Each year on March 19, Catholics throughout the world interrupt the austerities of Lent to celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, patron of fathers and of the universal Church. Coming as I do from a Sicilian family, this feast has always carried a special significance. My father was not unlike St. Joseph insofar as he sacrificed mightily for his family. A man of deep and quiet faith, he showed me what it means to be a man.
My father could not have imagined the challenges involved in protecting a family from today’s relentless assault of pornographic material. It has truly become mainstream, nearly impossible to avoid even by the most cautious. This pornographic culture stems from, and feeds back into, an extremely distorted view of human sexuality. We are deeply confused about things my father’s generation would have taken entirely for granted, and the results of that confusion are everywhere evident.
When I was ordained a priest in 1965, two in ten marriages ended in divorce; that rate has more than doubled. Abortion then was illegal; today over a million babies are aborted annually in this country alone. Back then fewer than 300,000 Americans were incarcerated; now one in thirty-one adult Americans is in prison or on probation.
As a young priest in the 1970s, I served for a decade in campus ministry settings. In those years, the first fruits of the sexual revolution were already apparent. Pope Francis’s image of the Church as a “field hospital” in the midst of such wreckage would describe it well.
Today’s “field hospital” must aggressively treat the vicious cancer of pornography, which lies at the heart of our societal ills. “Unchastity,” wrote Joseph Pieper in The Four Cardinal Virtues, “begets a blindness of spirit which practically excludes all understanding of the goods of the spirit; unchastity splits the power of decision.” Over the years I have witnessed the nature and effects of pornography’s splitting powers in our families and communities.
Nearly eight years ago I wrote a pastoral letter on the subject, Bought with a Price, a new edition of which is being released today. The pornography epidemic is something to which all people of good will must devote more attention and talk about more openly, but first we need to understand something of the scope and character of the problem.
Those who deny that the act of viewing pornography has any negative consequences must understand just how toxic the situation has become. It may be that a man now in his forties, say, remembers being a curious adolescent, stealing glances at a magazine in a neighbor’s home or in the aisle of a convenience store. As morally problematic and harmful as that act surely is, such behavior was arguably slow to become habitual and the physiological and psychological consequences were infrequently severe. That experience is far removed from what young people face today.
The most graphic forms of pornography are now easily and anonymously accessible on the internet and on any smartphone. Many among us are now caught in patterns of addiction that rival those of drugs and alcohol in their grip on the individual, if not in the disruption that results in their lives. Depression, anxiety, isolation, marital strife, and job loss can all be intensified for those caught in the web of this addiction.
More subtly, though, current research underscores what we are hearing in the classrooms, counseling sessions, and in the confessional: This addiction is not merely behavioral, a bad habit that can be broken like any other. Chronic viewing of pornographic material impacts one’s brain chemistry in a manner that can “hook” a person and lead to a quest for increasingly lurid forms of pornography. Over time, more and more is needed to produce the same effect. The brains of habitual users of pornography are strikingly similar to those of alcoholics, and the part of the brain involved in moral and ethical decision-making is weakened by viewing pornography. Once brain chemistry is remapped, it becomes very difficult for one to “reset” to a sense of normality in the future. Any man can tell you that these images are often very hard to forget.
While the suffering experienced by the addict cannot be overstated, we must recognize that there is also social harm. As a pastor, I have seen how damaging this shift continues to be in family life, courtship, and marriage preparation. One of my great concerns is the impact this plague is having on children. What is their future if their parents’ marriage is destroyed by this type of infidelity, or if they themselves are exposed to such toxic material long before they are able to experience the joy of true love and romance? Even the smallest child today often has easy access to a parent’s or sibling’s smartphone and is surrounded by screens.
When my pastoral letter on pornography was first issued, a high school student in my diocese wrote that “if a person knew that after viewing pornography he would be a bad example for his kids, would objectify his spouse and friends, and lastly destroy his relationship and vision of God, he would not do it.”
Just as some drugs are described as “gateways” to more serious substance abuse, a young person who experiences lust disconnected from an actual human person is at tremendous risk for failing ever to understand the beauty of God’s gift of human sexuality. Is not the so-called “hook-up” culture evidence of this? In addition, while it is certainly not the outcome for all who become involved with pornography, might it not be reasonable to posit that the dramatic rise in human sex trafficking is partly fueled by a pornographic culture?
And yet, despite all this, there is hope. Both scientists and believers are sounding the alarm. We know much more about the physiological aspects of this addiction and how best to reverse them. Behavioral change is possible, though this is not simply a question of behavior.
This is not a problem a person can solve on their own. Alongside the central commitment to prayer, the communal element of the recovery process needs to be given special emphasis. Very often, a key factor in one’s descent into pornography addiction is a lack of affirmation, acceptance, and trust in one’s relationships. An important part of the ascent, then, can also be the sharing of this struggle with others, allowing their love and concern to aid in the healing. As Pope Francis has said, “No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community.”
Pornography thrives in the shadowy silence of isolation, but the warm light of love and friendship can do much to help cast it out. Women certainly have a critical role in this fight and should take a stance of absolute intolerance toward pornography, but in a particular way men need to be recalled to their God-given role as protectors of their families and of society if we are to overcome it.
A man in one of my parishes told me that Bought with a Price woke him up to the many ways in which his pornography use affected him as a father and husband. “I now understand,” he wrote, “that the true character of a man is shown in how he acts when nobody is watching.”
That is a lesson that St. Joseph, whom we honor today, knew well. Let the battle for purity begin.
Paul S. Loverde is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. A new edition of his pastoral letter on pornography, Bought with a Price, is available at Amazon for Kindle and at www.arlingtondiocese.org/purity.
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