Are there really unforgivable sins?

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Question: Do theologians hold that the only sin against the Holy Spirit, a sin that cannot be forgiven, is to refuse to repent and accept God’s forgiveness unto the point of their death? I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this lately and wonder about priests or groups of clergy who deceive even the elect and who, by this, may lead souls to hell. Are they not also guilty of the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit? I have been seeing and hearing many disturbing teachings from clergy that are contrary to God and see this as so serious as to be unforgivable.

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Answer: You might be confusing the “unforgivable sin” with serious sin. Even serious sins like murder or heresy can be forgiven if repentance is evident. More on that in a moment. But let’s look at what is meant by a sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Mk 3:29).

St. Thomas Aquinas delineates six sins against the Holy Spirit: despair, presumption, impugning the known truth, envy of another’s spiritual good, obstinacy in sin and final impenitence. All of them have in common a kind of stubborn resistance or persistence.

Six sins against the Holy Spirit

In despair we obstinately refuse to believe that God can save us or that grace can sustain us in holiness. Despair stubbornly persists in the notion that our case is hopeless. It does this for one of two reasons. First, it is a kind of excuse to persist in sin, or second, as a type of pride that sinfully concludes one’s sin is greater than God’s grace. There may also be a lack of faith in God’s promises.

In presumption we are sinfully and persistently overconfident of our ability to save ourselves, or that God will save us without any repentance or effort on our part. As such we resist the Holy Spirit’s admonitions to conform ourselves to God’s will.

By impugning the known truth, we refuse to be docile (teachable) and we cling to error(s) by rationalization or by accumulating teachers who say what our itching ears want to hear (cf. 2 Tim 4:3-4). As such we resist and impugn the fonts of truth inspired by the Holy Spirit such as Scripture and the sacred Tradition of the Church’s dogmas and doctrines. To impugn means to fight against, and by this we resist the voice of the Holy Spirit, who is the voice of revealed truth.

By envying the spiritual good of another, we seek to destroy the holy example of saints and many who seek to live spiritual lives because we take it to lessen our own standing before others. We might do this by ridicule, or by seeking to undermine the reputation of the saints of old or holy people who live now. To persistently do this without repentance and reparation sins against the Holy Spirit by undermining his work.

By obstinacy in sins, we persist in it and resist the promptings of the Holy Spirit to repent and trust God’s grace to be holy.

By final impenitence we resist until the end of our life the Holy Spirit’s promptings that we repent.

So, in these ways the sin against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven either because we stubbornly refuse to repent and be conformed to the truth, or we refuse to admit we need to repent. This all amounts to a sin against the Holy Spirit and cannot be forgiven because we do not want forgiveness.

Sins of the clergy

As for the sins of clergy you mention above, they are egregious but are not per se sins against the Holy Spirit. But they could become such sin since these clergy are close to “impugning the known truth,” which heretics and schismatics often do by their lies and misrepresentation of the known truth. They do so to lure others into their error, often rationalizing their views as pastoral, enlightened or more “compassionate.” And yet, they are fundamentally impugning moral truth and opposing it to love and compassion. They might also be obstinately persisting in committing the sins they minimize, call good or even celebrate with pride. And they might do this unto death, resulting in a final impenitence. Further, they may be guilty of despair by holding that what God commands is too difficult for some to keep, even with grace. They may also engage in presumption by being dismissive of the consequences of sin that God himself warns of.

If they are clergy as you say, they will be judged most harshly since, to those whom much is given, much is also expected.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at Send questions to