The Dignities and Duties of the Priest

by St. Alphonsus Liguori C.SS.R.
Doctor of the Church


-----------------------------Chapter Six-----------------------------
The Sin of Incontinence

Necessity of Purity in the Priest

INCONTINENCE is called by St. Basil of Seleucla a living plague, and by St. Bernardine of Sienna, the most noxious of all sins, "a terrible gnawing worm," "Because, as St. Bonaventure says, "impurity destroys the germs of all virtues." Hence St. Ambrose calls it the hot-house and mother of all vices, for it brings with it hatred, thefts, sacrileges, and other similar vices. Hence St. Remigius has justly said: "With the exception of those that die in childhood, most men will be damned on account of this vice." And Father Paul Segneri says that as pride has filled Hell with Angels, so impurity has filled it with men. In other vices the devil fishes with the hook, in this he fishes with the net; so that by incontinence he gains more for Hell than by all other sins. On the other hand, God has inflicted the severest chastisement on the world, sending deluges of water and fire from Heaven, in punishment of the sin of incontinence.

Chastity is a most beautiful gem; but, as St. Athanasius says, it is a gem found by few on this earth. But if this gem is suitable for seculars, it is absolutely necessary for ecclesiastics.

Among the virtues that St. Paul prescribes to Timothy, he recommended chastity in a special manner: "Keep thyself chaste." Origen says that chastity is the first virtue with which a priest that goes to the altar should be adorned. Clement of Alexandria has written that only they that lead a chaste life are and can be called priests. Hence, then, as purity constitutes priests, so, on the other hand, incontinence robs them, as it were, of their dignity, says St. Isidore.

Hence the holy Church has always endeavored by so many Councils, laws, and admonitions to guard with jealousy the chastity of her priests. Innocent III made the following ordinance: "No one is to be allowed to be ordained priest unless he is a virgin or his chastity has been proved." He also commanded that the incontinent priest should be excluded "from all ecclesiastical dignities." St. Gregory ordained: "He that has fallen into a carnal sin after ordination should be deprived so far of his office, that he be not permitted to perform any function at the altar." Besides, he ordained, that if a priest committed a sin against purity, he should do penance for ten years. For the first three months he should sleep on the ground, remain in solitude, have no intercourse with any person, and should be deprived of Communion. He should then fast every day for a year and a half on bread and water, and for the remainder of the ten years he should continue to fast on bread and water only on three. days in the week. In a word, the Church regards as a monster the priest that does not lead a life of chastity.

Malice of Impurity in the Priest

Let us, in the first place, examine the malice of the sin of a priest who violates chastity. A priest is the temple of God, as well by the vow of chastity as by the sacred unction by which he was consecrated to God. He that hath anointed us in God, who also hath sealed us. Such is the language of St. Paul, speaking of himself and of his associates in the ministry. Hence Cardinal Hugo has said: "The priest should not pollute the sanctuary of the Lord, because the oil of the holy unction is poured out upon him.'" The body, then, of the priest is the sanctuary of the Lord. "Keep thyself chaste," says St. Ignatius, Martyr, ''as a gift of God and the temple of the Holy Ghost." St. Peter Damian says that the priest that defiles his body by impurity violates the temple of God. He then adds: "Do not change the vessels consecrated to God into vessels of contumely." What would you say of the man that should use a consecrated chalice at table? Speaking of priests, Innocent II has said: "Since they should be the temples of the sanctu aries of the Holy Ghost, they are disgraced if they become addicted to impurity." How horrible to see a priest that should send forth in every direction the light and odor of purity, become sordid, fetid, and polluted with sins of the flesh?  . . . Hence Clement of Alexandria has written that an unchaste priest, as far as in him lies, contaminates God himself, Who dwells within him." Of this God Himself complains by the mouth of His prophet: Her priests have despised My law, and have despised My sanctuaries, . . . and I was profaned in the midst of them. [Ezec. 22: 26] Alas! says the Lord, by the incontinence of My priest, I, too, am defiled: by violating chastity he pollutes My sanctuary, that is, his body which I have consecrated, and in which I often come to dwell. It was this St. Jerome meant when he said: "We defile the body of Christ whenever we approach the altar unworthily."

Besides, the priest on the altar offers to God in sacrifice the immaculate Lamb; that is, the very Son of God. On this account, says St. Jerome, the priest should be so chaste as not only to abstain from every impure action, but also to avoid every indecent glance." St. John Chrysostom likewise has written that a priest should have purity which would make him fit to stand in the midst of the Angels in Heaven. And in another place he has said that by their purity the hands of a priest, which must touch the flesh of Jesus Christ, should be more resplendent than the rays of the sun. On the other hand, St. Augustine asks where can a man be found so wicked as to presume to touch the most holy Sacrament of the altar with unclean hands? "But," says St. Bernard, "the priest that dares to ascend the altar, to handle the body of Jesus Christ, after being contaminated with sins of impurity, is guilty of a far more enormous crime." "Ah! priest of God," exclaims St. Augustine, "the hands that you moisten with the blood of the Redeemer do not moisten with the sacrilegious blood of sin." Ah! do not allow the hands which are bathed in the blood of the Redeemer, shed one day for the love of you, to be polluted with the sacrilegious blood of sin.

Moreover, Cassian says that priests must not only touch, but must also eat, the sacred flesh of the Lamb; and therefore they should practice Angelic purity." But according to Peter Comestor, the priest who while he is defiled with sins against chastity, pronounces the words of Consecration, spits, as it were, in the face of Jesus Christ; and in receiving the sacred Body and Blood into his polluted mouth, he, as it were, casts them into the foulest mire. St. Vincent Ferrer says that such a priest is guilty of a greater impiety than if he threw the consecrated host into a sink. Here St. Peter Damian exclaims, and says, "O priests! whose duty it is to offer to God the immaculate Lamb, do not first immolate yourself to the devil by your impurities."

Hence the Saint afterwards calls the unchaste priest a victim of the devils, on which these cruel spirits make a most delicious feast in Hell. Besides, the unchaste priest not only brings himself to perdition, but he also causes the damnation of many others. St. Bernard said that incontinence in ecclesiastics was one of the greatest persecutions that the Church could suffer
. . . says the holy Doctor, the Church has suffered much from the sword of the tyrant and from the infection of heresy, but she suffers still more from the incontinence of the unchaste ecclesiastic, who by his scandals drags the bowels out of his own mother. "How shameful," says St. Peter Damian, "to see a man who preaches chastity made the slave of lust!"

Sad Effects of Impurity

Let us now examine the evils that the vice of incontinence produces in the soul, particularly in that of a priest.


First, this sin blinds the soul, and makes her lose sight of God and of the eternal truths. "Chastity," says St. Augustine, "purifies the mind, and through it men see God." But the first effect of the vice of impurity is, according to St. Thomas, blindness of the understanding. Its effects are thus described by the Saint: "The effects of this impure vice are: blindness of the mind, hatred of God, attachment to the present life, horror of the future life." St. Augustine has said that impurity takes away the thought of eternity. When a raven finds a dead body, its first act is to pluck out the eyes; and the first injury that incontinence inflicts on the soul is to take away the light of the things of God. This was felt by Calvin, who was first a parish priest [meaning, acting as a chaplain while not receiving full ordination, that is, not raised to the dignity of the priesthood, only lesser orders],-----a pastor of souls;-----but afterwards, by this vice, became an heresiarch; by Henry VIII, first the defender and afterwards the persecutor of the Church. This was also experienced by Solomon; first a saint, and afterwards an idolater. The same happens to the unchaste priest. They shall, says the Prophet Sophonias, walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord. Miserable man! In the midst of the light of the Masses that he celebrates, of the Offices that he recites, and of the funerals that he attends, he remains as blind as if he believed neither in death that awaits him, nor in a future judgment, nor in Hell that he purchases by his sins. Mayest thou, says the Lord, grope at midday as the blind is wont to grope in the dark. In a word, he is so blinded by the fetid mire in which he is immersed, that after having forsaken God Who has raised him so much above others,
he does not even think of returning to ask pardon.

They will not, says the Prophet Osee, set their thoughts to return to their God . . . for the spirit of fornication is in the midst of them. Hence St. John Chrysostom says, that neither the admonitions of Superiors, nor the counsels of virtuous friends, nor the fear of chastisements, nor the danger of shame shall be sufficient to enlighten the unchaste priest.

No wonder: for he is so blind that he can no longer see. Fire hath fallen on them, and they have not seen the sun. "This fire is no other than the fire of concupiscence," says St. Thomas. Hence he afterwards adds, "The sins of the flesh extinguish the light of reason, for carnal delectations cause the soul to be drawn entirely towards the pleasures of the senses." This vice, by its beastly delectation, deprives man even of reason; so that, as Eusebius says, it makes him become worse than the senseless beast. Hence the unchaste priest, blinded by his impurities, shall no longer make any account of the injuries that he does to God by his sacrileges, nor of the scandal that he gives to others. He will even go so far as to dare to say Mass in a state of sin. No wonder; for he that has lost the light, easily abandons himself to the commission of every crime.

Come ye to Him and be enlightened. He that wants light must draw near to God; but because, according to the words of St. Thomas, "a thoroughly impure man is mostly removed from God," impurity removes man to a great distance from God, the unchaste becomes, as it were, senseless brutes that no longer apprehend spiritual things. But the sensual man, says St. Paul, perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God. Hell, eternity, and the dignity of the priesthood, no longer make any impression upon the incontinent ecclesiastic: He perceiveth not." Perhaps he will, as St. Ambrose says, begin even to entertain doubts about faith: "Whenever one begins to be incontinent, one begins to deviate from the faith." Oh! How many miserable priests have by this vice even lost their faith? His bones, says Job, shall be filled with the vices of his youth [the vices of youth are impurities], and they shall sleep with him in the dust. As the light of the sun cannot enter into a vessel filled with earth, so the light of God cannot shine into a soul habituated to sins of the flesh: her vices shall continue to sleep with her till death.

But as that unhappy soul, for the sake of her impurities, forgets God, so shall He forget her, and permit her to remain abandoned in her darkness. Because, says the Lord, thou hast forgotten Me, and hast cast Me off behind thy body, bear thou also thy wickedness and thy fornications. St. Peter Damian says, "They throw the Lord behind their bodies that obey the voice of their passions." Father Cataneo relates that a sinner who had contracted a habit of impurity, when admonished by a friend to abandon his evil ways, unless he wished to be damned, answered: " Friend, I may indeed go to Hell for this habit." He certainly went to that place of torment, for he was suddenly struck dead. A priest who was found in the house of a certain lady whom he went to tempt was compelled by her husband to take a poisonous draught. After returning home he took to his bed, and mentioned to a friend the misfortune that had befallen him. The friend seeing the miserable man so near his end exhorted him to go to Confession. No, replied the unhappy man, I cannot go to Confession; this favor only I ask of you, go to such a lady, tell her that I die for the love of her. Can greater blindness be conceived?


In the second place, the sin of impurity produces obstinacy of the will. "Once fallen into the snare of the devil, one cannot so easily escape it," says St. Jerome. And according to St. Thomas, there is no sin in which, the devil takes so much delight as in impurity; because the flesh is strongly inclined to that vice, and he that falls into it can be rescued from it only with difficulty. Hence the vice of incontinence has been called by Clement of Alexandria "a malady without remedy;" and by Tertullian, "an incurable vice." Hence St. Cyprian calls it the mother of impenitence. "It is impossible," says Peter de Blois, for him that submits to the domination of the flesh to conquer carnal temptations." Father Biderman relates of a young man, who was in the habit of relapsing into this sin, that at the hour of death he confessed his sins with many tears and died, leaving strong grounds to hope for his salvation. But on the following day his confessor, while saying Mass, felt some one pulling the chasuble; turning round he saw a dark cloud, which sent forth scintillations of fire, and heard a voice saying that was the soul of the young man that had died; that though he had been absolved from his sins, he was again tempted, yielded to a bad thought, and was damned.

The prophet and the priest are defiled. . . Therefore their way shall be as a slippery way in the dark . . . for they shall be driven on, and fall therein. Behold the ruin of the unchaste ecclesiastic. He walks on a slippery path, in the midst of darkness, and is impelled to the precipice by the devils, and by evil habits. Hence it is impossible for him to escape destruction. St. Augustine says that they that give themselves up to this vice soon contract the habit of it; and the habit soon creates, as it were, a necessity of sinning. The vulture rather than abandon the carcass on which it has begun to feed is content to wait to be killed by the sportsman. This happens to him that contracts a habit of impurity.

Oh! how much greater the obstinacy produced in the priest that submits to the tyrannical rule of this vice, than that which it causes in seculars! This happens both because the priest has had greater light to know the malice of mortal sin, and because in him impurity is a greater sin than it is in a secular. For the unchaste priest not only offends against chastity, but also against religion, by violating his vow, and, generally speaking, he also transgresses against fraternal charity. For the incontinence of a priest is almost always accompanied with most grievous scandal to others. In his book on the "Last Things," Denis the Carthusian relates that a servant of God, conducted in spirit to Purgatory, saw there many seculars that were suffering for sins against purity, but very few priests, Having asked the reason, he was told that scarcely any unchaste priest repents sincerely of this sin, and that, therefore, almost all such priests are damned.


Finally, this accursed vice leads all, and particularly priests that are infected with it, to eternal damnation. St. Peter Damian says that the altar of God receives no other fire than that of Divine love. Hence he that dares to ascend the altar inflamed by the fire of impurity is consumed by the fire of Divine vengeance. And in another place he says that all the obscenities of the sinner shall be one day converted into pitch, which shall eternally nourish in his bowels the fire of Hell.

Oh! what vengeance does not the Lord inflict on the unchaste priest! How many priests are now in Hell for sins against purity! "If," says St. Peter Damian, "the man in the Gospel, who came to the marriage feast without the nuptial garment, was condemned to darkness, what then should he expect who, admitted to the mystical banquet of the Divine Lamb, neglects to adorn himself with the brilliant garb of virtues, and even presents himself impregnated with the fetid odors of impurity." Baronius relates that a priest who had contracted a habit of sins against chastity saw at death a multitude of devils coming to carry him away. He turned to a religious who was attending him, and besought him to pray for him. But soon after he exclaimed that he was before the tribunal of God, and cried aloud: "Cease, cease to pray for me, for I am already condemned, and your prayers can be of no service to me." St. Peter Damian relates that in the city of Parma a priest and a woman with whom he had sinned were suddenly struck dead. In the revelations of St. Bridget we read that an unchaste priest was killed by a thunderbolt; and it was found that the lightning had reduced to ashes only the indelicate members, and left the remainder of the body untouched, as if to show that it was principally for incontinence that God had inflicted this chastisement upon him. Another priest in our own time died suddenly in the act of committing a sin against chastity, and for his greater infamy was exposed in the court of the church. The unchaste priest dishonors the Church, and therefore the Lord justly chastises him by making him the most dishonored of all men. Thus, speaking of priests, God says, by the Prophet Malachy, But you have departed out of the way, and have caused many to stumble at the law . . . Therefore I also made you contemptible, and base before all people.

Remedies for Incontinence

The spiritual masters point out many remedies for the vice of impurity; but the principal and the most necessary are the flight of occasions, and prayer. As to the first means, St. Philip Neri used to say that in this warfare cowards, that is, they that avoid dangerous occasions, gain the victory. Let a man use all other possible means, unless he flies away, he is lost. He that loveth danger shall perish in it.

As to the second means, it is necessary to know that we have not strength to resist temptations of the flesh. This strength must be the gift of God. But God grants it to those only that pray and ask for it. The only defense against this temptation, says St. Gregory of Nyssa, is prayer. And before him the Wise Man said: And as I knew that I could not otherwise be continent, except God gave it.