Impure Thoughts and Actions

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Dear Catholic Exchange:

I would like to know the Church teachings on the subjects below.

1. Impure Thoughts

2. Impure Dreams

3. Masturbation

Are the above sins when committed? I need the guidelines or information regarding the above actions in one's life.

Mawli Jude

Dear Mawli:

Peace in Christ!

Impure thoughts and dreams are not necessarily willed. Because of this, they are not necessarily sinful. Acts can only be sinful if they are willed. Masturbation, on the other hand always constitutes grave matter for sin.

Christ said, “Every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). This is a violation of the ninth Commandment and a grave sin. “Since they express man's fundamental duties towards God and towards his neighbor, the Ten Commandments reveal, in their primordial content, grave obligations. They are fundamentally immutable, and they oblige always and everywhere. No one can dispense from them. The Ten Commandments are engraved by God in the human heart” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no 2072).

On the other hand, an impure thought entering the mind is a temptation to lust, but is not lust itself. The mortal sin comes from choosing to not dismiss the thought, but instead allowing desire to be felt — an act of the will.

In summary, an impure thought can be a temptation to sin as it enters the mind. The impure thought only becomes sin when it is willed. As taught by the ninth Commandment, an impure thought is grave matter. Desiring that impure thought, willingly and knowingly, offends against love of neighbor and love of God. The same principles would apply to dreams, which are generally involuntary, not willed.

Masturbation, according to the constant teachings of the Catholic Church, can be defined as follows:

By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved” (Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 2352).

The Catechism cites Persona Humana (PH) Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, which the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued in 1975. In explaining why masturbation is an “intrinsically and gravely disordered act,” the CDF explains that

the main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes “the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 51). All deliberate exercise of sexuality must be reserved to this regular relationship.

By definition, a mortal sin is “sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (Catechism, no. 1857). Please see our FAITH FACT on mortal sin. On the other hand, venial sin is sin of less serious matter, or sin committed without knowledge of its gravity or consent of the will (cf. Catechism, no. 1862). The Catechism states that masturbation is “an intrinsically and gravely disordered act. The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose” (Catechism, no. 2352). The Catechism also says that fornication is “gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality” (no. 2353). Considering the nature of mortal sin, masturbation and fornication are certainly considered sins of “grave matter” by the Church, and should be treated as such. It is important to note, however, especially regarding masturbation, the Catechism also states:

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability (no. 2352).

There are a few ways of looking at why masturbation is wrong. In short, masturbation is contrary to love, contrary to God’s intention in giving us sexual faculties, and, quite simply, contrary to God’s law.

The first is that masturbation is contrary to love. Masturbation is self-gratification, self-indulgence, self-pleasure: a selfish act for sexual gratification. God intended sex not to be selfish, but a mutual giving of self as part of the marriage covenant. When, in marriage, a couple is physically intimate, there is greater spiritual communion. This act of love brings greater love. Sexual pleasure sought outside of this union cannot be ordered to love, but is ordered to the self. Obviously, there is an aspect of pleasure, but primarily sexual intercourse is holy, ordained by God as the consummation of the sacrament of matrimony. Sex as a marital act brings graces to the couple. Sexual intercourse is holy in that it has two holy purposes: the unity of the couple and the creation of children. Because it has only self-indulgent orgasm as its end, masturbation can be seen as contrary to the purpose of the sexual faculties in God’s plan for our salvation.

Masturbation is contrary to God’s moral law, both revealed and natural. Scripture condemns masturbation, teaches against sex outside of marriage, and upholds conjugal love. With regard to God’s natural law, the Church “in the course of constant tradition” has taught that “masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” The very fact that someone calls masturbation a mortal sin should give one pause before returning to the act. Mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart…by a grave violation of God’s law” and it can be seen that masturbation is contrary to God’s law regarding matrimony and the gift of fecundity.

Please feel free to call us at 1-800-MY FAITH or email us with any further questions on this or any other subject. If you have found this information to be helpful, please consider a donation to CUF to help sustain this service. You can call the toll-free line, visit us at, or send your contribution to the address below. Thank you for your support as we endeavor to “support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.”

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  • Concerned

    I am an 18 year old female in college, and I constantly have impure thoughts enter my mind. I try with all my heart to resist them right away, but sometimes I do not do so immediately and I dwell on them out of mindlessness or worry. They are about random people, but sometimes they are consistently about the same people (and I find myself anxiously worrying about these people as well). I have a serious boyfriend (we intend on marrying), and he knows that these have occurred, but he has asked me not to tell him about these thoughts anymore because they are overwhelming to him. However, I feel that, as a result of this, I am hiding part of myself from him now (something which could be extremely damaging to our relationship), and I just want these thoughts to stop. Could you help me? Am I doing something wrong?

  • Striving

    Frequent the sacrament of Confession, and remember to pray whenever you are afflicted by these thoughts. These are the two most powerful weapons against sins of impurity, and indeed all sins. There is no way to avoid temptation; it will be with you for the rest of your life. However, with God’s help, you can certainly avoid sin. I highly recommend “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Frances de Sales (a Doctor of the Church). Here is a great excerpt on the subject of impure thoughts, in which he recounts the struggles of St. Catherine of Siena (another Doctor of the Church) with impure thoughts:
    God Bless you.