Affair of the Mind

I am re-posting this 2013 piece because in the last two weeks I caught news of three different men who are porn addicts, each of whom are connected to people I know. One lost his wife and children because of it and is still addicted. Another is married and hides it from his wife. The third is a single man who lives in a cycle of shame and dependency.

Taken from

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials. — CCC #2354

I spoke with a woman recently whose husband had indulged in pornography for several years of their marriage. She gave me permission to share the general lines of her story.

It was crushing to listen to the pain she suffered.

What stood out most to me as she recounted its disastrous effects on their marriage was this point she made:

What suffered in me most was my sense of personal worth and dignity. I felt demeaned and betrayed … The greatest harm was the near total erosion of trust and the terrible feeling of always being insecure and worthless. I was clearly not enough for him … Having accidentally happened on some of the filth he’d been viewing on his laptop gave me a shocking awareness of just how vile and repulsive the images and sounds were. So then I knew this was what was in his mind every time he looked at me. Once I discovered it, his every gesture toward physical intimacy with me made me physically nauseous. Once I vomited. When you expose your body to your husband, it’s an act of trust. You believe it will be received and looked at with love.

Eventually her husband got help in a 12-step sex-addict program. She forgave him. He has worked mightily, she said, to rebuilt trust and their marriage has been renewed. She said they practiced abstinence after his recovery for many months before she felt ready for any physical imtimacy, and his willingess to wait and still be affectionate and gentle proved to her he again loved her with the honor due.

I could not stop thinking about it over the next several days. I collected various thoughts in my journal. Here are some:

In a Christian culture men are gentlemen, careful to honor the dignity of each woman and promote her feminine genius. JP2 says that every man is called to be a new St. Joseph, “to be a protector of every woman’s honor and dignity.” Men must honor every woman because their dignity is inalienable, infinite, and every woman is held in supreme honor in the mind and heart of God.

The statistics show that a staggaring percentage of men, and growing percentage of women, consume pornography regularly. By 2017, a quarter of a billion people are expected to be accessing mobile adult content from their phones or tablets, an increase of more than 30% from 2013. Porn use breeds isolation and self-absorbtion, trivializes and degrades the sexual act, crushing underfoot its beauty as a covenant sign. It rewires the brain with an addict’s neuro-grid and enslaves the imagination. As theologian David Hart says well:

The damage that pornography can do — to minds or cultures — is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate.

I once wrote an email to an acquaintance, a Catholic married man who struggled with porn addiction. I remember agonizing over how to respond to his honest and tortured confession. Among other things, I wrote:

God loved your wife before you ever did, and He loves from all eternity each and every one of those women who are exploited in porn. High price for a cheap thrill. God loves them far more than you or I ever could, and will judge us one day on how we handled these pearls of great price, i.e. His daughters.

Along with links to resources for overcoming addiction, I included in the email Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam. Under the picture, I wrote:

Note who’s held tight under the arm of God as he creates Adam. It’s the woman, Eve, whom God has not yet drawn from Adam’s side and entrusted to Him as His gift and image. She is still God’s dream awaiting creation … Pope John Paul II has a powerful comment in a letter he wrote on the dignity of women (Mulieris dignitatem) to this effect: “The dignity and the vocation of women find their eternal source in the heart of God. Consequently each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity has not become in his heart an object of adultery; to see whether she who, in different ways, is the co-subject of his existence in the world, has not become for him an ‘object’ — an object of pleasure, of exploitation. Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.” In invite you, my friend, to join the protest.

Sub specie aeternitatis — under the light of eternity — one sees everything differently.

Porn culture calls for the evangelization of imagination, which means the purification of imagination — not merely by a renunciation of pornography’s graven images, but by an encounter with icons that uncover the true dignity and beauty of the human body that was created to glorify God.

Christian gentlemen stand on the front lines of the New Evangelization. Let God’s chivalrous revolution, once conceived in the eternity of a Father’s heart, begin in time. Now. In you.

Forget about me, I love you.

“Resurrection,” Piero della Francesca (1422-1492).

Easter Monday. Second day of the Octave, i.e. the eight days of the Eighth Day. The day God laughed, as my wife loves to say. Bright Monday, as they call it in the East.

I want to offer a simple insight today, which encapsulates the entire purpose of God’s saving economy that crescendos in the Resurrection of Christ: to restore the human family to a community of love. The family is the privileged locus where humanity learns the contours of a civilization built on love. In the words of St. John Paul II:

The family is the first and fundamental school of social living: as a community of love, it finds in self-giving the law that guides it and makes it grow. The self- giving that inspires the love of husband and wife for each other is the model and norm for the self-giving that must be practiced in the relationships between brothers and sisters and the different generations living together in the family. And the communion and sharing that are part of everyday life in the home at times of joy and at times of difficulty are the most concrete and effective pedagogy for the active, responsible and fruitful inclusion of the children in the wider horizon of society.

To make this point with a touch of oomph, let me share with you the second video I made of Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR back in Lent. I asked him to offer a message for my children, and this is what he came up with. Short and sweet ( note the family acronym, and my bumbling enthusiasm):

A linguistic Lent

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. – Matthew 12:36-37

My spiritual director once advised me to attend to my use of words during Lent. I was to reflect at the end of each day how I had used my words either to reveal or conceal God. I was also to pray each morning asking God to use my words to good effect throughout the day. He cited Pythagoras’ famous saying: “Be silent, or say something better than silence,” saying this was a good rule to live by. He gave me four pithy Scriptural texts for evaluating my speech:

Matthew 5:37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Ephesians 4:29: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”

James 3:1: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”

Luke 12:2-3: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”

The first quote was to remind me to avoid deception and duplicity, and practice truthful sincerity. The second counseled me to use my words for building others up and conveying grace. The third placed in stark relief my high calling as a teacher who will have to give an account on the Day of Judgment for how I used my influence and walked my talk. The fourth is about the radically public nature of all words and deeds. Sirach 23:18-19 makes a similar point:

The man who dishonors his marriage bed
says to himself, “Who can see me?
Darkness surrounds me, walls hide me,
no one sees me. Who can stop me from sinning?”
He is not mindful of the Most High,
fearing only human eyes.
He does not realize that the eyes of the Lord,
ten thousand times brighter than the sun,
observe every step taken
and peer into hidden corners.

When I spent time on that last quote from St. Luke’s Gospel throughout Lent, it gave me a radically new vantage on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Here’s what I wrote:

When I reveal my secret sins to another human being, one who mystically represents Christ, I anticipate right now the all-disclosing nature of the Final Judgment in the world to come when all will be known to all. Orthodox theologian Fr. Tom Hopko said it this way: “Confession is a Sacrament of the Age to Come, when even the secrets of the heart will be revealed to the whole of creation. Which is why it demands brutal honesty. I say to those who confess: get it all out now and expose it to the mercy of God, who will swallow up all your perverse words and deeds in forgetfulness.” Over the years, I have become increasingly aware that every word I speak echoes on into eternity. I often think that each and every one of my words will become a song in His presence: either a hymn of blessing or a dirge of cursing.

Scripture scholar N.T. Wright says that humanity, made in the divine image, is given the vocation of making audible and visible God’s “countenance” toward the world. All living and non-living creatures are meant to encounter in us God’s provident oikonomia, i.e. the manner in which He tends to this vast cosmic garden He has established. Human beings alone of all creatures are made to be priests, mediators between creatures and the Creator; and by the Incarnation, Christ has brought that vocation to perfection. We have been gifted with the singular power of giving voice to God’s Word of blessing toward creation and, in turn, the power to bless, praise and thank the Creator on behalf of all creation. This is why Jesus says, “on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” Being made in the image of a Speaking God means no word is a throwaway word.

So let’s get to it. By our words, at every moment, let’s become the eloquence of God.

Co-hosting “In the Heartland”


Bishop Pates, Cardinal Arinze and myself after the show. Photo by Lisa Bourne


Nicholas and Dad in 2009. Photo by Lisa Bourne

When I lived in Iowa, I served for three years as a co-host on a weekly radio show with Bishop Richard Pates which was aptly called, “In the Heartland with Bishop Pates.” The show was a real growing experience for me. I had zero interest in being a co-host when the Bishop asked me, but was grateful for the opportunity.

There were some embarrasing moments and some euphoric moments. Among the high points were interviews with the late Francis Cardinal George, Francis Cardinal Arinze, JP2’s close friend Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, and the day when my son Nicholas came to co-host with me at the Iowa State Fair while Bishop was away. My most embarrasing moment was on our fourth show, when Bishop Pates spontaneously asked me to explain my doctoral dissertation to listeners. I was thrilled as I had defended only a few weeks before. As I began to describe the dissertation thesis, the Bishop began to make frantic hand gestures toward me. Later I would discover that he was attempting to tell me I was speaking too loudly. Because his animated gestures continued throughout my whole explanation, anyone listening would have wondered how I got a PhD.

One of my favorite shows was a 2012 interview we did with a friend of mine, Dr. Damon Cudihy, Ob/Gyn. His personal story is a stark witness to the real costs associated with accepting and carrying out his call to holiness as a Catholic layman striving for moral and professional excellence. He’s a personal hero of mine. And he’s got an amazing family.

I include here the first 15-minute segment of the show. Pray for him and his family. Here’s his private practice in Louisiana. Listen here:

“You should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15)

Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless. — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

One of my daughters loves to share with me “pay it forward” videos of people who are the beneficiaries of someone’s kindness and then go on to do someone else a good turn. She asked me if I remembered anyone in my past whose kindness inspired me to be kind. Of course, there are so many people I could name, but what immediately came to mind was a tutor I had in 7th grade — “Mr. Wallace.”

I had flunked out of 7th grade and had to repeat it at a different school. It was a dark time in my life, and I had really lost a sense of confidence in my ability to succeed. I hated school. I remember very well the first day I sat with him. He had curly brown hair and was wearing a kind smile on his face. He said, as I recall: “My job is to help you see how much you have to offer the world and show you that you’re much smarter than you think you are.” I remember this because I never expected it to come out of a teacher’s mouth and it seemed so outrageous. Offer the world? Smart? Week after week, month after month, year after year — for three years — we met and went over homework, reading skills, table manners, social skills, handling disappointment, and he often talked about my favorite subject at the time: weather. He was interested because I was. He planted a seed of confidence in me that grew, and I never forgot him. When I encountered Jesus Christ while I was in college, that seed exploded into a tree as my mind, for the first time, opened with a hunger for knowledge of everything.

Four years ago I decided to look him up. It took me weeks of detective work, but I found him. Married with kids and grandkids, living in Pennsylvania. I wrote him a letter to express my gratitude and share with him where I had gone in life. He wrote me back a simple response: “Tom, I am appreciative for your kindness in making the effort to tell me this. I vaguely remember you, but I’m old now. I am happy for your successes and am glad to know I played a small part. Those are the things make the hard times along the way meaningful.”

Who are your Mr. Wallaces?

Below are the videos my daughter, and a seminarian, shared with me that I found most inspiring.

Spirituality worthy of Christ

Nikoli Berdyaev.

“So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? It is his way of loving us, his way of being our neighbour, just as the Good Samaritan was neighbour to the man left half dead by the side of the road (cf. Lk 10:25ff ). What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of his love. Christ’s poverty which enriches us is his taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us. It has been said that the only real regret lies in not being a saint (L. Bloy); we could also say that there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.” — Pope Francis

“Spiritualty is in vogue these days. Everybody likes to say, ‘Oh, sorry, I’m spiritual but not religious.’ Well, sorry but you ain’t Christian. So much of what is called spirituality today is just dressed up egoism, focused on personal fulfillment and self-satisfaction, substituting spiritual pleasures for carnal ones. Oh, yes, we can talk about being really very self-aware, self-actualized, emptied of the ego, but it’s had without obeying the divine commandments and repenting 70 x 7 times to God and neighbor for our falls. It’s communing with a god of our own making. The holy Fathers say obedience to the commandments of God, war with the vices, submitting yourself to the demands of charity in God’s family, a church packed with smelly, stinky, unpleasant brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers you never woulda chose: this is spirituality. Real spirituality is obsessed not with ego-satisfaction, but it’s single-minded about God’s glory and the neighbor’s needs. The real test of real spirituality ain’t personal peace or contentment, it’s faithfulness in the blackest darkness, love without reciprocity, and joy in the monotony of daily duties. St. Maximus, who had his hand chopped off and his tongue cut out, said: ‘To harbor no envy, no anger, no resentment against an offender is still not to have charity for him. It is possible, without any charity, to avoid rendering evil for evil. But to render, spontaneously, good for evil — such belongs to a perfect spiritual love.’ That’s spirituality for the Christian. And St. James says that real religion means visiting orphans and widows (James 1:27).” — Fr. Tom Hopko

“Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.” – Nikoli Berdyaev

“The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear gathering mold in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.” ― St. Basil the Great

St. Basil the Great.

Salt of the earth

Recently I spoke with two people, not connected with each other in any way, who — funny enough — used the same phrase to describe their plight: “No good deed goes unpunished.” I found them both inspiring and asked each to give me permission to share their stories and thoughts.

The first person I spoke with was a dad who shared with me the difficulty he has faced over the years with imposing discipline on his youngest son — who is now an adult — who always had a mind of his own. The greatest challenge he faced, though, was not from his son but from the parents of his sons’ friends who, he said, don’t share his commitment to imposing consequences for unacceptable behavior. He told me that one time when his son’s grades in two classes had dropped to failures, he told the boy’s baseball coach to sit his son out from the next game. It was an important game, and the boy was a key player. The coach wholeheartedly agreed. But during the game the parents attending the game, after discovering the reason for the boy’s being benched, reamed the father out and told him his priorities were “all screwed up.” One of the parents yelled into his face, “I don’t give a shit what he does in geometry or biology! What’s that got to do with this game?” He said, “I calmly said back, ‘It means I’m teaching him about real life priorities.'” He went on to tell me,

I try not to get angry and judge these folks, but it seems so many parents these days give their kids seriously screwed up messages about life’s priorities and make their kids believe life owes them something. I say, if you teach your kids now that you have to do your part in life, work hard and accept the consequences for your poor decisions, later they will be ready to contribute as good citizens and good Christians. I wanted my son to think real hard about the effect his bad decisions had on his team before he’d go and blow off his schoolwork again. … These parents become slaves to their kids’ whims, and are afraid to say “no” to them. I’m glad my mom and dad were tough on me, but I couldn’t see it when I was young. Now I can see the dark alleys I would have gone down without their iron resolve. The hardest thing to do as a parent, I think, is to make tough decisions to save your kids from bad influences or steer them away from bad choices. It’s hard to have your kid say they hate you. Rather have them hate me now than hate me later. Like with me, I hope my son will see I was helping him learn now the hard lessons life will throw at him one day. Sometimes love means your kids hate you for a while, but that’s okay because it’s not about me. I’m a dad for my son’s benefit, not mine. We reap what we sow, and one day we’re gonna find ourselves with a country full of outta control takers, not givers and sacrificers who put family, country and others first. Look, these kids know exactly what’s going on, that their parents’ll take their side on almost anything and let ’em get away with anything. They eat it up. They’ll play it up to the nth degree. Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile. I’ve had a lot of hard jobs over the years, but being a parent’s the toughest job there is. But the best.

The pain in his eyes burned into me.

The second person I spoke with was a young lady — in her late 20’s — who shared with me her commitment to chastity in dating. In particular, she shared how that commitment had led, over the last several years, to her losing several relationships with guys who had shown serious long-term interest in her (and she in them). But all of them, when they finally realized that she is not willing to have sex before marriage, excused themselves in one way or another from the relationship. “Even with the churchgoing guys,” she said, “it seems next to impossible to find a man who thinks waiting is the way to go.” She added, “I tell these guys: ‘Seriously? That’s all you’re in this for?’ I told one of them, if you can’t give that up for me now, what won’t you be able to give up later? … It’d be totally nice to have some chivalry make a comeback. Yeah, I know, dream on. But I haven’t given up.”

For both of them, faith played a large role in giving them strength to carry on. The father mentioned his parish priest’s powerful preaching that helped him get through every week. “He preaches from the heart. I can relate to him. It’s like God’s talking directly to me. Gives me hope to keep going. He totally gets what we go through. He knows we got it tough. And he’s not phony. Not like some other priests — no offence intended — who seem to preach only into the clouds. I think the difference is he gets to know us and listens to us. So he gets us.”  The young woman said “clinging to prayer” was what kept her strong and hopeful. She said (as she shed tears), “I talk to Jesus all the time about this. I’m very honest. And He’s honest back. I don’t always like His answers, and I don’t think He always likes to hear what I have to say, either. But I always know He’s got my back. I always tell Him I’ve got a long list of questions for Him that I’ll ask when I see Him one day. I’m sure He’s got one for me, too.”

I want to kiss their feet. These people are the ones Jesus in Matthew 5:13 called the “salt of the earth.” Salt, in the ancient world, was not used principally for flavoring food but to keep it from rotting. So salty people keep culture from going rotten. That’s what Christians, clinging to Christ the Rock, are called to be.

It is often said nowadays that the present century thirsts for authenticity. Especially in regard to young people it is said that they have a horror of the artificial or false and that they are searching above all for truth and honesty. These “signs of the times” should find us vigilant. Either tacitly or aloud — but always forcefully — we are being asked: Do you really believe what you are proclaiming? Do you live what you believe? Do you really preach what you live? Our evangelizing zeal must spring from true holiness of life. — Blessed Paul VI