“O you who come to this abode of pain…”, thoughts on ‘Amoris laetitia’

“O you who come to this abode of pain. . .beware how you come in and whom you trust. Don’t let the easy entrance fool you.”

Today at The Catholic Thing Robert Royal has a short and suggestive piece about sex and deception. Dante – Il Poeta  – gives him a lift.

Royal recounts teaching Dante’s Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy,  to students.

One of the more famous bits in Inferno is the hellish plight of Paolo and Francesca, adulterers, destined eternally to lash about twisting in the whirlwind as they cling to each other.  Oh, the pathos!  Oh, the sympathy as they recount their deeds, which lead to their deaths and this doom!

How unfair it all seems for such a little transgression, right?  After all what’s adultery in the face of eternal punishment.  Right?

Royal makes an important point. Before we – with Virgil and poetic Dante – reach Paolo and Francesca, we are warned against deception.  Minos, judge of the underworld…

“…  tells them: “O you who come to this abode of pain. . .beware how you come in and whom you trust. Don’t let the easy entrance fool you.”  [Because in Hell, the damned will lie to you.  Don’t believe everything you here.]

Virgil, a smart pagan, thinks Minos is just trying to block their way. But that’s not what he said or did. He’s warning them about infernal deception, especially how easy it is to find yourself entangled in it. It may, thus, be something that even Virgil’s pagan wisdom doesn’t see clearly on its own. And since what follows is two adulterers presenting a touching and almost beautiful picture of their sin, maybe the pagan poet, for all his wisdom, is not the best guide in this particular case.”

I turn now the reader’s attention to the arguments that have been offered for giving absolution to those who do not have a firm purpose of amendment and then admitting them to the reception of Holy Communion.

For example, stories as plaintive and touching as the tale of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini are described in defense of admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, even though they do not intend to amend their lives.   Oh, the pathos!  Such dire circumstances these (adulterers) are in!  Is it really so bad what they are doing?  After all, they are in love.

Can the warning of Minos serve to sober us up a bit?

I’m sure it never entered Prof. Royal’s mind to suggest a link between the scenario of Inferno Canto V and Amoris laetitia.

Read the whole thing over there.

Anthony Esolen, by the way, translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into English and did a great job of it.

If you have never read the Divine Comedy, you should.  It is perhaps the greatest work ever written, saving Holy Writ.  You could start with Esolen (Part 1, Inferno- US HERE – UK HERE) or perhaps with the late, great Inkling Dorothy Sayer’s fine version (Part 1, Inferno, US HERE – UK HERE).  There are many renderings to choose from.  I would very much like to teach on Dante someday.  Maybe it’ll happen.

When you make the excellent choice to read the Divine Comedy, here are a couple tips.  First and foremost, make the decision that you will read the whole thing.  Don’t read just the Inferno.  The really great stuff comes in Purgatorio and Paradiso.  Also, be smart in your approach to Dante.  Read straight through a canto to get the line of thought and story and then go back over it looking at the notes in your edition.  Sayers has good notes.  Dante was, I think, the last guy who knew everything.  Hence, every Canto is dense with references.  You will need notes to help with the history, philosophy, cosmology, poetic theory, politics, theology, etc.  Really.  You will need help.  Take it.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. bombcar says:

    Speaking of Dante, I was amazed to find that Mickey’s Inferno which is a tribute to Dante that sends Mickey to Hell is exceptionally well done for a comic book – I highly recommend taking a look at it. (I don’t know how to make a Fr Z Amazon link for this but it should be one).

  2. Imrahil says:

    I don’t know Dorothy Sayer’s version, but I have heard that Prof. Esolen did a great job by translating it into unrhymed blank-verse.

    If reading for the first time, with all due respect to Prof. Esolen, I seriously suggest take any version not totally off-beat that preserves rhythm and rhyme, even if it comes at the cost of totally complificating the language.

    (I recently rashly bought an exemplar of Homer’s Ilias and was flabbergasted that the hexameters were gone.)

    Or, at least if you have had either Latin or Spanish or Italian at school, the original, possibly with a translation next to it.


    very good suggestion of our reverend host. Especially the suggestion of not reading only the Inferno.

    (I personally might suggest, though, if the issue is not pressing, the following further thing: to read a nice popular, easy-reading introduction into Greek-Roman mythology first, if you aren’t familiar with that kind of thing. Around here, the one and only work here is Gustav Schwab, Tales out of Classical Antiquity, but maybe there are others.)

  3. Fuerza says:

    I first learned of the Inferno as a junior in high school during English. I purchased a copy that week and read the whole thing in one sitting. I followed up soon after with the Purgatorio and Paradiso (the Ciardi translation). My mother later bought me the Italian versions as a gift. Perhaps now that I’m long graduated from college and have some actual life experience I should give them another read. As much as I loved it back then I can’t imagine I grasped everything as a 16-year old.

  4. Matt says:

    @Imrahil: Sayers does, in fact, preserve Dante’s original terza rima structure for the rhyme and verse — at the cost of the occasional tortured sentence, as English is not as well suited to that form as Italian is. The effort involved is somewhat Procrustean. As far as I know, hers is the only significant translation that has attempted it, and I do recommend it.

  5. Imrahil says:

    In that case – thanks for the info:

    Since it is good enough that our reverend host mentions it as option, and it preserves rhythm and rhyme, I recommend it even without knowing it. (Not that my opinion would be important, of course.)

    That’s worth a little tortured, Procrustean feeling. The perfect solution would be to read the Italian, and then secondly to read different translations focussing on different aspects; but there’s of course the heavily important general rule not to let the better be the enemy of the good.

  6. jkking says:

    “It is perhaps the greatest work ever written, saving Holy Writ”

    Let me preface this by saying I haven’t taken a class or done any scholarly study on Dante, let alone reading it in the original. I have read it twice (Mandelbaum) for pure interest and liked it a lot, I would say. Very much.

    BUT, ultimately, I couldn’t really “get into it” somehow and ended up getting more from the notes than the actual text at times. This caught me off guard because I read Rod Dreher’s “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” where he recounts his experience of being captivated and blown away by Dante in a really visceral sense. For some reason, that was not my experience.

    It’s the reliance on notes (which Fr. Z notes correctly are absolutely essential) that kind of obscures the poem for me. I can see how notes relating to topics that most people don’t know about (like complex theology and medieval politics) but Dante also spends a lot of time talking about people he knew, personal history, etc, without explaining who the people are, or even their names at times. So there’s really no way to access the poem except through the lens of scholars’ commentary, even if you happen to know medieval Italian. I used to think that this was just because of its nature as poetry, but I have never read notes or commentary on the Odyssey, and I can undestand the whole thing and it has been very moving to me.

    I admit the greatness of the Poet, particularly his mastery of the poetic form and his unparalleled, encylopedic synthesis of learning, drama, pathos, and true wisdom. But my vote for the greatest work of all time, barring Holy Writ, is Don Quixote – and that’s a topic for another day.

    Maybe I could learn something from Fr. Z’s Dante class.

  7. You once said that you want to teach Dante in the future. Your class would fascinate! Your point is also well made. The people in question go around saying “Medicina non indigeo”, and yet they want access to the Eucharist, which is the Medicine to eternal life.

    Amoris Laetitia: ‘Pone metum; Deus non laedit amantes: nil opus est fletu.’ (cf. Tibullus, De Sulpicia Incerti Auctores Elegiae, III, X)

    Respondeo dicendum: Desine dissimulare. Expergiscere! In articulo mortis, alea iacta est. Nosce teipsum et confiteamur peccata vestra. Ecce vox dilecti tui; “ecce iste venit, saliens in montibus, transiliens colles” (cf. Canticum Canticorum 2:8): Ego te absolvo! (PRAETEREA CCC 1456) “Surge, propera, amica mea, columba mea, formosa mea, et veni: jam enim hiems transiit” (cf. Canticum Canticorum 2:10-11).

  8. Imrahil says:

    But you can’t understand Don Quixote either, unless through its notes that tell you who Amadis of Gallia was.

    Oh, “greatest work apart from the Bible” is an interesting topic.

  9. jkking says:

    @Imrahil: Cervantes tends to explain his references in the text itself. Notes might be helpful for getting deeper, but unlike the Comedy, aren’t necessary to read and understand the book.

    I’m not against notes per se, I just think that I have trouble absorbing the Comedy because I’m forced to read the notes to know the basics of what’s happening. It’s a testament to its monumental beauty and complexity, but I can think of no other book that so heavily relies on notes/commentary/presupposed knowledge base, including the Bible.

  10. @jkking, I would suggest that there is no comparison when it comes to sacred scripture. Regarding the context that you mention, of–essentially–not being able to grasp the whole of it without reading the footnotes, it is important to note that the gift of faith itself lends us an understanding of the mysteries of Christ’s life and words that no footnotes could make up for. The difference between the way that one man grasps the written, literal, words compared to the next man comes in the difference of gifts that men are given about which The Apostle speaks. The encyclopedic brilliance of a St. Thomas Aquinas on scripture is an example. He began to ask metaphysical questions about God before most of us, as boys, begin to even look up at the sky (i.e.: quid est Deus? was asked by him when Thomas was 5 according to one biographer).

    When we find men who can read Dante, or other authors of great literature, who can grasp a depth of meaning that might have been missed even by the scholar who wrote the footnotes to the book, then we are speaking about the intelligence quotient: I.Q..

    The gift of faith has made even the most schizophrenial among us into the most reasonable thinkers in history when it comes to the question of ultimate fecundity.

    Anyway . . .

  11. Mike says:

    I’m teaching the Purgatorio to high school juniors, using, this year, Ciardi’s translation. You simply can’t believe all the formation opportunities that come up, directly tied to Dante’s amazing text. Every Catholic high school should teach lots of Dante. The imagination, the intellect, the will, the heart: he forms them in all with a Catholic (aka, Thomist) sensibility!

  12. Denis Crnkovic says:

    I have my students read Professor Esolen’s translation because of the notes. In my humble opinion, they are the most thorough and all are to the point. Moreover, I want them to have the Catholic viewpoint that Esolen takes, since the majority of my students are not Catholic. It is impossible to play fair with Dante if you do not approach him with the mind of a 13th century Florentine (insofar as that is possible). The good father’s suggestions should be followed. Read all the way through the cantos lest you lose the thread. And do read all of the Commedia. Hell has its attractions, but they are all false.

    As for Paola and Francesca, remember that Dante’s Pilgrim shows undue pity toward them and immediately faints away as if dead. He has misplaced his piety ( pieta in Italian means both “piety” and “pity”). There is to be no piety or pity in Hell – piety being reserved for God, Who has no place in Hell. This is a lesson that Dante’s Pilgrim must learn, lest he be forever condemned to Dis. If only those skating that thin ice of “pity” in our age under the guise of “piety” would realize that they can fall through at moment into undue and overly emotional sympathy with the sins of the sinners. Amoris laetitiae is far less to be desired than laetitia caritatis. Too bad that Paolo and Francesca could not see the difference – and had not time to go to confession!

    P.S. Many years ago my father studied with the formidable Professor Baugh at Penn. Baugh, an Enlgish scholar but no slouch in other literatures, used to tell his classes that it was well worth the effort to learn Italian just to read the Divine Comedy in the original. A true bucket list item…

  13. Denis Crnkovic says:

    Mike, I recall a time when Dante was required in Catholic schools. Where have you gone, O Catholic culture?

  14. Michelle F says:

    I decided to read Dante’s The Divine Comedy when I was in RCIA in the late 1990s because I wanted to learn how to think like a Catholic.

    I got Allen Mandelbaum’s translation published by Bantam Classics (paperback, 3 volumes), and – MOST IMPORTANT – I got the 3 volumes of Cliff Notes to go with the set (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradisio). The Cliff Notes were invaluable for understanding the people, places, and events to which Dante refers in The Divine Comedy.

    I don’t know how to do an Amazon.com link, but Mandelbaum’s translation now is available there as a single-volume hard back book from Everyman’s Library for $18.38. Amazon also has their “Look Inside” feature available for this book so you can get an idea of how Mandelbaum’s translation reads (I really liked it!).

    Reading The Divine Comedy did help me to start thinking like a Catholic, as did a few other pre-Vatican-II books written by or about people whose first name is “Saint.”

  15. Grant M says:

    I’ve been slowly rereading Purgatorio in the Temple Classics bilingual edition. For Lent I decided to read Inferno. I wanted a change of translation, but was in no position to buy books on-line. So I downloaded Longfellow’s translation of the Comedy from Gutenberg. I like it more than I was expecting: it is old-fashioned, but is quite faithful to the Italian, and gives a good feel for the movement of the Italian verse.

  16. Mariana2 says:

    My Dante seems to be translated by a C. H. Sisson. Can anyone tell me the difference between his and Esolen’s translation? I was thinking of getting Sawyer’s, as I would prefer something more poetic and archaic.

    I see from bookmarks (one in the text, on in the explanations) that I only got to Purgatorio, Canto VI, last time. I shall have to carry on.

  17. Del Sydebothom says:

    I am looking at two Latin versions, one translated by Josepho Pascalio-Marinellio and one by a Gaetano Dalla Piazza. Is one of these better than the other? Is there a third, better Latin translation?

    [Interesting question. I am unfamiliar with Latin versions.]

  18. Mike says:


    That’s a question worth pondering. There are some in the Church who think “consubstantial” is too big for the folks in the pews, ie, the laity. Argh.

    I’m don’t read Italian of any century, so it’s sometimes a frustrating amount of work to teach Dante, but it’s worth the effort. And for any teacher fairly well acquainted with Catholic intellectual and artistic traditions–as well as the Faith–that makes things a little easier entering into the canto’s world of feeling and thought.
    I am struck at how Dante’s and even Vergil’s manners are consistent with the EF form of the Mass: an emphasis on proper bearing, a sense that one’s body can convey and should convey “signs” of reverence, the importance of slowness of movement consistent with one’s dignity, etc. Of course, many scholars have seen how especially the Purgatorio is liturgical in its structure…

  19. Sonshine135 says:

    Four simple words: Narrow is the way!

  20. JabbaPapa says:

    There’s a decent analysis of the more strictly theological matters pertaining to Amoris Laetitia HERE : https://cruxnow.com/commentary/2017/02/06/weve-wrong-amoris-along/

  21. agnus says:

    No you don’t need anything but the desire to read it with a Catholic heart. I read it as a teenager because I loved the Church and wanted what I could get from my public school library.

  22. davidpaulyoung says:

    I apologize if someone has already mentioned the *great* translation by Mark Musa. It was the Penguin translation after Dorothy Sayers but no longer in print. I had the privilege of reading the Comedy in the original with professor Musa so I am a bit prejudiced towards his work and prefer his translation. I believe Indiana University press still offers his translation (https://www.amazon.com/Inferno-Indiana-Critical-Masterpiece-Editions/dp/0253209307).

  23. Robert_H says:

    I’m a bit late to this thread but here is the Wyoming Catholic College podcast with Dr. Baxter about what Dante taught C.S. Lewis:


    The podcast mentions Dr. Baxter’s lectures on the Comedy. They were online but it appears WCC has upgraded their website and that probably required taking them down. Pity – they were very interesting.

    Dr. Baxter likes the translation by Jean and Robert Hollander, in part because the facing page has the original Italian and because of the copious notes. I’m reading the Inferno now and while the subtle references go past me, the rest of the poem is very accessible. (I’ll come back for the notes on my second reading.)

  24. majuscule says:


    Might this be one of Dr. Baxter’s lectures? They seem to be on YouTube and part of Distance Learning at WCC.


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