Last week I received a question at CUF’s website regarding materials to help young people distinguish discern whether their thoughts are sinful. I found it most edifying that this gentleman wanted to provide solid guidance for his godson in this important part of his spiritual journey.
The title on my bookshelf that best addresses this specific topic is a reprint by Sophia Press entitled Christian Self-Mastery, by Basil W. Maturin. However, that book is 200 pages and, while it’s very readable prose, it’s nonetheless written for adults.
I couldn’t think offhand of any specific resources on this particular topic directed toward young people. Certainly there are some very good materials and CDs for youth out there, but I did caution him, however, to review any such resources before giving them to his godson, irrespective of the source. There are some popular speakers today who, out of a sincere desire to reach out to a media-saturated youth culture, actually cause harm through presentations that at times are lacking in modesty and discretion.
I noted a few principles to consider as we strive to help form consciences in this delicate area:
(1) It’s always necessary to avoid sin, but the related beatitude–or in other words the “good” that we’re striving for by avoiding “bad thoughts”–is “purity of heart.” The Catechism treats this subject under the heading of the Ninth Commandment in nos. 2517 and following. An excessive focus on sin can lead to all sorts of problems, including scruples, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and the like. I thinking keeping all this in perspective is very important.
(2) Following from point (1), I think anything that helps create positive, “good thoughts” should be encouraged and cultivated. This obviously includes the faith and holy things, but even more broadly speaking, anything that presents what is good, true, and beautiful (e.g., great art, hikes outdoors, service projects, etc.) will fill our children’s minds with edifying memories and images.
(3) At a given point in time, we can’t control the thought that comes to us. For it to be a mortal sin, it needs to be a serious matter, with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the thought and full consent of the will. When a “bad thought” comes to mind, the best thing to do is to think of something else. This takes discipline and virtue. It’s one thing to tell a person not to scratch a wound, but if it itches, the most natural thing to do is scratch, and we will do so unless we make a conscious effort to resist the temptation. A very similar dynamic is at work when it comes to fending off bad thoughts. This sort of discipline is a lifelong task, as all of us are prone to entertaining all sorts of evil thoughts. Young people need encouragement in this regard, and we should not let them unduly beat themselves up over the times they fail.
(4) Lastly, the societal dimension of this issue cannot be overlooked (see Catechism, nos. 2525-26). One of the corrosive effects of the enormous pornography industry and the sex-saturated media in general is the long-term effect these harmful images have on our thought processes, which lead to widespread addiction and, even more fundamentally, to an even more difficult battle for purity of mind and heart in our culture. So whatever we can do in prudent, age-appropriate ways to steer our children away from this ubiquitous menacw is a very good and indeed necessary thing.