The Bible tells us “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 26:7) and the Buddha is quoted as saying “What we think, we become.” Our minds are powerful tools, so it’s fair to ask the question: what counts as an impure thought? Why are these thoughts wrong? And isn’t just thinking it better than doing it?
Indeed, this is a hot topic. A record number of respondents filled out our recent BustedHalo survey on impure thoughts—and young-adult Catholics aren’t always in agreement with the experts.
Impure or forbidden thoughts include sexual fantasies, violence against others or ourselves, cheating, divorce, rape, and other behaviors that we think of as the worst possible things we could do or have happen to us.
According to our poll, so-called impure thoughts are common: 70% of male respondents and 30% of female respondents said they have what they consider to be impure thoughts once a day or more. Some 43% of respondents said they had confessed their impure thoughts to a priest—and men were more likely to confess than women.
But if the thoughts pop into your mind and then leaves fairly quickly, it’s probably not a big deal. In fact, psychologists often say this is part of the way humans think about right and wrong and reinforce our own ideas of what we would and wouldn’t do.
“Impure feelings simply exist. They aren’t moral realities. It’s what we do with them that determines if they are sinful or not,” said Fr. Gerard J. McGlone, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at St. Joseph’s University. “A sin is a free, conscious act of the will. An impulsive reaction to a situation you didn’t choose isn’t a conscious act of the will. How can that be sinful?”
Other psychologists agree: “If we were somehow able to build a thought recorder, what we would record would be just about every kind of thought imaginable. Sexual thoughts, violent thoughts, some of them are very strange and bizarre–but for the most part, fleeting. They go in one ear and out the other, and a millisecond later you’ve forgotten about them,” argued psychologist David H. Barlow, director of the Center for Stress and Anxiety Disorders at the State University of New York-Albany, as quoted in an article published by Psychology Today.
It’s when you dwell on them that it becomes dangerous. Let’s say you are having a sexual fantasy, and you encourage it, you continue it, and you allow yourself to get lost in the fantasy world that you are creating in your head. That, said Fr. McGlone, is when it gets sinful.
“If you stick with the thought, if it turns into an obsession or a masturbatory fantasy, then yes, it can become as dangerous as reality and is just as much of a sin,” he said. “If it is a self-motivated free act of will, then that’s sinful.”
For young-adult Catholics, the line seems to be a little blurry. According to our BustedHalo poll, 68% of respondents said that it’s less of a sin to think about a sexual act than to actually act on it. Only 32% agreed with the statement: “Fantasizing about a sexual act with someone I am not married to is just as wrong as actually doing it.”
Still, 59% of BustedHalo respondents said they considered thinking about someone who they weren’t married to in a sexual way to be a sin. (Although men were less likely to consider it a sin than women.)
Former President Jimmy Carter famously confessed that he had lusted in his heart. Is this what he meant? Fr. McGlone said he’s not sure, but that many of the young-adults who come to his office to confess impure thoughts are actually being too hard on themselves for the random ideas that come and go in their heads.
The idea of forbidden, dirty or bad thoughts is kind of sexy in its deviance—and has made a mark in popular culture. Author Herman Melville wrote that, “one trembles to think” about man’s ability to “dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts.”
More recently, there’s a movie called Impure Thoughts, eponymous songs, and even a website that specifically encourages confessions of impure thoughts for the prurient interest of others.
Getting at the Why
If lustful or violent thoughts are a recurring problem, Fr. McGlone said as a psychologist he’s interested in getting at the reasons why before condemning the thoughts as sinful.
A man who feels lust for women he passes on the street, but no sexual emotion at all for his wife, has a problem that needs to be addressed. “Might those feelings be giving us information that we aren’t using? I’d be much more concerned about the thoughts behind those potentially impure thoughts,” he said.
But here’s a possible catch: If you are trying to banish a sexual fantasy from your head, telling yourself “I’m not going to fantasize about her” or “I won’t think about what it would be like to be intimate with him” might make it worse: In a famous psychological study from the 1980s, a group of subjects were told to think about anything but whatever they did, they were not supposed to think about a white bear. Guess what they all thought about?
To Answer the Questionnaire, click here
4. Have you ever talked to a priest or nun about sex?
5. Do you believe a celibate priest or nun can give good advice about sex?
6. Would you prefer to talk to someone of your own gender about sexual issues?
7. Have you ever read a religiously based book about sexuality/chastity?
And not all forbidden thoughts are sexual: A friend of mine said she sometimes thinks how easy it would be to jump in front of the oncoming train while she’s waiting on the subway platform during rush hour. Is that a sin?
No. And thoughts like that are incredibly common. “That’s a thought she has no control over. The thought that you could jump in front of a train isn’t necessarily suicidal. Are you exhausted and just have a thought about how easy it would be to lie in front of the train and rest? Are you hurt or hopeless? There are 10,000 possible feelings, but I’m concerned with the one that’s most important to you,” said Fr. McGlone.
The bottom line is that just having a fleeting sexual, violent, evil or other type of impure thought isn’t a sin. But allowing that thought to become a reality—even if it’s only in the fantasy world of your head—gets into dangerous territory. Thoughts are very real to people, said Fr. McGlone, and (regardless of what many of us young-adults would like to believe) actively thinking about things can be just as bad as doing them.
All this being said, don’t beat yourself up. We all wrestle with weird, dark or forbidden thoughts of some kind-and most of them aren’t sinful.
Just don’t think about the white bear.
And for my next column, I’ll ask the provocative question: What can a celibate clergy teach us about sexuality? Take the BustedHalo questionnaire above to share your thoughts and opinions.