Lust — is it even a sin anymore? British journalist, satirist, and Catholic convert Malcolm Muggeridge once complained of the West, “The orgasm has replaced the cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfillment.” Even well-educated Catholics tend to think of Lust as merely another word for sexual desire. But the nature of the seven capital (“deadly”) sins is that they pervert good or morally neutral desires and emotions into soul-traps and sin-drivers. The sexual scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church in recent years should be more than adequate reminders of that fact.
Lust and the Scarcity Mindset
Lust, in the traditional Catholic sense, isn’t sexual desire as such. As defined in the old Catholic Dictionary, it is “the inordinate craving for, or indulgence of, the carnal pleasure which is experienced in the human organs of generation.” What does inordinate mean? In one sense, it means “excessive”, but it also carries the sense of “inappropriate” or “misdirected.” It isn’t the desire itself which constitutes the sin. Rather, the object of the desire may be improper, or the degree to which we experience the desire may be disproportionate.
As we discussed before concerning gluttony, not everything we desire is something of which we lack a sufficiency; not everything we lack is something necessary to life, safety, well-being, success, etc. But the scarcity mindset of the addictive personality sees paucity even in the midst of abundance and translates that illusion of want into false needs. Lust manifests the scarcity mindset by misperceiving sexual gratification as something necessary, even life-critical. In some pathologies, the lack has to be fulfilled in specific, ritualized ways, while in others the pursuit of satisfaction is more indiscriminate.
One primary difference between the desires for food and for sex is that, while you must periodically refuel to survive, you won’t die if you don’t copulate. Not even metaphorically. Some people can even thrive without sex. Unlike other animals, humans have been given the power to choose not only where, when, and with whom they will copulate but also whether they will ever copulate, as well as to consider why they should or shouldn’t copulate. Other animals reject unsuitable mates; only humans rationalize sleeping with people they wouldn’t want to be the other parent of their children.
The Twin Teloi of Sex
Naturally, some people must copulate for the species to continue. As well, not everyone can successfully sublimate their urges into healthy, constructive non-sexual outlets. Of greater concern, some pathologies limit our capacity for reflection and choice, misdirecting the reproductive drive into self-destructive or antisocial behaviors. The point, however, is that in general, not only can we choose not to act on those urges when an opportunity presents itself, but we do so more often than we realize. We do not need to have sexual intercourse.
But to say that as individuals we don’t need sex to survive is not to say that sex doesn’t have a proper telos, or final purpose, as does eating. On the contrary, sex has two teloi: pair-bonding and procreation. The procreative function logically precedes the unitive function, which however doesn’t diminish the unitive function’s importance. The unitive function fosters the creation of stable family networks in which the parents can raise their offspring. Lust, by contrast, has as its final end only the gratification of one’s own desires.
If we reproduced and reared children in some other manner, we wouldn’t have developed copulation-capable organs. (Robin Williams once quipped, “If you were an amoeba, you’d split in two and say, ‘Was it good for me? Who knows?’”) Consider angelfish: The female lays her eggs on some flat surface and the male ejaculates over them. No copulation takes place, though they have sex organs analogous to ours. That we can use the organs to other ends is irrelevant to the proper teloi of sex: Abusus non usum tollit (“the abuse [of a thing] does not abolish its [proper] use”).
As I said about eating, there is no reason why procreative intercourse must be unpleasant or an onerous task. Yes, sex can be enormously enjoyable; at its best, the experience can approach transcendence. But the pleasure isn’t a proper end in itself. Since the means of getting the male and female gametes together is inefficient — if Darwin is right, this inefficiency is a feature rather than a bug — the pleasure of sex encourages frequent intercourse to enhance the odds of successful fertilization and conception. Multiple offspring enhances genetic transmission to future generations. Pleasure serves and reinforces both of sex’s teloi.
Masturbation Tools and Entitlement
What the pro-life circles call the “contraceptive mentality” is by no means something new or peculiar to modern Western culture. Humans have been trying to divorce the pleasure of sex from the teloi of reproduction and pair-bonding for literal millennia. If you’re in Vienna, you can visit the Museum of Contraception and Abortion; closer to home, in Cleveland, there’s the collection at Case Western Reserve University’s Dittrick Medical History Center. In either location, you’ll find all the evidence you need to realize that the desire to prevent/end pregnancy isn’t really “progressive.”
Psychologically, the separation of sexual pleasure from the teloi of pair-bonding and reproduction begins with masturbation. If there’s any “good” to masturbation, it’s the negative virtue of not misusing another person for one’s own gratification. (Said Goethe ironically, “On occasion, a woman is a serviceable substitute for masturbation.”) As with obesity, the person abused is oneself, a person no less worthy of one’s respect and charity than are others, a person God loves no less than others. However, masturbation is the archetype of Lust, such that every other expression of the sin uses other people as masturbation tools.
But not every act of Lust is directed solely towards pleasure. Power, dominance, humiliation, pain, narcissistic self-affirmation, comfort, relief from loneliness or emptiness or ennui — many desires, from the pathetic to the pathological, seek illicit fulfillment through sexual contact. Sometimes, people rationalize the act as one of charity or mercy, though alleviating someone else’s psychic pain through sex is still an abuse of the gift. More often, though, Lust degrades even when it’s consensual. And in our culture, its greatest potential for abuse comes when one regards sexual contact not only as a right but as an entitlement.
Here I pause to clarify a potential misunderstanding: When St. Paul tells the Corinthians that married couples should not deprive one another of sexual intimacy, he adds, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). Here the apostle is reminding the Corinthians that, since they no longer belong solely to themselves, they can no longer consider only their own interests. He is not, however, creating an entitlement to marital sex.
Sex ≠ Love
A gay friend once told me, “If I couldn’t have love, I would die.” But, strictly speaking, sexual contact as such isn’t love or affection. In fact, even consensual intercourse can express contempt for the Other, or contempt for oneself; there are a variety of “kinks” involving some variant of consensual (self-)humiliation and (self-)degradation. The reduction of the Other to a masturbation tool implicit in the “hook-up culture” is itself an expression of contempt for the Other.
To be sure, not all sexual relationships outside of marriage lack the affection and concern for the Other which Christians mean by agápē, “love,” and not all marriages express that agápē. But Lust isn’t concerned with agápē, or even érōs. It has no truck with commitment, no regard for propriety or social relations, and no thought for the good of the Other. Being entirely self-interested, Lust cares not a whit for offspring or family (except, in some cultural contexts, so far as pregnancy “proves” manliness) and may even regard such things as burdens or obstacles.
“The heart wants what it wants,” we sometimes say to ourselves, meaning that desire, not being rooted in reason, can’t be reasoned away. But it doesn’t follow that we must act on those desires. Free will contains both the ability to say yes and the ability to say no; as Chesterton once said, “Self-denial is the test and definition of self-government [autonomy].” A person who can’t say no to their own desires is a slave to them. This is the true freedom that faith in Christ offers us, which he brings to the sinners and outcasts (Matthew 9:10-13; cf. Mark 2:15-17, Luke 5:29-32).
God gave us the gift of marital love that we might participate with Him in His ongoing act of creation. Being a gift, we show our gratitude to the Giver by treating the gift with respect and thoughtfulness, by using sex as intended rather than as a tool for pleasure or power. Lack of that respect shows not only in contraception and abortion, but also in sexual assault and harassment, sexual slavery, the incel (“involuntary celibate”) movement, risky and demeaning sexual practices, pornography, infidelity, and uncounted other ways. Many evils we experience come from the abuse of good things.
Yes, Lust is still a capital sin, despite the modern world’s many futile attempts to paint it a virtue. The homiletic de-emphasizing of sins of the flesh didn’t make us less prone to commit them; rather, it subtly encouraged us to adopt the world’s errors. Paradoxically, the scandals present us with an opportunity to resurrect the Church’s traditional teaching concerning Lust and bring it, along with the other deadly sins, back to the pulpit. For if we don’t comprehend the reality of sin among us, how shall we comprehend the joy of our salvation?