Address for National Consultation on Obscenity, Pornography and Indecency

Joseph Louis Cardinal Bernardin
Archbishop of Chicago
Publication Date: September 06, 1984

Cincinnati, Ohio

First let me express my gratitude for the invitation to address you this evening. It is always a pleasure to return to Cincinnati and my many friends here even if for only a few hours.

I would like also to commend the National Leadership Team for their dedicated work on behalf of the Consultation on Obscenity, Pornography and Indecency. It is indeed gratifying to hear that many church and civic leaders have shown their deep concern about the challenges that face our society on these issues.

I want to be clear at the outset that I do not come before you as a politician or a legal expert, an art critic or a psychologist. I am a believer and a pastor in the Catholic Church. Although there are behavioral, aesthetic, legal and political dimensions to the issues this Consultation seeks to address, my concern is primarily theological and religious and will reflect the Catholic heritage.

I am aware that this year's Consultation is especially geared to action. I agree that sharing ideas without acting upon them can be an exercise in frustration and futility. Nonetheless, our experience suggests that before, during, and after taking action we need to continue reflection upon the basic vision and values that have motivated our actions. This helps ensure that we are clear about our purpose and that our actions are guided by our values.

That is why my reflections will seek to address the broader perspective of our vision and values and how these should shape our strategies for facing the problems of obscenity, pornography, and indecency in our society. My reflections are basically twofold: (1) the theological basis of our opposition to these problems and (2) some guiding principles that relate to our strategies for action.

I. The Dignity of the Human Person

The theological foundation of our opposition to obscenity, pornography, and indecency is the dignity of the human person. Although we include many concerns in our social ministry, the common element that links these concerns is our conviction about the unique dignity of each human person.

The very first chapter of Genesis states unequivocally that humanity represents the summit of the creative process. The Creator places all creation in our hands, giving us the awesome responsibility of stewardship over the earth's resources, including the gift of each human life. There is more to the human story: God makes each human person in his own image and likeness—not exactly a carbon copy, but, at least, a close resemblance. The person is the clearest reflection of the presence of God among us. To lay violent hands on the person is to come as close as we can to laying violent hands on God. To diminish the human person is to come as close as we can to diminishing God. Human dignity derives both from the creative act of God and from the constant care and concern that God shows toward all people.

This is the truth about the human person, a truth that makes us free. Unfortunately, there are many individuals, institutions, and systems in contemporary life which propagate as freedom what, in reality, is slavery. True human freedom is not illusory or superficial; it is found only when we face the truth about human life—the inherent dignity of each human being in all aspects and dimensions, including sexuality.

From our recognition of the worth of all people under God flow the responsibilities of a "social" morality. Catholic social doctrine is based on two truths about the human person: human life is both sacred and social. Because we esteem human life as sacred, we have a duty to protect and foster it at all stages of development, from conception to death, and in all circumstances. Because we acknowledge that human life is also social, we must develop the kind of societal environment that protects and fosters its development.

It is clearly inadequate simply to say that human life is sacred and to explain why this is so. It is also necessary to examine and respond to the challenges to the unique dignity and sacredness of human life today. Human life has always been sacred, and there have always been threats to it. However, we live in a period of history when we have produced, sometimes with the best of intentions, a technology and a capacity to threaten and diminish human life which previous generations could not even imagine.

In the first instance, there are life-threatening issues such as genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare, and euthanasia. These assaults on life cannot be collapsed into one problem; they are all distinct, enormously complicated, and deserving of individual treatment. No single answer and no simple response will solve them. Still, they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.

That is why I have argued frequently during the past year for the need of developing a "consistent ethic of life" that seeks to build a bridge of common interest and common insight on a range of social and moral questions. Successful resolution of any of these issues is dependent upon the broader attitude within society regarding overall respect for life. Attitude is the place to root a consistent ethic of life. A change of attitude, in turn, can lead to a change of policies and practices in our society.

In sum, when human life under any circumstance is not held as sacred in a society, all human life in that society is threatened. When it is held as sacred in all circumstances, all human life is protected.

In the second instance, there are life-diminishing issues, such as prostitution, pornography, sexism, and racism. Again, each is a distinct problem, enormously complex, worthy of individual attention and action. Nonetheless, understanding that they all contribute in some way to a diminishment of human dignity provides a theological foundation for more specific reflection and concrete action.

At the same time, we need to face the fact that life-diminishing issues can become life-threatening. News reports frequently chronicle how prostitution, pornography, sexism and racism can all too easily lead to violence and death in our society. With regard to pornography, psychological research appears to confirm this assertion. We can say then that, when human life is diminished in any circumstances in a society, it contributes to the devaluing of all human life in that society.

Each human person is a paradox. Each of us has the capacity for seeking and expressing what is true, good and beautiful. Each of us also has the potential for embracing what is false, evil, and ugly. We can love and we can hate. We can serve and we can dominate. We can respect and we can diminish. We can protect human life and we can threaten it.

When I say "we," I do not mean simply each of us acting on his or her own. I also include our local communities, our nation, our entire society. Every social system—east or west, north or south—should be judged by the way in which it reverences, or fails to reverence, the unique and equal dignity of every person.

Our concern is not simply individual human rights but also the common good. Individual rights are to contribute to the good of society, not infringe upon other people's legitimate rights.

Human life is diminished when women or men, and especially children, are exploited in the production of pornography, whether in print, film, or television. A sacrilegious note is added when the sacred persons and symbols of religion are exploited. Diminishment of human dignity also occurs in the lives of those who purchase or use pornography. Even more serious diminishment can occur because pornography is not so much an outlet for the baser instincts of the human person, but a stimulant. Violence, degradation, and humiliation are simply not compatible with the true sexual nature of the human person.

It is relatively easy to make a case against certain kinds of sexual propaganda as corruptive of human freedom and dignity. They destroy or diminish rational freedom either by damaging the capacity for personal reflection or by exciting the passions to the extent where they interfere with rational control of thought and behavior. They diminish human dignity by reducing human persons to sex objects.

However, we must acknowledge that pornography like prostitution seems to have a permanent attraction for some people despite the fact that it perversely and sometimes viciously profanes the sacredness of sex and the dignity of human person.

What are we to do about such propaganda? When we ask that question we reach the threshold of the problem of social freedom, an issue that is as complex as it is essential for consultations such as this.

II. The Shaping of Action Strategies

I would like to address three topics in this section: (a) the distinction between morality and law, (b) the importance of striking a balance between freedom and restraint in society, and (c) the necessity of being faithful to our vision and values in whatever response we make to obscenity, pornography, and indecency in our society.

A. Distinction between Moral Principles and Law

Morality and law are clearly related but also need to be differentiated. Although the premises of law are found in moral principles, the scope of law is more limited and its purpose is not the moralization of society. Moral principles govern personal and social human conduct and cover as well interior acts and motivation. Civil statutes govern public order and concern only external acts and values that are formally social.

Hence it is not the function of law to enjoin or prohibit everything that moral principles enjoin or prohibit. History has shown over and over again that people can be coerced only into a minimum of moral actions. It would seem, therefore, that, when we pursue a legal course of action with regard to such matters as sexual morality, our expectations may have to be somewhat more limited than in other areas of human morality.

A further corollary of this is also demonstrable from our own American history. People obey good laws because they are good. When a law is held in contempt, it can defeat its own purpose and erode respect for law itself.

I am pointing this out not as an argument against a legal response to the problems we are addressing in this Consultation, but simply to put such a response in perspective, to make sure that it is sound and supportable.

B. Striking a Balance between Freedom and Restraint

Because human freedom is such an inalienable right, any constraint in society must be for the sake of freedom; that is, the constraint must create a freedom in another respect. This means that we must search for ways to strike a balance between freedom and restraint in society.

This is especially important when the restraint in question involves the area of communication within society. When we encounter sexual propaganda that is corruptive of human freedom, we need to ask ourselves whether the corruption is such that it requires attention by organized society. A second set of questions concerns whether public or private agencies in the society should attend to the corruptive influences. And, assuming that public order is the norm whose requirements are to be enforced in this action, we have to ask what requirements of public order can be applied validly against the claims of freedom.

The reason for ensuring that restraints against the claims of freedom are valid is that the limitation of freedom has many consequences—some of them identifiable only after the restraints have been imposed. One of the main consequences possible is that we may be taking the risk of damaging freedom in a third domain with consequences more dangerous to the community. At best the effect toward which we aim can only be foreseen with probability, not certainty. We are familiar with the biblical example of "the last state of the man becoming worse than the first."

Let me expand on this a bit to avoid misunderstanding. As the recipients of the Judaeo-Christian heritage, we do not condemn every portrayal of vice. Not infrequently, the Bible itself portrays vice and violence. The biblical text not only records the history of salvation; it also wrestles with the problems associated with that history. The biblical authors did not avoid portraying the most vicious and violent components of human behavior. They confront this dimension of human life rather than escape from it.

Similarly, as Richard Griffiths has pointed out, "a refusal to experience art that often deals with eroticism and violence may be a refusal to face the world as it really is. But experience must lead to confrontation, not compromise." Overprotection can do almost as much harm as bad example in hindering young persons who are preparing to assume their rightful role in a human society which involves the experiences of eroticism and violence. Their proper role, of course, is one of confrontation rather than compromise when human life and dignity are threatened or diminished.

I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that some pornography is legitimate. What I am saying is that we need a well-reasoned approach to the problems we are addressing with the express purpose of striking a balance between freedom and restraint.

Only then will we find the broad base of support needed for effective action in the legal sphere. We may not find a simple formula that is applicable to all cases and similar for all segments of our society. The late Rev. John Courtney Murray, SJ., a respected authority on church-state matters, said that "in the United States we have constitutionally decided that the presumption is in favor of freedom, and that the advocate of constraint must make a convincing argument for its necessity or utility in the particular case." That is why the credibility of the argument is so essential to success in these matters.

Proceeding with great care and deliberation will help ensure an effective solution to the corruptive influences of obscenity, pornography, and indecency in our society. An uncritical approach runs the risk of grossly oversimplifying the problem and is inappropriate, given the importance of our primary concern: the worth and dignity of the human person. Public opinion can be changed regarding an issue like pornography to the extent that it encounters well-reasoned articles and oral communications as well as Christian witness on a personal level.

Having made these comments about the care with which we must proceed in addressing the problem of obscenity, pornography and indecency in our society, I wish to reaffirm the urgency of the challenge confronting us and the need to face up to it creatively and decisively. We need to take legal action against these corruptive influences in our society. I accepted your invitation to address this Consultation because I want publicly to support your efforts.

I mentioned earlier my conviction that we must approach the various life issues with a certain ethical consistency. It is precisely that consistency which brings me here this evening.

As I said in a lecture I gave at the University of St. Louis this past March,

A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life with the problem of promoting human dignity. But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions. It argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats. . . Consistency rules out contradictory moral positions about the unique value (and dignity) of human life.

The comprehensive moral vision, which the consistent ethic of life promotes, demands that we work together to eliminate the evils of obscenity, pornography, and indecency even as we address the other evils which threaten and diminish life in today's society.

C. Fidelity to Vision and Values

Christian witness includes fidelity to our vision and values as we carry out our social ministry. We know that pornography is primarily directed at the weaker members of our society: the immature and the inadequate, frequently children and teenagers. Our biblical tradition calls upon us to defend the rights of the weaker members of our society—today's widows, orphans, and resident aliens—who too easily can become the objects of oppression, degradation, and de-valuing. The Scriptures also tell us that it is a serious matter indeed to lead the little ones astray. Our ministry does not imply that we are superior to these brothers and sisters; neither does it signify that we have no base instincts within ourselves.

Fidelity to our mission means that we have to be careful that we do not contribute to the diminishment or devaluation of human persons as we combat the corruptive influences of obscenity, pornography, and indecency. Fidelity to our mission means not isolating these problems from other life-threatening or life-diminishing issues in the sense of neglecting anything that threatens human life or diminishes human dignity.

One further reflection: it is important that we portray beauty and not simply unmask ugliness. It is essential that we promote virtue and not simply scorn vice. It matters that we proclaim the truth of human dignity and freedom and not simply attack falsity and illusions. In a consumer oriented society, we need to remind each person that our worth derives from who we are rather than what we own. In a society that prizes individualism, we need to promote the common good as well. In a society that is preoccupied with sexuality, we need to stress that human value consists in more than physical attractiveness, that the value of actors and writers and film makers is more than their ability to meet particular public demands.

The concerns that we are addressing in this Consultation are important, first of all, because they concern human life and dignity. They command our attention at this point in our history because there are so many influences in our society that seek to corrupt human life and cheapen human dignity. These are complex matters that do not allow for simple solutions. Thinking and reflecting and deliberating together, I am confident that we can arrive at solutions which will improve the societal environment in which we seek to protect and foster human life and dignity in all of its circumstances and in all its stages of development.

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