Last week the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a new document on pornography, “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” which aims to offer “a word of hope and healing” for those who have been affected by pornography, whether in the viewing or production.
It comes at the right time. Pornography today is close to a $100 billion business worldwide, according to a January NBC report. And while it’s never been a more public and accepted part of American society, pornography’s connections to crime, human trafficking, violence and hyper-sexualization go largely undiscussed.
So, too, do the pornography industry’s unsettling connections in some places to public education. The majority of the pornography produced in the United States (admittedly a somewhat moot claim given the centrality of the Internet to pornographic distribution) comes out of the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles; it’s a publicly regulated industry there—a recent law required that actors must use condoms while filming.
And its earnings, among other things, help pay for the Los Angeles Unified School District; according to a recent report from Jezebel, the district has made $10 million in the last five years allowing adult films to be shot after hours on their campuses.
After parents complained about their school being used in a recent production, the L.A.U.S.D. froze its temporarily agreement with the adult film industry. But shortly thereafter they were back in business, with new requirements of a pre-submission of synopsis and activity checklist.
Elsewhere schools struggle with adult video sites or sex toy stores located close to campus, as well as with the moderation of student activity on both school and personal devices, which can involve not only the viewing of pornographic material but student production of sexually graphic images or texts. The complexities of these issues seem to grow exponentially.
The Catholic Church has often struggled with articulating a vision of human sexuality that speaks at the same time to the clear teachings of the church and ordinary people’s human experience. Documents can go on and on praising the virtues of chastity or warning of the sins of masturbation, but if those comments are not expressed in a way that suggests some understanding of where normal people are coming from, the challenges and joys of the affective life, the church’s words can end up leaving it seeming less a source for wisdom than sadly out of touch.
In this regard, “Create in Me a Clean Heart” does an excellent job. Its opening section, entitled “The Beauty and Vocation of the Human Person in Christ,” offers a rich and unusually accessible meditation on human sexuality. “Every one of us is a gift,” the document sets forth, “with the inviolable dignity of a person.” As God is love, so are we meant to be “love and communion.” “Men and women discover the call to love written in their very bodies,” the bishops write. Our bodies tell us that we come from another and “that we are ‘for’ another, that we have the capacity for fruitful communion with another.”
Having laid this foundation of dignity and gift, the document suggests the kind of life to which we are called. Understood as dignified creatures of God, we are to be respected and to respect the blessing of one another. Our bodies, like our partners, “are not meant to be used but loved,” the bishops write, to be seen as not just objects for our entertainment but as persons to be cared for and respected. The document imagines our lives as a lifelong integration of our sexuality, an ongoing journey from lust to trust and love. It’s a depiction that resonates deeply, no matter what one’s prior views on such teachings.
When it comes to the actual subject matter of pornography, however, the document to some extent falters. The poetic language of the first section is replaced at the start with the Catechism’s more severe and technical language of “grave matter” and “mortal sins,” terms that are far less meaningful to younger generations of Catholics, and also terms that struggle to appreciate human realities. On the one hand, it is very difficult for most Catholics today to accept that the viewing of pornography should be considered a sin in the same category as rape or murder.
And on the other, the issues that make pornography most clearly grave—namely, the situations of those performing those acts on screen, the threat, violence or hardship they might be experiencing—are given secondary and often lesser attention. “Create in Me a Clean Heart” does eventually come to those crucial topics and others, like addiction, but only after a section whose focus lies mostly on the same things we have been saying for decades: pornography defiles one’s own mind/body and objectifies others.
When a subsection entitled “Pornography’s link to other sins” focuses almost entirely on masturbation, with issues like child pornography or sex trafficking mentioned only in passing as something that will be discussed later, the limitations of the document are apparent.
There are also a few genuinely strange moments. The story of Adam and Eve is offered as a historical explanation for the reality of sin and lust in our world. And plain old lustful thoughts are given unfortunate emphasis. The text quotes Matthew 5:27-28: “I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” arguing that “regardless of the relationship between partners, looking at another person with lust—as only a sexual object to enjoy, control, and use—is a sin. It is a disordered view of the person.”
Of course, the objectification of other human beings is wrong and it is our duty as human beings to overcome that temptation. But it’s also a fact of life that such thoughts happen from time to time. They are biological, instinctive. That is not to say we are proud of them (God knows), but they are normal. And what is important is not those passing thoughts but our subsequent action.
As any priest who has sat very long in a confessional can tell you, arguments that suggest random and unexpected lustful thoughts are disordered in some way can do considerable damage to some very faithful Catholics’ ability to live an integrated, healthy sexuality. They can cause burdens of great shame and also potentially great fear.
Having said that, “Create in Me a Clean Heart” is in many respects a big step forward for the U.S. church. In addition to inviting initial reflections on human sexuality, it highlights a number of other important issues. It reflects on how regular viewing of pornography can lend itself to a sexualization of those around us and a “habit of objectification.” The document also points out that as pornography has become more mainstream it has also gotten more violent and degrading, again influencing our own imaginations in ways that are both unhealthy and potentially harmful to those we love.
And it notes we are not just talking about the imaginations of adults but of children, who on a daily basis are likely to encounter more sexually charged images than any of us growing up before the last 10 years ever did. In the Internet age everything is instantly accessible while also actively seeking out our attention. The risks to children in such a setting are impossible to overstate.
At the end of “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” the bishops directly address different groups who are affected by or involved with pornography, from viewers to producers to those whose lives been adversely affected by a loved one’s use of pornography. And once again the document offers some rich and inspiring words. To those exploited by the pornography industry—who are notably now the first group mentioned—the bishops write, “You are beloved and cherished by God! The Church reaches out to you.... No matter what you have experienced in your past, remember that you remain beloved by God, have inviolable dignity, and are worthy of respect and care.”
Similarly to those who use pornography, the U.S. bishops write, “You are beloved sons and daughters of the Father. Be not afraid to approach the altar of mercy and ask for forgiveness. Many good people struggle with this sin. You are not alone.”
As the statement goes on, one might wish once again for a bit more of a stated appreciation for the struggle and complexities of ordinary human life, the mundane struggles like loneliness, grief or boredom that often have large parts to play in such practices.
But even so, in "Create in Me A Clean Heart" the care of the bishops for all those connected to pornography is clear and palpable. They write with affection and concern. And that is great progress indeed.