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Custody of the Mind

Questions about the Catholic Faith are an apologist’s stock in trade. But there have been times I answered a question that I wasn’t sure should have been asked in the first place. I find myself wondering whether or not there are apologetics questions that ought not be asked.

The last time this happened, I Googled “sin of curiosity” and was surprised to find myself directed to St. Thomas Aquinas‘s Summa Theologica. Evidently, this conundrum is an ancient one.

Question 167 of the Second Part of the Second Part of the Summa is devoted to the “vice of curiosity.” Certainly curiosity is not solely a vice. There can be good curiosity, such as the curiosity that inspires invention or exploration that furthers the good of mankind. Curiosity can also develop the mind and soul if it is ordered to that which is good. But Aquinas outlines when curiosity, when it deals with both intellectual knowledge and sensitive knowledge (i.e., awareness), can be sinful. For the purpose of this blog post, let’s look at his observation that deals with curiosity as it pertains to sensitive knowledge:

One may watch other people’s actions or inquire into them with a good intent, either for one’s own good—that is, in order to be encouraged to better deeds by the deeds of our neighbor; or for our neighbor’s good—that is, in order to correct him, if he do anything wrong, according to the rule of charity and the duty of one’s position. This is praiseworthy, according to Hebrews 10:24, “Consider one another to provoke unto charity and to good works.” But to observe our neighbor’s faults with the intention of looking down upon them, or of detracting them, or even with no further purpose than that of disturbing them, is sinful: hence it is written (Proverbs 24:15), “Lie not in wait, nor seek after wickedness in the house of the just, nor spoil his rest.”

The second category of sinful curiosity that Aquinas considers here is more straightforward. If we are watching our neighbor’s faults so as to look down on him or to commit detraction against him or even merely to pester him and thereby destroy his peace, then such curiosity is vicious and a matter to be taken to confession.

But Aquinas also considers good curiosity and says that if the intent of our curiosity is to inspire us to act more uprightly or to engage in fraternal correction, then curiosity is licit. In such cases, he says, “one may watch other people’s actions or inquire into them, with a good intent” (the good intent being either aspiring to virtue or correction of sin). 

Sounds cut and dried, right? If you want to know if a parishioner at your church who is divorced and remarried should be receiving Communion so that you can set him straight the next time you see him at Mass, you have a green light, don’t you?

But wait. Aquinas also gives an important proviso. He conditions such inquiries “according to the rule of charity and the duty of one’s position.”

In other words, before you ask the question, you should consider whether your question will serve charity and is a real obligation. In less studied terms, Aquinas is asking you to consider whether you are both loving your neighbor and minding your own business.

Loving your neighbor is not merely having deep affection for someone close to you. One of the most well-developed expressions of love in ancient literature is St. Paul’s ode to love in his first letter to the Corinthians. It is worth quoting in full as an examination of conscience to be used when discerning whether an action is being done in charity. I have emphasized here the passages that strike me as particularly ordered to right discernment of our actions:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13).

The duty of your position, which also might be thought of as “minding your own business,” refers to the duties of your state of life and your obligation to others based on your state of life. “Mind your own business” is often snapped out with impatience by those who are frustrated when they think they are being pestered by busybodies, but the phrase can also have a positive connotation. If you think of it as an examen for discerning whether or not you have a duty to act, it can be helpful. For what you are considering is not whether you are being a busybody but whether a certain set of circumstances are (or are not) present that demand a response from you. Here are some of the considerations you could use to decide:

Authority. Are you in a position of authority over the person whose actions have sparked your curiosity? If so, is that authority mitigated by other factors? For example, priests have authority by virtue of their office to offer correction to laity. But some priests have more authority in individual cases than do others. A religious superior has more authority over one of his or her community members than does a diocesan bishop; a pastor has more authority over one of his parishioners than does another priest.

Parents have authority over their children and are their children’s primary educators, but their authority does not necessarily extend to other people’s children. And how they exercise their authority should change over time as their child matures. (Nota bene: Authority is not a synonym for power. God does not give parents “power” over their children; he gives them “authority.” For a helpful examen of what constitutes right authority, see CCC 1903.)

Relationship. What is the nature of the relationship between you and the person to be corrected? Is there a family tie by blood or by marriage? If the family tie is by marriage, would it be better for the correction to be left to the discernment of your spouse, who presumably knows his or her blood relation better than you do? Are there ties of friendship? If so, how close are you to this person? There is a qualitative difference in the relationship between you and your bridge club partner and the relationship between you and the BFF you have known since toddlerhood. Is the relationship merely a professional relationship? Then you must also decide whether it is prudent to risk your career by correcting a colleague. Which leads us to consider . . .

Duties to others. Sometimes one’s duties to other people may determine whether or not it is prudent to offer fraternal correction. Remember St. Thomas More. The primary reason St. Thomas maintained his silence for so long on the matter of King Henry VIII’s marriage and the king’s desire to be acknowledged as head of the Church in England was because More was a layman who had a family to consider. In the sixteenth century, when a man was executed for crimes against the state, all of his property reverted to the state. St. Thomas More knew that his own martyrdom had the potential to throw his family into poverty. So he resigned his office as Chancellor of England, retired from public life, and maintained his silence. But, as Thomas Cromwell observed in A Man for All Seasons, More’s silence “[deafened] all Europe” because his virtue was unimpeachable. And so he eventually had no choice but to accept martyrdom as the price of integrity before God.

Some decades ago it was a well-known admonition that Christians should maintain “custody of the eyes.” Custody of the eyes generally meant that the person refrained from viewing that which could cause him to fall into sin. A man might be cautioned to look away from an immodestly dressed woman so that he would not be tempted to lust. A woman might be admonished not to gaze covetously at goods she either could not afford or that belonged to a friend (e.g., clothes, jewelry) so that she would be able to avoid greed or resentment. A child might be told that it was not nice to stare at someone with unusual characteristics because such staring was hurtful to that person.

I think the concept can be enlarged to a general custody of all impulses that have the potential to lead us to sin. Perhaps we might think of it as a “custody of the mind,” in which we refrain from asking questions about matters that either we cannot resolve or are within the purview of others to resolve. Especially when our questions are not about our own welfare or the welfare of others whom we can truly help, we should remember that curiosity is sometimes damaging. We should seek to avoid the indictment of Oscar Wilde, who once noted:

The public has an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.


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