The pastors who wear Roman collars believe they can see the wreckage caused by pornography and other media addictions whenever they stand at their altars and scan the faces before them.
While researchers continue to debate the links between mass media and in real life, the members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have heard enough. The bishops think it's time to admit that sordid images sometimes can become reality -- leading to moral numbness, shattered marriages and, in some cases, rape, murder and child abuse.
Decades of statistics cannot be ignored. But priests also know what they hear in confession booths and counseling sessions. The spiritual fathers see the dark side of the media lives of many families.
"From long pastoral experience, the Church knows that many people do experience a connection between pornography and tendencies toward these personal and social ills," wrote the bishops, in a 28-page statement approved on a 207-11 vote at their spring meeting. "Research today supports this pastoral experience, in particular with regard to pornography that is sexually violent. Individual studies have observed such negative consequences with regard to nonviolent pornography that is degrading in its use of women as sexual objects."
As a rule, Americans try to blame others for this sad situation. Many blame Hollywood. Others blame the government for deregulating so much of the marketplace in which modern media giants frolic, or blame legislators for failing to pass stricter laws, or blame law officials for failing to enforce laws already on the books.
But the bishops noted that consumers must share much of the blame, since so many use their entertainment dollars to create and sustain a "fantasy world" full of sex and violence. "Many more consumers fail to speak out about the lesser but still offensive examples of sexually explicit or violent material they come across every day in mainstream media," said the bishops.
Truth is, it's time for everyone -- even those who think they don't consume high doses of media -- to stop looking for scapegoats and to realize that pornography and violent media of all kinds affect the culture as a whole. This issue will not go away. Most Americans, said the bishops, seem to be so distracted by daily waves of titillating media signals that they no longer can even tell right from wrong.
Meanwhile, many parents seem to be waving white flags of surrender, creating a moral vacuum in the most crucial media- education school of all -- the home. Parents should not be too quick, noted the bishops, to "denigrate their own influence," even when their children's lives seem to be dominated by hostile media. For starters, parents need to fight the pop culture's efforts to shove family members into tiny, isolated, age-defined media niches.
"While we hesitate to place additional burdens on parents in today's complex world, we urge them ... to know the media to which their children relate and to help them understand the messages they send," said the bishops. "Parents should be clear about the media they reject. Sharing the reasons why a video game is too violent or a particular show lacks good values about sex can contribute to a youngster's moral growth."
All of this raises an important question: Will church leaders take these issues seriously? The bishops suggest that pulpits and adult-education classes be used to increase awareness of the effects of pornography and violent media. Parental guidelines, the "V-chip" and increased feedback to the news and entertainment industry may help. Clergy may need to specifically link media issues to celebrations of the Sacrament of Reconciliation -- another name for confession. Parish leaders need to develop media resource centers and discussion groups, to help families make practical changes in their lives.
After all, it would help if the church helped parents walk their talk.
"There must be times," wrote the bishops, "when the almost continuous noise from televisions, radios, computers and telephones -- often while the family is together for meals -- gives way to quieter times for family discussion, prayer and homework. Many parents, no less than children, need to become less media dependent."