December 14, 2006
Hamlet, the main character says admiringly of Horatio “Give me that man that is not passion's slave and I will wear him at my heart's core” (
Hamlet, III.ii.65-70). Hamlet recognizes that Horatio has achieved freedom from emotional upheaval. Horatio is a Stoic.
The ancient Stoics taught that detachment from pleasure or pain opened the way to become a clear thinker. By mastering passions and emotions, Stoics believed that it was possible to find peace within oneself. In fact, the word ''stoic'' has come to mean ''unemotional'' or indifferent to pain. But the Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions. Rather, they sought to avoid emotional troubles through reflection and concentration.
Unlike the Stoics in ancient Greece, the Epicureans exalted the passions. They held that the passions should be obeyed. Epicurus taught that a successful life is one of personal fulfillment and happiness within this world. Many moderns repeat this philosophy when they proclaim that our desires and inclinations need to be satisfied for us to be happy.
The Christian faith, however, neither dismisses nor indulges the passions. The passions, such as love, fear, and courage are part of our human nature. Nothing God bestows on us is evil. The Lord himself, in accepting our human nature, sanctifies our human passions and sets an example.
In the gospels, the passions of Jesus are not glossed over. Jesus gets angry. He throws out the money changers from the Temple. He curses the fig tree and it withers. He loves deeply and tenderly. He embraces the little children. He finds welcome friendship in the home of Martha and Mary at Bethany. In the agony in the garden, he trembles with fear to the point of sweating blood. And so profound is his sorrow that he weeps openly at the tomb of his friend Lazarus.
Passions in themselves are not evil. However, these powerful inclinations or drives within us need to be controlled by our will. We are not like a rudderless ship at the mercy of the wind and waves. We can direct our passions to the end for which they are given us.
How much good comes to children whose mother passionately seeks their well-being! How many lives are saved by soldiers whose courage leads them to heroism! How close to God we come when our love of God and neighbor is so strong a passion that we balk at no effort, at no sacrifice, to do good to others!
Perhaps some people have difficulty in accepting what the Church teaches about human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular because they do not fully appreciate the place of passion in human life. Having a desire for something is not wrong. God has placed a pleasure in eating so that we eat. But we need to moderate our diet so that eating becomes a way of nourishing our bodies and keeping us healthy.
God has attached certain pleasures to sexual activity. These pleasures are his gifts for married couples to express their love and to offer themselves to Him for the procreation of new life. When passion serves the good of a marriage between a man and a woman, the passion for such pleasure is properly ordered. But the passion for sexual gratification outside of marriage is disordered.
The recent guidelines “
Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care” clearly explain the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. These same guidelines also offer encouragement for those who struggle with same-sex attractions. The one moral law applies to all. One’s particular inclinations do not negate the moral imperative of a chaste life in following Jesus. Passion, no matter how strong, is never the excuse for ignoring Christ’s call to holiness (cf. Mt 5:47-48).
Every Christian is called to chastity, both married and single. Chastity is a virtue that frees us to love more deeply. Chastity empowers us to relate to the other with reverence for their person. The chaste person is not self-centered. The chaste person recognizes the dignity of others and does not engage others for selfish reasons. Chastity enables us to respect one another within the plan of God. It is the virtue that makes true self-giving possible.
"Chastity includes an
apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy" (The Pontifical Council for the Family,
The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family, 18). In this regard, Church offers hope.
Drawing on the wisdom of ancient philosophers, Catholic tradition maintains that training in virtue is needed to shape one's passions in accord with good action. The more one does good actions, the more one's passions (such as love, anger, and fear) are brought under control. Living a virtuous life helps to bring one's inclinations in order.
However, a virtuous life requires a sustained effort. We need to make repeated efforts. And, in the face of failure, we do not become discouraged. Christ accomplishes in us a healing from the wounds of sin that we cannot do on our own.
The New Law of Christ gives us an ability that does not come from nature itself. As St. Paul says, “God accomplishes in us both the good and the desire to do the good” (Phil. 2:13). As Christians, we do not rely on our own powers. We rely on the grace of God that is in Christ Jesus (cf. 2 Tim 2:1) and on the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts (cf. 1 Th 3:8).
Furthermore, the Church helps each person to live out the universal call to holiness. This call often involves struggle and self-denial. In offering the Sacraments of Eucharist and of Penance, the Church makes available the grace of Christ to enable her children to walk more easily the path of discipleship. God does not command the impossible. In the struggle to live our call to be followers of Jesus, we need to recall the words of the angel to Mary at the Annunciation: “
Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).