a demand which every accused person may rightly make.)

He is not bound to confess his guilt before a human court; he may defend himself by concealing facts in all proper ways, using no guile, fraud, or lies, because his public condemnation can justly occur only under due process of human law and clear evidence. He is not bound to give any assistance in this.{7}

Is it lawful for one who is condemned to death to resist if he can?

S. Paul says (Rom. xiii. 2), "He that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God; and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment;" therefore he seems to sin. But distinction must be made between just and unjust condemnation. The latter is akin to the violence of robbers, and may be resisted unless grave scandal is to be avoided, or serious disturbance is feared. But it is quite otherwise if the sentence of condemnation is a just one.

(1) It is true that nature inclines every one to make resistance in such a case, but reason and conscience are given to man that he may govern his nature. Not every kind of defence is lawful.

(2) No one is bound to do that whence death may follow, but merely to submit to the just sentence of the law. He is not bound to remain in prison if a way of escape is open; but he may not resist the authority which executes the sentence of the law.

Is a man bound to be a witness in court?

His testimony may be demanded by an authority which, in matters of justice, he is bound to obey. Doubtless he is then bound to bear witness in those things in which according to rightful order he is required to give testimony. Such a case is one of manifest wrong -- i.e., a wrong which can be proved -- and one which public infamy has preceded. But if his testimony be demanded in other cases -- say, secret crime, or one where there is no public infamy -- he is not bound to testify. Even if the truth be not brought to light, it may be that no one incurs any special loss in consequence.

But, demanded or not demanded, his testimony may be needed to liberate a man from unjust penalty, loss, or infamy; then charity requires him to testify. And even if his witness be not required, he is bound to do what in him lies to bring the truth before some one who can be of service to thc accused.

What shall we say of things confidentially communicated to any one?

What is heard in confession can in no case be revealed, either in court or under any other circumstances. The priest knows it, not as he is a man, but as he is the minister of God. This bond is greater than any commandment of men.

But with respect to things otherwise confidentially communicated, a distinction must be made. For there are things which a man is bound to make known as soon as they come to his knowledge, such as corrupt the spiritual or corporal well-being of the community, or work grave loss to some person. Such things a man is bound to divulge by testimony or denunciation; and no secret or confidential communication can excuse from this obligation, because it pertains to the fidelity which we owe, as part of charity, to the community and to our brother who is injured.

But other things are privately known (as by legal counsellors, physicians, etc.) which no command of a superior can warrant our revealing; because keeping faith is a law of nature, and nothing can be commanded by man which is contrary to natural right.

Is bearing false witness always mortal sin?

False witness has a three-fold depravity; first, from the accompanying perjury, which is always mortal sin; next, from the violation of justice, which is mortal in its kind, like any other injustice, and so says the commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour;" and, lastly, from the falsehood contained, for every lie is a sin. In this last respect the false witness may possibly be a sin which is not mortal (the false witness being thoughtlessly given, harming no one, and not intended to do so).

Of course one may not assert as of certain knowledge that of which he is not certain. But from failure of memory one may think himself certain of that which is false, and if he have used due care he does not mortally sin in asserting it. He does not intentionally bear false witness, but it is accidental and contrary to what he intended. But if he afterwards discover the falsity of his testimony, he is bound to retract it if he can do so without serious loss; otherwise he is bound to make compensation for any loss incurred through his false witness.

Does a lawyer sin who defends a cause which he knows to be unjust?

It is illicit to cooperate with another in doing evil, whether by counselling him, or aiding him, or consenting in any manner. The apostle (Rom. i. 32) specifies it as an added sin, "knowing the ordinance of God, that they which do such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also consent with those that practise them." Now, a lawyer gives aid and counsel to him whose cause he undertakes (the argument evidently applies only to civil cases, not criminal ones), and he is bound to make restitution of any loss which the opposite party unjustly incurs. (But a case may be doubtful, and, his client being informed of the uncertainty, the lawyer may go on with the case. Criminal cases evidently stand on a different basis; for just condemnation can only be that which is legally established. Not the actual guilt, but the proof of that guilt, is the question before the criminal court.)

The lawyer may possibly show his skill by winning in a bad case, as a physician shows his skill by curing a desperate disease. But the two are not parallel, for the lawyer unjustly injures the opposing side.

If, in the course of the trial, he discover that he has no case, he is not bound to assist the opposite side by betraying what is confidentially communicated to him, but he ought to withdraw or try to effect a compromise.

§ 5. Injurious words.


One man may dishonour another by. depriving him of some excellence for which he is duly honoured, which is done by such deeds as have been discussed above (pages 297 ff.). But, also, he may bring forward to his notice and that of others what dishonours that other, and this is contumely. It properly consists in such injurious words, but the same thing also may be effected by equivalent actions. In this way injurious loss may be produced; viz., injury to honour or that respect which is due from others. Therefore the contumely is greater which is spoken in the presence of many; but even if it be uttered to the one insulted alone, it may be an injustice regarding the respect which is due.

Insults and taunts are offences of the same kind, for all call attention to some defect in detriment of honour. But while contumely refers to mental defects, insult may apply to bodily defects. If one injuriously call another humpbacked, it may be insult; if he call the other a thief, it is contumely, also; while taunts may refer to station, as poverty or servitude; e.g., if one injuriously remind another that he was aided by public charity.

Is contumely or insult a mortal sin?

The Lord said (S. Matt. v. 22), "Whosoever shall say to his brother, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire," which is the due of mortal sin only. Words are more than sounds; they are significative sounds, and their meaning proceeds from the mind and heart. Therefore, in sins of words we must especially consider the intention. Insult or contumely properly consists in the intention to derogate from the due honour of another; and this is no less a mortal sin than theft or robbery. ("Who steals my purse," etc.) But if one has spoken insulting or contumelious words, not with a view to dishonour, but for correction or something of that kind, it is not, properly speaking, formal insult or contumely, even though the words will bear that construction ("materially"); and this may he venial sin or no sin at all. But discretion and caution are necessary, because the reproach may be so severe as injuriously to affect the honour of him against whom it is uttered, and then a man may sin mortally even though he did not intend to dishonour his brother; just as criminal negligence may cause serious bodily injury and make one responsible for the consequences.

(The satisfaction which penitence requires, is special and public signs of honour and respect.)

(1) Even reproaches in joke may be vicious, if they tend to the same result and "hurt the feelings" of the one so insulted.

(2) The Lord's example, when He said, "O fools, and slow of heart to believe" (S. Luke xxiv. 25), shows that reproaches for the sake of discipline or correction are admissible under the due limitations demanded by our own imperfection.

(3) Since these sins depend upon the mind of the speaker, they may be venial, when the reproach is a trifling one and not greatly dishonouring a brother, uttered from some levity of mind or angry haste, without any fixed purpose of robbing another of due respect and honour. (Notice here the violent words of many of the lowest class in the community, especially of angry women reviling one another without any serious intention.)

Should one endure contumely uttered against him?

The same patience is required in what is spoken against us as in what is done against us. But the precepts of patience refer to the preparation of soul. One is not always bound actually to follow the letter of the Sermon on the Mount; for the Lord who said, "Whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also," did not do this when He rebuked the smiter and said, "Why smitest thou Me?" Contumelious words and injurious actions are to be treated in the same way. We are bound to have a mind ready to bear reproaches and insults if it be expedient so to do. But sometimes it is inexpedient, and the insult should be repelled, either for the good of the insulter himself, that his impudence may be repressed and that he may not try the same course with others, or for the good of others, that our influence over them be not hindered by the contumely uttered against us and apparently with our consent.

(1) It may be an obligation of charity, not the lust for private honour, which moderately represses the insulter. Hence the two opposite proverbs (Prov. xxvi. 4, 5), "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceits."

(2) One ought not to tolerate insult offered to another; his repressing it is more likely to proceed from charity to his brother; and there is certainly no lust of his own honour.

Contumely is one of the fruits of immoderate anger.

Detraction. As contumely corresponds to robbery, so detraction to theft. For the one is open injury through words, the other is secret injury of the same kind. Honour is not directly attacked, but a good name is taken away, since those who hear form a bad opinion of him who suffers detraction. The end is different then, as well as the means employed. But the two may be united, as when one openly but falsely accuses another of a crime, or truly, but still publicly, charges that which is secret. The special distinction, then, is that while contumely is said to a man's face, detraction is uttered when he is absent and ignorant of it, whether it be uttered before many or to one alone. It is not necessarily diminishing the truth, but it is lowering another's good name. This can be done directly or indirectly; directly, in four ways, by imputing what is false, by exaggerating what is true, by exposing what is concealed, by imputing bad intention to what is rightly done; indirectly, by denying another's good action, by maliciously keeping silence, by diminishing the merit of his action, or approving it in such a way as to have the same effect.

Is detraction a mortal sin?

In Rom. i. 30 backbiters are placed among those who are worthy of spiritual death. And the taking away any person's good name is gravest injury, because in this life there is nothing more precious, and the loss of it hinders a man from well doing his work in life. Therefore detraction is per se a mortal sin. But sometimes it happens that words are spoken which are injurious to some one's character, when not this but something else is intended. This is not "formal" detraction (which consists in the evil intention), though it is outwardly ("materially") such. And if the words spoken are uttered for some necessary good, the due conditions being observed, it is not detraction nor sin at all. These conditions are (1) No more is revealed nor to any more persons than is necessary for avoiding the evil or attaining the good; (2) the revelation will probably have a good result; (3) it is done with good intention; (4) the good sought for or the evil to be averted is of serious consequence.

Detraction is naturally the child of envy.

Is it grave sin to listen approvingly to detraction?

It is sin to consent to another's sin (Rom. i. 32); and this is done either directly or indirectly; directly, when one leads another into sin, or takes pleasure in it; indirectly, when one does not oppose it, being able to do so not through taking pleasure in the sin, but through fear of man. So if any one listen to detraction without opposition, he seems to consent to the detractor, and becomes a participator in his sin. But if he induce any one to be guilty of detraction, or take pleasure in it because he hates the one injured by the detraction, he sins no less than the detractor, and sometimes more than he; more, when he sins against charity in the sin of scandal towards the detractor, as well as against justice towards the one defamed. But if the sin does not please him, and he is silent through fear or negligence or difference, he sins indeed, but much less than the detractor, and in general venially. But sometimes even this may be mortal sin, when official duty requires the correction of the detractor, or grave danger results from the keeping silence, or when the fear of man is itself a mortal sin.

The detractor may be saying what is true; he cannot be resisted by denial of the facts, but either he can be charged with his sin of detraction, or, at least, it can be shown to be offensive to the listener, by expressive silence, by leaving him, or by changing the subject of conversation.

The "make-bate" (susurro) uses the same means with the detractor; but his object is a different one, for he aims by his malicious whisperings to break up friendships, and therefore he selects such seeming evil things to say as may tend to this end. This tale-bearing is even a graver sin than detraction or calumny, because the injury done to our neighbour is the measure of the sin against him, and a friend is the most precious of outward things.


Mocking at another is intended to put him to shame. The different end marks a special sin, different from those just described. This "laughing to scorn" is directed at some evil, some defect. But a great evil is not treated jestingly, but seriously. Hence, if any such thing is made subject of derision, it is treated as a small thing in its kind, small in itself, or relatively to the person. But when any one turns the evil or the defect of another into ridicule, because it is in itself trifling, the sin is venial. But this derision may imply contempt of the person; sc., that his evil is of no more consequence than a child's or a fool's. This great contempt and dishonour constitute a graver mortal sin than contumely. Gravest of all is mocking at what belongs to God in any special way. In the second place stands the sin of deriding parents, who are entitled to the highest earthly reverence. "The eye that mocketh at his father . . . the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall cat it" (Prov. xxx. 17). Next in order comes derision of the just, since honour is the reward of virtue, and such derision hinders others from imitating the virtuous actions of the one derided.


Malediction is speaking evil of another. Consider, therefore, the three modes of speaking it; and, first, simple enunciation of evil, which has been already considered in its various forms. There remain, then, commanding and wishing evil, respecting which observe that what may be done, may be wished; and, conversely, what may be lawfully wished, may lawfully be done. If any one command or wish another's evil as evil, intending that evil, it is the sin of cursing, properly speaking. But if any one command or wish the evil of another as a good, it is not a sin, it is not cursing. Now this good may be justice, and so a judge lawfully utters his malediction on him whom he sentences for crime, the Church anathematizes heretics, and the prophets in Holy Scripture imprecate evil on sinners, conforming their will to the Divine justice, although imprecations of this kind may be understood as declaratory.

Or, again, this good which justifies the wishing of evil may be utility, as when one wishes that a sinner may suffer some of the consequences of his ill-doing, in order that he may be made better, or at least cease from harming others. (1) The apostle (Rom. xii. 14) said, "Bless, and curse not;" but cursing proper, i.e., with evil intention, is what he prohibited. (2) It may be said that man cannot know the mind of another, nor whether he is cursed by God; therefore he ought only to pray for all. But the sinner's heart is revealed by some manifest sin, for which penalty is to be inflicted by the command which speaks evil against him. And in like manner, although it cannot be known whom God will curse with final reprobation, it can be known whom He is cursing for the guilt of a present flagrant crime.

Is it mortal sin to curse another?

To command or wish evil to another, which is cursing him, is in itself a violation of charity which requires us to will our neighbour's good, and therefore it is mortal sin; and so much the graver as the person cursed is entitled to more love and respect. "Every one that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death" (Lev. xx. 9). But the words uttered may be venial sin, either on account of the insignificant evil which is wished, or because the words are uttered in jest or thoughtlessness or sudden surprise. For sins of words chiefly depend on the inward affection of the soul.

§ 6. Frauds in trade.{8}

Is it law to sell a thing for more than it is worth? The great law of the Gospel is, "Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them" (S. Matt. vii. 12). This answers the question; for no one wishes a thing to be sold to himself for more than it is worth. To employ fraud in order that a thing may be sold for more than a just price, is altogether sin because our neighbour is deceived to his loss. But if there be no fraud, then we may speak first of buying and selling as they are in themselves. They are instituted for the common benefit of both parties to the contract; each needing or desiring what the other has. But what is undertaken for the common benefit ought not to burden one side more than the other; the contract should be equal. But the quantity of those things which serve man's physical needs is measured by the price, for which purpose civilized nations have used coined money. And therefore if the price exceed the value of the thing, or the value exceed the price, just equality is destroyed. Therefore, to sell a thing for more than it is worth, or to pay for it less than it is worth, is in itself unjust and illicit.

But we may speak of buying and selling as accidentally they turn to the benefit of one and the detriment of another. For example, one much needs to have a thing and the other is hurt if he go without it. In such a case the just price will depend not only on the thing itself but on the loss to the seller. And so he can lawfully sell for more than the market price, though he may ask no more than the thing is worth to himself. But if the thing be greatly needed by the buyer, and he who sells incur no special loss by the sale, the latter is not warranted in going above the highest market price, because the benefit derived by the other does not depend upon the seller, but on the condition of the buyer. Of his own accord the buyer may choose to give some bounty in such a case, but the seller has no right to trade in another's special need.

(1) Civil law may tolerate and recognize such unjust bargains as we have been speaking of, because laws are made for a multitude of unjust dealers. Therefore human law cannot prohibit everything which is contrary to virtue; it suffices that it prohibit what destroys intercourse. Other things it may allow, not as approving them, but simply as not finding it expedient to punish them. Buying too cheaply and selling too dearly may escape punishment or restitution if there be no fraud in the contract or the excess be not too outrageous. But Divine law leaves no injustice unpunished. Before that tribunal all inequality of justice is condemned, and he who has gained too much is bound to recompense him who has suffered loss, if the loss be a notable one. And I add this because the just price of things is not exactly determined, but depends on fluctuating opinion, so that a moderate addition or subtraction may not destroy a just equality.

(2) It is a very common desire, that of selling dear and buying cheap. But its being general does not show it to be natural, for vice is common to many who follow the broad way of sin.

Defects in the thing sold render the sale illicit and unjust.

Defect is (1) in the substantial character of the thing. If the seller know it, he is guilty of fraud in the sale, the sale is plainly illicit. The contract between the parties is null through defect of consent. {9}

(2) Defect is in the quantity as measured, and if any one knowingly use deficient weights or measures, he is guilty of fraud, and the sale is illicit. Of such injustice the Lord said (Dent. xxv. 16), "All that do such things, even all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the Lord thy God."

(3) Defect, again, is in the quality of what is sold, as in selling an unsound animal for one sound in all essential respects. If knowingly done it is fraud, and illicit. In all such cases the injustice done demands restitution.

But if the seller be ignorant of the defect, his action, indeed, is not sinful injustice (since the evil intention is absent, it is a "material," not a "formal," injustice); but he is bound, if damages are demanded, to recompense the buyer for his loss (unless the sale is at the buyer's risk).

What has been said of the seller is equally true of the buyer. The seller may be ignorant of the substantial character of what he is selling -- e.g., selling a real diamond under the impression that it is only paste. If the buyer know the fact, he acts unjustly in his getting possession of the valuable thing and is bound to make restitution. The same principle applies to defect in quality or quantity; e.g., stealing a long ride on the railway, with a ticket for a shorter distance.

Is the seller bound to disclose the defects of the thing sold?

There are two moral principles which govern the answer to this question: first, it is always unjust to afford another man occasion of danger or loss; secondly, it is not necessary that a man always give aid or counsel for the benefit of whatsoever person he has dealings with. (This may be an act of charity, but we are now considering what justice demands.) This is an obligation in some determined cases; e.g., when you are responsible for the other's action, he being under your charge, or when the other needs assistance and he can get it from no other. But the seller, in offering a defective thing for sale, if its defect be of such a nature as to cause loss or danger, violates the first law of natural justice just indicated. He gives occasion for loss if he subtract nothing from the price of the inferior article but demand full value for it. He gives occasion for danger if the defect hinder or render unsafe the use of the thing, as in selling a saddle-horse that shies, or adulterated medicines or food. If such defects are not manifest to the buyer, and the seller does not disclose them, the sale is illicit and fraudulent, and the seller is bound to make compensation for the loss.

But if the defect can be readily discovered by a buyer using ordinary precaution, as when the horse sold is blind in one eye, or when the defect makes the article useless to the seller, but others may have use for it, and if the seller duly reduce the price demanded, he is not bound to call attention to the defect, because the buyer might then demand too great a reduction in the price. So the seller may guard himself against loss by keeping silence respecting defects.

(1) Suppose that you say that the buyer is not under compulsion; the thing is submitted to his judgment, and the other is not bound to supply him with judgment for his bargain. But there can be no judgment where a thing is not manifest. One judges according to what he knows. So there is an essential difference between manifest defects and those which cannot be detected by ordinary observation. If the seller does not call attention to the latter, the thing is not sufficiently presented to the buyer's judgment.

(2) But why should any one stand in his own light, impede his own business? It is not necessary to make public proclamation of faults and keep off buyers; but natural justice requires that in pointing out the good qualities of what he offers for sale, he also indicate hidden defects which may cause loss or danger to another. Even so, he is not bound to thrust moral advice on every one whom he encounters; but if his own acts threaten moral danger to others unless he tell the truth concerning them, he is bound to give proper explanation of them.

(3) But a man may have private information that the article for which he is demanding a high price will shortly be cheaper because a large supply is coming on the market and yet he is perfectly just in demanding that high price, without giving others information which would lower the price. What, then, is the difference between that case, and the one which we are now considering? I answer that it is precisely the difference between the present and the future. The existing defect makes the present value of the thing less than its apparent value. In the other case, the value is going to be lower; but in just contracts de praesenti, the question is of the market value for the day, not of some coming day, unless the bargain be explicitly in "futures." This being true, the buyer also may have private knowledge that prices are shortly to go up; he is not bound to publish that information.

Finally, what makes it just to buy cheap and sell dear?

The mere lust for gain is criminally base, knowing no honorable or necessary terminus, but stretching out ad infinitum to a vicious end. But gain, which is the object of buying and selling, has in itself no such vicious end, for it may be merely the means for necessary or virtuous ends, as the support of a family or the doing good to the community. Moderate gains of trade so sought for, not as an end but as the rewards of labour, are certainly lawful and honourable. (The author seems to overlook the service which is done to the community by bringing the producer and the consumer into relations of mutual service. This benefit is conferred by "middlemen," by wholesale and retail trade, which is certainly entitled in justice to its fair profits.

The author's discussion of usury is omitted. His argument concerns the lawfulness of profit for the use of money, and he regards the prohibition of such "usury" among the Israelites as a universal law against what is simply unnatural and evil. The lawfulness of demanding compensation for loss on the part of the lender is only glanced at; compensation for the risk of losing the loan is left out of view.)

§ 7. Omission.

Sins of omission.

As transgression, implying contempt of negative commands, is a special sin, so is omission, as implying contempt of affirmative commands. It implies neglect not of every good, but of that good which is due. But the good viewed as a debt, pertains to justice. Hence, in the way in which justice is a special virtue, omission is a special sin, distinct from the sins which are opposed to the other virtues; it is the neglect of that good which justice commands.

Omission is sometimes involuntary, as when one has lost what he is bound to restore, or when a priest is hindered from fulfilling his duties. But omission proper is only of that due good to which one is bound. Now, no one is bound to the impossible, nor is there sin of omission in not doing what one is unable to do. (The sin of omission consists in not willing, not saying, not doing what one is hound to will, to say, to do, having the requisite power thereto.)

When does this sin of omission begin?

Is one sinning all the time in which he is not doing what is obligatory? The sin of omission is opposed to affirmative precepts, which command the good. But such precepts do not bind at all times so far as action is concerned, but at a determined time, place, etc. And at that time the sin begins. At that time, it is true, he may be unable to act, and if that inability he not his fault he does not neglect what is due. But if that inability proceed from previous fault -- say, negligence in taking care of what he is bound to restore -- that negligence is the cause of the sin of omission but this latter sin begins, not with the negligence, but with the determined time for restoring, or whatever the neglected duty may be. But the omission is voluntary, since its cause is so; therefore it is a sin.

{1} This argument might be questioned, unless it could be maintained that carnivorous animals stand higher in the scale of being than those whose food is vegetable.

{2} The subject of capital punishment may call for fuller treatment in our day than S. Thomas Aquinas found it to require in his age.

{3} The physician is guilty of mortal sin if he be confederate in producing abortion. (Qu.: Suppose that he judge this to be the only means of saving the mother's life? Suppose that for this end he destroy an unborn child at parturition?)

{4} See further, Supplement, Sixth Commandment, chap. III.

{5} See, further, Supplement, chap. V. § 2.

{6} A large part of the author's discussion of qnestions hearing on this topic is suited to a different state of society from ours, and is therefore omitted.

{7} By parity of reasoning, his advocate in court can defend one whom he knows to be guilty, because that is doing injustice to no one; and the question is not of sin, but of legal crime. (Qu.: In civil cases, may he advocate an unjust claim? The cases are not parallel, and he is certainly bound to discourage needless or injurious litigation.)

{8} See Supplement, Chapter on Contracts.

{9} See, further, Supplement, Contracts, chap. VI. § 2.

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