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Pastors alarmed by ‘ubiquitous’ pornography’s impact on children and families

August 28, 2015
Christina Gray

Local pastors say online pornography is a growing threat to adolescents, adults and couples, with problems related to Internet viewing showing up more often in the confessional.

Increasingly graphic yet pushing the boundaries of mainstream entertainment – consider “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a sadomasochistic-themed erotic thriller that opened to general movie audiences earlier this year – pornography is an indiscriminate predator that endangers adults, children, families, couples and society itself, the pastors said in interviews with Catholic San Francisco.

“It’s a ubiquitous problem,” said Father Mark Doherty, parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish in San Francisco and chaplain at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory. “It’s seriously startling the extent to which it has become a problem among young boys.”

Kids who have relatively free access to computers and smartphones are finding pornography at home, Father Doherty said. This includes what he calls “low-level” pornography as seen on such TV networks as HBO. “That’s often how the door gets opened.”

Pornography is listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an offense against chastity.

“Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties,” the catechism states. “It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. …”

The catechism says pornography is a “grave offense,” turning people into objects and immersing them in a fantasy world.

Pornography is named as a “particularly worrisome” threat to sexual and marital development in a June 2015 Vatican document summarizing responses of the world’s bishops in preparation for this October’s Synod of Bishops on the family.

The document blames misuse of the Internet and forced prostitution as factors in the trend. Couples struggle to find ways to grow more intimate with pornography yet many remain stunted in their emotional and sexual development.

Pornography is as old as civilization – the words “pornography” and “obscene” have Greek and Latin roots – but for the first time in history it is being consumed widely. “No one remains untouched by it,” the Witherspoon Institute said in a 2010 report titled “The Social Costs of Pornography.”

The institute said porn consumption “is qualitatively and quantitatively different from any that has gone before it.” More than 72 million people worldwide every month visit porn sites, the institute said, and the images called up are more graphic and violent than ever before.

Father Doherty said that the problem often presents itself to a priest when a woman seeks help for her marriage after discovering her husband’s use of pornography. The adult men often say they were seduced by imagery they found innocently on TV or the Internet.

That initial exposure may lead to harder-core websites, movies or magazines. For some, it becomes an addiction.

“Once you go down that road, it’s often very hard to stop,” Father Doherty said.

He said pre-pubescent and adolescent boys tell him that they feel guilty. Many Catholic men and boys are ashamed that they did not resist the temptation despite what their church, their teachers and their parents taught them, he said.

“Though we hope that our faith gives pause for thought, we are all temptable,” said Dominican Father Anselm Ramelow, a teacher at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley. He lives at St. Dominic Parish in San Francisco.

“Pornographic imagery is everywhere and so sneaky that faith can often have trouble intervening,” he said.

Arlington, Virginia, Bishop Paul Loverde has written a 77-page pastoral letter on the topic, titled “Bought with a Price: Every Man’s Duty to Protect Himself and His Family from a Pornographic Culture.”

“Today’s kids don’t have to stumble upon faded centerfolds or sneak glimpses of late-night television – they can tap a keyboard or screen and access virtually an infinite supply of graphic nudity and sex acts,” he writes. “They’re awash in a sea of smut, and as our culture increasingly legitimizes, even glorifies it, only heroic parental vigilance – plus God’s providence – offers them any hope of escaping its influence.”

The Catholic view of the sacredness of sexuality as a gift from God offers hope and healing. For example, St. John Paul II’s teachings compiled in his “theology of the body” contrast the gift of sexuality with its abuse through practices that distort the integrity of the whole person and train males and females to look upon each other as objects.

Without that view, pornography can become a true addiction, “worse than alcoholism, because alcohol is not a substance we need and that we therefore can abstain from,” said Father Ramelow. Like alcoholics or drug addicts, porn addicts can seldom recover their sexual health without help.

Father Joseph Previtali, parochial vicar of Our Lady of the Pillar Church in Half Moon Bay, said the main pastoral challenge with pornography is helping young men understand that what they’ve been sold by the world is a “false and destructive vision of manhood.”

“Our Lord Jesus, the perfect man, and St. Joseph, teach us the true meaning of manhood,” said Father Previtali. “It’s powerful that our two main models of masculinity were virgins for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” 

Dominican Father Michael Hurley, pastor of St. Dominic Church in San Francisco agrees that the crisis of pornography flows from a cultural misunderstanding of the nature and power of sexuality. “There’s a challenge, but also an opportunity to share the beauty of our faith tradition in this area,” he said.

Bishop Loverde’s pastoral letter offers a Christian “Plan of Life” to help those tempted by pornography, including morning prayer, meditation, spiritual readings, frequent confession, Mass attendance and “practicing the presence of God.”

He also offers St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

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