The Biggest Myth About Pornography
Today, Bishop Paul S. Loverde (Arlington, VA) published an important, wide-ranging pastoral letter titled “Bought With a Price: Every Man’s Duty to Protect Himself and His Family From a Pornographic Culture” (PDF). It’s available free at www.arlingtondiocese.org/purity and will soon be available in Kindle format. Although the document can be read online beginning today, it’s officially dated March 19, the feast of Saint Joseph, patron of fathers.
In his letter, Bishop Loverde calls pornography a widening plague of “pandemic scale” and calls upon all Catholics and “all those of good will” to search their hearts, reject pornography, and renew their sacred commitment to marriage and children.
The 15,000-word letter contains four substantial chapters:
- The Current Threat
- Four False Arguments
- What Can Be Done
- The Gift of Sight
Throughout the letter, Bishop Loverde warns how pornography “damages man’s ‘template’ for the supernatural.” But he also offers hope and support:
“Sins against purity are discouraging and can lead to great frustration and self-hatred. You may feel a sense of helplessness and that these sins are impossible to overcome. But with God you need never despair. You will win. He loves you and wants you to be free.”
To that end the letter includes an array of practical resources designed to challenge men to be free of pornography and to protect their homes and children. These include simple suggestions, a “plan of life”, and study guide questions for groups, individuals, and families.
The letter also features an excellent Foreword by chastity expert Matt Fradd, who claims the document “could not have come at a more critical time.” Matt, who first encountered pornography at the age of 8 and subsequently overcame an addiction, writes that the average child today—against the backdrop of a $13 billion a year porn industry—first encounters pornography by age 11. Children today “are awash in a sea of smut, and our culture increasingly legitimizes, even glorifies it.”
In response to these dire statistics, Bishop Loverde issues a prophetic call:
“Today’s father must protect himself and his children from the relentless assault of an increasingly pornographic culture; moreover, mothers share this sacred task. I call on every man to search his heart and renew his commitment to purity. I call on every husband and father to renew his sacred commitment to his wife and children.”
Bishop Loverde and the Diocese of Arlington have graciously allowed me to reprint an excerpt from the letter, which exposes one of the greatest myths about pornography:
Myth #1. There are no victims so no one is being harmed.
The justification of pornography often begins by viewing the activity as a private exchange between the viewers and those who produce and distribute the material. In this view, there is a “free” choice on the part of consenting adults to meet a “need” and to be compensated for meeting that “need.” The illusion inherent in this rationalization is that all the participating parties complete the exchange as the same persons, with no harm done, as when they entered. Like all rationalizations, this is an illusion.
The first illusion is that the viewing of men and women in intimate relations does no harm to them as persons. Often this is not true on even a physical plane. Preying on the vulnerable and the needy, the pornography industry often entices them into deeper and more dangerous behaviors until physical harm is inevitable.
Yet the very nature of pornography commits violence against the dignity of the human person. By taking an essential aspect of the person—human sexuality—and making it a commodity to be bartered and sold, to be used and discarded by unknown others, the pornography industry commits a most violent attack on the dignity of these victims.
“Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 5
Every year, thousands of men and women are lured into the pornography industry by the promise of easy money. The industry preys on the most vulnerable: the poor, the abused and marginalized, and even children. This exploitation of the weak is gravely sinful. Whether need, confusion, or alienation leads men and women to become pornographic objects, their choice to do so certainly cannot be seen as free. Those who produce and distribute pornography leave a wide path of broken and devalued men and women in their wake.
More and more of these victims are younger, even children. When these, the most vulnerable and innocent of our society, become victims of the dehumanizing demands of an industry willing to destroy innocence for profit, it is an unspeakable act of violence.
Dehumanizing the Viewer
“Jesus said in reply, ‘Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’”
— Matthew 19:4-6
The guilty within the industry are easy to identify, but they do not stand alone. The entire pornography industry exists to realize profit, and there can be no profit without customers. Those who seek out and use pornographic images are active participants in the victimization of others. Those who view pornographic materials cannot separate themselves from the moral responsibility associated with the victimization and degradation of the men, women and children those materials depict. And the viewers themselves are degraded.
It is a mistaken notion that the singular effect of sinful moral choices is the harm these choices cause to others. Certainly, the immediate effect of choosing to participate in pornographic viewing is the spiritual and emotional violence committed against those whose images are viewed. Yet, the personal and existential effect on the one choosing to view pornographic images lies at the heart of these sinful actions.
The human person, the only creature with a moral sense, progressively builds or destroys his or her character by each and every moral choice. Thus one becomes virtuous by the very act of practicing virtue, and one becomes depraved by practicing acts of vice. When one chooses to view pornography, even if at first reluctantly, one becomes the kind of person who is willing to use others as mere objects of pleasure, disregarding their inherent dignity as a man or woman created in God’s image. As the habit of pornography becomes more fixed, the characteristics of a person who debases and objectifies others and wills violence against their dignity become more pronounced.
It is in this sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden, transformation of the human character that sin exerts its strongest influence on individuals and the culture. The young more readily manipulate and abandon friends to meet their temporary and often selfish desires. Spouses begin to gauge their partner on a scale of what they receive from the relationship rather than to self-giving marital fidelity. Young adults approach marriage as merely a non-binding contract that may be abrogated if the benefits of the married state no longer meet their increasingly unrealistic or even perverse desires and expectations. Priests and religious judge their ministry on personal satisfaction and advancement rather than sacrifice. The widespread use of pornography naturally leads to a degradation of human society because it degrades the persons who submit to it.
Pornography makes a lie of intimacy. Distorting that very human characteristic that promises an end to isolation, pornography leads the user not to intimacy, but to even deeper isolation. The divine purpose of human sexuality is to assuage the longing for communion with another and to bring the person into a bond of life-nurturing, and life-giving, love. In this human experience of intimacy with another, man’s eternal destiny of perfect communion with his Creator is prefigured.
The false promise of intimacy offered by pornography leads instead to an ever-deeper alienation that cripples the user’s ability to experience truly intimate human contact. The user of pornography, while longing for intimacy, turns ever more surely back into himself, becoming ever more isolated and alone.
Erosion of the Family
The most tragic and frightening victim of the scourge of pornography is the family. Although the “intimacy” promised by this vice is illusory and the happiness sought in its practice is transitory and destructive, the damage to the human relationships so necessary for the flourishing of the family is even more shockingly real and, in many cases, permanent.
The flourishing of the family is dependent upon the growth of family members in holiness and true human love. This is a love whose primary concern is for the good of the other. It is in this experience of human love that children grow in grace and wisdom and become integrated and virtuous members of human society. True human love does not arise from selfish desire but rather from self-giving. It is in the example of self-giving expressed by loving parents that children develop the potential to commit to intimacy with another and to intimacy with God.
When family members turn to pornography in a distorted thirst for intimacy, they turn against and in some measure reject their commitment to their family. By doing this, they commit violence against the relationships which define their own vocation.
“If the person is not master of self—through the virtues and, in a concrete way, through chastity—he or she lacks that selfpossession which makes self-giving possible. Chastity is the spiritual power that frees love from selfishness and aggression. To the degree that a person weakens chastity, his or her love becomes more and more selfish, that is, satisfying a desire for pleasure and no longer self-giving.”
— Pontifical Council for the Family, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (1995), 16
Once given over to this vice, the family member makes great efforts to keep this betrayal secret. Ultimately, however, it is vain to expect that a secret that distorts the core of human sexuality can fully remain a secret from those to whom we have pledged our love and our lives. The betrayal, even if not made completely known, will communicate itself through changes in the character of the betrayer. In the isolation and alienation of the person, the other members of the family feel the inevitable consequences of the alienation of intimacy inherent in the secret of pornography.
The first to feel the violence of pornographic use is the spouse. If pornography is a sin against the human dignity of those whose images are used, how much more so is it a sin against the human dignity of the one who was promised the exclusivity of affection? The use of pornography is a violation of the commitment of marriage. Even if tolerated by the spouse, how can one possibly not feel rejection and betrayal when one’s committed partner turns to illusion and fleeting happiness in pornographic images? This rejection, if left unhealed, will often lead to the permanent destruction of the marital commitment.
As is the nature of all sin, the ones who suffer the most are the innocent. Children who naturally strive to imitate and integrate the self-giving love of their parents instead find themselves faced with tension, betrayal and selfishness. It is understandable then that they may come to believe that true love, a sacrificial and selfgiving love, is an illusion.
Just as it is a vain hope for a spouse using pornography to keep this sin a secret, it is also a vain hope to think that the material itself can be kept a secret. Children encounter the very material that has caused damage to their family and are introduced to an understanding of sexuality not intended by their parents. Instead of learning and experiencing the nobility of the human person created in the image and likeness of God, they experience the degradation of the human person reduced to a commodity, to an object.