Are Sexual Sins the Least Bad?

November 22, 2013 | 9 comments

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis (along with John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley). Faithul Christians of all stripes recognize Lewis as a modern giant of apologetics: a standard by which other attempts at simple, lucid, and charitable explication of Christianity-contra-modernity can be judged. Millions more know him as the author of popular fantasy and sci-fi novels. (And an unlucky few have only seen him woo Debra Winger in the sentimental Shadowlands.)

Catholics, true, tend to have mixed or divided opinions about Lewis. Some speak of him in the same breath that they do Chesterton; others dismiss him (as a Traditionalist seminarian did to me once during a conversation in a Catholic bookstore) as a Protestant fundamentalist. In between these extremes there’s room for Catholic admiration of Lewis, as well as criticism: of some of his pop-theological notions, of his attempted marriage with divorcée Joy Davidman, and of his apparent inability to shake anti-Catholic habits from his Ulster upbringing (which would contribute to the cooling of his famous friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien).

Another area that deserves to have a critical light shined on it is Lewis’s take on sexual sin. In Mere Christianity he asserts:

[T]hough I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who regularly goes to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.

At first blush, Lewis’s words may seem consonant with Pope Francis’s recent warnings against reducing the gospel to a small set of controversial moral teachings. To the degree that they are, of course, there’s much truth to them. Sex is not the center of Christian morality. If in our age it sometimes seems to be, it’s because our age made sex its central obsession first.

But this “least bad” business, this division of the “Animal” and “Diabolical” self, smacks to me faintly of Gnosticism—of an insufficient appreciation of the spiritual dimension of sex. Elsewhere in Lewis’s writings he does affirm the goodness of sex and of the body, but here, in what may be the best-known part of his best-known book, he seems to stop short of the full truth.

Now, it’s true that, subjectively speaking, sexual sins may in some instances be less grave than others. The Catechism, for instance, affirms that due to personal factors, moral culpability for the grave evil of masturbation may be lessened or even “reduc[ed] to a minimum” (CCC 2352). Temptations, habits, personal circumstances could likewise, it stands to reason, lessen culpability for other kinds of sexual sins, despite their serious objects.

But that’s not Lewis’s argument. He’s asserting that sexual sin, by its nature, is less bad, because it is purely “animal.”

And yet, if sexual sin is purely animal, then sex itself must be. If sexual sin is the least bad of evils, then sex is the least good of goods.

This is not the Catholic understanding.

A fully Catholic understanding of sex places it high among earthly goods. Sex is the core of conjugal union, which is so important that Christ made it a sacrament: a fleshly sign of his love for the Church. In creating life out of love, sex imitates the creative love of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it does not just imitate but cooperates with God’s creative power; God blesses, ratifies, and elevates the “animal” act by causing a new spiritual, eternal soul to come into being by it.

Given the high regard that God himself accords sex, how can offenses against it be the “least bad” of sins?

One is tempted to play armchair psychoanalyst and say that Lewis—starched Cambridge don and nearly lifelong bachelor, who in his few writings about sex sometimes apologizes for even bringing it up—simply lacked a personal frame of reference for giving sex its full due. Whatever the reason, though, I think it’s manifest that this oft-quoted passage from Mere Christianity is at best a half-truth. It’s important to put Christian sexual teaching in right context, but not at the expense of the power, sacredness, and inviolability with which God chose to endow the marital act.

Catholic Answers affirms the critical importance of sexual morality, and recognizes the personal and cultural chaos that has resulted from its abandonment. Accordingly, chastity education will always be an integral part of our mission of apologetics and evangelization. Look for a freshly revamped Chastity.com website, coming soon to a computer screen near you, as one sign of that commitment.


Todd Aglialoro is the editor for Catholic Answers Press. He studied theology at Franciscan University, the University of Fribourg, and the International Theological Institute. A New York native and New England convert, Todd now lives in the San Diego area with his wife, seven children, and zero dogs.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Travis Rogers - Howard, Pennsylvania

In fairness to Lewis, he did later state in Mere Christianity among his examples of diabolical sin that a woman enticing men may be doing it for reasons much darker than animalistic desire, and that it is rooted in diabolical pride in addition to just passion. So there is an idea in his work of some sexual sins being much graver than others.

November 22, 2013 at 1:55 pm PST
#2  Lori Pieper - Bronx, New York

Todd,

I'm afraid you are doing Lewis a real injustice in believing his views to be Gnostic or disdainful of the goodness of sexuality. In order to understand Lewis properly, you have to recall that he was a medievalist, and that he was no doubt using the scheme of the greatest of medieval Catholic authors -- Dante, in his Inferno; Dante's views, in turn were taken from Artistotle's Nichomachean Ethics. In short, the division of sin - considered from the point of view of nature - is into those who did not control or retrain their natural appetites (Lust, Gluttony, Greed), sins that are the least bad, followed by the Violent against God or nature, neighbor and self, including, wrath, murder, thievery, suicide, and interestingly, homosexuality - because of the violence it does against nature, which makes it a much graver sin than simple heterosexual unchastity. The worst sins were those of fraud and treachery, worst of all is the betrayal against a lord and benefactor - which is why Lucifer's turning against God is forever punished at the very bottom of the last circle of hell.

Nothing in Dante's scheme disdains in any way the goodness of sexuality as part of nature. Because it is based on pagan natural ethics, of course, it doesn't leave much room for other considerations of Catholic teaching, such as God's profound purpose for human sexuality. But Dante used it as he did for a reason - these minimum ethics are those that no one has any excuse for not knowing, and no one is excused from hell for going against these clear laws.

Lewis probably used this idea for the same reason, because it would appear reasonable to the unchurched in his day. Elsewhere, in refining his treatment and discussing marriage and adultery, or seduction and impregnating a woman outside of marriage, he would go into the treachery and other deeper sins involved. In the Four Loves, he also discussed a little of the mystery of marriage as St. Paul has it. I hope he won't be blamed for not reading JPII's Theology of the Body before it was written! At any rate, don't look for the whole of Lewis' beliefs in his greatly simplified popular treatment. And certainly don't look for Gnosticism there.

November 22, 2013 at 3:48 pm PST
#3  Lori Pieper - Bronx, New York

Addendum: I will say that Lewis' understanding of the deeper aspect of married love probably did improve after his own marriage, which is why The Four Loves is perhaps his best treatment of the subject.

November 22, 2013 at 3:52 pm PST
#4  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Lori. Even as I wrote I had reservations about even using the term "Gnosticism." Lewis was no Gnostic. But that passage veered near the borders.

Your reference to Dante was instructive. And I grant Lewis's development of understanding on the question. But that doesn't stop many of readers from fixating upon his words in Mere Christianity -- and coming away with a deficient understanding of sex and sexual sin.

November 22, 2013 at 6:28 pm PST
#5  Lori Pieper - Bronx, New York

Todd,

Thanks for the amount of agreement you did give me. I will agree that it is a bit problematic that even Dante's scheme was at bottom not explicitly Christian, so Lewis couldn't say that it 100% represented the Christian view of sex. But I still don't think Lewis was anywhere near Gnosticism, though his statement implying that the "animal self" is not something we should fall to, might be thought to tend that way. However, from acquaintance with his thought, I would say that his real meaning was that we can't remain merely at the animal level (though animal nature is good in itself) because we are human, and also have a higher nature we must act in accordance with. He means that the animal nature is "lower" in the hierarchy of being, not that it is "worse" in the way a Gnostic would think. Lewis very often stressed the goodness of our bodies and our bodily nature in his writings, and I always got the impression he was trying to head off Gnosticism at every turn. You are right though, that he treatment of sexuality in this spot was far from complete, but then he had one specific point to make here, and it wasn't meant to be complete.

November 22, 2013 at 8:38 pm PST
#6  Lori Pieper - Bronx, New York

Perhaps it might be worthwhile to explain more fully: following Aristotle, and of course, Thomas Aquinas and other medieval philosophers, Lewis was accustomed to seeing the human beings in this way: everything that lives has a soul or principle of life. Plants have plant souls, animals have animal souls; the human soul differs from that of other animals by being rational, and having free will, that, among other things, is what our image and likeness to God consists of.

For a medieval person, then, we are an animal "taken up" into a higher rational being. Lewis very frequently used this language. If we remain on the animal level, ignoring our intellect and free will, then we have committed a wrong by being at variance with our full nature. The animal nature by itself is good, where Gnostics would see the very creation of an animal nature as "bad."

Our "diabolical self" is not something we possess by nature; it consists of our spiritual soul (even above the rational part) being affected by sin. Our soul isn't bad by nature; but by our will it can be made subject to evil, and primarily (in Lewis' view) evils of a spiritual nature, such a pride, envy, and hatred. He said in one of his letters that it isn't the body that leads us into sins of a bodily nature so much as our imagination -- which is in our soul or intellect. Of course, our animal nature too can be subject to sin, and in some sense controlled by it as well.

Lewis, bless him, sometimes forgot the everyone hadn't studied as much as he had, and that most people reading this wouldn't have understood his whole meaning. So it is true that people might be led astray by this passage.

November 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm PST
#7  Miklos Szerdahelyi - Budapest, Nyiregyhaza

Todd, I am a bit said that this is all Catholic Answers could come up with for Lewis' 50th death anniversary. I think celebrating him would have been more appropriate. (I am glad that Patrick did that in the Show).

I don’t think people tend to misunderstand Lewis where you do. I didn't, the book helped me in chastity, my friends didn't, they say the perspective that Lewis gives is liberating and the fact that they don’t regard sexual sin as the center of morality anymore strangely helps them against temptation.

I like that you compare Lewis’ words to what the Pope said, but to my mind this comparison proves something that is contrary to what you are saying. The fact is that the Pope can be misunderstood, and believe me he is, big time.

So can Lewis be misunderstood (just like we all can)? Sure, but I don’t think this is Lewis’ fault. There will always be people who will want to misunderstand Lewis, or the Pope, or Catholic teaching or anything that they find uncomfortable.

November 28, 2013 at 1:34 am PST
#8  John Servorum - Chicago, Illinois

Mr. Aglialoro,
To add to your comments on C.S. Lewis' relatively lighter view of the weight of sexual sins in comparison to other sins, I would simply add the words of Jacinta, the young seer of Fatima who said,
"More souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason."
Hell must be seen as the final yardstick by which we measure the utter seriousness of our sins as a rejection of the will of God.
Thank you.

January 13, 2014 at 8:27 pm PST
#9  Mike Wright - Rapid City, South Dakota

Yes, God's Word is VERY clear about sexual sin. Lewis was an author of some of my favorite books, The Great Divorce" for one. I disagree with some of his spiritual beliefs however. He belived in Purgatory for one. Of all the posts here no one seems to know where to turn for Truth, and that is God's Word the Bible. See below.

1 Corinthians 6:18 Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?…

January 25, 2014 at 7:47 pm PST

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