A Theology of Vision and Pornography

“When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8: 44). But can a lie be more than words? In his accusation, Jesus is calling Satan the master deceiver. Satan even goes as far as using our senses to twist perception itself to distort mankind’s view of nature.

St. Thomas Aquinas elaborates on the integral role that senses play in mankind’s spiritual well-being, “Now the intellectual soul… has to gather knowledge from individual things by way of the senses, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. vii). But nature never fails in necessary things: therefore the intellectual soul had to be endowed not only with the power of understanding, but also with the power of feeling. Now the action of the senses is not performed without a corporeal instrument. Therefore it behooved the intellectual soul to be united to a body fitted to be a convenient organ of sense” (Summa Theologica, I, 76, A.5).

adamThe sense of vision in particular, plays a vital role in mankind’s understanding of the world around him, and his ability to perceive and internalize truth. The account of Adam and Eve and the Fall offers a perfect illustration of how the sense of sight can either see truth, or be distorted by the lies of evil. God announces to mankind, “See, I give you…” (Genesis 1: 29), Man must understand what he is seeing in order to appreciate its true nature. The importance of our sense of sight is made manifest when Adam looks upon his wife, Eve, for the very first time, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called ‘woman’, for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken” (Genesis 2: 23). Just looking at Eve, Adam not only understands and proclaims that she is equal in dignity with him, but he recognizes that she is his wife and he is her husband. Adam, through his sense of sight, recognizes Eve as a gift to him and him a gift to her.

Now, Aquinas points out, the intellect needs to be balanced with the senses. But the Devil can also use the senses as a vehicle to imbed his lies into our intellectual soul. Once the senses and the intellect have been corrupted, mankind is capable of convincing itself that even the most blatant evil is actually a good thing.

Likewise, the sense of sight perception becomes distorted in the story of the Fall of Man. In true form, the Devil twists what is good. Adam, being a visual creature, has already shown the capacity to understand the beauty and truth of God. Satan twists the sense of vision, causing mankind to misperceive the truth of the body as gift such as when the serpent tells Eve that her “eyes will be opened” (Genesis 3: 5). Eve knows that she and her husband are forbidden to eat from the tree, but the pride that is beginning to grow in her distorts the true nature of the fruit that she is seeing. It is said that “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). Here one reads a depiction of how the senses are not being perceived by the intellect in a reasonable manner, but rather how merely in viewing the aforementioned objects, the things themselves become distorted.

It is after the Fall that one truly sees just how distorted perception has become when there is an incongruity between the senses and the intellect; Scripture shows how the body becomes a mere object. “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked” (Genesis 3: 7). It would seem that the sin of pride has led to another misperception of some sort. Prior to the Fall, they felt no shame by being naked. Now somehow their nakedness causes shame. Immediately after eating the fruit, their vision of each other becomes distorted. They see each other’s bodies, but they no longer perceive the body as gift, rather they perceive the body as an object to be exploited. It seems that Adam and Eve’s selfishness has led to the sin of lust.

Christ warns, “[E]veryone who looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew: 5:28). The sinner, in this case, has misperceived the woman—she is no longer considered a gift for her husband. Instead, she is seen as an object for selfish sexual gratification. It is only after eating the fruit that Adam and Eve experience lust and become ashamed. It is only then they make loincloths in order to visually hide their shame.

A repercussion of the Fall, pornography also distorts the vision of the body. When it comes to men and pornography, the visual becomes twisted; the natural beauty of the human person becomes so intellectually warped that the human person becomes a mere sexual tool. Saint Pope John Paul II commented on the role of the artist portraying the body, “The artist who takes up this subject in any sphere of art or by audiovisual technologies must be conscious of the full truth of the object, of the whole scale of values connected with it; he must not only take them into account abstractly, but also live them rightly himself” (General Audience, May 6, 1981). Christopher West elaborates on Saint Pope John Paul II’s meaning when he states, “The pornographer seeks to only arouse lust in the viewer”( Theology of the Body for Beginners). Much like Satan, pornographers seek to distort the real truth about the human body. Jonathan Van Meeks recent article expresses this point brilliantly when he quotes 18 year old porn star Miriam Weeks (aka Belle Knox), “People see Belle, but they don’t see Miriam.”

The lie becomes complete. Pornography is not just about distorting the sexual act, but also deceiving oneself into thinking that a person is something other than a person. CS Lewis best expresses this horrible deception within his masterpiece The Screwtape Letters when Screwtape tells his apprentice, “Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.”

Joe Kral has been involved in the pro-life movement since he has been in college.  His MA in Theology was completed at the University of St. Thomas where he specialized in bioethics.  From 1996-2003 he was the Legislative Director for Texas Right to Life.  During that time he was also a lobbyist for the Department of Medical Ethics at National Right to Life.  From 2004-2007 he consulted the Texas Catholic Conference on pro-life legislative initiatives.   In 2006 he was awarded the “Bishop’s Pro-Life Award for Civic Action” from the Respect Life Ministry in the Diocese of Dallas.  He currently serves as a voluntary legislative advisor to Texas Alliance for Life, is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, taught as an adjunct professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, teaches as a Forward Toward Christian Ministry instructor for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and is doing doctoral studies at Harrison Middleton University where he is specializing in the ethical and legal theory of St. Thomas Aquinas. He has been married to his wife, Melissa, since 2004 and they have 2 children together. They attend St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Sugar Land.
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