The U.S. Bishops recently committed themselves to fighting pornography. Do they know what they're up against?
At their autumn meeting last week, the bishops of the United States approved draft language for a pastoral statement on the issue of pornography. When released, the statement crafted by Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, along with his confreres on the USCCB’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth will be the Church’s latest salvo against the soul-killing, body-destroying curse of pornography. Just last September, the bishops called for a day of fasting on behalf of those addicted to or exploited by pornography. In their statement, the bishops cited a pastoral letter by Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington (VA), who wrote, “in my forty years as a priest, I have seen the evil of pornography spread like a plague throughout our culture.”
Bishop Loverde is right: we live in a culture of porn. Globally, the porn business is estimated to bring in at least $97 billion annually, with the US share accounting for $14 billion. That’s more than Apple Computer’s annual revenues for all the music, books, applications, movies, and television shows sold through iTunes. Gone, of course, are the days of the dirty movie theater in a rough part of town, and many of the “adult book stores” that once blighted urban areas and interstate exits have disappeared. That’s progress, but if anything the problem is far more insidious now than it has been in recent decades.
Today, porn is mainlined into American homes and digital devices by Internet service providers (ISP) and major cable television companies like Cox Communications, Verizon, Comcast, and DirectTV. Hotel conglomerates like Hilton (which includes Double Tree, Embassy Suites, Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, and others) and InterContinental Hotels Group (Candlewood Suites, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites, and others) also rake in tens of millions annually through their associations with smut providers like Lodgenet. Pornography is big business, and like all big business the only normative value is profit.
The social effects of pornography belie its designation as an “adult” pursuit. A recent study in the United Kingdom found that a third of children there had been exposed to hardcore porn by the age of ten. By the middle teens 97% of boys and 80% of girls had viewed porn. And fully 20% of boys in their late teens admitted that they were addicted to porn. But of course, children are more often the victims of porn than consumers. Just this past week, police in Canada, the United States, and other countries broke up a major child porn ring. 348 adults were arrested and nearly 400 kids around the world were rescued from what investigators described as a global, multi-million dollar operation with distribution in 94 countries. The shocking scale of the arrests even prompted Google CEO Eric Schmidt to order a wholesale re-engineering of his company’s search engine algorithms in order to staunch the flow of kiddie porn referrals from his servers.
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As reported here last June, the British government under Prime Minister David Cameron has taken the lead in fighting back against Internet porn. By the end of 2014, all British ISPs will automatically filter out pornographic material unless a customer specifically chooses to “opt in.” Various interests, including members of the gay community, have condemned the plan, which has been applauded by family and faith-based groups. Still, at least something is happening there. In the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder has persistently refused to enforce obscenity laws on anything other than child porn. In fact, since 2009, the Justice Department has only prosecuted
two individuals for obscenity violations not related to children, and those involved extreme depictions of bestiality and scatology. Of course, the Republican majority that has controlled the House of Representatives since 2010 has also failed to offer any serious new legislation to combat the porn epidemic.
Catholic teaching is clear on the personal sinfulness of using pornography, of course, but it is equally blunt about its deleterious social effects, as well. One way or another, pornography violates each of the seven principal themes of Catholic social teaching (CST). By its very nature, porn is an assault on the life and dignity of the human person; it is directly opposed to the integrity of the family and the health of communities; it tends to anesthetize the moral sense, thereby leading users to abandon both the rights of others and their own responsibilities; it encourages the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, especially through sex trafficking; it traps performers and other workers into lives of degradation; it violates the solidarity we should show toward all people, especially those who choose pornography out of despair; and by making the gift of sexual intimacy a cheap commodity it amounts to hatred of God’s good creation.
All this is true, and yet if you ask any priest, he’ll tell you that the use of pornography is one of the most commonly confessed sins among Catholic men. And that’s for those who actually avail themselves of the Sacrament! How much deeper the problem must be in the wider, secular community. In the end, we can and should legislate against the production and distribution of pornography. We can enforce the law by prosecuting violators. We can even work to restore the social opprobrium that used to attach to pornography and its use. But we’re facing a demand problem – it’s a buyer’s market all the way – and only conversion, one heart at a time, will begin to roll back the culture of porn.