How Can Catholicism Help with Disorders of Sexual Attraction?

How Can Catholicism Help with Disorders of Sexual Attraction? March 31, 2023

It doesn’t take much ink to sum up the Catholic view of disordered sexuality:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Matthew 5:27-28

I can’t be certain, but I would hazard that there are very, very few adults who never ever experience disordered sexual attraction. Jesus makes it clear that even if your attraction is only towards other adults of the opposite sex, and even if you control yourself and never act on your lustful thoughts, just the fact of entertaining the lustful thoughts is itself a wrong, sinful behavior.

So if we were to map out a framework from ordered to disordered sexuality it might be:

  1. Perfectly ordered: I experience sexual desire, and I experience sufficient and appropriate desire, only for my lawfully wedded spouse. My feelings are ordered towards mutual self-giving and relishing of God’s gift of our sexuality to one another, including our fertility, with no impure or selfish thoughts of any nature.
  2. Ordered-but-tempted: I experience the temptation to lustful or impure thoughts, but I quickly dismiss them. I never indulge in lustful or impure fantasies of any kind.
  3. Disordered thoughts: I experience the temptation to lustful or impure thoughts, and sometimes I actively allow myself to contemplate those thoughts.
  4. Disordered actions: I experience the temptation to lustful or impure desires, and sometimes I allow myself to physically act on those desires, whether alone in private or in the company of one or more others.

Jesus steps in at #3 and says: This is a sin. Being tempted is not a sin (#2), but you can’t be all “I’m so holy” if you are mentally allowing yourself to indulge in fantasies about wrong behavior or attitudes, even if you never physically act on those thoughts.

It’s a high bar. Thus I am doubtful many adults completely escape the experience of falling into this sin.

Are Some Sexual Temptations Worse than Others?

From a theoretical perspective, we could attempt an analysis of just “how impure” a given temptation is.

I don’t think anyone would doubt that the temptation to fantasize about one day lolling in the marriage bed with some suitable also-single person whom you are dating and could reasonably hope to marry is, at any level, “equal” to indulging in sexualized fantasies of rape, torture, and murder. If you experience the latter, you have a much more urgent need to seek intense psychological treatment, because the results of acting on those feelings bring with them so many additional, extremely serious harms.

So of course we can rationally say that some serious sins are potentially much more damaging than others.

I think we can reasonably say that the ability to knowingly rape someone (whether by violent force or merely with the knowledge that your “partner” though not physically resisting does not freely and fully consent) is an intrinsically disordered sexual condition, even if it is never acted upon.

As we contemplate all the ways that human sexual desires tend to go wrong, of course we can identify some that some are farther removed from an ordered sexuality than others are.

And yet: What does Jesus say?

He says that your sin is the one that is catastrophic for you.

It does not matter that some other guy experiences a sexual fetish concerning puppy-murder; your plain-vanilla lusting after that cute girl or guy at the office is your serious problem that cannot be trivialized or dismissed as “not that big of a deal.”

Does the Church Say Some Kinds of Sexual Temptations are Just Too Evil For You to be Catholic?


–> Pause here and observe that what the clergy do is not always reflective of what the Catholic faith teaches. Pretty sure those bishops now expressively forbidding their priests to use hook-up apps aren’t shutting down impromptu philosophy meet-ups. (“Looking for Thomists, non-smokers only . . .”) So we need to look at what the faith says, not what some wretched guy who desperately needs the Divine Savior’s urgent intervention happens to be doing on any given Saturday night. –>

Some kinds of sexual temptation are very disturbing, but the fact that you experience such temptations doesn’t, at all, make you an unlovable or unworthy person. In contrast, some kinds of temptations may seem innocuous and thus are too easily accepted and excused — precisely what Jesus warns against so forcefully.

Regardless of what kinds of temptations you experience in life — sexual or otherwise — it is what you do in response that matters.

All the Catholic faith asks is that you persevere in repentance and pursuing holiness. If you sin, confess your sin, ask pardon, and resolve not to sin again. Take steps to keep yourself away from that sin in the future.

If those steps don’t work, or they only work for a little bit but then you fall back into your bad habits, reassess. Is there something else I can do to prevent myself from getting into this trouble? Or am I indeed taking the necessary steps, it’s just a matter of practice? Has something changed in my life that is making my old coping techniques less effective?

You must of course seek every possible help to prevent yourself from harming others — but the simple fact of experiencing thoughts that you (or others) consider more-disturbing-than-average doesn’t make you anything special. You’re just a regular sinner like the rest of us, in need of a Savior and fortunately we have one.

What if I’m Just Naturally Holy?

I have no personal experience with being a very holy person, but the user manual is pretty clear about what looms for those of you who just don’t experience much in the way of temptations to sin, or who somehow manage to consistently resist the high-visibility temptations when they come:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18: 9-14

If you are prone to unusual levels of holiness, avail yourself of the Litany of Humility on the regular.

File:Christ and the sinner.jpg
Artwork: Christ and the Sinner by Andrey Mironov, 2011, CC 4.0.


About Jennifer Fitz
Jennifer Fitz is a little too familiar with this whole sinning thing. On Twitter @JenFitz_Reads. Home base is You can read more about the author here.
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