The Catholic Thing
The Seven Deadly Sins, Revisited: Lust Print E-mail
By Mary Eberstadt   
Monday, 22 December 2008

With Christmas around the corner, dear readers, this month’s Deadly Sin packs a little extra frisson for that Catholic Thing stocking. Say what you like about Anger, Sloth, Envy, and the rest of the low-tech capital vices: they’re not really what most of us first reach for in that Deadly Sin grab bag. No, we all know who’s the real preening diva among these serpents, just whose big topaz eyes paralyze us fastest. Let’s face it: Lust is everyone’s secret favorite Deadly Sin, the “it” vice of the capital list.

Why so? In part, because our sexually toxic time won’t have it otherwise. Even believers can’t help but imbibe the signature lies of our age sometimes – including the lie that disordered sexuality, Lust in and of itself, is something we all need to feel fully alive. “I lust, therefore I am” is obviously the cogito ergo sum of our time.

Lust also wins the Deadly Sin popularity contest for another reason. As even co-founder Rufus Griscom has said – to the uninitiated, his is a pioneering online magazine second to none in its cheerleading for copulation (including with animals) – “the taboos are what make sex interesting.” Quite right. Despite all the feverish public attempts to de-stigmatize it, here is one Deadly Sin still performed furtively, in the dark, in “private.” This includes even the travesty of privacy, like a flickering blue screen in the family room late at night.

In fact, exactly because it may still be the one sin easiest to recognize as sin these days, Lust is also a capital vice about which we modern men and women, including Catholics, routinely deceive ourselves. Isn’t it true, we ask under a worldly, arched brow, that Dante only assigned Lust to the Second Circle, thus suggestively putting it farther from Satan than any other? That priests often tut-tut, both to us and to themselves, that sexual sins are the least serious of all? Or that the sin of Pride, especially, is universally judged by theologians to be worse?

Maximizing the supposed gains, minimizing the real losses – the self-deception characteristic of chronic gamblers is also commonplace with Lust.

The news – and as it happens, there is some real news about all this – is that this sophisticated game of dumbing down the costs of Lust has left many people disarmed at what may be the worst possible time. Such was the plain meaning of a conference at Princeton last weekend on “The Social Costs of Pornography.” The Witherspoon Institute and two other groups organized a gathering that for once truly deserves the adjective “groundbreaking” – an unprecedented assortment of psychiatrists, psychologists, authors, scientists, and professors of sociology, psychology, law, and philosophy, summoned from around the nation to tally up and explain, in particular, the human toll of internet pornography.

Just for starters, another outstanding lie of our time – that pornography itself is a victimless, harmless pursuit – has been definitively laid to rest by these researchers. In an age of so many fake victims, they offered a torrent of data about real ones. Lawyers reported that a growing percentage of divorces now come from pornography addiction. Therapists reported that frustrated wives and girlfriends gave the ultimatum, “it’s your porn or me,” only to have husbands and boyfriends choose the former – with family trauma and breakup the entirely predictable results. All this is to say nothing of the children and adolescents dragooned into the “industry” via drugs, prostitution, and rape; or of the many other children and adolescents who have been inadvertently or deliberately exposed to internet pornography as their first template, with consequences that even the most jaded psychologists and related practitioners cannot yet imagine.

And those are just some obvious casualties. Clinicians also spoke of patients progressing rapidly from itinerant use of “soft-core” pornography to compulsive forages for images of “hard-core” child rape, bestiality, and other violence.

Similarly, debilitating fetishes in adolescents just a few years removed from childhood are now darkening psychiatry’s doorstep. Then there are the men who finally consent to therapy because they are losing their jobs, unable to break the serpent’s gaze even for the length of one workday. Meanwhile, experts also reported, there are others who discover too late one perfectly perverse result of this technologically novel tornado of addiction: it leaves at least some habitual users incapable of desiring a real human being. Period.

It really is ironic, in a nauseating sort of way, that so many sophisticated people have labored so hard, for so long, to convince us that any truly loving God could not possibly send people to hell for Lust. It’s ironic because – as internet pornography addiction shows – there are times when He apparently needn’t lift a finger to send anybody anywhere. As a couple of former addicts testified at the Princeton conference: who needs marching orders for the next world when you’re glued and frozen, incognizant and indifferent to anything and anyone else, right here in this one? These men think they are in Hell already.

None of this would have surprised Dante, who stuck Francesca, Paolo, and other conniving victims of Lust into an imaginary world that has jolted readers ever since: a permanent whirlwind of images in which naked, powerless bodies contort eternally but never really touch. Seven hundred years later, the very word “lust” is guaranteed to provoke a condescending, knowing smile from people who think the stigma once attached to that word no more exists than Santa does. But it has all proven hellishly true.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, consulting editor to Policy Review, and a contributor to The Catholic Thing. The last column in this series can be found here.

(c) 2008 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

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Comments (12)Add Comment
Covenant Eyes Blogger
written by Luke, December 22, 2008
Pornography has huge social costs for sure. Former porn actress, Shelley Lubben, wrote some interesting post for my blog about this very issue.
Thanks for truth
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., December 22, 2008
Encore! Our world needs more of this truth about what is essentially the making of other humans into objects, hence being the very opposite of love. Those who speak the truth are called neurotics and hyypocrites by those who bray that greed and racism are more grave than lust. Few are tempted to build huge, polluting factories, pay slave wages, and exclude minorities, but many are tempted to do what breaks up famllies, robs innocence, frustrates true love, and mocks God's gifts!
written by Lee, December 22, 2008
As long we hyper-sexualize our young with pornography, there will be plenty of illicit sex, unwanted pregnancies and abortions. But entry level pornography pours into practically every Catholic home through TV, the press and mainstream internet. Our kids are as secularized as everyone else's. And the Church is where on this? Silent, mesmerized, impotent. NOWHERE. In other words, we , the Catholic people, are overwhelmingly pro-abortion in effect, official positions notwithstanding.
written by Joe Shipman, December 22, 2008
Porn addicts are in the grip of the sin of lust, as habitual drunkards are guilty of a form of gluttony, and compulsive gamblers a kind of avarice. In the case of drinking and gambling, we recognize that it is possible to engage in these activities in a non-sinful, non-abusive way. Is the same true for the activity of appreciating the opposite sex? In watching an othewise morally unobjectionable movie in which the beauty of the leading lady inspires great pleasure, is the viewer guilty of lust?
written by R Hampton, December 23, 2008
Too many divorces are caused by alcohol, and too many traffic deaths as well. But making alcohol illegal - the Eighteenth Amendment - made society much, much worse. Keep that in mind, please
written by a woman's view, December 23, 2008
i noticed how all the comments thus far are men. Hum. my view in response to several of them: Hampton-what???no one can "out law lust." Duh. it's in you tucked between your inherited Adam privates: Pride & Self. Hey all of you-emerse your minds in JP2's Theology of the Body. THAT IS TODAY'S CATHOLIC RESPONSE. the Church has NEVER been silent & the world has NEVER been pure, a great place to raise innocent kids. That's why HE came to save us, that's why we have Mercy, Grace & MUST teach our child
Porn and the Church
written by RAMZPAUL, December 24, 2008
Interesting how the church always blames men and yet never looks at women’s role in pornography. I agree that a husband has the responsibility to avoid looking at porn. But does not the wife also have a responsibility to remain attractive and sexually responsive towards her husband?

written by Sebastian Flyte, December 24, 2008
90% of divorces are initiated by women. The problem is not men. The problem is women. Women are the choosers, they decide everything. You're missing the forest for the trees. The 1960s freed female sexuality, returning humanity to an elephant-seal style mating dynamic whereby a minority of alpha males hog a majority of the women. And women like this. Beta males turn to porn because of women.
written by Militia Christi, December 24, 2008
Men, this is the weakness of your gender, created from the fall. Don't relinquish your control by downplaying your responsiblity through labels like addiction or vice. The devil targets you because you are the Head of the Family, just as Christ is the Head of the Church. You can change our culture only by admitting and accepting your own sinfullness and seeking virtue. We must all look inward at ourselves and ask "what am I doing wrong?" in order to solve this. Holy Mary Mater Dei, Pray for Us.
written by John richardson, December 25, 2008
Well said Thomas C. Coleman.
However, I feel Sebastian Flyte has touched upon something disturbing but important. If we concede that women are the 'gatekeepers' of human sexual activity in free ( and post ? Christian ) society, then an unfettered 'female sexual dynamic' has resulted in a Porn deluge.Contraception and even abortion.The opposite of what was intended,,just like every revolution.Tough but true.
Social moral entropy is accelerating.We all know this

I would be interested in a
written by Andre, January 15, 2009
Interesting peice that, I believe, speaks to the demonic nature of pornography. However, it would have been nice had it included some words of hope. For there is hope... always. As a 37 year-old married father of two who has expereinced the pain of "sex addiction" (starting with pornographic magazines in my youth and ultimately leading to a very destrucitve habit of regularly using prostitiutes by my early thirties). I experienced a profound grace and I now live free of the madness.
written by Patricia, April 09, 2009
I LOVE Mary Ebderstadt. As a Catholic university student (not in a Catholic university), reading her writing keeps me sane! I really needed to hear lust is still a sin (B.F Skinner, Freud and professors would not be pleased...)

To me the article brought to mind the wise words of JPII on sin and hell. Sin distances us from God. JPII defined hell AS distance from God. Can we extend this further to say that hell is also distance from other humans? The sin of lust is an excellent case in point.

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