Sex and the Journey of Redemption (Part 2)

Christopher West on Theology of the Body

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By Genevieve Pollock

EXTON, Pennsylvania, NOV. 25, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Although humans will always need to be vigilant against sexual temptations, we are not defined merely by our fallen nature, says Christopher West of the Theology of the Body Institute.

The work of the popular writer and speaker has been a topic of debate since a controversial misrepresentation of his views on ABC's Nightline last May.

This prompted Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to issue a statement in August expressing support for the organization's work and West's "particular charism" to carry out its mission.

Last month, West issued his own response to his critics, titled "The Theology of the Body Discussion: The Pivotal Question."

In this interview with ZENIT, he explains more in-depth about sexuality, vigilance, concupiscence and redemption, in light of Pope John Paul II's teachings.

Part 1 of this interview was published Tuesday.

ZENIT: In the statement you recently released, you note that the importance of the debate is centered on distinguishing between the "man dominated by lust," or the "man redeemed by Christ?" But don't all people have the same tendency toward concupiscence? How can you classify people in one category or another?

West: Actually, these are John Paul II's distinctions.

In response to those who want to water down the Church's teaching on sexuality so it accords with the "concrete possibilities of man," John Paul II asks, "But what are the 'concrete possibilities of man?' And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ" (Veritatis Splendor 103)?  

All people certainly experience concupiscence, that disordering of our passions caused by original sin. In this sense, we are all the "man of concupiscence" -- a phrase John Paul uses repeatedly in his Theology of the Body. But, and this is the key point, we are not merely the man of concupiscence.

We are not merely fallen. We are fallen and redeemed.  

And Christ's redemption calls us, John Paul II says -- and calls us effectively -- to experience a "real and deep victory" over the distortions of lust (see TOB 45:4, 46:4).  

The following statement from John Paul II puts it nicely, I think: "although man naturally remains the man of concupiscence ... he is at the same time the man of the 'call.' He is 'called' through the mystery of the redemption of the body, a divine mystery that is at the same time -- in Christ and for Christ in every man -- a human reality" (TOB 107:2).

ZENIT: John Paul II told us in Veritatis Splendor that Christ "has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence." How does that work in our day-to-day life? What does it look like, particularly in regards to our sexual life? On a practical level, can a person ever assume that he does not have to remain vigilant with regard to his sexual passions?

West: We must always be vigilant when it comes to temptation -- sexual or otherwise.  

But what that vigilance looks like will differ from person to person. For example, an alcoholic who is just gaining sobriety will need to be vigilant with alcohol in a way that someone who has never struggled with alcoholism doesn't.  

Vigilance, then, will differ based on where we are on our journey. As John Paul II wrote, "With the passage of time, if we persevere in following Christ our Teacher, we feel less and less burdened by the struggle against sin, and we enjoy more and more the divine light which pervades all creation.  

This is most important, because it allows us to escape from a situation of constant inner exposure to the risk of sin -- even though, on this earth, the risk always remains present to some degree" (Memory and Identity, p. 29).

But, to answer the first part of the question, how does "freedom from the domination of concupiscence" work out in our day-to-day life? John Paul II wrote that to experience this freedom, we must 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 pornography?

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 I think 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.

What's required, John Paul says, is "perseverance and consistency" 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 concupiscence.  

"One should add," John Paul says, "that this task can be carried out and that it is truly worthy of man" (TOB 48:4).

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On ZENIT's Web page:

Part 1: http://zenit.org/article-27657?l=english

On the Net:

Theology of the Body Institute: http://www.tobinstitute.org/