Sins against the Sixth Commandment at the root of clericalism

3 mins read
Priests sit below the statue of St. Peter as Pope Francis celebrates Mass marking the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in 2018.

Pope Francis is well-known for his attacks against clericalism — the tendency for clergy to act as if they are better than the laity and deserving of special treatment.

It is because of Pope Francis’ ongoing, righteous campaign against clericalism that I was gob-smacked to read the comments he made on his recent trip to Mozambique. Responding to a question about how priests can avoid falling into clericalism, he said: “One dimension of clericalism is the exclusive moral fixation on the Sixth Commandment. Once a Jesuit, a great Jesuit, told me to be careful in giving absolution, because the most serious sins are those that are more angelical: pride, arrogance, dominion. … And the least serious are those that are less angelical, such as greed and lust. We focus on sex and then we do not give weight to social injustice, slander, gossip and lies.”

I have no doubt that Pope Francis meant well, but I admit to being stunned. In fact, it’s exactly the Church’s struggle to pastorally proclaim the truth about the Sixth Commandment that is the foundation of clericalism.

The Sixth Commandment is the root of clericalism

Using the formulation Pope Francis attributed to a “great Jesuit,” it’s easy to see why so many clergy unconsciously see themselves as superior to laypeople. Because priests are celibate, they must be more angelic, too, untroubled as they are (at least theoretically) by the base, sexual concerns that occupy so much of the laity’s time. Having sacrificed sex, clergy are obviously much more like angels than the lay sheep they serve. They deserve special consideration.

Obviously, this is a perverse attitude. I don’t believe Pope Francis thinks this way in the least. Regardless, there is no question that the tendency to underestimate the importance of the Sixth Commandment unconsciously fuels much clericalist sentiment.

Clerical abuse and the Sixth Commandment

Ten Commandments

In fact, the Church’s clericalist tendency to wink at abuses of the Sixth Commandment — especially by it’s cardinals, bishops and priests — is primarily responsible for the current sexual abuse crisis (which Pope Francis also, correctly, attributes to clericalism).

Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s predatory behavior toward seminarians was an open secret for more than 20 years. Bishop Michael Bransfield’s history of sexual harassment of young priests was also well-known. But repulsive behavior like this was tolerated by hierarchs for decades exactly because of the view Pope Francis articulated.

Regardless, it doesn’t take much to see that the abuse crisis — a crisis of the Sixth Commandment — has significantly undermined the Church’s ability to fight against all the social injustices Pope Francis rightly condemns.

The root of social injustice

More problematic, Pope Francis’ assertion that overemphasizing sexual morality somehow undercuts the Church’s ability to address other, greater social injustices is factually false.

A study published this past July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who commit marital infidelity are also much more likely to lie, cheat and steal in their public and professional lives. According to the lead researcher: “Our results show that personal sexual conduct is correlated with professional conduct. Eliminating sexual misconduct … could have the extra benefit of contributing to more ethical cultures in general.”

Building upon this logic, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church argues that the basis for the Church’s social teaching begins with humanity being made in the image and likeness of God. This leads to the need for people to justly order their interpersonal relationships — especially with regard to family and sexuality. Finally, justly ordered interpersonal relationships serve as the basis for a just society.

Personal morality is not some disconnected affectation. It is the psychological and spiritual foundation for one’s socio-moral outlook.

Lust is still a deadly sin

Of course, all of this ignores the question of how useful it is to debate the relative deadliness of one deadly sin over another. If lust is actually somehow less serious than the other deadly sins, it is only in the same way that syphilis could be said to be less serious than brain cancer. The former might be easier to treat than the latter, but they can both kill you. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d want either.

We’ve all had bad days. Let’s hope that Pope Francis’ comments were the product of jet lag. Alternatively, we should pray that those close to the pope would help him to understand that comments like these actually fuel the very clericalist fires he longs to extinguish.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books and the director of the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life.

Dr. Greg Popcak

Dr. Greg Popcak is an author and the director of