A Second Look at Confession

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If you ask any priest, he will tell you that one of the biggest dangers attacking healthy marriages in the Church today comes from pornography.  When you consider that kids from healthy Catholic marriages are a lot likelier to develop a strong faith, this is a problem that affects more than just the individual couple; it impacts the entire Church, now and into the future, as well.  Catholics have a real problem with how to effectively respond to the challenge pornography presents, and anyone who wants to wage that fight is certainly a welcome ally.  We also need new ways to present  timeless truths.

Yet sometimes this outside-the-box thinking can be counter-productive.  I believe this is the case with one Matt McGuiness, a guest columnist at Catholic News Agency.  In various discussions surrounding pornography, he has found the way Catholics approach the matter lacking, and has decided to write a few columns (“A second look at porn”) on how to rethink our approach.  As he tells us:

This series grew out of conversations with friends and our common frustration with the way pornography is treated by good, faithful Catholics. We realized that rage and hellfire and damnation against porn simply end up evading the deeper issues and speak only to the already convinced. This is [an]attempt to understand it in a deeper way.

I agree that far too often, Catholics only provide a surface understanding of many issues that fails to really win over anyone not already believing in our cause.  There is a lot to digest in what Mr. McGuiness says, and I would hate to judge too much of his work before all three columns have been released.  In the meantime, I’d like to stick to just one point.  If we are going to slay the dragon that is pornography, we need every weapon at our disposal.  For reasons I hope to make clear, I believe Mr. McGuiness (and many other well-intentioned Catholics) leave out one very important weapon. 

When discussing the flaws he sees in the way many Catholics approach pornography (the “moralists”), Mr. McGuiness states the following:

 The moralists out there would tell us that the solution to the scourge of porn is “virtue” or self-control or some twelve step program or perhaps intensely frequenting the sacrament of reconciliation; while not discounting the value of confession or the usefulness of AA-type programs in dealing with sexual addictions, I must insist that virtue is a consequence of something else, not something that can be gotten at directly as it were. …..  No, the solution is not to be found in mortification or penance alone, but in beginning to take our own humanity seriously; seriously enough to go to the depths of the inner meaning of our Baptism, which incorporated us into the Body of Christ, in the flesh.

Like a lot of things, there’s some truth to what he states.  If you spend your entire life simply engaging in a self-control which merely seeks to avoid the bad and do nothing beyond that, chances are you will find yourself in trouble, and fast.  Nor is practicing virtue (defined in the pagan sense of goodness) simply enough either, as there is precious little man can do of his own accord when it comes to pursuing righteousness.  So in that sense, he is correct that simple penance and self-control alone most likely won’t do enough.

However, they are still incredibly important, and for a reason that is completely absent from the thinking of Mr. McGuiness — at least, in this writing.  He has managed to treat the topic of confession without ever referencing the sacramental nature of the Sacrament of Confession.  In his Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance, Blessed John Paul II said the following:

“But as it reflects on the function of this sacrament, the church’s consciousness discerns in it, over and above the character of judgment in the sense just mentioned, a healing of a medicinal character. And this is linked to the fact that the Gospel frequently presents Christ as healer, while his redemptive work is often called, from Christian antiquity, medicina salutis“I wish to heal, not accuse,” St. Augustine said, referring to the exercise of the pastoral activity regarding penance”

Seen from this perspective, there is no longer any wonder why the “moralists” would advise “intensely frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”  Elsewhere in the Exhortation, we are told that there is no “more significant, more divinely efficacious, or more lofty and at the same time easily accessible” as the Sacrament of Confession.  Yet when we read about overcoming pornography from Mr. McGuiness (and other popular writers), they almost never mention Confession. 

Confession isn’t just something we do.  We confess our sins — if that were all Confession is, then yes, we really shouldn’t be spending that much time on it, or speaking of it in such lofty terms — but then, God absolves us.  In this sacrament, God provides grace to us, grace won through the Precious Blood of the Cross.  This grace has the effect not just of absolving us from our sins, but of restoring us to what we originally were, and what we were originally called for.  If pornography is a sickness, only medicine can cure it.  It is impossible to “take our own humanity seriously” without Confession.  Now we who are already converted understand this, or should.  But what of the unconverted who know nothing of Confession?  If they read Mr. McGuiness’ article, they’d see scant reference to it, and then only as something that isn’t terribly important.

The Church strongly disagrees.  If we really want to overcome these (and many other) trials we face today, in addition to taking “a second look” at porn we might want to take a second look at Confession.


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  • Dawn Eden

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. The sacramental grace conferred in Confession cannot be emphasized strongly enough.

  • Excellent article! John 20:22-23 tells us, “Then He (Jesus) ‘breathed’ on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven….if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The only other time in Scripture where we are told God ‘breathed’ is in Genesis; the account of God bringing Adam (man) to life. I believe that is quite significant, in terms of the power of the Sacrament of Confession and thanks to Kevin Tierney for bringing that out.

  • Dear Kevin–it sounds to me like you are trying to have
    it both ways. You acknowledge above that McGuiness clearly says “while not
    discounting the value of confession.” And then you spend much of your piece
    wondering why he seems to discount the value of confession. Why?

    Kevin, this is another case of “you can’t say everything
    at once.” You’re complaining about what he’s “not” saying without fully
    acknowledging that his three-part column is about something else entirely. Example: Let’s say someone wrote a column on gorillas who says in the column, “chimps are also apes, and, while not discounting the importance of studying chimps, I’m here to talk about gorillas.” And someone comes along to say, “you may have a point about the gorillas, but I can’t *believe* you showed such a cavalier attitude toward *chimps*!”

    God bless you,

    Deacon JR

    PS—Also, if you’d like an explanation of the “junk food” analogy, I can offer one that absolutely makes sense…

    • Kevin Symonds

      No, DeaconJR, I respectfully disagree.

      While acknowledging there is more to be forthcoming in a three-part article, one must also expect to have a balanced treatment of the subject. It would have been better for Mr. McGuiness to have stated in this first article that he would treat the subject in further detail in a later installment. We fail to see such a note, hence Mr. Tierney’s concern.

      I would hope that Mr. Tierney’s concern would spark just such a future discussion in the remaining articles.

      • Dear Kevin–but that is partly the point–even if McGuiness never mentions the Sacrament of Confession again in his columns, this doesn’t mean he is being “unbalanced” in his treatment of his subject. The principle really is “you can’t say everything at once.” For example, one does not call JPII’s Theology of the Body corpus an “unbalanced” treatment of marriage and sexuality just because he hardly *ever* addresses the “supreme gift” of marriage–children. Rather, he has great insights to share about other aspects of marriage/sexuality. Indeed, JPII is out to set the stage for understanding that “supreme gift” and safeguarding it by showing how beautiful (and how “possible”) is the Church’s teaching re contraception and children. Yet he hardly mentions children in the work. Likewise, in the McGuiness column, he may well have much to say about the addressing the scourge of porn without directly addressing the beauty and healing of the Sacrament of Penance

        • Hello DeaconJR,

          I agree that “you can’t say everything at once.” But we need to consider the audience.

          Let’s say your average Catholic is struggling with a pornography problem. He gets a tweet or a blurb from a friend that this is a really good work (they now knowing he has that problem) and he checks it out. However Mr. McGuiness, yourself and others wish to spin it, a lot of people came away with the impression that confession is not viewed very importantly. Are they going to read that article, and come away with what the Church says, primarily that confession is the most important tool in your arsenal here?

          Are they going to see what Paul VI says, that if you want to live the nuptial meaning you are called for, confession is the primary way to do that? They read the works of Dawn Eden, Kevin O’Brien, or this work here, they are going to see that confession is placed at a premium.

          Hey may indeed have much to say, and he may not. All the more better to raise the issue then. If he ends up having something to say about it, or decides to put a greater emphasis on it, that’s a good thing. Yet color me skeptical. His article only confirmed what I think to be a long time problem when it comes to a lot of modern day talk on sexuality, pornography, etc. The sacrament of confession is seldom mentioned, when that should be our first priority.

          • Actually, if folks read the blogs you mention, they will see an unfortunate attempt to shoehorn the CNA column into the pre-existing “contra-Christopher-West” narrative nurtured for far too long without sufficient scrutiny. How many times should McGuiness have stated that he doesn’t discount the value of the Sacrament of Confession? Does he really need to state it more than once?
            And could you point me specifically to where I can find the “Church” asserting that Confession is the most important tool in the arsenal against pornography? *Grace* is the remedy for concupiscence, to be sure, but I am not aware of an ecclesial anti-porn strategy that places first priority on Confession. How about, for example–the *Eucharist*…is Confession more important than the Eucharist when it comes to combatting pornography? Aren’t they just different avenues of grace that ought to be applied at the right time? Confession, true, is the *only* remedial solution for mortal sin, but that’s not the point of the CNA column, which is exploring the “how” and “why” of pornography…
            God bless you, Deacon JR

          • It isn’t just pornography, contraception, whatever. Any sin, any sin, confession is what is on a premium. When the sacrament of confession is described as follows:

            “”From the very beginning, in fact, the church has recognized and used many and varying forms of penance. Some are liturgical or paraliturgical and include the penitential actin the Mass, services of atonement and pilgrimages; others are of an ascetical character, such as fasting. But of all such acts none is more significant, more divinely efficacious or more lofty and at the same time easily accessible as a rite than the sacrament of penance.””

            And when the same Church talks about the very powerful medicinal purposes of confession, then to say “Not in penance or mortification alone, but taking your humanity seriously” really doesn’t get what confession is. You can’t take your humanity seriously without confession. It isn’t either setup as presented in the article. Yet that one leads to the other, and you can’t do one without the other.

          • Kevin–Is Sacramental Confession the *only* thing that should be talked about regarding how we deal with porn?

          • Absoutely not. But it’s kind of the starting point yes. Pornography is a sin, and a mortal one at that. I’ll go out on a limb. If you are talking about how we deal with pornography, and confession isn’t the starting point, I’d say it is being done wrong.

            That goes not just for the lay individual, but also the priest. Confession needs to be presented better than the way Mr. McGuiness presents it. Yet sadly, a lot of our priests and those in authority do such a poor job presenting confession, that it isn’t surprising confession is played down. (That isn’t just me saying it, the Apostolic Exhortation from JPII essentially says the same thing.)

          • Kevin–let me say it again–the column is *not* about how we “deal with pornography;” it is about the “how” and “why” of the choice of porn. Of *course* confession is how we “deal” with it, but it doesn’t get at the how and why of it….

          • Harry Flynn

            I find the “how and why” discussion to be laughable.

            Of course there is some desire there…otherwise pornography doesn’t really work, does it?

          • Okay DeaconJR, then we present the same challenge everyone else gets. What’s the point of the paragraph I quoted, if not to say we need to look beyond “confession or 12 step programs” that “the moralists” give out?

            The “how” and “why” others can deal with. I’m only dealing with that particular quote. So show me, with his words, where I misinterpreted it.

          • Kevin–the quote is this: ***The moralists out there would tell us that the solution to the scourge of porn is “virtue” or self-control or some twelve step program or perhaps intensely frequenting the sacrament of reconciliation; while not discounting the value of confession or the usefulness of AA-type programs in dealing with sexual addictions, I must insist that virtue is a consequence of something else, not something that can be gotten at directly as it were.***
            The author is correctly pointing out that *before* there is “virtue” and before there is self-control and before there is value to a 12-step program and before there is an embrace of the grace of the Sacraments, there is something *prior* to be looked at, acknowledged, and addressed–why the “desire” for porn? What’s going on in the human person that brings that person to a choice for or against it? How can a person re-direct that desire so as to make the right choice? The “virtuous” person is one who is able to make the right choice as a response to grace and develop the habit of “virtue” with an awareness of how the habit is associated with one’s call to love God completely. In this sense we do need to look beyond Confession as “remedy” and look instead to the meaning of “desire” as a means of *prevention*. The grace of the Sacraments *can* be part of a “preventive” regimen as well, but that preventive aspect is one “applied” to the person, whereas McGuiness is looking first “within” the human person and within “desire” to address scourge of porn.

            I look forward to the next two parts of the column, because I think I have a pretty good idea where it’s going…

  • Kevin Symonds

    I would think Confession combined with good and solid spiritual direction might also play a role in the “cura animarum” for pastors.

    • Kevin, that was something I really wanted to cover as well, but alas, I really couldn’t figure out how to include it, and it really would be a separate work. Yet Fr. Hardon said a lot about this particular subject.

  • BTW, Kevin T, we would do well to remind ourselves that the only reason we’re discussing this is because of Kevin O’Brien’s theologically erroneous and…uh…er…zany?…attempt to shoehorn the McGuiness column into the nearly-forty posts of swiss-cheese narrative he’s created under the rubric “Christopher
    West” over at O’Brien’s blog. That attempt was January 15. On January 16, Fr. Angelo Geiger publishes his post, tipping his hat to Dawn Eden. On January 17, Dawn Eden publishes her post, acknowledging both O’Brien and Geiger. On January 18, Alice Von Hildebrand chimes in at least indirectly (the CNA column O’Brien calls a “stinging rebuke” of McGuiness even though it doesn’t mention the “second look” column), while she directly uses a key phrase (pornography not “redeemable”) utliized *not* by McGuiness, but by Fr. Geiger.

    If some of this sounds a tad familiar, it may be because Fr. Geiger and Dawn Eden and Alice von Hildebrand all were collaborators several years ago in producing misguided claims that Christopher West was teaching error. Take a look—again—at the claims O’Brien made to get this dust-up rolling:

    ****[Kevin O’Brien: ] OK, here’s where the Christopher
    West thing is heading.
    A purely despicable article in CNA by Communion and Liberation member Matt McGuinness shows you what you need to know. McGuinness uses West’s tactics, but takes them just a wee bit further.
    Rightly, McGuinness points out that our deepest desires are for more than what lust can provide, and that seeking to use porn to fulfill these desires is bound for frustration.
    But, incredibly – and it astonishes me as I write this -McGuiness, a member of a devout Catholic organization writing for a Catholic publication, encourages men to go all out for porn. You want it? Go for it! You’ll see it doesn’t help.
    In other words, sin and sin boldly.
    To do otherwise is to be LESS THAN HOLY, or so McGuinness implies. ****

    Ask yourself—does McGuiness encourage men to go all out
    for porn? Does he imply that you are “less than holy” if you don’t? Isn’t this all just slightly over the top?

    And isn’t it more about the residual anti-West sentiment held by a few bloggers who won’t let go of a flawed narrative resulting from the misguided and erroneous conclusions they’ve held for several years?

    God bless,

    Deacon JR

    • Addendum–January 19, Fr. Geiger quotes the Von Hildebrand column, says McGuiness should read it, and hat-tips William Doino–Doino being another of the contra-Christopher-West collaborators from a few years ago. Old script, new scapegoat….