The Slavery of Sensualism
About four years ago, in a homily I gave, I shared the story of an anonymous man who, like so many, battled an addiction before finding freedom. In his own words:
I am a middle-aged father of two and have been married for over twenty years. Both of my kids attend Catholic school. I go to mass regularly with my family and am active in my parish. I have also volunteered in various organizations outside of my church. For all intensive purposes, I have always appeared to be living the life of a good Christian husband and father. However, I used to live a secret life which few of my friends or relatives were aware.
For sixteen years I struggled with a sensualism addiction. My addiction started when I discovered inappropriate pay movies at the hotels I stayed at while away from home. Eventually I started buying them from video stores close to home. As soon as we got the Internet at home, I was surfing for movies and images on a regular basis, usually when my family was gone or at night when they were asleep. During this time I made repeated attempts to stop viewing them, only to fall again and again. I was caught up in a true addictive cycle of acting out followed by periods of sobriety and then; eventually, succumbing again to temptation. I would tell myself, each time that this would be the last time, fooling myself into thinking I could control my desire. did not think I was addicted at first; moreover, I rationalized that it could be worse since I wasn’t having an affair.
I found myself keeping my addictive activities secret, only confessing if I was questioned directly. My addiction also affected my son who became aware of what I was doing. I had tried to be careful not to let either of my kids know what I was up to, but it was inevitable that they would stumble upon an undeleted file.
Eventually, I learned that I was powerless to control my addiction and had to rely on God to help me. I also realized that I needed face-to-face accountability from other addicts. After a lot of procrastination, I finally mustered the courage to attend support group meetings. It’s obvious to me that I was trying to fill the spiritual hole in my life through my addiction. Like so many stories in the bible, my sexual sin was separating me from God and keeping me from experiencing his grace. Fortunately, I had sense enough to realize that I needed to stop going through the motions with my faith & start developing a stronger spiritual life.
I know there are many other men and even women who struggle with addiction to sins of the flesh. Like myself, many are living respectable lives on the outside; while inwardly; they are trying to fight a battle that they cannot win alone. There is help if you are willing stop going through the motions of being a Christian and turn control of your life over to God.
His story is one of millions, and it’s nothing new. Though sensualist material is available anywhere, today we deal with technology that is in the hands of all along with phone cameras and computer cameras, but as long as people have existed there has been the temptations for sins of the flesh.
Saint Paul certainly was aware of the struggles people faced in his communities. In this week’s second reading from Galatians, he speaks of loving our neighbor, and that we are to live by the Spirit and “not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, these are opposed to each other.” Paul may have battled such struggles himself; in 2 Corinthians 12:7 he speaks of a “thorn” in his flesh that is a “messenger of Satan,” & this certainly could have been a chronic struggle with sins of the flesh like so many people deal with.
Sometimes we try to bury these things, but we can’t deny the impact that sensualism has on people. With respect to objectifying images of the body, 70% of boys have spent more than 30 consecutive minutes looking at this on at least one occasion, and 93% of boys and 62% of girls are exposed to this online before the age of 18.
What this does is change how the brain thinks and our relationships with others. A study of 2,343 13-20 years old found frequent exposure to bad material via the Internet caused teens to change their values, and be open to there being no commitment to a person needed. A study of 483 7th & 8th grade boys showed that the more they were exposed to explicit material, the more this resulted in harassment towards girls two years later.
With respect to the impact on women, Dr. Jill Manning, who is a family therapist who studies and works on this issue, points out that when this creeps in to marriage, instead of the traditional “other woman” (or, heaven forbid, women), the spouse of a user of explicit material is betrayed with hundreds, if not thousands, of fantasy images that invite her into thinking she doesn’t measure up. Additionally on younger women, when they see these images they may think they have to look or act a certain way to attract the attention of a man.
The bottom line is we are saturated with constant messages that separate the body from the soul, and it impacts all of us. It’s an endemic. So what can we do about it?
I think as a starting point, one has to keep in mind there is a degree of normalcy with temptation. Sometimes a person comes into confession and speaks of “impure thoughts” but it’s important to remember you cannot control thoughts anymore than you can control the weather. And try to not think about them you may find yourself thinking about them more; for some this can lead to scrupulosity. Unfortunately kids can learn this too, thinking repression is the answer to any “bad thought.” That’s certainly not healthy. We have to accept that images in our minds come and go, some we want to think about, others we don’t, but it’s best to treat them like passing clouds; you look up and see a cloud formation, but then the clouds quickly change.
Second, where sin enters the picture is when we put thoughts into action. A person starts going places they should not go to, or doing things they shouldn’t. When temptation comes, it’s best to have an action plan. Find a hobby you enjoy; go for a walk; do outdoor activities, & you may find the temptations go away.
Third, bring it to prayer and confession. Sometimes we think I can’t talk to God about this or that, as if He does not know what we battle. Opening up our hearts and asking for help, and thinking about our temptations when we go up for Communion can be very helpful. Developing a prayer life and coming to confession for strength when you struggle or fall is very helpful.
Fourth, remember there are degrees of sin. Sometimes people get hung up on sins of the flesh. But sins of the intellect are greater, meaning sins of the flesh often are committed when a person is stressed or under pressure or in moments of passion; sins of the intellect involve premeditating to hurt someone through violence or gossip or slander. So if battling these sins, know you are not alone.
Fifth, offer other people hope, not shame. These are sensitive things to talk about. Certainly if we are talking about an abusive situation, you need to contact authorities ASAP – no excuses. More often it is not abuse in the legal sense, but the things a person deals with such as a teenager or a friend they may be embarrassed about, not knowing how many people also deal with them. Talk through what they are battling and try not to judge; give them hope and encouragement.
Sixth, consider therapy. The website catholictherapists.com will link you to Catholic therapists in our area. Confession is helpful, but the priest is not a therapist and sometimes these are issues to look at more deeply.
Seventh, look into filters for your computer. Know what your kids look at online, and make sure certain websites aren’t accessible.
Eighth, consider a go to person who can help keep you accountable or offer to be that for another person if you know they are battling this. Again this is not about shaming or judging someone, but someone you can call when temptation is strong, or maybe be that person for someone you know who is battling this addiction.
Ninth, remember always a person is body and soul. Affirm this in young people, reminding them their body is created in God’s image. Try to see to the heart. And if married, remember you look at your spouse in a unique way, so sometimes in marriage if a person is tempted, it can help to keep a photo of your spouse and look at them to recall your marriage vows. If dating, set boundaries and try to make sure to always be respectful of the person.
If we want true freedom from sin, it takes work; it’s far easier to be enslaved. But with effort, reaching out to God and others, true freedom can be found.
God bless! ~Fr. Paul
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