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August 30, 2009

Lust attempts to separate the physical from the spirit

By Joe Paprocki

CONTRIBUTOR

Let’s begin on a positive note: God invented sex. That means that sex is good.

Too often, the Catholic Church is seen as having a negative attitude about sex. In fact, as I researched for this article, I came across an opinion piece online that stated bluntly, “The church’s view was, and still is, that sex is a vile and degrading activity that should be enjoyed only in marriage, and then only for the express purpose of procreation.” Wow. Sounds as though we Catholics have some public-relations work to do when it comes to teaching about sexuality.

The truth is, because Catholics believe that sexual union is sacred, we safeguard it. Like a priceless painting on display in an art gallery, we protect against any casual behaviors that might harm it.

What we need to do as a church is to boldly preach that the sexual encounter between a husband and wife is sacramental. Just as we encourage frequent reception of the Eucharist as a means of encountering Jesus, we should be encouraging married couples to encounter God’s grace frequently through sexual expression.

We need to invite people to recognize the beauty and sacredness of married sexual expression and then explain that we safeguard sex because it is sacramental. We can’t just stand against sex outside of marriage. We need to stand for sex within marriage, not as some “vile and degrading” act that we tolerate in order to perpetuate the species, but as Pope Pius XII said, as an act that includes “pleasure and enjoyment of the body and spirit” (Pius XII, Discourse, Oct. 29,1951). Pope John Paul II did this well in his theology of the body.

Obstacle to expression

Now, having said that, let’s talk about an obstacle to true sexual expression: the deadly sin of lust. Lust is a headline grabber. Within the past few months, a number of high profile people — celebrities and politicians — have admitted to having illicit sexual affairs. Their stories are all over the TV, the Internet and the tabloids.

Funny how we can spend hours watching TV that is saturated with sexual content and then be horrified by stories of sexual affairs. “What was he/she thinking?” we ask, knowing full well that, in reality, very little thinking was taking place.

The truth is, lust is a very powerful force. As human beings, we have a natural physical desire for union with another person. This desire is essential to the mating process. As human beings, however, we are not just animals. We share in the divine life.

We are capable of giving and receiving love, which is God. As such, we are called to remember that we are beings that are both physical and spiritual and that these two aspects of our being are intimately intertwined.

Lust is what occurs when our desire for intimacy becomes subordinate to physical desires. In essence, lust attempts to separate the physical from the spiritual — something that cannot be accomplished without spiritual ramifications. Lust creates an illusion of intimacy where there is none.

Instant gratification

In today’s world, preaching against lust is like trying to persuade a gangbanger that it is better to work an honest job at minimum wage than it is to be a drug-runner making hundreds of dollars per drop. “Are you crazy?” would no doubt be the reaction of the gangbanger. The benefits of working an honest job at minimum wage over the long haul seem to pale in comparison to the immediate and enormous payoff and gratification of drug-running.

In the same way, the notion of waiting until marriage to express oneself sexually pales in comparison to the immediate gratification that can come with casual sex — physical sex with no emotional strings attached. To this end, many young people today are seeking “friends with benefits” — relationships in which they enjoy the immediate reward of sex while separating it from the perceived entanglements of intimacy and commitment.

In situations like this, the act of “making love” — sexual intercourse — is called “hooking up.” So, be careful about offering to “hook up” with someone. You may be thinking about getting together to share a cup of coffee but he or she may think that you have something else in mind.

All this to say that, we need to help people today recognize that surrender to lust is actually a form of enslavement. What appears to be total freedom to do as one pleases is in reality a form of captivity: One is no longer free to enjoy true love and intimacy but becomes a slave to physical desire.

So what is it that makes us free? Chastity. Today’s society too quickly scoffs at this notion, thinking that chastity is actually an infringement upon freedom. However, chastity, the healthy integration of our sexuality, frees us from the passions of lust and enables us to truly and freely love others and, in a married relationship between a man and a woman, to express that love and intimacy in such a profound manner that the church recognizes it as sacramental. Chastity is not the repression of desires but is the recognition that all of our desires are ultimately a desire for the joy we find when in union with God.

One of the central doctrines of Christianity is the Trinity: the loving union of three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The essence of the Trinity is loving relationship. Through baptism, we share in the divine life of the Trinity.

Made in the image and likeness of God, we are called to be in union with others. We seek connection. To overcome lust, however, we need to bring our sexual desires to God, who, as the inventor of sex, is not embarrassed to talk about the issue. God can help us to understand that all of our desires, at their deepest level, are ultimately part of our desire for union with him.

Paprocki is the national consultant for faith formation for Loyola Press in Chicago and author of “A Well-Built Faith: A Catholic’s Guide to Knowing and Sharing What We Believe” (Loyola Press).