The sin we do not speak of at Mass

The sin we do not speak of at Mass

As I was listening to the second reading at Mass today, something was nagging at me. It just didn’t sound right.

Brothers and sisters:
The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord,
and the Lord is for the body;
God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?
But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.
Avoid immorality.
Every other sin a person commits is outside the body,
but the immoral person sins against his own body.
Do you not know that your body
is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
For you have been purchased at a price.
Therefore glorify God in your body.

Wait a minute, isn’t all sin immorality? How can we say that immorality is a sin of the body? There is immorality that isn’t physical, like things we say or fail to do. Something wasn’t right here.

Then Melanie, who was thinking the same thing, pointed to the Spanish version of the reading. (Our parish has bilingual missalettes.) Now, I don’t read or speak Spanish, but when it uses “fornicar” for the English lectionary’s “immorality” I think I can figure out what the word is supposed to be. When I got home, I picked up my Greek New Testament and sure enough the word is “porneia,” which according to Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament means “fornication, prostitution, unchastity, or every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.”

The keepers and guardians of the New American Bible must have decided that “fornication” is too coarse a word for our tender ears or that it might be too judgmental of those who are, you know, fornicating.

Instead we get some kind of mush that tells people nothing really, and that could even mislead them. “Huh, only things we do with our bodies are immoral. Great! Now I can lie and hate and all kinds of other things.”

Some people say that the Church has a hang up about sex. What about those who have a hard time letting God’s Word talk about it unfiltered?

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  • The NAB is full of cutesy euphemisms, esp. in this passage.  They (the NAB) have verse 18 as “Avoid immorality.”  The Douay-Rheims and others have it as “flee (from) immorality.”

    They take us for idiots.

  • This is a great post and I agree one hundred per cent.  Since I appear hear usually as a critic, I just want to sound the cheerleader’s note since I feel like cheering!

  • Very odd.  The translation doesn’t mince words a few lines earlier:

    Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites
    1 Cor. 6:9,10

    Incidentally, the word for “boy prostitutes,” malakoi, has traditionally been translated as “the effeminate.”

  • Today the lector stumbled over the word and said “Avoid imortality”! She quickly corrected herself but the whole point to the reading sort of dwindled……

  • Perhaps the problem is less with the translation in the NAB and more with the lectionary and the pericope it offered us in today’s second lesson. As Kevin J Jones points out, the preceding verses in 1 Corinthians are very articulate in naming sexual (and nonsexual) sins.  We didn’t hear all of those at Mass this weekend, but we can’t really hold the NAB responsible for the verses Rome decided we would/wouldn’t hear.

  • Dom,

    This is one of those instances where many English bible translators will slip up and confuse what Paul is saying.  The Greek word used in this passage is porneia (transliterated from the Greek).  Porneia of course has several different usages.  It can mean fornication, but in this passage it refers to SEXUAL immorality.  One must remember the continuing context of Paul’s admonition to shun sexual immorality.  He has just finished chastising the Corinthian community for tolerating incest – in chapter 5.  This chastisement in chapter five should help us understand more closely that Paul is concerned with sexual immorality in chapter 6 when he brings up the subject of porneia.  1 Cor 6:1-11 is Paul’s reference to the righteousness necessary for the Christian community in Corinthian.  As Raymond Collin states, “An important part of Paul’s message in 5:1-6:11 is that the Christian community itself should be responsible and self-policing with regard to the various forms of evil in their midst.  It is not only the individual who has a responsibility in this regard; the community also has its responsibilities” (p. 113 in Sexual Ethics and the New Testament).  The Christian must shun sexual immorality so that one may become closer to the Lord since our bodies are destined for the Lord.  It is in our bodies where the Holy Spirit dwells.

  • I thought that reading didn’t quite make sense last night at Mass, but until reading your post, I didn’t realize just why it didn’t make sense.  I went and looked up that reading in my two Bibles – one a youth version of The Living Bible originally published in 1971 and The New American Bible, the New Testament of which is copyright 1986.  My youth Bible mentions “prostitute” twice and “sex” (or “sexual”) twice.  The other Bible does have the two mentions of “prostitute”, but “sex sin” becomes “immorality”.  Also, the entire passage is much longer in my youth Bible – looks like a lot got lost in the translation done in 1986.  Although in the newer Bible, the entire passage has the heading “Sexual Immorality”.  In the Mass reading, with the specific verses mentioning “prostitute” left out and “immorality” substituted for “sex sin”, how is anyone supposed to know what the reading is truly talking about?

  • The priest at my church made a very good point.  He said that the average person thinks of the whole reading as being about avoiding (sexual) immorality, but that the meaning is much deeper.  He emphasized that we BELONG to Christ, that we are NOT our own, and that everything we do or refrain from doing is for that reason.  He emphasized it enough to make everyone really face that fact:  we don’t get to call the shots—Whose life is it, anyway?  Well, it’s not mine, it’s His!  grin

  • Some things to take into account:

    The RSV also translates the Greek ‘porneia’ in this passage as just ‘immorality’. So any criticism of the NAB’s translation here would also apply to the RSV—which I would hesitate to do, given how often it has been used by the Vatican. (And this specific passage has been used in Vatican documents.)

    When defining the English word ‘immorality’ the Oxford English Dictionary says “(Now often used specifically of sexual impurity.)” and backs that up by providing references. It may be more common nowadays to think of immorality as very generally referring to any kind of immoral action, but the English meaning is not confined to that.

    The Greek word ‘porneia’ is sometimes used (e.g. in Revelations) to refer to more than just sexual immorality. Referring to the larger BDAG Greek lexicon would show this.

    So (similar to what janet says), I think that rather than reading these passages and merely ending up with a criticism of translators, it would be more profitable to ponder deeper into what Scripture actually intends by this passage, and other related passages.

  • Following up to what Kevin J and Aplman noted, I’ve found it very advantageous to prepare for Mass, particularly Sunday Mass, by reflecting not just on the Lectionary readings, but on the entire chapter from which the reading comes from. It doesn’t take long. The notion that hearing a snippet from the Bible (particularly since the Lectionary we use doesn’t always conform to the Bible, regardless of translation) for the first time on a Sunday is sufficient seems a little unrealistic.

    Another point regarding the Spanish versions: the Lectionary isn’t the only instance where the Latino population has a spiritual edge, so to speak (in my opinion). At the very beginning of the Mass, for example, we respond to “The Lord be with you” with the rather awkward “and also with you.” No so en Espanol! The response is: “and with your spirit.” And that Confiteor the Archbishop led at Colleen’s parish? (I’ve prayed for Father Mooney’s soul, Colleen, and look forward to continuing to do so.) Had he prayed it with a Spanish congregation, the words would have been far closer to the Latin version.

  • Amen to Kelly Clark’s comment.

    I remember when I lived in Boston using a Spanish/English missal and noticing the triple mea culpas and other things, including capitalization of words in reference to the Trinity or the Father that weren’t there in the English.

    It helped me become more of a Catholic liturgy snob.

    Another example: spiritual drink is bebida de salvacion in spanish missal. That’s Drink of Salvation, no? A bit different, methinks.

  • Observer,

    It’s not the “avoid” rather “flee from” that’s the problem. It’s the use of the vague word “immorality” rather than the specific sin Paul is naming.


    There wouldn’t be a problem with the pericope chosen (since Rome works from the Latin when making the Lectionary and I bet it has the right word there), but that the NAB uses a vague word when it could have continued to use the correct and specific word.


    I actually did say that the Greek word used is “porneia” and the Bauer Lexicon gives fornication, unchastity, and unlawful sexual intercourse as the primary meaning and assigns that meaning to this verse.

    If the translators had actually included the modifier “sexual” in front of the word “immorality” then the ambiguity would not have existed.


    It’s a bit off the point, but I have heard it said that when the Archbishop preaches and celebrates Mass he is wonderful, but when he’s talking before a group or even one-on-one he’s completely different. It sounds like his real gifts lie with preaching and the sacraments and that he’s wasted on “management.”


    Your priest may be right in a particular light, but the Church has always taught that we must start with the literal meaning of Scripture before we go beyond to the higher meanings. How can we make sense of “immorality is of the body” unless we understand that Paul is talking about sexual sin? Sure, after we understand what Paul (and the Holy Spirit) first intended then we apply deeper meanings.


    Just because other English versions translate “porneia” the same way doesn’t make them right. The RSV doesn’t have any special place at the Vatican. Remember that the normative Scripture text for all Vatican documents is not any English version, but the Latin Vulgate.

    Also, “porneia” is translated differently elsewhere. In Matthew 19:9, where Jesus admonishes the Pharisees that you may not divorce, the exception is given as “porneia.” The RSV renders it “except for unchastity.” The awful NAB renders it parenthetically “(unless the marriage is unlawful)”. That isn’t even close to what the text actually says.

    That’s not a translation, that’s imposing a meaning on it.

    The fact that an older usage of “immorality” had an understood meaning of “sexual impurity” and that it is no longer used that way, is an excellent reason for the NAB—which is a new translation after all—to specify.

    As Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s document on Scripture, makes clear—as I mentioned to Janet—we must always start with the literal sense of the Scripture, i.e. what the author intended to say, as the basis for any further interpretations: typological, analogical, anagogical, and so on.

  • The Neo-Vulgate has fornicatio.

    The English Standard Version, an update of the RSV, has sexual immorality.

    BTW, the ESV is an excellect Protestant translation. Wherever it differs significantly from the RSV, it moves in the direction of the Neo-Vulgate. In fact, of all the modern translations, this one seems closest to the official Latin text. It’s a mystery why this update of the RSV has been largely ignored in Catholic circles.

    The comment about the Spanish liturgical texts is right on. I don’t know which translation is used in the Spanish mass. The Spanish version of the Jerusalem Bible is very literal and employs an elevated and refined style.

  • And no one else besides Kelly and Dom have mentioned the importance for the Catholic of being a polyglot. Or at least a biglot.

    You will find such concepts as Dom mentioned going back and forth. The english is able to communicate the concept of evil better than the Spanish and Portuguese, but political correctness does not exist in the latter two languages at all. Hence why the Spanish and Portuguese would use a term that more directly defines the sin, where the english plays a more cute perspective.

  • Here in Canada they use the NRSV for the Lectionary. We got “fornication”. I was surprised, having been getting used to the gender-neutral language etc. over the last 1 1/2 yrs. But it was right there.

    I vote for the RSV. It has a few faults but by and large is a good rendering, while keeping many of the phrasal flourishes that we (yes, even us Catholics) expect from the King James (and the Douai, which was not dissimilar, except for being doctrinally sound).

  • Or maybe we can be monoglots in our common language of Latin. Yeah, that won’t help with the readings which we need to hear in a language we understand. Still, if we were a better educated people (there was a time when Latin was a required course) we could benefit from the precision of the Latin.

  • “The Greek word ‘porneia’ is sometimes used (e.g. in Revelations) to refer to more than just sexual immorality. Referring to the larger BDAG Greek lexicon would show this.”


    I don’t think your point here changes much.  My BDAG, 2nd English edition, indicates the use of “porneia” in Revelations is analogical, comparing infidelity to God with sexual infidelity.

  • Colleen wrote:  “Bishop O’Malley came to our parish and said the funeral Mass of our retired priest… Nothing omitted, heard even the Confetior for the first time in years…”

    Perhaps the Archbishop omitted nothing, but he did add something:  the Confiteor.  The Roman rite directs that at a funeral Mass the usual introductory rites are omitted, including the penitential rite. 

    Domenico wrote: ” There wouldn’t be a problem with the pericope chosen (since Rome works from the Latin when making the Lectionary…), but that the NAB uses a vague word when it could have continued to use the correct and specific word.”

    If you’re suggesting that the NAB use the Vulgate as the base for preparing the English text, that puts us even one more language/translation away from the original texts which is a hindrance, not a help in being faithful to the “literal meaning of the Scripture.”  Had the periocope for today’s second lesson included the preceding verses, it would have been clear to all what “immorality” referred to.

  • Domenico—the citation about the word “flee” was meant to augment, rather than supplant, your observation about porneia.  The NAB is rife with similar examples in which translations intentionally downplay the seriousness of the message.

  • I had to explain it to my 13 year old daughter.  I stated that it had to do – specifically – with those sins that are committed when people ACT like they are married, if you know what I mean.  I said “You know, like the birds and the bees, as your mother explained it to you?  When people live together? Where babies come from, etc. etc.?”

    She said “Well, you and mom did it”.  (True)  And I replied, “Yes, we did, and it was an offense against God, and if I’d died before marrying and going to confession, I’d have gone to hell”

    She then understood what I meant.  Then she considered it and said “Well, people could live together and NOT do that, right?”.  I said, well, yea, I suppose you could, but then you’d give the appearance of sin.

    No mention was made of it in the homily, though.  I’ll give my priest a little credit, though.  He referred to the first reading and Old Testament times and the blood sacrifice and how there is no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood.  How we’re not there for “community”, although that occurs on the peripheral, but that the focus and purpose is for the blood of the lamb.  He avoids some of the “sins of the day”, like sexual sins and abortion, but does veer into Catholic teaching once in a while.  More than they do in some other parishes, I’m sure.

  • I had a slightly different problem with the reading.  I understand the text to refer to sexual sins, but don’t really understand how they are sins against the body while lieing, for instance, is not a sin against the body, considering it is done with a part of the body.  The same would apply to theft, and disobedience of parents, and neglecting the Sundy obligation.  In fact, whatever sin we commit we commit with the body.  What is the dividing line that makes sexual sins a category apart?

    And a slightly off-topic question, but not really since you’re talking about translations, why were two books—specifically 3 and 4 Kings included in the Douay Rheims—left out of the NAB?

  • Carrie: you’ll also notice that NAB includes the titles 1 and 2 Samuel but Douay Rheims does not.  Nothing was left out of the NAB, just a change in titles.

  • The homily I heard yesterday was focused on the fact that each of us, if we listen, will hear the Lord’s call.  We each have a mission in our earthly life.

  • Regards preaching on the weekend’s text:  it’s helpful to remember that in Ordinary Time the first lesson is chosen to be thematically consonant with the gospel while the second lesson is a relatively continuous reading from the various letters, not necessarily consonant with the other two texts. Many preachers tend to focus on the first reading and the gospel, weaving in the second lesson if possible.  Of course, a preacher could also decide to preach on only one of the texts (1st, 2nd or 3rd). Further, a priest or deacon may choose to preach on one of the ritual texts from the liturgy itself.  That a preacher didn’t address the second lesson this past weekend isn’t necessarily an indication of his wanting to avoid it.  He may have simply wanted to “break open” the larger portion of the day’s Word.

  • That a preacher didn’t address the second lesson this past weekend isn’t necessarily an indication of his wanting to avoid it.

    Of course it isn’t. As Aplman said, the First and Gospel readings (along with the responsorial Psalm) is basically the theme of the Liturgy of the Word.

    That said, the second Lesson is well worth hearing, of course. And should be heard!

    This is why, among other things, I pretty much cry when my parish’s altar servers disappear during the second reading in order to get the candles ready for the Gospel reading.

    I’ve often said that candle servers at Sunday Mass should attend it twice…once as servers and once as true participants.

    Needless to say, my opinions aren’t always received. wink

  • Kelly wrote: ” This is why, among other things, I pretty much cry when my parish’s altar servers disappear during the second reading in order to get the candles ready for the Gospel reading.”

    Couldn’t agree more regarding liturgies in your parish, Kelly.  Not only do the servers miss something important, but their departure is a distraction for the rest of the people, too.  Worse yet is the constant coming and going of M.C.‘s at celebrations like the Chrism Mass and ordinations.

  • Charles W:

    BTW, the ESV is an excellect Protestant translation. Wherever it differs significantly from the RSV, it moves in the direction of the Neo-Vulgate. In fact, of all the modern translations, this one seems closest to the official Latin text. It’s a mystery why this update of the RSV has been largely ignored in Catholic circles.

    The ESV is a decent translation (from my brief scans of it), but the main problem from a Catholic perspective is that it’s seven books light (the deuterocanon) and lacks the additions to Daniel and Esther.  Moreover, the translation team appears to have decided that there will be no translation of the “Apocrypha.” 

    Another reason it has found it hard to gain traction is that it has appeared at a time when there is a glut of new translations on the market, and there is no promotional weight behind it, unlike the NIV.

  • This passage puts me in the convenient position of knowing exactly what is being referred to, while preventing my little boy or girl from asking what fornicating is before they’re ready to hear it.