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Sexual thoughts: understanding them in light of faith. I of II

August 5, 2012 by  
Filed under Capital Sins, Dan Burke, Lust, Mortal, Sin

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?

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.

In our next post we will make more positive assumptions about your question and explore the idea of grades of sexual sin and lust.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • LizEst

    This is a good topic…and it applies to those who are married as well as to those who are unmarried.

  • Sarah Pierzchala

    Could you please consider answering the original question in a way that be helpful to the parent of an Asperger’s teen boy, who is extremely legalistic and suffers from scruples?

    • Dear Sarah – Well, as you know, people that suffer from Asperger’s or Autism struggle with nuance. The challenge is to make things as simple and clear as we can. In the second post I will give scenarios that are more specific and as black and white as they can be (in my opinion).

      • Sue Korlan

        I suspect that many people suffer from scruples, and that the questions given may be due to a fear that something not sinful is a mortal sin. So please make sure you clarify those things that aren’t sinful even though sexual while you’re at it.

  • Pat Wimsatt

    My thoughts are the answer to the question does not really address the question, but supposes that the questioner does not understand what he/she is asking. I tend to be more simplistic in my views. Are thoughts of sexuality sinful? Thoughts are often the result of Satan’s temptations. It is not sinful to be tempted. Even Jesus was tempted. I beleive thoughts become sinful when we willfully act upon those temptations. In sexual temptations, it’s when we choose to actively become aroused or entertained by such thoughts, rather than saying a prayer and moving away from impure thoughts or desires. Certainly if we allow these thoughts to mature, and they lead us to other, more involved actions, than I beleive a Grave ( Mortal) sin can occur. But.. I believe it is also important to realize we are human, we fail, and God will forgive ALL sins. The church asks us to attend confession regularly, and so does our Blessed Mother at Medjugorje. If you fail, have faith the God’s mercy, pick yourself up – As Jesus did after falling while carrying his cross, attend confession, and try your best going forward. God’s Mercy is much greater than God’s judgement. God Bless.

    • You may be right. Sometimes we restate the question to ask and answer the right question. I attempted to cover that base here. The follow-up post will provide a more positive assumption and a direct answer to the specific questions asked.

  • Doug

    Mortal? I thought they all were. “For the wages of sin is death.” Rom 6:23, Douay

    • LizEst

      Doug – For a sin to be mortal it must meet all three of the conditions of paragraph 1857 of the Catechism, which Dan has listed in his response above.

      Paragraph 1867 goes on to talk about the sins that “cry to heaven”: “the blood of Abel [murder], the sin of the Sodomites [sodomy], the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt [slavery], the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, injustice to the wage earner.”

      Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter “The Splendor of Truth” (Veritatis Splendor), para 80, talks about “acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’…the Church teaches that ‘there exists acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.’ The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: ‘Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons…they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator.”

      That’s a broader brushstroke of these types of sin. We’ll have to stay tuned to what other words of wisdom Dan will give us in his next post on this subject.

    • Jim

      Doug: allow me to give the “proof text” Protestant answer to your question. Not all sins are mortal.
      16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. I John 5:16-17

  • $1650412

    Dan, this is a good topic to address because sexual temptations and sins are the ones I would guess are most prevalent in our culture—I am basing that idea on how much of our media advertising and entertainment are sexualized. (Maybe they run neck and neck with sins of covetousness or maybe they are a companion with it.)
    I thought this response was like listening to a father speak to a son and I very much appreciated the tone of the response in that way. I am looking forward to the second part. I hope that you can address first of all what is sexual sin, so that is clear- I think there is a lot of confusion on what is rightly ordered, what is disordered, what is temptation, what is repression, and what is sin– beginning in the thought life….and then how to deal with each aspect effectively in Christ. (Maybe this is your second book?) God bless the questioner, and the answerer! :o)

    • Thanks Jo – I don’t think I will get to all of these but we will answer the questions directly…

  • Theo

    Perhaps the question is not so much like, “How much arsenic can I add to my soda before it becomes lethal?” but more like, “How much alcohol can I drink before I cross over into sinful drunkenness?” I do not wish to dispute the veracity of what you say, but this particular matter is very complex and depends greatly on context and circumstances. You are insightful for pointing out the inadequacy of the question as stated. For instance, does any consumption of alcohol constitute sinful drunkenness, if it is consumed for the sole intent of the effect of alcohol? Or if it is done by a minor in disobedience to his parents? If so, one drink can be sinful while getting fairly buzzed in a licit context may not be. Materially similar sexual thoughts could be more or less sinful — I’m not asserting they are, but it seems to me they could be — depending on context and circumstances, or perhaps not even sinful (although the circumstances would be pretty narrowly defined). For instance thoughts about a particular person who is one’s spouse, not for the mere pleasure of it, but in anticipation of licit encounter would be one thing. The exact same sort of thoughts about the same person but where that person is not one’s spouse would not be morally comparable. The individual really has to be honest with himself — about himself and what he is doing — and that is a difficult thing.

    • LizEst

      Good observations, Theo. Context and circumstances do play into these things. And, one must be truly honest with him/herself. There are some things, however, that intrinsically evil in and of themselves because of their object. When something intrinsically evil has been done, the variable is how culpable a person is or is not.

      btw, I like your name…are you a student of theology or the like?

  • Timothy

    In practice, I think that it might be possible to recognize the beauty of Gods creation, that being, nature, the universe, and the human body. There is that fine line of looking at another person and saying, ‘wow, that person looks good, healthy, and in shape”, as opposed to, looking at the person in a sinful way, entertaining thoughts contrary to love. Please correct me if I’m wrong brothers and sisters, but it is when the thought (the enemy/the devil, planting seeds to reach the effects of original sin, the deadly sin of lust), moves to the heart. Consenting with the temptation I believe is when we fall into mortal sin. You can feel this shift with practice, moving from the mind to the heart. God Bless. Timothy

    • Becky Ward

      What you are saying, to my mind, is exactly what Blessed John Paul II is saying in the “Theology of the Body”!
      Once purified, in and through God’s love, we can look upon beautiful bodies as we do a masterpiece of art or music, building, writing, teamwork, etc….with pure admiration, praise, and gratitude for the Creator!! 🙂

  • Mario Schembri Wismayer

    Dan your answer is frustrating because all you do effectively is not answer. You first list questions that need answering with excruciating detail then you proceed to equivocate. Worse, you stand in judgement of the question (rather than answering it) when you say that anyone considering doing any of the above is deliberately weighing how far he can go. Yes, that is so but we do this all the time – How much can I drink/How fast can I drive/How much can I smoke before going over the edge. Same with these issues – sometimes we KNOW we’re going to fail, so we seek to see how far we can fall from grace before the damage becomes mortal. We need to have a safety-net; a measure. You are morally bound to answer these question rather than climb onto your high-horse and refuse to do so. So, Dan, do you have what it takes to actually answer those burning questions?

    • You might want to read part II

    • LizEst

      Pepin – First of all, Dan has posted a part II that you may find addresses your issues.

      Secondly, while I understand your frustration, please know that not everyone is looking to see how far they can go with things. Not everyone smokes, not everyone drinks, not everyone exceeds the speed limit, not everyone has wild sex or such thoughts…and they are still human! I know someone whose father was killed by a drunk driver when she was five. She never, but never, drinks and drives and she is in her 20s. She knows all too well the heartache that can cause. So too, growth in virtue teaches us not to go in directions that MAY be dangerous for us. There is no one size fits all safety net. Your limits are not my limits…and vice versa. Part of the spiritual journey is a process of becoming more self-aware, in order that we may know our limits and grow in our relationship with God and with others.

      With God, all things are possible; so, don’t give up. I encourage you to seek out a spiritual director for help with this…and I wish you all the best in your quest for holiness.

  • I go away for a week and I come back to find such wonderful Posts and so illuminating Responses. On this one, Dan, I will just listen and learn. God in His unfathomable Mercy brought me thus far that I am living on a different plane. But learning never ends. God bless you all for your Responses thus far.

    • LizEst

      Welcome back Mary! I was wondering where you were and am glad you are OK. We missed you. Thought you might be on retreat or something of that sort. God bless you!

      • Thank you, LizEst. I was attending a Week’s Bible Convention conducted by the Vincetian Fathers. They have a Prayer House,and are constructing a larger Retreat Centre some 45 kms out of Nairobi City Centre, where they run different Retreats regularly throughout the year.

        By the way, Dan, at that Convention, we were taught something by one of the Formators which left me quite puzzled. He asked us: “Does God hear the Prayers of Sinners?” Very many of us – including this old wretched sinner – lifted up their hands to say Yes. Then quoting the Old Testament somewhere, he categorically stated that God does not listen to Prayers of Sinners. I was throughly confused.

        Through the Euchristic Apostolate of the Divine Mercy, to which I am a active Member, the most powerful Testimony Jesus gave to us through Saint Faustina Kowalska was that the Greatest Attribute of God is Mercy. Therefore, He is ever running after sinners – the most hardened the more – to get them back to Him. And therefore, like the Prodigal Son, when the sinner hears the call of God and cries for Mercy, God is there to receive that soul.

        I know this is way outside this current Post, but I would like to hear Dan’s and our Respondents’ comments about this Statement which, to me, is contrary to the whole Salvation Mystery of the Incarnation, Life, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, became man to come and die for sinners – and I have always believed He hears the Prayers of repentant Sinners. He even gave a very commanding affirmation that even the Greatest and Hardened Sinner who prays the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy just once, that sinner will receive His Graces to begin the long walk to conversion and back into His Merciful Heart

        • LizEst

          That statement that you are so worried about needs some explanation! Yes, Mary, you are right. God does hear the cry of the sinner. “Can he who made the ears not hear?” (Psalm 94:9a). At the same time, Psalm 66:18 certainly indicates, “Had I cherished evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard.”

          Does God contradict Himself? God is Truth and cannot contradict Himself. So, what we have in this situation is the case that the word “hearing” can have more than one meaning. Hearing the cry of the sinner is one thing. God truly wants the sinner to repent and turn to him. He readily hears the cry of the sinner. And, the prayers of conversion are powerful indeed.

          Hearing (granting our prayerful requests), also known as hearing and obeying, is another definition of the same word. Saint Collette used to say something like, “If you would have God obey you, you must obey Him” (sorry I have misplaced the exact quote at this moment). It really boils down to being in conformity with the will of God. If you do what God asks of you, if you follow His commands, then your will is in conformity with His. And, if you do His will, if you hear His word and keep it, when you ask for something from His abundance, He readily grants your desires…if it accords with the divine will.

          Think of how you would feel if a good friend asked you for a favor. If you have a good relationship, you will bend over backwards to help him or her. If that friend has betrayed you over and over again, if they have been irresponsible, if they have abused others, it is natural to be wary of granting that favor. Jesus does command us to forgive from the heart. More than likely you are going to step back and think about whether or not it is wise for you to do so And, even if you do grant the favor, you will probably watch carefully to see if how that person receives that gift and what they do with it. It is not going to sit very well with you if your friend thanks you for the gift and then proceeds to curse you or destroy your family or home.

          We are very blessed that God is so magnanimous, so rich in mercy, that he forgives us time and time again from the heart even though we certainly don’t deserve it. But, we can learn from His example. The saints have learned, which is why they are so effective in their intercessory prayers for us. They learned to hear God’s word and keep it. They do the will of God. When we walk along the same path, when we fall and get back up and continue on the way, God hears us and grants those desires that accord with His will for us and for those we love.

          Hope this helps. God bless you, Mary!

          • God bless you,
            LizEst….now do you see why we love this Website so much? We walk together, enlightening one another, encouraging one another, reassuring one another when one is in doubt about anything; and this is God’s Work. He has inspired you to confirm to me that I was right to feel that that emphatic statement the Facilitator gave us was not right. Why??? Because God is ever ready to forgive a repentant sinner. He hears repentant sinners’prayers, and it is His Very Grace which initially touches a sinner to look at one’s soul and make up one’s mind to run to the Father, throw one at His feet and beg for forgiveness and the Grace and Strength to amend one’s sinful ways and begin to live for the purposes for which God created one. As Jesus told Saint Faustina: “Mercy Is The Greatest Attribute of God.” And He sure pours His Mercy in torrents to the soul of a repentant Sinner. And He also said : “The Greater The Sinner, the more right that soul has to My Mercy”….that is our Compassionate, Loving, Merciful and Forgiving God.

          • LizEst

            Mary, actually, you are both right.

            The facilitator was using the definition of the word “hearing” to mean “hearing your heart.” You and others were using a different definition of the word to mean “hearing your words.” God certainly hears and responds to the sinner who cries out to Him. This is because God sees and hears the heart. And, the heart of a sinner, who cries out to God is a heart that is turned in the direction of God.

            Now, let’s try an example! Recall the servant who owed much and couldn’t pay it. His master forgave Him. But, this servant wasn’t merciful to a debtor who owed him little. God sees and hears the heart and doesn’t like that attitude. So, God isn’t going to give Him a favorable “hearing” (think of it as someone asking a judge to hear his case). For sure, God hears his words perfectly. But, God sees and hears his heart perfectly as well and won’t respond to his pleas until this guy turns his heart around. This is what the facilitator meant. If a person is stubborn in their sin, God, the just judge, isn’t going to give them a good “hearing” even though he can hear their words just fine.

            “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). And, this is “what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b-d). If you are honestly trying to amend your life and do His will, He blesses your intentions. You are on the right path. And, God both hears your words and He sees and hears your heart and gives you a favorable “hearing.”

            God bless you, Mary. Hope this helps clarify things. You are making the effort for God! So, from what you write, I would say God assuredly hears both your words and your heart.

          • Thank you,LizEst. What I believe God hears and responds to is not the words I speak when I pray…..NO. He hears and responds to my genuinely Repentant Heart which is so broken up for offending such a Loving God, it no longer has any peace until it throws itself at His Feet, repents its sins and begs not only for forgiveness but the Grace to turn way from its sinful ways. That is the Prayer I believe God responds to from the sinner. My Faith is simple and elementary and comes from the direction of a Cradle Catholic. This old lady believes like Peter who sinned grieviously by denying His Master and with a completely broken and wretched heart repented all the days of his life. He knew Jesus read his heart and forgave him, hence the thrice affirmation of His Responsibility as the “Rock”upon which Christ would build His Church

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