Ten years ago, now-emeritus Pope Benedict XVI released his first encyclical: Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), in which he surprised the world by writing on what some might call the “basic” subject of Christian love. In its pages, he warned of the dangers of the “intoxication” and the “divine madness” of the eros love, in which one is seeking only self-pleasure and self-gain. “Eros,” he writes, “reduced to pure ‘sex,’ has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great ‘yes’ to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will” (No. 5).
Pope Benedict’s always-insightful words are prophetic in light of our culture’s growing obsession with pornography — an obsession most recently evidenced by the “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon.
Marketed mostly to middle-to-upper-class women from college-age into middle-age, the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, featuring the dominant-submissive and sexually explicit relationship between the two leads, took on the slangy catchphrase of “mommy porn” shortly after its 2012 debut. Since then, more than 100 million copies have sold — equating to two per second during peak sales, according to one publishing source. In February, the film version grossed more than $90 million when it opened on the combined Valentine’s Day/Presidents Day long weekend.
We could go on and on about the many, very real dangers presented by “Fifty Shades.” About the “new frontier” of sexual and pornographic normalcy that has been breached — one in which women are clamoring for the opportunity to publicly consume and delight in sadomasochistic behavior en masse. About the astonishing inconsistency that exists between the cataclysmic increase of sexual assault on college campuses and the easy acceptance of Hollywood-produced bondage. About the mixed messages being delivered to already-confused young men about the sexual expectations and desires of young women. About how the film’s popularity among young people solidifies the fact that pornography is modern-day sex education — the first, and without a doubt worst, teacher of our children.
But the ship has sailed. Some estimates project that “Fifty Shades” will end up earning more than $500 million, and you can bet that the industry — film and XXX-rated — is taking notice. As the entertainment magazine Variety put it: “Sex, it seems, still sells, especially when it involves a riding crop.”
Be assured, this is only the beginning.
As Catholics, the popularity of “Fifty Shades” solidifies another threat to the already widely endangered arenas of traditional morals and values. Our mission, however, is clear — especially in light of this year’s unofficial “year of the family” in which Pope Francis will champion and encourage Catholic family life within our own borders. More than ever before, now is the time that we must toil to create an environment where human dignity is cherished and revered. More than ever before, we must now strengthen our marriages and our families, rooting them in Christ. More than ever before, we must now shape the self-pleasure-seeking eros into a new, better love: that of the self-emptying agape.
As Pope Benedict writes, “The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized” (No. 7).
And it’s there that true relationship satisfaction is found.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor