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The Tragedy of Sin — Part 2

As we began to explore last time, at the beginning of human history, there was a fundamental break from the state of original innocence enjoyed by our first parents, who enjoyed harmony within themselves, in their friendship with God, in relationship with each other, and in relation to the rest of creation.  The “ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9) succeeded in inducing our first parents to sin by sowing seeds of doubt into their minds and hearts.  Let’s dig deeper into the nature of this temptation and see what relevance it has for us today.

Recall that, in creation, God bestowed a special dignity to man by creating us in His image and likeness and establishing man as lord and steward of the visible world.  Even more, God breathed divine life into us, placing us in a special relationship with Him and destining us to someday partake in His glory.  In this context, God commanded out first parents not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  While this may seem an arbitrary prohibition, Pope St. John Paul II, in his catechesis on sin, highlighted how this command is essentially a reminder to man that we are creatures.  Through this command, God was saying to our first parents and to all of us,

“Remember that you are a creature called to friendship with God, who alone is your Creator. Do not wish to be what you are not! Do not wish to be ‘like God.’ Act in accordance with what you are, and all the more willingly since this is already such an exalted status, that of being ‘the image and likeness of God’… [This] status… obliges you to act in conformity with what you are. So be faithful to the covenant that God the Creator has made with you, a creature, from the beginning” (Nov. 12, 1986).

To be a creature, is to be the recipient of the unmerited gifts of life and existence.  God loves His creation into existence and sustains it in being through the power of His love at every moment.  With our creaturely status comes dignity, love, blessing, and obligations.  All creatures are called to act in accord with the nature they have received and toward the end for which they were created.  Being created as free, rational persons, man is called to freely cooperate with God’s will, using his gifts of freedom and reason to reign over the earth and make it more and more a reflection of God’s infinite love, beauty, wisdom, and goodness.  Even more, man is called to come to know and love God with his whole heart and mind and enter into eternal communion with Him. 

The prohibition from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, more than an arbitrary rule, is a loving reminder of man’s status and a protection against pride.  Through this prohibition, God was telling our first parents that He alone has the authority to determine what is good and evil.  Man cannot decide these things but must — for his own good — act in accord with the order established by God.    

Satan casts doubt on God’s intentions and plants the idea in man’s mind that we can take good and evil into our own hands.  We can become like God and determine right from wrong.  He entices us to think that God is suppressing us, alienating us from our potential.  In order to be fulfilled, we must reject His laws and embrace autonomy (i.e., become a law unto oneself). Only then can we truly be free and come into our own. 

This dynamic between Satan and our first parents reveals the inner logic of sin, which affects us even today.  How often does modern man seek to reject his Creator and the created order?  How often do we try to re-create ourselves according to the image we conceive rather than receiving our nature and identity from God?  How often do we reject God’s laws and those of His Church as arbitrary impositions that keep us from our happiness rather than seeing them as the royal road to happiness?  How often do we suspect God of oppressing us and having evil intentions toward us rather than trusting fully in His infinite, unchanging, Fatherly love for us?  How often do we take matters into our own hands rather than waiting hopefully upon the Lord?   

In truth, it is not God who robs us of our dignity and blocks our deepest desires.  Rather it is sin that alienates us from God, from ourselves, and from one another.  It is sin that wounds our dignity, our hearts, and our world and robs us of grace, peace, and joy.  By pondering further the tragedy of sin and its effects on us, we can learn to reject the lies of the enemy and receive more fully and gratefully the gift of redemption in Christ.

Note:  This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

Continue Reading: The Wounds of Sin

Dr. Sodergren’s Introduction to Theology of the Body: A Collection of Articles from the Catholic Telegraph

Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, December 2022 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)

The Wounds of Sin

In our last two reflections, we have explored the nature of the sin that occurred at the beginning of human history when Satan tempted our first parents to mistrust their Creator and seek to supplant Him.  Being deceived, they grasped at divinity, thinking they could determine right from wrong and become gods themselves.  In so doing, they broke faith with God, rejected their creaturely status, and allowed sin to enter the visible world.  Let us reflect on the effects that this original sin had on our first parents and continues to have on their children.

Prior to the Fall, our first parents existed in a sinless state marked by the four harmonies.  When they accepted Satan’s lies and rebelled against God, those four harmonies were all disrupted.  As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council said, “refusing to acknowledge God as his beginning, man has disrupted also his proper relationship to his own ultimate goal as well as his whole relationship toward himself and others and all created things” (Gaudium et spes, no. 13). 

Most fundamentally, original sin effected a fundamental break in our first parents’ graced friendship with God.  “In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned Him” (Catechism, no. 398).  As representatives of the entire human race, our first parents’ act of rebellion resulted in the loss of divine grace and the preternatural gifts not only for themselves but also for their descendants. As John Paul II taught,

“The first human being (man and woman) received sanctifying grace from God not only for himself, but as founder of the human family, for all his descendants.  Therefore, through sin which set man in conflict with God, he forfeited grace (he fell into disgrace) even in regard to the inheritance of his descendants” (Sept. 10, 1986).

The first and most important wound of original sin, then, is our alienation from God.  However, the legacy and effects of our first parents’ sin remains extending to our very essence for we now inherit a human nature that is not only deprived of grace but is itself deeply wounded.  As the Catechism describes, original sin damages the essence of man in the unity of his body and soul.  In our fallen human nature, man’s intellect is darkened, his will is weakened, and his passions become rebellious.  Even the unity of body and soul is wounded such that we are now vulnerable to a myriad of sicknesses and disorders and will ultimately succumb to the separation of body and soul, which we call death.  Due to the uncorrupted quality of human nature and the abundance of God’s grace and gifts prior to sin, man was immune to these maladies and the inevitability of death. Clearly, our situation after the Fall is radically different. 

All of us inherit this fallen (i.e., wounded) human nature.  We experience sickness, decay, and eventual death.  We experience interior conflict rather than harmony and struggle to know what is right, freely choose it, and follow through in action while our impulses and desires pull us to go astray.  St. Paul expressed well our conflicted, fallen existence in his lament: 

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:15, 18b, 22-24).

All is not lost.  Our human nature, though wounded, is not wholly corrupt.  It is still essentially good and capable of being redeemed, sanctified, and glorified.  Just as we can join in St. Paul’s lament over our fallenness, we can also join with him when he immediately exclaims, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25). For God did not abandon us to the power of sin and death but pursued man down the centuries, sparing nothing to bring about our Redemption, even taking up our human nature to heal and restore it and through His resurrection, re-open the path to eternal life. 

Note:  This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

Continue Reading: Original Shame – Part 1

Dr. Sodergren’s Introduction to Theology of the Body: A Collection of Articles from the Catholic Telegraph

Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, January 2023 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)

Original Shame — Part 1

As we have been exploring the nature and effects of original sin on humanity, it is now time to plunge into the reality of shame with the help of Pope St. John Paul II.  We could hope for no better guide.  As a poet, pastor, philosopher, and theologian, he reflected deeply on the experience of shame.  In Theology of the Body alone, he used the term “shame” 136 times and another closely related term 33 times.  He also wrote an extensive reflection on “the metaphysics of shame” in his prior book Love and Responsibility.  Let’s see what we can learn from his insights.

The pope took Genesis 3:9-10 as his starting point.  There we read, “The Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”  John Paul II saw our first parents’ new impulse to hide from God and from one another because of their perceived “nakedness” as evidence of the birth of shame in their hearts.  He described this shame as a “boundary experience” because it demarcates original man and historical man, now affected by original sin (TOB 11:3ff). 

It is important to clarify that original shame pertains not merely to physical nakedness.  According to John Paul II, “‘Nakedness’ does not have only a literal meaning: it does not refer only to the body” (TOB 27:2).  After all, God sees not only the body but also the depths of man’s heart.  Indeed, our first parents were ashamed before God in part because they perceived the loss of harmony within them.  They perceived their lack of full self-possession due to sin.  Their interior life is now marked by disharmony and conflict. 

Furthermore, because of original sin, the visible world is no longer docile to man’s authority but rebels against him.  The forces of nature now threaten man, and his work to cultivate the world is marked by suffering and toil.  The “resistance of nature against man and his tasks” gives rise to “cosmic shame,” which expresses a “sense of insecurity” and an “awareness of being defenseless” in a now hostile world.  “The end of this toil, of this struggle of man with the earth, is death” (TOB 27:4).

Thus, our first parents experience shame over the loss of harmonious self-possession and mastery over nature.  But why would they — or us — wish to hide from the God who is love, who created humanity out of nothing, and who bestows wondrous gifts?  It is because they have become “alienated from the Love that was the source of the original gift” of creation, “the source of the fullness of good intended for the creature” (TOB 27.2).  Through the influence of the tempter, man doubted God’s goodness and that Love is the ultimate meaning and motive behind creation.  By believing the words of the tempter and acting upon them, man turned his back on our loving Father and “in some sense cast him from his heart” cutting humanity off “from that which ‘comes from the Father’” leaving only “what ‘comes from the world’” in its place (TOB 26:4).  “Shame touches in that moment the deepest level and seems to shake the very foundation of their existence.”  It gives rise to an urge to hide from God showing that “a sense of fear before God has matured: a fear previously unknown” (TOB 27:1, italics in original).

This fear is entirely different from the “fear of the Lord” praised in Scripture.  The latter refers to awe and wonder in the presence of the all-holy God.  It is closely related to reverence and is an essential and wholesome spiritual attitude for all of us to cultivate.  Conversely, the fear that flows from original shame stems from doubting God’s goodness.  If God is not pure goodness, then how can we let Him “see” us?  How can we trust Him enough to let Him come to us at our worst moments?  I invite all of us to reflect on the many ways we, like our first parents, hide from God because we struggle to believe that in the face of our brokenness and sin, He could possibly continue to see good in us, just as we in turn struggle to see His pure, infinite goodness. 

Note:  This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

Continue Reading: Original Shame – Part 2

Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, February 2023 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)

Original Shame — Part 2

As described in my previous article, Pope St. John Paul II regarded the emergence of shame in the wake of the original sin committed by our first parents as a “boundary experience” that demarcates original man and historical man.  Prior to this experience, man and woman were naked and felt no shame, but after their rebellion and fall from grace, they hid themselves from God and from each other.  Last month, we looked especially on the impact of original shame on man’s relationship with God.  Let’s now look at how it has impacted the relationship between the sexes. 

Original shame reflects a decisive shift in the relationship between man and woman.  Prior to original sin, we have seen that our first parents experienced a “fullness of consciousness of the meaning of the body” reflected in their experience of being naked without shame (TOB 12.3).  The purity of vision they enjoyed enabled them to see the inner reality of the person made in God’s image revealed through the body and moved them to affirm the dignity of the person in all their interactions.  Their desires, including for sexual union, were fully integrated with this purity of vision and intention toward one another.  Being in the state of original innocence and filled with God’s grace, their interior and interpersonal lives were fully ordered toward love and respect for the person. 

After their fall from grace, the situation of our first parents radically changed.  The man begins to experience shame in regard to the woman and vice versa.  This “reciprocal shame” “compels them to cover their nakedness, to hide their own bodies, to withdraw from man’s sight what constitutes the visible sign of femininity and from woman’s sight what constitutes the visible sign of masculinity” (TOB 28.1).  Pope St. John Paul II attributed this sexual shame to the emergence of concupiscence. 

Concupiscence refers to the inclination to sin that all of us experience because we inherit a fallen, wounded human nature.  It emerged in our first parents after original sin, which damaged the harmonious integration they had experienced within themselves and in their relationships with God, each other, and the rest of creation.  In particular, after original sin, “the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman become subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination” (CCC, 400). 

The disharmony within the human person naturally leads to disharmony between man and woman.  Their desires for one another are no longer properly ordered and instinctively guided by truth and love.  Rather, when they see one another’s bodies, they now see primarily the exterior features rather than the interior reality of the person.  The purity of vision that previously enabled them to always behold the dignity of the person now gives “up its place to the mere sensation of ‘sexuality’” (TOB 29.3).  With concupiscence, man and woman are now prone to see each other as objects of use.  Indeed, we struggle to see the inner reality and dignity of the person revealed by the body and tend to settle merely on the exterior features, judging and evaluating according to our selfish purposes. 

This situation gives rise to shame between man and woman in two ways.  First, we experience shame because we are aware that we are not in control of our desires toward each other and the bodily manifestations of these.  We experience sexual feelings and respond to sexual signals even when we do not will it.  Shame moves us to hide this inner state of disorder and the bodily manifestations of it from one another.  Secondly, shame emerges to protect us from the now disordered gaze of others.  Sensing that others may see us in a disordered way, shame takes on a protective function, moving us to conceal the sexual features of our bodies and exercise modesty.  We will delve more into this positive, protective aspect of shame next time.

Note:  This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

Continue Reading: Original Shame – Part 3

Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, March 2023 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)

Original Shame — Part 3

With their fall from grace, our first parents experienced a decisive shift in their relationship marked by what I have been referring to as original shame.  In my last article, I discussed how this experience emerged because of the new state of internal and interpersonal disharmony in which the man and woman found themselves.  Original sin caused a weakening of “control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body” and brought about “tensions” between man and woman, “their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination” (CCC, 400).  Catholic tradition refers to this inner state of disorder that leads to lust and domination, which we all inherit, as concupiscence. 

Because of this new situation that the man and woman found themselves in, they experienced a new urge to cover the signs of their sexuality, which John Paul II referred to as “reciprocal shame” (TOB 28.1).  Being a result of sin, it is not hard to see this new experience of shame as a bad thing.  Clearly, it’s not supposed to be this way.  We were made for communion, not hiding.  However, God never abandons man and always seeks with His infinite power, wisdom, and love to draw good out of evil.  In this light, even our experience of shame can be used to guide us back to a deeper appreciation of the dignity of the human body.  Let us examine how.

In contemporary psychology, shame is typically seen as toxic for the human person.  This is because psychologists tend to equate shame with the experience of seeing oneself as bad, defective, or unworthy.  If I see myself in this way, I will dread self-disclosure because I anticipate that I will be harshly treated and rejected by others.  In the face of such a situation, mental health professionals — myself and my colleagues included — work  to increase self-acceptance and awareness of one’s goodness. 

While this contemporary approach to shame is valuable, it differs significantly from Pope St. John Paul II’s use of the term in TOB and his prior work Love and Responsibility.  When he spoke of shame, especially the reciprocal shame experienced by man and woman, he had in mind the urge to hide the sexual features of our bodies from one another.  This flows from our experience of concupiscence.  Shame moves us instinctively to shield from the eyes of the other those aspects of our bodies most connected with sexuality because we perceive that others may look upon our bodies not as the sacrament of the person but as mere objects to be used.  Thus, shame, in this sense, is a reaction to the possibility of being used. 

In TOB and Love and Responsibility, the saintly pope wrote extensively about how the dignity of the human person requires that we never treat another human being as merely an object of use.  Rather, the only proper response to another person is love.  He applied this “personalistic norm” especially to the relations between man and woman in which the sexual appeal of the body — in the presence of concupiscence — can become a source of temptation to use the other for my own selfish purposes.  Shame moves us to prevent this by “concealing the sexual values in order to protect the value of the person” (LR, p. 165, emphasis added).  In this sense, shame is very closely related to, and a building block of, the virtue of modesty.  This has nothing to do with a prudish view of the body or sex as inherently bad or evil.  Rather, as Pope St. John Paul II repeatedly affirmed, sexual shame can actually help reawaken in us an appreciation for how good and even sacred our sexuality is.  He wrote that through shame, man and woman “become conscious of the spousal meaning of the body” and are moved “to protect it” (TOB 31.1).  In protecting the spousal meaning of the body, we implicitly say to ourselves and others, “Behold, it is very good” (Gen 1:31).

Note:  This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

Continue Reading: The Problem of Shamelessness

Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, April 2023 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)

The Problem of Shamelessness

In recent articles, we have explored the emergence of shame in our first parents and all subsequent human beings after original sin.  We saw how the emergence of concupiscence results in the experience of reciprocal shame by man and woman, which moves us to conceal the sexual features of our bodies from one another.  Because concupiscence has been born in man’s heart, we are aware that when we look on each other’s bodies, we do not easily and immediately see the person in his or her fullness.  Our eyes have, in a sense, been darkened by sin such that our vision may only take in the exterior features of the body, which we judge and evaluate as to the potential pleasure or usefulness it may bring.

This awareness of our concupiscence gives rise to shame, which moves us to conceal the sexual features of the body so that we do not become objects of others’ disordered desires.  This experience of shame has nothing to do with seeing sexuality as bad or dirty. Rather, shame understood in this way reminds us of our dignity and the sacredness of human sexuality by protecting us from being used as mere objects.  This form of shame is a healthy building block for the virtue of modesty.

Understanding the important role of shame in the lives of fallen human beings also sheds light on the problems of shamelessness so evident today.  One form of shamelessness involves the normalization of lust (i.e., disordered sexual desire).  When lustful actions and attitudes are given approval or even celebrated, an attitude of shamelessness is being expressed and promoted:  the human body is seen only as a sexual object for use without any regard for the person.  Another form of shamelessness is when the human body is portrayed in such a way that its sexual appeal is accentuated above and beyond the value of the person.  This can be in forms of dress, behavior, and in artistic representations.  The most common example of this today is pornography.

In TOB, Pope St. John Paul II contrasts pornographic representations of the human body with other artistic uses of the nude human form (see TOB 60-63).  The difference between porn and an appropriate artistic rendering of a naked human being originates in the intention of the artist.  In the latter case, the intention is to depict the human person revealed through his body in a dignified way whereas in the former, the intention is merely to present an anonymous human body as an object of lustful desire.  Indeed, pornography obscures the reality of the person and overaccentuates the sexual features of the body.  In this way, it turns the human body — and therefore the human person — into a mere object (i.e., an impersonal thing) to be used for selfish pleasure and even a commodity to be bought and sold. 

The Catechism condemns pornography in no uncertain terms saying that it “offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act.”  It goes on to say that pornography


“does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, 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” (no. 2354). 


Indeed, the Church’s opposition to pornography is so absolute, that the Catechism exhorts governments to make it illegal:  “Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials” (no. 2354).  Given all that Pope St. John Paul II has taught us about the dignity of the human person and the spousal meaning of the body, this should come as no surprise.  Next month, I will further diagnose the problems of pornography with the help of modern psychology.

Note:  This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

Continue Reading: Why all the Fuss Over Porn?

Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, May 2023 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)

Why all the Fuss Over Porn?

Last month, I raised the problem of shamelessness and how, in the face of concupiscence, a healthy sense of shame is essential in preserving the dignity of the human body and sexuality.  Attitudes and behavior marked by shamelessness lead to an exaggerated emphasis on the sexual features of the human body and strips away the personal meaning of human sexuality.  Shamelessness reduces the human person to a mere object to be used and discarded by others and even a commodity to be bought and sold.  Pornography is the most prominent example of shamelessness today.   

Some wonder why we Catholics make such a fuss over porn.  The Church does indeed make quite a fuss over pornography.  As I explained in my previous article, the Catechism identifies the making, distributing, and consumption of pornography as grave sins.  It even goes so far as to implore civil governments to outlaw pornography.  So, why all the fuss?  I believe contemporary social science research can shed some light on why everyone should be quite concerned about pornography.  In short, recent research has made it increasingly clear that pornography is omnipresenttoxic to the human person, and addictive.  Let’s look at the first of these.   

With the proliferation of the Internet, smartphones, and wireless technologies, it has become possible to access pornography anywhere, anytime.  Whereas previous generations had to go to a store and purchase pornographic materials from a vendor, now anyone can find it at any moment in virtual privacy.  These technologies and the accessibility they provide have allowed the porn industry to grow into a multi-billion dollar industry.  According to a 2009 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the US “adult entertainment” industry produces more revenue than any of the major professional sports leagues (e.g., NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.).1  The anti-porn advocacy group “Fight the New Drug” reports that one of the most popular pornographic websites on the Internet had 42 billion visits to their site in calendar year 2019.  That’s an average of 115 million visits per day.  In that same year, 1.36 million hours of new pornographic content was uploaded to the site.  If one were to try to watch all the pornographic material uploaded to this site in 2019 alone, it would take 169 years of continuous viewing!2 

Bearing in mind the toxic effects of pornography and its addictive nature, which I will discuss next month, these prevalence numbers are absolutely staggering and should give every concerned adult pause.  Research tells us that most females and nearly all males have consumed some amount of Internet pornography prior to turning 18.  For these unfortunate young people, most have their first exposure during the middle school years.  This coincides with the time when many of these children receive their first cell phone or other portable, Internet-capable devices.  Sadly, many, many parents do not take necessary precautions such as enabling parental controls and installing filtering and accountability software when giving their children such devices.3  Parents are also often ill-equipped and hesitant to talk with their children about pornography, its destructive effects, and how to avoid it.4  Clearly, there is much work to do here for all of us (parents, educators, ministers, mental health professionals, etc.) if we are to build a culture of purity in which the dignity of the human person is upheld and the hearts of our young are supported on the paths of virtue and chastity.  

_________________________

[1] Edelman, B. (2009). Red light states: Who buys online adult entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23, 209-220.
[2] See https://fightthenewdrug.org/2019-pornhub-annual-report/
[3] See https://protectyoungeyes.com for guidance.
[4] See www.defendyoungminds.com for helpful resources, especially the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures.


Note:  This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

Continue Reading: The Toxic Nature of Porn

Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, June 2023 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)

The Toxic Nature of Porn

While recently discussing the issue of “shamelessness” in this series, I identified pornography as the most prevalent example in today’s culture.  Last month, I began to answer the question of why should we make such a fuss over porn by pointing out how omnipresent it has become.  Now I will discuss how psychological research shows us just how toxic porn is to the human person.

In an informative article, Jill Manning, Ph.D. reviewed much prior research on the effects of pornography on the viewer. [1] Going back to early studies conducted in the 1980s and extending to today, psychological research has consistently shown that viewing porn leads to changes in the consumer’s attitudes toward relationships and ability to enact healthy relationships.  For example, porn consumption has been linked with increased difficulties in intimate relationships, more impersonal attitudes about sex, more permissive attitudes toward premarital and extramarital sex, devaluing monogamy, doubts about the value of marriage, decreased desire to have children, and higher rates of infidelity. 

Porn also alters viewers’ perceptions of what is “normal” in a sexual relationship.  Research shows that consuming porn tends to lead to distorted views about sexuality and the kinds of sexual behaviors that are acceptable to most people. The more porn one views, the more likely they are to develop an increased appetite for depictions of deviant or bizarre forms of sexuality. 

Thirdly, research has consistently shown that when men view porn, it alters their attitudes and behavior toward women.  Viewing porn tends to lead men to report decreased satisfaction with their current sexual partner.  It also increases callousness toward women, trivialization of rape as a criminal offense, and greater belief in “rape myths” (the idea that a rape victim actually wanted and/or enjoyed the encounter).  Porn also tends to lead to increased verbal and behavioral aggression, increased sexual aggression, and actual increased risk of sexual offending (i.e., illegal behavior). 

Research with teens adds to this sordid list an awareness that when adolescents view porn, it tends to go hand in hand with greater emotional and behavioral problems, earlier sexual experimentation, greater sexual permissiveness, greater objectification of women, and higher risk of sexual aggression.[2]

All of this research pertains to the effects on porn users and their relationships.  Often overlooked are the performers themselves, many of whom are enslaved to a system that exploits human beings, especially women and girls, for financial gain.  Many come from broken homes and/or are abuse survivors who go on to experience further forms of severe trauma, addiction to drugs, and terrible physical and mental health outcomes.  

While sad and alarming, none of this should come as a surprise.  The Catechism clearly warns us that pornography “does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public)” (no. 2354).  Even more, Theology of the Body helps us see how depictions of the human body that reduce a person to a sexual object to be used and discarded, harms everyone involved. Before moving on to discuss Christ’s redemption of our bodies, I will discuss one final problem with porn: it’s addictive nature. 


[1] Manning, J.C., (2006). The impact of Internet pornography on marriage and the family : A review of the research. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13, 131-165.
[2] Owens, E.W., et al. (2012). The impact of Internet pornography on adolescents: A review of the research. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19, 99-122.

Note:  This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

Continue Reading: Porn Addiction: Enslaved to a Lie

Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, July 2023 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)

Porn Addiction: Enslaved to a Lie

In the last couple of articles, I have been exploring the scourge of pornography as a prime example of the problem of “shamelessness.”  I previously discussed how porn is omnipresent today, toxic to body and soul, and, in this article, I will highlight its addictive nature. 

For many years, medical and mental health professionals thought of “addiction” as only applicable to consuming chemical substances.  However, in recent years, neuroscience has helped our understanding of addiction to evolve.  We understand more about the mechanisms underlying addiction that involve the brain’s natural reward circuits, memory systems, endorphins (i.e., chemicals in the brain that induce euphoria), impairments to the executive control centers, and more.  Researchers have now established that it is possible for an addicted brain state to occur without consuming a chemical agent.  Certain behaviors (e.g., eating, gambling, sex) result in the release of pleasurable chemicals in the brain such that if they are repeated and intensified under certain conditions, an addiction can become established. [1] 

Internet pornography is designed to capitalize on this potential for behavioral addiction.  When a consumer, especially a man, views pornography, the sexual images activate the dopamine pathway in the brain that is involved in anticipation of pleasure, focused attention, and learning.  Essentially, the brain becomes fixated on the image and associates it with the anticipation of pleasure.  Physiological arousal is heightened, which intensifies learning.  If sexual climax occurs in the viewer, the brain comes to associate the euphoric experience with pornography.  The brain releases chemicals that normally promote bonding (e.g., prolactin and oxytocin), but in the case of viewing porn, these may serve to strengthen the false sense of connection with the pornographic fantasy.  When this process is repeated, the brain becomes increasingly conditioned to seek and prefer pornography to other sources of enjoyment.  In addition, changes occur in the brain’s dopamine reward system such that more and more pornographic stimulation is needed to get the same response previously experienced.  Meanwhile, the executive control centers in the frontal lobe actually diminish, reducing self-control and thoughtfulness.  The end result is a person who feels miserable most of the time due to the changes in their dopamine system, is preoccupied by sexual thoughts, experiences intense craving for porn and sexual behavior to feel better, and whose ability to resist is weakened over time.[2] 

There are additional features of Internet pornography that make it especially addictive.  Whereas in the past, one would have to go to a physical store, potentially interact with other humans, and pay money to obtain porn, the Internet has made pornography accessible, affordable, and potentially anonymous.  One researcher referred to this as the “triple A” engine of Internet porn and likened it to crack cocaine in its addictive potential.[3] 

Even more, Internet porn constitutes a “supernormal stimulus.”  Nobel prize winner Niko Tinbergen coined this term to describe a phenomenon that he and other scientists discovered in their research on animal behavior.  They found that they could manipulate animals’ natural instincts by presenting them with artificial stimuli that were exaggerated versions of familiar objects.  For example, after presenting male butterflies with artificial mates with exaggerated colors and shapes similar to but more intense than those of real females, the researchers observed that the males preferred to direct their sexual advances toward the artificial butterflies than toward real females.  The researchers were similarly able to manipulate the caregiving behavior of mother birds by presenting them with artificial stimuli that exaggerated the features of their own young, resulting in the mothers preferring the fake young to their actual chicks.[4] 

This type of process is frequently at work in advertising and media today. We are bombarded with exaggerated stimuli designed to trigger our instincts in order to capitalize off our cravings.  Pornography is a prime example.  By presenting anomalously attractive bodies engaged in extreme sexual activities and situations, pornographers are manipulating our natural instinct toward sexual union to crave the exaggerated, artificial fantasy world of porn.

As we have seen, pornography is destructive to human beings and human society.  It presents a counterfeit version of the intimacy for which we are created.  While our fallen nature can make us susceptible to such lies, Christ died to redeem us and show us the way to freedom.  In future articles, I will explore Pope St. John Paul II’s reflections on purity of heart and our call to true spousal love.  With the saintly pope as our guide, let us confidently follow the path that Jesus has prepared for us. 


[1] Hilton & Watts (2011). Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2:19.
[2] Struthers, W. M. (2009). Wired for intimacy: How pornography hijacks the male brain. InterVarsity Press.
[3] Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the Internet: Surfing into the new millennium. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1(2), 187–193.
[4] Love et al. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet pornography addiction: A review and update. Behavioral Sciences, 5, 388-433.

Note:  This article is part of a series of reflections on Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

Written by, Dr. Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.,
Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

(Article originally published in The Catholic Telegraph, August 2023 Issue, the official magazine of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati)

A Psychological Interpretation of Genesis 2:24
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

“Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

In Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he begins with Genesis. What better way to tell the story of what it means to be human then to start at the beginning. In the Creation account, it is revealed that man was not meant to be alone, and God created a suitable helper for him. The relationship between the man and the woman was designed to be one of mutuality and complementarity. There were significant differences, yet they existed in harmony and complemented one another.

One of the goals of Christian marriage is to rediscover that original unity between Adam and Eve, through sacrifice, self-gift, and a shared movement toward holiness. Yet often, couples find themselves feeling isolated and alone, experiencing solitude and even despair within their relationships. The idea of marital unity can seem so far off, like a distant dream, when the day-to-day interactions are grating.  In Love & Responsibility, Pope St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) wrote:

True love, a love that is internally complete, is one in which we choose the person for the sake of the person, — that in which a man chooses a woman or a woman chooses a man not just as a sexual partner but as the person on whom to bestow the gift of his or her own life. It is put to the test most severely when the sensual and emotional reactions themselves grow weaker, and sexual values as such lose their effect. Nothing then remains except the value of the person, and the inner truth about the love of those concerned comes to light. If their love is a true gift of self, so that they belong, each to the other, it will not only survive but grow stronger and sink deeper roots.  Whereas if it was never more than a sort of synchronization of sensual and emotional experiences, it will lose its raison d’etre and the person involved will suddenly find themselves in a vacuum.

Ideally, when a man and woman enter a marital relationship, they are doing so freely and are able to make a full gift of themselves. Sometimes, however, this is not the case. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Theology of the Body, in order to give yourself, you must first have some sense of self-ownership.  

Some psychologists like to focus on “the unconscious” in their work and believe that the goal of individual therapy is to bring the things that are outside the person’s awareness into view. These are the therapists that like to ask, “so, tell me about your mother…” There is a sense that if we can become more aware of our true intentions, motivations, and desires, we can make more informed decisions and increase ownership of our choices. To uncover the truth about ourselves, we go back to the beginning, to our origin stories.

When we carry unresolved pain from our past in our unconscious, we can react to our current relationships and life events from a place of fear and self-protection without even realizing it. There is a defense system in place to keep negative past experiences from recurring. It is a very natural process. As a kid, you touched the stove and found out that it burns, and you will never touch it again… In our interactions with our parents as children, we were constantly using them as a sounding board, taking in and adapting to their feedback, and learning how to be. Our parents were not perfect people and sometimes their reactions were not the most reliable. In such cases, we developed beliefs and reactions that may have helped us navigate childhood, but do not generalize well into adulthood. The journey of self-mastery involves untangling the past from the present, recognizing when we’re reacting based on our history instead of the here-and-now. In order to be fully present to the person in front of me, I need to see the reactions that are coming from my own unmet needs or history and make a conscious choice to reorient myself to the person before me. It is a brave and difficult thing to explore some of the dark corners of your story, but once illuminated the fear no longer reigns.

So what does all this have to do with Genesis 2:24? My working theory is that most marital conflict is rooted in an inability to see past an original wound and truly orient to the other person. Maybe I’m reacting to something my spouse said and interpreting it through a lens colored by my past experience.  That coloration, while true to my experience, may affect my ability to see my spouse’s intentions clearly or interpret them accurately. I’ll give you a personal example. My dad was not around very much when I was young.  That generated an assumption in my mind that men are naturally selfish. For a longtime, I had no idea that I even had that assumption, never mind that I was using it to interpret the behavior of all the men in my life.  You can imagine how that filter might affect my interpretation, in moments when my husband would choose to do something for himself, instead of for our family. Thankfully, I’ve learned to identify when that thought-train is leaving the station and choose to reorient myself to my spouse ­– who by the way is incredibly devoted to family – and see that in the moments he’s choosing something for himself, it’s to replenish and rest, to make himself more available to us in the future. What a different reality! So, I like to think that to leave the father and mother and cleave to the spouse, can speak to that process of untangling the past from the present, ultimately restoring the freedom needed to fully commit to loving the person before me in the present moment.