By: Christopher West
You may remember an article I wrote that began to explore the difference between sexual “repression” and sexual “redemption.” It was in response to a former Catholic priest who had announced on the Oprah Winfrey show that “repression” of desire is the only choice for a person who remains celibate. Because the question What is the human person capable of in light of our fallen nature? is so important, I wanted to expound on the issue of sexual redemption a bit more, especially in light of the insights of Pope John Paul II and his Theology of the Body.
Sexual Redemption & Freedom from Sin
It is abundantly clear from both Catholic teaching and human experience that, so long as we are on earth, we will always have to battle with concupiscence — that disordering of our passions caused by original sin (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 405, 978, 1264, 1426). The interior battle we experience with our disordered desires is indeed fierce. Yet, as Pope John Paul II insisted, we “cannot stop at casting the ‘heart’ into a state of continual and irreversible suspicion due to the manifestations of the concupiscence of the flesh… Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel himself called, and ‘called with effectiveness’” (TOB 46:4).
This “effectiveness” means that we are not hopelessly bound by our fallen desires. The Catechism observes that the idea that concupiscence is insurmountable actually stems from the Reformation (see CCC 406). As Catholicism teaches, through the gift of redemption “the Spirit of the Lord gives new form to our desires, those inner movements that animate our lives” (CCC 2764). Summarizing the teaching of John Paul II on the matter, as we surrender our lusts to Christ and allow “the Spirit of the Lord” to move in us, we discover the ability to orient our sensual and emotional reactions in the realm of sexuality “both as to their content and as to their character” (TOB 129:5). What once moved us to use other people for our own pleasure, can lead us to want to lay down our lives for them “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).
This is good news — very good news. Yet, for some reason, it seems many people are skeptical about it, and I’m speaking primarily of Christians here. Many of us grow up with the impression that all we can really hope for in the sexual realm is a more or less successful program of “sin management.” The idea of transforming our lusts, many believe, is simply beyond the realm of man’s possibilities. It’s something we can only hope for in heaven.
Let Us Not Empty the Cross of It’s Power
From one perspective, those who think this way are correct. It is impossible for human beings to transform their own lustful desires and — to be sure — the fullness of redemption awaits us only in heaven. But those who enter the “effectiveness” of Christ’s redemption discover “another vision of man’s possibilities” (TOB 46:6). Much is at stake in this question, as John Paul II makes clear: “[W]hat are the ‘concrete possibilities of man’? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ. This is what is at stake, the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence” (Veritatis Splendor 103).
What is the alternative to an effective sexual redemption? If man remains bound by his lusts, is he even capable of loving with a pure heart? Marriage, in this view, comes to be seen and lived as a “legitimate outlet” for indulging our disordered desires and the celibate life comes to be seen and lived as a life of hopeless repression. And we end up “holding the form of religion” while “denying the power of it” (2 Tim 3:5). “Ne evacuetur Crux!” — John Paul II exclaims, “Do not empty the Cross of its power!” (see 1 Cor 1:17). “This,” he said, “is the cry of the new evangelization” (Orientale Lumen 3). How desperately our sexually broken world needs to hear this cry! There is another way to experience our sexuality than what our pornographic culture holds out to us, and it passes by way of the power of the Cross. There is a water that corresponds to our thirst for love, and it flows from the side of our crucified Bridegroom. Let all who are thirsty come — come and drink the water of life (see Rev 22:17).
Fasting: Crucifying our Lusts
John Paul II wrote that to experience victory over lust, we most devote ourselves to “a progressive education in self-control of the will, of sentiments, of emotions, which must be developed from the simplest gestures, in which it is relatively easy to put the inner decision into practice” (TOB 128:1). For example, we might examine our eating habits. If a person can’t say no to a piece of cake, how will he say no to an email enticing him to look at Internet porn? Fasting is a wonderful way to grow in mastery of our passions. If this isn’t already part of a person’s life, he should start with a simple sacrifice that’s relatively easy to put into practice. As one continues exercising this “muscle,” he will find his strength increasing. What was once “impossible” gradually becomes possible.
The muscle analogy, however, is only half right. Growing in purity certainly demands human effort, but we’re also aided by supernatural grace. Here, as I stated in a previous column, it’s crucial to distinguish between repression and entering into redemption. When lust “flares up,” rather than repressing it by pushing it into the subconscious, trying to ignore it, or otherwise seeking to annihilate it, we can surrender our lusts to Christ and allow him to “crucify them” (see Gal 5:24). As we do, “the Spirit of the Lord gives new form to our desires” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2764).
In other words, as we allow lust to be “crucified,” we also come to experience the “resurrection” of sexual desire as God intends. Not immediately, not easily, but gradually, progressively, as we take up our cross every day and follow, we can come to experience sexual desire as the power to love in God’s image. When sexual temptations assail us, as they often do, we might say a prayer like this:
Lord, I thank you for the gift of my sexual desires. I surrender my lustful desires to you and I ask you please, by the power of your death and resurrection, to “untwist” in me what sin has twisted so that I might come to experience sexual desire as you intend — as the desire to love in your image.
Perseverance & Self-Mastery
As John Paul II wrote in his Theology of the Body, “perseverance and consistency” is required in learning “what the meaning of the body is, the meaning of femininity and masculinity. …This is a ‘science that cannot really be learned only from books, because it consists primarily of deep ‘knowledge’ of human interiority,” that is, of the human heart. Deep in the heart we learn to distinguish the mystical treasures of sexuality from that which bears only the sign of lust. “One should add,” John Paul says, “that this task can be carried out and that it is truly worthy of man” (TOB 48:4).
It’s certainly true that sometimes love and lust are difficult to distinguish. A man, for example, upon recognizing a woman’s beauty, might wonder where the line is between seeing her as an object for his own gratification and lovingly admiring her beauty. As John Paul writes, lust “is not always plain and obvious; sometimes it is concealed, so that it passes itself off as ‘love’…. Does this mean that we should distrust the human heart? No!” the Pope insists. “It is only to say that we must remain in control of it” (TOB 32:3).
“Control” here doesn’t mean merely dominating unruly desires in order to keep them “in check.” As we mature in self-control, we experience it as “the ability to orient [sexual] reactions, both as to their content and as to their character” (TOB 129:5). The person who is truly master of himself is able to direct erotic desire “toward what is true, good, and beautiful” (TOB 48:1). As this happens we come to understand and experience the mystery of sexuality “in a depth, simplicity, and beauty hitherto altogether unknown” (TOB 117b:5). In turn, we come to see that the version of sexuality promoted by the culture is like junk food compared to the banquet of love unfolded in the divine plan.