Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On Sexual Thoughts

A question was posted on the Catholic Spiritual Direction website on how should we understand/deal with sexual thoughts in the light of our Christian faith - which is a fairly common problem for most people and even those who do not have intense struggle with sexual addiction in all its forms. Check this out.

Q: I am struggling with sexual thoughts and am wondering about the teachings of the Church. Are all sexual sins mortal and does thinking of sex without arousal a mortal sin? When does the thought become mortal; is it when we don’t control it or is it always mortal? What exactly is lust and what are the church’s teaching on it? Is it always mortal as well?

A: A: Dear Friend, your questions are very direct, which is good, but I am lacking a bit of context. This leaves me with the task of guessing a bit. To try to cover the spectrum of situations, I will first assume the worst, and then in the second post I will answer your questions from a more positive perspective. Also, because these discussions can easily get a bit murky, the need for clarity will override my instinct toward being sensitive to the reader.

Are All Sexual Sins Mortal?

This question is not problematic in and of itself, but it is commonly prompted by a problematic state of heart. When people ask this kind of question they are often asking it in order to determine how to approach a sin they desire to participate in while at the same time attempting to avoid the penalties associated with that sin. Here’s how this question might be restated in this light:

Dear Dan, I want to do XYZ with my girlfriend, however, I don’t want to go to hell. How far can I go before I am in mortal sin?

As you can see, this reveals a person who is clearly aware that the situation they are imagining is in the territory of sin, and that there are grades of sin associated with this activity. This approach falls into the category of grave sin because of the willful nature of the situation, the gravity of the sin, and the fact that it is also a sin that often involves the soul of another. Let me say that again to be sure it sinks in. Taking this approach to this question is inherently grave.

Even if we set aside the grave nature of the sin itself, in this scenario we are not falling accidentally into sin here, but we are entertaining it, judging it, weighing how much we might damage our relationship with God and how we might achieve what we desire with all the perceived benefits but with minimized consequences. This approach is akin to asking “How much arsenic can I add to this soft drink before I am likely to die if I drink it?”

As a setup for the next post, here are a few excerpts from the Catechism on mortal sin:

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

Are All Sexual Sins Mortal? Are There Grades Of Sexual Sin?

The bottom line answer is no, all sexual sins are not mortal. There are grades of sexual sin. To help illustrate how this might work, we have provided four scenarios that reflect various grades of sexual sin with an emphasis on how they might play out in our minds. In all these cases, we will assume full knowledge of the gravity of the sinful thought:

Scenario 1: The thought crosses my mind. I reject it and direct my attention elsewhere. This is not sin.

Scenario 2: The thought crosses my mind. I entertain it or dwell on it for a moment, and then reject it. Now I have embraced a sinful thought and engaged it with my will. This embrace, even if only slight, can place us within venial sin territory.

Scenario 3: The thought crosses my mind. I entertain or dwell on it and continue to do so deliberately. I relish and enjoy the thought and embrace it whenever it pops up. Now we are in mortal sin territory.

Scenario 4: The thought crosses my mind. I entertain and dwell on it. I then act or attempt to act on it. Now we are unquestionably in the realm of mortal sin.

Of course, no hypothetical scenario perfectly reflects a specific experience and more importantly, the state of the soul. Even so, this should be more than adequate as a guide to dealing with the most common circumstances related to sexual thoughts.

What is Lust?

Our last stop on the sexual thought train is at the station of lust. I believe that by now we have probably already your questions but just in case…

Lust is known as a capital sin. In the Summa Theologica (II-II:153:4), St. Thomas notes that “a capital vice is that which has an exceedingly desirable end so that in his desire for it a man goes on to the commission of many sins all of which are said to originate in that vice as their chief source”. So, a capital sin is one that commonly and forcefully leads to other sins. To gain an accurate understanding of lust, it might be helpful to briefly contrast lust and desire.

Lust is a disordered craving of another for the purpose of self-satisfaction without regard for or love of another within the bonds of marriage. Lust is a distortion of man’s natural procreative drive and desire for love and companionship. This procreative drive and desire seeks to bring about union of man and woman to cooperate with God in self-giving to one another for the purpose of union and procreation. Lust seeks merely to satisfy the distorted desires of the individual without concern for the other, or with little concern for the other; without a true concern for unitive love, or procreative cooperation. So, lust is sin if and when it is embraced at first impulse and beyond as illustrated in the four scenarios regarding grades of sexual sin.

I hope this covers the bases you were looking to cover. Please keep all the bases within the sacred bonds of marriage.

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