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What Virtues can I Practice to Overcome the Root Sin of Sensuality?

Dear Father John, Thank you for the post on root sin. It has definitely helped me. My question is, charity and humility seem to be the virtues to practice if the root sin is pride or vanity. But what would be the virtue to practice to overcome sensuality? It seems that it is more of an emotional response, hence the sensuality. Thanks to your article have identified this as my root sin, I am not entirely sure what to put in place/practice to overcome it.

I am so glad you asked this question! For two reasons. First, you didn't let yourself become discouraged by the long post about root sins. I hesitated to publish that post, because I know how difficult it can be for us to face head-on the reality of our sinful tendencies. The ideal place to reflect on one's root sin is during a retreat, with a retreat master or spiritual director close at hand. They can help us stay calm amidst the surprise and discouragement that can result from seeing more clearly the sheer force of selfishness within us. They remind us that God is not surprised by our sinfulness, and discouragement never comes from the Holy Spirit.

The second reason I am glad you asked this question is because it shows that you have understood the key dynamic at work in a program of spiritual work, a “reform of life” program, as it is sometimes called. The core of such a program is the patient, prayerful, and consistent effort to grow in virtues that correct our deepest sinful tendencies. Sins and vices always involve disordered behavior; virtue is the formation of habitually well-ordered behavior. The only way to go from disorder (for example, taking pleasure in deceiving people) to order (taking pleasure in being honest) is through growth in virtue. In this case, the vice is lying and the virtue is truthfulness, or sincerity. God's grace helps us grow in virtue, just as nutrients help muscles grow. But since virtue and vice are always connected to our free will, we also have to do our part: exercising our free will in a well-ordered manner so as to strengthen well-ordered habits of behavior.

Two Anti-Sensuality Virtues

Enough theory. Two virtues will help you overcome sensuality: temperance and fortitude.

Sensuality can show itself as a tendency to seek what is most pleasant or comfortable, even to the point of sacrificing what is truly good. Temperance is the virtue by which we grow in our ability to govern desires for pleasure.

But sensuality can also show itself as the avoidance of effort, strain, or pain when the pursuit of what is truly good requires those things. Fortitude is the virtue by which face up to exterior obstacles, difficulties, and suffering in order to attain what is truly good.

Wisdom from the Past

Two images from medieval art can help us understand those concepts. The image most often used for the virtue of temperance was a woman pouring liquid from a large container into a smaller container – measuring out the proper amount of the liquid.

The pleasures available to us here on earth (food, drink, knowledge, sport, sexual intimacy, etc…) are not evil in themselves. They are part of God's creation. But they become evil when we turn them into idols, when they enslave us. Temperance is the virtue, the habit of correct behavior, by which we use our willpower to enjoy these pleasures in a proper, reasonable measure. Temperance can be subdivided into specific virtues, depending on which pleasure is in question: abstinence vs gluttony (food); sobriety vs drunkenness (drink); chastity vs lust (sexual pleasure), etc.

The image most often used for fortitude is that of a woman holding a shield and a sword. As we pursue our life-mission, we constantly run into difficulties and enemies. Fortitude is the virtue which enables us to battle against them and continue forward, instead of being stymied by them. Fortitude has two major manifestations: courage, when the initial choice for what is right and good demands some kind of self-sacrifice (for example, turning down a bribe even though it may mean losing one's job); perseverance, when the challenge comes long after the initial choice has been made (for example, being faithful in a difficult marriage, or a difficult season of one’s marriage).

Bite-Sized Doses

Whichever manifestations of sensuality are most evident in your life, then, you will want to make a program of life that includes some specific ways for you to exercise these virtues. In both cases, the key concept is self-discipline. And growth in that virtue only happens little by little. Start small, forming little habits of self-mastery (going to bed at the same time every weeknight, for example, or taking faster showers on weekday mornings, or abstaining from the snooze button…). This will begin to strengthen your capacity to control those deep-rooted tendencies towards over-indulging in pleasure, comfort, or fear.

Finally, don't forget that the standard Christ has set for us in every virtue, temperance and fortitude included, is not a standard we can follow relying solely on our own strength. We need his grace. That's why every program of life must also include a prayer program. We need to spend time each day meditating on the example of Christ – his temperance during the temptations in the desert, his courage to challenge the corrupt authorities in Jerusalem, his perseverance in mission even to the point of death on a cross… He is the model of every virtue, and when we meditate on his example, his grace flows into our hearts and helps us follow him, just as his grace healed the woman with a hemorrhage when she touched the tassel of his robe (see Matthew 9). Together with the sacraments, this kind of daily mental prayer is the most effective ingredient to insure progress in spiritual growth.

Yours in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC


Art for this post on what virtues can be practiced to overcome the root sin of sensuality: Detail of Saint-Cloud, Eugène Atget, 1924, author's life plus 80 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • LSLinda

    Father, this was awesome. You’ve given real, practical advice on how to deal with a very difficult root sin. Being patient with oneself is difficult. Finding “the one thing” with which to begin the “building of the muscle” to overcome sensuality has been my challenge, for too often I choose something at which I cannot be successful. A set bedtime – I can do! I’ve discovered I am very, very weak and this is so discouraging. But, with the help of God’s grace, maybe tomorrow night I can get to bed at the same time I do tonight. That seems so lame, but it is what it is.

  • ansen

    Dear Father, this is really interesting guidance.In our catechism,we learn that root sins are seven and they are1)pride,2)coveteousness,,3)lust,4)anger,5)gluttony,6)envy and7)slotheness.In your classification there are three.Can you please make it more clear?

    • Dear Friend, I have forwarded your request to Fr. John

  • Guest

    Thank you, Fr. John. You continue to be the best guide to me in my Spritual journey. On this one about Root of of Sin I find myself having faults in all the three categories. In response and resolution: “My Jesus, give me Your Grace and make me humble, polite and sincere in my prayer life, my dealings with my family, my neighbours, my fellow parishioners andmy comrades in the Eucharistic Apostles of Divine Mercy. Be the Master of my entire life for the remaining days you have granted me on this earth. Amen”

  • Cheri54D

    I have been praying for spiritual direction, bible teaching, anything to broaden my knowledge of God and kinda move me along in my spiritual journey because I have felt stagnet for quite some time. My neice recommended this site to me and all at once my prayers were answered. I am able to see my sins more clearly. Not only that, I am given direction on how to make myself a better Christian. Praise God for all the work all of you do! I will continue to read and learn.

  • This is a wonderful article, especially with the examples given. When you speak of spiritual issues, examples are a necessity for many of us who need that little extra insight into understanding them. Thank you!

  • karentfay

    Fr. John,

    I so want to thank you for your explaination on overcoming the root sin of sensuality. I have been battling an eating disorder for sometime and often times feel guilty and shameful regarding relapses I have had with this disease. Your mention of the virtues temperance and fortitude really hit home for me. I pray that in times of temptation that i will remember what you said and have faith that God’s grace will enable me to rely on these virtues to avoid the perils of this horrible disease. Thanks again. I really enjoy your spiritual direction but this one touched me in a way I hope I won’t forget. Karen

  • Camille

    Is there a litany or prayer specifically for this? I find that it really helps me to have some sort of prayer to say (the interesting part will be if with his grace I will say it consistantly!).

    …and thank you for what you do 🙂

  • Cathy

    Fr John,
    Thank you for that answer. I was mixed with regards to my root sin, I am primarily sensuality, but also pride and vanity. I am working on living as Christ lived, holy and spiritual. The more I strive, the more I realize I need His grace and help more than ever, and with His grace, I will achieve His plans for me. God bless you, thank you Fr John!

  • Edik Sidorin

    Can a root sin change over your life? It seems to me that increasingly sensuality is being replaced as a root sin by pride. have you seen this, as one sin goes, another becomes more prominent?

    • Good question – I have submitted it to Fr. John.

  • Guest

    Thank you Fr. John for this very faith-lifting answer. I have learned a very important lesson here. I have to do my part in order that I can allow God’s Grace to help me fight my root sins’ battles. God bless you

  • Sandy

    Fr. John,

    Would you be willing to post the virtues to over come vanity & pride also.

    Thank you & God Bless

    • Dear Sandy, thanks for the question – I submitted it. It will take a while but keep your eyes on the site. Also, please tell your friends about us!

  • John

    Hi, not sure if you’re still following this thread since the last comment seems a year old. Wow, does this whole discussion of “root sins” help me. I had done a reasonably good job coming to understand humility and charity as effective against pride and vanity, but I did not every see “sensuality” broken down this way (as in the common manifestations of it, etc. described in a different post). Can you offer some suggestions for further reading on (1) the concept of “root sins” as set forth on this site and (2) good writing on battling sensuality as it is conceived here. For example, I’ve read Dom Lorenzo Scupoli’s discussion of Sloth in “The Spiritual Combat” and wonder if there are some other good discussions you could point me to, perhaps in the writings of the Doctors of the Church? (Aquinas is noted, above and I have been working up to him, but perhaps should not wait any longer!) Thank you, John C.

    • Dear Friend – glad this was helpful. Check out the post on recommended reading for spiritual directors – Lagrange, Tanquerey.. Blessings

      • John

        Thank you so much! Love your site, going to explore it fully now…

  • I just finished reading Navigating the Interior Life with group here and now I’m working on my root sin. This post has been most helpful. My first thought from this post was to spend some time in “The Better Part” under the Patience/Fortitude/Perseverance portion.
    Thank you for these wonderful words!

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