Questions Answered

Fr. Jim Ronan O’Malley giving sermon, Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston

Question: Does a homily mean something other than a sermon? Online dictionaries seem to show them to be interchangeable. I have for years now believed homilies to be based on Scripture, and sermons might cover a range of topics, not necessarily based on Scripture.

Answer: Your question points out the difficulty with defining words which have a very specific meaning in a given context, but may not have the same meaning when it comes to general usage. Dictionary definitions should never be used for theological or liturgical terms unless one is seeking to discover the non-technical, popular usage of these words. In fact, in the liturgy, the homily has a very specific meaning. This meaning determines certain important aspects of its usage.

The issue of the homily is an extremely important one for many reasons. You are right that in popular parlance, homily and sermon are often used as interchangeable terms. But Church usage is delineated in Church law.

The Code of Canon Law is quite specific about the nature of a homily:

Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself, and reserved to a priest or deacon, is pre-eminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith, and the norms of Christian life, are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year. (Canon 767, 1)

In this law, the phrase “from the sacred text,” is the specific defining characteristic of the homily. This term refers to the Bible. The question, of course, would arise as to how strict this requirement is. A homily is not a course in scriptural exegesis. In fact, traditionally, there are four senses of Scripture which form the basis for possible homily material: the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogic. The last three senses depend on the first. They may expand on it, but cannot contradict it. This, of course, allows considerable latitude in the possible application of scriptural texts to common Christian themes in everyday life.

Priests and deacons are, therefore, required to give instruction to the faithful during Mass, which at least has some connection in the texts read during the Mass, even if a very loose one. For example, on the feast day of a saint, it would suffice to perhaps mention the Gospel in the midst of a hagiographical examination of the virtues of the life of that particular saint as an illustration of the importance of his life. If one were explaining a moral principle, the origin of this should be at least in some place in the text, read during the Mass. Many preachers can find this difficult, especially on a regular basis to the same congregation. Homily material and presentation has been a perennial problem in the history of the Church. In former times before the existence of seminaries, it was common for bishops’ conferences to produce homily texts which parish priests often just read to their congregations.

The Church is clear that such homilies must both conform to doctrine, and also take into account the listeners’ situation in coming to understand this doctrine. Again, the Code of Canon Law gives some enlightenment on this problem:

  • “Those who proclaim the divine word are to propose first of all to the Christian faithful those things which one must believe, and do for the glory of God, and the salvation of humanity.” (Canon 768, 1)
  • “They are also to impart to the faithful the doctrine which the magisterium of the Church sets forth concerning the dignity and freedom of the human person, the unity and stability of the family and its duties, the obligations which people have from being joined together in society, and the ordering of temporal affairs according to the plan established by God.” (Canon 768, 2)
  • “Christian doctrine is to be set forth in a way accommodated to the condition of the listeners, and in a manner adapted to the needs of the times.” (Canon 769)

Important recommendations follow from these texts. The homily is not normally the place to produce a long and technical theological tract. One is reminded of the punishment for the long-winded preacher in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Micado: “To listen to sermons by mystical Germans who preach from ten to six.” Aristotle placed his treatments on the passions in his Rhetoric because he thought rhetoric does not determine the truth, but it is the art of the speaker to dispose his audience to be open to what he has to say. The passions are very involved in this openness, and so the preacher must take account of who is listening to what he is saying. This follows from the famous Scholastic axiom: “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In this case, this is the congregation.

The homily is not the only kind of preaching. The term “sermon” can also be applied to any spiritual discourse, for example retreat conferences. These can be given at any time by any one. They are not reserved to Mass, and so are not reserved to clerics. “Lay persons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory, if necessity requires it in certain circumstances, or it seems advantageous in particular cases, according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops without prejudice to can. 767, 1.” (Canon 766) They are also distinct from talks given at Mass, which are not Christian teaching, for example a parish finance report or fundraising talks. However, if this were done, it would perhaps avoid confusion to have it done at another time than that of the homily, for example, after communion.


Question: Is it a mortal sin to sleep at a relative’s house if they are living with someone, and are not married, and both are lapsed Catholics?

Answer: The question addresses the issue of scandal. It should go without saying that the questioner disapproves of the marital situation of the relative. The teaching of St. Thomas on the moral nature of scandal is quite thorough in the Summa Theologiae. The term expresses a spiritual stumbling block. Scandal, therefore, has to do with causing or disposing another person to experience sin. Thomas defines it as: “Something done or said less rightly that occasions another’s spiritual downfall.” (Aquinas, Summa, II-II, 43, 1, co.)

Aquinas goes on to say that such an action must be exterior because another cannot take occasion for evil from thoughts. Further, this action must be either evil in itself, or have the appearance of evil. In addition, nothing can cause another to sin by sufficient cause but the other’s will. So scandal is more an occasional cause.

Aquinas distinguished between direct scandal, which involves not only an evil action but also the intent to lead another into sin, and accidental scandal. The former is active scandal; the latter is passive scandal. Passive scandal results when a person does not do an evil deed as such, and does not intend to lead another into sin. According to this distinction, active scandal is in the person giving it; passive scandal is in the person scandalized regarding moral responsibility, which would lead to sin. A person could take scandal from a good deed, as was the case with the leadership of Israel being scandalized at the miracles of Our Lord.

Active scandal may be a venial sin, if it is accidental. This would be the case “when, through a slight indiscretion, a person either commits a venial sin, or does something that is not a sin in itself, but has the appearance of evil.” (Aquinas, Summa, II-II, 43, 4, co.)

There are thus three issues involved: the possibility of complete family rupture if one should refuse to stay at the house, the integrity of the one who disapproves, and the possibility of seeming to approve if he should stay there. The first complicates the other two.

If there is no possibility of complete family rupture, then the answer would seem obvious that he should stay in some other location when visiting. This is both for his own peace of mind, and to affirm the truth of what he believes. If his family is truly tolerant, they should understand. Though, strictly speaking, it would not be evil for him to stay in the house, and be morally indifferent, but another could certainly take passive scandal from it.

If there is such a possibility, then the issue of scandal arises. St. Thomas teaches that scandal is a word or action, evil in itself, which occasions another’s spiritual ruin. (Aquinas, Summa, II-II, 43, 1, co.) This may be either an external action, or omission of action. When one omits to do what one should do, this is evil. The action must be evil, or have the appearance of evil. Scandal thus causes the sin of another as an occasion, not by direct action. The causality then is only a moral one.

Active, direct scandal would result from an action which is truly evil. Indirect scandal would result from what might be perceived as the approval of evil. In the case of staying in the house of a relative living with someone, this could certainly be interpreted as approval. The action is not evil in itself, nor is active scandal. Others could take it as an approval of evil. The possibility of sin would thus depend on just how approving one seems to be. It seems if there is another alternative, one should use it. If not, then merely to stay with the offending party would not constitute a grave sin. So it would not be a mortal sin, all other things being equal.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
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  1. Avatar Donna Ruth says:

    In some situations it can be easy to circumvent the possible scandal of staying at a home where the couple is lapsed Catholic and not married. One can just smile and say, “Thanks. I really don’t want to put you out. It is good to see you, and I do want to visit more, but I am really much more comfortable at a motel. I’d not sleep a wink knowing my snoring might disrupt the household.” And they might perceive the real reason, but say nothing. In that case, the message has been politely delivered.

    But … as to the concern about “rupture in the family,” how long do we pussyfoot around a serious moral situation? Do we just smile and tolerate forever, as if there was not a problem? How would we feel if the couple in question died suddenly in a car accident? And we had never said anything about the seriousness of the sin? Let us, however, give some credit to those loved ones who have chosen to live without the benefit of marriage. If it is a close family member, one might imagine they might be very upset if we expressed deep concerns about their living arrangement and the fate of their eternal souls. They might even be upset for many months or even years, but let us count on past familial love and attachment to remind their hearts of the goodness of the past relationship. They likely do not want rupture either and will take steps to restore some of the relationship. Especially if we are smiling, gentle – and have left the door open.

    In the end, the serious question is – who will bell the cat? We are Catholics, and if we love we must gently correct each other. And, if not here, then where; if not now, then when? The concern about “rupture in the family” can lead to necessary correction never given …