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. Without Christ’s freely given grace (ordinarily 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.
 The traditional conjecture that different sinners have different experiences of Hell, depending upon their particular sins, may be worth a mention.
 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.