Four Surprising Things the Church Doesn’t Use to Define Pornography
The definition of pornography is something that has eluded modern society for years. Most notably, when the Supreme Court issued judgement as to whether or not pornography is an obscenity, Justice Potter Stewart concluded:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it… —Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964)
This standard of each person’s judgement defining what is and isn’t pornography apparently took hold and is largely prevalent in society today, so much to the degree that something is only considered pornography when it cannot be considered anything else; when no more clothing can be removed and when it is marketed as such. Interestingly enough, as America, in culture and government, has become more and more secularized, the “Keep calm and Catholic on” mindset has found root in many of the faithful. When a Catholic can no longer trust society for even residue of common sense, they turn to the Church for answers with greater frequency. If the above definition of pornography cannot be accepted, what does the Church say?
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. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2354 (emphasis added)
For the sake of dispelling any preconceived notions, I think it is important to make note of what the Church does not use as criteria for defining pornography:
- Nudity – It seems that pornography is universally understood to go hand in hand with nudity, but this is not so. The Catechism only names “real or simulated sexual acts” and does not make a distinction for revealing certain parts of the body. The connection of nudity to pornography can lead to a significant misunderstanding of a legitimate display of nudity within art; one sees nudity as pornography in either all cases or no cases and has difficulty with those who might find a distinction between the two. Nudity can properly be displayed in art for the sake of beauty and, technically speaking, could exist in Hollywood movies, but given the secularization and sexualization of the western culture, nudity is too closely tied with objectification for it to to been otherwise (with rare exception as in movies with naked babies or those about the Holocaust or indigenous peoples). This is similar to the practice of liturgial dance, which is not actually forbidden, but is unusable in western churches:
Here, dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure. For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations.
- Marketing as pornographic – A DVD movie containing sexual scenes might be sold in the same Drama section as The Song of Bernadette, but that does not change the fact that portions of the film meet the Church’s definition of pornography. Undoubtedly, this false pretense is often the only difference between what is and isn’t considered to be porn.
- Societal acceptance as pornographic – As I stated above, today’s “I know it when I see it” non-definition of pornography is a far cry from what it used to be. Movies with sexual content might be accepted by usually moral people if there is only one offending scene. Or two. Or there is no nudity. Or only brief nudity. After a while, it begins to sound like people who don’t think life begins at conception and start throwing out landmarks in development for the life threshold; when the heart starts beating, brainwaves, can survive on his or her own at 22 weeks, and so on.
- Intention of being pornographic – It seems unlikely that major Hollywood directors think, “I want at least one porn scene in my movie” and unlikely that major film actors think something similar, yet the scenes are directed and the actors star in them. In spite of the intention of producing “art,” grave damage is still done to the hundreds of participants (listed in the movie’s credits) as well as the public, as is mentioned in #2354. Matt Archbold at CMR brought up an interesting point about mature content in movies by drawing a distinction between the films that glorify sex and violence and the films that illustrate the degradation of illicit sex and violence. I agree with his point that such a contrast easily exists in regard to violence in movies, but the issue of sex is altogether different; an actor is never actually being stabbed in the heart, but an actress is actually revealing her body or “simulating sexual acts” – regardless of context.
I understand that this reading of the Church’s definition of pornography is not common and can cause a bit of disruption in one’s movie collection. There was a time that I owned all the movies I loved, but upon reading and meditating on #2354 I was faced with a choice: 1)Consent to owning some of the greatest movies ever made that happened to contain scenes of pornography; 2)Throw out the movies that contained scenes of pornography; 3)Deny the Church’s teaching and head to the Cafeteria.