A moral theory of general relativity

May 10, 2017 § 34 Comments

In this post I will argue that usury is worse than adultery in an important sense.

First we need some background.

We distinguish between what we call venial matter and grave matter (mortally sinful kinds of behavior). White lies, for example, are the former. We should never commit any sin (by definition), but for the purposes of this post we will set aside venial sin and consider only grave matter.

Choice of grave matter justly deserves the punishment of Hell[1]. Without Christ’s freely given grace (ordinarily[2] received through participation in the sacraments He instituted), mortal sin brings the judgment of justly deserved eternal condemnation.

Contracepted sex, adultery, sodomy, masturbation, and skipping Mass on Sunday without good reason are all grave matter. (Skipping Mass is grave matter because it involves disobedience of rightful authority in an important matter).

This list is, needless to say, nonexhaustive. And particular instances of other kinds of sins (e.g. theft, lying, usury) may be grave or venial depending on content: stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is probably venial, but stealing an old couples’ life savings is certainly grave matter.

We can consider the relative gravity of kinds of mortal sins under three modes by asking three distinct questions.

1) What are the most grave sins for you?

These are the mortally sinful behaviors which you are most likely to commit. You are most likely to commit mortal sins when you have a strong temptation to them, when the means to do so are easily available, and when you don’t personally intuit (for whatever reason) the moral gravity of the offense. These are the most grave and dangerous sins for you.

2) What are the most grave sins corporately?

This follows a similar pattern but for communities as opposed to individuals.  It depends in part upon what kinds of grave sins the community does not, qua community, treat as grave sins. If in a particular community contraception is considered generally acceptable, adultery is not considered acceptable, and many more people contracept than commit adultery, then contraception is a more grave sin than adultery corporately.

3) What are the most grave sins abstractly?

Without disparaging the possibility of addressing this question philosophically, I would suggest that it is rare for people to take an interest in this mode of gravity except as a means of avoiding the discomfort of addressing the other two modes: harlots dancing on the head of a pin, if you will.

Now for the argument:

Gravity in the first mode depends upon the particular person and his circumstances, of course, and so any argument about the relative gravity of sins generally speaking will not apply.  It is worth noting though that the gravity of kinds of sins in the individual relation will have significant dependence upon the corporate relation, because man is a social animal with all that implies.  (We might think of this as a ‘moral theory of special relativity’).

Gravity in the third mode is of abstract interest, but purely abstract relations between species of sin in a Platonic sense is not the sort of gravity the argument will address.  (We might think of this as asking the question ‘what was moral gravity like before the Big Bang?’)  The argument is that usury is concretely, as instantiated in our actual present reality, more grave than adultery.

Corporately, in our society in general, there remains some resistance to the idea that adultery is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing.  Resistance to the idea that usury is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing is immaterial; in fact even basic comprehension of what usury actually means (and doesn’t mean) is extremely thin on the ground.

There is still a pretty clear understanding, in more orthodox communities, of what adultery actually is and is not; and there remains strong moral disapproval in those communities.  The same cannot be said of usury.  Even in the most orthodox communities there is confusion over what ‘usury’ actually means, despite the ultimate simplicity of the subject matter and numerous Magisterial statements over the course of millennia. Even in the most orthodox communities there is controversy where there should not be controversy: there is rejection of the Tradition of the Church and the Magisterium (not to mention a lack of financial competence) in favor of an intrinsically uncharitable, modernist, subjective approach to usury.

In short, the most orthodox of communities are not corrupted by confusion and dissent over the grave moral wrong of adultery to the same extent these same communities are corrupted by confusion and dissent over the grave moral wrong of usury.

And an important figure in Christianity once said:

Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam in thy own eye, and then shalt thou see to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

[1] The traditional conjecture that different sinners have different experiences of Hell, depending upon their particular sins, may be worth a mention.

[2] We also have the concept of extraordinary grace, which is our way of acknowledging that, while God has promised to us the efficacy of His sacraments and always keeps His promises, He is not limited to dispensing grace in only this way.  However it is also worth noting that the presumption that one will onesself personally receive extraordinary grace is, itself, grave matter.

§ 34 Responses to A moral theory of general relativity

  • Zippy says:

    Of course the command is that once you have “cast out first the beam in thy own eye” you should get to work and “cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye”.

  • djz242013 says:

    Logically this reasoning seems sound.

    Intuitively, this reasoning seems wrong, because how can something that no one cares about in the slightest and with no (apparent) negative effects be more grave than adultery?

    (I say no apparent negative effects, because most people I know don’t see how there is any harm in usury. Also most people I know are in debt and irresponsible with money.)

    In my personal experience, when talking with people and I mention that no one even knows what usury is, eye rolls and boredom with the conversation ensue. Of course, maybe I’m just boring and pedantic. But if I made similar statements about sex, people seem to stay interested.

    This can be easily written off as comfort with sin, but I’d like to at least hope that people’s consciences would be tuned to the gravity of various sins.

  • Zippy says:


    (I say no apparent negative effects, because most people I know don’t see how there is any harm in usury. Also most people I know are in debt and irresponsible with money.)

    It is a curious feature that the same consequentialism which gives rise to this sort of thinking also tends to blind adherents to consequences.

  • TomD says:

    Is it entirely proper to compare “venial sin and grave matter”? As mortal sin involves grave matter but is not synonymous with it.

  • Zippy says:


    Is it entirely proper to compare “venial sin and grave matter”?

    No, not strictly speaking.

    I explicitly considered that question when I was composing the post, coming down on the side of editorial brevity over higher precision, since explaining it adequately really requires its own post.

  • Zippy says:


    I updated the OP to be a bit more precise, hopefully without sacrificing too much in the way of brevity and editorial focus on what is relevant.

  • Wood says:


    “Intuitively, this reasoning seems wrong, because how can something that no one cares about in the slightest and with no (apparent) negative effects be more grave than adultery?”

    I believed similarly when I first started looking into the usury issue. Many times I felt like I was treading water – just trying to understand before sinking into the abyss. My reaction was something like, “yeah yeah that all sounds bad but lets get back to the more important societal ills.”

    But understanding more about usury has helped me also see how much more horrible modernity is than I first realized. Not that you were meaning it this way, but arguments about “no (apparent) negative effects” are a prime example. Moderns redefine what’s “negative” in such a way (usually something about “consent) that people are blinded to how horribly sinful their acts are and how those acts are seriously damaging themselves, those they love, our civilization, etc. They are blinded to the negative effects because the negative effects are actually held up as a societal good.

    tl;dr its hard to sort out the particular negatives – or has been for me – while swimming in a cesspool.

  • halt94 says:

    In consideration of the first mode, most people aren’t committing usury (I think, I’m not sure); most people are either formally cooperating or materially cooperating with usury (or both), but are not committing it themselves. The extent to which people understand formal and material cooperation with evil in our society is also probably limited, but not as limited as usury.

  • Zippy says:


    Formal cooperation with evil is arguably worse, since it involves not just willing the immoral behavior itself but also willing that others choose that immoral behavior.

  • halt94 says:


    I agree, I was just pointing out that that is probably the more prevalent sin than actual commission of usury (that’s just a guess though). And this stems from a lack of understanding of usury, formal cooperation, or both. In addition to elections providing plenty of opportunity for formal cooperation with grave evil, I would argue that television (especially reality television, like the bachelor (shudder)) does the same thing. Another mass marketing plan for hell that I would argue is quite effective.

  • KevinD says:


    I am fairly confused as to why you argue that a sin more likely to be committed is of a more grave matter. Have you covered this before, or perhaps have another source where I can read up on the logic behind this?

  • TomD says:

    Again, it’s not in the absolute, but relative.

    We should be most concerned about the sins we’re most susceptible to (so a normal married man doesn’t worry about homosexual sins at all, say, but should worry about all the temptations provided to that state of life), as they’re more grave relative to us as we’re more likely to fall to them.

  • Zippy says:


    I am fairly confused as to why you argue that a sin more likely to be committed is of a more grave matter.

    That isn’t the argument, at least not precisely. That would be a mode 3 argument as defined in the OP, assuming I understand correctly. We can always define abstract baskets of ‘more grave’ sins under mode 3 that nobody is ever likely to commit.

    The argument is that certain mortal sins are objectively worse either individually (mode 1) or corporately (mode 2): that once we’ve stipulated grave matter at all, the damnable behaviors people actually commit are more grave because they are actually committed.

    Perhaps more pithily: actual grave sin is actually grave, whereas abstract grave sin is merely abstractly grave: actual gravity is ‘more’ grave than merely theoretical gravity.

  • Zippy says:


    We should be most concerned about the sins we’re most susceptible to …

    Yes; both individually (mode 1) and corporately (mode 2).

  • Zippy says:

    To continue the nerdy analogy, gravity is a feature of mass. The more there actually is of a particular grave matter in a particular location, the greater the mass, thus the greater the gravity.

    It isn’t the remote particular gravity of Jupiter that kills you as you crash into the earth at terminal velocity. It is the proximate gravity of Earth.

    Matter which is distant (even if actual) exerts an infinitesimal force and leaves spacetime flat; matter which is proximate exerts deadly force, and warps the very shape of reality around you.

  • […] 40 days in the desert with no food, it was with bread that the devil first tried to tempt Him. Those sins which are easiest for us to commit are the worst from a practical standpoint, because they are the ones which in reality will take us to […]

  • Rhetocrates says:

    I think you partially addressed this in the comments above, but it is important to point out that in order to commit a mortal sin, it requires not only grave matter, but also full knowledge and consent. Therefore we might (and I mean -might-) say that a man who commits adultery in our modern society sins more greatly than a usurer, because the latter is unlikely to know and consent to the sinful nature of his action.

    However, two points:
    First, I still believe it would be correct to say that usury is graver matter for us, because it is (broadly speaking) a greater and more common temptation.

    Second, the requirement of full knowledge and consent shouldn’t be wielded so strictly that we can say, with Plato, that everyone always wills the good, and only sins through lack of knowledge, so nobody ever sins. Or, put another way, the requirement of full knowledge and consent doesn’t necessitate an act of the reason, but rather just an act of the soul. Further, there are some things that, even if in our current condition do not present themselves as sinful, are nevertheless obviously sinful simply from Natural Law, and since Natural Law is apprehensible by everyone (even the most mentally unstable or retarded has some real concept of justice), claimed ignorance of the sinful nature of something countermanded by Natural Law is no excuse.

    (Please, no one take this as definite truth. Go read the Catechism for yourself! I’m no priest.)

  • Zippy says:


    Those are all reasonable points which I go into in more detail in a post linked in the OP (thanks to TomD’s clarification upthread).

    Keep in mind though that gravity is a feature of the matter of sin: of the objective behavior chosen. So while the subjective issues of knowledge and consent do have an impact on personal culpability, they do not reduce the gravity of the offense, which pertains to the matter or behavior, which is objective and determines the species of the act.

    (The species of an act is always determined by its object: see most famously Veritatis Splendour).

  • Rhetocrates says:

    Certainly we’re in complete agreement there. And as a practical, pastoral matter (that word which some in our current hierarchy so love to abuse) it’s probably usually pretty obvious after examination when a sinner is fooling himself vs. just didn’t know. (For example: as a convert, I used to not believe contraception was all that bad. But after looking further into the matter I have developed a horror and revulsion for it. Though this is a bad example, because I do believe that my previous ‘not that bad’ sentiment accompanied sin, since contraception is a clear contradiction of Natural Law.)

  • TomD says:

    Another thing to remember is that there are natural effects of sin; and those occur even if nobody is culpable. If you run over a child accidentally, she’s still as dead as if you did it on purpose.

    And so even in a world where somehow nobody was culpable for any grave sin, the grave sins would still cause much suffering and should be fought.

  • Zippy says:


    Suffering is a good ‘intuition pump’ here (even though suffering and moral evil are not the same thing).

    Any decent person would want to know if his choices of behavior were causing terrible personal suffering, would be horrified at the notion that his behaviors had been causing terrible suffering without his knowledge, and would as his top personal priority wish not only to stop but to rectify the situation.

    The old wisecrack goes ‘every time you [do some supposedly victimless or suffering-free moral evil], God kills a kitten’.

    Suppose though that every time you lied or stole an innocent child in a different dimension was tortured to death as a direct consequence of your behavior. The idea that one might live his whole life ignorant that his actions were having this effect is just horrifying. Any decent person would want to know, would be mortified that he didn’t know, and would — despite ‘invincible ignorance’ — feel a terrible burden of desire not only to stop immediately but to make it right somehow.

    The fact that we are dealing with moral evil, as opposed to suffering (or as a superset depending upon your view of the relation between suffering and moral evil), should make this even more the case.

    Morally evil actions of the sort we are discussing involve the deliberate choice of grave matter or the accidental actualization of grave matter (‘disorder in relation to the truth about the good’, in the words of Veritatis Splendour): terrible objective offense against charity, against God, self, and fellow man.

    Pity the poor souls who discover that they have been choosing these behaviors in ignorance.

  • TomD says:

    That helps me understand why some of the saint’s writings come down so hard on what seem clearly to be venial sins.

    Because sin is so absolutely horrible.

  • Zippy says:

    By the butterfly effect we know that every tiny action we choose now can have an inconceivably large effect on the future. How much more is this the case in the inconceivably infinite “future” we call eternity?

    The wonder is that there is any such thing as venial sin at all.

  • Mike T says:

    The wonder is that there is any such thing as venial sin at all.

    I would go a step further and say “it is a wonder that salvation is even possible.” Apart from God’s unmerited grace toward mankind, even venial sin would merit eternal damnation because the only righteousness apart from Christ that God could accept is sinless perfection.

  • TomD says:

    Venial sins seem tied with our human limitations; if we were angelic, the only sins possible would be mortal (and instant, and unrepentable).

    Or another way to put it, if we possessed perfection and remained human, the only sins we could commit would be mortal, because all would be mortal, perhaps.

    And so, for the saints, the sins we see as “minor” would be quite mortal for them.

  • I do have a question: why is stealing a cookie not grave matter? I was taught that any violation of the Ten Commandments was grave matter (although the Catechism’s attempt to fit the whole of morality into the Ten Commandments makes this idea a bit difficult). Is it really that the consequences of stealing a car make it grave matter compared to stealing a cookie which is of venial matter? Or is it that stealing is always grave matter albeit more or less grave depending on what is stolen?

  • Mike T says:

    I saw a headline on slashdot this morning about how China is supposedly poised to become the first major cashless economy. When you combine a cashless society with usury, I think you may be onto something that in a corporate sense usury is far worse, at least now, than adultery.

    A cashless society addicted to usury is a society that is going to be utterly enthralled to the sin of usury. It is going to be absolutely impossible to lead an ordinary life and have no nexus to usury. It’s already very hard to do so, hard enough that one could say that apart from God’s grace the vast majority would condemn themselves.

    Probably the only way to make a cashless society work (and how far it can work is debatable if you factor in those too poor to afford the devices) is for the sovereign to adopt a distributist model of finance and extend sovereign authority over fintech and transactions to the non-profit corporations regulating the monetary system for the common good. I think this is an example where distributism is quite possibly the only economic system that could have any hope of making it work justly and not hampering innovation.

  • Mike T says:

    The hardest thing for the right to understand is that we very well might have to have the federal government nationalize the entire financial sector outside of community banks and credit unions to get us out of this mess. The more you look at “too big to fail,” you can’t help but think they’re also “too big to operate for profit.” If Bank of America were a non-profit with a mission statement that said it would be rock-solid reliable and solvent and take the utmost fidicuiary responsibility for its depositors’ and customers’ wealth, it would be entirely different as any mess they’d get into would likely be a rogue actor or a legitimate endeavor gone awry.

  • In the same vein, why is lying not always grave matter independent of what lie has actually been told? I was under the impression that lying was a class of sin that makes up grave matter.

  • Zippy says:

    You may be confusing grave matter with intrinsic immorality. Lying and stealing are intrinsically immoral, but they are not always grave matter. Skipping Mass on Sunday is not intrinsically immoral, but it is grave matter when done with insufficient reason.

  • TomD says:

    Speaking of large shareholder-owned companies, Jack Bogle’s Enough is a very interesting take on it; from the man who invented mutual funds – especially Chapters 6 and 7 which come back to the concept of the difference between ownership and use from the other side as it were.

  • Zippy says:

    There has been a lot of huckstering on the neo-con right when it comes to intrinsic immorality versus gravity. “Going to war is not intrinsically immoral,” followed by voter’s guides which trade on the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction while making a total hash of gravity.

    Well, sure, but sins against prudence can send you to Hell too.

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