A Church Deep in Love

Pope Francis recently said, in one of his disquieting comments that sound contemptuous for the Church he is charged to love, that her teachings on sex are “still in diapers.”  My mind turns to Christian poets who have written about the love of man and woman, and the moral dangers that beset it, from the troubadours and the Arthurian romancers of the twelfth century, to such modern Catholic authors as Mauriac, Claudel, Greene, Waugh, Böll, Percy, and Francis’ own predecessor, John Paul II.

Let’s take a look at one of these “infants.”

When the pilgrim Dante descends to the second circle of Hell in the Divine Comedy, where the lustful are punished, he’s dismayed to find, mingled among such flagrant sinners as Semiramis and Cleopatra, a multitude of those we might call the beautiful people, “the courtly ladies and the knights of old.” (Inferno 5.71)  Then he notices Paolo and Francesca, the couple from Rimini, and he begs Virgil for the chance to speak to them.

Dante knew about the scandal.  Francesca had been married, for political reasons, to Gianciotto Malatesta, crippled in body and soul.  But she fell in love with his younger brother Paolo, her husband caught them in the act, and murdered them on the spot.
How does the poet have this woman speak?  Without crudity. She’s a cultured lady.  She even attempts to capture Dante’s good will, calling him “courteous and good,” and appearing to wish his welfare:

Were He who rules the universe our friend,
     we would entreat Him, praying for your peace,
     for you have pitied us our twisted fate.

But Francesca does not pray for Dante.  She cannot.  Even an attempt would require the grace of God.  Why, then, does she say what she would do, and why does she shift the blame over to God, that she cannot do it?  It is to seduce the poet, to entice him to set his piety against the truth of what she and Paolo have done, and against the justice of God.  She aims for Dante’s soul.

All who justify their sin will want the company that misery desires; but that desire is perhaps sharpest in those whose sin assumes the character of love.  The murderer says he wanted justice, the miser wanted security, but they who sin sexually have love itself as their defense, or what they wish love were.

In fact, Francesca implies that love, “that flames soonest in the gentle heart,” itself was to blame, not she herself:

Love, that allows no loved one not to love,
     seized me with such a strong delight in him,
     that, as you see, it will not leave me yet.
Love led us to one death. 

To the lover, the passion seems inexorable; we have no defense, just as Tristan drank the love potion and fell into an adulterous passion with Iseult.  And the nobler your soul is, the more susceptible you are to beauty and gracefulness, the more likely you are to fall.  But Francesca is lying.  Love – sexual passion – is not simply like the gales that toss her and her fellow sinners about.


Man is a creature of passion and reason, inclination and judgment, desire and choice.  These faculties act upon one another.  We are always desiring and choosing, not only among goods, but among desires also; we choose to desire what we desire, as we desire to desire what we choose.

I am attracted to some good, and I desire it, but I choose against the desire, subjecting it to judgment.  It is not only that I decline to pursue that good.  I decline to affirm the desire.  I may go further.  I may condemn the desire, using my reason, and calling into battle other desires – for honor or purity or integrity of life.

Francesca wishes to set all that aside.  But when Dante asks her how she and Paolo first fell, we see a series of errors, and a failure to see beyond the immediate urgency:

One day we two were reading for delight
     about how love had mastered Lancelot;
     we were alone and innocent and felt
No cause to fear.  And as we read, at times
     we went pale, as we caught each other’s glance;
     but we were conquered by one point alone.
For when we read that the much longed-for smile
     accepted such a gentle lover’s kiss,
     this man, whom nothing shall divide from me,
Trembled to place his lips upon my mouth.
     A pander was that author, and his book!
     That day we did not read another page.”

They should not have been alone together.  They should not have been reading about the adulterous affair of Lancelot and Guinevere.  They should have kept on reading, but they did not.

Had they continued, they might have encountered the madness that beset Lancelot, his disloyalty to his friend and lord, Arthur, the scandal that simmered among the ladies and the knights of the Round Table and that spread to compromise Arthur’s reputation; the fracturing of that goodly fellowship, and the fall of Camelot.

Sexual sin involves a drastic foreshortening of attention and concern, and confusion as to the character and the urgency of the action.  Francesca does not ask the most obvious question, supposing that she really did love Paolo.  How could it possibly be to his benefit to make his brother a mortal enemy?

Neither she nor Paolo asks what the very book they are reading has to teach them.  They do not ask how, if their incest be justifiable, we can possibly condemn the fornications of pig-butchers and laundry girls, people not likely to be reading about Lancelot and Guinevere.

They do not ask about the child that Francesca might bear.  They act as if they had no choice. They desire to have no choice, and they choose to affirm that desire.

I’d say these few lines of poetry are quite mature.  They are not in diapers.  Perhaps, then, we are the incontinent?


*Image: Dante and Virgil in the Second Circle in Hell by Joseph Anton Koch, 1823 [Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Art Collection at the Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark]. On the lower left, Francesca, in blue and red, and Paolo float towards Virgil and Dante on the right.

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Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.