Pope Francis: Sexual Sins Are Not the Most Serious of Sins

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Dante’s Second Circle of Hell

Here we go again. The pope says something affirming centuries-old Catholic teaching, and the secular media treat it as if it’s a new revelation, a radical teaching by a radical pope. As is often the case when the secular press reports on things Catholic, many headlines tried to summarize what Pope Francis said and got it completely wrong:

“Pope Francis says ‘sins of the flesh’ aren’t that ‘serious.'” (New York Post)

“Pope: Sex outside marriage not serious sin” (The Citizen)

“Pope Francis says extramarital sex sins aren’t that ‘serious’” (The Daily Telegraph)

First of all, while Francis did reference the Sixth Commandment, which condemns adultery, he didn’t specifically address “extramarital sex,” but “sins of the flesh,” which are under the Sixth Commandment but includes far more than only extramarital sex. Second, he did not say that “sins of the flesh,” extramarital or otherwise, were not serious sins. He said they were not the most serious of sins.

Some news sources, even in attempting to summarize what Francis said, got it essentially correct:

“Pope Francis calls sins of the flesh ‘not the most serious’” (ABC)

While the headlines were too often off the mark, most of the articles were closer to the truth and quoted Francis correctly. But just to be certain, it’s a good idea to read what Francis actually said, rather than rely on excerpts from news sources.

From Catholic News Agency, here is the full text of the question Pope Francis was asked and the answer he gave:

Cecile Chambraud, Le Monde: Holy Father, on Thursday, when we arrived in Nicosia, we learned that you had accepted the resignation of the archbishop of Paris, Archbishop Aupetit. Can you tell us why? And why in such a hurry?

[Chambraud asked a second question and Pope Francis elected to answer the second question first before giving his answer about Archbishop Aupetit.]

The first question on the Aupetit case: I wonder what he did that was so serious that he had to resign? What did he do? Somebody answer me …

Chambraud: I don’t know.

Pope Francis: If we don’t know the accusation, we cannot condemn … What was the accusation, who knows? It’s bad isn’t it?

Chambraud: A problem of governance or something else. We do not know.

Pope Francis: Before answering I will say: do the investigation, eh, do the investigation … because there is a danger of saying: he was condemned. Who condemned him? Public opinion, gossip. But what did he do? We don’t know, something … If you know why, say so, otherwise I cannot answer and you will not know why. Because it was his failure, a fault against the sixth commandment — but not total — of small caresses and massages that he gave to the secretary, so stands the accusation. This is sin, but it is not of the most serious sins, because the sins of the flesh are not the most serious. The gravest sins are those that are more angelic: pride, hatred. These are graver. So Aupetit is a sinner, as am I — I don’t know if you are aware … but probably — as was Peter, the bishop on whom Jesus Christ founded the Church. Why did the community of that time accept a sinful bishop, and with sins of such an angelic nature as denying Christ! But it was a normal Church, it was accustomed to everyone always being sinful, it was a humble Church. You can see that our Church is not used to having a sinful bishop. We pretend to say my bishop is a saint. … not this red hat … we are all sinners. But when the gossip grows, grows, grows, and takes away the reputation of the person. He will not be able to lead because he has lost the reputation, not because of his sin, which is sin — like Peter’s, like mine like yours — but because of the gossip of the people responsible for reporting things, a man who has lost his reputation so publicly cannot govern. And this is an injustice and that is why I accepted Aupetit’s resignation, not on the altar of truth, but on the altar of hypocrisy. This is what I want to say.

The question addressed the resignation of Michel Aupetit, Archbishop of Paris, who had been accused of having an intimate relationship with a woman in 2012, before he became archbishop. Aupetit denies that the relationship involved sexual intimacies, but confessed that his actions were inappropriate, and he offered Francis his resignation. Francis accepted his resignation, as he says, because the gossip surrounding the matter led to a loss of reputation and an inability of Archbishop Aupetit to effectively lead the archdiocese.  

Francis is not trying to defend Archbishop Aupetit so much as putting his transgression in context. What Aupetit did was a sin, and Francis acknowledges that. Yet, we are all sinners, Francis included. And Aupetit’s sin was not a sin that would ordinarily call for an archbishop’s resignation. It was the gossip, the rumors, that led to the loss of reputation and ability to lead that motivated Francis to accept Aupetit’s resignation, more than the sin of an inappropriate relationship with a woman nearly ten years ago and before he became archbishop. Francis calls this an injustice and, I think, strongly implies that the sin of gossip and rumormongering that forced Aupetit to resign was a graver sin than whatever relationship the archbishop had with his secretary.

Now, as for sins of the flesh not being the most serious of sins, this has long been the understanding of the Church. Not all sins are equal. Scripture and simple justice both attest to this. 1 John 5:16-17 reads: “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.” Clearly, John is speaking of spiritual death here, not physical death. The Gospel According to Matthew tells of Jesus confronting the Pharisees and teaching, “Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt 12:31-32). What is this “blasphemy against the Spirit”? The study notes for the New American Bible defines it as, “the sin of attributing to Satan (Mt 12:24) what is the work of the Spirit of God.” This is what the Pharisees did in accusing Jesus of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebul. As for justice, no one would consider stomping on another’s toe in anger as grave a sin as murder. No one would consider stealing a dime from Bill Gates as serious a sin as stealing the entire life savings of an elderly woman on a fixed income. To suggest otherwise is absurd and makes a farce of basic justice.

St Thomas Aquinas addressed the question of sins of the flesh, or what he called “carnal sins” being of less guilt than “spiritual sins” in his Summa Theologica, Part I of the Second Part, Question 73, Article 5: Whether Carnal Sins Are of Less Guilt than Spiritual Sins?

On the contrary, Gregory says (Moral. xxxiii, 11) that carnal sins are of less guilt, but of more shame than spiritual sins.

I answer that, Spiritual sins are of greater guilt than carnal sins: yet this does not mean that each spiritual sin is of greater guilt than each carnal sin; but that, considering the sole difference between spiritual and carnal, spiritual sins are more grievous than carnal sins, other things being equal. Three reasons may be assigned for this. The first is on the part of the subject: because spiritual sins belong to the spirit, to which it is proper to turn to God, and to turn away from Him; whereas carnal sins are consummated in the carnal pleasure of the appetite, to which it chiefly belongs to turn to goods of the body; so that carnal sin, as such, denotes more a “turning to” something, and for that reason, implies a closer cleaving; whereas spiritual sin denotes more a “turning from” something, whence the notion of guilt arises; and for this reason it involves greater guilt. A second reason may be taken on the part of the person against whom sin is committed: because carnal sin, as such, is against the sinner’s own body, which he ought to love less, in the order of charity, than God and his neighbor, against whom he commits spiritual sins, and consequently spiritual sins, as such, are of greater guilt. A third reason may be taken from the motive, since the stronger the impulse to sin, the less grievous the sin, as we shall state further on (Article 6). Now carnal sins have a stronger impulse, viz. our innate concupiscence of the flesh. Therefore spiritual sins, as such, are of greater guilt.

Thomas gives three reasons that carnal sins are less serious than spiritual sins. First, carnal sins are more a “turning to” the physical appetites, while spiritual sins are more a “turning from” God. Second, carnal sins are sins against one’s own body, which we ought properly to love less, while spiritual sins are sins against God and neighbor, whom we ought properly to love more. Third, we are more strongly tempted to commit carnal sins because of our concupiscence, our attachment to physical pleasures, and not so strongly tempted toward spiritual sins, which involve more the working of the mind and heart.

Pope Francis’ statement that “sins of the flesh” are not the most serious sins is perfectly in line with St. Thomas Aquinas. While the teaching isn’t infallible, it is strong in the Catholic tradition and theology, and it makes sense in that it’s in line with human experience. In his Inferno, Dante confined those guilty of sins of lust to the second circle of hell (just below Limbo, which is reserved for those children who died without baptism and for righteous pagans), and their punishment is less severe. The six other deadly sins are all lower in the depths of the inferno, and the punishment for sinners is greater with each circle lower, because they represent more serious offenses.

No one should be surprised, then, with what Pope Francis said, much less regard it as permission to commit sexual sin, or consider themselves out of hot water because their sins are “only” sexual. Any offense against God should be taken seriously. St. John Henry Newman wrote:  “The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.” Too harsh? Perhaps for our modern ears that believe that a nice God would overlook what we casually dismiss as being human. But sin is not being human. Sin is the opposite of being human. Being human is sharing in the very nature of God, being co-heirs with Christ to the kingdom. Being human is being so close to God that we are actually absorbed into His Being. Sin is not being human, but rebellion against being human. It is trying to be what we are not. No, not trying to be more than what we are, but less! “The sinner does not love himself enough,” Aquinas said. Sin brings us down, makes us less than the glorious beings God created us to be. “The glory of God is man, fully human, fully alive,” said St. Irenaeus. Our goal while we journey this green orb is not to overcome our being human, but to become fully human, fully alive. That is what God made us for, and that is what sin destroys in us, our own humanity. Yes, Scripture, justice, Aquinas, and a long history of Catholic thought recognize that there are some sins more grave than others. But this does not mean that all sin is not to be taken seriously, and avoided at all costs, because it is nothing less than our eternal life in the balance.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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