My wife and I don’t watch
television. That’s neither an apology nor a boast but only a statement of fact.
We have no quarrel with people who do watch television. We just prefer doing
There is, however, an exception
to our no-television rule. My wife and I have a beach cottage that we rent, or
try to rent, when we aren’t using it during the summer, and we’ve learned that
cable television is indispensable to the contentment of renters who apparently
couldn’t pass even a week at the beach cut off from TV.
So it was that I found myself
recently engaged in the annual ritual of blocking the “adult” channels of our
newly reactivated cable system. I tell people I do this because I don’t want
that stuff to be available to children in my house, but the fact is I don’t
want it available to anybody. So I block the channels.
This time I observed something I
hadn’t noticed before. In its accompanying literature, the cable company, with
no visible sense of irony, lists these channels as part of what it calls a
package of family entertainment.
Family? Soft core pornography is
family entertainment? Maybe soif your family includes sex addicts with rather
I mention all this to make a
point. Offenses against chastity and the means of committing them are present
everywhere today and pretty much taken for granted. Even my cable television
company apparently sees nothing odd about offering adult channels for family
It isn’t just cable TV either.
You find the same phenomenon in supermarkets and on drugstore newsstands, in
movies and magazines, even in supposedly serious books. And Internet
pornography is said to have reached epic proportions.
There’s an obvious conclusion: it’s
harder than ever to sell chastityholy purity, if you’ll pardon the
old-fashioned name for itin a time and place like this.
But of course we need to try.
From the point of view of
classical ethics, the case for purity is grounded in the fact that it’s an
aspect of the cardinal virtue of temperance. But who cares about that anymore?
Say “temperance” to most people today and they’ll suppose you’re telling them
not to get drunk. Ideas like self-mastery and self-respect, as well as respect
for the dignity and rights of others, aren’t in the picture.
That underlines something Pope
Francis said not long ago: “In a world in which we speak a lot about rights,
how many times is human dignity in fact trampled?” Pretty often, it seems.
Still, in speaking of things like
human dignity and self-respect, the case for purity does begin to come into
focus. Holy puritychastity, that isis intimately linked to respect
for the dignity of the person. Where purity is absent, so is authentic respect
for human dignity and rights.
Once you say that, it sounds
fairly obvious. But if it’s obvious, how did we get to the point where a
self-evident truth is so widely ignored?
In a sense of course it began in
the Garden of Eden. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve before the fall lived in
a state of primal innocence in which purity was, as it were, taken for granted.
Only after the fall did lust, shame, and guilt arrive on the scene. Here is
part of the legacy of original sin we’ve all inherited. It explains why purity
is a problem for us now.
But you can’t just leave it at
that. In modern times, major figures in the breakdown, the collapse, which has
led to the eclipse of chastity include people like Rousseau, Freud, and Alfred
Now the heart of current
conventional wisdom about can be summed up in Oscar Wilde’s quip that the best
way to overcome temptation is to give in to it. That may have been funny when
Wilde said it, but it’s not so funny now when lots people seem to have made it
their rule of life. Where sexuality is concerned, it’s a formula for
exploitationthe exploitation of sex and the
exploitation of human persons.
This in a nutshell suggests what
might be called the human case for purity. There also is a case for purity from
the perspective of asceticism and the interior life.
In assembling the points that
make up his popular little book The Way,
Saint Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, put the section on purity
near the start. This wasn’t because it’s the most important virtue but because
without having it, or at least struggling to have it, an individual can’t make
any progress in the spiritual life.
He put it like this:
We know full
well that theological charity is the highest virtue. But chastity is a means sine qua non…if we are to establish an
intimate dialogue with God. When people do not keep to it, when they give up
the fight, they end up becoming blind. (“For They Shall See God,” Friends of God, 175).
God’s grace obviously is
essential to acquiring and retaining this virtue. But something also is
required on our part. Two things, in factprayer and mortification, the habit and practice of self-denial.
In saying these thing, I’m probably
preaching to the choiraddressing people who are already
well-versed in the practice of purity. In which case, allow me to add one other
thought: For such people, the special apostolic
task of the present moment lies in motivating others, especially young
people, to do the same.
Admittedly, that’s more easily
said than done. It calls for striking a balance, between speaking up bravely
and without apology when speaking up is called for, and not being overbearing
or sounding like a prude. Here the relevant virtue is prudenceand the only real rule of
prudence is the rule of good sense.
Let me close, though, with
something else from Saint Josemaria:
teachers are afraid of getting to the bottom of things….They get uneasy at the
very idea, never mind the obligation, of having to use a painful antidote when
circumstances require it….
the people who will afterwards panic, at the sight of disaster, and try to stop
the evil when it is already too late. They forget that the virtue of prudence
demands that we find out and pass on in
good time that calm advice that comes from maturity, long experience,
unhindered vision, and unhampered speech. (“Open to God and Men,” Friends of God, 158)
Especially, one might add, that
we do that in times like these and on the subject of purity. We are fighting a
powerful and entrenched enemy, but respect for human dignity, self-respect, and
the love of God require that the fight be made.
And by the wayif you do choose to watch
television, please use discretion.