Question: I was trying to instruct someone that masturbation is wrong. And when I went…
A certain kind of sin
Question: Why does society in general, and religion in particular, refer to sins of the flesh as “immoral”? Is this not rather vague? Idolatry, blasphemy, murder and perjury are also immoral. What gives?
— Lawrence Berg, San Gabriel, California
Answer: Your question is an important one, especially when it comes to biblical translation. Two widely read biblical versions among Catholics, the Revised New American Bible and the Revised Standard Version Catholic Version use the word “immorality” to translate the Greek term “porneia.” But this translation obscures the meaning more than reveals it. Porneia is a Greek word plainly refers to illicit sexual union. It is often translated “fornication” or “sexual immorality” in most biblical translations. We get the English word “pornography” from this Greek root.
As you point out, immorality could mean almost any sort or sin, and translating the Greek term in this manner turns a rather clear injunction into an abstraction.
In society, especially in mixed company, we sometimes will use euphemisms. This term comes from the Greek “euphemizein” (“speak with fair words”). In English, it more broadly means the choosing a less distasteful word or phrase to describe what is being done. Thus, a woman might say, “I am going to powder my nose” instead of saying, “I am going to the toilet.”
While euphemisms have their place in polite society, there is little place for them in the context of instruction where clarity is essential. The Scriptures, in order to teach us, must be translated plainly in order for their instruction to be clear. Sadly, a teaching moment is lost that is much needed today. So, your concerns are on point both linguistically and pastorally. The motivations behind obscuring the word are unclear. But the effects of it are plain enough to see.
Calling it Catholic
Question: Is there a process where Catholic groups who lay claim to the term “Catholic” must seek approval? It seems to me that many “Catholic” groups are pretty independent of oversight.
— Art Osten, Fox River Grove, Illinois
Answer: With something as widespread as Catholicism, the appropriation of the term “Catholic” is going to have a wide sense and a more strict, juridical sense.
Juridically, for a book or organization to receive ecclesiastical approval will require that they submit to a process of review overseen by a local bishop, diocese or, in some cases, the Holy See. There are varying degrees of requirement for such approval. Books or organizations that are catechetical or doctrinal in nature are more required than books or organizations of a more social or devotional nature.
One should ensure that books of a doctrinal, catechetical or liturgical nature have obtained ecclesiastical approval. This usually is indicated on the first pages of such a book. Organizations indicate their approved status both in some written form in or near their mission statement or by having one or more bishops among the membership of their board of directors.
Unfortunately there are some groups who claim the identity “Catholic” who are not, in some fundamental way, truly Catholic. In a few cases, bishops have publicly disclaimed them and, in even fewer cases, have sought legal remedies against them. But it is difficult in civil law to restrict the word “Catholic” as if it were a brand name.