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There is a dynamic in the relationship between lay people and the administration of the Church that is similar to the one that often exists between a teenager and an elderly grandparent. Like the elderly grandparent, the Church has much love and wisdom. But like the teenage grandchild, lay people find their Church ministers endearing, but often struggle to believe that the Church really knows their lived experience and therefore has nothing of any real value to say to them. Like the grandparent and grandchild, we dress up nicely to see one another, and though our initial greetings are warm and familial, any hopes of a real connection are quickly abandoned.

One of the main reasons given for this dynamic is that the majority of the laity’s central challenges, suffering, joys, and desires do not seem to be understood well by their ministers. The homilies, programs, events, and communication rarely address their felt needs, struggles, and desires. Families, in particular, find it hard to prioritize their relationship with the Church for this very reason. They may respect the Church, but they don’t expect much from her.

Access and Exposure to Internet Pornography

Some of the lack of understanding and connection can be traced to naturally occurring generational gaps between Church leadership and families raising children. This is especially true today due to the relatively recent growth of the internet into an ever-present, all-encompassing reality for the majority of the people in the pews. This growth has brought about what has become one of the central issues of our time: access and exposure to internet pornography. 

The nature of pornographic material–its accessibility and effects on the psyche–have evolved very rapidly over the past 25 years. It can be especially difficult to understand the current landscape for children, parents, teachers, etc., if you have not grown up in an environment where such an immense amount of powerful and graphic content is so easily accessible by anyone at any time. We are at the point (and have been for a while) where exposure to graphic pornographic content is inescapable. According to multiple studies, the average age of first exposure is now around ten years old. 

Unless the Church is able to communicate realistically about the nature and availability of pornography and its effect on individuals and families, it will be very difficult for the laity to take the Church seriously. This may sound extreme, but we have seen this same dynamic at work in other situations where there is such a central need that the Church seems unable to address. For example, research has shown that a child of divorced parents is very likely to leave the Church once they are on their own. The reason that is typically given is that since Church seemed unable to address something as centrally important as the pain of their family’s situation, why would they look to the Church for anything else of real value? 

Seeking Resources for Addressing the Effects of Pornography

Despite the generation gap, a majority of priests and bishops have been seeking resources for addressing the effects of pornography exposure and addiction for a number of years. Their experiences in the confessional and with families seeking help has made it clear that the problem is deeper, harder to overcome, and more widespread than they may have initially thought. There is an overwhelming need for resources for education, protection from exposure, and healing for those affected, but for the most part, these resources have been scarce and relatively ineffective. 

Parents already feel inadequate to handle the topic of sexuality with their children, and with the saturation of sexual content in the media their kids are consuming, the task of equipping their children with a healthy sexuality can seem impossible. Most parents are not confident that they even know what “healthy sexuality” means, and given today’s landscape, who could blame them? Presenting general principles from Catholic doctrine on human sexuality, though beautiful and true, is not enough for the parent who is struggling with a child who has already been exposed to pornography, likely on a device that the parent, themselves, gave them.

The wisdom, truth, beauty, and healing that the Catholic Church has to offer is the answer. This does not mean, however, that its individual members and leaders are confident in their ability to offer appropriate help, or even to understand the nature of the wounds. This is especially true with the issue of internet pornography, not only because it has developed so quickly, but also because so many people, including parents and clergy, have themselves been deeply affected by it. 

In order to address the issue well enough to actually make a difference, it is necessary for the Church take advantage of its far-reaching organization and pull together resources from all around the parish, the diocese, the nation, and the world. If we continue to work in silos or depend upon individual Church leaders or experts to provide us with answers, we will always feel discouraged and helpless. 

Dioceses must work closely with other dioceses, and they must take advantage of the most up-to-date resources and organizations, even if that means helping those organizations to create resources that better fit Catholic audiences. Parishes must work with their diocesan offices and team up with other parishes to provide up to date technological information to parents, wiser tech policies for their schools, and healing for individuals and families who are affected. Parents must work together to provide support groups, online forums, and other resources to educate one another, and they must work for laws to protect children from exposure to explicit content. 

What's Important for Success? 

The good news is that some of these efforts are already being made. Based on recent stories from dioceses and parishes, it seems as though the following two elements are vital to success:

Consistent and persistent prayer

Where the bishop has fervently prayed for answers, answers are coming. Staff and volunteers who are tasked with leading committees and implementing strategies must be steeped in prayer and prepared to offer to God the inevitable sufferings and setbacks with humility and trust. They must not give up hope that God will make a way where there is no way and give strength where strength is wavering.

Cooperation with those in the field

Without forming relationships with those who know the problem well, and therefore have a vision for what moving forward should look like, we will continue to be disappointed that our blood, sweat, and tears are not making the difference we thought it would. We should not underestimate the difference it makes to work with someone who can visualize and articulate what success looks like. Discouragement and floundering is not what God has in store for those whom He calls to work in His vineyard!

The Archdiocese of New Orleans providentially connected with Covenant Eyes near the beginning of its planning stages, and the partnership has made possible the kind of progress they could never have accomplished on their own. The expertise, resources, and networking that Covenant Eyes brings to the table are being guided and sharpened by the diocesan and parish staff to make them more fitting and accessible for the people they serve. A familial relationship has developed between the two, and God has allowed them to lean on one another to provide the kinds of resources and growth that never would have been possible had they tried to solve the problem alone. 

God hears the cry of his people, and he knows our wounds better than we do. He knows what we need, and he will provide for us abundantly through his Church. If we are willing to persevere in prayer and reach out to those who can help us, God will allow us to participate in the beautiful, powerful things he is dong to bring light to those who live in darkness and hope to those in despair. He is faithful, and he will provide!   

Resource
Safe Haven Sunday graphic

Safe Haven Sunday

Description

The Safe Haven Sunday Initiative is an annual campaign that uses original Catholic resources, a step-by-step implementation guide, a constantly updated website (CleanHeart.Online), and expert consultants to help diocesan and parish leaders promote a culture of digital integrity for all.

Join over 20 dioceses covering over 6,000,000 Catholics who have already implemented the Initiative.

Audience: Parish Communities and Parents 
Language: English (and Spanish book, video challenge) 
Resource Type: Annual awareness campaign
Cost: Free (noncompulsory book $2 / per copy) 

David Dawson, Jr. is the Director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.  He has been married to Kate for 11 years and they have seven beautiful children.