“Ask a Priest: How to Deal With Racy Reading?”

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Q: I understand that it is a grave sin to read material that has graphically explicit content, such as pornography and works of literature that have this subject as its main focus (like adult “romantic” novels). I am wondering, though, if reading a work of literature that does not have this subject as its core, but may relate some minor suggestive details, is still OK to read. For example, a novel that I am reading now mentions that the protagonist was raped in the past, but I have not read far enough to know if there is graphic detail on the subject or if this is just a minor detail to explain who the character is. Anyway, I also enjoy studying the Bible, but in the Old Testament I have read some very graphic stories (i.e., Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters, etc.). So my concern is, how can I be certain that reading something with slight suggestive material would be a sin or not (especially since some stories of the Old Testament have actually been the most graphic stories that I have ever read)? Thank you and God bless! -L.M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your question touches on the notion of our duty to avoid near occasions of sin. A near (or proximate) occasion of sin is a situation that puts us in close danger of a moral fall. There is a positive obligation to avoid a voluntary near occasion of sin.

There are varying degrees of such occasions, and in practice we can’t shut ourselves off from the world totally. So what should we do?

Two considerations might help here. First, you have to know yourself. Some people are more sensitive in certain areas. What might be a temptation for one person might not faze another. So we have to take our sensitivities into account.

Second, we have a duty to avoid unnecessary situations that could be sinful for us. (For more reading on near occasions of sin, see here.)

The tricky thing is how to define “unnecessary.” A medical student, for instance, might be required as part of her training to consult certain textbooks with graphic photos. Here, the student would have to learn a certain level of discipline and maturity, or look for another line of work.

And what about those novels you mention? If a serious work of literature has racy passages in it, then you might consider just skipping them and read ahead. This could apply even in the case of the Old Testament, which indeed has some passages that could be sources of temptation. If you encounter such passages, just skip them. Years from now you might be able to return to them serenely. (Scripture with its tough passages, by the way, can be mysterious in this regard.)

In short, you wouldn’t go wrong to simply skip things that are problematic for you, whether they are in the Old Testament or in a modern work. I hope this helps. God bless.

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