Even if, like me, you haven’t read the books and have no intention of seeing the film adaptation, you’ve surely heard of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. Based on the first volume of a trilogy of novels wildly popular with women readers (with 65 million copies sold in 30 different languages) by British housewife and mother of two Erika Mitchell (pen name E. L. James), the movie—which has variously been called “mommy porn,” “violence against women,” and “lifestyles of the rich and perverse”—tells the story of an unlikely romance between naïve and socially awkward college student Anastasia Steele (“Ana”) and sexually- perverted multi-millionaire Christian Grey.
The movie is rated R (for restricted audiences) by the Motion Picture Association of America; more tellingly, the Catholic News Service classification is O—morally offensive, for “The film contains excessive sexual content, including graphic deviant behavior and non-marital sexual activity with much nudity, a benign view of casual sex and contraception, several uses of rough language and at least one crude term.” It can easily be argued that knowingly seeing a movie such as this constitutes a mortal sin; certainly any true follower of Jesus should feel a need for a “soul cleansing” (ideally through the Sacrament of Reconciliation) after being exposed to images of this sort.
What are some of the major problems with this movie? According to the Catholic News Service, “Though it’s framed in the familiar context of a good girl’s crusade to redeem a naughty boy, Ana’s cooperation with Christian’s perversion—arrived at after much hesitation and the negotiation of a written contract, no less—risks conveying the idea that all women are potentially willing victims of physical abuse and humiliation. . . . Additionally, for those grounded in faith, Ana and Christian’s relationship presents a disturbing case study in the resolute frustration of God’s twin purposes in endowing human beings with the gift of sexuality: not only is fruitfulness intentionally forestalled in the interest of uncommitted pleasure, spiritual union is displaced for the sake of a disordered exchange of possession and surrender.”
Furthermore, in her article “Theology of the Body vs. Fifty Shades of Grey,” Catholic author Judy Keane asks, “Since when did a sadomasochistic, non-committal control freak who finds pleasure in physically demeaning, abusing and emotionally manipulating a naïve college girl become a literary hero of so many women?”
The movie, and the books which gave rise to it, are—in the view of many experts—nothing less than a form of pornography. According to Dr. Peter Kleponis (author of The Pornography Epidemic: A Catholic Approach), “When people think of porn they usually think of a visual image such as a photo or a video. They don’t realize literature can be pornographic. Words can paint very vivid pictures in our minds just as damaging as visual pornography. This is what Fifty Shades of Grey does. . . . Also, many Catholics see nothing wrong with pornography. They have adopted the mainstream belief that it’s just adult entertainment and that everyone does it. . . . They are unaware of the damage it is causing. This type of material can do more harm in the long run”—including serious harm to our souls and our spiritual growth, for as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, pornography “is a grave offense” (n. 2354).
(As a confessor, I’m aware that many men struggle with pornography—but some experts claim it’s a growing problem for women, too. Also, research has shown that porn has serious—and often lasting—negative effects on a person’s character and emotional development. None of this, of course, is pleasing to God, or helpful in our efforts to grow closer to Him.)
The bottom line is this: (1) If you haven’t seen this movie, please don’t. (2) If you have seen Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s appropriate to mention this in the confessional. (3) All of us need to pray for the moral and spiritual renewal of our country, and for the conversion of those who create, promote, and enjoy this sort of “entertainment.”