Some Practical Applications - Conversation
by Fr. Gerald Kelly
By conversation here we mean taking part in a conversation. We shall add a word later about merely listening. Conversation, as we are considering it now, is like thinking in that it is an external expression of one's thoughts; it is like reading insofar as it is a way of receiving the thoughts of others; and it is like external actions in the sense that it usually means the physical presence of at least two people.
As in the other applications, so in regard to conversation, there are certain cases in which serious sin is evident: a) when one simply gives external expression to impure thoughts, e.g. sinful desires, boasting about sins committed, approving sins committed by others; b) when it is equivalently a method of mutual stimulation, as may be the case in really obscene conversation, or in strongly suggestive conversation between a boy and a girl; c) or when the motive of one or other party is impure, e.g., seeking to arouse passion or to induce the other to sin; d) and finally, when the proximate danger of some serious sin against purity is present.
Serious conversation about sexual topics is of course permissible when there is a sufficient reason for it and proper precautions are taken. Today sex is talked of much more freely than formerly. Some of this talk is too free, but it is difficult to give a mechanical rule for such situations. One has to judge of the propriety and danger for oneself.
What about jokes? If they are merely vulgar (e.g. concerning the wants of nature) there is usually no offense against chastity. Sometimes such things offend charity by wounding the reasonable sensibilities of others. Also, at times, because of the association of ideas or because of the circumstances in which such stories are told (e.g. between opposite sexes), there may be real dangers to chastity. If so, there is no justification for such conversation.
The so-called "humorous" stories with sexy content present a more difficult problem. It should be noted that these stories are at least supposed to be funny, not obscene; and they derive their entertainment value from the combination of humor and natural interest that. people are apt to have in things pertaining to sex. As a general rule, they are to be discouraged; but the question of the sinfulness of them cannot be dismissed simply by saying: "Better not tell them."
Certainly many people tell such stories without subjective sin. They are not bothered by them, and the thought of sin does not disturb their minds. But in this matter, they have to assume some responsibility for their listeners. Things like this can easily give scandal. The best we can do here is indicate some rather general norms for judging scandal--norms which may be open to many exceptions in concrete cases. In a group composed of mature people of the same sex, it is quite likely that such stories do little or no harm. In a mature mixed group the danger is more likely. When adolescents are concerned, the danger is very great, because they are highly imaginative and the sexual content of the story is apt to return again and again in the form of severe temptation. It is hard to excuse an adult who exposes adolescents to this danger from the serious sin of scandal, because the very fact that an older person tells the story impresses it the more strongly on a young mind. As for young people who tell such stories among themselves, we can say only this: it is hard to give a definite rule for mortal sin. But such things are rarely, if ever, completely without sin, because the mere fun of telling a story is never a justifying reason for the uncertain danger of temptation practically always present.
What about merely listening? Sometimes people listen to such stories because there is nothing else they can do about it. Under such circumstances they do not sin. At other times, the listening is wilful, i.e., the party could either leave or change the trend of conversation. In these circumstances, one must, of course, protect oneself, even by leaving if that is necessary. Also, charity demands that we protect others if we can reasonably do so. Hence, if the conversation is really dangerous, one should change the subject if possible. Some can do this very gracefully; others do more harm than good by trying it. Occasional laughs at things that sound funny tire not sinful, but one should be careful t o avoid furthering dangerous topics in this way.
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Copyright © Gerald Kelly. Reproduced with permission of Fusion International. All rights reserved.