Pope Francis’ Jewish Missionary of Mercy writes about his experience with porn

hell is real

This Hell is Real billboard along I-65 in Kentucky is near one of the umpteen zillion Adult Super-Stores making a swamp of despair in America and beyond. I don’t know if it’s still there, but it was when I was travelling back and forth on this highway when I was teaching in the Pontifical College Josephinum. That hell is real is a merciful reminder for those prostituting their souls to pornography. Thanks to whoever put up the sign. Anyway, I put up a longer version of this post a few years ago on the now famous because defunct blog called Holy Souls Hermitage. There had been quite a number of calls for me to write an article on pornography. I’ve been intending to republish this ever since Arise! Let us be going! has been up.

First of all, let me say that not everything needs to be experienced in order to write about it. One can “know” about such things because of knowing the contrast, the Standard of Goodness, our Lord Jesus. It is a rather stark contrast, letting oneself be enticed by pornography which objectifies people on the one hand and the anguish in which one desires that those caught up in the porn industry in any way might come know the joy of the purity of heart and agility of soul provided in good friendship with Jesus, a love which respects all others because of walking in God’s presence.

fulton sheen time

Archbishop Fulton Sheen was fond of saying that only the sinless know sin, for they alone see the contrast with Jesus, while those lost to sin simply do not see beyond themselves, not seeing, therefore, any contrast with anything, and therefore thinking that there is no such thing as sin. But, of course, with our Lord being good and kind, all such things can catch up with a person, and that’s when wonderful things may begin to happen.

 

I am not a clinical psychologist, nor would I ever claim to be a counselor. I do not pretend even to begin to solve the problems coming from of world of porn. I don’t even give an overview of how things go from bad to worse, from the person who sees an image he doesn’t want to see to becoming desensitized to seeing films in which the prostituted victims are snuffed out. Having said that, I do think that the spiritual advice given here is worth considering regarding any sin. It has already helped very many people to live chastely. And that should be of interest to everyone.

So, let’s begin by saying the obvious, that pornography, seen objectively, is a cowardly abuse of one’s “power” to exploit another individual, whether they want to be exploited or not. Greed is another aspect. If the greed is more important than the lust for power, or even the lust for lust, so to speak, then it is easier to deal with. As an example, a parishioner in one of my parishes owned and operated a newsstand with pretty much every publication in the English speaking world being sold there, including many pornographic titles. I complained to him about this, saying that it was a public scandal for a pillar of the town and of the parish community to be selling such things and that there may be ecclesiastical remedies for the situation which may have to come into play. He, of course, rebelled, claiming coercion by the magazine companies: “If you sell one title you have to sell them all.” However, he soon found a way around this and stopped selling such rubbish, “not even to the Hell’s Angels types” who would sometime frequent his store. He had previously told me that he considered their souls as not being worthy of salvation. He was one of those “nice” Catholics. But he did convert, and thanked me for taking a stand as a real Father would. It can be done.

But let’s look at this with even more reality. Almost without exception, those who prostitute themselves into the porn industry are rather roughly pimped into it, or they have even desired to get pimped into it in total despair, this having been the only thing they knew since they were children. That already makes all this trafficking of human bodies very ugly from the start, right? Those who are lost to pornography simply do not worry about such things, for pornography is not about respecting others, is it? Really not. It is monstrous. More on this below.

I should mention that one of the hoped for effects of this article will be that people will get disgusted with some popular but terribly misguided presentations of Saint John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”, presentations contradictory to what the Roman Pontiff himself taught, presentations which, horrifically, promote the viewing of pornography as a virtue. This is exactly the opposite of what John Paul wanted. And yet, even the most “conservative” Catholics will defend the “virtue” of viewing pornography because it is popular to defend the popular misrepresentation of John Paul’s Theology of the Body. These “conservative” Catholics need to get a good slap. They need to wake up and die right. They are leading people straight to hell. Viewing pornography is not a virtue. It exploits people. I should add that porn is not a way to manage one’s life, as I am told one clinic on the Mid-Atlantic Seaboard was recommending quite recently.

Some of the difficulties people have with pornography are, it should be obvious, lusty thoughts and whatever goes along with that for any particular individual. Upon request of a layman, I wrote a rather lengthy post about how to deal with lusty thoughts. Let me reprint that here. He is a young, very happily married reader working for the defense of our great country. He writes:

I am having a real struggle with impure and lustful thoughts, and I was wondering if you had any advice on how to avoid these sorts of thoughts. I’ve been reading some of your writings on how repressing these types of things is not the way to go, but I don’t think I have completely understood. If you could give me some practical advice, I’d really appreciate it.

Thanks for that. First off, let’s clarify the terminology. A “struggle” should refer to temptation. One can be victorious or a failure. Never confess: “I struggled with impure thoughts.” The confessor will not know if you failed with the struggle, or you are reporting that you are carrying your cross well. Having said that, I have to encourage you. Very few these days would be in any kind of struggle at all, just caving in to such thoughts and, often, consequent actions.

There are many reasons for a lack of struggle among some, including the dumbing down of a sense of sin in society and among some members of the Church, not excluding some priests and bishops. The dumbing down of a sense of sin started in a big way in the 1950s with the over-optimism of biological/psychological/spiritual evolution that all would be O.K., and we shouldn’t be concerned with “negativity.” Everything was nice, free and easy, you know, like at Woodstock later in 1969.

Those were the days which paved the way for many today to be convinced that they were now “mature” and “balanced” and well able to watch all sorts of “artistic skin flicks”, you know, what is wrongly called “erotica”, that socially acceptable, sophisticated porn which we won’t call porn, but rather “mature”. Those rejecting such trash were mocked also in seminaries.

So, “soft” porn, porn, snuff films — all a progression in the same line of disrespect for others, the objectification of others — just with varying degrees of intensification, is pervasive, everywhere.

  • From the world, unwillingly: Society aggressive with foisting impure and lustful images upon the masses, on occasion with billboards, sometimes in lyrics of songs, more frequently now on television at any time of day or night, pretty much everywhere on the internet. Impure and lustful images are registered by the brain. You can’t just “un-see” things.
  • From the world, willingly: Of course, unwillingly happening upon an impure and lusty image is a matter for an examination of one’s conscience. If you know that certain television stations or internet sites will put out rubbish when you least expect, do you rationalize this, making excuses? “But everybody goes to this site and watches that program!” Nope. Everybody doesn’t. Some people are so disgusted with the disrespect of men, women and children that, out of love of God and neighbor, they do not watch programs with side bits of erotica or porn whatever else. There is much subliminal rubbish even in the “plot” lines of otherwise pretty clean shows. It all takes a toll. How one chooses to be entertained says much about a person. Is it all passive entertainment, or do you have to do a bit of work, as in reading good books? Great people make their entertainment, and love it, loving life. Those who busy themselves with trash in / trash out entertainment can hardly avoid the trash out bit. And then there are things people choose to fall into all the more: there are dedicated sites, snap-chats, sexting. On and on.
  • The flesh: If one has ever had experience of any impurity or lustiness whatsoever in whatever way, such memories can work on the brain combined with everything from the world, willingly or unwillingly. The least expected thing can trigger such memories, and with such subtlety that one cannot even pinpoint what it might have been which set off impure and lustful thoughts. The brain is pretty awesome. It’s made to remember. It can be abused.
  • The devil: Of course, Satan’s minions can crank up any of the above. It’s so simple to do to weak human beings. If he bothers us it’s out of hatred for our Lord.

But, in the end, what is wrong with erotic, porn or any lusty and impure image? What’s wrong? Disrespect for the human bodies of men, women and children, and their souls, for one thing. Instead of agility of heart and soul and mind, one pretends to have power over others, abusing them, using them for one’s egotistic self. It is like killing the other person, owning them, stomping them into the ground. It’s all about power, arrogance, cruelty, darkness.

When sex is not for life, open to life, in marriage, with respect for the other, then sex instead tends to death. One pretends to have power over the other in a way that denies what sex is all about. It’s the power of cowards.

Even having lived a life of chastity, one can still have encountered impure and lusty images which may on occasion invade one’s mind when one least expects. One has two options:

(1) One can attempt to repress the fact of such an event. “It never happened!” This is just stupid. It’s not facing reality. This is the option of the coward. This kind of thing always explodes into unchastity or in some other way, perhaps the arrogance coming from frustration. Not facing the reality of weakness of man after original sin always makes things worse.

(2) Instead of repression, one can face the fact that one is vulnerable to impure and lusty images. And everyone is vulnerable to some degree in this way. Facing this fact of vulnerability doesn’t mean not distracting oneself from such thoughts. If you want, practical advice, there it is. No daydreaming about such things! That’s not repression. It’s just humble common sense. As our Lord says, one can also commit adultery in one’s heart, which is always such a violent sin, turning one into quite the obnoxious monster. One can also turn to the Lord and ask Him, with all the reality of non-denial, to be brought up into His strength, that is, in friendship with Him.

What is that strength? It is love for one’s neighbor, for men, for women, for children, knowing that behind each lusty or impure image (whether from published porn or one’s own imagination) stands a real man, woman, or child, or, if a creation of one’s imagination, a symbol of any real man, woman or child, nevertheless corrupting oneself. The Lord will grant us the grace to respect others, to love others as He Himself has loved us. He laid down His life for us. He takes us where we are at and, changing us by grace, He enables us to live enthusiastically, joyfully, strongly, a life of perfect chastity, whether married and begetting children, or married to the Church, as priests and religious, or single, never having us deny our need of redemption, but having us live in humble thanksgiving before Him.

If one starts to get to know our Lord, one will also start to have a sense of what He does for us. When we have a sense of what He does for us, for you, for me, then one sees this possibility also for others, seeing in men, women and children His love for them, His ability to take them to Himself, their capacity to reflect the beauty of the entire universe and much more, the capacity to reflect the very love of God. It is at this point — when one is in humble thanksgiving before the Lord — that one begins to grow humanly, that is, to have a proper respect for others. This doesn’t permit one to be so “mature” as to freely view porn, as some think, but to be indignant that others are being hurt in this way, and wary that one might hurt oneself in this way. It is always hurtful to oneself to be disrespectful of others. It’s always helpful for oneself and others to recognize that our Lord — while hanging in bleeding shreds of flesh on the cross — consecrated our bodies in this way to be the temples of the Holy Spirit, He who provides the chaste with agility of soul and freedom of heart and mind.

An important distinction: Just because a lusty or impure thought comes to mind does not at all mean that one is in sin. A struggle is not a sin.

For the pure of heart, this can be an occasion of virtue, carrying the cross well, learning in this to look to our Lord all the more simply, in humble thanksgiving.

For the impure of heart, such can be an occasion of vice, a rejection of the cross, learning to look to one’s egotistic self at the expense of others all the more thoroughly.

But it’s the same lusty and impure thought.

That distinction has helped untold multitudes in my priestly ministry to get out of a vicious cycle:

  • Impure and lusty thought.
  • Depression.
  • Following the impure and lusty thought, even unto impure actions.
  • … which bring more impure and lusty thoughts, more depression, and so on.

To break the cycle, one needs not to repress one’s cross, such thoughts in all denial, but, recognizing the fact of them, to take them up as the cross, shouldering this cross, not looking at it, but rather, as our Lord also commanded, looking to Him, following Him with that cross that we carry. That cross reminds us of our need for His love, His goodness, His kindness, knowing that we are bereft of that on our own. We follow Him enthusiastically, like men after their leader into a life or death battle. We see His wounds. We know how serious the battle is. And the battle is that serious. If one could only see the wrecked lives and wrecked marriages because of porn. If one could only see the absolute hell of those men, women and children who are the subjects of the porn. If one could only see what happens to men, women and children when some people who crank up their impure and lusty images, dwelling on them, turn into monstrous abusers of others in whatever way.

bus rome

O.K. So, here’s my experience of porn: When I was studying in Rome, I would find myself trying to avoid getting run over by buses. Sometimes the buses would sport advertisements on their sides, which, from time to time, using special technologies, would also cover the windows (transparent from the inside), so that the entire bus would be a moving billboard. From time to time, some rather suggestive, even outright pornographic advertisements would be portrayed. This is very typical in Italy. Such images were impossible to avoid.

I remember a friend joking that the saints in Rome, like the great Aloysius Gonzaga, S.J., didn’t have custody of the eyes, never looking up, because they wanted to avoid seeing untoward images, but because they didn’t want to step in dog poop which those walking their dogs in Rome to this day leave right on the sidewalk. Maybe. At any rate, in today’s Rome, one has to watch out for the buses!

Anyway, the bus thing was my experience with pornography. I suppose those who have seen such things will laugh at me for my thinking that such is offensive to the general public, but let’s analyze what I myself went through in seeing a very provocative image of a thirty-something woman for a nanosecond.

My first reaction in the first nanosecond of seeing this was attraction, perhaps, it struck me, something along the lines of the newly created Adam seeing the newly-built-up-from-his-rib woman: “This one! This time! is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one will be called woman for she was taken out of man” (Genesis 3:23, from memory, if it serves me rightly).

My second reaction in the following nanosecond — almost simultaneous — of seeing this imagery, was revulsion, not to the image or to the woman who prostituted herself for that image to be taken, but because such objectification of women for the utilitarian pleasure of men was disgusting to me.

My third reaction was actually not so much a reaction as a calm reflection about how the mechanism of pornography works, how this mechanism, if you will, must have been studied and exploited quite literally to death by the porn industry. Although everyone goes through life and meets up with such things with an entire history of unrepeatable circumstances which are influential perhaps only to that person, there is, I think, nevertheless, much commonality in our fallen human condition.

What I came up with is this: We already have a fallen human nature, ever so weak, ever so ready to congratulate itself that all is well,no matter what. We all find complementarity in the opposite sex. Complementarity, by its nature, goes to the essence of who we are. Since we are weak in a way that militates against any need for complementarity, that is, temptations to self-sufficiency, egoism, individualism, correctly implemented complementarity is not so easy to come by. There can be temptations to prove this self-sufficiency by way of that which seals one in non-complementarity, that is, that which objectifies, de-personalizes the other, that is, pornography. It is the fact of depersonalization, really, a kind of murder of the other, which brings delight to the egotistic eyes, which lust after what is effectively a self-embrace, a kind of Cartesian “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore, I am) seen through sex: “I depersonalize the other, therefore, I am.” If sex isn’t for life, it tends to death. It only gets worse: kill the other in objectification, and then do it again, and again, always getting locked into a more violent downward vortex.

Reflecting more on this, I knew that, wow, I had really better stay away from porn. I mean, I knew that already, but this unavoidable nanosecond experience reinforced my resolution never to compromise. None of us are better than anyone else, ever. Circumstances play an important part in what we do in life, but we can always choose to be stupid and sin. It’s when we reject that, congratulating ourselves that we are somehow above the human fray, that we are setting ourselves up for a fall. What to do?

(1) Make a good confession of all mortal sin. Don’t let the priest distract you. Make a full, integral confession even if he doesn’t want you to do that. Don’t worry. He’ll give up his stupidity and listen.

(2) Know that you will sin again, no matter how many confessions you do, how many Masses you attend, how many rosaries and chaplets you say, blah, blah, blah, IF… IF you have the attitude that you are the one in charge of getting yourself away from the draw of porn. Instead of being so very intense and determined, and then frustrated, and then lost to depression and despair, and then more sin, just give up trusting in yourself and the strength you don’t have anyway and instead trust in the Lord, simply, like a child. Run to Him like a little child. He knows we are weak. He has the marks of the crucifixion to prove it. He knows. Don’t be more intense, just more simple, looking to Him.

(3) Don’t think you’re so unworthy to be loved by God that you are in fact not loved by Him. Just because we are weak and even tempted does not mean we are evil. It just means that we’ve recognized that we have a cross to carry. That cross does not weigh us down in the spiritual life. It has us give up on trusting in ourselves so that we turn to the Lord, following Him. He didn’t just say “Pick up your cross of weakness”… He said this, but then immediately added, “Come, follow me!” We look to Him, not to the cross. We know the weakness is there, but we look to Him.

(4) No repression of weakness! Don’t throw the cross down. Embrace it. Don’t sin, don’t dwell on sin. Just know that we can sin at any time, but be looking to the Lord in humble thanksgiving in all this. On the one hand, never condemn yourself, cutting yourself off from the mercy of Jesus, beating yourself up. Just look to Him with humble thanksgiving. On the other hand, don’t forgive yourself either. I mean, sorry for the language, but what the hell is that? Forgiving yourself? Just look at what the Son of God went through on the Cross to have the right in justice to say to His Heavenly Father for us: “Father, forgive them!” We look to Him for forgiveness. Do it! His forgiveness, unlike ours, is complete and effective, bringing us into a loving relationship of thanksgiving with God.

(5) Know that after Confession there is still weakness. Don’t think you’re not forgiven. That’s just the cross. Pick it up. Shoulder it. Don’t look at it. Follow Jesus. Don’t sin again. We must sin again if we are on our own, but we are not on our own. Jesus is with us. We can stay away from sin thanks to His grace. From one confession to the next, be in a state of humble thanksgiving, continuously. That’s a sign of good friendship. That’s what our Lord wants. That’s what He gives us. That friendship is stronger than temptation, stronger than death. Death before sin! exclaimed little Dominic Savio. He could say that not because he was strong, but because he knew how strong the Lord was, though he, Dominic, remained weak. We all stay weak, but have our strength in Jesus.

(6) It’s a matter of love and respect for God, for others, for self. Pray for those lost to porn. Pray for those who have prostituted themselves or been pimped into the porn industry. Joy will increase. The rejoicing will be great.

Now, I suppose there will be nay-sayers who say that everything I’ve said here is age-inappropriate. To them I address the following anecdote of my preaching against porn so many years ago:

Long before perverted, false presentations of John Paul’s Theology of the Body were starting to be popularized (quite a while back), I had given a rather incisive Sunday homily against pornography, how degrading this is to women, how this turns men into what they otherwise would never want to be. After Mass, outside the Church, on the sidewalk, while people were pouring out of Church. Some thanked me for the homily or offered a “Happy Sunday, Father”, but were quickly on their  way. People were pretty muted, actually. I thought I had made quite a few enemies with that homily, however calm and reasoned I was in the presentation. Meanwhile… meanwhile!… a young girl, I’m guessing eight years old, literally launched her tiny self toward me from the Church steps, wrapping her arms around my neck. This was long before 2002, in the mid-1980s, but I had enough sense to put my arms straight out so that she would drop to the sidewalk on her own. She did. On her feet. The whole crowd was staring at this scene. It was well and truly an “Out of the mouths of babes” event. I wish it had been filmed. I would put up the video so that you could see this prophetic child in action. She couldn’t stop effusively thanking me for the great, wonderful, fabulous, much needed sermon I had given, since no one speaks about the evils of pornography and I had done the right thing in speaking up because so many people suffer because of pornography and it has to stop and I really spoke well and people should listen to what I have to say and… and… All rather breathless, but rather prophetic from what I could gather from the faces of those who stood listening, speechless at her animated, strong speech, accurately repeating my homily point by point for all to hear, again. What a woman she’ll turn out to be, I thought, and she already is. Wow. A real force for good both in the Church and in society.

2 Comments

Filed under Abuse, Confession, Mercy, Missionaries of Mercy, Year of Mercy

2 responses to “Pope Francis’ Jewish Missionary of Mercy writes about his experience with porn

  1. Mary Fran

    Thank you, Father Byers. This is very useful advice for anyone of us sinners, even those of us not struggling over porn.

  2. sanfelipe007

    “From one confession to the next, be in a state of humble thanksgiving, continuously. That’s a sign of good friendship. That’s what our Lord wants. That’s what He gives us. That friendship is stronger than temptation, stronger than death.”

    This rings utterly true to me! When I, in the past, had made a particularly good Confession, the fruit derived manifested itself in a humble thanksgiving of all things: from feeling the warmth of the sun on my face and sighing “thank you, Lord, for this fine day” to “Thanks be to God you’re here – I’m so sorry for what I said yesterday!”

    I am prolly “jinxing” myself by saying this (pride goeth before the fall) but the Lord’s grace has saved me from losing so many struggles (of late) with impurity of mind! A visiting Priest, in his homily, advised everyone to thank God for “making us man and woman” whenever we saw a particularly attractive person, as a way to avoid going to a dark place. So that is what I do. As I am continuously tempted, I am continuously giving thanks to God. This must be most infuriating to the adversary.

    But how long can a sinner sustain this? Clearly as long as I want to be (how frightening to not want to be!*) friends with Jesus. So, yes, continuous humble thanksgiving! Idle hands or idle minds, no thank you.

    * Saint Bernadette said that a sinner is someone who loves sin. So giving thanks reminds me whom I should love,and Who loves me.

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