Confronting Pornography

“May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

— 1 Thessalonians 5:23

This passage of Scripture seems to swell up from the depth of my heart when I encounter the epidemic of pornography. I firmly believe that it has been placed there because it speaks to the truth of what is being attacked by pornography: the entirety of our humanity.

Our minds, body and spiritual life are individually, uniquely, yet collectively, debased by pornography.

You may recall that in 2016 the state of Utah declared pornography a public health hazard. The resolution that passed identified a number of harmful issues that impact individual and public health. Among these are: low self-esteem and body image in adolescents; the objectification of women in which girls are taught they are to be used and boys taught to be the users; the normalization of violence, abuse and rape; an increase in the demand for sex trafficking, prostitution and child pornography; and harmful impacts on brain development and functioning, including “deviant sexual arousal” and difficulty forming relationships. Unfortunately, these claims merely support research that dates back several decades.

Porn’s Harmful Effects

Frighteningly, current research is placing the age of first exposure to pornography as early as 8 years old. Many sources site data showing the largest group of internet porn users are between the ages of 12 and 17. “The Porn Phenomenon,” a 2016 study by the Barna Group, found that our current level of media access, which it terms the “screen age,” has created an environment in which people are seeing pornography whether they want to or not. The Witherspoon Institute has stated that experts now believe it is impossible for children to not see pornography. Studies, like those referenced on Fight the New Drug’s website (fightthenewdrug.org), indicate that video pornography is becoming one of the main sources for sex education among youths. Research indicates that kids are turning to pornography to seek sexual excitement, as well as to satisfy their curiosity about sex and to learn what people do sexually.

The negative impact on society of this false education should not be a surprise. In an article published in the August 2000 Journal of Adolescent Health titled, “Influence of Unrestrained Access to Erotica on Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Dispositions toward Sexuality,” Dolf Zillmann identified several problems associated with exposure to pornography.

As you read over this list of his findings you will see that, 17 years later, Zillmann’s report accurately describes our current society. He identified the following problems arising from prolonged exposure to pornography:

• An exaggerated perception of sexual activity in society.

• Diminished trust between intimate couples.

• Abandoning the hope of sexual monogamy.

• Belief that promiscuity is the natural state.

• Belief that abstinence and sexual inactivity are unhealthy.

• Cynicism about love or the need for affection between sexual partners.

• Belief that marriage is sexually confining.

• Lack of attraction to family and child raising.

It is so unfortunate that this list describes life for so many people today. These are truly problems that plague our communities and the problems that have infected our Church and parish families.

Re-educating Society

I fear that we as a society, even as a Church, have allowed our education concerning our God-given gift of sexuality to be taken over by the pornography industry. This is both shameful and distressing. Because, not only do we see the problems listed above, but many studies have found that for males watching even nonviolent porn there is a correlation with the viewer being more likely to use verbal coercion, drugs and alcohol to push women into sex. Pornography is not true; it is not love, and it should never be allowed to pass itself off as educational.

Unfortunately, the Barna Group study found that only 32 percent of their respondents thought that watching pornography was usually or always wrong. Shockingly, at least to me, of that same group 56 percent said it was usually or always wrong to not recycle.

I ask you: Which is God’s greater creation, humanity or the earth? Which needs greater protection? Yes, I am happy that so many people want to recycle; however, we must become more aggressive in defending God’s greatest creation and providing a true education about the gift of our human sexuality.

So, the question becomes this: How can we overcome the sin and temptation of pornography in this multimedia age? This is a question that every priest, every family, needs to engage. Moreover, every priest must be cognizant of the fact that successful support in the battle against pornography must include ministry to the mind, body and soul.

Really, this is a battle between chastity and pornography. Recalling that chastity is the successful integration of our sexuality in all aspects of our lives will help guide our approach to winning this battle (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2337).

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41).

The Body’s Role

I often encounter people who believe that porn is exclusively a spiritual matter. Oftentimes, they believe that they can simply pray it away. Yet time and again, they return to me, acknowledging the same sins and patterns that keep pornography in their life. They seem bewildered as to why they cannot overcome the powerful grip pornography has on their lives. They try all sorts of prayers and spiritual solutions, but they fail to pay attention to the fact that they are not exclusively spiritual beings and that their body has a major part to play in their recovery.

Resource for Families
“IMAGE"

In his new book “Every Parent’s Battle: A Family Guide to Resisting Pornography” (OSV, $14.95), author Dan S. Spencer III makes it clear to parents the challenge they face in keeping pornography out of their homes. But the book also equips parents with concrete and tested strategies to educate their kids about intimacy, human dignity and sexuality as God intended it to be. For more, visit osvcatholicbookstore.com.

Now, I am not underestimating God’s ability to cleanse someone via a miracle, but I believe that for those who have been exposed to pornography, especially for an extended period of time, they must engage their body in fighting this evil, and the path to freedom must include a holistic approach of mind, body and spirit.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made this point in their 2015 document “Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography”: “Our bodies and sexuality are included in Christ’s work of redemption, which brings about a new creation that is fulfilled in the glory of the final coming of the kingdom of God (see Rom 8:18-23).” We cannot underestimate the value of our bodies or God’s plan to incorporate them into our salvation.

Attack on Mind, Soul, Body

The research is clear and overwhelming that pornography attacks our brain by chemically altering it. Research shows that porn acts like a hard drug. It floods the brain with chemicals, rewiring it as it builds up a system of dependence and bonds its users to those chemicals and to the activities on the screen. In support of this statement, there are many good resources available to understand this process. I prefer the website Fight the New Drug, which I find to be both user-friendly and helpful to a nonscience guy like myself. However, for now, I think it is merely necessary for us to understand and accept that pornography chemically alters the human brain.

Pornography also attacks and changes our perspective on life. The more a person watches porn, the more likely he or she is to be indoctrinated with porn’s wrongful version of human sexuality. Porn teaches its viewer to value a person by the sum of her or his body parts. It tells you to judge your feelings for a person based upon how much you lust for them. It creates unrealistic expectations that make it difficult to bond in a real relationship. Plus, it transforms one’s thinking from the Christ-like perspective of selfless love in which we are willing to sacrifice for others into the mentality of, “What do I get out of this?” Pornography produces a self-centered mentality in direct opposition to the truth of finding virtue and love. Remember, Pope St. John Paul II taught us that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather using a person as if he or she were an object.

We know that our God-given sexuality isn’t about sex or the endless pursuit of pleasure. We know that this gift is about deep relationship and Christ-like love. Is this also not what our spiritual life is? However, pornography tears us away from our relationship with God and others. We know this, and we have too many examples of this in our daily encounters. Yet, it must be stated, for it is part of pornography’s attack on our spirit, soul and body.

Let me assure you, we do have the tools for victory. Like the attack on our spirit, soul and body, our defense likewise is threefold. This reality has become clear to me in my presentation for confirmation candidates, their parents and sponsors. We have been empowered in our baptism as priest, prophet and king, and in our confirmation we have been strengthened in our supernatural life. With these gifts, we can succeed in protecting ourselves — our minds and our souls — from the attacks of pornography.

Our conformity to Christ the Priest gives us the ability to sacrifice pleasant things out of love for others. This counters the pornographic mentality, which demands we seek instant pleasure and the use of others. Conforming ourselves to Christ the Prophet places us within the realm of truth, which can counteract the lies of pornography and help us repair our broken relationships by knowing that true human intimacy flows from chastity. Being conformed to Christ the King can empower us to withstand the onslaught of the trap of seduction, which attempts to rewire our mind through false images and messages.

I am not saying that these gifts and spiritual powers are self-evident. They need to be taught and given to people in small, realistic and relevant ways to help them overcome problems with pornography. I understand how difficult this can be. Honestly, more often than not, when I rely upon so-called experts to gain an understanding about porn’s impact in the world today, I am left disheartened.

Spiritual Guidance

Within the technical aspects of battling pornography, I can lose sight of the relationship with God, upon which I and others must depend.

There is a time and a need for professional counseling for some in this battle, which is beyond most priests’ professional training.

Still, there is a constant need for all to have spiritual guidance that allows for the totality of our human nature to unleash the power of our baptismal and confirmational grace.

Each person’s journey to the truth of chastity is unique. Some accept it easily, and sooner than others, while some continuously stumble with it their entire lives. But isn’t that the story of our faith?

Recently, while attending a conference at St. Vincent College on the problem of pornography, I was moved by the reflection of the presenter, Dr. Peter Kleponis, whose website (peterkleponis.com) helps Catholic men overcome pornography addiction.

To summarize his view would be to say that we are on a journey, not seeking an instant cure but seeking healing. God wishes our recovery and freedom from pornography to be transformational. God desires to travel with us our entire lives, therefore we are healed and transformed as long as we journey with him. This journey with God is the invitation to our spirit, soul and body to embark on a lifelong mission of transformation.

May we, as priests, assist our communities as they fight the sin of pornography during their passage of faith, which captivates their entirety: spirit, soul and body.

FATHER KENNETH W. MARLOVITS is the administrator of St. Maurice Parish in Pittsburgh.

By the Numbers
64% of self-identified Christian men and 15% of self-identified Christian women view pornography at least once a month.