My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
In my series on the seven deadly or capital sins, so far I have discussed acedia (also called sloth), greed and anger. Today we will look at the deadly sin of lust, which, like the other capital sins, can be a simple yet powerful drive remaining and festering in our heart, but it can also manifest itself in some pretty rotten behavior.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that lust is a "disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure" (#2351). Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when it is sought for itself, separated from its morally legitimate purposes, namely, the procreation of children and the expression of marital love between husband and wife.
Our contemporary society's preoccupation with sex can be seen in the media reaction to the pope's recent interview, which was published in several Jesuit publications. Although the interview ran some 12,000 words, the secular media has focused almost exclusively on the sentence where Pope Francis said, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods." But he said a lot more than that. Pope Francis stressed that the "most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."
The reports make it sound like this was the first time that a pope said something like that. It wasn't. Actually, the pope's predecessor, Benedict XVI, made similar comments to the bishops of Switzerland on Nov. 9, 2006. At that time, Benedict recalled that when asked for interviews in the 1980s and '90s, he could guess the questions in advance, as they "concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems." In response, Pope Benedict cautioned, "We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first place on the greatness of Christianity. If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions. We give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith," adding that we must never be diverted from that highlight.
This continuity between Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis was noted by Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, in an essay in National Review Online on Sept. 22. Mr. Anderson criticized a misleading "media narrative," in which Pope Francis is portrayed as "a progressive, taking the Catholic Church in a profoundly new direction uninterested in church teaching on moral issues." In contrast, "Benedict, we are told, is conservative, doctrinaire, and old-fashioned; focused on moral issues," according to the media narrative. Anderson concluded that "neither narrative is true, because each leaves out half of the story."
So, to get the full story of the church's teachings, we don't just talk about sins, we talk about repentance, mercy, redemption, forgiveness, and God's grace to help us strive for virtue. Thus, when we talk about the capital sin of lust, it is not simply a matter of condemning a vice. We must also speak of conversion of the heart and the virtue of chastity.
As Pope Benedict put it in his 2006 talk, "Catholicism isn't a collection of prohibitions; it's a positive option."
It is not by accident that Jesus' teaching about "adultery in the heart" comes right after his remarks about growing angry (Matt. 5:22), which immediately follow the Beatitudes in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-12). In the Beatitudes, Jesus provides a prescription for being blessed or happy. When he talks about the "poor in spirit," "the sorrowing," those who "hunger and thirst for holiness," he is talking about attitudes of the heart. This is most clear when he says, "Blest are the single-hearted, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8).
Purity of heart is important because our thoughts and desires lead to words, and words lead to actions. If we want to avoid acting out in ways that are immoral, and if we want to live a life of virtue, the place to start is with the desires of our hearts.
Ultimately, only the Holy Spirit can satisfy the deepest desires of our heart. It is God's grace that turns our hearts away from sin and fosters a deep desire and longing only for the Supreme Good. So we have to decide where we want our hearts to be focused, because "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:21).
May God give us this grace. Amen.