One who has a habit of committing a specific sin and, by repeated lapses, has developed a strong inclination to it. The presence of a habit is indicated by frequent and regular moral failures of the same kind. It is impossible, however, to classify a person as a habitual sinner simply on the basis of the number of lapses, because circumstances make each individual case different. Moralists agree that as a general rule sins committed once a week are to be considered habitual, except where grosser sins
are concerned, in which case a sin committed as often as once a month might be considered habitual. A habit of sinning can be contracted more easily in some matters than in others; for example, where gluttony, lust, blasphemy, or cursing are concerned, notable pleasures or strong emotions may be involved that cause the habit to be formed more quickly and to resist more stubbornly the breaking of it.
The effect of habit upon the morality of the vicious act that comes of it may be either to mitigate or to aggravate its malice. As a consequence of the force of passion that often plays a part in habitual sin, the sinner's freedom and responsibility is often diminished, and so also the malice of what he does. When the sinful habitual disposition, voluntarily acquired, is voluntarily retained, even the impetus of passion does not lessen the malice of the act, for this is itself voluntary, and as such indicates a will bent with greater determination upon evil. In this sense St. Thomas Aquinas could say that whoever sins out of habit sins ex certa malitia (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 78.2).
Since habit is something learned, i.e., acquired by learning, it can be unlearned. That is to say, it can be reduced or even eliminated by learning. Since a sinful habit is a cause of sin, a penitent has an obligation to rid himself of the habit, or at least to have the sincere intention of doing so. This intention should include the purpose of taking whatever steps are necessary to overcome the inclination to sin that he has acquired. Hence, the habitual sinner may be absolved if he shows signs that he is truly contrite and has a firm purpose of amendment. Repeated lapses after repentance are not a certain indication that these necessary conditions were lacking. Just as a sinner's repudiation of his sin is possible, so also is his later repudiation of a repentance that was sincere at the time it was made. Moreover, when a sinful habit has been sincerely repudiated by the will, the disposition to repeat the sinful act that may remain after repentance is involuntary, and as such is no longer a vice, or a sinful habit, in the full sense of the term. If the penitent through weakness falls back into his sin, the existence of the involuntary disposition is a mitigating circumstance unless he also falls back into a voluntary acquiescence in his inclination to sin.
In dealing with a habitual sinner, and in distinguishing him from a recidivist, a confessor will look especially for a willingness on the part of the penitent to use the means by which the habit can be broken.
Bibliography: h. davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, rev. and enl. ed. by l. w. geddes (New York 1958) 3:286–288, d. m. prÜmmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, ed. e. m. mÜnch, 3 v. (Freiburg-Barcelona 1955) 1:62. n. halligan, The Administration of the Sacraments (New York 1963) 260–261. t. ortolan, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903—50) 6:2.2016–19; 2019–26.
[f. e. klueg]