These same people extol the virtue of chastity and decry the prevalence of pornography; and yet they seem to see it as little more than harmless fun for a man to fill his brain with images of the provocatively dressed, provocatively posed, unrealistically perfect women who grace the pages of the swimsuit issue.
So what’s wrong with it?
The best place to start here is probably with the words of Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, any man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:27-28).
Can you see where there would be a little conflict here?
“Adultery in the heart.” Christ’s message is simple. Even sexual thoughts are reserved for marriage. That’s how serious Christ is, and the Church is, and we should be, about chastity. It’s not just about what we do. It’s about what goes on in our brains. Sex speaks a language. It speaks the language of “I give myself to you forever, in marriage.” And every time we take deliberate sexual stimulation out of that context, it’s a sin against chastity. Even if it’s just in our imagination. Even if we never actually do anything about it. It’s still a sin.
Does that mean we’re sinning every time we’re sexually attracted to someone? Or every time sexual thoughts pop into our brains uninvited? No. Lust is when the will gets involved. It’s when our brains say “Hey, cool sexual thought. I’m gonna think about it some more.” That’s the sin. Choosing to fantasize. Choosing to pursue or encourage sexual stimulation. Choosing to pick up a magazine, knowing what the result will be.
“How come? I’m not hurting anybody just by my thoughts?” Doesn’t matter. It’s hurting you. It’s conditioning you to use, to see the opposite sex as means to an end. It’s degrading women, and degrading sexuality, in your brain. And thus, it’s degrading you. It’s destroying your ability to love – to put aside your selfish desires for the sake of what’s best for another human person. And it’s going to make it much more difficult, next time you’re in a tempting situation, to do the right thing.
Christ is saying that we’re called to rise above our selfishness, above those parts of ourselves which would use other people just to satisfy our own needs. We’re called to see others as He sees them – as precious human persons, worthy of dignity. And that needs to happen, not just in our actions, but in our thoughts as well.
That isn’t happening in the average perusal of the swimsuit issue.
Why do men “read” it? (I use the term “read” loosely.) Note the descriptions above. “Provocatively” dressed. “Provocatively” posed. What are they trying to provoke? Sexual response. That’s why the magazine is published, and purchased. Maybe it’s a springboard for fantasy. Maybe it will lead to other, solitary sexual acts we’ve discussed before. Maybe it won’t. But regardless, it’s a sin against chastity. Living chastely is difficult enough without adding that kind of fuel to the “fire.”
In our culture, magazines like the swimsuit issue aren’t considered pornography, so it’s easier to rationalize “reading” them. But make no mistake. This is pornography. It’s displaying and accentuating the sexual aspects of the body, with the intent of arousing the reader. That, by definition, is pornography. And the Church’s teaching on pornography is clear. “It does grave injury to the dignity of the participants (actors, vendors, the public) . . . It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense” (CCC 2354).
It’s interesting to read the passage in Matthew immediately following Christ’s lust quote. The very next thing He says is “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Mt 5:29). Gouge out your eye? Not literally. (In fact, one of the Church Fathers, a guy named Origen, missed out on sainthood by taking this particular scripture a little too literally. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which body part was “gouged.”) But, as we enter into the season of Lent, it is important to take a fresh look at Christ’s words.
We like to “flirt” with sin. We like to see how much we can get away with, how close we can get to the edge. We like to see how much sin we can leave in our lives without completely eliminating Christ.
Lent is about turning away from sin and running wholeheartedly to God. If we’re serious about following Christ, we don’t ask, “How much sin can I get away with?” We’re ruthless. We throw out everything that gets in the way of our relationship with Him. We steer clear of everything that tempts us. We even give up legitimate pleasures, to train ourselves to put our love for Him over physical comfort.
So if you’re serious about following Christ, act serious. Stop playing games with God. Let go of everything that holds you back. Throw out the magazines.
(You may visit Mary Beth Bonacci's website at www.reallove.net.)