Catholics Discussing the Downsides of Daydreams

Aug 9, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

As a clinical psychologist, I am particularly interested in the inner lives of people – not just what one sees from outside, the external acts, but what is going on deep within a person, at the level of the heart.

In our last weekly reflection, we explored what the secular experts had to offer us about daydreams.

As is the case for many youngsters, my son James at five years old wanted to know if people and actions were “good” or “bad.” He would ask me, “Is President Trump good or bad, Daddy?” “Daddy, are the Dallas Cowboys good or bad?” I can just hear his little voice asking this question: “Daddy, is daydreaming good or bad?”

And, as is so often the case, the answer is more nuanced than assigning a verdict of “good or bad” on daydreaming. Today, we are beginning our journey into what the Catholic Church teaches about daydreams and the inner life of thought and fantasy.

A word of caution

There is simply too much that I want to share with you about psychological factors and human formation in daydreaming, grounded Catholic moral teaching to cram it all into one weekly reflection. So today, I’m going to present the criticisms of daydreaming and fantasizing that the Catholics have offered. Next week, will get into the upside of daydreaming and fantasizing.

Wither to search

In the Penitential Act of our Mass, we say “I confess to almighty God…that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words…” [emphasis added] So we confess internal sins, sins of our thoughts. And this makes sense, given that Jesus taught us all in Mark 7:18b-23:

Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.

“Evil thoughts” heads Jesus’ list of sins that come from the heart – the progression starts from the heart, and then goes to the mind and the behaviors. The “evil things come from within” and Jesus makes it clear that purely internal processes, willed acts that occur entirely within oneself with no external manifestation can be sinful, as he describes in Matthew 5: 27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

These words contain an echo of Genesis 6:5: The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

These internal acts can be seriously, gravely sinful. So I thought there would be quite a bit in official Church teaching to guide us morally on daydreams and fantasies.

Wither to search…

In last week’s reflection, A Catholic Researcher’s Reference List, I shared with you the main Catholic resources and the process I used to study moral issues from a Catholic perspective.

What is so striking to me about the topic of daydreaming is how little guidance is available on the topic from my typical Catholic sources. We know that “sins of thought,” also known as “inner sins” or “interior sins” are real, and can be devastating. So, I assumed that there would be some kind of guidance from official Church documents on the topic of daydreaming and fantasy.

Nope.

I was wrong.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church never mentions daydreaming, and makes only one passing reference to fantasies in paragraph 2354 when addressing pornography, when it says that “It immerses all who are involved [in pornography] in the illusion of a fantasy world.” Not very helpful for the topic at hand.

Anything in Denzinger? No.

In The Christian Faith: In the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church? Nope.

In the Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma? Nada.

How about Fr. John Hardon’s The Catholic Catechism? Zilch.

The Catholic Encyclopedia? Zero mention of daydreams or fantasies, and zero discussion of morality or sin in its extensive entry on the faculty of imagination.

Rarely do I come up so empty on sources for a topic.

The downside of daydreaming from the perspective of some Catholic teachers

Yikes! How about Fr. John Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary? Here we have something. Fr. Hardon writes the following definition of daydreams:

Gratifying reveries usually of wish fulfillment. They are images permitted to arise and linger in one’s mind for the purpose of giving oneself the illusion of living a life different from real life and to experience whatever sensations may be connected with such an illusion. A person looks for in fantasy what he or she desires in reality, or the thing is not yet attainable (as with the young) or no longer attainable (as with the old).

Daydreams are to be judged morally according to their content and the purpose one has in conjuring up these fancies. To take willful pleasure in wrong things created by the imagination is sinful, e.g., acts of revenge. But even if their content is not improper, daydreams represent a waste of time and energy; they tend to weaken one’s character, diminish moral strength and will to pursue the real and possible goals of life, and they prevent the individual from becoming a more useful member of society.

Fr. Hardon seems mostly interested in the moral questions of daydreaming, and is absolutely correct that taking willful pleasure in disordered images and experiences generated by the imagination is sinful. He seems to limit his definition of daydreaming to this kind of experience. His definition also assumes that daydreams are always gratifying, which is far from true, depending on the definition one uses. The current psychological research and understanding, as I detailed in my reflection from July 19, 2023 titled Daydreams: The Secular Experts Speak is clear that some daydreams may be very unpleasant and frightening and others may involve a lack of volitional control. While wishes and expectations may be played out in daydreams, that is not the only function of daydreaming. There are many kinds of daydreams and many kinds of daydreamers.

For example, Michael Downey in his book The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality under the heading of acedia (a synonym for sloth) includes escapism as a function of daydreaming: In attempting to ease the burden of acedia, behavioral aberrations may appear. These are described by Cassian (Institutes 10). Typical are the following: physical or emotional mobility in an effort to elude any situation of potential challenge; escapist activities, such as daydreaming or idle conversation; a shortened attention span, making it impossible to concentrate on any particular task and bring it to completion. [p. 4]

This emphasis on escaping was one of the five major content themes of maladaptive daydreaming that Eli Somer found in his pioneering research; address this in my July 19 weekly reflection.

Esther de Waal in her 1995 book A Life-Giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press takes a hard stance against daydreams as well, when she writes that “Fantasy, daydreams, speculations—these are not the reality of God’s world but come from the sick thoughts whirling around in the mind. It is this that Benedict has no use for. He knows not only that they are dangerous for the individual, but also that they can become contagious. Rumors get fired, wild ideas spread abroad, and these must be contained, so there are strict rules about this. It comes back to the sense of our inter-connectedness.” [p. 178]

Mary Margaret Funk provides the following advice on daydreams in her 2013 book Discernment Matters: Listening with the Ear of the Heart: Refrain from imagination, daydreams, and the excessive remembering of situations where one is the center of attention. Practice watchfulness of thoughts; stay in the present moment. Notice subtle signs such as boasting, being competitive, telling remarkable tales about yourself, seeking and taking credit, playing the role of the hero. In short, always edit, redirect, and change the thoughts about self that are either high (praise) or low (dejection) [p. 151].

The sinfulness of some daydreams

It is consistent with traditional Church teaching on “internal sin,” in particular the delectatio morosa as expressed in the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on sin:

That sin may be committed not only by outward deeds but also by the inner activity of the mind apart from any external manifestation, is plain from the precept of the Decalogue: “Thou shalt not covet“, and from Christ’s rebuke of the scribes and pharisees whom he likens to “whited sepulchres… full of all filthiness” (Matthew 23:27). Hence the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. v), in declaring that all mortal sins must be confessed, makes special mention of those that are most secret and that violate only the last two precepts of the Decalogue, adding that they “sometimes more grievously wound the soul and are more dangerous than sins which are openly committed”. Three kinds of internal sin are usually distinguished:

  • delectatio morosa, i.e., the pleasure taken in a sinful thought or imagination even without desiring it;
  • gaudium, i.e. dwelling with complacency on sins already committed; and
  • desiderium, i.e. the desire for what is sinful.

Fr. José Mario O Mandia in his article What are internal sins and sins against the Holy Spirit? expands on the definition of the three kinds of internal sins as follows:

  • Deliberate pleasure (Delectatio morosa). It is sinful complacency in an evil act presented to the imagination with no desire to perform the act. How serious is it? If the evil act presented to the imagination is grave, then the deliberate pleasure is grave.
  • Sinful joy (Gaudium peccaminosum). It is taking pleasure in an evil act done in the past. If the evil act was grave, then the sinful joy is grave.
  • Evil desire (Desiderium pravum). It is deliberate pleasure in some sin not yet committed, but with a desire to commit it.

A brief reflection should indicate that certain daydreams could certainly be sinful under any of these categories of internal sin. In fact, with the notable exception of scrupulous people, it is quite likely that many Catholics (and I include myself in this category) fail to realize the extent to which they sin internally.

[As an aside: As I have been researching these articles, I have been paying much more attention to my daydreams, and especially some of the moral content of them. Some of the fruit of my attention and reflection on my daydreams has been finding its way into my examination of conscience and my confessions!]

[Another aside: One good resource I have found on discerning whether internal experiences are sinful or not, and to what degree is Part I of Fr. Johan Evangelist Zoellner’s 1883 work titled Unchaste Thoughts and Desires. In a future weekly reflection, I will nuance his recommendations from Part II, and provide some of my own.]

But is that all there is to a Catholic understanding of daydreams?

Fr. Hardon, Esther de Waal, and Mary Margaret Funk all seemed to me to be a surprisingly harsh in their wholesale condemnation of daydreams, which does not seem to allow any positive aspects to the experience. But is that the whole story?

If it were the whole story, why were we given the faculty of the imagination? Does not our God want us to use our imagination, as He commanded us through St. Paul in Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Could it be true, what J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Not all who wander are lost.”? Could there be a positive dimension to daydreaming, taking into full consideration the cautions in this weekly reflection?

Tune in next week for alternative considerations of daydreams and fantasy from orthodox Catholic perspectives as we look at the potential upsides to daydreaming and bring some nuance into our discussion – in what Paul Harvey used to call “The Rest of the Story

Narcissism: The Interior Integration for Catholics podcast

I released IIC episode 118, titled Narcissism: Who, What, Why, and How? The Secular Experts Share their Views. In that 80-minute episode, I covered:

    1. the markers and diagnostic criteria for narcissism
    2. the main beliefs, emotions, assumptions, and internal experiences that fuel narcissistic defenses (especially idealization and devaluation)
    3. the relational patterns that narcissists demonstrate
    4. how narcissists subjectively experience themselves
    5. how narcissistic defenses represent maladaptive ways of trying to get deep needs met, especially integrity needs
    6. different kinds of narcissism, especially the different between overt and covert narcissism
    7. how to identify narcissistic behaviors and appropriate ways of responding, according to the secular experts.  

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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