In a conversation with a priest in my diocese, I shared my spiritual director's report that every other confession he hears from men involves the sin of pornography. The pastor's response was shocking: "Oh, it's much worse than that!" Since then, this sad reality has been confirmed by many others: The sin of pornography is overwhelming Catholic men.
Pornography is now more popular than baseball. In fact, it has become America's pastime, and we are awash in it. Porn is on our computers, our smartphones, and our cable or satellite TV. It's common in our hotels and even in many retail stores and gas stations. For many men - and, increasingly, women - it is part of their daily lives.
Yet, Catholic teaching on the subject is clear. Use of pornography is a "grave offense." The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Pornography ... offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others" (2354).
In Life of Christ, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote, "The penalty of those who live too close to the flesh is to never understand the spiritual." Hardcore pornography on the Internet offers an ocean of perversion. It takes the mind where it should never go, loosening its moral moorings and leaving it adrift in a treacherous sea of sin. That is the fate of those who give themselves over to pornography: They find themselves alone with their images and an insatiable appetite for more.
While astounding to many, users of pornography eventually put religion, marriage, family, work and friendships secondary to their desire for pornography. They may want to change, to go back to life as it was before porn, but most will return and descend further. Dr. Mary Anne Layden, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the Center for Cognitive Therapy, likens pornography to crack cocaine. In a testimony to the U.S. Senate in November 2004, she noted, "This material is potent, addictive and permanently implanted in the brain."
Sadly, for the regular consumer of pornography, confession and contrition are normally not sufficient to break from pornography because, like drug abuse, pornography is not just a bad habit - it is often an addiction.
A DESIRE THAT DOES NOT SATISFY
Addiction to pornography is now commonplace among adults and is even a growing problem for children and teenagers. Few who are addicted will get help, and the consequences can be lifelong and severe.
Pornography's addictive strength is a result of long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic changes in the brain. Psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of the best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself (Penguin, 2007), writes, "Pornography, by offering an endless harem of sexual objects, hyperactivates the appetitive system. Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated. Just as our muscles become impatient for exercise if we've been sitting all day, so too do our senses hunger to be stimulated" (108).
With pornography, in other words, our brain's pleasure system that excites our desires is activated, but there is no real satisfaction. This explains why users can spend endless hours searching for pornography on the Internet.
Doidge further notes that porn viewers develop tolerances so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation. Thus, they often move to harder, more deviant pornography. More than a decade ago, Margaret A. Healy, adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law, and Muireann O'Brian, former head of End Child Pornography, Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT), observed a link between adult and child pornography. Since that time, scores of current and former law enforcement authorities have noted that many adult porn consumers will eventually move to child pornography, even if they are not pedophiles and had no interest is such material at first. These findings account, in part, for the prevalence of child pornography in the world today.
Viewing porn changes the user's attitude toward sex, his or her spouse and society. He or she uses sexual fantasies to get aroused, tries to get partners to act out pornographic scenes, is more likely to engage in sexual harassment and sexual aggression, and views sex as a casual, non-intimate, recreational privilege. Laydon and other clinical psychologists have reported that, ironically, erectile dysfunction is commonly associated with constant porn use among men. One reason for this is that the constant search for sexual images and often-accompanying masturbation lead to dissatisfaction with one's spouse. After all, a man's wife cannot possibly maintain an image that competes with the women in the fantasy world of pornographic videos and images. The regular porn consumer sets himself up for disappointment and the almost-certain disintegration of his marriage.
Marital love is meant to be a total giving of oneself to a lifelong, faithful partner. It is a trusting, selfless giving. By contrast, pornographic sex is selfish, demeaning and mechanical. In his catechesis on the theology of the body, Pope John Paul II emphasized that there is a "moral goodness" in marriage, which is faithfulness. That goodness can be adequately achieved only in the exclusive relationship of both parties. Too many people miss out on that unique goodness of marriage and settle for the temporary, perverted and unfulfilling excitement of pornography.
PROTECTING OUR CHILDREN
A father has a duty to keep his children from pornography and a sacred obligation to set an example of purity for his family. What greater authority could a father have about the harms of pornography than the words of Christ?: "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:28).
If you have become a porn consumer, ask yourself this: Am I the same man who professed fidelity to my wife on my wedding day? Fidelity cannot be maintained if one consumes pornography. Wives of porn consumers feel as though their husbands are committing adultery. Affairs of the mind are every bit as destructive as affairs of the heart.
Divorce lawyers report a high correspondence between pornography consumption and divorces. One 2004 study in Social Science Quarterly titled "Adult Social Bonds and Use of Internet Pornography" revealed that persons having an extramarital affair were more than three times more likely to have accessed Internet porn than those who did not have affairs. Further, those ever having engaged in paid sex were 3.7 times more apt to be using Internet porn than those who had not.
If you have a porn habit, your children may follow. Many pornography addicts report that their first exposure to porn was the discovery of their parent's porn collection, which started them on a life of sexual confusion and exploitation. A 2006 survey of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children revealed that 79 percent of youth gain unwanted exposure to pornography in the home.
To a child, pornography normalizes sexual harm, according to Dr. Sharon Cooper, a pediatrician at the University of North Carolina. "Research has shown that the prefrontal cortex - the home of good judgment, common sense, impulse control and emotions - is not completely mature until children are 20-22 years of age," she explained. The introduction of pornography to the brain's prefrontal cortex is therefore devastating to key areas of a child's development and may be life-altering. "When a child sees adult pornography ... their brains will convince them that they are actually experiencing what they are seeing," Cooper added. In other words, what a child sees in porn is what they believe is reality.
Some children will actually emulate what they see in pornography and experiment on siblings, relatives and friends. Many studies show that children exposed to pornography initiate sexual activity at an earlier age, have more sex partners, and have multiple partners in a short period of time. A 2001 study in the journal Pediatrics also found that teenage girls exposed to pornographic movies have sex more frequently and have a strong desire to become pregnant.
THERE IS HELP AND HOPE
Thankfully, there are organizations, counselors and resources that provide hope for those suffering from the destructive effects of pornography on children, marriages, relationships and society. Many who have been addicted - adults and children alike - have been helped through counseling or online exercises offered by recovery services.
It is critical, however, that each person and each family does a reality check. Ask yourselves whether you and your family are protected from the scourge of pornography. Do you have adequate parental control or filtering software on your home computer? Is the computer in an open area of the home? If you have children, have you talked to them about the spiritual and social cost of pornography? Do you have premium cable or satellite channels on your TV that offer pornography as regular fare?
If you are viewing pornography or indecent material, you are harming your very soul and perhaps those of your children and your spouse. The biblical warning is severe: "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out" (Mk 9:47). At a minimum, make sure that your computer both at home and in the office is filtered and that you have an "accountability partner" - perhaps your wife or a good friend - who has access to your computer and the sites you visit. Finally, get involved in the war on pornography. It is worth the fight for you, your family and your nation.
Patrick A. Trueman is the president and C.E.O. of Morality in Media. A member of St. Francis Xavier Council 6608 in Buffalo, Minn., Trueman served as chief of the U.S. Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Criminal Division, under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It is reprinted from Columbia: the magazine of the Knights of Columbus.