Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #21

Re: What Are the Decent Films?

I’ve just found out that any form of willed sexual arousal outside of marriage is a grave sin. I have been a Catholic all of my 36 years and counting and I’ve never been informed. I was aghast at first and questioned the truth of it but after a little research it seems it’s true.

So, my question is whether this moves the goalposts regarding what is acceptable to watch in a movie. For example I would have have enjoyed watching a passionate kiss between unmarried men and women but would have averted my eyes at anything more explicit but now the fact that French kissing, snogging et al are acts of grave immorality for non-married Catholics I conclude I will have to avert my eyes there too.

Church teaching in numerous documents, notably including Inter Mirifica, the Vatican II decree on the media of social communications, talk about the need for restraint in the depiction of matters “which deserve reverent handling or which, given the baneful effect of original sin in men, could quite readily arouse base desires in them.” This certainly includes depictions of sensuality and sexuality. Restraint does not necessarily mean total avoidance, but it does mean a prudent attempt to avoid near occasions of sin.

To an extent, the requirements of prudence are relative to the condition of the individual. Having been both a teenaged boy and a 40-year-old married man, I can confidently say that what is a near occasion of sin for one is not necessarily the same as for the other. However, there are general principles that apply for everyone or nearly everyone.

Some baselines: On the one hand, it is certainly sinful to watch or use any presentation with the aim or intention of becoming aroused. On the other hand, merely becoming aroused while watching a particular presentation is not necessarily sinful, nor does it necessarily mean that that presentation is sinful to watch. Arousal is affected by the will but is significantly involuntary. One must not recklessly expose oneself to material that is clearly intended to arouse. However, the mere possibility that one may be aroused by a particular presentation is not necessarily an iron-clad reason to avoid it.

If one finds oneself becoming aroused, then averting one’s eyes is certainly an appropriate response. On the other hand, there really is a danger in the opposite direction of hyper-vigilance. Treating everything as a potential occasion of sin and being overly concerned with the possibility of arousal can foster a forbidden fruit allure and can actually diminish one’s ability to respond appropriately and with self-control. I’ve written about this in a blog post that you may find helpful.

On a related note, I have heard of cases where people had cultivated such an ingrained habit of rejecting arousal and every kind of sexual response, who went on to marry — and found that they had difficulty turning on a dime from “off” to “on.” Appreciation of and even responsiveness to beauty and attractiveness is not the same as illicit desire or willed arousal and is not something to be resisted in the same way.

Even if passionate kissing between unmarried parties is sinful, I don’t find that it’s a near occasion of sin for me to watch it. I can imagine that it might be for someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m unmoved by it (if I am, it’s a poor movie, or at least a poor scene), any more than I’m unmoved by an actress’s beauty (or the beauty of any attractive woman). But appreciation of beauty and empathic enjoyment of the happiness of characters in love aren’t the same as sinful arousal, nor are they necessarily a dangerous slippery slope.

It is necessary to avoid near occasions of sin, but don’t miss that leading adjective “near.” “Near” is a relative term; there is a real and meaningful distinction, though no hard and fast line, between the near occasions of sin that we must avoid and remote occasions of sin that we should not worry about. We must attempt to avoid every sin, but we must not attempt to avoid every occasion of sin, however remote, especially since it would be impossible to do so; “otherwise we would have to go out of the world.” Even if I retreat into Carthusian solitude, I cannot escape every occasion and circumstance that might lead me to sin. The battle is not fought that way. Ultimately, sin is not “out there” but “in here.”

And it is Christ who saves me, not my avoidance of absolutely everything that could be any sort of occasion of sin. And in saving me Christ calls me to live my vocation, which is not to the monastery, nor to aspire to a monastic lifestyle in the world, but to live in the world without being of the world. I have little faith in myself, but great faith in Christ, and this gives me, not presumption or foolhardiness, but confidence and perspective. It’s important to exercise prudence, but it’s more important to keep our eyes on Christ, and, in the process, we shouldn’t worry too much.

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