April 12, 2024

By Mikaela Pannell

This month, we begin a three-part series about pornography and marriage. Read more in the May and June editions of The Bishop’s Bulletin. Before we dive in, it’s important to acknowledge that pornography is a difficult, triggering and/or sensitive topic for many people. If that’s you, take heart! Know that God loves you and wants you to live the most fulfilling life possible. He is the ultimate healer.

Father Kevin O’Dell, parochial vicar of Pastorate 18, says it simply: “Pornography is a curse.”

Because of its widespread use in society, it’s safe to say that if you’re reading this article, either you or someone you know has been adversely affected by pornography use. Father O’Dell has a background in psychology with extensive knowledge in the area of addiction. He says that, sadly, pornography is a curse that can affect even young children.

“They’re estimating that the average age of first contact with pornography is as young as 7 years old,” he notes. Initial exposure at that young of an age can set the trajectory of a child’s life into a long struggle with addiction, but that can happen at whatever age porn is introduced.

If a person is exposed to pornography, especially at a young age, it can become a major part of what forms them. It may also play a big role in the kind of spouse they will be in their future marriage, as well as the type of spouse they seek out.

Is it really that bad?

Father Kevin O’Dell is parochial vicar of Pastorate 18.

What is pornography, exactly, and why is it so bad? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It 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. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense” (CCC 2354).

In addition to the moral problems, porn is also incredibly addictive. Father O’Dell points out that viewing pornography causes the brain to release an abundance of endorphins, which creates physical addiction. For people who have found themselves compulsively viewing it, Father O’Dell says, “Once you enter into that cycle, there’s no safety.”

As with any other addiction, Father O’Dell says even just a little bit of porn use is unsafe. Addiction can turn a person into someone they never thought they’d become. It can also prevent them from living out the vocation they’re called to.

Unfortunately, secular society often paints pornography use as a good thing, touting it as a source of pleasure, or even as an educational tool for its consumers. This is incredibly damaging to single people who are called to marriage in the future, because it warps their understanding of intimacy, and even of a marital relationship.

Father Kristopher Cowles, parochial vicar for Pastorate 22 and co-founder with Father O’Dell of the Chastity Support Group, says of pornography viewers: “They believe they’re learning.” Because this is such a commonly held belief among users and of modern society, and because of the sheer number of users, “porn is actually teaching people what they think sex is meant to be,” he says.

When men and women are not educated on the true and beautiful teaching the Church provides regarding sexuality and relationships, porn quickly fills that space. If someone doesn’t understand the meaning and purpose of marriage and sex before they get married, having a successful marriage down the road will be much more difficult.

In fact, Father O’Dell references statistics published by the American Bar Association, which “suggest that 65 percent of the divorces that will happen this year in the United States, one or both of the parties have been using and abusing pornography.” This is a staggering statistic and a stark reminder that pornography is a weapon Satan uses to attack marriages—a weapon that does an incredible amount of damage, often before a couple even approaches the altar.

Purpose of sex

The catechism makes clear that pornography also twists a person’s mind into believing that the purpose of sex is pleasure. The Church teaches that, in reality, sex has two purposes: to unite the spouses and to procreate. Pleasure is a beautiful gift, but not the purpose of the sexual act. But the draw of porn is that it appeals to the desire for pleasure, and the pleasure experienced from viewing pornography is what sucks people in. In their ministries, both priests have witnessed the shame, guilt and emptiness that accompanies pornography use.

Father Cowles is parochial vicar at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sioux Falls.

Marriage is a selfless relationship where both parties are giving themselves to the other person. Father Cowles says pornography trains the consumer to be selfish, to only think of their own desires, and to take, rather than give. The desire for pleasure can be almost compulsive, and if that is the motivation for a person’s actions, it will bring a lot of harm to a relationship—not just the spousal relationship, but also dating relationships and even friendships. Thankfully, Father Cowles makes an important clarification. The desire for sex and the pleasure derived from it is not a “need” as much as it’s an “appetite.” A person doesn’t need to experience sexual pleasure in order to stay alive the way a person needs food and water. This means that self-control is possible, and so is chastity.

Pornography isn’t just racy photos in a magazine anymore; now, it portrays incredibly brutal, disrespectful, and deviant behavior. Because of the deviancy that is often depicted, Father Cowles says it may cause people to shy away from marriage. The monogamy and intimacy required within the marital relationship may be seen as unattainable for a person trained by modern porn. “It short circuits their ability to enter into long-lasting relationships” he says.

Additionally, there is a fear of whether or not they will be accepted by the person they would like to spend their life with. Father Cowles says some factors fueling that fear may be individuals not wanting to be restricted by the monogamous part of marriage, or because a person whose sexual view has been molded through the lens of pornography may have different desires from the person they are in a relationship with. Porn allows the viewer to jump from video to video, which can turn a person off to marriage, which requires devotion to one person and tending to that person’s desires above their own.

Catholics are called to go against the current when it comes to pornography, which is really difficult to do when most people refuse to acknowledge how damaging it is. Father Cowles points out that a key aspect is “recognizing that this is a drug, and that this is a drug that’s actually depriving men of what it means to be a man.” Not only does it deprive them of what it means to be a man, it deprives husbands and wives of what it means to be spouses.

Thankfully, all is not lost.

Both Father O’Dell and Father Cowles have seen beautiful fruit in the Chastity Support Group. This is a great option for those hoping to break free from pornography use. If you are a single person who wants to have a successful marriage in the future, reach out to either priest to get involved with this group. There is hope, and healing is possible!

Mikaela Pannell is a freelance writer and a parishioner at St. Therese Parish in Sioux Falls, where she serves as a lector. She is married with 2 young children.