By Fr. Peter Hannah, O.P.
Before I entered the Dominican Order, I recall a number of conversations with friends and acquaintances who felt comfortable enough with me to ask a burning question. It went something along the lines of, “So, as a priest, you won’t be able to…have sex, right?” My “no” response was usually met by a few moments of puzzled silence, then a kind of half-bewildered response like “wow,” which often concealed a further question some had the courage to express, like, “but how is that…possible?” I recall one conversation with a young man at the valet service where I worked the summer prior to entering the order, who stared thoughtfully into the distance and, without any sense of irony, confessed, “Man, I could never do that. I feel like sex is my spirituality.”
A sense of perplexity at the vocation of celibacy is in a sense natural, but the kinds of responses I experienced are also indicative of the particular “cultural moment” in which you and I are living. Our current culture is a perfect storm of conflicting opinions and standards over what constitutes “ok” sexual behavior. The idea of chastity as an ideal, much less celibate chastity, is unintelligible to many. This atmosphere-indeed crisis in public morality-directly affects the everyday lives of Catholics trying to live the Gospel. All are affected, from young people who, having encountered the ready availability of pornography on the internet, struggle to develop chaste habits; to parents who struggle to raise children emotionally mature enough to handle digital temptations; to adults-parents, single people, priests, religious-who also encounter challenges in this brave new world of sexual mores that is emerging. Here I offer a few reflections for seeing the problem clearly and addressing it, with special awareness of the problem of pornography which has arisen in recent years.
THE CHALLENGE OF CHASTITY TODAY
G.K. Chesterton once quipped that “when it comes to sex, men are born mad.” Previous generations had developed cultural norms to help check the “madness,” or let us say, “volatility” of sexual desire: reserve in conversation, modesty in dress, expectations of public decency. It is very easy to attack these “old ways,” and on many points critique is valid-elements of prejudice against women and puritanical tendencies, for example. The problem today is that the old system has been discarded and no new one has replaced it. The result is a cacaphony of conflicting voices and contradictory standards: pornography is fine but objectification of women is not; adultery is bad, unless the couple decides on an “open” relationship; women should be recognized for their unique contributions, but being a “woman” is a socially constructed fiction, since any biological male can decide to be one. In the midst of this confusion, you have us Catholics doing the best we can to live the Gospel and offer God the best we can in our families, schools, and neighborhoods, and lives.
Obviously the faith involves more than sexual morality, which is only one component of who we are. But it is foolish to think it unimportant. Catholic spirituality through the centuries has always seen chastity as a kind of basis for the spiritual life, which harmonizes and integrates the interior life. Lust blinds the intellect and weakens the will, enervating the two vital springs of our inner life, the mind with which we think, and the heart with which we love. Chastity heals and vitalizes this inner-life, invigorating our soul and causing the image of God to shine within us.
While the challenge of chastity takes many forms, pornography has arisen in recent years to pose a particularly sharp problem. Every older priest I’ve asked has confirmed that after the rise of high-speed internet, which is to say not too long ago, there has been an enormous spike in men-and increasingly women- battling compulsions fed by this dark underbelly of cyberspace. When I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, the rare porn encounters I had were with an occasional “dirty magazine” one of the boys had smuggled into school and would surreptitiously pass around. The percentage of young people today-from high schoolers to as young as elementary school-who have been exposed to, or become regular viewers of, hard core video material online is frightening. My heart has broken for parents who have come to me asking how to address situations where one of their young children has encountered extremely brutal acts of hard core material simply by flipping around on an iPhone. Bruce and Jeannie Hannemann, who run “Reclaim Sexual Health,” an online program for overcoming sexual addiction, report that children as young as five and six have contacted them for help. Pediatrician Dr. Michael Wasserman comments, “It’s beyond the Wild West out there. You’ve really taken away the age of innocence.”
Scientific study of the effects of pornography is still in its infant stages, but many studies point to how frequent pornography use can (1) rewire the brain similarly to addictive drugs, (2) damage relationships, (3) feed loneliness and depression, (4) effect-like a drug- increased need for more shocking and unseemly material. A litany of resources has emerged to confront this problem, from the non-religiously affiliated “NoFap” and “Fight the New Drug,” to the individual work of Christians like Matt Fradd and Peter Kleponis. The US Bishops recently responded to the growing problem in their document “Create in Me a Clean Heart” (available online).
A DEEPER DIAGNOSIS
In his teaching on the virtues, Aquinas explains that growth in one virtue entails growth in others; and likewise that a vice in one area breeds vices in others. I have often reflected that the rampant sexual immorality of our day-and specifically the problem of pornography- actually conceals a deeper problem. Theologian Reinhard Hütter penned an article several years ago (available online) which hit the nail on the head. In “Pornography and Acedia,” Hütter details how the vice of Acedia, long known to Christian spirituality, is an often overlooked proving ground for lust. “Acedia,” Latin for “sloth,” is much more than a vice of laziness. It is rather a spiritual apathy, which can manifest itself in laziness, but -counterintuitively- is also present in a frenetic lifestyle which is always “too busy”: too busy to pray, to frequent the sacraments, to go to Mass, to develop healthy and life-giving relationships and habits. For Aquinas, Acedia is ultimately a “sorrow over divine goods,” to wit, a feeling of apathy towards the very center and source of our life; by extension, it is a refusal to develop habits that, if difficult at first, would contribute to our physical, intellectual, and spiritual flourishing.
I would suggest that in our propserous 21st century society, underneath our frenetic activity and sexual confusion, legions of people are very busy, very bored, and very sad. While there is much truth to the adage, “idle hands are the devil’s playmaker,” the devil can work with busy hands too. He can encourage relentless activity in a way that dissipates vital spiritual energies, and causes one to forget one’s identity as a child of God, and the life-giving habits that follow from it. It is more difficult to become entrenched in sexual vice-or any number of other vices-if one’s life is truly balanced and centered on the most important things: God; a sense of one’s dignity and vocation; daily commitment to things good, true, and beautiful; giving and receiving support from friends and family. Overcoming a compulsion or addiction requires more than a white-knuckle effort not to engage in the behavior. Rather the individual must find something more attractive, more worthwhile, more engaging, to become devoted to. Acedia destroys the initiative to seek out such things, feeding a lonely and sorrowful heart that easily seeks escape in illicit pleasure. While developing good habits is not an easy road in today’s world, especially for men and women entangled in the vice of lust, it is a start. And Aquinas comes to our aid here.
AQUINAS: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO DEFEATING LUST
Aquinas is a master of synthesizing theological wisdom and practical application. In his commentary on the ten commandments, he displays this skill in an incisive passage, “Ways to Overcome Concupiscence.” His arresting opening image will be familiar to anyone who has wrestled with the demons of lust: it is a struggle, he says, “that demands much labor, for it is based on something within us. It is as hard as trying to capture an enemy in one’s own household.” Then in a beautiful synthesis of common sense, theological wisdom, and psychological insight, he provides four strategies.
The first tack is to “flee external occasions.” This is common sense, but I would add that in today’s world the bar is much higher than in the past. One could, not too long ago, decide to purge one’s house of, say, pornographic material by the physical act of consigning it to a dumpster; or alternatively, be relatively sure that explicit material would not appear on ordinary television broadcasting. With a kind of generalized “pornification” of media, and the availability of internet pornography, today this requires heightened levels of self-discipline. As a priest, I would add that God is not unaware of these increased challenges. He is not slow to provide forgiveness and renewed strength to all who diligently seek him. The very difficulty today can also be seen as a greater opportunity for Catholics to develop the healthy habits we need in prayer, through the sacraments, through supportive friendships, which will set our hearts on things that are true, good, and beautiful, rather than soul-destroying.
Aquinas’s second tactic is to “not give an opening to thoughts which of themselves are the occasion of lustful desire,” linking this discipline especially with the practice of mortification. Sometimes I wonder if the softening or deep emphasis on mortification in contemporary spirituality has had the unintended effect of making our souls more “flabby,” as it were. Historically, mortification-through, for example, fasting and self-denial-was seen as intrinsic to the spiritual life, laying a kind of groundwork of self-discipline that solidified one’s interior life and opened one to the freedom and joy of contemplation.
The third strategy is the most vital: perseverance in prayer. I know of no better soul-strengthening practice than meditation on the mysteries of faith. For me and many others, this practice becomes especially effective before the Blessed Sacrament, where God seems to mysteriously infuse the soul waiting on him with divine strength. Aquinas, for his part, appeals to battle imagery again, and the two “weapons” of prayer and mortification: “This is not unlike a fight between two people, one of whom you desire to win, the other to lose. You must sustain the one and withdraw all support from the other… if you wish the spirit to win, you must assist it by prayer, and likewise you must resist the flesh by such means as fasting, by which the flesh is weakened.”
Finally, Aquinas advises to “keep busy with wholesome occupations.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he deems “the study of Scripture is the best of all occupations.” We can extend this, however, to pursuits of any kind that are, as he says, “wholesome,” and so draw us in and consume us with the truly good things of life as we seek the holiness to which our baptism calls us.
In every age Christians have struggled with how to live “in the world” but not be “of it.” The leviathan-like ways sexual immorality is infiltrating popular culture and our daily lives can seem overwhelming to good-faith Catholics trying to live the gospel. Finally, though, I am not so much shocked as saddened by this state of affairs, exemplified by the young man who declared to me that sex was his “spirituality.” For underneath this indulgence of the flesh is a more profound sadness about life and its possibilities. Would that people knew the heights of happiness and joy to which Christ calls us! The sources of this deeper, authentic happiness, are the same as always: the sacraments; prayer; faith community; authentic friendship. We must be all the more confident today of St. Paul’s assertion that “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” We are called to a special kind of non-conformity within our current culture, a non-conformity that remembers and lives the dignity of human sexuality as God designed it; rejoices in the goodness of Christ which is strong enough to forgive, heal, and strengthen; and develops life-giving habits which preserve us in chastity, that our hearts may be free and our minds alive to the beautiful heights to which we are called.