Today's Catholic parents are forced to compete with television and other sources of popular culture for the hearts and minds of their children. Not only does television present a non-Christian philosophy of life in a very attractive package, the television industry is the object of a sustained campaign by special interest groups who want to intensify the materialist and secularist content of the media message. Case in point: efforts by organized homosexual groups to persuade media corporations to increase the number of positive homosexual images on prime time.
As reported in the national press, homosexual lobbying efforts on cultural issues have not been limited to private industry. Homosexual activists have been taking advantage of a sympathetic attitude among Clinton Administration officials to lobby government as well. One particular target: the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency charged with regulating broadcasters. Why? homosexual spokesperson Cathy Renne explained: “television shapes people's perceptions of reality.”
Vice President Al Gore agrees. Last summer in Los Angeles he praised the producers of lesbian-themed TV program Ellen for “forcing” (his word) ordinary Americans to reconsider their traditional moral beliefs about promiscuity and homosexuality.
Activists and their supporters are not the only ones who believe that television and the broadcast media generally are powerful influences on people's perceptions of reality. Conservative critics of the media industry agree with activists and the vice president on that point, if on no other.
That leaves the media corporation in the driver's seat, evaluating petitions from first one special interest group then another, and making up their own minds about how to shape “perceptions of reality.” Since most media decision makers have very liberal attitudes, as numerous surveys have confirmed and as common sense demonstrates, it is not hard to guess which petitions are accepted and which ignored.
Recent news reports note a significant increase in homosexual characters in prime time this season over last. Homosexual themes are proliferating throughout television, significantly moderating the impact of recent reports that ABC may cancel Ellen for the fall season. In terms of advancing the “gay agenda,” piggy-backing homosexual themes on already established shows may be more effective in forcing that reevaluation of the traditional morals that liberals desire, than a high-profile homosexual sit-com with a relatively small potential audience.
The Holy Father teaches that culture—the ideas and attitudes people have about the meaning of life, the dignity of the human individual, and the nature of happiness, coupled with the signs and rituals they employ to express those ideas and attitudes—is far more powerful than economics and politics. Without the habits of heart and mind—as George Weigel recently expressed it—that have been shaped by moral truth, the political and economic institutions of any country are vulnerable to corruption, indifference, and escalating incompetence.
That's why the sweaty atmosphere prevalent in American popular culture today ought to be cause for alarm. It is not that sexuality per se is dangerous. It is that a false idea of the meaning of human sexuality implies a falsified understanding of the nature of man. It implies a failure to appreciate the true ground of human dignity, and in consequence the reason why every human individual is worthy of respect, and all human life deserving of love. The 20th century is full of examples of the truth that cultures that make such large mistakes at the beginning may end up justifying grotesque crimes at the end.
It may be objected that things could never come to so dramatic a pass in democratic America, but we have already come a very long way. Thirty-five million pre-born children have been killed since 1973 under an invented “right to abortion.” Oregon voters legalized a form of euthanasia last November—the first political community in the world to do so since National Socialist Germany.
The obsession with sexuality and with violence in mass culture today suggests a profound mistake about human nature. That mistake consists in the denial of objective moral norms and in the denial of man's dependence upon God. With neither God nor nature, human beings are free to make their own rules and their own standards. This independence seems exhilarating at the beginning, but it soon becomes exhausting and unsustainable. The default to immediate gratification—the line of least resistance—is as predictable as it is demoralizing.
These are serious matters that ought not to be left to the private decisions of media corporations or the lobbying of special interest groups with cultural axes to grind. If television, films, and popular radio truly are among the most powerful influences on people's fundamental attitudes and beliefs—their “perceptions of reality”—broadcast standards ought to be decided by the whole people. And they must be measured by the yardstick of moral truth.
For years Christians have been told their ideas about decency and moral truth are “private values,” which can have no preferential status in the common culture. Now Catholic parents have a powerful weapon to defend themselves and their interests against such sophistries. The recent publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes available, to all who will take the trouble to study it a clear and persuasive explanation of the moral tradition of western civilization. The discussion of human sexuality (2331-2400) is particularly useful in its presentation of the link between traditional sexual morality, human equality, and individual rights.
George Forsyth, a former U.S. foreign service officer, is executive director of the Washington-based Catholic Campaign for America.