Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Should we follow our desires?
Please pause and consider, for a moment, how you would answer that question — because how we answer it determines much about how our culture will go.
Chapters 6, 7, and 8 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans — which we read this week — can be understood as a detailed look at our desires. One of the things St. Paul says is: “Sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires.” Some of our desires are rooted in sin. In light of that, we know: simply following our desires leads to ruin.
Other desires, though, are rooted in our humanity as God created it. We have a desire for food, because we need food to survive. We have a desire for knowledge, because we’re made to know God. We have a desire for friendship, because we’re made for communion with God and each other. Because we’re fallen, each of these desires tends to get out of line — the desire for food can become gluttony, the desire for knowledge can become the will to power, the desire for friendship can become manipulative. But the desires themselves are for good things. So we have to do two things at once: respond to the desires and keep them in line.
Finally, during a week when we celebrate St. Luke the Evangelist, the Jesuit North American Martyrs, and St. John Paul II, we should also name the graced desire to make the Gospel known — a desire that comes simply from God. Most of us experience this kind of desire in our vocation: God gives us a desire for marriage, or priesthood, or religious life. Yes, there are sacrifices involved in every vocation — there are certain desires we have to give up to follow it. But when God gives us a vocation, He gives us a desire for it, because He desires it for us. In that sense every vocation is a miniature Agony in the Garden: We sacrifice one set of legitimate desires in order to pursue a deeper and greater set of desires.
Our culture tends to say: “Follow your desires. It’s the path to authenticity.” But that’s a mistake. Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son: He followed his desires, simply and completely. How did that go for him? That’s the path our culture is taking. We have to offer our children a better, deeper vision of authenticity than that!
Our desires are a mixed bag. They’re partly rooted in human nature, partly rooted in sin and partly rooted in grace. That’s not just fancy Catholic doctrine, it’s human experience! The path to authenticity and integrity, then, requires discernment. We have to sort out our desires — to ask where they come from, and where they’ll lead us. Once we know that we can say whether we should follow them wholeheartedly, follow them but keep them closely reined, or place them on the altar as something that needs to be sacrificed.
We come from both Adam and Christ. So, should we follow our desires?