The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved “Create In Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography” on November 17. The document is the USCCB’s first formal statement on pornography.
The bishops characterize pornography as a structure of sin, which means not only that using pornography is immoral, but that its pervasiveness makes it almost impossible to avoid, and its widespread production and consumption lead to societal consequences beyond the damage done to any one individual. This structure of sin claims many victims, but young people are especially endangered by the accessible, anonymous, and affordable nature of Internet pornography. It is always only a click or two away and is often right at our fingertips.
Forty-three percent of American men and nine percent of American women report having watched pornography in the past week. Pornography is a major factor in over half of divorces. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 11 years old, and almost all young men and more than half of young women have been exposed to pornography before reaching the age of 18.
At Notre Dame itself, an informal study conducted during the 2012-2013 academic year by student Chris Damian revealed that 63 percent of men and 11 percent of women have viewed pornography over the Internet while on campus. Eighty-six percent of men and 37 percent of women reported that they had friends who viewed pornography over the Internet while on campus.
The data backs up the judgement that pornography has become increasingly widespread and prevalent in our culture. The data also confirms the damage that pornography does to marriages, relationships, and the myriad victims of its production and distribution.
Getting beyond the numbers, though, we can ask: what about the harm that pornography does to us—to individuals, campuses, communities, and nations?
Porn use (often accompanied by masturbation) involves objectifying ourselves. One watches porn to sexually arouse and satisfy oneself, and in doing so one treats one’s body as a mere tool for bringing about pleasurable feelings. Pornography also leads to an objectification of those involved in its production, as viewers look upon these people as merely objects of desire and not as full persons.
Pornography also erodes our ability to love because it is impersonal. In pornography the consumer is not required to give anything of himself, but only to take in images and gratify his own desires. Using pornography makes forming relationships with real people more difficult, because pornography promises satisfaction from an undemanding source, which is a total illusion in contrast to the realities of authentic love, in which sacrifice is demanded. This is why pornography fuels the hookup culture. It disposes us to disassociate sexual encounters from the demands of a real relationship and strips sex of its meaning, making it appear to be an inconsequential form of leisure. It is not for nothing that even people who approve of pornography describe it as escapist fantasy.
The bishops’ statement affirms that producing or using pornography is grave matter; if committed with full knowledge and consent, it is a mortal sin—“Pornography can never be justified and is always wrong.”
But as is always the case with the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics, this is not the end of the story. The bishops do not simply offer a “no” to pornography and leave it at that. Tied up in that “no” and prompting it is a greater “yes” to the dignity of the human person. Pornography involves a disordered view of the human person because it is ordered toward use rather than love. Things are to be used, but people are never to be used—people are to be loved, and pornography is radically and irrevocably inconsistent with love.
The bishops write that they “are mindful of the particular importance of Catholic leaders and parents who can implement the Church’s vision and outreach and be conduits of the Lord’s mercy and truth in direct and powerful ways by their witness and service.”
Doubtless parents have the primary role in educating their children about the harms of pornography and helping them navigate a culture overcome with disordered desires. But the bishops also call on Catholic leaders to implement the Church’s vision and, by witness and service, be conduits of the truth.
What is being done—and is enough being done—at Notre Dame to implement the Church’s vision of the dignity of the person and marriage and sexuality? More than “nothing,” but certainly not enough.
One might wonder what can be done given that pornography, as the bishops write, is now a structure of sin—how can any one individual make a difference? The bishops remind us that “pornography’s prevalence in our society is rooted in the personal sins of individuals who make, disseminate, and view it, and by doing so further perpetuate it as a structure of sin.”
If the problem is rooted in individual sin, the solution must begin at the individual level, and there are many resources and much that can be done by Catholic leaders at this university to assist individuals in overcoming their struggles with pornography. More information about the extent to which pornography is accessed on campus would be helpful, as would more university-sponsored educational events on pornography’s harms.
C.S. Lewis wrote that God “finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” Likewise, those who struggle with pornography should not be condemned for desiring too much but for desiring too little. The good news that the Church has to bring—and that Catholic leaders at Notre Dame are called to spread—offers much more than a condemnation of sin. It offers a beautiful, if demanding, vision of the person, and of sex and marriage, that we should come to desire more than the meager and illusory pleasures offered by pornography.
Combatting the pervasiveness of pornography requires promoting an alternative vision—the vision that the Church upholds—of authentic masculinity and authentic femininity and of the meaning and value of complementarity. That is something worth fighting for.
Tim Bradley is a senior living off campus—you will never find him, if you’re lucky. Contact him at email@example.com.