The sin we cannot speak about in Mass

The sin we cannot speak about in Mass

The gatekeepers of liturgical language are so concerned that the average Joe in the pew can’t understand the word “ineffable”, yet we’ve already dumbed down the language into insensibility. Witness today’s second reading, 2 Corinthians 6:18:

Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body.

Read at face value, this translation, the New American Bible, seems to say that there are some sins that are immoral and some that are not and that sins committed “outside the body” are not immoral. That makes no sense. But that’s because of the poor translation. The Greek word translated as “immorality” is “porneia”. Look familiar? Look like any English words we know?


This word also appears in several other places in the New Testament. In Matthew 5:32, where Jesus forbids divorce, he says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity (“porneia”), makes her an adulteress.” It has also been variously translated as fornication or to more specifically refer to homosexuality or bestiality or another sexual perversion. So Paul could be translated as saying, “Avoid sexual perversion. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexual pervert sins against his own body.” While that may be too blunt for a Mass where children are present, it has the benefit of clarity.

Perhaps we could tone it down a bit to “sexual immorality” or even “unchastity.” Oh, but will Joe Six-Pack in the pew be able to understand a subtle word like “unchastity”?

Instead we offer translations of Scripture that obscure meaning rather than convey it because we’re afraid of shocking people with straight talk about sin. Is it any wonder that collectively we’ve lost a sense of sin? Is it any wonder people have abandoned the sacrament of confession?

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  • Not only is this word translated poorly, but a verse and a half is ommitted from the middle of the passage. “Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them the members of a prostitute? Of course not! (Or) do you not know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For “the two,” it says, “will become one flesh.”
    They omit the most forceful part of the passage!

  • Yes, this translation is unhelpful. But, Dom, it’s a big stretch to jump from such euphemisms and examples of poor translations to say that these folks set out to dumb down the faith and harm the sacramental life of Penance.

    The revised New Testament of The New American Bible was created by a faith-filled roster of scholars (they may have made mistakes, and wrong word choices, but never expicitly or implicitly to hurt confessions and conscience formation). These scholars, hired by our bishops, presented every chapter to the bishops for approval. As you know, these men are not all corrupt and out to kill confession.

    Before this revised New Testament became incorporated in the revised (1998) edition of the Sunday Lectionary, the selections for Sundays were reviewed and approved / confirmed by the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Go see the 1997 decree at the front of every Sunday Lectionary.

    That office is neither underfunded nor so lazy as not to look at the passages nor so vile as to be plotting the end of confessions.
    In terms of omitting certain verses (comment above), that is a different matter. That did not come from a USA translation checked out by the Holy See. Rather, the verses were omitted (without comment or published rationale) by the Holy See when it first issued (late 1960’s) the current Latin Lectionary at the basis for all vernacular lectionaries.

    Dom, I believe it is unfair to postulate that then or now the Holy See is gunning down sacamental confession.

    It is fair to note unhappy vocabulary and inadequate translations. There has never been a translation that gets every word and every sentence and every concept translated just the way you or I would like to hear it. When one knows Hebrew and Greek, the dissatisfaction spreads. Of course, the same knoweledge of the original languages and of the inherent difficulty (which you must admit) in translating millions of items to an ever-evolving language should make one resist impugning motives.

  • Talk about leaping to conclusions. You’ve taken what I said and extrapolated far beyond the plain meaning of what I’ve said. They don’t have to intend to destroy confession for it to be the result.

    It doesn’t take a scholar or an expert translator to figure out that the use of this word in this verse obscures meaning rather than illuminates.

    Nor is it beyond reason to realize that politics and ideology and plain human nature play a large role in translation, especially where the Lectionary is concerned. One only has to open his eyes to see and ears to hear the disasters we’ve endured over the 45 years.

    This isn’t difficult translation, especially if I can do it.

  • Dom
    We agree the translation of that passage is unfortunate. And, of course, it is hard to disagree with your further point that ideology, politics, and human nature play a role in all translation work. 

    I’m sorry if my comment extrapolated to incorrect conclusions. You wrote that “we offer translations that obscure meaning because we’re afraid of shocking people with straight talk about sin.”

    So let’s look at that—who was / is afraid of shocking people with straight talk about sin? The translators? The US bishops’ conference that reviews and approves? The Vatican department that reviews and confirms? Since they do not rubber stamp, logic would seem to say that, if there is fear of straight talk about sin, then it is at all levels there. And that’s a more depressing view of the Catholic Church than I would hold.

    The beast of ideology lurking in the Word is not just a product of the NAB and USA lectionary process. Errors are made at every layer of the process to check each others’ ideologies and politics and human nature. And one sees it in every translation of the bible I have picked up since high school…a very long time ago.

    Another reason for citing the layered-process is that barking at wierd or misleading verse translations that “they” gave us gets us nowhere (except to undercut our trust in what we will hear at liturgy). What shall we do? Reject “them”? Make sure that all bible readers know Hebrew and Greek (and that they avoid foisting their own ideology)?

    Bemoaning a given verse, fine. I’ll bet my list is longer than yours.

    But what to do about it? Let every USA priest choose his own translation rather than the revised NAB? Cut the USA bishops or the Vatican out of the vetting process? Commission a new translation (for optional or mandatory lectionary usage) with translators selected by… me? the bishops? the Vatican?

    We cannot reverse this overnight, Dom.

    In the meantime, we need to

    (a) continue using scripture and having some trust that we can find faith though it;

    (b) engage our ecclesial leaders in considering better translation methods (vetting and cross-checking at ever higher levels of magisterium) and maybe even some other approaches to the way translations are mandated in national lectionaries.

  • Here’s the Douay-Rheims translation of the passage from First Corinthians chapter six:

    18 Fly fornication. Every sin that a man doth, is without the body; but he that committeth fornication, sinneth against his own body. 19 Or know you not, that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God; and you are not your own? 20 For you are bought with a great price. Glorify and bear God in your body.

    The St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the official bible of the Catholic Church till recently, gives this:

    18 fugite fornicationem omne peccatum quodcumque fecerit homo extra corpus est qui autem fornicatur in corpus suum peccat 19 an nescitis quoniam membra vestra templum est Spiritus Sancti qui in vobis est quem habetis a Deo et non estis vestri 20 empti enim estis pretio magno glorificate et portate Deum in corpore vestro

    Taking the passage in context with the following text, Paul’s intended meaning becomes clear.

  • My husband and I kept trying not to laugh during the reading this morning, because the lector, a darling old man whose first language is not English kept reading “immorality” as “immortality….”

  • Tom, it is clear that a certain ideology is perpetrated in the NAB, observable from the simple fact that it relies heavily on inclusive language, so as not to offend the feminine(-ist) sensibilities.  We are all genderless children now. This mode of thinking permeates the text in subtle ways, not only in reference to gender.

    Every translation comes with some kind of thinking or idology behind it. The D-R translation mentioned above was intended to be accurate.  The NAB seems intended to not offend anyone.  Rome’s approval of the translation does not ensure that it is the best translation available, either technically or spiritually.

    It is interesting to note that the Catechism & the Holy Father’s own writings in English use the RSV. 

    I agree completely with the author of the article. I quit using NAB for personal study & in religious ed classes in favor of the RSV & the D-R.

  • I too found this translation odd.  But I just looked up the verse in the Revised Standard Version sold by Ignatius Press, and this translation also renders the word as “immorality”.  I don’t think the Bishops were in charge of this translation, so we can’t blame them for it.

    One interesting note – when they use the term “immorality” there is an asterick next to the word, and the corresponding note says “Two Greek words are rendered by this expression.”  Don’t know what that means.

  • Another bogus NAB/Lectionary softening of the Word.  Fortunately, the Church bureaucrats (no offense to present company intended) haven’t gotten around to censoring parish priests’ homilies quite yet, so the erroneous translation and missing verse-and-a-half was at least known to my parishioners.

  • Margaret says:

    My husband and I kept trying not to laugh during the reading this morning, because the lector, a darling old man whose first language is not English kept reading “immorality” as “immortality….“

    Unfortunately, I would estimate that out of every time I have heard this reading, 8 out of 10 times the lector would make the exact same mistake.  In fact, the lector for the last Passionist televised Mass also said immortality instead of immorality!

    Outside of this being a very sad commentary upon our nation’s educational systems, it makes me conclude that a very high number of lectors blindly read without comprehension – what else could explain the high number of lectors who “proclaim” that which is against our own Creed?

    If I were a moderator of a lector training class or program, I would use this exact reading as a test to see if a potential lector could effectively minister.

  • Gemma Rose—

    I doubt it’s a matter of incomprehension by the lectors, so much as being on a roll and coming out with the more common word. Our lector got every “immoral” right, so clearly he knew what he meant to say.

    It’s also very early on a Sunday for reading or singing, and some of us aren’t as awake as we might be. (Especially those who do a total fast all morning till after Mass, and don’t get any coffee.)

  • I once heard a lector read the word in this passage as “immorTality”.  And nobody seemed to mind. Mmmm.

  • This is a real problem in our parishes.  In my first assignment as a priest, I was publicly castigated by my pastor (and serveral of the leading members of the parish) for using the word “sex” several times in a homily on Matthew 22:23-33.  The reason given was that there were young children present, and parents didn’t want to have to answer questions on what it was all about.  I don’t fault anyone for their misplaced sensitivities; it’s endemic to our hypocritical culture.  That said, I’m afraid it’s largely an unsolved problem, as you have indicated.