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Francis in Lesbos confronts the unforgivable sin

  • 19 April 2016


In a generally confused childhood, a period that featured regular religious training, I found one source of confusion to be particularly nagging. Not to mention terrifying. This was the weighty matter of the unforgivable sin.

I had no idea what this sin consisted of, but was sure I had committed it, all unwittingly.

I was reluctant to ask my elders about this problem, mainly because their patience periodically wore thin under the onslaught of my frequent insomnia, during which spells I roamed the house, to general parental irritation.

Sleep, when it came, was punctuated by lurid and lingering nightmares, which caused more irritation. Hence I decided it didn't do to test the temporal powers too far or too often, especially as I had little certainty about my status with the Almighty.

So there was nothing for it but to engage in my own research, which became an intermittent project over years. But another problem was that of lack of clarity and decision. Scripture seemed to indicate that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was the ultimate horror, but some theologians opted for the rejection of Christ, while others considered suicide to be the worst sin one could commit.

Not unnaturally, I remained confused.

Fast forward to mid-adolescence, when the novels of Graham Greene were often school-prescribed reading. The most popular of these was The Power and the Glory, in which Greene ponders, among other matters, the question of whether a sinful whisky priest can transmit God's mercy and grace.

The priest languishes in despair, and in his view this is the unforgivable sin: he concludes that his transgressions are such that God's forgiveness cannot apply to him, and so he is damned.


"There have been predictable grumblings about political motivation, but so what? The Pope has taken some action."


The reader, I think, has to grapple with another difficulty: how can the priest be certain, and is his assumption about what God will or will not do yet another sin? The priest himself eventually considers that the mystery has become too great. Way back then I understood how he felt about the mystery, and I still understand.

Despair is surely a great temptation in today's extremely troubled world. What can one feel except helpless in the face of the stark realities that confront huge numbers of ordinary people through no fault of their own?

In 416 BC, Thucydides, famous for his History of the Peloponnesian War and his notions of the ways in which