Perhaps this statement seems obvious and self-evident. Maybe you’re saying “Father why are you telling us stuff that we already know?! Porn is bad, I get it!” I wish that I didn’t have to reiterate that simple statement. However, a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend of mine, Mr. Jim O’Day, from Integrity Restored, and he informed me that shortly after Pope Francis publicly condemned pornography in a wonderfully strong statement, a priest in Germany, Fr Hermann Backhaus, took it upon himself to publicly dissent from the constant teaching of the Church on this matter in an interview that was first published on Katholisch.de. There are a number of problematic statements in the interview, but perhaps the most problematic is found in the following answer:
Question: Harsh criticism of pornography often comes from conservative Christian circles, for example that it prevents people from having a happy marriage. In your opinion, is it possible to watch porn and have a successful married life or a life as a priest?
Backhaus: We should be careful with the term “pornographic” because it always has a bit of a dirty connotation to it. A certain explicit representation of sexuality in relationships can lead to love life becoming more lively. So there are definitely positive effects of explicit sexuality in relation to partnership and lived sexuality. With regard to celibate people, the consumption of explicit sexual depictions can have a relieving effect – there is no denying that. But it may of course be that individually there is better relief in this area than pornography.
In this article, I intend to state the constant teaching of the church regarding pornography, to refute the claim that pornography can have benefits to married people. (I will write a separate article dealing with the negative impact of pornography use on clergy and religious.) Finally, using the work of Dr. Matthew Tan, I intend to deepen the awareness of why from a Christological perspective, pornography is so alluring to the human person and so utterly problematic.
There are two initial points I’d like to make by way of preface.
One: Unlike my brother priest Fr Backhaus, I’m a young priest and don’t have years of pastoral experience. I am not a professor of moral theology, nor am I a psychologist. I am a parish priest, a lecturer in dogmatic theology, and I’ve been involved in the human formation of seminarians over the last 5 years. However, for all of that, the truth is that no degrees are necessary to understand that pornography is intrinsically wrong.
Two: Let me give you some good news from the outset – Our sexual desires are good! At the core of every sexual desire is a yearning for authentic communion with another which is written on the human heart by God himself. That truth can be distorted terribly by pornography, but it can never be fully eradicated. With time and help, this distortion can be undone! So if you’re reading this and you are caught up in pornography use, don’t lose hope! God wants freedom for you and freedom is possible!
The Teaching of the Church
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it states:
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 the spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes the 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 material.
Let’s break down what the catechism is saying here. Firstly, the sexual act must occur within the context of intimacy, and it isn’t a show for the ‘enjoyment’ of third parties. Pornography perverts the sexual act by turning the act and those engaging in it into consumable products; That is to say, that those who act in, produce and consume pornography are treating one another as a means to an end. In the first chapter of Karol Wojtyla’s seminal work ‘Love and Responsibility’ he conducts an analysis of the verb ‘to use’ and he notes the following:
When someone treats a person exclusively as a means to an end, then the person is violated in what belongs to his very essence and at the same time constitutes his natural right. 
The essence that Wojtyla speaks of is the human person’s capacity for reflection and self-determination – in other words the person’s interior spiritual capacity to determine the direction of his life in relation to God and other human persons. In short, it is the human person’s ability to know and be known by God and neighbour. In the context of the sexual act, two human persons are called to a mutual self-donation, where they reveal themselves to each other in a reciprocal manner. Pornography violates this reciprocity and destroys the possibility of any mutual self-donation between the two persons by making them a consumer object of lust to each other and to third parties. Their bodies are no longer reverenced as the visible signs of who God has called them to be, instead the body is a composition of parts to be exploited at will for pleasure and profit.
Secondly, the Catechism states that pornography immerses all who use it in a fantasy world. While this is something I will treat at a later point in this article, I think it’s important to at least address the question ‘What’s so wrong with fantasy?’ When fantasy becomes an escape from reality, there is what Dr Matthew Tan calls a ‘priority of the potential over the actual’ or in less philosophical language, a priority of the fantasy world over the real world, in which the real world is neglected while the fantasy is indulged. This is seen most clearly where a father would prefer to spend time with porn than his wife or children, or where a priest spends time with pornography rather than his parishioners, or where a woman finds herself engaged in thinking about pornography while at work or even possibly using it while at work. In each of these cases, the fantasy has become the substitute for a confronting reality which demands attention and sacrifice. When one who indulges the fantasy world comes face to face with the challenge to “embark upon a life project which includes a spiritual and religious dimension and a commitment to solidarity”, there is often experienced a paralysis of the heart in which the pressing needs of reality are ignored in favour of the prison of fantasy.
Can pornography use have any benefits?
No. In an attempt to feign nuance, Fr Backhaus articulates the position that he neither judges nor condemns pornography consumption, it is merely a fact he observes in the lives of his clients. Essentially, he takes the consequentialist position that pornography consumption is only problematic if there are negative consequences resulting from that consumption which need to be dealt with. It is interesting that Fr Backhaus attempts a dissociation between the word ‘pornography’ and the phenomenon he calls ‘explicit sexual depictions’ to do away with negative connotations which come from the term pornography. He does this in order to posit the notion that pornography can actually have positive effects in the lives of married people (the love life becomes more lively).
By contrast, Dr. Peter Kleponis, a psychologist in the United States who has specialised in the treatment of pornography addiction, in his book Integrity Restored: Helping Catholic Families Win the Battle Against Pornography, gives the following clinical definition of pornography:
Any image which leads a person to use another person for his or her own sexual pleasure. It is devoid of love, intimacy, relationship, or responsibility. It can be highly addictive.
Taking up his own clinical definition and the Church’s definition, he then makes the observation that pornography always terminates in using another person. When a person views pornography, they are not seeing a person on the screen, rather they are seeing body parts presented in an erotic fashion in order to elicit arousal and produce an orgasm. Thus there is no value seen in the person on the screen beyond what their body parts can do for the viewer.
In regards the notion that there can be some benefit from watching pornography, Kleponis cites a number of studies published, among others, by The Witherspoon Institute, Social Science Quarterly, The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and The Journal of Applied Psychology, which reveal the following statistics and observations:
10% of men will admit to being addicted to pornography.
55% of married men say they watch porn at least once a month.
25% of married women say they watch porn at least once a month.
Most wives view their husband’s use of pornography as seriously as an extramarital affair.
Pornography is contributing to the further breakdown of the family.
Those who had affairs were over three times more likely to have used internet pornography than those who did not have an affair.
Those who engaged in the use of prostitutes were almost four time more likely to have used internet pornography than those who did not engage in paid sex.
Pornography use leads men to place less value on sexual fidelity and more value on casual sex.
56% of divorce cases involved one spouse with an obsessive interest in internet pornography.
A married person who has viewed a pornographic movie in the last year is 25.6% more likely to get divorced.
A married person who has viewed a pornographic movie in the last year is 65.1% more likely to have had an extramarital affair and 13.1% less likely to report being “very happy” with life in general.
Where are the benefits? It seems that pornography use always has the same effect: The destruction of human relationships. This destruction is well articulated in a pastoral letter from Bishop Paul Loverde, the emeritus Bishop of the diocese of Arlington, Virginia, and a press release from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
Bishop Loverde in his pastoral letter states the following:
This plague stalks the souls of men, women, and children, ravages the bonds of marriage and victimises the most innocent among us. It obscures and destroys people’s ability to see one another as unique and beautiful expressions of God’s creation, instead, darkening their vision, causing them to view others as objects to be used and manipulated. It has been excused as an outlet for free expression, supported as a business venture, and condoned as just another form of entertainment. It is not widely recognized as a threat to life and happiness. It is not often treated as a destructive addiction. It changes the way men and women treat one another in sometimes dramatic but often subtle ways.
No good comes from treating another human person as an object to be used and manipulated. The truth is, that before someone treats another human person as an object of use, they have arrived at the satanically fabricated conclusion that they themselves are objects of use for others, since the way a person treats others is always a reflection of his or her own self-worth. This utilitarian approach to the sexual act fosters an attitude of consumerism within relationships which destroys trust and love between husband and wife, by promoting negative comparisons between one’s spouse and the unattainable physical standards of the pornographic world.
This consumer mentality was the target of the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) Archbishop Timothy Costelloe who made the following statement in 2016:
“We live in a sexualised culture where pornography has been mainstreamed. There is significant use of sexualised images in areas of advertising, music videos and computer games. Many of the images that confront children in day-to-day life are based on poses used in pornography. The reach of pornography through the Internet and particularly mobile devices has led to the sexualisation of our community,”
A sexualised culture which the Archbishop speaks of is one which values sex as a commodity to be bought and traded. It demonstrates the sexual disintegration which has occurred within the hearts of many individuals which is the phenomenon of the human person indulging sexual desire as a way of addressing deeper needs and wounds, rather than responsibly guiding sexual desire towards love of God and neighbour. The tragedy of this disintegration lies in the reality that the sexual desires of every human person are beautiful expressions of the communion that the human heart longs for. Our sexual desires aren’t just good. They’re better than good, they’re holy! To exploit these desires as a means of making profit, is to exploit the deepest part of the human person which yearns for communion with God and others.
The only thing that can come from consuming pornography is the exploitation of the human person and a broken heart.
Why is pornography so gripping?
From a theological perspective, it is interesting to ask, ‘Why is pornography so prevalent in our culture?’ Dr. Matthew Tan, the Dean of Studies at Vianney College Seminary in the Wagga Wagga Diocese in Australia, treats this very question in his paper “Pornography and Christology”, Dr. Tan recognises the incredible importance of work which reveals the addictive elements of pornography and its social impact. However, he rightly recognises that there has been no significant philosophical and theological analysis of the issue for some years. Dr. Tan seeks to remedy this with his contribution to the conversation around how we ought to approach the scourge of pornography. For a neuro-chemical explanation of the same question, please see some of the resources at the end of this article.
Referring to the work of John Milbank, Dr. Tan establishes that the virtuality of pornography lies not in its present predominant medium, but in its own inherent virtuality, which is to say that pornography as a cultural sickness, stems from a tendency to prioritise the possible (the fantasy) over the actual (reality). Dr. Tan sketches the metaphysical beginnings of this strange inversion; however, I do not have the space to address them here in this article. The important point however for Dr. Tan is that in pornography there is prioritisation of fantasy over reality. He articulates this priority by proposing that the consumption of pornography is not so much about sex per se. As Dr. Tan himself puts it: “[P]ornography is less a case of ‘look at the people having sex’ and more of ‘look at the kinds of sex possible for you’” In other words the allurement of pornography lies not in the sex itself, but in the fantasy intrinsic to it: ‘look at what sex you could be having, or who you could be having it with or who you could be while having sex.’
After establishing this point, Dr. Tan turns his attention to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the messianic moment. The user of pornography locates their ‘happiness’ (counterfeit and fleeting as it may be) in the indulgence of a fantasy. Dr. Tan notes that for Walter Benjamin, “When we locate our happiness within something, we also attribute a moment of redemption to our lives.” For the user of pornography the moment of redemption or ‘messianic moment’ is found in the priority of the fantasy over reality, where the fantasy ‘saves’ the user from the harshness of reality.
It is at this point that we can see the allurement and evil of pornography. It promises salvation from the present moment, from the calls to sacrifice and hardship, the call to recognise our wounds and scars and expose them to the light. It promises all this salvation, and it never ever delivers. This brings to the foreground the truth wired into the human heart – everyone is hoping for a saviour, but not everyone looks in the right place for a saviour, even if we know intellectually where the right place is.
Pornography presents itself as a messiah. And what a false and pathetic messiah it truly is when we place it in contrast to the true messiah Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ who commands us to confront the darkness and difficulties of our lives with his loving presence, who calls us to allow him to transform our deepest wounds into scars of glorious love which give rise to missionary endeavours, who calls us out of ourselves and onto the cross where we learn what it is to be loved by him and how to love others in a manner that reflects him.
Pornography has no benefits. It is a false messiah, a utilitarian vision of sex, a childish embellishment of the fantasy world and a sure-fire way to ruin life-affirming relationships. So, what if you are caught up in pornography? Don’t lose hope and don’t think that porn owns you. It doesn’t. While ever you continue to militate against its presence in your life, not on your own but with the hosts of heaven at your side the battle against pornography will not be lost. Don’t go through this journey isolated – connect with others who are on the road to recovery, don’t be afraid to seek help in therapy, and never fear taking the grave evil of pornography into the sacrament of confession. Jesus is present there to grant you his healing grace and to convict you of the truth that you are precious to him, so much so that not only does he become man and shed his blood for you, but he also ensures that he is present to you even through the hands of the fallible men who are his priests. Finally, entrust yourselves to the blessed Mother. Never go through this process of handing over your grief and brokenness to God without her help. She is a Mother. She rests her head upon your own as you hand to God the scars which tell the story of heartache, and she rejoices as only a mother can, when you rise a herald of truth and love.
Below you’ll find some useful resources for battling and guarding against pornography. I hope they prove helpful on your journey!
Fr. Sean Byrnes is the Dean of St Michael’s Cathedral in the Wagga Wagga Diocese in Australia. He did his seminary studies at Vianney College, the seminary of the Wagga Wagga Diocese and was ordained in 2015. He is presently nearing the completion of his licentiate thesis with the Catholic Institute of Sydney and he lectures in dogmatic theology at Vianney College.
 Psychologist on porn consumption: Even Priests have sexual desires, interview by Roland Muller, Katholisch.de, 15/11/22 https://www.katholisch.de/artikel/41904-psychologe-ueber-porno-konsum-auch-priester-haben-sexuelle-wuensche, Accessed on 26/12/22
 CCC 2354
 Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility’, translated by Grzegorz Ignatik, (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2013), p.18
 Dr Matthew Tan, Pornography and Christology, in The Australian Catholic Record, Volume 97, issue 3, (2020) 314
 John Paul II, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, No.7
 Dr Peter Kleponis, Integrity Restored: Helping Catholic Families Win the Battle Against Pornography, (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019) Kindle edition, Locations 238-293 of 5885
 Bishop Paul Loverde, Bought with a price: Pornography and the attack on the living temple of God: A Pastoral letter, in ‘The Linacre Quarterly’, Volume 74, Issue 4, (2007) 291-312. (Accessed through Sage Journals https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1080/20508549.2007.11877830 on 28/12/21)
 Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, ‘Protect kids from pornography’. ACBC Press Release, 29th March 2016. On ACBC Website. https://mediablog.catholic.org.au/protect-kids-from-pornography/#more-5670 Accessed 28/12/22
 Tan, Pornography and Christology, 312
 Ibid, 315