Formal Sin

Cardinal Manning states: “Sin is the conscious variation of our moral being from the will of God. We abuse our whole nature, we abuse our intellect by acting irrationally, in violation of the will of God which is written upon the conscience; we abuse our will, because we deliberately abuse the power of the will, whereby we originate our actions in opposition to the will of God who gave it. We apply our intellect and will, with our eyes open and with freedom and choice, to the perpetration of acts, or the utterance of words, or the harbouring of thoughts which are known to be contrary to the will of God; and therefore in every sin there is the knowledge of the intellect of what we are doing, the consent of the will in doing it, and the consciousness of the mind fixed upon the action with two objects before it—the law and the Lawgiver—the law of God known to us, and the Giver of that law, who is God Himself; so that we deliberately, with our eyes open and of our own free will, break God’s law in God’s face. Now, that is the plain definition and description of sin.”

The cardinal then draws a distinction between formal sin and material sin. A formal sin is “a sin committed with a full knowledge of what we do, and a full consent to do it; so that in proportion as men have light, and know the law and the Lawgiver, in that proportion the sinfulness of their disobedience is increased.” Thus, “the holy angels were created by God in the full knowledge and light of His presence; and those who fell from their perfection by rebellion were formally guilty, in proportion to that angelic knowledge which left them without excuse. . . . Those who, knowing the natural law, break that law, are guilty, because the law is written upon their conscience. . . . You are guilty in the measure in which you have greater light; in the measure in which you have a fuller illumination, in that measure your guilt before God is greater. Such sins, then, are formal, when committed with full light and consent.”

Quotations from Henry Edward Manning, Sin and Its Consequences, 2d ed. (London: Burns and Oates, 1874).

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