If you ask any priest, he will tell you that one of the biggest dangers attacking healthy marriages in the Church today comes from pornography. When you consider that kids from healthy Catholic marriages are a lot likelier to develop a strong faith, this is a problem that affects more than just the individual couple; it impacts the entire Church, now and into the future, as well. Catholics have a real problem with how to effectively respond to the challenge pornography presents, and anyone who wants to wage that fight is certainly a welcome ally. We also need new ways to present timeless truths.
Yet sometimes this outside-the-box thinking can be counter-productive. I believe this is the case with one Matt McGuiness, a guest columnist at Catholic News Agency. In various discussions surrounding pornography, he has found the way Catholics approach the matter lacking, and has decided to write a few columns (“A second look at porn”) on how to rethink our approach. As he tells us:
This series grew out of conversations with friends and our common frustration with the way pornography is treated by good, faithful Catholics. We realized that rage and hellfire and damnation against porn simply end up evading the deeper issues and speak only to the already convinced. This is [an] attempt to understand it in a deeper way.
I agree that far too often, Catholics only provide a surface understanding of many issues that fails to really win over anyone not already believing in our cause. There is a lot to digest in what Mr. McGuiness says, and I would hate to judge too much of his work before all three columns have been released. In the meantime, I’d like to stick to just one point. If we are going to slay the dragon that is pornography, we need every weapon at our disposal. For reasons I hope to make clear, I believe Mr. McGuiness (and many other well-intentioned Catholics) leave out one very important weapon.
When discussing the flaws he sees in the way many Catholics approach pornography (the “moralists”), Mr. McGuiness states the following:
The moralists out there would tell us that the solution to the scourge of porn is “virtue” or self-control or some twelve step program or perhaps intensely frequenting the sacrament of reconciliation; while not discounting the value of confession or the usefulness of AA-type programs in dealing with sexual addictions, I must insist that virtue is a consequence of something else, not something that can be gotten at directly as it were. ….. No, the solution is not to be found in mortification or penance alone, but in beginning to take our own humanity seriously; seriously enough to go to the depths of the inner meaning of our Baptism, which incorporated us into the Body of Christ, in the flesh.
Like a lot of things, there’s some truth to what he states. If you spend your entire life simply engaging in a self-control which merely seeks to avoid the bad and do nothing beyond that, chances are you will find yourself in trouble, and fast. Nor is practicing virtue (defined in the pagan sense of goodness) simply enough either, as there is precious little man can do of his own accord when it comes to pursuing righteousness. So in that sense, he is correct that simple penance and self-control alone most likely won’t do enough.
However, they are still incredibly important, and for a reason that is completely absent from the thinking of Mr. McGuiness — at least, in this writing. He has managed to treat the topic of confession without ever referencing the sacramental nature of the Sacrament of Confession. In his Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance, Blessed John Paul II said the following:
“But as it reflects on the function of this sacrament, the church’s consciousness discerns in it, over and above the character of judgment in the sense just mentioned, a healing of a medicinal character. And this is linked to the fact that the Gospel frequently presents Christ as healer, while his redemptive work is often called, from Christian antiquity, medicina salutis. “I wish to heal, not accuse,” St. Augustine said, referring to the exercise of the pastoral activity regarding penance”
Seen from this perspective, there is no longer any wonder why the “moralists” would advise “intensely frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” Elsewhere in the Exhortation, we are told that there is no “more significant, more divinely efficacious, or more lofty and at the same time easily accessible” as the Sacrament of Confession. Yet when we read about overcoming pornography from Mr. McGuiness (and other popular writers), they almost never mention Confession.
Confession isn’t just something we do. We confess our sins — if that were all Confession is, then yes, we really shouldn’t be spending that much time on it, or speaking of it in such lofty terms — but then, God absolves us. In this sacrament, God provides grace to us, grace won through the Precious Blood of the Cross. This grace has the effect not just of absolving us from our sins, but of restoring us to what we originally were, and what we were originally called for. If pornography is a sickness, only medicine can cure it. It is impossible to “take our own humanity seriously” without Confession. Now we who are already converted understand this, or should. But what of the unconverted who know nothing of Confession? If they read Mr. McGuiness’ article, they’d see scant reference to it, and then only as something that isn’t terribly important.
The Church strongly disagrees. If we really want to overcome these (and many other) trials we face today, in addition to taking “a second look” at porn we might want to take a second look at Confession.