In Canto 5 of the Inferno we find ourselves descending into the first stage of hell where people are being actively punished for their sins. This is unlike the prior level, limbo—the home of unbaptized souls who were never sinful enough to merit positive punishment for their sins.
So who is being punished in this stage of hell? We find here those souls who sinned against chastity. The contemporary reader will have two challenges in reading further on. First of all, how could God—who is infinite mercy—even create hell in the first place? And secondly, how could sins against chastity merit the punishment of an eternity in hell?
We can hear the objection with its indignant tone. “You’re telling me that God would send to Hell consenting adults who choose to be intimate with one another? He would send them to Hell for engaging in a natural expression of their love for each other? Really!?” This idea might seem so backwards as to make it difficult for the reader to take the rest of the Divine Comedy seriously, other than as an example of medieval literature.
Before we address these objections, though, let’s review what’s going on in this Canto. Upon entry to this realm, Dante and Virgil encounter Minos who receives the confessions of the damned souls and assigns them to their place of torment.
In this early ring of hell, the wildly swirling wind is a metaphor for the people who have abandoned reason and morality and have given in to the rule of their passions. This exemplifies a common motif in the Inferno, that people’s torments are directly related to their sins. It exemplifies the theme that God fits a sinner’s punishment to his crime.
The cast of characters in this level of hell includes several infamous figures from history, known for their deeds against chastity. The Canto closes with Dante’s conversation with Francesca about her and her lover Paolo’s sad story, and how they were murdered while being caught by her husband Gianciotto while the lovers were together. Dante is so moved with pity at their tale of woe that he faints! Here the Canto closes.
Concerning the question of hell’s existence, we moderns struggle with it because we don’t consider the importance of free will and the consequences of our choices. We say we believe in life after death, and we want salvation for everyone (other than for ‘really bad’ people). We don’t want heaven as a reward; we want it as a hand out.
Choices that are freely and thoughtfully made are eternal, since the soul with its free will is spiritual and eternal. Once made, choices are eternally part of us until they are consciously undone, unchosen. We call that repentance.
Also, sin isn’t sin because it’s breaking a moral rule. The moral rules God has given us flow from the very nature of God’s creation and are designed to help us protect, preserve, appreciate and promote it. How do I know what the most important things in life are? Just look at the commandments. If I don’t like the commandments, I don’t like life.
The souls in hell have freely and knowingly attacked life and in doing so have embraced death. The ability to undo choices is a part of time; time is a dimension of this life in the body. With the death of the body, we’re not in time anymore. Rather, with the death of the body, we’re in eternity, and our choices can no longer be undone. Unfortunately, the souls in hell, at a fundamental level, didn’t chose life and goodness—and God honored that choice. The souls in hell are there because God respected their freedom. As St. Augustine said, “No one is saved without God’s help, and no one is damned without their free choice.”
As to unchastity, the greatest natural power a person has is the power to participate in the creation of a new person. This awesome ‘procreative dimension’ to human sexuality is what elevates it and gives it such great dignity. Moreover, through chaste sexual activity, men and women are joined together in a union whose intimacy is exceeded only by that between the soul and God through the bond of divine faith. This is the ‘unitive dimension’ of human sexuality, and this too is what ennobles and dignifies it. To take the dignity of sexual activity and to appropriate it to our own base and selfish ends is a sin against nature and a sin against God.
Yet this essential desire for union and procreation is an arena of human experience in which we are most easily overcome by our emotions. Unfortunately, when the emotions rule our sexuality, the chaos and hurt it brings is cataclysmic. Sins against chastity are sins against other people as well as sins against God. We can’t forget this.
Nonetheless, sins against chastity, while justly meriting hell, deserve the least punishments hell can offer. They are punished in only the first ring of punishment.
What more can we learn from Canto 5? The punishment against the unchaste is a driving wind blowing them around and around without giving them any rest. How much suffering in this life do we endure because we have subjected our reason—seasoned by faith and inspired by God’s love—to the restless wind of our passions?
And notice this poignant line, “And she to me: ‘There is no greater sorrow; than to recall our time of joy; in wretchedness—and this your teacher knows.’” This is a great point for meditation: we need to live in the present and not long for the past.
To me, the saddest line was the following: “Were He who rules the universe our friend.” The truth is that the fires of Hell are the fires of God’s love which the damned have rejected. God’s love and offer of friendship doesn’t fail; we fail to take Him up on His offer.
The biggest lie we were treated to in Canto 5 was when Francesca implied that her and Paolo’s love was a pure love that was unjustly and cruelly taken from them. What she left out was that both she and Paolo were cheating on their respective spouses and had been doing so for up to ten years before they were caught. Here Dante highlights the inherent unwillingness of the damned to face the reality of their sins. As spoken about above, how often is the sin of the unchaste a sin not only against God but also against our neighbor? Passion can blind us to this obvious truth and make us believe patently false things about ourselves and those with whom we sin.
Fr. Marcus Pollard has been ordained for 25 years and is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, VA. He is currently serving as Pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Falls Church, VA. He has an M. Div. from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD and an M.A. from the Notre Dame Catechetical Institute.