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Sexual thoughts: understanding them in light of faith- II/II

August 7, 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?

In the first of the two-post series on this question we covered some of the possible problematic elements involved in this question. In this post, we will make more positive assumptions and work to directly answer your questions about lust and grades of sin.

Are All Sexual Sins Mortal? Are Their 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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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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  • Debbie

    So, if all the scenarios are based on the fact that these thoughts are based on a man and woman within the sacred bond of marriage and the thoughts are about each other, it is a mortal sin to think about being with each other and acting upon it. Or am I misreading your last sentence?

    • LizEst

      No, Debbie, it’s not a mortal sin to think about being with each other and acting upon it. “Conjugal love…has its origin in the highest source, as it were, in God, Who ‘is Love’ and Who is the Father, ‘from whom all parenthood in heaven and earth receives its name’…Through mutual self-giving, which is unique and exclusive to them, spouses seek a communion of persons…[conjugal love] is human and therefore both of the sense and of the spirit…this love is total..both faithful and exclusive to the end of life…and…fruitful.” Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI, 1968)

      Lust turns the natural and normal desire of spouses for each other on its head, treating one’s spouse as an OBJECT and not with the dignity of one who is made in the image and likeness of God. Lust seeks self-satisfaction, at the expense of the other, even when the spouse may be ill or tired. Lust can also be closed to true unitive love or procreative cooperation with the Lord. Lust can involve the other in unnatural sexual acts. “It is not only solitary but uninventive in the slaking of its thirst…it is sinful because it an atrophying…What is left to Lust when its cravings at last subside, as subside in the end they will? It is alone. It has died. It has made no bonds and is in the desert that it has made, with no longer even a craving…It is significant that we say we lust after a person or object. Lust is always in pursuit and ends as empty-handed as it began…What we do in private has repercussions on ourselves, and what we are and believe has repercussions on others. What we do in our own homes will inevitably affect, not only our own behavior outside them, but what we expect and tolerate in the behavior of others, and what we expect the rulers of our societies to tolerate.” (Henry Fairlie in “The Seven Deadly Sins Today” 1978).

      Lust is, sadly, not unlike spousal rape in a marriage: just because a couple is married does not mean that rape can never happen. It’s the same with lust. Just because a couple is married does not mean that lusts cannot occur.

      Hope this helps, Debbie. God bless you.

      • Debbie

        Thank you, Liz. I appreciate your
        response. Unfortunately, your response has brought about another question as I
        know many couples in which one spouse is adhering to the religious aspect of
        their union and they hope their partner is also, but they are not and it more
        of a lust. Their partner is not religious. Is it a sin for the religious
        partner to participate to only find time after time their partner is not on the
        same level? Again, this is all within a marriage.
        My apologies for so many
        questions but this is a subject rarely discussed and it is nice to find a place
        where the subject is not forbidden.

        • Debbie – assuming no abuse is involved, it is the obligation of both husband and wife to give themselves to one another as a normal expression of the sacramental bond of marriage. This can be very difficult if either has very different motives. It might be helpful to read the lives of married saints who have lived in this very challenging situation. It can be very painful. The key is for the faithful partner to be faithful and to pray for their spouse.

          • Becky Ward

            Great Response – Sticky subject.
            Pray, pray, pray!
            I can personally testify to the transforming power of prayer in my marriage as I changed my heart and began walking the narrow path. My husband is not baptized nor practicing any faith……..yet he is changing, softening, and all I have done is pray, leave it in God’s hands and truly desire that my spouse know God as He has granted me to know Him.

        • LizEst

          Debbie – This is an excellent question and, as you said, faced by many. I’ve taken a little time in getting back to you because I wanted to do research on this.

          My sense is it is not a sin for the practicing religious partner. This practicing Catholic is not the one viewing the conjugal act as a lustful thing.

          HOWEVER, if the question is also being asking about contraception, then there are other issues involved depending on the circumstances e.g. does one spouse know the other is always contracepting? Or, are they just guessing they are contracepting? Remember, there are three conditions for mortal sin: it’s a serious matter, it’s known to be wrong and it is consented to.

          So, specifically, with regards to the issue of contraception, I am including a link to a Vatican document titled “Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life” published in 1997 by the Pontifical Council for the Family:
          It is a guide for confessors on just this sort of thing…and it’s good reading for lay people, too! I call your attention specifically to paragraph 13, which says “Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund [unfruitful] …cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are JOINTLY [emphasis mine] met [then it lists them]…” I strongly recommend you read at least this part of the document both because it pertains to the contraceptive dimension of what you are asking and because it is authoritative …and not just my opinion.

          I hope this helps Debbie…and God bless you.

          • Debbie

            Thank you all. Your responses are most helpful and I appreciate your answers to these difficult questions.

        • LizEst

          Debbie – I am posting your response here because it came up as “hidden” and if I try to respond to it, both my response and yours will completely disappear:
          “Thank you all. Your responses are most helpful and I appreciate your answers to these difficult questions.”

          First of all: You’re welcome!

          Secondly, Debbie, this is the second time in about a week that your response to something I wrote shows up as “hidden”. Dan has told me that it seems to be that you are typing in MS Word and pasting it into the combox. He goes on to say, “this brings code with it and is probably the cause.”

          So, when you respond to a post, please type directly into the combox. This is addressed in the Frequentlly Asked Questions (FAQ’s) as number 4 (9) here:

          If it’s not the case that you are using MS Word and pasting it into the combox, would you please let us know so the site managers can figure this out. Thanks so much…and God bless you.

          • Debbie

            Thank you, again! I was wondering why it wasn’t showing.

    • Debbie, I did not assume that the scenarios above played out within the bonds of marriage. My last sentence points to the need to live out our sexuality only within the bonds of sacramental marriage. It is not a sin for a husband or wife to desire their spouse sexually unless that desire is twisted into lust and the aim to use the other rather than love the other.

  • Rob

    These two posts have been very helpful. I have grappled with the issue of pornography and have wondered whether it is a sin when a thought pops into the thead, whether it’s the pictures I’ve viewed or sexual relationships I’ve actually experienced. Gosh, but it is a challenge with all the temptation out there confronting everyone 24/7. So far, I’ve found that frequent confesssion and attending Mass a few times a week really help.

    • LizEst

      God bless you Rob. Very brave of you to post that. I trust you have a good confessor to help you out with that. A spiritual director can be of great assistance as well, if you do not already have one.

  • Aaron

    Very insightful post, although I think a lot more can be said about culpability and gravity in Scenarios 1 through 3. I think the ideal all of us should be striving for is Scenario 1, a pure and chaste heart. My pastor, speaking about purity, once joked that sexual thoughts stop “three minutes after you’re dead.” These thoughts are temptations, and we should reject them as soon as they occur. As we grow in holiness and awareness of our spiritual lives, we will be better equipped to reject these thoughts in this way.

    Additionally, I’d say it’s pretty clear that indulging explicit and illicit sexual thoughts for any length of time does constitute grave matter, even if they’re rejected after a short amount of time. That said, if indulging these thoughts is habitual and if you’re making a sincere effort to reject them and embrace chastity, your culpability might only be venial – especially if you are able to reject them soon after you have begun to dwell on them. Ask yourself, at what point you became fully aware of what you were doing, and did you stop then? Your confessor or spiritual director can help you discern your culpability.

    • Aaron – very well said – good advice and perspective.

    • Becky Ward

      Laughter is great medicine!! 3 minutes after we’re dead huh…?? Always good to know about things we cannot totally get rid of. 🙂

      • Aaron

        Thanks for the kind words. One thing I should have probably given more attention in my comment is the necessity of purifying and transforming our minds for Christ. Those who are struggling with sexual thoughts and want to overcome them should seek to come to a new mind in Christ. It’s only through Christ that we can overcome temptation. We should never fall into the trap that makes us think we face our struggles, temptation, and sin alone. Coincidentally, Msgr. Charles Pope wrote a wonderful blog post on the mind today:

        • LizEst

          Yes, Aaron, thoughts really do matter. God sees what is in our heart and our mind. We can’t hide from Him there. “Lord, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.” (Psalm 139 1, 2). Thanks for the link, a great blog post by Msgr. Pope.

    • John F. Siple

      I’ve learned to allow myself the “2 second rule”. I behold a lovely, beautiful man or woman, but I admire their creation, beauty and then I stop! I focus elsewhere, praising God for such a beauty. How’s that sound?

      • That could be just fine for you. Personally, there is no redemptive reason for me to muse on the beauty of any woman aside from my wife. So, I don’t.

      • LizEst

        It works for you, good! For most folks these days, that’s not the best policy. There’s too much opportunity for evil to worm its way in. For many, it can amount to the “I am strong enough to fight this” trap. Just what the devil wants them to think.

        • Aaron

          Physical beauty is a gift of God’s creation, but like with so many of our gifts (such as food, drink, technology, talents, and intelligence), our appreciation must be properly ordered. The danger, especially in this society, is that these thoughts can lead very quickly to lust.

          If you are admiring someone’s physical beauty simply for selfish indulgence, you may open yourself up to more and more selfish indulgence. In a moment of weakness, you might fall into sin.

          Provided you approach these situations chastely and you have the capacity to reject temptation if it occurs, appreciating and delighting in physical beauty might be licit may include: (1) the physical attraction a single person has for another single person of the opposite sex; (2) in the creation of or enjoyment of art, such as sculpture, paintings, plays or books; (3) in fashion or clothing design or design consultation.

          Obviously, if creating art that celebrates physical beauty leads you to sin, it’s not worth your soul. Just like how for some, enjoying one beer leads to much worse. When you are married or if it’s directed at a married person of the opposite sex, admiring physical beauty for its own sake can be very dangerous. Ultimately, physical beauty cannot redeem us, and it’s very important to put it in its proper context. Much more fulfilling is when we strive to see the true beauty in all people, body and soul.

          • LizEst

            Good thoughts Aaron.

            Yes, there is licit enjoyment of physical beauty. It’s what you do with that beauty that is crucial. One of the keys, as you indicated, is “the capacity to reject temptation.” In our day and age, the opportunities to sin are so great that, as a society, we have become conditioned to accept more temptation rather than less. And, that’s one of the devil’s traps!

            We have forgotten about the custody of the eyes and ears spoken about in Isaiah 33:15de of who can dwell on the heights, “He who practices virtue and speaks honestly…stopping his ears lest he hear of bloodshed, closing his eyes lest he look on evil” (Isaiah 33:15a, de). We have forgotten Jesus’ warning, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…” (cf Matthew 5:29). We have forgotten what the terms “occasion of sin” and “near occasion of sin” mean, occasions which, in the oldest act of contrition used today, we promise to avoid.

            Something that is also of great importance is that one must know his/herself. Since this is such a sex-saturated culture, for many people, the best policy is not to engage in such temptation, not to test how far one can go before falling into sin, and not to encourage others to see how far they can go before falling into sin. It’s just not wise.

      • John F. Siple

        I’m chaste now. I have not allowed sexual thoughts to enter. When I find one out, it’s immediately forsaken! I’m proud of my chastity, a pure heart, and am gaining strength week by week through prayer, Sacraments, devotions, groups, praise. Sounds like I’m bragging, but it’s simply true for me. I have learned to forgive above all.

  • clare

    “+” constant sexual temptations for daughter.
    Why, My Lord, Why, so unexpected? I have no understanding of this. Why allow this to happen to daughter,whom You Love so? I now encounter, My Lord.
    Deep sins have I been hiding from Jesus for years-too embarrassed to confess, justification, youth, or to admit. Just get it out, confess it, I hear the soft voice.
    “+” daughter encounters her sins in three ways for every confession- another day’s post -perhaps.
    “+” daughter, there are many Saints in Heaven who are waiting to help you and these Saints and I, Your Jesus, will be right by your side.
    “+” encountering my sins, I sink, quickly,I cannot even look at Blessed Mother. She comes, you are so wrong, daughter, and do you think you can do this on your own strength? I am waiting for you. Come see Me and touch the Hem of My Garment-see what you find there.
    “+” daughter has been there. I, My Lord, so WILL to “square the Heavenlies” with my sins of impurity- past and present . In the Confessional Jesus was Kind, Loving, and Forgiving -Mercy Endless–but the happening for me was that Jesus, in the Confessional, was so Respectful to me there.
    The weight coming off my Soul was incredible.
    Choice Saints, and daughter have actually become good “friends” over this.

    “+” Jesus now makes His request for daughter,Second PurityHard in todays’ Society. I have given up much- very little Media, Radio,TV, Movies, Books. I am not scrupulous in this-but perhaps more Conservative than most who travel down this path.
    “+” a further request, Prayer, Sacrifice, Obedience, some form of FastingNot only for daughter- but for My people, and the youth in your Country. “Google” ‘Catholic Prayer+sexual temptation’.
    “+” my Reparation: the Internet allows us to see many Catholic Organizations to support. At my Church, St. Mary’s, is an annual Purity Fashion Show, “google” ‘Pure Fashion’. The Internet allows us to see this Site, RCSD, to support!
    “+” this is a battle, especially for the mind, so My Lord Instructs daughter.
    I am always anxiously, recklessly,violently, fighting Anyway,
    My Lord is always there to say to daughter, I AM always with you, I AM the One who never leaves you in your misery, I AM the One who will not let you fail, you daughter, must not fail Me by your distrust in My Divine Mercy.
    “+” Thank you My, Lord, My Master, So Crucified, as always You, My Lord, are too generous to travel with me.clare

    • Becky Ward

      God’s Providence is absolutley AMAZING!! 🙂
      I have had numerous conversations and/or encounters with blog posts, news, books, Magnificat meditations, etc. that deal with the issue of impurity this past week!
      I Love the “Pure Fashion” site….and agree, we really need to pray for our youth. The Devil wants their souls!
      (Ours too….)
      Great insights Clare, thank you for sharing!

    • LizEst

      Happy Name Day, August 11: Memorial of St. Clare

  • Diane

    What about if you think of a previous encounter with your spouse to “help” during the current encounter? Would that be considered mortal?

    • Diane – there is no sin in thinking about the love exchanged between you and your spouse as long as that love reflects the unitive and procreative aspects of true self-giving love as opposed the self-centered lust as I outlined in the post.

      • Diane

        Thank you Dan. Your response relieves a lot of guilt feelings.

  • $1650412

    I think you handled this with delicacy and clarity Dan. This is a topic area where I wish we had an opportunity for small group discussion and mentoring, women with women and men with men, maybe even further age or vocation segregated. I think there is a real need, especially in the anatomy of a temptation, and how to kill one.

    • Thanks Jo – This might be possible someday. Interestingly enough, I received a call from a prominent author on this topic in response to the post. We are working on an interview for CSD on healing sexual wounds.

      • abandon56

        So glad to hear this.

  • abandon56

    Anyone care to comment on handling attractions that come up quickly and unexpectedly? I suspect that some of the force of these attractions may stem from past abuses . . . friends in junior high school who made lewd comments, witnessing sexual abuse of another, and residual feelings of blurred boundaries . . . I did find a good book recently: My Peace I Leave You by Dawn Eden regarding the healing of sexual wounds via the Saints. It was very helpful and hopeful. It has given me pause to think this is related to these attractions.

    • Dear Abandon – Quickly and unexpectedly – the only way to be strong against these kinds of situations is to be well practiced in self-mortification and close to a confessional. Providentially, I just talked with Dawn yesterday about her new book.

      • LizEst

        Thanks for mentioning your talk with Dawn. I knew I briefly glanced through something a few years ago from her. I just didn’t remember her name!

      • abandon56

        God is good. Thanks, Dan.

  • Joseph

    I was once taught (I forgot by who) that as we strive towards holiness and purity of heart etc or suffice it to say growth in virtue we thrust ourselves to the battle front (as opposed to being indifferent therefore somewhere at the back). Here where the army general of the infernal foes never sleeps and is always scheming, we are attacked by a barrage of carefully organized and calculated assaults that are targeted at our weakest points. Since ‘it is no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me’, I am then equipped by my own Captain/ King with enough weapons to counter the attack (Lk 10:19) but we have to know them so we can effectively use them.
    The devil sends his chief demons in turn to inspire in us (in this order) i) spiritual pride, ii) doubt, iii) atheistic christian virtue or presumption that says God thinks like me, and if we resist through the power of reason now we go into the deep end iv) blasphemy (even when we are praying) and v) LUST. ‘Now he is out of our will and trying to come back in’ so the more we resist, the worse and harder they get, the point being to drive you to focus on your sins and weaknesses and not progress in virtue.
    It is important to realise that we are both spirit and flesh and we can’t change that. We have to take ourselves (in entirety) along this journey — if you are tempted this way — remember you haven’t sinned — always appeal to Jesus for help and go on. If you focus on it you stop making progress. We will have to fight blasphemy, presumption, pride, LUST till we leave this world. Don’t dispair — keep making progress — remember He said ‘I am with you to the consummation of the age.

    • LizEst

      Excellent. Thank you Joseph.

  • Bharat

    Thank you Dan very helpful indeed .

  • Mike

    What a topic! Thanks for listing the basic scenarios.

  • Jon

    I am struggling in this area and am very grateful for this teaching and all of the responses to it. Thanks especially to Aaron and Liz and Joseph. Would appreciate your prayers for victory in this area of my walk with Christ. Thanks

    • LizEst

      You’re welcome, Jon…the glory goes to the Lord. Praying for you!

      • Jon

        Thank you for your prayers! Loved the discussion and comments from you and Mary in Part I on God’s mercy. Realizing how dependent I am on Him for His mercy and grace in order to achieve victory in this area! Please keep praying! Really appreciate it!

        • LizEst

          You’re quite welcome. To God be the glory. May the Lord bring to completion the good work He has begun in you (cf Philippians 1:6).

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