Generation XXX

July 24, 2013 | 1 comment

Two days ago, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that all British users of broadband Internet would have pornographic content blocked at the source. Those wishing to access such content will have to opt in.

Such censorship is a novelty for the modern West, where the enshrinement of freedom—or license—has trumped old notions of public morality. Our obscenity laws are gone or disregarded, our entertainment codes eroded. We’ve resigned ourselves to the reality that navigating modern culture’s minefield of smut is purely a private responsibility.

But now this. What are we to make of it?

There are problems, sure. There’s the old quandary of definition. If in 1964 a Supreme Court justice could only say of obscenity, “I know it when I see it,” how on earth are we to achieve an objective standard today, when deviancy has since been dumbed down by many orders of magnitude?

The libertarian-minded Catholics in whose pack I sometimes run see another power-grab by big government. And I don’t think they’re all wrong. Subsidiarity seems to suggest that sexual purity is a matter for individuals, families, and communities first—not the Feds. It’s not inconceivable that federal porn censorship could be a test run or stalking-horse for censorship of other kinds. Could Great Britain, which has already banned Catholic Answers Press author Robert Spencer from entering the country, forbid or require an opt-in to view websites critical of Islam? Could America someday blacklist Catholic.com because of its “hateful” content opposing same-sex marriage? One also wonders what mischief might be wrought by the creation of a federal porn-user database—or, to complete our train of thought, a national Catholic website-visitor list.

Finally, when the state regulates something, it implicitly endorses it. So inasmuch as the law is a teacher, it’s more desirable to ban pornography rather than put conditions on its use—as if those conditions justified it.

All these concerns aside, there’s something laudable in a public authority’s recognition that pornography poses a serious danger to society. Cameron warned that it is “corroding childhood,” and this is not hyperbole. Indeed, we’re entering a new and terrifying phase of Western civilization: one in which a majority of young adults are entering their marriage years, their employment years, their community-leadership years, having been submersed in porn culture their entire lives.

There’s no precedent for this in human history, so we can’t know with certainty how it will play out. But evidence suggests it won’t be good. Porn consumption re-wires the human brain. It conditions people to see the opposite sex as an object to be used rather than a person to be loved. It creates a mental and spiritual aversion to marriage, children, self-discipline, gratification delay: all the things on which a virtuous and prosperous society are built.

We know how porn use harms marriages, careers, and vocations, and generally rots the soul of those who pick it up in adulthood—everyone from the Boomers to GenXers, whose formative years didn’t feature easy porn access on their Ipads. What will be the fate of later generations, whose porn exposure dates from the cradle? 

The answer can only involve profound personal woundedness that will manifest itself in myriad public ways.

So, back to England. On the whole, I approve of what the government there is trying to do, given:

  • the gravity of pornography’s harms, not only to individual users and their families but to the common good;
  • that its threat it not just moral and metaphysical but mental and physical, making it a matter of public health;
  • that the state was once in the obscenity-censorship business and is today engaged in morality-policing of other kinds anyway.

Now, not everything that is immoral can or should be state-regulated or criminalized. Appealing to the principle of greater good, St. Thomas Aquinas somewhat notoriously offered that not only interior vices, not only fornication, but even prostitution should be given a pass by the civil authority:

Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain certain evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust." Hence, though unbelievers sin in their rites, they may be tolerated, either on account of some good that ensues therefrom, or because of some evil avoided (Summa Theologica, 2.2 10.11).

It may be tempting for some Catholics to view pornography in a similar light: either as a merely interior vice that the civil authority has no practical choice but to tolerate or as an evil whose regulation or criminalization would only incur greater evils. But I daresay St. Thomas would recognize today that porn’s threat to the common good is greater than that of any law we might make against it.


Todd Aglialoro is the editor for Catholic Answers Press. He studied theology at Franciscan University, the University of Fribourg, and the International Theological Institute. A New York native and New England convert, Todd now lives in the San Diego area with his wife, seven children, and zero dogs.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Joe Shaber - Nampa, Idaho

I have to wonder about this view of prostitution (to prevent greater evils). I tend to think of prostitution as a type of slavery and I wonder that it could be justified as a legal practice.

I have seen people make the argument that pornography is justified as a means to prevent people from perpetrating on others (raping or molesting). This seems the same argument and I cannot espouse it.

December 6, 2013 at 2:17 pm PST

You are not logged in. Login or register to leave a comment.