Most of us will agree that it’s essential to protect the innocence of children. We shouldn’t allow them to take in sexually charged or violent images, and so we carefully screen what they view on television and the computer. Anything that’s considered too adult for them to see is saved for when they aren’t around or after they’re in bed. That’s a good and noble thing. It’s important to protect our children. But do we adults consider the same screening process for ourselves? A common misconception is that once we’ve reached adulthood we’re either able to tune out or are unaffected by immoral content because we’re more mature than children and can handle it. That can’t be further from the truth. In fact, we’re as susceptible to vulgarity and violence as children — and it can be an obstacle on our road to sanctity.
“It’s dangerous to assume that once you reach a certain age you’re immune to temptation,” said Doug Barry, director and founder of Radix Catholic apostolate and co-host of Eternal Word Television Network’s “Life on the Rock.” “I don’t know one man who said he was not enticed [by sexual or violent images] once he’d reached a certain age.” Barry and his wife, Denise, have five children, age 10 to 18. He knows that it’s as important to guard himself against lewd or disturbing images as it is for him to guard his children, and he shares this wisdom with others around the world at conferences and in his performances.
If you doubt Barry’s stance, consider media advertisements geared toward adults. Advertisers know that images sell products, and they adjust their sales pitches accordingly. “Absolutely adults are affected by the images they see, and advertisers know that,” Barry said. “Just think of the images that pass by your eyes in a 30-second commercial.” That’s especially true, Barry points out, during major sports programming: “Consider the images they use to sell their wares and the way the cheerleaders are dressed. They know how to get our attention.”
‘Custody of the Senses’
Media advertising isn’t the only threat to our holiness. Internet websites, video games, MP3 players and the explosion of handheld devices such as PDAs and smartphones inundate us with both visual and audio images. Sadly, many of them place immoral subliminal suggestions into our minds that never leave our psyches. Once they’re in, they’re never out. They remain inside our minds and souls like little bits of moral decay waiting to rot the whole. That applies as much to the fleeting and seeminginly “harmless” messages and visuals that pass by us on a daily basis as it does to hard-core smut and pornography.
“What we’re really talking about here is ‘custody of the senses,’” said Thomas Schmierer, a Riverside, Calif., family therapist. Schmierer has master’s degrees in moral theology and marriage and family therapy. He frequently deals with this topic in his practice. He cites the psychological and theological premises for custody of the senses listed in the Modern Catholic Dictionary by Jesuit Father John A. Hardon:
“In Christian asceticism the practice of controlling the use of the senses, especially the eyes, in order to foster union with God and preserve oneself in virtue. It is founded on the premise that ‘nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses.’ Sense experience inevitably produces thoughts in the mind; thoughts become desires; and desires lead to actions. Morally good actions, therefore, ultimately depend on a judicious guard of sensations.”
How does this work? Schmierer explained that we’re more likely to remember events that produced an emotional charge in us. Because of this, we generally have an easy time remembering a traumatic event rather than something that occurred on an average day.
“During emotionally traumatic moments,” Schmierer said, “we take in more information, almost in slow motion. Where were you when you heard about what happend on 9/11? We have clear memories of that traumatic experience because our innate survival mechanism of ‘hyper-tuning’ the senses during threatening times was activitated.” Sexually charged and violent content elicit strong emotions in us just as fearful or traumatic events do, and so they become imprinted on our brains.
Schmierer cautions, however, that while we must protect our senses from immoral stimuli, we mustn’t become fanatical about closing out the world around us. Instead, he suggests permeable boundaries in which the good is allowed in and the bad is kept out: “As we direct our senses away from what is bad, false and ugly and direct our senses toward what is good, true and beautiful, we’ll be filled increasingly with desire, love, compassion, warmth and joy — the emotional hallmarks of psychologically mature Christianity,” he said.
Being too closed or overly ascetic can lead to the psychological problem of scrupulosity. “Part of being open to goodness is to develop a healthy perspective and appreciation for difference,” he explained.
Parents who first educate themselves are better able to educate their children. When parents gain custody of their own senses, and find a balance between openness and closedness, it’s easier for their children to do the same, both in childhood and in their own adulthood. As the primary educators of their children, they’re morally obligated to do so.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way:
“Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment and self-mastery — the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the ‘material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.’ Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them:
He who loves his son will not spare the rod. ... He who disciplines his son will profit by him (Sirach 30:1-2).
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4)” (2223).
Being vigilant for ourselves and for our children can be tricky. Our culture is rapidly changing in a way that’s becoming more and more anti-Christian. There are increasingly fewer morally acceptable choices in media, entertainment and technology.
“We used to live in a Christian culture,” said Steve Ray, Catholic author, filmmaker and lecturer. Ray and his wife, Janet, have four children, ages 19 to 33. “It’s not like that anymore. Today, the hero is often the bad guy, the dark figure in the movie. There’s no longer a clear line between good and evil, right and wrong. We now live in a pagan culture.”
Ray, who has given a number of marriage encounter retreats to couples all over the country, advises that parents teach their children not to be afraid of, but rather to think about, the world around them.
“I wanted my kids to analyze and understand the real world,” he said. “I didn’t want them to be afraid of everything; I wanted them to be able to make educated choices and then be able to anticipate and accept the results of their choices.”
For Ray, that process begins with making educated choices for himself.
“We’re all called to sainthood,” he said. “If we want our children to become saints, then we must first work on our own holiness.”
Marge Fenelon writes
from Cudahy, Wisconsin.