Catholics throughout the world have often taken the lead in opposing abortion, euthanasia, war, racism, hunger, poverty and pollution. And for that, the Church should be extremely grateful.
But when it comes to taking a stand against sexual immorality, many of these same Catholics lose their voice. Nowhere is that silence more deafening that on the topic of pornography.
Although the viewing of pornography has now reached epidemic proportions – wreaking havoc on souls, marriages and families – few priests are known for speaking out against it. Even many bishops, with notable exceptions, appear to be largely reticent about this radical and expanding evil.
A visit to the website of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, for example, will reveal that a search for the word “pornography” brings up only three brief references, and that the word “pornographic” yields a curt message: “No results were found.” A similar search on the Scottish bishops’ website produced even less: a link to a single speech by Pope Emeritus Benedict in 2010. The most significant statement I could find by Ireland’s bishops against pornography appears in their pastoral letter, “Love is for Life”, issued in 1985 – more than 30 years ago. Surely, our Church can do better than this.
In fairness, some Catholic leaders have. Following Pope Francis’s warnings against pornography, the Australian bishops issued an admirable statement in April, declaring that pornography “harms the fabric of our community” by objectifying people as “less than real” and distorting love and human relationships. Last autumn, the American bishops published a major statement, “Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography”, which could serve as a model to other bishops’ conferences throughout the world.
The 32-page monograph, as the American bishops’ website reveals, “provides a basic catechesis on human sexuality and chastity, and explanation of why the production and use of pornography is a sin, an overview of its effects on our society … and a word of hope and encouragement to those who have been harmed by pornography use or in its production.”
An additional value of this excellent statement is the extensive documentation it provides, in more than 100 footnotes, of the many scholarly studies which have established the enormous damage pornography inflicts on human beings and society.
The key findings of recent research include the following:
■ Pornography is highly addictive, and neuroscientists are beginning to detail the devastating consequences it is having on people’s minds.
■ Use of pornography is a pathway to infidelity and divorce, and increases domestic abuse.
■ Men who regularly view pornography gradually destroy their inner moral compass, and eventually form a higher tolerance for sexual promiscuity, sexual aggression and rape.
■ Predatory child-sex offenders are more likely to view pornography regularly or be involved in its distribution.
■ The presence of sexually oriented businesses significantly affects surrounding communities, leading to increases in crime and a decline in property values.
■ Pornography fosters sex trafficking.
■ Pornography is also implicated in the massive tragedy of abortion, “given that it promotes and even celebrates promiscuity and a view of life devoid of love”, as the US bishops state.
Familiarity with these studies is essential because there are still a number of writers and academics who claim, against a mountain of evidence, that pornography not only does no harm, but may actually benefit society. Such claims have been demolished again and again, but that they continue to be made is a measure of how far apologists for pornography are willing to go to rationalise and justify it.
One reason some clergy may refrain from speaking out is because – sadly – many seminarians and priests themselves have struggled with pornography, and feel hypocritical and guilty about denouncing it as sinful.
This, however, is precisely why the Sacrament of Reconciliation exists –especially for priests who need its healing graces before counselling others.
Another reason for clerical hesitation to wage battle against pornography is because of the appalling sexual abuse scandals that have occurred within the Church: believing the Church has lost all credibility on sexual issues, too many priests and bishops have chosen to remain silent.
But this is a poor excuse, for a great deal has since been done by the Church to directly address and prevent these crimes; and as the Australian bishops argued, the Church has a special obligation to condemn pornography, precisely because these grave scandals did occur: “Allowing children to be exposed to pornography [on the internet or elsewhere] is a form of abuse. The Church has its own shameful history of child abuse and particularly because of that terrible experience for victims, does not want to see other forms of abuse of children such as the harms from the increased availability of pornography.”
Even if our priests and bishops do successfully form a united front against pornography, they will still have to overcome one major hurdle: the impact the sexual revolution has had upon ordinary Catholics. Ever since depictions of sex and nudity became more common in literature, art and the movies – not to mention simple advertisements – most Catholics, along with everyone else, have gradually accepted this change, without recognising the assault it has wrought upon their moral senses.
Just a generation ago, Catholics praised modesty in dress, language and artistic taste, whereas today many wouldn’t dare be caught doing so, lest they be ridiculed as philistines, or the second coming of Mary Whitehouse (and never mind that her warnings about smut are now seen as prophetic).
Catholics were once conscientious about what kind of films they watched, but today many Catholics openly praise degrading and sexually explicit films, and discuss ultra-violent and semi-pornographic series such as Game of Thrones as if they were works of high art. Is it any wonder priests hesitate to criticise such productions from the pulpit, lest they encounter a backlash from their congregations?
Yet the Gospel demands that faithful Christians resist and flee from impurity and sexual immorality, and rarely has there been a time when moral guidance and clarity was more needed from the Church.
Pornography has infected almost every aspect of modern life, and its spiritual dangers are overwhelming. Fortunately, Catholic ministries now exist to deal with this crisis, heal addicts of their insidious habit, and lead them back to Christ.
If Catholics are to live up to the demands of their faith, we must scrupulously avoid the seductions of our age, and loudly warn others about their dangers.
Our first allegiance is to God, not to any arbitrary standards on earth, and certainly not to any pornographic age. If the Church were ever to retreat or fall silent on this issue, the very stones would cry out.
William Doino Jr is a contributor to First Things and Inside the Vatican, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics
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