Question 51

Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church 8 West Highway D New Melle, MO 63365

Would I be correct in saying that to look intentionally at beautiful women who are not one's wife (and you are married), and even possibly to feel sexual attraction for them -- that this would not be a sin? Or that this could be either not a sin or a venial sin of curiosity or immodest looks depending on circumstances? In other words, as he goes about the world, a man sees many attractive girls and often intentionally looks for a moment and feels the attraction and enjoys the beauty (but not to lust). This often would not be any sin but normal. But sometimes, due to circumstances -- looking too long, looking too often, or looking at someone who is just too overpoweringly attractive or is very immodestly dressed -- it could become a venial sin of immodest looks or curiosity. ???
Of course one should have custody of the senses -- but is there not a good 'seeing beauty' in other women? 
    -- KJ

Dear KJ, 

I hope that “KJ” does not mean “killjoy!” 

Should a man look at a beautiful woman? Yes. Not to appreciate the beauty and goodness that God has endowed her would be a sign of ingratitude on our part. For a man, one of the most beautiful things to see is a beautiful woman, and I think it works the same way for women with regard to men. The problem is not in the first look. 

But should a man continue to look, so that the look becomes a lascivious and wanton leer, or a provocative ogling? No. The problem is in the second look. 

What is the difference? The first look is simply knowing what is out there, a natural curiosity about who this person is. This glance sees the total person, the woman in the fullness of her femininity. 

The second look is where we get into trouble. Now the look does not do justice to the full richness of her person. Rather, now it reduces her to only one set of values, to her sex appeal. In doing so, we have reduced this woman, this daughter of God and this sister of ours, to a mere object of our pleasure. It is wrong to reduce a person down to the level of an object, to a plaything. In his Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II has a lot to say about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:27-8: “You have heard it said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I recommend to you his entire catechesis on the Sermon on the Mount, but especially the Wednesday audience of 17 Sept 80, “Mutual Attraction Differs from Lust.” 

I quote just one passage: “It is one thing to be conscious that the value of sex is a part of all the rich storehouse of values with which the female appears to the man: it is another to ‘reduce’ all the personal riches of femininity to that single value, that is, of sex, as a suitable object for the gratification of sexuality itself. The same reasoning can be valid concerning what masculinity is for the woman … The intentional ‘reduction’ is, as can be seen, primarily of an axiological nature. On the one hand the eternal attraction of man towards femininity (cf. Gn. 2:23) frees in him – or perhaps it should free – a gamut of spiritual-corporal desires of an especially personal and ‘sharing’ nature to which a proportionate pyramid of values corresponds. On the other hand ‘lust’ limits this gamut, obscuring the pyramid of values that marks the perennial attraction of male and female. 

“Lust has the internal effect, that is in the ‘heart,’ on the interior horizon of man and woman, of obscuring the significance of the body, of the person itself. Femininity thus ceases being above all else a (legitimate) object for the man; it ceases being a specific language of the spirit; it loses its character of being a sign. It ceases, I would say, bearing in itself the wonderful matrimonial significance of the body…” 

Pope John Paul has some very rich teachings on these matters. I encourage you to discover them. 

Cordially yours,
Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB