Dante’s Inferno and Moral Judgements

Francesca da Rimini and Paolo
Francesca da Rimini and Paolo

People seem so confused about morality.

Especially sexual morality.

I’m reading Dante’s Divine Comedy as Lenten reading and when he encounters Francesca and Paolo in the second circle of hell where the lustful are swept around by endless whirlwinds–because they were swept away by the whirlwind of lust.

Tony Esolen notes that it would have been easy for Dante to have made the disgustingly decadent wicked Queen Semiramis the main figure in this circle of hell, but instead he chose two very attractive people. Francesca had been tricked into political marriage with an older, crippled man. She feel in love with his younger, handsome brother and carried on an affair for ten years. They were discovered in bed by her husband and he killed them both.

This is a brilliant move by Dante because we can more easily sympathize with Francesca and we can hear ourselves so easily justifying her sin. “But she was tricked into a bad marriage! It wasn’t her fault! She can’t be blamed for simply following where love leads her! She and Paolo were in LOVE!! But they were such nice people! How could her husband be so cruel! No wonder she didn’t love him!”

Yes, yes. I understand, but moral judgements are not made only according to sentimental criteria. There is such a thing as right and wrong, and although subjective circumstances and intentions can be weighed when determining a person’s guilt, they do not negate the intrinsic good or evil of the act itself.

Francesco and Paolo were in hell because they chose their will over God’s will. The whirlwind of their passions swept them up into a decision to disobey the divine law, and that is the essential sin which leads to hell: I chose my will over God’s will. I said “My will be done, not Thy will be done.”

In making objective moral choices Catholics rely on both natural law and God’s revealed Divine Law. These laws are given in order that we might know and embrace the virtuous behaviors that bring us ultimate happiness and fulfillment as God’s created beings.

However, while the revealed law (both Natural and Divine) is the foundation of moral choices, I have been musing on other criteria for moral choices as well. There are some questions we might ask ourselves about any particular behavior which reveal it to be a moral choice or an immoral choice.

First, we can ask whether this choice is good not only for me, but for the other person. Stealing a loaf of bread may be good for me, but it is not good for the baker.

Second, in a more general way, we can ask whether our choice contributes to the common good. Stealing a loaf of bread injures the rule of law in society. It therefore does not contribute to the common good. Such an action would be immoral.

Second, we can ask what would happen if everyone made this same choice all the time. If everyone stole the bread they wanted every time they were hungry chaos would result.

Third, we can ask whether our choice is likely to further our health and well being. Not just physical health, but emotional, psychological, spiritual health as well.

Fourth, we can ask whether our choice is likely to further our health and well being in the long run. A short term sacrifice might pay long term dividends in the realm of morality.

What if we apply this to sexual morality–a question in our society which is terribly confused and in which even the idea that there might be “right choices” and “wrong choices” is anathema?

Consider cohabitation for example:

  1. Is this choice good not only for me but also for the other person? Co-habitation allows the couple to live together as husband and wife, but without the marriage bond the arrangement is easily broken. This is usually more advantageous for the man than for the woman. It is therefore arguable that co habitation is not good for the other person, at least in the long run.
  2. Does cohabitation contribute to the common good? It does not because the couple are not building a stable, permanent union which strengthens marriage and the family for the children, for the extended family and for the common good. They have entered an ephemeral union which mimics marriage–taking all the advantages of marriage with none of the responsibilities.
  3. Does cohabitation further one’s health and well being? It might seem to, but it is doubtful if it does much more than contribute to a person’s short term pleasure.
  4. Does cohabitation further one’s health and well being in the long run? Probably not in the long run–especially if the union breaks up. As one young woman who lived with three different men one after another said to me, “I am only twenty five and I feel like I have been married and divorced three times.” She was a wreck after three live in relationships, artificial contraception and one abortion. She finally decided to go it alone, have a baby and live as a single mom.

If we use these practical criteria (and you can probably think of more) to determine the morality of sexual choices it will soon become clear that a whole range of sexual behaviors that we are now expected to not only tolerate, but approve, will be shown to be immoral.

It is important to point out that immoral choices are not arbitrary decisions by religious leaders. They are tried and true and tested rules which society also has shown to bring about not only the individual’s best chance of happiness, but also to build up the common good in the long run.


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