ASK FATHER: Did Francis say that sexual sins aren’t that serious?

From a reader…


Why is it always an airplane?  When Pope Francis went back to Rome from Greece he talked about the resignation of the Archbishop in Paris because of a past sexual scandal.  One thing the Pope said is that sexual sins are not really that serious. What’s up with THAT?!?

What the CNA transcript says is:

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.

Then he sort of went to the zoo about gossip and why he accepted the resignation, a ramble filled with contradictions.  Let’s leave it at that.  And nevermind the Press Office keystone cops routine of doctoring the transcript, apparently not remembering that people, you know, record these things.

“What’s up with THAT?!?”, is the question.

He didn’t say that they weren’t serious.  However, he didn’t say enough.  He would have done better not to say anything.   But…

This is hard enough to explain on a blog or in a classroom for more mature students or adults, or perhaps bravely in the pulpit of a parish, but the higher you go, the greater the risk there is of a hard fall.

In essence what Francis said was right: sins of the flesh are not as grave as the darker sins of the mind and heart.  This is because the the mind and heart are of a higher order than the appetites of the flesh.  This is why the word “angelic” is in that unfortunate presser response: angels don’t have bodies which means they have no bodily appetites or impulses.  Angels know things in the essence of the thing itself.  They are pure spirit.  When angels sin, it is grave indeed, and their sins have truly and completely to do with defiance of God and pride, leading to malice.

You have to be very careful in explaining this, however, lest you leave the impression that, just because sins of pride and malice are graver sins, that therefore sins of the flesh… aren’t sins.

Do you know where you wind up if you have committed those graver mortal sins of pride and malice?  Hell.

Do you know where you wind up if you have committed those lesser mortal sins of appetites and the flesh?  Hell.

The key is that they are both mortal sins.   That must be emphasized if this comes up.   Of course, if we are going to go into a deeper discussion of objective sin and subjective guilt, that complicates things a great deal.  But, for this, let’s stick with common sense and the basics.

All of this is why is it a really bad idea to have airplane pressers in the first place.  Let’s call it non-parachute skydiving.

Although,…. some might suggest that terminal velocity was attained some time ago.   I’m not so sure.  Consider the acceleration due to gravity (contact with the mass media) and the density of the fluid (the difficulty of the topic) and the drag coefficient (the Magisterium, Tradition, sound moral theology, etc.) offset by the mass of the falling object and it’s area (one who sits in the chair of Peter).

There’s not a lot of chance for buoyancy.

Literally, the higher up and the bigger you are the harder you fall.

Couple that with Law VIII of the House of God.

Sometimes people who criticize the Church, or libs in the Church who criticize faithful Catholics, say that there’s is too much emphasis on sexual sins.

The reason that there is so much attention given to these sins is because a) they are mortal sins (they kill the life of grace in the soul) and b) they are easily committed and committed often by many and c) while they are, technically, not as bad as, say, sins of pride or malice, they are nevertheless bad enough to get you damned for eternity and d) commission of lesser sins over time numbs one into commission of graver sins.

To be clear, certain passions and appetites are very dangerous for the human being.  In themselves, sins of the flesh are less than sins of the spirit.  However, they are powerful in drawing us on.  They can easily lead us to something that will be our damnation.  Those things which bring intense physical pleasures can be very dangerous if we lock on to them and pursue them for wrong reasons, wrong ways, wrong measure, etc.

Put a 12 gauge shotgun with a 1 oz slug to your chest directly over your heart.  Pull the trigger.  Orrrr….. this won’t be quite as bad… put a .357 magnum to your chest directly over your heart and pull the trigger.  See?  Not as bad!  Therefore, it’s okay to shoot yourself in the chest with a .357 magnum.

And here is the pastoral concern for the parent, teacher, priest, bishop, pope: we have an obligation to help people avoid Hell and gain Heaven.   That means addressing problems forthrightly but also prudently.  You do NOT tell people that sins of the flesh and appetites are less bad than “angelic” sins without also underscoring that they are still deadly.

The common sins of our era are pervasive and the world the flesh and the Devil are trying to convince us that they are no sins at all.  In fact, I think a huge number of people today are in serious spiritual peril and they have no clue at all.  This is because the Church’s teachers have not been doing their job.

It is my view that these people, whose task it is to teach clearly – and who for whatever reason don’t – are at risk of Hell themselves.  They are allowing their flock to be devoured.

Perhaps they don’t believe.  Perhaps they are mired in sins.   Perhaps they think they are being “pastoral” by never saying anything hard.  I don’t know.

I know that I don’t want to be their shoes.

I’ve used this locus from Augustine’s preaching before.  Repetita iuvant.

St. Augustine was a great pastor of souls who truly loved his flock.  He was bishop in very difficult times.  He loved his people enough to rough up his congregations when they went wrong because he wanted them to get to Heaven. Whether they listened or not, he didn’t want to lose Heaven for himself by neglecting to preach the hard stuff.  It was his vocation to preach whatever it took to get them to Heaven.

Augustine, as bishop for themi and as Christian with them said, “Nolo salvus esse sine vobis… I don’t want to be saved without you.”

He would do what it took to help them to heaven, even if that meant making them temporarily angry with him.   He put them before himself.

Buried within the message, however, is a stern reminder.   If you don’t correct your errant ways, there’s the door over there.  Beyond that door is Hell.  We’d rather you stay, but if you want, don’t let the door hit you in the backside on the way down and don’t ask me to go with you.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. FrDulli says:

    I really have to disagree with the Holy Father. What he said was not correct, strictly speaking. Sins against the sixth commandment are grave. It is not our place as priests, certainly in public, to ever assess that a sin was merely “of the flesh”. For a man of high office to think he can caress his secretary, certainly there is likely to be pride and grave spiritual sin at the root. Pope Francis once again spoke error.

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  3. Bosco says:

    “More souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason. ” – Our Lady of Fatima to Saint Jacinta Marto

  4. aam says:

    “He would have done better not to say anything.”

    Is that not always the case?

  5. Elizabeth D says:

    The “sin of the flesh” in question is apparently “small massages and caresses” according to the Holy Father. It seems to me that if THAT is what is in question, as opposed to fornication, then what the Holy Father said shouldn’t be treated as though the issue were sex acts, which are certainly grave. It sounds, rather, like something venially sinful. A lot of people might not even be aware that massaging or caressing someone whom you’re not married to could be a sin. For instance, do we hear of it being wrong to get a massage when at a resort spa or something like that? I think it definitely can be a sin, but also that it doesn’t seem to be grave matter. I have seen priests do various physical affection toward women that they seemed to think was pure but that seemed to me imprudent and make the women attached to him, or in one or two cases even exceedingly, startlingly imprudent. It’s a mistake to presume that if the person doing it isn’t aroused or trying to arouse anyone then it’s both pure and in keeping with prudence. But so too could it be a mistake to interpret these situations as mortally sinful.

  6. Phil says:

    So Francis said this sin of the flesh is not as grave as the sins of the spirit, which is correct. Fr. Z’s analogy of the shotgun and the .357 is also correct. That there are more grave sins than sins against the 6th commandment (there are at least 5 which are more grave!) does not imply that sins against the 6th commandment are any less serious; it rather implies the even greater gravity of those other sins of the spirit. Aquinas argues that sins of the flesh are of less gravity than spiritual sins (though still grave) but that they are more shameful (turpiorem/maioris infamiae) because they are attached to our lower (animal) nature.

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  8. Elizabeth D says:

    I have definitely noticed that different celibate people have different standards of what physical touch they see as appropriate. In some cases people simply have different boundaries and it’s probably innocent, for instance many other celibates will hug people of the opposite sex whereas I strictly do not unless it’s a relative. I don’t think massage is prudent for celibate people, even when medically indicated there should be care taken! But in most circumstances it wouldn’t seem right to overreact to witnessing a shoulder rub, which is something many people grew up doing with their siblings at home in their family. What exactly is the case with this archbishop, before he was a bishop, we don’t know.

  9. Later, very ill, Jacinta would share many insights, among them, “The sins which cause most souls to go to hell are the sins of the flesh.”

    National Catholic Register

  10. Longinus says:

    Pope Francis, as imprudent as ever.

  11. Grant M says:

    Someone reported, with indignation, the Pope’s comment in a Telegram Catholic group, and I responded:

    Technically true (in the Inferno for example, lust, gluttony and greed are punished nearer the top of Hell, violence, fraud and treachery lower down) but misleading in that the former sins are more common and ensnare more people.

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  13. Bosco says:

    ?”?You have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I tell you that he who casts his eyes on a woman so as to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.?” Matthew 5:27-28?

  14. Kerry says:

    Is not the distinction to be made between venial sin and mortal sin? Or will the Pharisee say, “I thank god that I am in the first circle of hell, not like that guy down there at circle #8”.
    “I think NOT!”

  15. tzabiega says:

    I actually agree with Pope Francis on this one. The Archbishop of Paris was actually supportive of traditional moral teachings of the Church and would criticize the French government for immoral laws, including gender theory, etc. So the French press was out to get him. Priests and bishops can be tempted by close contact with females who they work closely with, and some great priests have succumbed to what happened to the Archbishop without actual fornication. It is something in my mind that can be forgiven and does not disqualify from ministry any more than flirting with a female coworker, when repented of, should lead to a wife divorcing the culprit. But, the media uses such cases to compare it with the real filth infesting the Church, and that is sodomite priests. If a priest or bishop here or there has romantic feelings and actions towards a female and then repents of it, it is a much less serious issue than the pervasive sodomy that is much more frequent and pervasive in the Churchand that needs to be completely eradicated. Let’s not be haste to throw stones for a sin most normal males can easily succumb to.

  16. James C says:

    The fact that Pope Francis was recently revealed to have written a gushing letter to the sodomy-celebrating New Ways ‘Ministry’ (sic) should tell us what he really thinks about this stuff.

  17. I want to comment on this statement:

    “Sometimes people who criticize the Church, or libs in the Church who criticize faithful Catholics, say that there’s is too much emphasis on sexual sins.”

    There is another, huge reason people hear emphasis on “sexual sins”: it is because there is so much effort to justify them or to claim they aren’t really sins. As a result, it is necessary to explain these matters and to refute misunderstandings.

    Is there a similar effort to justify theft and lying? If so, a priest ought to touch on those as well. And notice: abortion is hardly a “sexual sin,” yet the Church highlights that, why? For the same reason, because of the attempt to justify it.

  18. Kathleen10 says:

    Where are we, 1957? He knows we aren’t in 1957, where laity could have some confidence our bishops weren’t manhandling various peoples behind the scenes. We don’t have that luxury anymore. Many people, some outside the church, are disgusted with the Catholic church for allowing so much touching of various populations, some of age, some not, and not doing enough to just…stop…it, by any means necessary. We certainly didn’t expect those people to get promotions! Does he not recognize this is how the church is perceived (because it’s true). Does he not hear the snide remarks? There is no excuse for anyone Catholic to fail to see how it is. So touching anyone, man, woman, teen, child, outside of one’s blood relatives, is a bad, bad, BAD idea for a bishop. You can hug Aunt Rose and Uncle Elmer, be judicious about little cousin Winthrop, but you really can’t hug ladies and gentlemen, teens or pre-teens, outside of the family unless it’s a little chaste, teeny hug with lots of people present, because sometimes people hug you. But it’s a bad idea for celibate people, super-duper-bad idea for bishops and all clergy, really, at this point. Sorry, but, all these rapes, sodomies, and molestations of boys and teens have necessarily put a damper on the fun. So for a bishop or archbishop, to cause scandal by “massaging” his office-wife, just screams at least bad judgment, and to minimize sexual sins…good grief Charlie Brown. We have a person in Rome who scans the horizon looking for some sinful or dodgy thing he can condone and some faithful thing he can grind into dust. Christmas week coming up. We can’t wait to find out what present he has for us this year! We know feasts are his favorite time to gift the faithful with something, oh boy!

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