Not guilty? Bad spiritual advice still hurts you.
One of the worst things we can do in life is to persistently ignore voices that are spiritually challenging. The flip side of the same error is that spiritual advisors do serious harm whenever they fail to emphasize the reality of sin and the necessity for conversion and hard-fought progress in the battle against vice. Both sides of this problem are endemic today, especially when it comes to the wide range of possible sexual sins.
We encounter many people who either ignore entirely the need to work on the virtue of purity or who have gotten no farther than Augustine before he became Saint Augustine: “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.” Worse still, we find many “spiritual guides”—including priests, deacons, religious and Catholic laity—who claim that any sexual relationship is just fine as long as it isn’t “selfish”, as long as it is accompanied by a genuine concern for the well-being of the other person (assuming, of course, that there even is another person). Yet the reality is this: A selfless care for the good of another is impossible without (a) the virtue of purity operative in that relationship; and (b) the constant exercise of the chastity coherent with one’s state in life.
Sin, rationalization and bad advice
Different sins have different objects, of course, though they inhere in the same subject (ourselves). Thus the seven deadly sins—pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth—always withdraw some aspect of the good to satisfy an inordinate desire, a desire which blinds us not only to the nature of the good, but to our own good, and to the good of others. Such disordered desires lead directly to rationalization, by which we try to make evil seem good by deceiving ourselves as to our own motives or the consequences for ourselves and others. Moreover, when spiritual advisors are themselves captive to these vices, it creates an interior conflict concerning the advice they give to others.
Sometimes the form this takes can be a form of repression. For example, it is not unknown for gay priests to become punctilious about every other aspect of their priesthood as a kind of compensation. But far more often, spiritual advice is rather openly conditioned by the sins of the dominant culture. In the upper classes of any society, of course, pride and greed become ways of life for many by the very assumption that they have a superior nature that is due special respect, wealth and comfort. This was all but built-in to the notion of having “noble” blood, but similar notions of meritocracy are rampant today. There remains at every level a typical human concern for status, and a constant checking of the “status meter” is one of many conditions that can lead to wrath or envy—especially when a fundamental insecurity is at work. We are all prone to such sins no matter our social or material positions, and we may give evidence of various forms of gluttony and sloth no matter who we are or where we live.
Still, as in many other places and times, the rationalization of impurity in the face of sexual temptation is a hallmark of life today. It is our primary cultural battleground. The sexual passions have been set free by the pride of modern secular achievement and a corresponding closing of our cultural ears to God. It has been true in every era that some bishops and priests have been infected with the sins of the predominant culture from which they were drawn, and that is still true today. So the area in which lay persons are most likely to be misguided, especially by the arbiters of the moral law in the Catholic professorial class, is sexuality. That is why there are student groups devoted to tearing down Catholic faith and morals in sexual matters at many Catholic universities—which, of course, cater precisely to an age group for which the pressure in such matters is both unstable and acute.
Consequences of faulty direction
Nothing divides a man from himself, or witnesses as fully to a genuine personal depravity, as the perversion of our sexual faculties. It is just here that a truly noble integrity is supplanted by irrational drives which undermine personal wholeness, marriage, family, and all of human society. We cannot be unaware of a long series of perversions which distort our nature in imitation of the rebellion of Satan himself against God. This explains why so many pagan societies have devolved into both homosexuality and human sacrifice. It is precisely through the powerful natural drives that lead to marriage, family and a coherent society that the human person is most easily set against his Creator. There is no other disharmony as wretched and pervasive as this.
This goes a long way toward explaining why faulty spiritual advice is so much more common when it comes to the sexual issues—among which we can number not only masturbation, fornication, adultery, contraception, abortion, divorce, child abuse, homosexuality and every other non-marital abuse of sex, but now also gender change and gender ideology itself. How the demons must laugh at such a wholesale destruction of the fundamental integrity of the human person as created by Love Himself! And it is precisely this stripping of integrity—this personal disintegration—which is spurred by faulty spiritual advice. To give but one example, the number of homosexual men and women who have sought priestly advice and been told they may continue in homosexual relationships is legion.
I return to this topic now because I had written in my previous two-part series on conscience and COVID that “if a lay person is sincerely led astray by unfaithful religious, priests or bishops—each of whom, in some measure, claims to be a kind of officially trained representative of the Church—it is not the lay person who is going to suffer for it” (Following your conscience? 1. Not a blank check). But this can easily be misunderstood. It is true only in the sense that God’s eternal punishment will not fall upon a person who sincerely attempts to form his conscience but is led astray by a representative of the Church. It is not at all true in the sense that the person in question would not have been better off had he or she received the proper advice and formation.
The opportunity for spiritual growth is reduced by faulty spiritual counsel even when there is no fault in the one receiving that counsel. And spiritual growth is the key to growth in personal integrity. By integrity I don’t mean mere righteousness, for integrity is the result of the unified, harmonious development of the whole person. Many things can disrupt or undermine this integrity, including bodily disease and psychological imbalances, but growth in integrity is achieved by the gradual perfection of one’s “personality”—that is, in effect, all of one’s virtues—through habitual growth in knowledge of the good, self-knowledge, and self-control, taking due advantage of both sincere effort and God’s grace.
When a Catholic receives faulty spiritual advice—especially spiritual counsel by representatives of the Church which actually goes against the teachings of the Church—personal integrity is undermined.
A significant loss
What does it mean to undermine the “integrity” of a person? Faulty spiritual advice weakens our understanding of God, of our own human nature, and of virtue. As a direct consequence, it undermines personal growth, both purely human growth and growth in grace. While even the best-formed persons can, of course, be subject to physical, psychological and spiritual problems, it remains true that such problems are vastly increased by a lack of integrity. There is a very close connection between spiritual wholeness and psychological stability, and many physical ailments can be triggered by what we might call, for want of a better term, psycho-spiritual imbalance.
To put it simply, a person’s spiritual growth is undermined by bad spiritual advice, especially when it falsifies Divine Revelation and the teachings of the Catholic Church. This may even harden a person in serious sins that would carry heavy guilt if chosen with full understanding. It unquestionably reduces the accuracy of the person’s perception of reality. It is also necessary to emphasize that while the guilt attributable to sin is conditioned by knowledge of the evil and consent to it by the will, the evil done through the sin to others is not lessened, nor are its disordering consequences for the sinner eliminated.
In other words, the difference between good spiritual advice and bad spiritual advice, when either is followed, is a difference not only in the rate of spiritual growth and growth in personal integrity in the deepest sense of the term, but a difference in our authentic engagement with reality, and also a difference in our spiritual, emotional, psychological and even sometimes physical well-being. Sadly, I doubt we have even begun to plumb the depths of the value of authentic Catholic spiritual guidance and growth to every facet of what it means to be human. And I know we have not plumbed the depths of a suitable outrage against blind guides.
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