So the story goes…
To teach the theology of the body, Christopher West tells a story about two bishops seeing a prostitute:
The following story illustrates what mature Christian purity looks like. Two bishops walked out of a Cathedral just as a scantily clad prostitute passed by.
One bishop immediately turned away. The other bishop looked at her intently. The bishop who turned away exclaimed, ‘Brother bishop, what are you doing? Turn your eyes!’ When the bishop turned around, he lamented with tears streaming down his face, ‘How tragic that such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.’
Which one of those bishops was vivified with the ethos of redemption? Which one had passed over from merely meeting the demands of the law to a superabounding fulfillment of the law? (From West’s Theology of the Body Explained, revised edition, p. 215).
A striking story, to be sure. It leads me to ask myself: “Am I truly free? Have I been “vivified by the ethos of redemption”? Or am I merely meeting the “demands of the law” in avoiding to look at a scantily clad woman, for fear of lusting?
West’s version of this story has cropped up a few times in my life as a Catholic, first with a young Catholic woman that I courted a few years after my conversion to Catholicism.
She had been learning about the theology of the body, primarily through Christopher West’s work, and she had introduced me to it for the first time.
I was excited and intrigued by what I learned in the theology of the body, and she and I discussed it often.
One day, we were going to Blockbuster video to rent a movie (yes, I realize this dates me horribly; for younger folks, this was a video rental chain where you went to rent physical DVDs or VHS movies). Blockbuster was pretty awful: every tenth movie you came across featured scantily clad women and some kind of lewdness.
At this point in my Catholic life, I was still struggling with overcoming pornography and lustful sins. I suggested to my girlfriend that I disliked going into Blockbuster because it meant having to face temptation to lust, or at the least have seeds of temptation planted by seeing so many provocative video covers.
She responded by saying: “So you are like the bishop who looked away from the prostitute. You’ve not truly internalized the theology of the body but are only avoiding looking at women because you will lust.”
I was hurt by her words, and at the time I also felt them to be unfair. Here I was, striving to become strong in chastity, but still on the journey, and I was being criticized for not having arrived already at the destination.
Naturally, we got into an argument about it, and we ended up not going to Blockbuster. While that courtship eventually ended, it was a good learning experience for me (and hopefully for her).
What Do I Have to Do to Be Free?
Fast forward 13 years later. I’m happily married with two children. And by God’s grace, I overcame pornography addiction and lustful sins. I am free from them and their power over me, and yet I remain on guard against temptation, knowing that I am not in Heaven yet.
I created a course to help Catholic men win freedom from pornography and lust. A friend of mine came over to visit and we talked about the course. On the side he does personal coaching to help Catholic men overcome pornography addiction. He himself had struggled with it for many years but conquered it by God’s grace.
He told me that, while he appreciated confession, Mass, the Rosary, devotions, spiritual direction, and so on, he doesn’t think those things are capable of helping a man retrain his heart to see women without lusting after them. At best, they are necessary, but not sufficient, means to achieve purity.
I told him that the course also includes many truths from the theology of the body. But he didn’t think that that was enough either. He explained that he had grown in purity so much that he is never tempted to look at pornography or to lust, and that this type of healing and retraining can only occur through a specific kind of therapy, one that he himself coaches men on.
Now, he said, he is able to look at any woman without being tempted to lust. He went on to say that if any man isn’t at that place yet, then he is really just at the “avoidance” level of purity, only able to avert his eyes and not really free.
Sound familiar? It’s the Two Bishops story once again. Prayers and confession, the sacraments and spiritual disciplines are all well and good, I hear my friend saying, but they don’t lead to true purity. Even learning and understanding the theology of the body is not enough. The virtue of purity must be attained by some other, or at least additional, means than these traditional Catholic practices.
Another Take on the Two Bishops
I am willing to ask myself: “Have I just gotten good at avoiding temptations to lust? Am I not truly free?”
As I reflected on those questions, I could only answer “I don’t know.” I suspect my friend is off the mark, a bit too sanguine about the state of redeemed man and concupiscence, but I am not God and can’t tell you the level of my virtue. Perhaps I have simply not undergone a strong enough test to truly prove me a fraud in this regard.
But I would also answer that it doesn’t matter that much. If the net result in both cases is living chastely, then however one got there, however one may still be tempted, is immaterial. If I’m living virtuously even though it may be very hard, even though I have to avert my gaze from the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, I’m acting in a way that is pure, interiorly and exteriorly, by God’s grace.
One does not conquer pornography and lust on one’s own steam. It requires grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist itself, the Church teaches, strengthens us against future mortal sin. God hasn’t been keeping the remedies to sin and the aids to virtue secret from us. They are there in plain sight, for all to receive and have been since the founding of His Church.
Further, fleeing from temptation, conscious of our own weaknesses, is a practice that the saints commend to us. Pope Francis quoted St. Therese who said:
“In some temptations, the only solution is to escape, to not be ashamed to escape, to recognize that we are weak and we have to escape.” — St. Therese of Lisieux
The truth is that there is a spectrum of virtue between the two bishops. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and one must flee temptation. Other times, having grown heroically strong in virtue, one is called to fight and overcome.
Teachings Old And New
In my course on purity, I highly recommend people read the theology of the body, either in its original form or via an evangelist like Christopher West. I endorse his books and ship them out to people
The teachings of the theology of the body are good, and they are one more weapon to growing in purity. It is vital to arm one’s intellect with the proper understand of the beauty of the human person and the purpose of our sexuality. Learning about these was a key element in my growth in purity.
But we are not all the same. Some men benefit from one tool over another, one devotion over another. And men are at all different stages in their journey to freedom. Men closer to the beginning may need crutches, may need to take radical steps to avoid temptation. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Some men further along in the journey may never need to avert their eyes from a prostitute or swimsuit edition. Others, just as far along, but with a different constitution, may find it prudent to continue averting their eyes. Do we drop the Two Bishops gotcha on them? I don’t think so.
Wiser, in my experience, is to recognize that every man is different, and to encourage each man to try a variety of tactics and tools to grow in purity.
Further, we should never downplay the Church’s time-honored medicines for conquering vice and strengthening virtue. God instituted them for a reason. They have the backing of His grace and power. They come with divine promises of conversion.
About those two bishops: I’m probably somewhere in the spectrum between them. But both are Catholic.