During my time in Rome, Italy, I lived next to the Basilica of St. Agnes on Piazza Navonna. The church was built on the site where St. Agnes was killed. Agnes of Rome (291-304) was a Christian martyr sacrificed for her faith and her sexual purity. A young girl of great beauty, she was condemned to death because she would not consent to the sexual advances of certain Roman soldiers. Legend holds that they tried to burn her alive, but the flames parted and burned around her. Frustrated in the extreme, the soldiers finally executed her by sword. A crypt in the basement of the Basilica of St. Agnes holds a number of bones from this child-martyr. You can view her tiny skull with its eye sockets that gaze at you seeming to whisper: “Blessed are the pure of heart.”
In sharp contrast, our world today is steeped in pornographic images and content. In fact, 68% of young adult men and 18% of women use porn at least once every week. The affects are long-term and impossible to measure. This epidemic has destroyed marriages, crippled people with pornography addictions, and fueled insane, criminal sexual behaviors. When arrested, pedophiles and other sexual predators are always found to have a cache of porn on their hard drive. Mark Kastleman calls pornography The Drug of the New Millennium. It’s free, easily accessible and highly addictive.
Even if we ourselves don’t use porn, its affects and influences are all around us (Fifty Shades of Grey anyone?). How can we inoculate ourselves against an increasingly sexualized culture? Is that even possible?
I believe it is possible, but it requires serious study, prayer, self-discipline and the support of others. To be successful, it must become an ongoing personal mission that we take very seriously. Inoculation will come at a price. Here are some concrete steps you can take to begin this process.
1. Immerse yourself in the truth of God’s plan for human love. The first step in inoculating yourself is learning the truth about sexuality. Armed with the truth, we aren’t likely to fall for the lies. While Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body gives the most thorough overview of this important subject, it’s probably not the best place to start. While beautiful, this dense collection of five years of weekly papal teachings is tough reading. I would instead recommend watching an Introduction to Theology of the Body by Christopher West. This DVD series conveys the essential message in an easy to understand way helping us untwist the lies our culture tells about human sexuality. Also worth checking out is West’s book, The Good News about Sex and Marriage as well as a few other resources.
2. Resolve to cultivate the virtue of chastity in your life. Effective inoculation depends upon developing and exercising the virtue of chastity. Done right, this virtue focuses on embracing something positive (saying “yes” to the good) rather than rejecting something negative (the “while-knuckle” approach). It’s none other than sexual integration in our lives. Before we can become integrated in this manner, we need to understand what this looks like. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this virtue in detail (nos. 2337ff.) and Bishop Robert Finn discusses chastity in relation to pornography. Laser-focus upon this virtue (i.e. The Chastity Project) as it will be the key to immunity in the contagion of sexual deception.
3. Take steps to minimize the damage. In his 2007 pastoral letter “Blessed are the Pure in Heart,” Bishop Finn outlines a number of practical steps that we can take to keep this darkness at bay. Every Christian should read this document and become proactive in minimizing the damage pornography can do in their lives.
Two of the most important areas for vigilance are what media we watch and how we use the Internet. It s all too easy to access or even accidentally stumble on images or content while surfing the web or flipping channels. Even mainstream movies feature disturbing content. Once you understand the concepts behind the Theology of the Body (see Step 1), you’ll have a better understanding of why these things are harmful – to you and to the people on the other side of the screen
4. Seek healing for your own sexual wounds. Most of us have been fed a lifetime of sexual lies by our culture. Moreover, many people have suffered some type of sexual abuse. These wounds can lead to personal confusion about things sexual in the here and now. Sometimes, professional therapy with a reputable Christian counselor is needed to move forward. Often, inner healing is required to truly address these issues. In any event, it will be much more difficult to make progress in the area of chastity or sexual integration with unresolved issues from your past.
5. If you are a pornography or sex addict, begin recovery now. We are blessed to have a Catholic online sexual addictions recovery website – RECLAIM. This is a powerful tool that can be a great help. Sometimes it’s helpful to begin recovery outside of an explicitly religious context. Candeo can help in this area. And there are resources such as Celebrate Recovery and other sexual addictions recovery groups. Explore your options to find what’s right for you, then seek help now.
6. Seek out support and accountability structures. Suffice it to say, we are awash in pornography. It’s no longer just the random magazine found in Uncle Jack’s garage or displayed at the gas station. It’s a constant barrage. Internet pop-ups, posters, advertisements, teasers, insinuations, checkout counters. The male mind that wants to resist is fatigued by the constant struggle. At the same time, many women grow insecure about their own bodies in the face of impossible body standards. In the end, a person can’t fight this alone. Find a group or a friend with whom you can meet on a regular basis to discuss what’s going on in your heart. For many years, I participated in Theology of the Body discussion groups. We were able to hash out together all the confusing sexual lies that our culture throws at us. We encouraged each other in the virtue of chastity as well as supported each other – especially when someone was really struggling.
7. Develop a serious prayer life. When I was in high school, I was on a student team that gave presentations to other kids on saving sex for marriage. The presenters truly believed in the message. Unfortunately, many of them were unable to follow their own advice. Why? They hadn’t developed a serious prayer life or taken concrete steps to guard their minds from the media. Consequently, they could hardly resist the powerful messages of our culture. For every hour the team members spent giving presentations on the truth, we got 25 or more hours from the culture promoting lies. Without the help of God, the cultural tide is nearly impossible to resist.
I visited the small coastal town of Nettuno near Rome with a friend of mine one afternoon. We wanted to visit the site where St. Maria Goretti (1890-1902) had been martyred for her purity. At age 11, Maria was approached by Alessandro, a neighborhood boy who intended to rape her while threatening her with a large knife. Maria would not submit, protesting that what he wanted to do was a mortal sin and warning him that he would go to hell if he went through with it. Allesandro choked her and stabbed her 14 times. She died shortly thereafter.
Agnes and Maria can be our “attending physicians” in this difficult process of inoculation. They can pray for us. They resisted unchastity to the death – as children. Their powerful intercession and example can still assist us in the struggle for sexual integration as adults.
For Further Reading: Mary Beth Bonacci, Real Love; Edward Sri, Men, Women and the Mystery of Love.