In The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Saint John of Sinai presents us with a canonical conundrum that perplexed him and he left unsolved. Throughout the centuries publishers of The Ladder have inserted a note in an attempt to solve this problem and not allow it to go unanswered leaving readers confused. Below is the conundrum as presented by Saint John, and below that are some of the answers that have been added by commentators and scholiasts.
Saint John of Sinai, Ladder 15:48 -
A certain learned man put a serious question to me, saying: "What is the gravest sin, apart from murder and denial of God?" And when I said: "To fall into heresy," he asked: "Then why does the Catholic Church receive heretics who have sincerely anathematized their heresy, and consider them worthy to partake in the Mysteries; while on the other hand when a man who has committed fornication is received, even though he confesses and forsakes his sin, the Apostolic Constitutions order him to be excluded from the immaculate Mysteries for a number of years?" I was struck with bewilderment, and what perplexed me then has remained unsolved.
- When the same question was put to Archbishop Timothy of Alexandria (380-385), he replied: "Because the one, the sin of the heretic, is committed with the free cooperation of the will through ignorance; and so the Church's discipline is designed to make heretics more ready to return and fornicators less eager to sin." (Resp. Can. 20 in J.B. Pitra, Iuris Ecclesiastici Graecorum Historia et Monumenta, vol. 1, p. 635.)
- The scholiast in P.G. 88 col. 912, Scholion 26 responds: "Heresy is a deviation of the mind from the truth and a sin of the mouth or tongue, whereas fornication is a sin of the whole body, which damages and depraves all the feelings and powers of body and soul, darkens the image and likeness of God in man, and is therefore called a fall. Heresy comes from presumption, while fornication comes from bodily comfort. Therefore heretics are corrected by humiliation, and sensualists by suffering."
- Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos (1250-1330) writes: "The heretic is impious only with his words, which is why he is treated with words. The fornicator, however, because they sin with their soul and body, needs plenty of time and strenuous asceticism to be purified of the illness of the sin. The heretic considered heresy good, which is why he chose it. While the fornicator, although knowing the act is wicked, overlooked this because of their sensuality."
- A note in K. A. Vretos’s edition of The Ladder (Constantinople, 1883, p. 91) says: "Obviously heresy is the greatest of sins. But since the passion of fornication has a tyrannical power due to pleasure and attracts attention, it often causes men to fall after repentance. Therefore, the fornicator is debarred for periods from the Holy Mysteries, that he may not return to his vomit and jeopardize his salvation. It also serves to put fear in all, and make them struggle against their passions and use the grace of the Holy Spirit. Heresy is a mental passion that springs from error and ignorance, or from ambition and vainglory. But when the evil is removed, it no longer causes conflict or trouble. Further, spiritual education aims at cutting out evil by the root. By the practice of a strict life, fornicators are trained to forget the pleasure of lust. For whereas the evil of heresy lies only in the mind, the passion of fornication also affects the body with corruption. The man who repents of heresy is at once cleansed by turning to God with his whole personality. But one who returns to God from fornication usually needs time and tears and fasting to get rid of the pleasure and heal the wound in his flesh and stabilize his mind. If, however, both remain unrepentant, they will certainly have the same condemnation."