I read a thought-provoking article on LifeSiteNew last October 24. Written by Fr Michael Shields, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia, it was entitled “Pornography is the silent “cancer” of our time.” Fr Shields wrote, “Pornography came to Magadan like a cold wind, blowing through the city and leaving behind openly pornographic magazines and videos strewn across newsstands and book stores. It arrived all at once.” He compared this new “cancer” to cigarette-smoking: how people were at first ignorant of its bad effects on health; how it was tolerated until “slowly society changed as people learned that cigarettes can cause cancer. Movements began to ban cigarette smoking in public places. Signs warning of the dangers appeared on packages and billboards…Over time, a smoking culture changed into a non-smoking culture.” Fr Shields concluded his article by stating soberly, “We are in a similar time right now – tolerating a very terrible cancer that is eating away at our society and destroying homes, marriages and souls…”
One might add that it is also destroying young peoples’s lives. I had filed this article away, but given the spate of articles and media interest in the subject of children and pornography this last week – Allison Pearson in the Telegraph on Thursday, Catherine Pepinster on Thought for the Day on Friday, and Cole Moreton in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, for instance – it seems timely to re-read Fr Shields and ponder his words.
Pornography is a difficult subject for the secular, liberal society that we live in to tackle. On the one hand it insists that adults, anyone over the age of 16, are free to do whatever they want with their bodies and that any form of censorship is wrong; that anyone who calls for restraints on behaviour is narrow-minded or a bigot; and that as long as one’s conduct “doesn’t hurt anyone else” it must be tolerated. This freedom to do as we please as regards sex must never be questioned. On the other hand, it insists on unworkable schemes to protect children from the merest and remotest possibility of paedophile attacks and conducts retrospective witch hunts on alleged past sexual predators. Both these stances are confused, contradictory and hypocritical.
What struck me, on reading Moreton and Allison Pearson, is their sense of embarrassment in having to relinquish their liberal credentials when it comes to the corruption of young people by pornography. Moreton wants us to know, “I’m not a prude, but…” and Pearson writes, “It’s not often that I unleash my inner Mary Whitehouse, but the way young girls today are expected to conform to a hideous porn culture makes me want to don a pair of glasses with upswept frames and get myself one of those battleaxe perms.” (Note her mention of the easily caricatured physical appearance of a good and brave Christian woman who tried to draw the country’s attention to this growing problem as early as the 1960s.)
But it was what Pearson went on to say later in her article that particularly caught my attention: “I spent three minutes looking at YouPorn yesterday and I felt like I needed at least three years in a darkened room listening to the B Minor Mass to reconstitute my soul. What the hell would this writhing abyss look like to a 14-year-old…?” As far as I know Pearson is not someone of religious faith; yet confronted by sheer evil she looks instinctively towards the kind of spiritual beauty exemplified by Bach in order to cleanse herself from its destructive effects.
This is not a surprise to a Catholic. We know we are fallen creatures; that Hell is real (and starts in this life); that our souls, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, refer to “that by which [man] is most especially in God’s image”; that the Mass is not just a peak aesthetic experience but actually enacts the deepest drama of our redemption; and perhaps most importantly in this context, that only the grace of sacramental Confession can truly cleanse those same souls once they have been in contact with pornography. (I should add here I have never watched YouPorn, even for reasons of journalistic research, for the simple reason I know it would be very bad for me, like drinking poison. Not for nothing does the Church warn us to “carefully avoid occasions of sin.”)
Like Pearson, I want to protect the innocence of children, and these days my grandchildren. Not being technological, I cannot suggest ways this might be done effectively, either on the internet or on mobiles – indeed, if it is possible. But like Fr Shields, I see it not just as a very serious social or psychological problem, but as a spiritual cancer that, in his words, is “destroying souls.” In his article he is talking of adult male addiction in particular; but he would agree that children and young people will imitate the adults around them, adults who are shaping today the society that these young people will inherit tomorrow. If adults demand freedom from moral constraints over their own behaviour, what example are they giving to the next generation? Moreton and Pearson are rightly appalled at the corrosive effect on children by easy access to pornography. But where were journalists like them when Mary Whitehouse was fighting her lonely battle against the sophisticated liberal intelligentsia of her day? I suspect they were mocking her seeming prudery, provincialism and lower middle-class values.