Aquinas on the Age of Reason

From the Theology Q and A post:

Jonathan: Aquinas argues that once an individual has reached the age of reason he is either in a state of sanctifying grace or mortal sin. There isn’t a single second that passes by where he is in original sin alone.

He either directs his will/reason towards God, or he commits a mortal sin.


(1) Do you hold to this position? If not, explain your reasons for not holding to it.

(2) Aquinas’s position contradicts your view regarding the decree of the council of Florence which states: “But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.”

Since the souls that reach the age of reason cannot be in original sin alone, that means that this passage refers to unbaptized infants.

My response:

1. No, absolutely not. It is a clear error in St. Thomas’ work.

2. Right. Glad you brought that up. I’ve worked with children for many years, physically and/or mentally handicapped kids, as well as emotionally disturbed kids. I’ve taken courses in human development and psychology. It is not tenable, given modern knowledge in medicine and psychology, to say that the age of reason is reached in a single instant. Children experience a gradual increase in their ability to exercise reason and free will, in their ability to understand transcendent truths, such as good, evil, love, sin, etc.

The result is that they gradually increase in moral understanding and possible culpability. At first, they can only commit the slightest venial sins, then this possible culpability increases within venial sin. It may be some considerable time after the age of seven that youths become merely capable of actual mortal sin.

Moreover, there is no reason to think, given this gradual increase in moral responsibility, that the person ever reaches a point where they realize, by natural law alone in many cases, that God exists and they must decide whether or not to worship Him — thereby resulting in the opinion that everyone beyond a certain age is in a state of actual mortal sin or the state of grace. And the Church does not teach that persons beyond the age of seven, who are baptized, are all either in a state of actual mortal sin or already in the state of grace.

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6 Responses to Aquinas on the Age of Reason

  1. Matt Z. says:

    Although coming to the age of reason can be gradual, there still can be a specific point where one does reach the age of reason.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Which point is that? I think the gradualness means that there is no particular point. But at some time, yes, you have the full use of your faculties. That might not happen for some persons until teens or late “tweens”.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I’m having a debate with an individual concerning the limbo of infants and whether it consists of natural happiness. In one of your articles you stated that one needs sanctifying grace to be happy, either naturally or supernaturally. What is the basis for your argument? My interlocutor claims that,

    “No where have I seen any approved theologian teach sanctifying grace is needed for natural happiness. The idea that Limbo excludes natural happiness was rejected not only by the Angelic Doctor but by the unanimous consent of the theologians post-Trent.”

    • Ron Conte says:

      Pius 11: “Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.” Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, n. 7.

      Pope Benedict XVI: “Human beings cannot completely fulfill themselves, they cannot be truly happy without God.” Homily, Sunday, 24 May 2009

      Pope John Paul II: “Without God, man cannot fully find himself, nor can he find his true happiness.” Homily, 9 November 1999

      Pope John Paul II: “But without Christ’s help, fallen man is incapable of directing himself to the supernatural goods which constitute his total fulfillment and salvation.” General Audience, October 8, 1986.

      The souls in limbo would not have habitual grace, they would not have their family members who go to Heaven with them; and what happens at the general resurrection? They must be resurrected since no one, not even the souls in Hell are excluded. But are they somehow kept in ignorance that there is a heaven?

  3. stefano says:

    Ron, I am having a problem with your answer to Jonathan’s question 1. The Aquinas was not in error as long as you do not relate the age of reason to the date of birth. In absolute terms he was right: if one does not direct his reason towards God to the extent allowed by his own reason, he is in contradiction with God as well as his reason, therefore he is in nominal mortal sin.

    I have read of a private revelation (I do not recall which one in particular), where a soul of a woman was burning in hell; when she was asked the sin that was the cause of her damnation, she said that she had never actually committed any formal mortal sin, she just lived a rich, satisfying and self fulfilling life without bothering of knowing and loving God.

    I believe that this is quite a common situation: a lot of people are intimately convinced that they are morally superior to many Catholics who go to Church but are worse sinners than they are; therefore they do not believe they need any justification before God, if ever existed. These souls are clearly in a greater danger, and I believe they are those whom the Aquinas was referring to in the assertion you do not agree with.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Those are two unrelated cases. The adult who lives an entirely selfish life does not love God nor neighbor, so he or she is not in the state of grace. The child who gradually increases in his use of reason does not reach a point where he realizes God exists, just from reason alone, and then either sins mortally or receives a baptism of desire. That does not happen. There are no adults who relate such an experience from their childhoods. The typical adult can remember events back to age 3, 4, or 5 (approx.). Aquinas’ error, and yours, is in over-idealizing the human experience, not taking into account that concupiscence obscures the heart and mind, making such a realization highly unusual for an adult, and extremely unlikely for a child (unless they are very holy).

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