By: Christopher West
Recently, a former Catholic priest appeared on Oprah to defend his choice of leaving the Church in order to get married. This priest had battled with desire for this woman for several years and finally decided his only options were to marry her or repress his sexual desires. Indeed, as he announced to a national audience, “repression” is the only choice for a person who remains celibate.
Repression or Indulgence: The Only Two Choices?
Is this true? Are our only options when it comes to sexual desire to “indulge” it or “repress” it? Granted, to a world bound by sexual lust, life-long celibacy seems absurd. The world’s general attitude towards Christian celibacy might be summarized like this: “Hey, marriage is the only ‘legitimate’ chance you Christians get to indulge your lusts. Why the heck would you ever want to give that up? You’d be condemning yourself to a life of hopeless repression.”
The difference between marriage and celibacy, however, must never be understood as the difference between having a “legitimate” outlet for sexual lust on the one hand and having to repress it on the other. Christ calls everyone — no matter his or her particular vocation — to experience redemption from the domination of lust. Only from this perspective do the Christian vocations (celibacy and marriage) make any sense. Both vocations — if they are to be lived as Christ intends — flow from the same experience of the redemption of sexuality.
First, marriage is not a “legitimate outlet” for indulging our sexual lusts. As Pope John Paul II once pointed out, spouses can commit “adultery in the heart” with each other if they treat one another as nothing but an outlet for selfish gratification (see TOB 43:3). I know it’s a cliche, but why do so many wives claim “headache” when their husbands want sex? Could it be because they feel used rather than loved? This is what lust leads to — using people, not loving them. Liberation from the domination of concupiscence — that disordering of our appetites caused by original sin — is essential, John Paul II taught, if we are to live our lives “in the truth” and experience the divine plan for human love (see TOB 43:6, 47:5). Indeed, Christian sexual ethos “is always linked . . . with the liberation of the heart from concupiscence” (TOB 43:6). And this liberation is just as essential for consecrated celibates and single people as it is for married couples (see TOB 77:4).
A Mature Purity Leads Us to Sexual Freedom
It is precisely this liberation that allows us to discover what John Paul II called “mature purity.” In mature purity “man enjoys the fruits of victory over concupiscence” (TOB 58:7). This victory is gradual and certainly remains fragile here on earth, but it is nonetheless real. For those graced with its fruits, a whole new world opens up — another way of seeing, thinking, living, talking, loving, praying. The marital embrace becomes a graced experience of the holy, rather than a base satisfaction of instinct. And Christian celibacy becomes a liberating way of living one’s sexuality as a “total gift of self” for Christ and his Church.
John Paul II observed that the celibate person must submit “the sinfulness of his humanity to the powers that flow from the mystery of the redemption of the body … just as every other person does” (TOB 77:4). This is why he indicates that the call to celibacy is not only a matter of formation but of transformation (see TOB 81:5). The person who lives this transformation is not bound to indulge his lusts. He is free with what John Paul II called “the freedom of the gift.” This means his desires are not in control of him; rather, he is in control of his desires.
In short, authentic sexual freedom is not the liberty to indulge one’s compulsions, but liberation from the compulsion to indulge. Only such a person is capable of making a free gift of himself in love — whether in marriage, or in a life of consecrated devotion to Christ and the Church. For the person who is free in this way, sacrificing the genital expression of one’s sexuality for so great a good as the eternal Marriage of Christ and the Church not only becomes a possibility, it becomes quite attractive.