NEW ORLEANS — When New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond heard within a week three tragic stories about pornography’s impact on people in his archdiocese, he knew it was time to seek divine direction.
“As I prayed about it, I said, ‘Okay, Lord, it’s a problem, but if I don’t do anything about it, it’s still a problem.’” Archbishop Aymond responded by assembling a team that is developing a five-year pastoral plan to educate parents, educators and clergy about the threat pornography presents and to give them the tools to protect themselves and their families.
The plan will be introduced to the faithful Feb. 17-18 with “Safe Haven Sunday,” a weekend set aside to address the issue within the context of the liturgy. Homilies and prayer petitions will deal with the pornography problem, and parishes will distribute the book Equipped: Smart Catholic Parenting in a Sexualized Culture, which tells about a free seven-day email program offering practical tips on creating safe digital environments in the home. Anyone can enroll in the program by texting the word “secure” to 66866.
David Dawson, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Marriage and Family Life, said by initiating a public conversation about pornography, the archdiocese is attempting to shed light on this scourge and remove it from under the cover of darkness.
“We have to talk about it,” Dawson said. “It gives it more power when there’s shame and keeping it under wraps. This is something we’re all affected by. We need to make it a priority and recognize that this is not something we can avoid and pretend is not there. And God can help us with this.”
Indeed, the pervasiveness of pornography today is such that it is accessible to anyone with a smartphone, tablet or laptop or desktop computer, making children and young people particularly vulnerable.
According to the U.S. bishops’ 2015 document “Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography,” the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11, and nearly all young males and more than half of young females see pornography before the age of 18, often through accidental access via a pop-up ad or typo.
The bishops’ document also notes that, by age 5, half of children go online daily; by age 13, three-quarters have a mobile phone, and, on average, 15-to-18-year-olds spend at least an hour a day consuming media on their phones.
Talking With Children
Because of his work in marriage and family life, Dawson, a father of six whose oldest is 9, said the danger of pornography exposure via the internet was on his radar before the archdiocese undertook its five-year campaign.
In his own home, knowing that the average age of first exposure is 11, he has made sure that his children do not have their own computer devices and that when they do use them, they do so with a parent and with a purpose.
Nonetheless, he said, he is aware that his children’s friends and family members may have devices, so he has begun to talk with his children about what they should do if they see pornography online. “At this point in our history and culture, kids have to be aware of the dangers of these things, so when they are exposed they will come to us and ask for help.”
Timmy McCaffery, the associate director of the archdiocese’s Office of Marriage and Family Life and chairman of the “Create in Me a Clean Heart” initiative committee,. said he and his wife also encourage their children to come to them should they see something online that scares them or they don’t understand.
As the bishops’ document points out, children often encounter pornography through an accidental click. “But once a kid sees something at a young age,” McCaffery said, “he’s not in a position to be able to handle it and distinguish it from something good.”
McCaffery said, even at 6 years old, his oldest child has friends who have their own iPods and tablets. He and his wife are responding by teaching their children that when they use such devices, they do so with their parents.
“They also don’t see my wife and I surfing aimlessly,” he said. “When we use a tablet, phone or computer, it’s with a purpose. When that purpose is served, we put the device down and go back to living our lives.”
‘People Feel Powerless’
He said the response so far to the archdiocese’s initiative has been overwhelming — and one of gratitude. “I think people were caught off-guard initially that the archdiocese was so willing to talk about it. Especially among educators, administrators and parents, people feel powerless, even though they know it’s an issue. Some parents might say, ‘not my kid,’ but when they sit through a few minutes of talking about it, they know it’s a worthwhile conversation.
“I think educators and priests are especially aware of the issue and are ready to jump in. They’re just glad someone else is starting the conversation because they don’t know what to do and where to turn.”
McCaffery said the archdiocese has received help in developing its plan from Covenant Eyes, a company that provides accountability and filtering services for internet use.
“We’re partnering with them because they do such a good job of partnering with other resources around the world — counseling, speaking, presenting, research,” he said. “They’re connected with some of the best resources in the world.”
Ryan Foley, an internet safety consultant and vice president for business development at the Owosso, Michigan-based Covenant Eyes, said his company was interested in building a strategic plan to help apply the bishops’ “Clean Heart” document and was seeking a diocese willing to serve as a prototype. “We as a company said, ‘We’re going to give that document life and take seriously how to implement it.’”
Now that Archbishop Aymond has taken the lead by responding, Foley said, several other bishops and dioceses have expressed interest in doing something similar.
As a Catholic, Foley said he is convinced that the Church cannot just deal with the pornography problem in the confessional alone.
“We have to get proactive. … We tend to deal with problems after they become problems,” he said, “but if we don’t get control of this, we’re going to see continued decline in marriages, early trauma in children and all these negative things happening.”
Changing Views of Sex
Already, he said, researchers are finding that young people’s view of sexuality is changing in a way that diverges from the Church’s teaching. Foley cited a recent Barna study that, for example, found millennials were more likely than older adults to consider the purpose of sex to be self-expression and personal fulfillment.
In reporting the study’s findings, Barna merely notes as a factor the liberalization of social and moral attitudes toward sex since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but Foley is concerned about pornography’s effect on an already-sexualized culture because it attacks the core of what the Church teaches. “This could be the greatest impediment to evangelization the Church has ever seen,” he said.
Archbishop Aymond agreed, pointing out that pornography also spawns other social maladies such as addictions, human trafficking and disrespect for women. “I think it’s one of the greatest moral issues of our day, and people are not very willing to talk about it. It’s the elephant in the room.”
Dawson added that pornography’s availability has meant that what is being learned at the foundational level about sex is often being conveyed through porn, distorting the viewer’s understanding of his or her value as a human being and the nature of love and relationships. “If I’m affected by porn, my understanding of my value is very much affected. I can’t understand God’s image of me if porn is part of the way I understand the world.”
Although the Church as a source of healing, mercy and restoration can do many things to help fix the hurt caused by pornography, Foley said he believes the greater need now is to get ahead of the problem by working on prevention.
The New Orleans “Clean Heart” initiative began with a letter from Archbishop Aymond to all pastors, catechetical leaders and educators, followed by two days of workshops last March. “That went so well,” McCaffery said, “that the archdiocese decided to close all the schools for one day in November and invite educators for a day of formation.” A key part of the day was an hourlong presentation on the issue of pornography.
Now, the next step is getting the message out through “Safe Haven Sunday,” a name inspired by the U.S. bishops’ “Clean Heart” document, which says, “The use of pornography by anyone in the home deprives the home of its role as a safe haven and has negative effects throughout a family’s life and across generations.”
McCaffery said “Safe Haven Sunday” is a kind of trial run to help the archdiocese see how it can use its resources to reach the largest number of people. Going forward, a clearinghouse website for different audiences will be key. Also planned are clergy trainings and presentations to parents in schools and parishes.
Reaching and empowering parents is especially important, McCaffery said, because high-school and middle-school students cannot be expected to police themselves when it comes to such a potent substance as pornography.
“Kids are being asked to handle such powerful media in a way that their brains are not yet able to handle,” he said. “Parents need to be very aware and be involved in decisions made in the home, especially with technology.”
Here to Help
Through its campaign, McCaffery said, the archdiocese wants to help people understand that this is a big issue, but it’s not the end of the road. “It’s not just that porn is bad, but we’re here to help. It’s such a powerful substance, and it affects us more deeply than people give it credit for. … Young people especially are influenced and drawn in, and how it affects them is overwhelming. We want to be able to say, especially as parents: ‘We are here to help. God is here to help.’”
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.