Quaeritur: Can circumstances change the species (i.e., moral object) of a human act or do they only change the degree of the species of a human act?
Technically, the circumstances in a human act are always accidental to the object of the act; whereas it is the object (the thing that is done) in an act that primarily gives the act its essence or species (see ST I-II.18.2). For example, suppose I steal some money from someone: who I steal from, how much I steal, etc. are considered circumstances, and therefore are accidental to the object or essence of the act, which was theft. Whether I steal $5 or $5,000, it's still theft. And whether I steal from a stranger or from my uncle, it's still theft. These circumstances do not affect the essence of the act.
However, there are factors in a human act which seem to be circumstantial, but in reality are not circumstances at all, but are "conditions for the object," as St. Thomas calls them (see ST I-II.18.10c). For example, if you 'steal' a wallet, but that wallet happens to belong to you in the first place, the fact that it belongs to you is not really a circumstance, but a 'condition for the object', and it makes the act not theft at all; rather, the essence of the act is that you're taking what is yours. Or to use St. Thomas' example, if you steal from a holy place, like a church, you're definitely committing theft, but additionally, the fact that you're doing it from a holy place adds another object to the act, namely, that of sacrilege. That apparent circumstance is not a circumstance in the sense of an accident; it adds another species to the act. (And, if you're wondering, yes, a human act can have more than one moral species, unlike a natural thing, like a plant or animal, which can only have one species.)
So stealing from a church is actually two sins, theft and sacrilege? Or is it still one – sacrilegious theft?
Two sins. And both have to be confessed. In other words, it's not enough to say merely "I stole something from a building," or "I committed sacrilege at the church"; one has to confess having stolen from the church, both theft and sacrilege. And so with other acts that involve multiple species of sin, as when one does one bad thing for the sake of another.
In ST I-II.18.6 St. Thomas explains that when one does one evil for the sake of another, the evil that is the end relates to the evil means as form to matter: for example, when one steals in order to commit adultery---which incidentally is the reverse of Aristotle's example in the Ethics: adultery for the sake of theft---the two sins come together in one act. In St. Thomas' example the theft is material and the adultery is formal, whereas in Aristotle's example, the adultery is material, the theft is formal. Cf. Garrigou-Lagrange, Beatitude (commentary on Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae, available through ITOPL), p. 274:
One who steals in order to commit adultery is an adulterer rather than [i.e., moreso than] a thief, because adultery, the subjective purpose, is the form of which theft is the material. In this case there are two sins specifically distinct, to be declared in confession.
Thank you, Doctor! Clear as usual!
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