Matt McGuiness has posted his second installment of “A Second Look at Porn.” He was criticized a great deal for part one, by Dawn Eden, Kevin Obrien, Kevin Tierney, and yours truly. Dawn Eden has already posted her comments on the new piece on her blog at Patheos: ”Confession is Not a Waste of Time.” An excellent contribution.
I am in agreement with most of what McGuiness says. However, in the interests of making an argument for something important, he does what apologists too often do, which is to minimize those things which are not the thing he wants to emphasize. McGuiness wants to emphasize the education of desire and an appreciation for what he calls “elementary experience.” In the process, however, he caricatures elements of the ascetical life like prayer, penance and the sacraments.
If the multinational corporations have a “wonderful plan” for our lives (and they do), sometimes church people offer us “solutions” that alienate us from ourselves no less than the spinning wheel of production and consumption. Some within the Church will tell us to ignore the infinite need that makes our hearts restless and just plunge into Catholic practices and pious devotions. Never mind the meaning, “Just do it.” Here’s a sample checklist: start going to daily Mass, pray the rosary, make a holy hour, try this novena, frequent confession more often, do some twelve step program, go to a Catholic conference, be virtuous. You get the picture.
I really do not have a lot to argue with in this paragraph. I actually believe that the extremists within the Church, of which there are many on both sides (progressives and traditionalists) tend to treat the Church like a machine, in which if you just pull the right levers in the right sequence, the machine will produce holiness and salvation. But this is not quite what McGuiness is criticizing. McGuiness provides us with a convenient and stereotypical dichotomy between a disciplined spiritual life based on sound principles and one that is reflective of human experience. I have no doubt that this dichotomy exists. But it exists on the extremes and where there is poor catechesis.
This was McGuiness’ second chance and his opportunity to clarify his attitude toward the ascetical life, especially the use of the sacrament of confession. Instead, he stepped up his presentation of the dichotomy. I think McGuiness has something important to say, but he will never succeed in encouraging an authentic education of desire when he seems to be succumbing to naturalism.
There is, for example, a providential interaction between the priest and penitent in the confessional. On one level, it is simply an encounter between two human persons, but even at that level there is something mysteriously providential because of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The priest in the “sacred tribunal” is not merely a judge, he is also father, teacher and doctor. This is strangely true even when the vessel of clay (the priest) is most broken. Any priest that has heard confessions long enough knows that more happens in the exchange between priest and penitent than the priest himself can explain. Sometimes the good God does in the confessional, occurs more in spite of the human instrument than because of him. In actuality, it is precisely the confessor within the sacrament, and him before anyone else, and anything else, that is given the responsibility of delivering the sinner from his attachment to sin—of educating his desire. And this is not even taking into account the fact that more fundamental to any of this is the sacramental grace that is conferred when the penitent is properly disposed.
At the same time I cannot fail to admit that priests role, and even the Sacrament of Penance in itself, are limited. We all have to make choices. Going to confession is not a matter of getting zapped with grace. It is not a lever to pull.
I really do appreciate what McGuiness has to say, because I know that piety can become formulaic and exernalistic. The letter really does kill (cf. 2 Cor 3:6). But true chastity is never simply a natural virtue, especially when it is deeply interiorized—when it is the fruit of the education of desire. It is wholly supernatural, that is, the fruit of sanctifying grace and our own free assimilation of that grace.
St. John Bosco used to hear the frequent confessions of the boys that the Salesians were educating. He dealt with problems with chastity all the time. He would counsel the boys (and men) to practice the devotion of reciting Three Hail Marys in honor of the Blessed Virgin’s purity everyday when they woke up. Yes, it is a devotion and it is an act of “piety.” It is simple and easy to do. It is also easy to forget and easy to turn into a formula. But if a priest asks a penitent to do it in the confessional as a remedy for sin, or simply as a counsel, then there is a special kind of providence attached to its fulfillment.
The interesting thing is that MCGuiness wants us to avoid a formulaic approach to the spiritual life, but himself fails in the end to guard against it. Formulas are always reductive. They are an attempt to simplify and strip everything back to what “does the job.” The only way spirituality will have life breathed into it, is if the Holy Spirit does the breathing. I don’t think McGuiness has sufficiently extricated himself from the self-help genre.