ASK FATHER: Did John the Baptist never sin?

From a reader…


At Mass yesterday the priest said that St. John the Baptist never sinned his whole life due to the absolution he received from the Lord during the Visitation (‘ . . . and he leapt in the womb’).

Never heard this before. Is this Church teaching?

While this has never been taught officially by the Church, our tradition has it that at the moment of the Visitation, when he leapt in Elizabeth’s womb at the approach of the unborn Savior within Mary, that was when John was cleansed of the guilt of Original Sin. Hence, he was born without the guilt of Original Sin. He, like everyone else except the Blessed Virgin and Our Lord, suffered the effects of Original Sin. He would have had to deal with his passions, disordered appetites, concupiscence, etc. He was not “immaculate”, like the Blessed Virgin.

That said, we can suppose that John the Baptist was a deeply holy man, if not immaculate. After all, Our Lord Himself said of John:

I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; … (Luke 7:28)

Imagine the implications of that, coming as it does from the mouth of Christ.

But the second part of that verse is:

…yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

Since only the sinless can see God in Heaven, one might conclude from this that John, while amazingly holy, is nevertheless not without sins, without some attachment, or without the debt in justice of temporal punishment due to sin.

Holy Church recognizes the greatness of John the Baptist also by the fact that we celebrate his birth day. In general when we use the term “birth day” for a saint, the dies natalis, we mean the day of the death of the saint and their “birth” into Heaven. However, we celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist, as we do that of Our Lord and of Mary. A singular honor!

If I recall rightly, Anne Catherine Emmerich thought that John the sinless in life. Maybe, but that’s not the teaching of the Church and, frankly, I have a strong dubitation about that.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Imrahil says:

    It very much looks like a pia opinio to me, nothing problematic with it. After all, eminent theologians at one time, before the dogma, had not grasped the Immaculate Conception, but even they took her being free of any actual sin as a matter of course. So, they thought that possible together with fettered, but present, concupiscience.

    But please, dear preachers, don’t present piae opiniones as the teaching of the Church. From that principle you could make an exception for very clear matters, such as that the Blessed Virgin is the mediatrix of all graces, although in my opinion even that is none the worse for a “as St. Grignion teaches with compelling arguments”. It’s certainly not the job of a preacher to present an opinion as obscure as that, even though it looks quite possible, as if it were a matter of certainty.

  2. Cornelius says:

    Fr, since Baptism erases the guilt of original sin (though not its disordered effects), in being baptized we are essentially placed in the same spiritual condition as St. John the Baptist.

    Or, conversely, St. J the B was placed in the same spiritual condition as Christians generally. So he’s sort of the proto-Christian, is he not?

  3. monstrance says:

    True. But Baptism does much more than deal with original sin.
    Thus John is least in The Kingdom compared to a Baptized Christian.
    John being of the Old Dispensation.

  4. I was told that a similar pious belief has been attributed to Saint Joseph, that he was born (as opposed to conceived) without the stain of original sin.

  5. TonyO says:

    I had read a long time ago that St. Joseph was considered to be sinless from the time of his marriage to Mary. That seems (to me) a fitting gift to the foster-father of Jesus and within the realm of plausibility to one who still bears the damage of concupiscence from original sin. (Which is the state we are all in from the grace of baptism which removes the stain of guilt but not the injury of concupiscence.)

    I read a book recently that claimed St. Joseph was sinless his whole life, (though conceived with original sin). The “proof” of it, though, was so thin and weak that I could not credit it as a serious argument. It might still be a TRUE claim, but if that’s the best argument we have for it after 2000 years, there is little reason to expect there will ever be a definitive Church teaching on it.

    And I would suggest that the argument for John the Baptist being sinless his whole life is even less solid: John, for instance, did not have (but Joseph did) the actual graces of daily “communion” with Jesus present in human and divine nature, nor the benefit of daily conversation with the Word of God to hear the Truth spoken to signify the divine thought and will, nor the daily example of the sinless Blessed Mary to live up to and to receive help from. But even with all of these external aids during his life with Mary and Jesus, Joseph would have had to be the beneficiary of still an exceptional, singular, and astounding gift of interior grace to overcome every single sin including interior venial sins of thought.

    Certainly God can give such a gift. The question is what evidence we have for it His giving that grace in John’s life or Joseph’s life.

  6. robtbrown says:

    For those who consider it among “pious opinions”, I suggest a reading of Luke 1:11-15. erit enim magnus coram Domino et vinum et sicera non bibet et Spiritu Sancto replebitur adhuc ex utero matris suae.

    Re the Immaculate Conception: There is a long tradition that she was sanctified in the womb (if the Baptist was, then Mary would have been also). The Immaculate Conception, however, cannot be considered just an extension of pre-birth sanctification. It needed the authority of Pius IX that recognized a separate Divine Act.

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