The Holy Preaching 3: Lust: Fruitless disunity

by Sr Tamsin Mary Geach o.p.

In a video by Bishop Barron he says that surveys of people outside the Church show them as seeing the Church’s teaching on sexuality as unrealistic, exclusive and cruel. ( , about at the 1 minute mark.) Others identify Church teaching as an unwarranted intrusion by clerics, who by definition are male, and by vocation usually single and celibate, into other people’s private lives, laying burdens on people which they do not lift a finger to help with.  The Church’s teaching on abortion was denigrated by a religious sister in the USA as being too narrow in its scope: "I do not believe that just because you are opposed to

abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is."(Joan Chittister, interview with Bill Moyers 2004(

At the same time there is a deeply schizoid approach to gender and sexuality in our society.  Women’s rights must be upheld, but it is all right for a biological male to be proclaimed ‘Woman of the Year’ and for another to trounce all competitors in competitive swimming events for women.  It is wicked and wrong to go in for FGM, but it is all right to transition a ten-year-old chemically with puberty blockers on the basis of this week’s ten-year old enthusiasm, and to subject a seventeen year-old who cannot be trusted to vote to an irreversible surgery.  (As a lot of ten-year old girls would also like to be horses, one wonders how far all of this will go!).  Men and women should be allowed to do what they want with whom they want, but if a man touches a woman in a way she does not like, he should go to jail.  Children should be protected, but the age of consent should be reduced…And so on.

Another strand in this complex of reactions is that there is a reality of sexual abuse in our society, and members of the Church have been involved in it.[1]  This makes the preaching of the virtue of chastity problematic.  The stench of hypocrisy makes the proclamation of truth nearly impossible.

At the same time others see it as a sort of obsession of the Church, where people will say that more important issues such as climate justice should take precedence over remarks about sex and gender identity.  In part this stems from a curious way of reading things unique to the media: I heard it reported that Fides et Ratio was all about contraception and abortion, but when I came to read it was surprised to find that those two words literally do not appear in the encyclical! 

The topic of human sexuality is huge, and so I have to focus somewhere, and the remit is on the evil thought, lust, and the contrary virtue, Chastity. 

So first of all, what is chastity?  It is the virtue integrating body and soul, relating to the right use of our sexual nature.  All of us are sexual beings -  the Catechism states that ‘Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of …body and soul’ especially in relation to ‘affectivity, the capacity to love and procreate… and..the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others’ (CCC 2332)  Thus it is important to ‘acknowledge and accept’ ones sexual identity.  (CCC2333).  This does not mean that one can ignore the facts of biology, but rather precisely that one should integrate them as facts.   This is important since ‘Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity, though in a different way.’   (CCC 2335) God’s nature as a "mystery of personal loving communion’ has, by making us in His image ‘inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion." (cf. FC 11.). 

Lust on the other hand is the disintegration of the virtue of chastity- a ‘disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure,’ where the good that belongs to marriage is ‘sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.’(CCC 2351).  Shakespeare describes the totality of the phenomenon in this sonnet: 

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,

Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had

Past reason hated as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so,

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

    All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

    To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell. (Shakespeare, Sonnets, 129)


Under the heading of lust come various categories: Masturbation, which involves ‘the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure’ (CCC 2352), fornication which is ‘carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman.’(CCC2353) Pornography which is the removal of ‘real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties.’(CCC2354), prostitution in which a person pays another person for sexual acts; rape, which is the ‘the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person’; (CCC 2356)homosexual acts which are ‘relations between…persons of the same sex.,’ Contraception, defined as ‘"every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible"(HV 14) All of these actions, and some I have not mentioned, are contrary to the natural law, and while the Church allows a discernment about the relative responsibility of those who take part in them.  All of them, in different ways attack either the unitive or the procreative aspect of the sexual act, which belongs exclusively, according to Church teaching, within the context of a marriage that is permanent, exclusive, and open to the gift of children.

Two major questions arise.  The first is ‘why?’  and the second, given that one accepts the ‘why?’ is ‘how?’

The first question can be answered at both the natural and the supernatural level.  At the natural level, ‘[s]sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion.’(CCC 2360)It is ‘is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.’(FC 11)  It is  ‘a source of joy and pleasure’(CCC 2362) which pleasure is part of God’s plan, but which should not be seen as an end in itself.  Rather this God-given pleasure is aimed at achieving the two-fold end of marriage, ‘the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life’ which ‘meanings or values’ cannot be separated ‘without ‘altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.’  Thus the ‘conjugal love of man and woman’ stand under the ‘twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity’ (CCC 2363).  To put that in plainer language: Marital relations belong within marriage because they are of a kind that is liable to produce offspring.  For the good of the children, past, present and future, of the two people taking part, it is desirable that every measure be taken to secure that the situation into which the children are to be born is stable, and that the children may know who their father and mother are.  For the couple themselves it is also a good if they can trust the love and fidelity of their spouse. 

Why not use contraception?  Because it disrupts both the unitive and the procreative aspect of the marriage bond, placing the ‘pleasure’ at the centre.  What is the problem with that? Partly, that pleasure as an end in itself simply does not work, and is a sure-fire road to boredom and disillusion.  Ask any eight-year-old who has been allowed to eat as many sweets as he wanted… Part of the reason for this in relation to sexual activity is that it objectifies the other, even if you are mutually complicit, but especially if one person is not.  St. John Chrysostom suggests that young husbands should say to their wives: ‘I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us.... I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.’[2] This shows an attitude of mind that places the other, not one’s own pleasure, at the centre of one’s thinking and feeling about them.  Lustful actions displace the other as subject and reduce them to object.

Blocking the procreative aspect robs the marriage act of its intrinsic meaning.  Pope St. John Paul II suggested that there was a ‘language of the body’ and that in contraceptive sex the act  "ceases to be an act of love... [or] communion of persons" but rather is a mere bodily union, a sort of lie – I give myself to you totally, but I do not want your children!  Another way of putting this is one I am indebted to a young person I met at a religious youth festival.  They asked me what was wrong with contraceptive sex, and I said it was the same as for homosexual intercourse. ‘Oh’ they interrupted me ‘You mean it is not really sex.’  The instinct of that young person was correct – at a fundamental level what is wrong with every offence against chastity is not so much what it is, but what it is not.  An action driven simply by lust is not a unitive and procreative action belonging in a sacramental context that images the relation of Christ to His Church.  It is, that is to say, not really sex.

The other aspect is the supernatural.  Marriage for Christians is an imaging of the relationship between Christ and His Church, a mysterious mirroring in human life of the Creator.  St Paul writes: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, …For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one… This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church." Eph 5:25-26, 31-32.  The relationship between Christ and his Church is echoed in every Christian life: ‘The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist.’  When it comes to marriage itself the sacrament is an ‘efficacious sign’ of the Covenant between Christ and His Church, signifying and communicating grace. (CCC 1617).  Adultery and contraception within marriage pollute a sacred thing, while other relationships outside of marriage take what is holy, ape it, and desecrate it.

There is so much more to say, but I still have to look albeit in a rather cursory way at the second  question ‘How?’ The disciples when Our Lord stated the permanence of marriage were stunned by the rule and said ‘ “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” ’  (Matt. 19.10), and Our Lord Himself saw the difficulties surrounding this issue in uniquely stark terms:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.’  (Matt. 5.27ff).  A sort of mythology in spiritual direction is that holiness is equivalent to wholeness.  There is a sort of truth about that, but Our Lord’s words, placing the commitment to chastity in the context of plucking out eyes and cutting off hands shows that the wholeness we seek may involve us in what feels like bodily maiming. 

So how can we do this impossible thing.?  First and foremost, pray.  Augustine remarks in the Confessions

‘I thought that continence arose from one's own powers, which I did not recognize in myself. I was foolish enough not to know . . . that no one can be continent unless you grant it. For you would surely have granted it if my inner groaning had reached your ears and I with firm faith had cast my cares on you.’(Confessions 6, 11)

No-one can achieve chastity without prayer, even if they achieve continence, for true chastity is a self-giving love that emerges in fruitfulness, and not a sterile act of self-abnegation.

Secondly, by practice.  If you are single, practice continence.  If you are married, practice selflessness in your use of the marriage act, striving always for the good of the other.  Both of these things take practice.  It takes 10.000 hours for a person to become an expert in any field.  Most of us have a way to go.

Thirdly, know yourself: Avoid temptations against purity.  If you can, avoid going where you are tempted.  Watch out for the points of stress –those times when you are hungry angry lonely stressed or sad.  At such times take measures – pray, seek the company of supportive friends, avoid near occasions of sin, such as the internet., false intimacy and so on.  Ask yourself ‘What am I intending?’ and take this to prayer.  If you frequently fall, ask yourself what the script is, and what is the point at which it is most easy to change the narrative.  An example Fr Mike Schmitz gave was of the young man who would turn off  the road at a certain point to make out with his girlfriend.  The moment to rewrite the script was before turning off the road, not once they were parked up in a secluded place!

If you are dating, make sure the person you are with is on the same page.  If you are considering marriage, ask searching questions relating to your future spouse’s attitude to Church teaching.  If you are married, have the conversations on these issues you need to have not when you are in the bedroom, but when you are sober and able to talk freely.  Otherwise you are likely to be put under pressure to sin in a moment of weakness.

You should also be accountable – make and keep rules for yourself in accordance with Church teaching, but let other people know about them.  So tell your confessor, or your close friend what you have decided, and check in with them from time to time.  If you are not married, then make your ‘going out’ be in a group, and set a time for going home. Remember to treat the person you are going out with as you would wish your future spouse to have been treated before marriage.  Until you are married, they are not yours, and might marry someone else, or become a priest or religious – so have a relationship where if that happened you could look back on it with gladness not shame.  Your goal is not to get the person, but to love and respect them.  Pray for good friends who will support you in chaste living.  If you are married, join a church group for married couples, or a lay fraternity, or make retreats together.  Use confession and community to build a secure and chaste relationship.

Don’t make yourself out to be uniquely unable to keep the Law of Christ.  Chastity is something you have to actively want, but if you pray for it God will not allow you to be tempted beyond your endurance.  Don’t claim powerlessness and victimhood.  Be willing to be free.  Make decisions with boldness.

Finally, ending things.  Sometimes we realise that our relationship with another human being is in conflict with our relationship with God, or that we have to stop a habitual behaviour.  This may make us feel quite desperate.  ‘Does God want me to be unhappy?’  Sometimes, in order to achieve the happiness of Heaven, His permissive will will allow a situation of  unhappiness for a time.  ‘But I love them’?  Well, ‘I love you and I want to be with you in heaven forever’ makes sense.  ‘I love you and I want to do stuff with you that may land us both in hell’ makes no sense whatever.  ‘What about loving relationships?’  They are good, it is a genital sexual relationship that is the problem.  Love stops here and use creeps in.  This is not a unique problem -it is about everyone.  We are all wounded.  ‘No trial has come upon you that is not common to all human beings.’ We all have crap we are dealing with.

‘Moral permissiveness rests on an erroneous conception of human freedom; the necessary precondition for the development of true freedom is to let oneself be educated in the moral law.’(CCC 2526)   This is because our ultimate goal is heaven, where ‘the "pure in heart" are promised that they will see God face to face and be like him.   Purity of heart is the precondition of the vision of God.’ which  ‘even now … enables us to see according to God, to accept others as "neighbours"; it lets us perceive the human body - ours and our neighbour's - as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty.’  (CCC2519)

I recommend you to read Humanae Vitae.  It is very short and extremely clear.  Other things you might look at are G.E.M. Anscombe’s  short pamphlet, available online called ‘Contraception and chastity.’  (GEM Anscombe)  The sections on the commandments in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are also very beautiful, and I drew upon them extensively for this talk.  Finally, I can recommend Fr Mike Schmitz and Bishop Barron who talk on line on a number of topics, including Christian marriage and sexuality.  I hope you will not be too scandalised by my shameless plagiarism!



[1] It is worth noting that even one case of abuse is a sacrilege, but that there is evidence that clergy involvement in the Catholic Church is no higher, and may be lower, than in the general population: cf.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Eph. 20,

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