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From Porn to Purity

6:00:00 AMCatherine Yanko

When the modern person thinks of purity, some of the images that first come to mind are the medieval chastity belt and monks/nuns: all things that are neither applicable nor relevant to living out sexuality in today’s secular culture. The pornography industry is an international market of $97 billion and quickly growing. There seems to be no place for purity in a culture that spends so much time and money on something that is antithetical to purity itself. Modern man, myself often included, is left wondering is purity is an endeavor worth, or even possible, fighting for?


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Is the modern notion of purity as described above a correct definition? According to Dietrich von Hildebrand in “In Defense of Purity: An Analysis of the Catholic Ideals of Purity and Virginity”, it is not. Purity is not a sort of insensibility to sex. Hildebrand says that insensibility would actually be detrimental to the flourishing of virtue. Insensibility is a mere temperament; no virtue can arise out of a mere temperament since a virtue requires a habit. A virtuous habit consists in responding to a value, so it is clear that a disposition that does not even recognize a value cannot be grounds for a virtue. Likewise, purity is not synonymous with chastity. While chastity exclusively concerns sex, purity is a more general response to value. But, human purity does imply and demand chastity.
So, what does it mean to be pure? Hildebrand says, “Purity consists… primarily in an abiding in God’s presence and a surrender to the glory of His countenance.” (47). The habit of this virtue is in a constant surrender to the presence of God. Hildebrand also says, “The pure man remains a vessel in which the light which flows forth from God can unfold without obstruction” (42). The pure man is characterized as simple, sincere, humble, and reverent. This is seen in his attitude towards all of God’s creation, not exclusively sex.


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With this new definition of purity, which dismisses insensibility and merely chastity, it is easy to wonder what purity has to do with the problem of pornography. After all, what help can a virtue that is concerned with the unity of God and man be to an atheistic world? The way the pure man perceives and acts regarding sex drastically differs from that of the impure man. With pornography, the impurity is manifested as using sex solely for its own sake. This is isolated from the notion of the beloved. On the other hand, “The pure man perceives the mystery of sex. He perceives its depth, its seriousness, its intimacy” (40). Would an industry like the pornography industry exist if we discovered that our bodies have beauty, that is intrinsic value, and are meant for relation and not isolated feelings? With pornography, the sexual act and beauty of the human body itself is distorted from God’s plan. Whereas, “The pure man always lives in an attitude of reverence for God and His creation, and therefore reveres sex, its profundity and its sublime and divinely ordained meaning” (40).

Realizing both the meaning and great value of purity and the danger of pornography to our humanity and understanding the fact we live in a pornographic culture, it is worth wondering, to return to the original question, how one can restore purity. First, it is important to realize that purity, like all other virtues, is a product of the spirit. Thus, it requires a supernatural foundation (48). Union with God is this supernatural foundation that builds the will of the human spirit into habits (53). The beginning of this supernatural foundation for virtue is contact with the source Himself. Thankfully, God, being perfect beauty, allows us to encounter Him, specifically in beauty. It is by responding to this beauty that virtue can begin to be acquired (of course with the aid of grace).

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So, where do we turn now? Previously, I have discussed the way the beauty of nature allowed me to acquire the virtue of reverence. Nature is a great source of beauty because of its origin clearly being in the creator. For what man can craft a living mountain? Another way we can encounter beauty is in art. Hildebrand says that there are in fact works of the heart that seem to open the heavens to us, and they are opposite to all that is paltry and impure. These works can be purifying.
“Not only is it [sublime works of art] pure in itself like the Beauty of which it is the reflection; it is also specifically purifying, and contributes more than almost any other agent to free the heart from the intoxicating poison of sex isolated as its own end. It raises a man above this sphere, touches and expands the soul, arouses a longing for its heavenly home, emancipates it and guides it into the deepest region of its own interior, and enkindles in our heart a burning desire for God, the everlasting Beauty, and Jesus, ‘fairest of the sons of men’.” (56)

Discovering a lost idea of purity, I still wonder what the effect would be for a culture that turned from what is pornographic to striving towards purity. How tremendous the effects would be! At any rate, the fight for purity is always possible as God continually makes himself known to us by beauty. In beauty, we can have hope, even in this pornographic world.

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