Here we go on to the next phase of the “redemption of desire” pop-spirituality ride. Matt McGuiness urges us to take “a second look at porn,” so that we can get in touch with the fact that illicit sexual desire is really a misguided attempt at finding happiness. Did I miss something? Isn’t that what Catholics have always believed? Isn’t all sin the choice of an apparent but false good over what is truly good in an attempt to be happy?
Of course, what separates the search for real happiness from that of its counterfeit is a lie. In his opening, McGuiness treats the lie of sodomy rather glibly with a raunchy pop-reference. Unfortunately, those things that St. Paul says must not even be named among you (Eph 5:3) are now part of the cultural fabric, so they have to be dealt with. But if it is true that a lie told over and over again gains plausibility just by the retelling, then our casual familiarity with depravity gives the perverse and diabolical an air of normality. The devil must be given his due: now we give porn a second look because it teaches us how happy we want to be. The problem with pornography according to McGuiness: it does not go far enough. I think McGuiness has taken the bait.
Let me say this much in sympathy with those in company with Matt McGuiness and Christopher West in the world of Catholic apologetics. In terms of arguments aimed at helping men addicted to porn, the “scared straight” or “reefer madness” approach is the least effective, and the least likely to unleash the healing power of Christ’s redemption. But I think both McGuiness and West use dichotomy and exaggeration as a literary or oratorical devise. They place a moralist’s approach to the problem of pornography in radical opposition to that of a positive educator. Such approaches are not opposed, but neither are they adequate even when taken together.
Remarkably, McGuiness states that virtue is not “something that can be gotten directly.” As proof of this he uses the examples of the Jews and Greeks, the first, who though they had knowledge of the law could not observe it, the second, who though they understood the meaning of virtue were guilty of all kinds of depravity. McGuiness suggests that what we really need to do is get in touch with our desires and understand them. However, McGuiness fails to acknowledge that this is just another natural process, like knowing good from evil, or understanding the difference between virtue and vice.
Actually, Christian virtue is something “gotten directly,” by freely encountering the person of Christ through the means He Himself instituted in the Church. Virtue is something that Christ works in us without us. However, because it can only involve our freedom, as persons created in God’s image, it involves everything: knowledge, choice, love, affection, discipline, mortification, fear, desire—all of it. This is the mystery of grace and free will that has kept theologians and mystics busy for centuries.
Virtue is a habit that can only be formed by continuous pressure against the bad habit. That pressure is not simply negative energy. But neither is it mostly positive thinking. This being said, even the supernatural virtue of chastity is not of itself sufficient. That is why there are the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, whose effects are simply beyond anything that can be achieved by education, positive, nor negative, or by discipline.
McGuiness even minimizes the importance of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, saying “virtue is a consequence of something else.” Really? It is a consequence of something other than an encounter with Christ? As a priest, I know how people struggle with habitual sin, particularly in matters of sexuality. But I also know that while deliverance comes in different ways, and is facilitated by many different natural elements and actual graces, it is always a function of a personal encounter with Christ.
The moralist’s approach can actually be the personalist’s approach. The act of contrition, for example, is an expression of both sound moral principles and the spirit of conversion to Christ. It expresses motivation (fear and love), the right moral choice and the practical means to effectively make it (resolution and avoidance of the occasion of sin) all in the context of a personal encounter with Christ who forgives and heals. But this whole discussion is about how we can best dispose ourselves and respond to the grace of Christ. Real deliverance from sin, and from pornography in particular, is a miraculous healing that can only be worked by God directly.
Perhaps McGuiness is being purely rhetorical when he suggests that amateur pornographers should move up to the practice of professional pornography. He does call it a “thought-experiment.” But for him it is the difference between half-heartedness and wretchedness, so that the real problem is not sex, but misdirected desire. Christopher West calls it the problem of “junk food.”
But pornography is not junk food, just as sodomy is not simply “non-procreative” sex. The problem with pornography is not that it fails to go far enough. Contrary to what McGuiness says, pornography reveals a great deal about desire, about how depraved and depersonalizing it can become. Our pornofied culture is the same cesspool that has produced the atrocities against women and children that we read about in headlines everyday. If what McGuiness and West say is true, then child rape is only misguided desire.
The purveyors of our porn culture, whether the conscienceless reptiles in Eastern Europe who exploit poor women, or arrogant sleaze bags like Larry Flint, or pop-scoundrels like Hugh Hefner, are not to be cut some slack by blaming Victorian moralists or the failure of modern Christian culture to educate desire. These men have loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil (cf. Jn 3:19). Pornography is unredeemable evil. McGuiness is wrong. The “why” and the “how” of pornography are only secondary questions to the “what.” Pornography is satanic, and for that reason its cure is in the first place a matter of deliverance.
H/T Dawn Eden