On June 10 last year, in an address to Catholic family associations in Europe, Pope Francis described pornography as “an attack on human dignity.” This was not the first time the pope has spoken on the topic. In The Joy of Love, the Holy Father acknowledged the problem of pornography embedded in the digital culture of our time and warned that constant exposure to it leads to a “distorted sense of sexuality, objectifying women and creating unrealistic expectations in normal relationships.”
Here in Ireland, it was recently announced that the issue of pornography will be addressed in all schools as part of the educational curriculum. While this updating has been broadly welcomed, it does raise questions of how it will be taught: As something morally neutral? Or worse, as something ethical and educational? The question of what we teach our kids about pornography is a pressing one—not just for teachers but for parents who are the first teachers of their children when it comes to faith and morals. What is in discussion here is not just pornography but how our children will grow up to understand the true meaning of human sexuality and its connection to love, respect, marriage, and family. Therefore, for Catholic parents, they deserve all the support they can get to be the best educators of their children in the ways of love and the challenge to live our sexuality in accordance with the Gospel.
The stakes here are high. The truth is, if Catholic parents don’t teach their children about the true meaning of sex, then pornography may teach them otherwise. And what does pornography teach? In the words of Mary Anne Layden, PhD: “Porn is a teacher, and its teaching is insidious. Here is what pornography teaches kids: ‘there’s no sexual behavior that’s hurtful, toxic or traumatizing. Sex is not about intimacy, caring, love or respect. Sex is not about marriage or having children. Sex is casual; it’s recreational; it’s adversarial and non-intimate.’”
If this is what our youth are being taught about sex through pornography, then everything appears acceptable as long as it’s safe and consensual. But allowing this message to go unchallenged would be to do a grave disservice to our young people on two fronts. First, it fails to inform them and protect them from the harmful effects of pornography. Second, it fails to offer young people the true meaning of human sexuality and their deepest vocation to love.
First, the harmful effects of pornography. One man who has studied the cultural phenomenon of pornography for many years is Australian author Matt Fradd. In his book The Porn Myth, he offers a nonreligious response to the commonly held belief that pornography is a harmless or even beneficial pastime. He draws on the latest research in the fields of psychology, sociology, neurological studies, and the experience of pornography performers and users to demonstrate unequivocally that pornography is destructive to individuals, relationships, and society.
Since that book was published, a recent study here in Ireland revealed that during the recent COVID lockdowns, there was a 44% increase in sexual abuse and sexually harmful behavior on children by children. Evidence revealed that many children happened upon pornographic sites during the lockdowns, and some of those children acted out scenes on other children, often their own siblings. This is shocking and heartbreaking, not just because of the victims, but also because children became the perpetrators of sexual crime.
This emerging evidence of the harmful effects of pornography confirms what the Church has taught all along: Pornography is not just sinful and offensive to God but devastating to human beings. Just before the explosion of the internet in the mid-1990s, The Catechism of the Catholic Church taught that “pornography does grave injury to the dignity of the participants (actors, vendors, the public).”
In a pastoral response to the widespread availability of pornography and its harmful effects on lives and families, the bishops of the United States published “Create in Me a Clean Heart” in 2017. In a chapter of this document entitled “A Closer Look at the Effects of Pornography,” there is a long list of who pornography damages—men, women, children, families, people who become addicted and who are exploited, marriages and future marriages, parenting, and broader society. It defines pornography as a “structure of sin” that breeds other sinful behaviors such as infidelity and abuse. Again, the evidence for this harm emerges from solid research that confirms the truth of what the Church has consistently taught, namely, that all forms of pornography are damaging to lives and relationships.
Second, pornography is wrong because it separates sexuality from the human vocation to love. The art of educating our kids in the area of sexuality requires a crystal clarity that any tolerance of pornography is immoral because it distorts the meaning of our sexuality we’ve been gifted by God in order to love, commit, and serve. We say no to pornography in order to say yes to the beauty and joy of human love based on respect and commitment. This is the approach of Pope Francis as he urges us to reject pornography and anything else that “cripples our capacity for love” or opposes “an education for love, for mutual self-giving.” As beloved children of God, we are made for more than the satisfaction of our base desires as we acknowledge the divinely conferred dignity in ourselves and others. Here is the work of formation for pastors and teachers, but especially of parents as we invite young minds and hearts to embrace a higher and beautiful vision of love inscribed by grace in our human nature.
There are worrying signs that in a culture that is increasingly permissive and liberal, the essential connections between sex, love, commitment, and family are being weakened or even lost. This is not just a statement of fact but a truth that has radical consequences for the understanding and attitudes of people, especially the young. If we come to accept pornography as part of our culture or tolerate as it “no big deal,” the weakening of these connections will be manifest in the people it teaches. In the absence of any counter-value system, pornography becomes a teacher of something that will have huge social consequences in the future with life-long, committed, and exclusive relationships becoming a matter of taste rather than the foundation on which a stable society is built.
It is difficult to talk about the issue of pornography, but it is essential to have the courage to do so. We cannot be complacent, for it is a great evil of our time. Christians acknowledge the struggle to live chastely in the modern world, especially for young people, but the Church strives to accompany human failings with compassion and God’s unfailing mercy. Despite the challenging demands of love in the Gospel, we always keep in sight the dignity of the human person and the true meaning of human sexuality, which is always united with love, respect, love, commitment, marriage, and family. This is why the Church must stand athwart a culture that accepts or tolerates pornography and propose a more persuasive type of education in sexuality and the art of loving for our children. They deserve nothing less.