Recently I saw online a video of a priest preaching about folks who go to confession over and over with the same sin—in this case, pornography—and how they may be 'abusing' God's mercy.
Certainly pornography is a serious issue. Any priest who hears confessions knows that it has become a serious public health crisis. It has the potential to deform imaginations and consciences and to weaken and even destroy real relationships.
And it’s true enough, to go to confession without any contrition or willingness to ‘amend my life’ (as we say in a common version of the Act of Contrition), would be something sacrilegious and a sin of presumption on God’s mercy.
But is that what is going on when people come to confession over and over, especially in the case of this particular problem? In my estimation, no. Or at least it must be rare. I think what is usually the case is that someone wants to make a change, to find freedom from the emptiness and ennui of this problem, but doesn’t know how to begin to succeed.
They want to make amendment of life, but fail. Why?
Sexuality is a mysterious and powerful aspect of the person, and it runs very deep. Therefore habits that develop around our living out of our sexuality tend to be deep and powerful as well. And if these habits are bad, they are that much stronger and harder to uproot.
Moreover, and perhaps getting at what is more sinister and tragic in this particular area, human nature and the effects of original sin being what they are, sex easily gets mixed up with domination, exploitation, and even violence. The pornographers are excellent psychologists, understand this lamentable situation very well and use it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to instill craving for their product.
Therefore, to even start to think about dealing with a problem of habitual use of pornography, one has to be as fierce and dedicated as a wicked man who stands to make a lot of money. Unfortunately, for a lot of souls struggling against sin, we lack anything approaching this kind of commitment to prayer and desire for willingness. We are, as the Adam Ant song goes, desperate but not serious.
“Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, of holy memory, begged Abba Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria. He went down, and seeing an actress he began to weep. Those who were present asked him the reason for his tears, and he said,‘Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.’” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
When was the last time I felt so much contrition that I cried?
In that spirit, an examination of conscience on our contrition itself and desire for willingness can be useful. How much do I really want what I say in the Act of Contrition to be true? As Fr. Cajetan of Bergamo, OFM Cap. writes in his great book on the spiritual life, Humility of Heart:
"There is a certain will," says St. Thomas, "which had better be called the wish to will than the absolute will itself"; [3 part., qu: xxi, art. 4] by which it seems that we can will a thing and yet not will it. Therefore examine yourself and see whether your desire for humility be only a passing velleity [a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action], or really in your will.
In my estimation, another issue that can impede a sincere amendment of life around these kind of issues is a sad lack of formation and knowledge about the spiritual life. People may be on fire with the desire for God and living a life that is quite devout, but they have never read about how to practice some of the classic tools like examination of conscience, guard of the heart, custody of the eyes, and so on. And they probably haven’t ever heard a priest preach on any of these things either.
We have two thousand years of spiritual mothers and fathers who have struggled in remarkably similar ways, original sin being quite unoriginal in its later effects, and saints who have written about their own struggles and with teaching for the faithful. Getting to know them is invaluable. It can be surprising and refreshing how explicit some of these teachers of the spiritual life can be around these sorts of topics. Just go look up the twenty-second of John Cassian’s Conferences, on nocturnal emissions.
Confused or irresponsible confessors can be another issue for folks who are struggling with this sin and who go to confession regularly. I think there are priests who have let themselves get fatigued by hearing the same confessions over and over, and have allowed this weariness begin to weaken their attention to the suffering of the penitent. There are also confessors, strangely enough, who don’t seem to really believe in sin or who seem to be more committed to some pop psychology or worldly anthropology than they are to the teachings of the Catholic faith. Pray for us priests.
So, are people struggling with pornography and confess their use of it over and over abusing God’s mercy? My experience leads me to say no in almost all cases. They are abusing and hurting themselves, for sure, and may be contributing to the abuse and degradation of others as well. And in many cases they are abusing themselves further by failing to get serious and practical about uprooting sin and avoiding its occasions. They also may not know about the rich tradition of tools our Catholic faith offers them.
It also has to be noted that the consumption—and I always say ‘consumption’ in the context of confession or spiritual direction to emphasize that its something you are putting into yourself, your heart and imagination—of pornography often goes together with masturbation. I have a post on that matter here.
Finally, for anyone who happens upon this post who is struggling themselves with these issues, another quote from Fr. Cajetan:
It is in this that the good and wisdom of God is most admirably set forth, that He offers us a means of sanctifying ourselves through our very miseries, and we shall never be able to make the excuse that we could not become Saints because we committed grave sin, when those very sins might have been the means of sanctifying us by urging us to a deeper humility.