By Christopher West
About a month ago, I wrote a column 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.
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 (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'” (Theology of the Body 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 (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 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.
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).
“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!” (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 (Rev. 22:17).
Christopher West is a Catholic author and speaker, best known for his work on Pope John Paul II’s series of audience addresses titled the Theology of the Body. He is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in Exton.
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