As a catechist, certain topics are easier to discuss than others. However, we live in a fallen world and the spiritual battles that are raging around us are only fueled by us turning a blind eye to certain plagues in our society. I recently heard that there is one sin that priests hear in the confessional more than any other sin: engagement with pornography. If, out of every possible sin, pornography is, by far, the most prevalent, it means that many more people are struggling with it than we know. With this in mind, I have decided to tackle this difficult topic.
First, let’s look at what the Church says about pornography and then we’ll dig a little bit deeper into the topic.
Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense… (CCC #2354)
As you can see, the Church does not mince words about this issue and for good reason. Each and every human being has an inherent dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God. Regardless of talent, status, or any other factor, individuals have value simply because they exist and therefore everyone deserves respect. Since God is creative and gave us the gift of sexuality to be enjoyed within the boundaries of the marriage union, this allows us to cooperate with God’s work, making us pro-creative. When lived out properly, conjugal love deepens love and strengthens the bonds of that love. This intimate love, then, affirms the dignity of the individuals because it upholds that their bodies and souls deserve to be loved and respected simply because they exist and not for what they can do for the other person. Pornography divorces sexuality from its intended unitive characteristics and turns people into objects for the pleasure of others. This utilitarian approach to sexuality is cold, sterile, and absolutely lacking in love, which is not at all what God wishes for us and our bodies.
It’s possible you have heard the argument that if all of the parties involved are consenting, then there is no problem. First, if a spouse is engaging with pornography behind the other spouse’s back, then the unknowing spouse is most certainly being harmed by the activity. (I use the generic term because both men and women struggle with this sin.) That spouse is being denied the loving and intimate relations she or he ought to receive by virtue of the couple’s marriage vows. Additionally, pornography IS adultery. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28). Now, let’s say both spouses are aware of what is going on and there is consent from all parties. It is still a grave offense that works against the dignity of the human person because consent is not the basis for what is sinful and what is not. For example, an individual can consent to drinking alcohol to excess every day, or consent to eating fast food for every meal, but does consenting to those things mean that the dignity of the human person is being respected? Or is the person harming his or her body and soul with the sin of gluttony? Consent is a sneaky word used to imply no harm is being done, when in fact, we actually consent to all of our sins, which, ultimately, all harm our souls and threaten our salvation.
As a brief aside, in some cases pornography may appear to involve consent when it actually does not. For example, participants could be victims of sex-trafficking or other types of abuse that would make them unable to resist. In those cases, the people engaging with the pornography could be involved in things which are unimaginably worse than the pornography itself.
As it is with all sin, another problem with pornography is that it begins a slippery slope. By engaging with pornography, an individual becomes desensitized to the activity. It can lead to needing more and more deviant sexual behavior or material to stay interested. It can lead to psychological impotence. It can lead to addiction. It can cause a person to disengage with family and friends. It can lead to physical adultery with others. All of these things are gravely harmful. Ultimately, pornography is the refusal to love and respect other people as they deserve to be loved. Regardless of their consent, beliefs, or lifestyles, the people involved in producing pornography are people worthy of love and do not deserve to be used for another person’s pleasure and then tossed aside.
When Our Lady of Fatima visited three children in Portugal in 1917, she relayed some very stark messages about what the world would face including, “a time will come when the decisive battle between the kingdom of Christ and Satan will be over marriage and the family.” In this battle, Satan most certainly uses pornography to get his hooks into people in order to pry apart marriages and families. Once he convinces a person that pornography is harmless, he will lead that person further and further down a very dark and lonely path. If Mary says this is a “decisive” battle, then we should heed her warning and resist the things that attack our marriages and families, including pornography.
Considering how pervasive pornography has become, there is no doubt in my mind that someone reading this is struggling with this sin, so I don’t want to conclude without offering encouragement. We all have had sins that have seemed to have a death grip on us. The Church recognizes our humanity and knows this about us. The Catechism says:
Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. (CCC #2342)
It is for this reason the Church offers support. The first step is to recognize the harmful effects your engagement with pornography has on you and those around you, then go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation to begin the process of self-mastery. The grace you receive in the confessional will help give you the strength to persevere. Next, seek out spiritual direction and/or counseling to help you detach from what is harming you. There are many skilled priests, counselors, and other professionals who deal with these issues. Finally, put your confidence in God’s love for you and His desire for the best for you and every human being. He wants so much more for you than for your base bodily passions to be satisfied in the most superficial of ways. Keep striving for holiness and He will not leave your side.
***I highly recomend the book Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility by Edward Sri.
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