There are also natural pleasures (good food) and artificial pleasures such as smoking, for no one is born with a craving to smoke artificially-created and made attractive by the clever advertisements of tobacco companies convincing their viewers that it is "smart", "elegant", up to date", "relaxing".
There are also pleasures that are against nature; we shall call them "perversions". The latter should be mercilessly condemned because implicitly they are a revolt against the order and harmony established by God Himself, the Maker of nature. A perversion is a distorted use of organs and faculties. Any such distortion would never be either attempted or practiced if it failed to keep its promise to give immediate "satisfaction".
Pleasure is always pleasant, but this undeniable fact does not entitle us to claim that they are legitimate. God has linked pleasures to certain activities but if these are abused or used in a fashion that defies God's intention in giving them to us, they should be condemned first and foremost because they are sins, but also, as an inevitable consequence, because they harm not only our soul, but also harms others often involved in these sins.
Whereas animals are bound to obey their particular nature, man can alas, willfully choose to violate its laws and he is tempted to do so because he expects satisfaction from his disobedience. Pleasure is a very ambiguous term. Even though all pleasures are subjectively satisfying, – some of them not only offend God, but also wage war against a greater good of the person: the good of his soul. That certain actions and activities are linked to pleasure is something that God has placed in them. But this does not entitle us to draw the conclusion that any satisfaction is legitimate. Pleasure becomes illegitimate, nay immoral, when it is either abused –over eating– the sin of gluttony – or perverted. It is legitimate to enjoy going to a good restaurant, but it is immoral to steal money in order to afford this passing satisfaction and does become a grave sin when stolen from a poor man – (I happen to know such a case) – to satisfy this craving. There are detestable pleasures; there are hateful and revolting pleasures; there are diabolical pleasures, such as enjoyed by men abusing children for "fun".
The Christian attitude toward pleasures is beautiful expressed in the Benedictine prayer before meals: Benedic Domine nos et haec tua dona quae de tua largitate sumus sumpturi, per Christum Dominum Nostrum.… Any legitimate pleasure should trigger in us gratitude, and this gratitude "baptizes" it and by this holy chemistry, makes it pleasing to God for it transforms something "merely subjectively satisfying" into an objective good for the person. For a saint, therefore the merely subjectively satisfying is totally eliminating from the screen of his consciousness and replaced by a song of gratitude. The dying St. Francis gratefully accepted a delicacy that a lady friend had brought him for she knew that he liked it. Yet the same saint, shortly before his death, apologized to his Brother Ass "for having treated him so badly". But Christian saints never lose sight of the fact that – because of original sin – pleasure can potentially always be morally dangerous. How deeply meaningful that St. Thomas More – a married man – as a matter of fact when his first wife died, having four young children, he remarried shortly afterwards – wore a hair shirt. He wanted both to "tame" and to "baptize" pleasure, for any person striving for holiness never forgets for a moment that we are fragile creatures, wounded by sin.
Obviously any abuse of a gift, and a fortiori, any perverse pleasure can neither be baptized, nor contribute to the true good of the person. It is its enemy. How wise was Plato when he wrote that man is his own worst enemy.
Now we are in a position to see why the ecstasy linked to the noble union of husband and wife should never be the primary motivation of the spouses. Their noble and legitimate desire to become "one flesh" would be poisoned as soon as the ecstasy superabundantly linked to it, that is organically flowing over from it, would have primacy. If someone viewed adoring God as a sheer means for attaining beatitude, – by the same token this person proves that he has no inkling what "adoration" truly means. We ought to adore HIM for the plain reason that He is who He is: love itself: "... quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominum…" It is crucial to repeat this in a society where the "business attitude" – that is pragmatism – is prevalent: man is not a machine that should produce good deeds. This flat-footed pragmatism is so prevalent that "education" is viewed as a means of "making a good money" (as I heard from a professor of a university). The word "truth" had no room in her vocabulary. The happy marriage of wit and wisdom so typical of Pascal, offers a superb refutation of this tragically distorted view; he tells us that he was not a pragmatist…because he went much further without it…"seek you first the Kingdom of heaven, and the rest will be added unto you".
Aristotle was right indeed in mentioning that there are things done for the sake of something else, i.e., they are "means", and a means is used only as long as it is "useful" i.e., performs well. If this is no longer the case, it is discarded and replaced by a more efficient one. This approach is fully justified when applied to the mechanical and technical sphere: whatever is not needed is eliminated. But it is disastrous if extended to the lives of persons. For their dignity is such that they should never be used as a sheer means to an end. One of the abominable features of totalitarianism is precisely to view human beings as mere cogs in the huge impersonal monster called the State.
This leads me back to the relationship between husband and wife in marriage. If a husband embraces his wife for the sake of satisfying a powerful craving – not caring whether or not she is "receptive" to his gift and therefore is not fully capable of full reciprocity (it can be due to physical discomfort, or extreme fatigue), and consequently by gentle hints that she is not at her best, and if then his response it to feel deprived of his "right" as a husband, we are entitled to suspect that his main motivation was pleasure for its own sake. This fact can be duplicated in the wife-husband relationship. If she realizes that because he is recovering from a grave operation, or is exhausted because of a terribly stressful career, and uses her charm to attract him – in a very subtle way, she is sinning against love that always claims that priority of the loved one. Out of love, she should then refrain from making advances, which far from being selfless, are in fact self-seeking. One of the beautiful sides of marriage – rarely mentioned – is that it offers plenty of opportunities for sacrifices. This is an important fact that should be mentioned in marriage preparation courses. Marriage does not give one a license to follow inclinations which outside of marriage are severely prohibited.
I cannot insist enough upon the notion of "superabundance" – which is far from any form of puritanism, condemning pleasure as being evil, puts "ecstasy" in its proper place. Omnis homo mendax. How easily do we lie to ourselves in assuming that we are doing a good action in order to glorify God, and to respond to the call of a moral value, while in fact we calculate that in the long run, it will pay "dividends" and is therefore "a good placement". We should not fear acknowledging that this temptation is in us. One again this fact it open to misinterpretations: it would be wrong indeed from abstaining from doing a charitable deed because one is conscious of the fact that our intentions are "mixed". We are entitled to receive absolution in the sacrament of confession even though the confessor is conscious of the fact that the contrition of the penitent is imperfect. But he should be encouraged to keep begging God for the grace to conquer the proper motivation.
For any acknowledgement of our weakness and meanness is in fact a call to turn to God for help: "this is what I am without your help. Hasten to heal me, O my Savior". Indeed, he tells us plainly: "he knew what was in man". None of our weaknesses are unknown to Him or surprise Him.
Great spiritual directors often warn their spiritual children that they should not pray to taste the sweetness that it often granted them, particularly at the beginning of our spiritual life, but as a value response to HIM who deserves our adoration and our praise. Saints have all gone through periods of total aridity, dark moments when singing God's greatness becomes a "duty". St. John of the Cross has spoken eloquently about the dark night of the soul, when the "wings" of the praying person are cut; he is crawling, and yet, should persevere in faith, trusting that these moments are in fact graces bringing closer to God teaching us to "love selflessly" – for love is never a "business deal."
The noble intentio benevolentiae is threaten to degenerate as soon as it does not respect the hierarchy of values, for example when it places worldly success of the loved one above his spiritual growth. The intentio unionis – as we just saw – can also be poisoned as soon as "enjoyment" is given priority. These are frequent cases when we lie to ourselves, claiming that we long for union with the beloved, while in fact, we crave for the satisfaction that organically flows from it. Marital unfaithfulness is, alas, often triggered by the fact that a husband is not satisfied with his wife's "performance" (what a horrible word) and then looks for another partner who lives up to the mark. Marriage if properly understood and lived, offer rich occasions of "dying to oneself" and learning the "art of loving". Once again, the lives of saints is eloquent: they gratefully followed Christ to Golgotha, whereas many of us try to escape from the via dolorosa, while most willing to enjoy the glory of Easter Sunday.
This leads me back to my theme: homosexuality and the inspiring story of a true love between two men having strong homosexual tendencies and who lived together for several years.
If the two male friend who truly loved each other (a possibility which I do not deny), realized that they are harming each other morally, and gravely offend God, they would immediately give up their sexual exchanges: for true love loathes the very thought of harming the loved one. This is a fact that I am aware of having been blessed with a friendship with a man who for several years lived in sin with his friend who was a fallen away Catholic.
One day through God's grace, the latter found his way back to the Church and not only perceived with luminous clarity the perversion of homosexual practices, but also – and this is crucial, that in such relationships he was harming both his friend and himself: for the intentio unionis was given priority over the intentio benevolentiae: that is, his craving for a sexual satisfaction was militated against the objective good of the friend in staining his soul. His true good was sacrificed for the sake of pleasure. Any satisfaction which in fact militates against the objective good of another person, should be condemned by anybody who claims to be a friend.
As soon as he perceived this clearly he placed his friend in front of the following alternative. He told him, "I truly love you and am deeply attached to you. But through God's grace, my eyes opened, and I realized that by living with you I was not only gravely off, but I also perceived clearly that I was hurting your soul and mine. Now the situation is clear: either we part ways or we continue to live together chastely bond by sweetness of a friendship copying the one that linked Augustine to both Alypius and Nebridius." Clearly this noble friendship brought them closer to God. His friend's response was unequivocal: "I also love you and am so deeply attached to you that I accept to live with you chastely". This is what they did for many years. Then one of the friends became deadly ill and was taken care of by his true and faithful friend and the revert had the joy of seeing his dear friend also find his way to the Catholic Church. Since then he has become an ardent Roman Catholic. This is a glorious story of how love triumphed over lust.
That the sensual ecstasy should not be the primary motivation of the husband and wife, calls for clarification. There are actions that are performed for the sake of a particular end: they are means for this end. The relationship between them is prominent in Aristotle's philosophy. While fully valid and justified, we should carefully avoid to overextend it, and assume that any human act is a sheer means to achieve an end. The dignity and greatness of personhood teaches us that there are very many actions that should be performed for their own sake, because they are valuable in and by themselves. He who feeds the hungry should do so because they are his brothers, and deserve our love and not because the benefactor will be rewarded for this in heaven. If one fed a starving person exclusively as a means of acquiring merits, it would be a caricature of true charity. It should be done because a brother deserves our loving concern. That a virtuous act is also "beneficial' to the doer is true indeed, but if it is performed exclusively for this reason, an essential element of a loving deed is lacking. Alas, they are people who perform "virtuous deeds" because they see them as a good "investment" while their heart remains cold.
A new word was needed to distinguish clearly between actions performed as a sheer means to an end, and those whose inner value prohibits us from seeing them as mere instruments. D. von Hildebrand has coined the word'" superabundance", a felicitous term to show the abyss separating the business means- end relationship from the warm richness of a loving act. Man is not a "machine to produce virtuous deeds"; he is a person called upon to love his neighbor as himself and for himself. That an act of charity benefits its doer is superabundant but should not be the primary motivation. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice; the rest will BE ADDED UNTO YOU". This is a perfect biblical formulation for superabundance that most probably inspired Dietrich von Hildebrand.
There is a world of difference between a "business" friendship when two men are bonded by common interests, and a friendship where the friends love each other "for their own sake", and not for the advantages that the friendship will give them.
When the craving for ecstasy is the key motivation of so-called lovers, it will inevitably be linked to the endless search for new partners whose "performance" is more gratifying. This is the essence of promiscuity and, alas, it is not only limited to homosexuality. It also sheds light on marital unfaithfulness. Then a noble experience will inevitably degenerate into something merely subjectively satisfying, betraying the very nature of love.
The very word "pleasure" should always alert those who wish to serve God, that to go through its door, can be deadly. For there are pleasures that are the arch enemies of the person addicted to them. They should be ostracized from the lives of those who hear the call: haec est voluntas Dei: sanctificatio vestra. Those who have achieved this glorious victory will tell you that the previous "ecstasy" they taste was poisoned by the consciousness that they were acting against the dignity of the human person made to God's image and likeness. It is high time that we sing the beauty of great noble male friendships, at a tragic time like ours, when perverse practices have become not only acceptable but given the same dignity as the one granted to marriage between man and women, from Genesis. This is what is offered to those who feel an attraction for persons of the same sex. It can be baptized. God's placet is necessary in order for any form of human love to deserve to be called love. Indeed, as the New Testament tells us; all things are possible with God.