Fomites of Viruses, Fomites of Sins, and YOU

Today on a TV news channel I heard a doctor talking about the ways that virus can spread.  He used a term “fomites” (pronounced “foe-mights”).  I immediately knew what it was about, but I looked it up: “any inanimate object that, when contaminated with or exposed to infectious agents (such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses or fungi), can transfer disease to a new host.”

If contagious I, while shedding virus, cough on a surface, and you, unaware, later put your hand on it, you could pick up the virus I shed by coughing.  The surface was, for you, a fomite.

This is from Latin, fomes, fomitis, m., “kindling-wood, touch-wood, tinder”.

In theology we have a term, fomes peccati, the “kindling of sin”. This is the inclination to sinful, usually having to do with lower appetites, concupiscence, that is in us because of the wounds caused by Original Sin.  Think of how kindling wood is dry, susceptible to catch a spark and begin to burn.   That’s great when you want to start a fire, but it’s really bad when the fire is unwanted, such as in your house or a wildfire.

If fomites which spark illness in you are bad, fomites (plural of fomes) which spark sins in you are even worse.

The image was first in the Latin poet Prudentius’ work Apotheosis. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find this term.

1264 Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, “the tinder for sin” (fomes peccati); since concupiscence “is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”

Here is something important to understand for when you are making an examination of conscience, both daily and especially before making a confession.

An inclination or a temptation (when you haven’t put yourself purposely in an occasion of sin) in themselves are not sins.  These first movements toward sin, temptations, are just that.  As a matter of fact, it can be meritorious to struggle against the first motions toward sinning and overcome them.

So, just as, today, we want to reduce viral fomites, we also want to reduce near occasions of sin and, by our discipline and self-examination, plan well how to resist those internal motions and initial impulses towards all manner of sin.  Knowing your own weaknesses inside and out, through regular examination of conscience will help.  Then make a plan about what to do when the fomites peccati kick in.

Meanwhile, guard your eyes.  If you should avoid touching surfaces and then touching your face (a really good way to pick up contagion), you can spark your fomites peccati by looking at things, especially things you shouldn’t be looking at.  Custody of the eyes is important.

Be careful, especially in your time of isolation.  Be especially prudent, because, right now, it is hard to make a good confession.

“GO TO CONFESSION!”, I’m always harping.   But now it is hard to do so.

Don’t get yourself into a real jam with sins when the availability of confession is so much less.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Interesting! Is it related to the verb “foment” which incites or heats up through friction? This is often used negatively.

  2. LeeGilbert says:

    ““GO TO CONFESSION!”, I’m always harping. But now it is hard to do so.”

    In lieu of the Sacrament of Confession, a perfect act of contrition is sufficient to restore one to the friendship of God . . .or so we were told in my high school moral theology class. Yet, this always seemed like something completely out of reach, as if one were to try to lift himself by his spiritual bootstraps, so to speak. If one has shown himself an enemy of God and entered the kingdom of Satan, from whence can this perfect act of contrition possibly come? A cold, indifferent and perverse heart can somehow squeeze from itself perfect contrition, sorrow for sin out of love for the God from whom it has willingly cut itself off? One could as easily square the circle.

    Yet, there is a solution. It is in God’s power to grant us the grace of compunction, and from there it should be sought. Within oneself there is only emptiness, but from God God-pleasing sorrow can come, a soul-cleansing fountain of tears from the heart of God. “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened unto you . . .” Especially is this the case when we are asking for a return to His friendship.

    The sacraments are the ordinary way into God’s grace, of course, but they are not the only way. He is not limited by the Sacraments, nor by bishops. Though we are cut off from the sacraments, we are not cut off from God. And if one feels so blighted and unworthy even to ask the grace of compunction from God, all about us are the saints of the Church both in our parishes and in Heaven. If we ask them to pray a special grace for us down from Heaven, they will do so, and we will soon wash away our sins with heart-felt tears.

    Still, until one has confessed sacramentally, it is safer not to approach the Eucharist. Who is a judge in his own case? With the words of absolution we are on rock-solid ground once more. But in the meantime, we do not have to wallow in our guilt or remain an enemy of God.

  3. TonyO says:

    Very good ideas, Fr. Z, thank you. We are so used to having confession right around the corner, that we sometimes are a bit lazy about avoiding the occasions of sin that we ought to steer clear of as truly dangerous. But now that confession isn’t so available (or at all, for many of us), we need to change our habits. And who among us saw the writing on the wall early enough to go to confession just because it wasn’t going to be easily accessible soon? You never know whether you’re going to have “enough time” to get to confession.

    Which goes to another point: even when it is not possible to get to confession, it is possible to make a perfect act of contrition with regard to one’s sins. Please, Fr. Z, (or anyone else) can you comment on the benefits of a perfect act of contrition?

    [Well… the obvious first point is a return to the state of grace. This is not the way that the Lord intended as the PRIMARY means of return to grace after mortal sin. That would be the Sacrament of Penance. The Sacrament has the advantage of not having to wonder or to guess at our state. But a perfect Act of Contrition is a great start when the Sacrament is not available. Another benefit is that, if repeated, we get better at it. That means that we become more and more disposed to receive Eucharistic Communion well, as well as Spiritual Communion. Also, trying to make perfect Acts of Contrition make us better at avoiding occasions of sin.]

  4. Andrew says:

    Fr. Z: Since we are now deprived of the freedom of movement and of assembly, and we spend long days shuttered in our homes, allow me to elaborate a bit: (pace tua sine me garrire paululum):

    An example of “fomes, fomitis” used in a positive sense, is found in a correspondence of two Roman saints: where St. Paula writes to St. Marcella: “Tu, quae prima scintillam nostro FOMITI subjecisti, quae ad hoc studium nos, et sermone hortata es et exemplo, et quasi gallina congregasti sub alas pullos tuos.”

    (You, who were the first to light a spark under our TINDER, who encouraged us both by word and by example and like a hen gathered us like chicks under your wings.)

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  6. JustaSinner says:

    My mother had a saying, “If you don’t sin, you don’t have to repent.”. Near as I can tell, she was closest to Jesus for being sin-free. (sarc/off)

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