Recently I started an accountability group for a small number of men struggling with the scourge of pornography. These are good Catholic men attempting to live virtuous lives and to be faithful to their wives but who find themselves enslaved to habitual sins. Not unlike many young men today, they were exposed to pornography from a young age (early teens). Most have found that it has taken such deep root in their souls that one of the men expressed a common sentiment: “I’ve struggled with sexual sin for so long, I almost cannot imagine a life without it.”
The problem is pervasive, but these men are not unique. A study by the Barna Group shows that 64 percent of Christian men and 15 percent of Christian women admitted to viewing pornography at least once a month, compared to 65 percent of men and 30 percent of women who identified as non-Christian and said they watched porn at the same rate. As with divorce, these viewing rates for Christians mirror the culture as a whole.
We Are Set Apart
But we should be different, a people set apart (1 Peter 2:9). Tertullian was moved by the witness of Christians who stood in contrast to the culture of the day and wrote, “See how these Christians love one another and how ready they are to die for one another.” St. Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
The problem of pornography is multi-faceted: it is both spiritual and habitual, as well as physiological and psychological, of the body and of the mind. It can often be a misguided recourse to comfort in times of stress and loneliness or during periods of marital difficulties. The siren call of the glowing computer screen during these periods is only a modern day variant of what is written in scripture, “For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave” (Proverbs 5:3-5).
I asked a monk once, “When do we stop being tempted by the flesh?” He answered, “The day we die.” As a man approaching forty, I am not immune to such temptation any more or less than the next man. Prior to marriage, I struggled throughout my twenties and thirties with purity almost to the point of despair. A campus priest gave me some wise words, though: “Don’t ever curse your sexuality, because it is a gift from God,” a gift to be used in partnership with right reason and according to its nature.
The Need for Role Models
I felt led to start this small accountability group because of all the men who had reached out to me individually for guidance and to share their struggles. I have done the same during challenging periods. Men who seemed to have a handle on the problem and have overcome whatever it was I was struggling with gave me an example of virtue and hope that victory was a real possibility, not just an abstract concept. In today’s unclean cultural environments, we need witnesses like those Tertullian remarked about.
Pornography is not only a public health crisis but also, and most importantly, a spiritual emergency. Our Lady of Fatima told the child Jacinta, “More souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” Because pornography and unchastity destroy the state of grace in us, we become vulnerable to the Devil’s influence. With a state of grace comes peace of mind and, though our lives are not without intense periods of struggle, we have the assurance of grace to help us resist sin. The only portal the Devil has to our soul is the will: he can only enter if we voluntarily let him in.
That being said, there are also practical steps we can take to ensure the victory against this vice.
The first is that lust should never take a foothold in our minds because when you give the Devil an inch, he takes a yard. Our Lord warns that sin is not only in the act of adultery: even looking at another with lust is akin to adultery (Matthew 5:28). This means that custody of the eyes becomes extremely important. It is like pulling up weeds in the garden – the longer they are allowed to take root, the harder they are to pull out. A good practice is to quickly skim over or “bounce the eyes” when presented with immodest images that may cross one’s path.
Secondly, the option of giving in to sexual sin should be taken off the table altogether, much as when couples get married and agree that “divorce is never an option.” This will often entail suffering physiologically as we struggle against the flesh and seek to subject our bodies to reason. There is a kind of immaturity that comes with giving into the sin of lust, and men who struggle in this regard are acutely aware of it. A lack of mastery over the mind and the body makes us a slave to our passions and less free. This can lead to shame, but conversely it can also serve as an impetus to rise above it for the sake of one’s manhood.
Thirdly, viewing pornography is by its nature selfish and isolating. The antidote is charity; namely, going out of oneself for the sake of others. This can include small acts of service to one’s spouse or adopting another person (such as an accountability partner) in prayer and offering one’s suffering and self-denial for their conversion or sanctification. Taking the focus off ourselves often has the residual effect of moving us away from such isolation and self-focus.
Finally, the use of sacramentals is efficacious as “spiritual armor” in the fight against the flesh. The Miraculous Medal and the brown scapular have proven to be good protection against things that would lead us from a state of grace. Prayers of deliverance said regularly are also good weapons against demons that would seek to influence us.
St. Paul told the early Christian disciples that they were sons, not slaves, and if sons, they were heirs (Galatians 4:7). This is true of us as well: “If the Son sets you free,” said Jesus, “you are truly free” (John 8:36). The goal in the fight against pornography is freedom – not freedom from temptation but from the chains of sin that bind us and keep us from living in a state of grace, which is necessary if want to become heirs to the Kingdom. With the state of grace comes peace. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).