Surely the Summa is Wrong here


#1

In the Summa, Thomas Aquinas says that an oath is not deprived of its binding force by coercion ( newadvent.org/summa/3098.htm#article3 ), and that it is still a mortal sin to break it, but surely this is false. If it were true, couldn’t I make someone’s salvation unreasonably difficult by cornering them with a gun and forcing them to swear a series of random and complicated, but still not sinful, oaths? Also, couldn’t a person with turrets syndrome or some other mental illness which caused them to make an oath involuntary could do the same thing to themselves?


#2

You cannot make an oath under duress or under an altered state of mind. Person who as a mental disability that doesn’t allow them to make lucid decisions cannot be put under oath for something. A person who is drunk cannot be bound by an oath. A person who has a gun pointed to their face cannot be bound by an oath.


#3

perhaps you are parsing it wrong. might he mean that coercion is not an excuse to break an oath?


#4

Yes, definitely wrong. Thomas moral theology was sometimes not the most understanding.


#5

Define an Oath, and more specifically, the parameters of an Oath. What makes an Oath an Oath rather than any other mere promise or offer?


#6

Do you mean here Question 98 Article 3 reply to objection 1?

I think that’s what you mean, but to be sure I need to ask?

Let’s break this down:

The quote is from the “reply to the objection” so it’s not something intended to stand on its own as a statement–it’s a way of showing that the objection itself is not accurate in some way.

The objection gives an example that if someone is compelled to take an oath (“gun to the head”) that the pope can absolve the person from the fact that he told an untruth while under oath. Looking only at the objection itself, here’s my paraphrase of the first part of the sentence: Not all perjury is mortal sin, because the pope can absolve from it.

Again paraphrase of the last part of the sentence: let them not be told that it’s OK to lie, but at the same time, don’t punish them for the lie.

(Remember, St Thomas’ style is to show the objection, and prove the objection to be wrong)

Now, we need to move forward again and get back to the “reply to the objection” which contains the text that’s giving us problems.

Paraphrase: coercion does not deprive an oath of its force (does not allow one to lie). Because even if one is forced to take the oath, the statements being made are still lies, and therefore the one speaking is still lying and therefore still committing a sin.

Why does he say this? The “As stated above (89, 07, ad 3)” tells us. He refers us back to Question 89 on Oaths. newadvent.org/summa/3089.htm

Objection 3. Further, sometimes a man is compelled against his will to promise something under oath. Now, “such a person is loosed by the Roman Pontiffs from the bond of his oath” (Extra, De Jurejur., cap. Verum in ea quaest., etc.). Therefore an oath is not always binding.

Reply to Objection 3. There is a twofold obligation in the oath which a man takes under compulsion: one, whereby he is beholden to the person to whom he promises something; and this obligation is cancelled by the compulsion, because he that used force deserves that the promise made to him should not be kept. The other is an obligation whereby a man is beholden to God, in virtue of which he is bound to fulfill what he has promised in His name. This obligation is not removed in the tribunal of conscience, because that man ought rather to suffer temporal loss, than violate his oath. He can, however, seek in a court of justice to recover what he has paid, or denounce the matter to his superior even if he has sworn to the contrary, because such an oath would lead to evil results since it would be contrary to public justice. The Roman Pontiffs, in absolving men from oaths of this kind, did not pronounce such oaths to be unbinding, but relaxed the obligation for some just cause.

So, there’s a twofold obligation when taking an oath: one to God, and one to man. The obligation to man is indeed cancelled by the compulsion (the gun to the head) but the obligation to God still exists (don’t say “I swear…so help me God” unless you mean it). That’s the meaning of the commandment “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord in vain” So doing so is a direct violation of the commandment.

I know this sounds harsh to our modern ears, but quite frankly, St Thomas was saying “yes, it is better to suffer the torture than to swear an oath by God and then lie.”


#7

St Thomas was writing about that last example you gave the “gun to the head.”

What he says is that in human terms, the obligation of the oath is not binding–it is cancelled by the compulsion. If I force you to raise your right hand and declare that you agree to sell me your house for ten dollars, St. Thomas agrees that you’re under NO obligation to keep your side of the so-called sale. It’s null and void.

The part that concerns us is the part of the oath that calls upon God to be a witness to that oath.

Since calling upon God to witness an oath while intending not to tell the truth is a direct violation of the decalogue, he says that it is always a sin.


#8

But actions taken under duress aren’t voluntary, so basically, you made an oath against your will.


#9

Well, yes. That’s a given. The two parts of your sentence mean the same thing.

I think the first point here is that any earthly obligations of the oath are null and void. If the oath promises to do something, there is no obligation for the swearer to follow-through with it afterwards.

However, what he’s saying in addition to that, is that when one takes an oath, he swears before God (even if the words “so help me God” or similar aren’t explicitly there), to speak truthfully; but then continues by speaking an untruth. That’s the part that Thomas says is a sin.

Now, we need to remember here that Thomas’s point is not to go around looking for people who makes oaths under duress, point the finger at them and say “you sinner!” Not at all. My concern here is that you might be thinking that’s what he’s saying.

It’s critical that we keep in mind that the entire principle was presented first as an objection (the pope can absolve from such an act, therefore it’s not a sin), then as Thomas’ reply-to-objection (it’s a sin that can be absolved, not a non-sin).


#10

There is still a choice, even under duress – the question is whose trust you are betraying. Suffering for the sake of an oath given to God is a saintly thing. I doubt there are any martyrs who would rather go back and escape their tortures, given the scale of their reward in heaven.

Man, on the other hand, can never be perfectly trusted – not like God. An oath made to a man, and kept, can result in all kinds of sinful defects and ramifications. An oath made to God and kept – one not made frivolously, but in good faith – is a source of enormous grace. This is why it’s so sinful – man, in breaking a solemn oath to God, is declaring the comfort of this world greater than the one to come – preferring the company of man before the company of God.

Truth be told, none of us can keep an oath to God, while under duress, by our own power. The humanly desire to survive is almost insurmountable. However, in those situations, we can pray for grace to persist in our oath – and that grace will certainly be given – the martyrology of the Church is proof.

Really good topic!


#11

I think St. Thomas is correct. Coercion is not an excuse to break an oath.


#12

•Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, Ratio fundamentalis institutionis sacerdotalis (1970), n. 86: “…]Uphold St Thomas Aquinas as one of the highest teachers of the Church”.

vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_academies/san-tommaso/pastmagisterium.html


#13

The problem though is that what St Thomas said is much more than what’s in that sentence you wrote.

Coercion certainly releases the oath-taker from any temporal obligations. No one who makes a promise under duress is obligated to fulfill what was promised. St Thomas is quite clear on that. The sin is NOT breaking the oath—the sin is in the fact that the oath-taker promises before God an oath that he does not mean (that’s the very meaning of “take the Lord’s name in vain”).


#14

The bigger issue is that the person shouldn’t have allowed himself to be pressured into making an oath to God in the first place.


#15

An oath is not deprived of its binding force by coercion newadvent.org/summa/3098.htm#article3 ), and so it is a mortal sin to break it. When we do not mean an oath that we make we have sinned mortally against God as well. Oaths are very serious and should NEVER be taken lightly, not even when threatened with torture. OP, St. Thomas is correct.


#16

Yes, St Thomas is correct. But you don’t understand what he’s saying.
Here’s the full reply:

Reply to Objection 1. As stated above (89, 07, ad 3), coercion does not deprive a promissory oath of its binding force, as regards that which can be done lawfully. Wherefore he who fails to fulfil an oath which he took under coercion is guilty of perjury and sins mortally. Nevertheless the Sovereign Pontiff can, by his authority, absolve a man from an obligation even of an oath, especially if the latter should have been coerced into taking the oath through such fear as may overcome a high-principled man.

And here is 89, 07 ad3

Reply to Objection 3. There is a twofold obligation in the oath which a man takes under compulsion: one, whereby he is beholden to the person to whom he promises something; and this obligation is cancelled by the compulsion, because he that used force deserves that the promise made to him should not be kept. The other is an obligation whereby a man is beholden to God, in virtue of which he is bound to fulfil what he has promised in His name. This obligation is not removed in the tribunal of conscience, because that man ought rather to suffer temporal loss, than violate his oath. He can, however, seek in a court of justice to recover what he has paid, or denounce the matter to his superior even if he has sworn to the contrary, because such an oath would lead to evil results since it would be contrary to public justice. The Roman Pontiffs, in absolving men from oaths of this kind, did not pronounce such oaths to be unbinding, but relaxed the obligation for some just cause.

One cannot understand St. Thomas by simply looking for an individual sentence clause that “proves” some point. You have to read the surrounding text, put it into context, and also read the other articles that Thomas himself references in his writing.

It’s not sufficient to say “St Thomas is correct” without understanding what he means.

This is like a fundamentalist who takes a few words from the bible and says “the bible says…therefore I believe it” without actually understanding the meaning of the text or the context.


#17

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