Bishop Ricken

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The Most Rev. David L. Ricken is the 12th bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay.

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The Joy of the Gospel and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

By Bishop David Ricken | February 19, 2015

Since the early 20th century, the cinema has enjoyed widespread popularity in American culture. Few would argue with the assertion that movies provide the useful service of entertainment, affording people recreation after a long week at work. Yet, at the same time, we must admit that movies exercise a profound moral influence upon those who see them.

To be sure, what the last several decades have demonstrated is that Hollywood, for good or ill, does have the ability to shape the ideals, values and character of its consumers. As such, the moral impact a movie may have on the conscience of its viewers cannot be met with a casual indifference. It is for this reason I wish to caution Catholics about the newly-released movie, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Very few movies generate the kind of media sensation that Fifty Shades of Grey has generated before its release. This movie was highly anticipated before its release because the book it was based on enjoyed considerable success. Published in 2011, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the first book in a trilogy. It has already sold over 100 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 52 languages. In fact, it is the fastest selling paperback of all time. It is little wonder, then, why the British author E.L. James was honored by Time Magazine in 2012 as one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People.” But, unfortunately, the influence of E.L. James and the way she portrays romance and sexuality is precisely what concerns several U.S. bishops, including myself.

Not a few Fifty Shades of Grey enthusiasts characterize this book as a romance novel. But according to the reviews and commentary, both the book, as well as the movie, go way beyond what authentic romance truly is. The story involves a businessman by the name of Christian Grey who is obsessed with a virginal college student, Anastasia Steele. A victim of sexual transgressions as a boy, Christian acts out on his emotional wounds as a man by stalking and seducing Anastasia into sexually violent acts. Indeed, her innocence is stolen from her in the worst way. Mind you, to glamorize or normalize sexually aggressive acts of this nature is not only a disservice to the public, but it is a sin against God and a rejection of his plan for his people.

What I wish to draw your attention to is that this sexual brokenness between the two main characters, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, has captured the imagination of countless young people whose consciences are still being formed and whose virtues are not yet fully developed.

This has also greatly influenced many women who see this as a way to enhance romance in their relationships. My concern is that after the shock value of Fifty Shades of Grey recedes into the background, the values it portrays will find a home in people’s hearts.

For this reason, the values that Hollywood disseminates through the cinema and television must be met with a vocal and unapologetic alternative. That alternative is the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. His plan for young aspirants to true love is not only superior to all other worldviews, but it is the only way through which the human heart can discover joy and fulfillment in our broken world.

If the Catholic Church is silent with regard to these caricatures of sexual love — so pronounced in movies like Fifty Shades of Grey — then the world will continue to enjoy a monopoly on the most critical issues that affect our day-to-day lives. In contradistinction, the New Testament gives us a true ideal of how a man of God courts and loves a woman.

Inspired by the example that Jesus Christ has set for him, he is a man who knows that love is associated with sacrifice and self-denial. St. Paul says that love is patient and does not seek its own interest (cf. I Corinthians 13:4-5). Viewed in this way, every person can recognize that God’s gift of human sexuality builds up and is life-giving; but only within the safe harbor of marital love. As the venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen said in his book, “Three to Get Married,” “If sex does not mount to heaven, it descends into hell.”

Regrettably, the relationship Fifty Shades of Grey showcases is not only a distortion of what true love is between a man and a woman, but it is illustrative of what happens when the Gospel of Life is not widely accepted and lovingly embraced. Let this motivate all Catholics to take up the mission of proclaiming the Joy of the Gospel to all people in our society. It is only by undertaking this noble task that we can hope to restore God’s gift of human sexuality for all who are called to enjoy it.

Editor’s note: Read Catholic News Service’s review of “Fifty Shades of Grey” at this link.

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