Just weeks before the Catholic Church’s summit on the sexual abuse crisis, the faithful became privy to Pope Francis’s rather unorthodox views on sexual morality. In a book length interview with Frenchman Dominque Wolton, who accompanied Pope Francis to World Youth Day in Panama, the pope concurs with Wolton’s premise that the most radical message of the Gospel is greed and “money madness.” This message is obscured, however, due to what he sees as the Church’s preoccupation with sexual immorality and deviance. In his response to a question about how to refocus the Church on this message, the pope speaks in generalities that bristle with clues regarding his true sentiments on chastity along with the import of sexual misconduct among the clergy.
According to the Pope, “There is a great danger for preachers, and it is that of condemning only the morality that is—pardon me—‘below the belt.’ But other sins that are more serious, hatred, envy, pride, vanity, killing another, taking a life … these are rarely mentioned.” He goes on to elaborate that “sins of the flesh are the lightest sins, because the flesh is weak.” On the other hand, the most dangerous sins are “those of the spirit … angelism, pride.”
The pope’s declarations are provocative but highly dubious. First, as he has done so often, Pope Francis constructs a convenient but flimsy straw man: the Catholic preacher preoccupied with sexual sins, who conveniently ignores more serious moral transgressions. Yet just the opposite is true. We hardly ever hear from the pulpit sermons that treat sexual misbehavior and condemn sexual perversion. Second, and more importantly, the pope’s remarks falsely minimize the gravity of sexual sin and sensual egoism. To be sure, Pope Francis isn’t suggesting any doctrinal changes. He doesn’t deny that promiscuity, pornography, masturbation, or other deviant acts are sinful, but he believes that we needn’t worry very much about them. The pope mentions his admiration for a cardinal who confided in him that as soon as someone brings up sins “below the belt,” he immediately says, “I understand, let’s move on.” He makes the penitent or parishioner recognize that “there are other mistakes that are much more important.”
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It is quite likely that this casual attitude regarding the vice of lust is shared by many in the hierarchy aside from the unnamed cardinal whom the pope admires so much. We surely find this attitude echoed in the remarks of Cardinal Schönborn at the last Synod on the Family: “The Church should not look in the bedroom first, but in the dining room.” Given the tone and substance of papal writings like Amoris Laetitia, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that this lower profile for sexual sinfulness is at least a tacit theme of this pontificate. This minimization strategy is one way of accommodating to some degree the new moral order ushered in by the Sexual Revolution. Perhaps this cavalier approach also explains why so many bishops who heard “rumors” about Cardinal McCarrick’s perverse misdeeds never took them too seriously until it was revealed that minors were also his victims. And maybe it explains why there isn’t more indignation over the sexual misbehavior of the clergy with young adults and seminarians. The same logic employed by Pope Francis may be operative: there are far more important sins than these lustful encounters and other relatively benign sins associated with concupiscentia. Contrary to the Pope’s opinion, it also accounts for why we hear so little preaching about sexual morality and chastity throughout the Church.
If this dangerous mindset of minimalism prevails at the upcoming summit on sexual abuse, the summit cannot possibly lead to any long-term success. At the deepest roots of the sexual abuse scandal convulsing the Church is a failure to respect and teach the inter-connected virtues of love and chastity. As George Weigel has pointed out, at the foundation of the Catholic Church’s response to this turmoil there must be a retrieval of its profound doctrine on chastity as the integrity of love. Without a sincere renewal of the universal value of chastity the Church can never begin to resolve this massive problem in a satisfactory way.
The pope’s gnostic evaluation of a sexual morality that sharply divides sins of the body from sins of the spirit fails to appreciate the troubling consequences of the Sexual Revolution and the irreparable damage caused by those minor sins “below the belt.” Sexual promiscuity, which has swept through Western culture, has led to the mistreatment and degradation of women and the unravelling of the institution of indissoluble marriage. As scholars like Mary Eberstadt have shown, the chaotic effects of unrestrained sexual profligacy have fallen most heavily on the young and the vulnerable.
To accommodate his view that sexual sins are the “lightest ones,” the pope appears to rely on the proposition that the “flesh is weak,” and this weakness disposes us to noetic and moral frailty. People follow their sexual impulses and find themselves giving in to illicit and irresistible desires. But this is hardly a justification and cannot dispense any person from full responsibility for his or her actions. According to Pope John Paul II, “free love,” or sexual promiscuity that masquerades as love, exploits human weaknesses with the blessing of public opinion. By referring to the seductive power of sensual desire, there is an attempt to “soothe” consciences by creating a “moral alibi” (Letter to Families 14). But what gets easily forgotten by Pope Francis and others who fall for this rationalization are the dreadful consequences of non-marital sexual activity. When these sins happen among married couples and lead to infidelity, the family suffers the painful effects of marital chaos and divorce. How many families have been destroyed or damaged by those who surrender their sexual powers to the rule of emotional and bodily satisfaction?
The urge to satisfy one’s libido can take many forms such as the desire to look at pornographic images. But this urge once satisfied can easily become an obsession and undermine a person’s mature self-possession. In his Confessions, St. Augustine describes with impassioned eloquence how “lust served became a custom, and custom not resisted became necessity” (8.5). A single, lustful act that might lead to such compulsive behavior or addiction must be resisted and not taken lightly. Confessors should not “move on” if they are informed of such potentially disruptive sins, but should ensure the penitent appreciates the gravity and possible ramifications of his or her actions.
Another severe consequence of sexual license is the reliance on contraception, and when contraception fails, abortion as the last resort. Sex for pleasure typically includes the use of contraception, since the birth of new life is an obvious impediment to pleasure when there is no long-term commitment or authentic interpersonal union. However, obstructing the natural function of a person’s sexual powers inevitably involves not choosing other basic human goods such as life-in-transmission (or procreation). It is an illusion to think that we can rebuild and sustain a culture of life without overcoming the blight of sexual license.
Pope John Paul II understood quite well how misguided it is to polarize sins of the flesh with sins of the spirit as Pope Francis has done in this interview. Sexual sins are the result of sensual egoism and transient lust that seek instant gratification. These acts result in the objectification of the person who is used solely as a means for pleasure. Those who regard sins below the belt as generally innocuous fail to consider the depersonalizing character of casual sex. The use of another for mere pleasure or self-gratification is inconsistent with that person’s innate dignity and inevitably leads to emotional and spiritual harm. Use of the other for pleasure, even if consensual, is the exact opposite of love which always affirms the other for his or her own sake.
In addition, sexual relations that are not the sign and means of permanent spousal love but simply the pursuit of self-gratification have implications for achieving romantic intimacy and conjugal communion. By yielding to concupiscence a man does not relate to a woman as a spouse or even as a person but merely as an attractive body. And if a man regards a woman’s body as truncated from her personal reality, she, too, will come to think of her body in the same way. Yet the body is an integral part of the person and thus it cannot be separated from the totality of the person without causing grave damage. According to Saint John Paul II, “lust … brings with it an almost constitutive difficulty of identification with one’s own body” (Theology of the Body 248). As a result, the gift of one’s whole bodily self to the other, the essence of marital communion, becomes quite difficult, because the person has a disintegrated view of the self that does not include the body. Promiscuity, therefore, violates the intrinsic good of marriage because it impairs the person’s capacity for spousal self-donation.
Finally, Pope Francis’s claim that sexual deviance is not the Gospel’s most radical message is true to some extent. We do not find in the Gospels ample material on conjugal morality. Nonetheless, the passages that address the themes of marriage and the vice of lust are quite striking, concise, and clear. They cannot easily be ignored by sincere hearers of the Word. Just as Jesus shocked his Jewish listeners by proclaiming the indissolubility of marriage (Mk. 10:1-12), he also must have awakened their moral sensibilities when he redefined the meaning of adultery in the Sermon on the Mount: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:28). According to Pope John Paul II, Jesus’s compelling message conveys that the “concupiscent look,” a purely lustful desire for another, is disordered even when a husband looks lustfully at his wife as an instrument of pleasure. Adultery in the heart reduces the other to a sexual object and threatens his or her dignity. Thus, Jesus himself does not lightly regard sins below the belt, since he condemns not only adultery and sex outside marriage but even these lustful desires that corrupt a person’s reason and will. His radical admonition in the Sermon on the Mount is a call to master concupiscence, and this call springs forth from “an affirmation of the personal dignity of the body and sex” (Theology of the Body, 309).
The pope’s casual observations in this interview reveal a mentality on sexual deviance discordant with the Catholic tradition that has always underscored the vital significance of chastity and the gravity of sexual misconduct. This dispiriting discourse with Mr. Wolton does not reflect the wisdom or resoluteness necessary to defend marriage, which is under such savage attack in our current ambient culture. In my book on Pope John Paul II’s theology of marriage, I begin with a reflection on Sister Lucia’s (one of the three children who witnessed the Fatima apparitions) prophetic comments made to the late Cardinal Caffara: “The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid, because anyone who operates for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be contended and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue.”
Marriage and family is the decisive issue for the Church, but the more its leaders marginalize sexual morality and the central importance of chastity, the greater the risk of forfeiting this battle. Many Church leaders are quite content to neutralize Jesus’s powerful but difficult teaching on sexuality and reduce his overall message to “social justice” issues. Chastity, which is the habit of viewing the other as a person who is never to be an object of use, liberates love so that it can evolve into the permanent spousal love of marriage. To assume that illicit sexual practices have little to do with this epic battle over marriage is to live in a house of delusion. Unless the pope and rest of the Catholic hierarchy begin to take chastity and conjugal morality more seriously, these would-be guardians of marriage will become its subtle destroyers.
Editor’s note: The above photo of Pope Francis was taken on the opening day of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican Synod Hall on Oct. 3, 2018. (Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez /CNA)