Thoughts have none of the magical powers found in books, movies, TV, and other media. You can’t project thoughts outside yourself, nor can your thoughts elicit actions from people or things. People can’t know the content of your thoughts unless you tell them. Mind-reading is impossible. All of that may be obvious, but it underpins my main points.
Also, there’s no difference between a thought you generate willfully and one that’s random. Each thought, whether random or willfully generated, is just that: a thought. It is not good or bad. It just is.
I also believe there is no such thing as an impure thought. The subject matter of a thought may be associated in some way with purity or impurity, but the thought itself can’t be impure. So-called “blasphemous thoughts” are not expressions of blasphemy. The subject matter of the thought may be associated in some way with blasphemy, but the thought itself is not blasphemous. The subject matter of a thought and what it may be associated with does not change the fundamental reality that a thought —on its own— produces nothing.
To illustrate the truth that thoughts are just thoughts, I stopped writing this article for a few moments and purposely generated five thoughts that I believe are routinely associated with the virtue of purity. I also generated five thoughts that I believe are routinely associated with blasphemy. Each of the ten thoughts has the power to produce within me a variety of feelings and emotions. The ten thoughts, all on serious subjects, were only thoughts. Nothing more. And despite their seriousness, they were not and are not sinful. Again, thoughts are simply thoughts.
In addition to taking time to generate ten powerful thoughts, I also chose to watch five free movie ads on my streaming device. I chose trailers that I assumed contained violence, sexual content, one that some believe is irreverent and blasphemous, and one that was emotional. In each instance, depending on the effectiveness of the creative process used in making the movie trailer, I reacted differently to each one. Although my reactions triggered all manner of thoughts, I did not sin. The thoughts I experienced while viewing the movie trailers were not sinful in any way.
Some of you will object to my opinions. You may assert that my experience is not the same as yours. You may think the content of this article is unorthodox and not reflective of the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. You may even feel a rising anxiety and a desire to react to that anxiety in some way to lessen the feeling or emotion it generates.
To everyone, including those who wish to argue exceptions to my opinions or insist different opinions are correct, let me assure you that my opinions here are 100 percent orthodox. Thoughts do not generate any response outside of the person who thinks them. To reiterate, thoughts have no magic or intrinsic power.
Over time, thoughts can produce changes in attitude or a reoriented sense of self. For example, the first time you have a sexual thought, you might react with a stronger feeling than the second time you experience the same thought. Both thoughts are personal and not sinful.
Although I’m confident that my opinions are founded on Catholic teaching and reflect orthodox morality, my beliefs differ with others. I searched ìWhen are thoughts sinful?î on my computer browser and found results stating thoughts can be sinful. But each result also said there are exceptions to when thoughts can be sinful. I saw discussions about “dwelling on the thought” and others on “entertaining the thought.” But no author or moral authority I read could state how much time needed to be dedicated to “dwelling on” or “entertaining” a thought to qualify it as a sin. The exceptions are so numerous as to make the assertion that a thought is sinful pretty meaningless.
Saint Alphonsus Liguori, patron saint of moral theologians and a doctor of the Church, made a moral point that is perhaps essential here. When there are many different opinions that are all reasonable, people can freely and confidently choose whatever opinion they desire to choose. In this instance, you can choose a strict interpretation (which may well be the impulse of most scrupulous people), or you may freely choose an opinion that is less confining, which is the point of view I take.
Thoughts are private, known only to the person who thinks them. Although thoughts can generate emotional responses and/or strong feelings, emotions and feelings are different than thoughts. In no instance can thoughts be sinful, regardless of the feelings or emotions triggered.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR