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By Bishop Michael Sheridan

Pornography is one of the most serious problems facing our society today. Pornography has made its way into our media, our schools, and our homes. The question of how to combat pornography is critically important. In many ways, it is a life and death question. A culture addicted to pornography will not have healthy relationships between men and women. A culture addicted to pornography will not promote healthy families. A culture addicted to pornography is slowly but surely dying from the inside out. Recognizing the importance of this issue, I recently began an initiative in our diocese to draw attention to the destructive effects of pornography and to offer hope for those struggling with this problem.

While preparing our initiative, I heard many painful stories. I learned how pornography corrupted young people, twisting the beautiful gift of our human sexuality into something obscene and shameful. Images from movies and the Internet have scarred our children, making healthy marital relationships difficult for them to imagine. I also listened to married couples that struggled with pornography addictions that nearly shattered their lives. Single men and women felt ashamed to admit the amount of time and money they spent on pornography. Every clergyman (Catholic and non-Catholic) I spoke with confirmed that his parishioners were struggling with this problem.

Root Causes

How has pornography grown to such epic proportions? Recall Edmund Burke’s admonition: "All that it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing." Forty years ago, in his watershed encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV), Pope Paul VI advised good people that "everything . . . which arouses men’s baser passions and encourages low moral standards, as well as every . . . form of indecency on the stage and screen, should be condemned publicly and unanimously" (no. 22). Forty years of many good people remaining silent has contributed to a multi-billion dollar pornography industry that debases women, men, and children by treating them as objects for pleasure and not as human beings.

From a practical standpoint, accessibility and anonymity have played a large role in allowing the evil of pornography to grow unchecked. Twenty years ago, even in homes with cable television, the raciest programs aired late at night. Today, nearly every network broadcasts prime-time programs laced with sexual innuendos and pornographic images. Today, every home with an Internet connection has instant access to every conceivable sexual act. Graphic images of the most perverse kind are just a few clicks away.

Such easy access to pornography violates fundamental principles of morality. According to Pope Paul, "not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law" (HV, no. 17). Evil has flourished in our society because so few have had the courage to stand up for the truth.

Another factor in the growth of the pornography epidemic is the anonymous nature of the Internet. People who want access to pornographic images no longer have to go into seedy parts of town or risk public disapproval in video stores. Teenagers no longer have to pluck up the courage to purchase a shameful magazine over a store counter. The most graphic content imaginable now arrives directly and anonymously in the privacy of the home.

Today, it is all too easy for a husband to leave the bedroom he shares with his wife and to plug into a nameless world with no rules or prohibitions. Closing the door on his spouse, however, causes incredible wounds. A wife, left alone, might wonder what is wrong with her. Why is she not good enough? The truth, of course, is that nothing is wrong with her. Her husband has traded the goodness and beauty of conjugal love for the selfish and fleeting satisfaction of lust.

The Logical Result of a Contraceptive Mentality

In many ways, the use of pornography is a manifestation of the contraceptive mentality that ignores the natural moral law. Any authentic expression of married love cannot separate the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act. "The fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman" (HV, no. 12). Once a couple has eliminated the procreative aspect of their most intimate act, what is to prevent them from taking the next step and eliminating even its unitive nature?

Some may argue that the loving embrace of a husband and wife who choose artificial contraception can still be a pure and holy act. Such a union, however, always involves the partners holding something back from each other—namely, their fertility. In his book Toward God: The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer, Michael Casey writes: "What is not shared tends to divide. Sometimes love will perceive intuitively what cannot be framed in words. But often what is withheld acts as a barrier interrupting a relationship in ways neither party can understand, and causing pain to both." A husband addicted to pornography has taken the next logical step in withholding himself. By refusing to share even the unitive aspect of the marital embrace, he creates another barrier to the marital relationship. This inevitably results in painful division.

Be Not Afraid

Because pornography is addictive, it sometimes seems impossible to overcome. It is difficult to feel safe anywhere. Pornographic images bombard us even as we stand in line at the grocery store. In the light of such pervasive temptation, resistance can seem a futile exercise. Our late Holy Father Pope John Paul II reminded us so often, "be not afraid!" "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Mt. 19:26). Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical proclaims that Christ is our hope, and "in hope we are saved" (Spe Salvi, no. 1).

The first thing required to overcome any temptation is prayer. We have to be willing to humble ourselves and recognize that we cannot resist temptation by our own resources alone. By opening ourselves in prayer to the channels of grace that flow from Christ’s divine mercy, we can receive the strength to persevere even when situations seem impossible. Prayers to our mother Mary asking for her intercession and strength can also provide a powerful shield against temptation.

Practical Advice

Any attempt to combat pornography must be practical as well as theologically sound. There are several simple ways to begin the battle. First, to protect the young, it is critical that parents know what their children are watching. Moving computers with Internet access into shared areas of the house can help. The same is true for televisions. When children hide in their rooms behind closed doors, the temptations of modern technology often become overwhelming.

For older teens and adults, support groups may help reinforce an internal commitment to change. Several Internet-monitoring services can send reports of web-surfing habits directly to accountability partners. Like other addictive behaviors, problems that are more serious might require professional counseling.

Of course, we cannot rely solely on our own devices. The Sacrament of Penance is God’s own mercy and forgiveness. Regular confession not only forgives our past sins, but also helps strengthen our resolve to avoid the near occasions of sin in the future. Frequent reception of Holy Communion is also a source of great strength and comfort. By the worthy reception of the body and blood of Christ, we are strengthened to overcome seemingly impossible temptations.

Conclusion

It is very difficult to face up to and discuss the subject of pornography. We instinctively recoil from the issue. It is not the subject of polite conversation. However, our silence will only allow the scourge to grow. We must take a stand against this evil.

It is important for clergy and laypeople to work together to face this great challenge. Several dioceses around the country have also developed new and innovative ways to battle pornography. We should be ready and willing to share what works with each other. Finally, we must never forget to pray that the lord will bless all those who seek to follow His path and answer the universal call to holiness.

Most Rev. Michael J. Sheridan is Bishop of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.

The article was taken from the Sep/Oct 2008 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine . To access it online or to see more articles like this one, go to: http://www.cuf.org/LayWitness/LWindex.asp.