Several years ago, an Evangelical Protestant friend of mind, who was baptized a Catholic and who had twelve years of Catholic education, posed the following question to me:
“So in the Catholic world, if a priest, or even the Pope, had a lustful thought towards a woman, which Jesus himself calls adultery (Mt 5:28), and then immediately after that thought, the priest or the Pope has a heart attack and dies, is the priest or Pope going to hell because they didn’t get a chance to repent of that one sin?”
I responded to him at that time, but today I am thinking once again of this question. First of all, the Catholic teaching is that if person (anyone) dies in the state of mortal sin, that person would be condemned to hell for all eternity. This includes priests and popes. It must be no secret to anyone these days that priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes are not perfect and are subject to just as much temptation and sin as any other human being. There are priests and popes that have been declared saints by the Church, but there are also plenty of priests and popes that have not been declared saints by the Church and may, in fact, be in that place of torment.
Secondly, however, my Protestant friend specifically mentioned the sin of Lust – “a lustful thought.” The question now is: Is a lustful thought a mortal sin? In general, a sin is defined as an offense against God. Some such offenses are serious, while others are not so serious. For example, murder is serious, but steeling a friend’s pencil is not so serious. Serious sins are called mortal sins. Not-so-serious sins are called venial sins. To answer the question, we must make the determination if “a lustful thought” is venial or mortal.
The Church teaches that Lust, which is one of the seven so-called “deadly” sins as defined by the Church, may or may not be mortal depending on whether the thought is voluntary or involuntary (I refer you to the book Catholicism for Dummies by Fr. John Trigilio and Fr. Kenneth Brighenti, pages 211-212). If one engages in the conscious and deliberate act of having a lustful thought, meaning that if the sin occurs when you initiate, consent to, and/or continue fantasizing about sexual activity with another person, then that thought is a mortal sin and, if it is not forgiven in the sacrament of Confession, would condemn you to hell. If it is a spontaneous, involuntary thought, then it would not.
That brings up other Catholic teachings concerning mortal sins. There are three conditions that must be met in order for a sin to be mortal. (1)It must be a truly serious offense against God; (2) the sinner must be aware that it is a serious offense; and, (3) knowing that it is a serious offense, the sinner must fully consent to committing the sin. So, seriousness, awareness, and consent are the three conditions.
I have one final thought on this topic. We on earth cannot judge others. We can know seriousness, but we cannot know another’s state of mind as to awareness or consent. Whether one merits heaven or is condemned to hell is up to our omniscient God on Judgement Day.