The Appeal of the Flesh

During the last Synod on the Family held in Rome, a great effort was made by some few bishops to argue in favor of giving Holy Communion to the civilly divorced and remarried. It was argued that a crashed marriage and second “alive” marriage was more often than not done in very trying circumstances and that the lasting second marriage was not really adultery, especially if children were involved.

Notwithstanding, it often appeared naive on the part of those bishops who think that chastity was merely an ideal rarely, if at all, achieved. Furthermore, the sexual revolution which has claimed that the “feel good” of a couple outweighs the rights of children, has made no-fault divorce its mantra for happiness.

So, it is likewise naive to think that all divorced persons normally seek a second marriage in good will for highly upright reasons. Are they really trying to overcome loneliness and even get a good father or mother for the offspring of their failed first marriage or are they going further into the darkness of vice looking for happiness?

From a Catholic perspective, this decision to divorce and remarry means following one’s ill-formed and erroneous conscience caused by seeking an apparent good (sexual fulfillment as such) and not a true good. Failed marriages are sometimes caused by the lack of prudence, and instead of choosing someone who thinks and feels about Catholic values, one chooses a pseudo soul-mate. Deeper, some of these ill-fated choices were more often than not caused by the lack of cultivating the virtue of chastity before marriage because the culture claims that children are not important and interfere with personal pleasure and fulfillment. Instead of growing in authentic marital love for each other, the couples grew in lust, together with a host of psychological and often medical costs as well due to the ill effects of contraception, abortion, same-sex liaisons, adultery and believing that gender is merely a social construct.

Sin Often Multiplies Other Sins

St. Thomas Aquinas has a very important article in the Summa Theologiae where he asks the question: whether one sin is a cause of another? He presents several reasons why they do not do this formally or strictly speaking, yet in a certain way he also shows there is a certain influence of each sin on many other sins. This will be especially true with lust, as we shall see.

Beginning with his objections, they can be reduced to one, namely that each sin is too deficient in being to actualize another sin since it has to do with apparent, not real, goods. Therefore, one sin has no relationship of causality to another.

Since this is a theological issue, Thomas begins in the sed contra with a quotation from St. Gregory the Great: “a sin that is not quickly blotted out by repentance is both a sin and a cause of sin.”

In the body of the article he overwhelms the objections:

...that which removes an impediment. is called an accidental cause of movement; for when a man, by one sinful act, loses grace, or charity or shame, or anything else that withdraws him from sin, he thereby falls into another sin, so that the first sin is the accidental cause of the second.

What Thomas means is that a grave sin removes sanctifying grace, which in principle tears down a barrier against further sins, that is, other sins more easily ensue. Thomas further confirms this when he says that “a man is disposed to commit more readily another like act because acts cause dispositions and habits inclining to like acts.”

In addition, he says:

Second, after the manner of a material cause, one sin is the cause of another by preparing its matter. Thus covetousness prepares the matter for strife, which is often about the wealth a man has amassed together.

Ligio or strife in this context will be called later in the Summa a daughter of wrath or anger. It is an outcome of avarice leading someone caught up in this vice to attempt harm someone when there is a feeling of a real or imagined injustice done to oneself. For example, a company may amass goods by denying its employees a share in the profits, and that leads to strife or a bitter conflict between management and labor. This can also be accompanied by the vice of envy.

Finally, Thomas gives a third reason for sins causing other sins:

Thirdly, after the manner of a final cause, one sin causes another, insofar as a man commits one sin for the sake of another which is his end; as when a man is guilty of simony for the sake of ambition or fornication for the purpose of theft. And since the end gives the form in moral follows that one sin is also the formal cause of another; because the act of fornication committed for purposes of theft, the former is as matter while the latter is form.

The whole article essentially answers objections and explains the notion of sin as a lack of due order. This disorder in turn can indirectly cause other sins or, in other words, disorder in one area of morality can easily cause more disordered actions in another area.

The Analogous Nature of Sin

Throughout St. Thomas’s treatment on sin, he deals primarily with mortal sin and secondarily with venial sin, there being an infinite distance of the two kinds of sin. Nevertheless, he is very clear that repeated venial sin also can become a disposition or road to grave sins as well. So, for example, he writes:

“Because he that commits a sin venial in genus turns aside from some particular order; and through accustoming his will not be subject to the due order in lesser matters, he is disposed not to subject his will even in the order of the lasting end, by choosing something that is a mortal sin in its genus.”

While venial sin does not mean the lessening of charity in the will or sanctifying grace in the soul, it stops the progress of growth in the perfection of the charity and the virtues. And what Aquinas means is that it can incline someone toward grave sin by enabling someone used to choose an array of disorders contrary to God’s will. It can become like a “small vice” or a disposition for any major vice’s act or a mortal sin.

Daughters of Vices

Following St. Thomas and St. Gregory, each major vice has its daughters or consequences, which flow from each of the seven vices. While, one major vice may easily inspire other vices, some daughters of the vices may influence other vices and its daughters as well since they are like “first cousins” of disordered acts. They often act together, or one influences the other and interacts with each other, but not to the extent that the theological or cardinal virtues work together under charity. The daughters all share in one common feature, namely, an inner disarray toward created goods, and so each daughter has the potential of influencing other daughters, though not all. The scurrilous person (a product of gluttony) would not immediately be given over to violence or treachery (the consequence of avarice). Yet these latter daughters easily stir up quarreling, the daughter of anger.

Moral Evangelization of Children

There are many links among the vices, either as causes or effects prompting or urging the vices to continue and multiply their acts. Children can learn extreme anger or envy at an early age to get their own will, which leads to pride. Or, they may be deprived of ordered affection and praise from their parents and experience sadness caused by a sense of rejection, and thereby look for the inordinate pleasure of food. On the other hand, they may be overly praised or spoiled, leading them to think themselves better than they are. When learning their limitations later in life by experience, this realization can lead to envy of others.

Because of original sin, human nature has a strong propensity to choose the pleasurable and avoid the difficult and painful actions. We are not impassible, and we suffer pain with great difficulty (abstracting from masochists a form of mental illness) and enjoy pleasurable things quite easily, both morally good and bad. For example, children do not like doing chores around the house or doing tedious homework unless they are very talented intellectually. Obedience to parents does not come easily for host of reasons usually from forgetfulness or willfulness and the desire to control their lives by self-will. Children need training for their physical needs but education in the virtues of gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, appreciation for what God and others have given them besides developing a respect for the elderly. More could be said here.

Challenges of Chastity in Adolescence

When the child begins adolescence, greater battles of the spirit emerge due to sexual desire caused in part by hormones and the natural inclination to marriage and family life. Here, in order to help a child grow into living the virtue of chastity or continence, trust in parents should have matured by this time as well as faith in divine revelation. So, the adolescent needs education in chastity on the “how to” deal with surges of temptation and a knowledge of the ways of prayer. Parents need to step in to explain the why and what of these changes and the how to govern them under grace.

One of the first things adolescents need to learn is how to flee rather than fight temptations and also to feel assured that they are not guilty of sin simply because they are tempted with salacious thoughts that prompt sexual desires. Many of the saints were often tempted for hours and weeks at a time. Fleeing these trials of the flesh means getting one’s mind and attention on innocent games, hobbies, the arts, talking to friends and even exercise. This leads to self-possession in a very important area of life, the sexual.

Sexual Self-mastery

Second, the intellect of the adolescent needs to be informed that self-possession leads to a host of other virtues necessary to sustain a life-long marriage, other good friendships as well as doing a good job in the workplace of one’s life. Sexual self-mastery prevents divorces and remarriages, free unions without marriage, watching porn, masturbating, and fornicating in the hook-up culture. These sinful acts simply lead to the black hole of instrumentalizing men and women as means to an end (pleasure) to the detriment of true love and friendship, one of the important goals to aim for in any vocation, whether to marriage or the single state.

Raising children, being a long-term process requiring much sacrifice of time and energy, must rest upon a bounded pair who live to bring true fulfillment to each other and their children. If marriage is a call to holiness, a quasi consecration with God, as Gaudium et Spes calls a sacramental marriage (GS, No. 48c), it then should mirror by example to offspring the importance of seeking God’s wisdom and will during turbulent time of being a teen or tween in a present culture that does not believe in any of the aforementioned truths.

And even with these “tools,” in growing in the virtue of chastity, failures are always possible since human nature being free can resist the help of parents and God’s grace. Parents are supposed to be the first evangelizers, and after that, the parish and Catholic school (if there is one), and others therein connected. Ordinarily much more should depend upon parents to evangelize a future culture of life-generating persons convinced by faith and reason about the truth of human nature and the call to virtue.

The Decline of Marital Unions

If none of this faith based theology makes any sense to the current family and culture, then (with some exceptions) enters lust, the capital vice against temperance and the consequent undermining a right or ordered relationship of sexuality and the common good of marriage. Lust and his daughters become a kind of a moderator or secondary originator of a vast number of other vices after his queen pride, who casts a wider net or shadow on all the capital vices. Certainly other sins may undermine the soul’s sanctifying grace — and even faith, hope or charity, and the other cardinal virtues — from weakness, ignorance and surprise. However, when lust takes over a person’s life and becomes settled like evenings of viewing porn, it becomes like an anti-form or inspirer of all the other vices undermining the virtues due to the daughters of lust.

Traditionally, from Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, lust’s daughters are named blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, all of which undermine solid prudence, producing the vagaries of folly. Decisions of right and wrong, when, how and where to do any good act becomes murky. Failure to think before acting, thinking too much and never acting and rarely seeking advice from persons of virtue all go to stymie one on the road to a reasonable life under grace. Following one’s deformed conscience is following a fool in this scenario.

Moreover, the other daughter of self-love means selfishness or an unwillingness to think of others and fulfill their needs when it is the right act to do. Worse still are the other daughters, namely, hatred of God, love of this world, and abhorrence or despair of a future world. These enervate the desire for wanting to know God and His will, which have a necessary relationship with Him as one’s ultimate end of life on earth.

The common good of societies which a person may belong to, beginning with home, becomes subordinated to one’s inordinate desire for the goods of this world. The material goods of this world (money and property), become one’s “end all and be all,” and then, avarice settles into one’s soul. The notion that all things have a universal or common destination for others when in need is lost. Sharing one’s bounty with others in need, the virtue of liberality according to Aquinas, becomes meaningless.

Also closely related to pride are lust’s other daughters, namely, hatred of God and her sister, abhorrence of the next world of heaven, eternal life. These daughters within the soul battle in varying degrees against God the Creator, the Redeemer, but above all God the consummator of human life. Damnation or eternal death comes easy as the daughters entrench themselves, either because one forgets or denies its existence or falsely assumes heaven will be granted anyway, the sin of presumption against divine hope.

That there is no final prize (ultimate glory) to strive for slowly deteriorates this striving for heaven when the heart is captivated by lust. Put simply, anger, blasphemy, vainglory and envy are not easily pushed back unless the foundation of chastity is solidly informing the will.

To grow in the virtue of chastity, whether pre-marital, marital or post-marital, prayer, a sacramental life of communion and confession, together with sustained effort to control sexual impulses that come from within and to avoid near occasions of sin, are absolutely necessary.

Secondarily, a conviction about the dignity of the human person, marriage and family life helps put to death these upstart impulses to vice that can undermine character. While knowledge as such does not produce virtue, it can aid it by offering insightful ideas about the moral good of the human person and so motivate personal and interpersonal dignity.

To conclude, if Catholics today do not know very well their Catechism, even more so they do not practice chastity either. If only .2 percent of the U.S. population practice NFP, and up to 90 percent practice contraceptive “love” in all its various forms to limit or exclude children, how can these parents convincingly teach pre-marital chastity? And if 80 percent or more of teens and young adults watch pornography from time to time, how can there be long-lasting marriages, even if they are going to Holy Communion without confession of their sins?

We Catholics here and in Western Europe seem like a ship that is sinking deeply. While the clergy enthusiastically shout about the joy of the Gospel, they tend to exclude warning about another fundamental option, the horrors of damnation. The Good News of Jesus Christ is the solution to the very bad news of sin and eternal death. Otherwise the Good News of the paschal mystery makes no sense and leads to a “so what” or an “I’m alright” attitude about one’s eternal destiny.

FATHER COLE, O.P., is professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.