In Honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Virtue of Purity

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.

11 thoughts on “In Honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Virtue of Purity

  1. The “self-help” genre. And that phrase actually describes it better than anyone else has so far. Mr. McGuiness means well, and nobody can emphasize that enough. Yet he’s just operating from a very limited template. The best self-help in the world can only get you so far. If anything, I’d say he needs the “checklist” as a guide to reach that point where one reaches the point where self-help might actually be relevant.

  2. Pingback: Memo to Matt McGuiness and Catholic News Agency: Confession is not a waste of time

  3. Fr. Angelo, I agree with you. And I would say that without God’s help anyone can be virtuous. And besides that, God wants we be humble. So He wants we humilate ourselves before the priest in order to receive His graces and pardon. As the Canticle of Mary (the Magnificat) says:

    He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
    and has lifted up the lowly.

    I you allow me I would like to share some beautiful prayers for purity.

    Jesus, Lover of chastity, Mary, Mother most pure, and Joseph, chaste guardian of the Virgin, to you I come at this hour, begging you to plead with God for me. I earnestly wish to be pure in thought, word and deed in imitation of your own holy purity.

    Obtain for me, then, a deep sense of modesty which will be reflected in my external conduct. Protect my eyes, the windows of my soul, from anything that might dim the luster of a heart that must mirror only Christlike purity.

    And when the “Bread of Angels becomes the Bread of me” in my heart at Holy Communion, seal it forever against the suggestions of sinful pleasures.

    Heart of Jesus, Fount of all purity, have mercy on us.

    Prayer for oneself:

    St. Anthony,
    You know how weak I am
    and how easily I fall into bad habits.
    But I don’t want to be this way.
    I know that God is calling me to be a better person.
    Please intercede for me to God
    so that he might shower his grace upon me.
    Show me the way to virtue.

    Prayer for others:
    St. Anthony,
    ____________ seems to have lost his/her way
    and fallen into some very bad habits.
    God wants him/her to be a better person.
    Please intercede for ___________ to God
    so that he might shower his grace upon him/her.
    Lead _______ back to virtue.


  4. Father, I don’t want to overflow here with my comments, but I remembered a book whose translation into Portuguese I have read many time ago. It’s a book writte by the jesuit priest Gerald Kelly. Perhaps you would like to check it out.

    A Guide for Teens and Young Adults
    Originally published under the title Modern Youth and Chastity
    by Gerald Kelly, S.J., A.M., S.T.D.
    former Professor of Moral Theology, St. Mary’s College,
    St. Mary’s, Kansas
    in collaboration with B. R. Fulkerson, S.J., A.M., S.T.L.
    and C. F. Whitford, S.J., A.M., Ph.D.


    Its transtalion into Portugues received this title:

    Juventude,Sexo e Moral [Youth, Sex and Morality], published by Livraria Agir Editora.

    See too

    A Prayer for Purity

  5. “O Mary , my Mother and my Lady, I offer You my soul, my body, my life and my death, and all that will follow it. I place everything in Your hands. O my Mother, cover my soul with Your virginal mantle and grant me the grace of purity of heart, soul, and body. Defend me with Your power against all enemies…” (St Faustina’s Diary, Notebook I, para. 79)

    “I have never experienced any attacks against this virtue, either in my heart or in my mind. I later understood that this was one of the greatest graces which the Most Holy Virgin had obtained for me, as for many years I had been asking this grace of Her. She has taught me how to love God interiorly and also how to carry out His holy will in all things.” (Notebook I, para. 40)

    Taken from the Diary of St Faustina~ “Divine Mercy in My Soul”

  6. I like praying these St. Faustina’s prayers. I always pray them in my language. In Portuguese, it starts this way:
    “Maria, minha mãe e Senhora, entrego-vos a minha alma e o meu corpo, a minha vida e a minha morte e tudo o que vier depois dela.”

  7. St Boscos prescription for the recitation of 3 Hail Mary’s is a good one… whether given in the confessional or not. Despite the tendancy of human beings to fall into habit, and therefore, remain on the surface, away from the critical interior, I have found that with Our Mother, this is more difficult to do. Usually, by the second or third Hail Mary, our appreciation for the words we are reciting, and who these words are directed towards, is restored. Appropriate focus returns. She, whom we implore to “pray for us sinners” is so beautiful, so worthy, we should be shamed if we find ourselves parroting at her expense.

    I do not disagree with the assertion by Mr McGuinness that the solution to difficult human problems cannot alone be a facile slate of “the usual Catholic suspects” (pray the rosary, go to Mass, etc…) particularly for the devotionally illiterate, whom the Church can presently count as legion among her ranks. However, as Father points out, the baby has gone out with the bathwater if we go too far in this assertion. When properly assited to the door of the church, Mass, as well as other pious activities, can and will have an incredible effect on the truly (and humbly) contrite.

  8. Overall, I have to say that I think that our Blessed, ever-Virgin Mother, Mary, is not spoken of nearly enough in connection to pornography addiction. Perhaps this is because no one wants to “sully her name” by mentioning it in connection with this addiction. But I believe that this is a grave mistake, because in addition to being a pure and spotless virgin, physically as well as spiritually, before, during, and after the birth of Jesus, Mary is also a mother, and the Woman clothed with the sun, and so she is by no means “fragile” and in need of any weak sheltering by us!

    I think that it is critical to distinguish what “kind” of devotion is involved when one speaks of prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a solution to addiction, and any other spiritual or physical malady. I am afraid that all too many people in the Church today (and perhaps at all times there were some) think of all devotion to the Blessed Virgin as “simply pious devotion”, which in their mouths means ill-informed, semi-superstitious devotion, which may be good in so far as it serves the un-intellectual multitude, but certainly has no real theological basis, and cannot be expected to help a person who is involved, for example, in a pornography addiction.

    I submit that, if radical devotion to the Blessed Virgin is being spoken of, as in the case of total consecration of oneself to her, body and soul, as advocated by Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Saint Louis de Montfort, and other saints, then the idea that this devotion would have no effect on a pornography addiction is ludicrous. As Father Stefano Manelli points out in “The Marian Vow” (Academy of the Immaculate, 2010), total consecration to Mary is itself similar to an addiction, in that is involves three things:

    1.) Fixation or “fixed thought” on the Immaculate
    2.) Mad love for the Immaculate
    3.) Feverish action for the Immaculate

    There is absolutely NO WAY that a person can have those three things for Mary and at the same time have those same three things for pornography. I will go further: I submit that, because the Blessed Virgin Mary is in fact THE WOMAN, who in the mind of God before the creation of the universe was the singular and perfect model, not only for all women who were ever or will ever be created, but even for the “Virgin Earth” itself, from which the body of the first man was taken, to be “addicted to Mary” is in itself a sort of reversal and antithesis of addiction to pornography. Indeed, addiction to pornography could easily be called “anti-total-consecration-to-Mary” (i.e., pornography addiction stands in relation to total consecration to Mary in the same way that the spirit of antichrist stands in relation to Christ – as an intrinsic and absolute opposite).

    What man can honestly say that he does not want to have the three traits mentioned above for the most beautiful woman in existence, for the most perfect woman, whose “beauty enthralled the eye of the Thrice-Holy One” – God Himself! What man who has been addicted to pornography could ever return to it once he is addicted to HER, who is as far from pornography as Jesus Christ is from Satan – as far as light is from darkness?

    Father Geiger, I have a personal request: You certainly know that what I am saying is true, since you yourself have taken the Marian Vow. Please, in your writings in defense of purity and in defense of an authentic interpretation of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s theology, bring Mary’s name into the discussion EVEN MORE than you have done so far! She is the key to this problem, and the ONLY key to pornography addiction, which is serious, and makes so many Catholics flounder because they don’t know where to fix their eyes.

    • Jonathan,

      You make excellent points.

      I look on the Three Hail Mary’s, a remedy for sins against purity, as a kind devotion after the manner of the Miraculous Medal (with obvious differences). The point is that whatever one’s relative understanding or awareness of the Blessed Virgin’s role in salvation, the devotion opens a door. In the case of the Miraculous Medal, the one who gives it exercises his faith in the universal mediation of Mary and goes out of his way to also make an act of Marian charity. The one who receives it, however knowledgable or ignorant, opens himself up to grace through the influence of Our Lady. Hopefully, at some point in the process the Medal is acknowledged as a sign of consecration. But whether that occurs or not miracles still happen.

      Holy Purity in one addicted to impurity requires a bit of midwifery. The priest as doctor applies remedies according to the needs and dispositions of particular penitents. The strength of the medicine depends on the serious of the illness and what the patient can tolerate. To introduce the presence of the Immaculate into the life of a penitent may be a very simple thing, but I don’t think I would characterize it necessarily as a mere “pious devotion.” The Three Hail Mary’s is a very simple act of devotion and implicit sign of consecration, but I assure you that it is a very powerful remedy for sins against purity.

  9. Thank you, Father Geiger.

    I think that you may have understood my meaning perfectly, but just in case you didn’t, I would like to clarify the following quote from my original post:

    “I am afraid that all too many people in the Church today (and perhaps at all times there were some) think of all devotion to the Blessed Virgin as “simply pious devotion”, which in their mouths means ill-informed, semi-superstitious devotion, which may be good in so far as it serves the un-intellectual multitude, but certainly has no real theological basis, and cannot be expected to help a person who is involved, for example, in a pornography addiction.”

    I would like to clarify that everything in this quote following the words “which in their mouths means” was literally meant to be characterization of what “all too many people in the Church today” think… It is emphatically NOT a characterization of what I think.

    Thank you again, Father, and I believe that your three Hail Mary’s is a wonderful prescription for pornography addiction, as is the miraculous medal – both of which are certainly steps toward (or expressions of) that total consecration to the Immaculate that I believe alone can save one from such an addiction! It is precisely this sort of prescription that I would like to hear more of!

    Ave Maria!

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