About Those Two Bishops And the Prostitute

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?

Courtship Accusation

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.

Christopher West
Christopher West

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.

Auxiliary Bishops Robert J. Brennan and Nelson J. Perez of Rockville Centre, N.Y., smile as they process from St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre following their episcopal ordination July 25. Bishop Brennan, 50, is the vicar general of Rockville Centre. Bishop Perez, 51, was a pastor in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia when he was named a bishop. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic) (June 26, 2012)

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

tocuhIn 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.

Book Review: Handed Down by James Papandrea

Catholic Answers has published another solid book called Handed Down: The Catholic Faith of the Early Christians, by James Papandrea.

When I first saw this book, I wondered how it was different from Rod Bennett’s The Apostasy That Wasn’t. Both dealt with the early Church and what she believed. But the similarities really end there, another testimony to the need for a variety of apologetic works that cover the same kind of ideas but in completely different ways.

Clear and Accessible Teaching

Papandrea has a clear writing style and he lays out the importance of the Church Fathers in understanding the beliefs in the early Church.

Then the book is divided into chapters where he discusses a doctrine–say, the Eucharist–and after laying out the biblical, traditional, and historical case for that teaching, he follows up with a vignette of one of the Church Fathers.

James Papandrea Handed Down
James Papandrea Handed Down

So while we are learning the powerful Catholic arguments for the sacraments, Scripture and Tradition, the Communion of saints, and the papacy, we are also getting illuminating background on St. Clement (one of the first popes), Sts. Augustine and Ambrose, Pope St. Leo the Great and even more controversial figures like Novatian.

Along the way, Papandrea unearthed the most compelling quotes from the early Fathers, including from Sts. Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian.

The reader is treated to a survey of the early Church for the first few hundred years and what she taught and why. It is all thoroughly Catholic of course, one of the primary motivators for me to enter full communion with the Church from Protestantism. Reading the Church Fathers at any depth convinces you that the Catholic Church has a much more plausible claim to be true than does any form of Protestantism.

Papandrea is matter of fact in his delivery. No polemics or vitriol toward non-Catholics, just straight facts and evidence from history and what the most fitting answer is to them: The Catholic Church.

Pick up Handed Down today and grow in your understanding of the early Church and appreciation of Catholicism!

The Blood of the Martyrs Is the Seed of the Church

I just read Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s new book To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness and give it my strong recommendation.

Cardinal Wuerl starts from the beginning of the Church and explores the martyrdoms that Catholics have endured down through our time.

Martyrs in Every Age

Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Cardinal Wuerl demonstrates the truth of that statement as he looks at the first martyrs in the early Church, including the Apostles, and how the Church grew from their witness.

tomartyrsHe moves forward in time to the various Roman persecutions, telling the story of what it was like to be a Christian during those times, how the Church grew from a tiny, insignificant thing into a powerful social, economic, and moral force in the Roman empire.

The Cardinal then heads into the 600s and did not hold back from describing the rise of Islam and its immediate persecution of Chrisitans:

Muhammad was astonishingly successful. He took many towns and oases, and he absorbed many tribes, sometimes through battles, but sometimes without any resistance at all. The key to many victories was the ferocity of Muhammad’s warriors, who had no fear of death. Indeed, they seemed to welcome it, as Muhammad had applied a traditional honorific term to his warriors who died in battle. It was a Christian term, martyr (shahid in Arabic), and it acquired a new meaning in the emerging religion known as Islam, whose followers were known as Muslims.

There is a key difference, however. The Christian martyrs laid down their own lives, but took no one else’s. The Arab warriors took many lives, including those of many Christians and Jews.

In the next chapter he jumps ahead to the Protestant Reformation and focuses on King Henry VIII. I was pleased to see here that he called out King Henry’s brutality, lust, and the grievous devastation he brought upon the Church, including countless martyrs, with Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher being the most well-known.

The Reformation paved the way for the Enlightenment, and Cardinal Wuerl describes the slaughter of Catholics during that time, including holy nuns and priests who brought the mobs to silence with their solemn, joyful witness to Christ even as they were being executed.

He then heads into the twentieth century–where more martyrs were made than in all the centuries prior–and discusses the reality of the Armenian Genocide by Islamic Turkey, the Mexican persecution and Cristero War, the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany, and Communist China.

But the blood shed has produced fruit already. For instance, in China:

In 1949 there were only one million Christians. Forty years of anti-religious communist rule produced some 1.2 million martyrs. The result: explosive church growth to today’s 90 million believers.”

Martyrdom Today

Cardinal Wuerl brings the reader up to the present day, and discusses the martyrdom in our age, where Islamists like ISIS make martyrs right before our eyes and upload the videos to YouTube.

And in our own country, persecution is rising. Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice here. To think that it can’t grow into something far worse ignores history, as Cardinal Wuerl points out:

And no land is safe from a sudden resurgence of persecution. Think about the bloodiest purges of the last century. Where did they take place? Catholic Spain. Orthodox Russia. Christian Germany. Christian Armenia. They began with small encroachments that grew greater over time.

To say “it can’t happen here” is to speak from profound naiveté and ignorance of history.

In January 2012, Pope Benedict XVI warned the United States bishops of a “radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres” in our land.

To conclude the book, Wuerl connects martyrdom–witness–with Jesus in the Eucharist:

As the Eucharist is a re-presentation of Jesus’ Passion, so is martyrdom. As the Eucharist is a voluntary self-offering, so is martyrdom. As the Eucharist brings about communion, so does the act of martyrdom. As the Eucharist is given so that others might live, so are the lives of the martyrs.

Having not read any books by Cardinal Wuerl before, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was impressed by this book. It was an excellent survey of Church history and how men and women gave their lives for Christ. They didn’t go looking for death, but when it came for them, they were ready. May we be so as well!

So go check out To the Martyrs and grow strong through the example and prayers of these great saints!