In the last post (yes, it was a while ago, and I have another baby now!) we considered the meaning of adultery in the heart. Essentially, it encompasses all serious thoughts of lust and unchastity.
Now that we have discussed what we are not supposed to do, we can ask ourselves, what are we to do? What can we do? What level of chastity or purity are you capable of, given the reality of concupiscence? Every person experiences “adultery in the heart” at some point and to some degree, but in spite of this, every person is called to something better. What does that look like in the actual lives of imperfect people? In this post we will look at a few ways that people have experienced sexuality at different points in history.
Manichaeism: Sexuality is Evil
You’re probably familiar with the basics of manichaeism: one of the core tenets is that physical matter is the root of all evil and that the good spiritual person is trapped in a bad physical body and seeks to escape.
Sex/gender, sexuality, sexual desire, sexual intercourse, marriage and childbearing are all most definitely physical and were all condemned, or at least frowned upon, in the name of manichaeism. Christians thinking along these lines misused the statement of Christ about adultery in the heart to reject sexuality.
John Paul points out that rather than going above and beyond in their chastity and piety, the manichaeans were actually oversimplifying sexual ethics because the real call of Christ is too hard. The abolitionist movement is analogous – moderate use of alcohol is difficult and it trips a lot of people up, so let’s just make things easier and get rid of it altogether.
When a man lusts after a beautiful woman, it doesn’t mean that the woman or her beauty are bad things; rather, they are good things that are not being appreciated enough and in the right way. Sometimes learning to appreciate the opposite sex properly is more difficult than deciding to ignore sex altogether, but this is the calling of which we are all capable and worthy.
Modern Examples: The Human Heart is Evil
Unfortunately, the idea that sexuality is evil altogether has persisted well past manichaeism. John Paul gives Freud, Marx and Nietzsche as examples of modern philosophers saying essentially the same thing, not only regarding sexuality but in many areas of human thought and behavior. Each of them believes in a different way that man is fundamentally bad. Nietzsche judges us by our pride, Marx by our greed, and Freud by our lust. Each of them saw evil thoughts in his own heart and the hearts of those around him and concluded that people are evil, not to be trusted. Have you concluded the same thing?
Close self-examination will certainly reveal all of those ugly things continuously cropping up – by our nature we cannot avoid them and will always return to them. But doesn’t a further examination also reveal an even deeper longing for the true, good and beautiful, even (especially) in the sphere of sexuality? We all love a good love story. We feel disgust and remorse at our own sexual shortcomings and abuses because we really do want better for ourselves. By calling us back to the purity of “the beginning,” Christ tells us that this noble impulse is not just a relic of what might have been but a power that each of us can claim for ourselves. This is the mystery of the redemption found concretely in each of us – the goodness of our creation is still accessible. We can choose to love and to respect rather than to lust, use and abuse because we are redeemed.
What kind of sexual desire is bad?
In the modern language influenced by psychology, sexual desire, “eros” and the erotic denote desire for another person because of their potential to satisfy sexually – a selfish desire for the body of another person. This is, in fact, the desire that Christ condemns in his statement about adultery in the heart. If this were the true extent of the sexual and the erotic, there would be a strong warning against it entirely, just as the Manichaeans thought.
Of course, a desire to use the body of another is not all there is to sexual desire. Sexuality encompasses the wide range of interactions between a man and a woman that tend to bring them together in a sexual, romantic or loving way, that lead to physical union. At our best, a man finds a woman attractive, and a woman finds a man attractive, because of our attraction to all that is true, good and beautiful. Sexual desire which sees exactly those aspects of another person, and which leads to a desire to love and to be united with that person, not just to enjoy them, is actually not only morally acceptable but morally good. Men and women should find one anther attractive!
Each one of us has a moral duty to find for ourselves the spousal meaning of the body; in other words, you and I each have to know, intellectually, that our own bodies and those of others show us through sexuality that we are meant to give ourselves as gifts, in some way, to someone. Even more importantly, you have to experience your own body as a gift by actually giving of yourself, both in your Vocation and in the little moments of everyday life. If you fail in this task, you risk reducing your own sexuality and sexual desires to the level of lust.
What about spontaneity?
Many people rebel against the idea of ethics regulating sexuality. That takes all the fun out of everything! They wrongly believe that ethics instructs them to use their mind instead of their emotions, to stuff all natural sexual inclination as disordered and to have sexual relations in a detached way with your spouse when required for production of offspring. This is the Catholic way, right?
Both fortunately and unfortunately for us, no. Fortunate because we are called to a truly passionate sexuality that uses our minds, our emotions, our hearts, our spirits and our bodies together. Unfortunately, because that is a hard calling. We are called to master, with our minds and our willpower, even this area which can seem driven purely by feelings and the body, out of our control. A Christian must evaluate his own sexual impulses “like a watchman who watches over a hidden spring” as they come up and consider whether they are good or bad, tending toward authentic unity or toward lust. (TOB 48.3) Those which tend toward lust must be rejected. Meanwhile, our sexual impulses ordered correctly toward love and unity, the true, good and beautiful in another person, should be encouraged and cultivated until even our sexuality is working for us, urging us toward good and honorable actions, giving power and joy to our interactions with the other sex. “This is a science that cannot really be learned only from books, because it consists primarily of deep knowledge of human interiority.” (TOB 48.4) Only when we have learned to be the judge and the master of our own hearts will we truly understand masculinity and femininity.
It takes sacrifice to reject all of the unchaste impulses that naturally arise in every person born after original sin. Sometimes it might seem as if you are sacrificing sexuality entirely. But a man (or a woman) who has gone through this and become the master of himself has a rich, deep, passionate sexuality outside the experience of the average man of today.
The next post, which I hope to write in a few days, rather than a few months, will look further authentic sexuality in the context of redemption and self-mastery.