Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared on the CWR site on August 2, 2012. It is reposted here in advance of the release of the film based on the novel, 50 Shades of Grey
“Grey is the devil’s favorite color.” How I wish I could take credit for that powerful quote. However, it actually belongs to none other than philosopher, Catholic convert, author, and esteemed professor Dr. Peter Kreeft. A wise listener of mine sent me the Kreeft quote to help summarize the current obsession, and not just among the general public, with the Fifty Shades of Grey book trilogy. The fictional series written by E.L. James focuses on the sado-masochistic relationship between a young woman, Anastasia Steele, and her billionaire boyfriend, Christian Grey. It is so terribly raunchy it’s been dubbed “mommy porn” by secular critics and so graphic it’s described as yet one more example of “violence against women” by Dr. Drew Pinsky, TV host and popular relationship expert.
Kreeft’s clever quip was not referring to Fifty Shades of Grey in particular, of course, but to moral relativism in general. You know the “We can do whatever we want with whom, whatever makes us happy or feel good” approach that in many ways has taken over our way of thinking, if you can even call that thinking. Book sales have reached the 30 million-plus mark. The movie rights have been sold for $5 million. The owners of a hotel in Great Britain have also decided that, out of the goodness of their hearts, they are replacing Gideon Bibles with Fifty Shades of Grey, because, well, some of their guests may be too shy to purchase the books or feel a little strange about reading them at home around family. So that’s just the type of thoughtful hotel proprietors they are. And in June E.L James signed the dotted line on a deal with an agency responsible for licensing and building the Fifty Shades brand, a brand that is expected to include lingerie, perfume, and even bedroom furniture and linens mostly targeted at adult women. Here’s another quote that comes to mind, and this one is from P.T Barnum: “There is a sucker born every minute.”
So what does all of this have to do with Christianity, or, more specifically, Catholic Christians? Well unfortunately, as I have learned over the months since Fifty Shades hit the book shelves and Amazon.com, quite a few of those suckers are sitting next to you and me in the pews in your local Catholic parish. You might be thinking that, when it comes to Catholics, this trash has been picked up only by the types who tend to frequent a church once in a while. Au contraire. Try this one on for size. Among those contacting me after I conducted several radio interviews on the Fifty Shades phenomenon was a pastor at a large parish in the Midwest. This priest had been doing his best to teach on the damaging impact of pornography and thought one of the ways to get his parishioners attention would be to utilize the computerized lawn sign in front of the church. After hearing me mention the Peter Kreeft quote on the air, he incorporated it into his message. That prompted quite a Facebook discussion among some of his parishioners who were—you guessed it—gobbling up the books. Mind you, according to this priest, these were active parishioners, not your Christmas-and-Easter-only types. At one point they apparently said that they thought it would be “funny” to take a picture next to the sign and post that on Facebook. The pastor also told me some of these same members of his congregation went so far as to say the books saved their marriages.
Granted, while these women were apparently active in their parish in terms of attendance, tithing, etc., we don’t know the extent of their theological understanding of the faith or how well they practice Church teaching beyond the basics. Surely those Catholics who take the time to listen to Catholic radio, or are very involved in active ministry such as pro-life causes, would never waste their time or money on such garbage, would they? Yes, they would, and quite frankly, they are.
Probably one of the most startling emails I received was from a regular listener who told me she has been out on the frontlines teaching about the many problems presented by the HHS mandate, as well as promoting the Church teachings regarding artificial contraception and abortion. She spoke of herself as a pro-life activist who loved the Church. She was so disappointed that I was claiming the books were unsuitable reading.
“What everyone needs to remember is this is fiction and fun reading. It doesn’t make me any less Catholic or diminish my morals or any less interested in the battles of our Church and the country,” she wrote.
Are you kidding me? And yes, I did ask her that very question. In my email response I also wondered how reading about a woman being whipped and blindfolded, among other things, by an abusive and deeply disturbed male character constitutes fun reading. I also questioned how she could on the one hand teach about the mandate along with the fallout of contraception and abortion, and on the other hand ingest and endorse pornographic material that was actually promoting exactly that which she claims to be fighting against. She was basically counteracting her own efforts. What part of this didn’t she understand? Quite a lot, apparently. It’s probably no surprise that I never received a response. Nor was there a response from yet another woman who claimed I would lose her listenership if I didn’t stop speaking out against poor misunderstood Christian Grey. After all, it was just entertainment. I guess both of these women forgot that the Church couldn’t possibly be any clearer in terms of the teaching on this little thing called pornography—something serious enough to be described as a serious offense, as stated in paragraph 2354 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
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, and 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.
I guess I shouldn’t be stunned at the mental hoops some people, even those who claim to be faithful Catholics, will jump through in order to justify something as bad as this trilogy. After all, years of research on media influence shows how so many Americans, Catholic or not, have simply been catechized by the culture. I’ve published several books on the topic, for crying out loud, but it still breaks my heart. And as a result of years of desensitization, as Dr. Peter Kleponis explains, many have been led into a grey area, so to speak, when it comes to recognizing this kind of stuff for what it really is—pure porn. Kleponis is a Catholic therapist and author of the book The Pornography Epidemic: A Catholic Approach (Women of Grace, $10.99). He writes:
When people think of porn they usually think of a visual image such as a photo or a video. They don’t realize literature can be pornographic. Words can paint very vivid pictures in our minds just as damaging as visual pornography. This is what Fifty Shades of Grey does. …
Also, many Catholics see nothing wrong with pornography. They have adopted the mainstream belief that it’s just adult entertainment and that everyone does it. This makes it seem acceptable to them. They are unaware of the damage it is causing. This type of material can do more harm in the long-run. People need to realize that a healthy relationship cannot be built on exciting (and sometimes dangerous) sex.
So much for the fun-reading factor, wouldn’t you say? But it’s not all gloom and doom. As St. Paul tells us in Romans 5:20, “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” E.L. James may be responsible for bringing the topic of porn along with the issue of the objectification of women out of the closet and smack in the center of badly needed discussion in the Catholic world and elsewhere. So keep talking. Keep blogging, and keeping referring those in your circle of influences to solid resources including the teachings of the Catholic Church. The paragraphs in the catechism pertaining to chastity, beginning with paragraph 2337, are very helpful and don’t require any advanced theology degrees. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications also has a great document, Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media: A Pastoral Response. Although it was released in 1989 before the onslaught of sexual content so prevalent in the culture today, it is still filled with wisdom and insight on how to deal with the growing plague of porn.
If we see everything as grey then we fail to recognize objective truth. As Dr. Kreeft reminds us, the Church is the bright light that shows us the true colors of Fifty Shades and other influences vying for our attention and ultimately our souls.