Practical Moral Principles: Fifth Practical Principle
by Fr. Gerald Kelly
"Indirectly venereal actions are not sinful if one has a good and sufficient reason for beginning or continuing such actions."
The Law of Charity
The foregoing principles are norms of conduct in regard to one's personal chastity. In things that involve other people, however, we must always have regard for another great law of morality, the law of charity. By this law we are bound not to induce others to sin or to help them to sin, and we must also take reasonable means to prevent their sinning when we can do so. What these "reasonable means" are depends largely on circumstances, and complicated situations require the expert direction of a priest. But it should be clear that in general in regard to such things as kissing, conversation, and choosing forms of entertainment for oneself and others, we cannot simply settle the matter by saying: "It doesn't bother me; therefore it's all right."
It is difficult to give any absolute rule for judging the reactions of others. A fair presumption is that they will be about the same an our own, unless either party happens to be extraordinarily callous or sensitive, or unless some special circumstance such as adolescence indicates greater danger. Particularly in the matter of kissing, a girl must keep in mind that a boy is more responsive physically than she; but if there is some good reason for a decent manifestation of affection, she may presume that he has proper control of himself unless he attempts or suggests immodesty.
Summary: Four Questions
If one understands the principles explained, he can then reduce them to practice by answering four questions:
- What am I doing, or about to do?
- Why am I doing it or about to do it
- What dangers are involved for myself or others 1
- Have I a sufficient reason to render my action perfectly justifiable?
These four questions will solve all the ordinary problems involving our voluntary conduct with respect to chastity. One who knows them learns to apply them spontaneously without any need of a formal, mechanical process. They furnish definite rules for determining what is of obligation and what is not; though we must constantly remember that often the better thing to do will be to go beyond these rules and avoid things which might in themselves be done without sin. Moreover, there are certain special circumstances which might make even chaste actions inappropriate, and perhaps even unjust and scandalous. Married people, for instance, have a special obligation to reserve their demonstrations of tender affection to themselves. The girl who trespasses upon a wife's right to the affection of her husband does wrong, even though no real unchastity be involved; so too the man who disregards a husband's right to his wife's affection. And it goes without saying that those who are consecrated to God have renounced their right even to such expressions of affection as might be permissible to other unmarried people of different sexes.
We mentioned these examples to indicate that at times special factors must be considered which are not included in our principles concerning chastity. In our summary in this chapter and in the practical cases in the next, we shall presume that no such special factors are present.
It may now be helpful to summarize the principal conclusions of this chapter in terms of the Sixth and Ninth Commandments of God. The Sixth Commandment commands us to be pure in our external actions, and forbids all actions against purity; therefore in terms of what is sinful or not sinful it may be visualized as follows:
All directly venereal actions. (Principle I)
All other actions performed for the purpose of stimulating or promoting venereal pleasure. (Principle II)
All actions involving the proximate danger of performing a directly venereal action or of consenting to venereal pleasure. (Principle III)
Venial Sin: Indirectly venereal actions performed without a relatively sufficient reason. (Principle IV)
No Sin: Indirectly venereal actions performed with a relatively sufficient reason. (Principle V)
In this summary we give only the points that pertain to one's personal chastity. It should not be forgotten that if others are concerned in these external actions, charity demands that we consider them; also at times other factors must be considered, such as the special obligations of one's state of life, as indicated before.
The Ninth Commandment prescribes chastity of thought, and forbids unchaste thoughts. In this matter of thoughts, some preliminary explanation is necessary before formulating our summary because the question of sinful thoughts is frequently misunderstood. In the first place, it should be clear to everyone that a thought which is not wilful cannot be sinful. We have no absolute control over our imaginations; they frequently retain disturbing images, no matter what we try to do about it. There is simply no question of sin when that occurs.
It should also be clear (though it frequently is not) that not all wilful thinking about sexual matters is sinful. Thoughts differ vastly from external actions in this: There are some kinds of external actions (directly venereal) which may never be done by unmarried people; there is no action which may not be thought about. For instance, in studying or reading a book of this kind, one necessarily thinks about many impure actions. The mere thinking about them does not make them sinful.
The one thing which is absolutely wrong in regard to thoughts is to think about a sinful action, with approval of what is sinful. In general, this might be done in three ways; and a few examples should illustrate the point clearly:
- John thinks about the sin of fornication, with the willful desire or intention of committing it. In this case he gives his approval of sin by desiring or intending to commit it.
- Mary once committed the sin of fornication, and now she thinks about that action, and wilfully rejoices over the fact that she committed it. In other words, Mary, instead of having sorrow for the sin as she should have, here and now goes over it again in her mind with wilful approval of what she did.
- James also thinks about the sin of fornication. He has no intention of actually performing the external action; be is not approving of anything he did in the past, but here and now he wilfully delights in imagining that he is performing the act. James is giving his approval of a sinful act by wilfully taking complacency in the thought of doing it.
Note that in each of these cases the sin consisted in wilfully approving of an act which it would be sinful to perform. If one should approve of an act which is not sinful for him to perform, then such approval would not be sinful. For instance, marital relations are certainly not sinful for married people; hence they may desire them beforehand and rejoice over them afterwards. It might be dangerous for even married people to dwell long on such thoughts because they might prove strongly stimulating to passion and bring about temptations to self-abuse; but the thoughts of approval would not be wrong for them because the acts they think about are permissible for married people.
Note that we have stressed the point that thoughts are sinful when they express wilful approval of evil (wilful desires, wilful complacency, wilful rejoicing). This is quite different from the involuntary sense of approval or desire that comes upon almost anyone who has to think of various sexual acts. Such things are naturally attractive to the lower appetites but that mere natural urge is not an act of the free will.
With this preliminary explanation of the particularly difficult points concerning thoughts, we can now summarize our principles as they apply to the Ninth Commandment:
The wilful approval of unchaste actions. (Cf. foregoing explanation and Principle I.)
The wilful entertaining of any thoughts for the purpose of stimulating or promoting venereal passion. (Principle II. This kind of thinking is about the same as self-abuse.)
The wilful harboring of thoughts which involve the proximate danger of performing an unchaste action, approving of such an action, or consenting to venereal pleasure. (Principle III)
Venial Sin: Thinking about sexually-stimulating things without a sufficient reason. (Principle IV)
No Sin: Thinking about sexually-stimulating things with a sufficient reason. (Principle V)
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Copyright © Gerald Kelly. Reproduced with permission of Fusion International. All rights reserved.