The widespread dominion of the vice of lust, with all its attendant sins, is one the most serious crises facing the Catholic Church in the modern world. The extent to which the scourge of pornography has penetrated the Christian world is well documented. Whereas once upon time men needed to make a special trip to an adult bookstore in order to purchase pornographic materials, the advent of the Web has made an unlimited abyss of pornography available anywhere there is an Internet connection. In 2008, the evangelical publication Christianity Today featured the results of a study that suggested as many said 50 percent of Christian men have looked at porn recently. One Protestant pastor, skeptical of the statistic, polled his own congregation and found the result was 60% within the past year and 30% within the past 30 days.
Even if we can thankfully say that we are part of the 50% who have not viewed pornography either ever or in the recent past, how much more prevalent is the sin of masturbation? Though the statistics are harder to come by here, the evidence seems to suggest that regular masturbation among Christian males across denominational lines is somewhere around 87%; some estimates place this as high as 95%.
And even if we could possibly boast that we are among the 5-13% of Christian men who do not practice regular masturbation, how often do we struggle with impure thoughts or cast our gaze too long as immodest images we see as we go about our day? The battle against lust sometimes seems all-encompassing and every victory only a temporary gain until the next fall.
Some pastors have chosen to ignore the uncomfortable subjects of pornography and masturbation; some have tried to make a truce with lust, like evangelical icon Dr. James Dobson, who famously taught that masturbation in Christian boys was “not much of an issue with God” and should not be discouraged. But, to their credit, there have also been many pastors who have spoken out vehemently against the vice of lust, including use of pornography and masturbation. Yet, even among orthodox Catholic parishes where these sins are preached against and where recourse to the confessional is frequent, there is still a grave problem. Many men in perfectly sound, orthodox parishes that foster healthy spirituality still struggle desperately with lust – and in many cases, it is a losing struggle. Why does this seem to be one battle that Catholic men have such a difficulty winning?
We can of course point to the culture, to the absolute inundation of immodest images in our society. We could also make a case that the ease of accessibility of such images greatly increases the likelihood that men will access them. But these answers alone are not sufficient; sins of lust do not just “happen” to people – they require formal cooperation. Nobody “falls” into looking at pornography, as if they were wandering along minding their own business and just tripped into it. The abundance of pornographic material and the ease of accessing it certainly make it easier for men to sin with less effort, but it does not explain why so many Christian men seemed predisposed to commit these sins in the first place.
The answer, I believe, is that too many Catholics, even orthodox, traditional Catholics, are living unmortified lives. Despite fidelity to the Magisterium and a regular sacramental life, they have not “put to death the deeds of the flesh” (Rom. 8:13) through penance and prayer. Masturbation and pornography are specific issues, but they arise from the general problem of living an unmortified life.
Lust is nothing other than disordered, immoderate sexual desire. Because it deals with excess with regards to bodily pleasure, we may rightly understand out sexual appetite to be governed by the virtue of temperance. According to St. Thomas, "temperance" signifies a certain temperateness or moderation, which reason appoints to human operations and passions” (STh, II-IIQ. 141 Art. 2). Temperance consists of moderation in the use of our passions and created goods. In order to win the battle against lust, one must possess the virtue of temperance.
In general, virtues and vices are one within a person. This means that, if a person is immoderate in any aspect of their life, they are much more likely to be immoderate in other areas as well. A man who is wasteful with his money will most likely be wasteful with other things, time, for example. An individual who practices justice with regards to his family and acquaintance will most likely be just with others as well (co-workers, employees, etc). Because virtues and vices are habits that form our character, they tend to cut across the different aspects of our lives in their effects.
To bring this back to lust: lust is a problem with temperance, and if we are intemperate with regards to our sexual desires, it is likely that we are intemperate in other areas, too. But the flip side of this is that, if we can identify and rectify the other areas of our lives in which we find problems with moderation, we are in a much stronger position to attack the vice of lust.
It is my personal opinion that there is a strong correlation between lust and gluttony. I think that many of the persons who struggle with lust exercise little restraint on what they eat and drink. Gluttony, of course, is the immoderate intake of food and drink; lust, the immoderate desire of sexual pleasure. Both vices are connected, because immoderation with regards to food tends to enslave us to our basic instincts. When we once find ourselves giving in to our base instincts with regards to the bodily pleasure that we get from eating food, it is very difficult to avoid giving in to the pleasure of other bodily desires as well.
I am not saying all people who struggle with lust are gluttons; nor am I speculating as to how much food or drink one needs to consume to be a glutton. I am merely pointing out that issues of temperance tend to stand or fall together; one is either a temperate person, or one is not. The ancient authors, both pagan and Christian, have noted this specific connection between gluttony and lust. St. Jerome said, “The eating of flesh, and drinking of wine, and fullness of stomach, is the seed-plot of lust.” St. John Climacus said, “To be gluttonous, yet expect to be chaste, is to wish to extinguish fire with oil. It matters not whether the object of our desire is food or sexual pleasure: when we do not mortify our bodily instincts, we become immoderate people and fail in any struggle that requires temperance.
Because it is generally easier to moderate our intake of food than to break habits of sexual sin, it is my opinion that any serious attempt to break free from the vice of lust should begin with a general resolution to be moderate in all things pertaining to the body, especially food and drink. Spiritual power is unleashed when we mortify our desires and bring our prayers to the Lord when fasting. Besides the grace given us through fasting, it teaches us to practice bodily discipline and subject the desires of our body to the dictates of reason. He who is moderate in food and drink and practices regular fasting will grow in grace, cultivate the virtue of temperance, and find himself much better equipped to enter into combat against lust. There will still be a struggle, but the constant failures and setbacks that characterized earlier efforts will now give way to real and enduring victories.
For those in pastoral ministries, it is important to not only preach against the common vices of masturbation and pornography, but to preach and exemplify a mortified life, encouraging parishioners to fast and do penance. Trying to encourage people to chastity without teaching them mortification will be fruitless; those who have not developed the virtue of temperance will always be too spiritually weakened to fight lust, which is a very powerful enemy.
This is the way of the saints and fathers – moderation in all things, especially food and drink, lead to moderation of sexual desire. Immoderation in food and drink leads to immoderation in our sexual desires.
 “Ladder of Divine Ascent”, 14