Responsibility for an action can be diminished or nullified

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a book my daughter had to read a few years ago for her literature class in school. It is about a young boy whose mother abandons him at a campsite, and he has to find his way alone to his grandmother’s house. It reminded me of the book Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt that I read many years ago in my middle school class. In Homecoming, the mother abandons her four children in a mall parking lot, and they have to find their way alone to their aunt’s home. 

The children are not too surprised that their mother abandons them in both books. Throughout the books, there are little hints that the children understood their mother was a little different. When they reach their final destinations, the children learn from family members that everyone understood the mothers to be mentally ill and had been for a long time. 

It was hard not to judge these mothers, given the consequences of their actions on their children. One thing interesting about these books is, for the most part, the children didn’t express anger towards their mother. Maybe it was because they were so focused on survival they didn’t have time to place blame, which might come later. However, I also sensed the children weren’t surprised by their mother’s actions. In a way, they understood she couldn’t be to blame. 

The Catholic Church has taught about imputability. 

From the Catholic Dictionary:

From the Catechism (1735):

Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors. 

Given this, it can be difficult for one to judge fully the actions of others, which is why it is best not to judge others. The Catechism (1750) states that the morality of an act depends on three things:

  1. The object chosen
  2. The end in view or the intention
  3. The circumstances of the action 

Given these three criteria:

1) The object would be the children, and it is a mother’s responsibility to care for her children.

2) It can be tough to understand the intent of these mothers, given their mental illness. They may have thought they were doing their children a favor by leaving them that they were better off without a mentally ill mother. 

3) The circumstances include the mother’s mental illness, so this would diminish her responsibility (1754). While the Catechism doesn’t address abandoning children directly, it does discuss suicide and prostitution.  

For suicide, it states (2282): Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

For prostitution, it states (2355): While it is always gravely sinful to engage in prostitution, the imputability of the offense can be attenuated by destitution, blackmail, or social pressure. 

We mustn’t judge others for these reasons, as we genuinely don’t understand what someone else might be going through in their lives. 

St Dymphna is the patron saint of people with mental and nervous disorders,
including stress, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia and depression.

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