During my nearly 50 years as a priest, I have met multitudes of families in a variety of settings: at Masses, confirmations and weddings; other times while serving the hungry or needy in our diocese; still other times at school events and ceremonies. Like each individual person, no one family is the same. Each member brings unique gifts and contributions to the table. Each family’s dynamic, interpersonal relationships and means of communicating are all different. This speaks to God’s boundless creativity — and sometimes his sense of humor!
Despite their distinct manifestations, every single family shares the same mission: to bring the light of Jesus Christ into a world that desperately longs for it. The light of Christ is the love of the Holy Trinity — a love that is interpersonal and relational. The deepest longing of the human heart is to love and be loved, to trust that I am loved unconditionally and can love in the same way. Familial love shows concretely, through the witness of forgiveness, self-sacrifice and compassion, how God love us.
My parents were not perfect, of course, but in each of them I saw, as I grew older, a reflection of how God loves me. I realized that whatever I might do to displease my father, I could never undo his love for me. This reflected God’s unconditional love. My mother was quiet by nature, but I knew that she unfailingly cared for me, was concerned for my welfare and would always be at my side with prayer and love. In this, I experienced God’s tenderness and fidelity.
According to Pope Francis, the family is a “school of love,” where we learn in word and deed how to give ourselves away in the service of others. But the lessons of this school are not limited to the members of the family — they teach all who witness the family’s love in action. Sadly, families today face daunting challenges in maintaining and executing the curriculum, so to speak, of their school of love. In our world, one in which children have instantaneous access to media, it is understandable that parents might find it difficult to establish a program of learning for their domestic school. How challenging it must be for them to talk about the nature of true love when a steady hum of voices threatens to drown theirs out with alternate proposals.
One of the biggest threats to the family today is the plague of pornography. What used to be something only accessible to adults who were willing to risk shame in order to obtain it is now available in the mainstream on the Internet, smart phones and cable television. Perhaps what is most terrifying is that children have their first encounter with pornography as early as 10 or 11 years of age.
We do not hear of a casual or occasional brush with pornography — the real story is that thousands of people, even people of faith, suffer from addictions to it. Just like addictive substances, scientific and psychological studies confirm that the brain seeks more vile images to produce the initial effect. To call this anything other than a plague is to deny its harmful effects.
The introduction of pornography into family life is destructive, because it obscures what real love looks like. Far from promoting another person’s dignity, pornography advances a vision of a world in which people are to be used and manipulated, abused and discarded. It is a medium that reduces sex to a form of entertainment and even profit.
God created us as sensory beings, which means that images we view stay with us in our memories and shape our imaginations. What will happen to our sons if they take in images of men treating women in a demeaning way? How will they learn how to protect women’s dignity? Do we want our daughters to see women abused and exploited? It is the duty of every parent, especially the father, to protect children from exposure to this plague, and should their sons or daughters come across it, to propose something beautiful in its place.
Children are not the only ones who have impressionable imaginations and consciences — so do husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. Pornography introduces an immediate threat to a marriage — to love, trust and chastity. One of the most common factors in all the cases brought to a diocese for annulments is the use of pornography, because it offers a fake substitute for real marital intimacy.
But all hope is not lost. The family is the school of real love — love that requires a mastery of oneself and one’s desires in order to care for the other. Families do this every day; their harmony requires that members put aside their desires and preferences in order to work for the good of the whole.
What is needed in our time is a renewed appreciation for the virtue of chastity, of love which is ordered toward upholding one’s own and another’s dignity. It is the virtue that makes self-giving possible in family life. In this love, there is no room for pornography, for masturbation or for contraception. Anything that turns us inward — that does not call us to any self-possession — cannot foster love. It means that our desires control us. It means that we are not free.
True love looks outward, toward another. And in that encounter with the other, we see the face of God. Let us all be “children of the light,” as St. Paul says, and may our families bring our world from darkness to light!
Bishop Paul S. Loverde has been the bishop of Arlington, Virginia, since 1999. He is the author of “Bought With a Price,” a pastoral letter on pornography.