During these summer months, the Church shares some wisdom with the faithful concerning relaxation, leisure, and entertainment. Relaxation and leisure satisfy our need for pleasure. Yet, even as we guard leisure as a precious value, in practice it is challenged everywhere because it is often dismissed as time wasted. Leisure disengages us from the cares of life to enjoy and wonder at natural or artistic beauty. At these times, we catch our breath to renew our lives – culturally, socially, and religiously; personal and public responsibilities are also restored to balance.
Despite cultural differences, leisure bears certain universal similarities. It lifts up the spirit that brings freedom from external constraint, joy, and meaning to life. Sunday worship and prayer, reading a book, outdoor activities, watching good TV programs or a suitable movie, attending a music concert or art exhibit, or taking a coffee break are in essence the same: they refresh us.
Whenever we choose entertainment, we make a moral and aesthetic judgment. What are the criteria for selecting leisurely activity? "Decent entertainment has the obligation to serve the truth and support the inviolable dignity of the person and of the common good; this dignity is given by God and may not be violated or taken away by another person or government. Decent entertainment not only pleases its consumers, but also respects their intelligence and sensitivities." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2495-99)
That the culture of mass media affects us all is self-evident. As the most common form of entertainment, television daily enters our households, and in many cases, it serves as a companion. Though it is an industry, both autonomous and secularized, television opens the door of the world to its viewers. It can have a socializing effect as the lives of other people are immediately made accessible to us. Often commercial and cable television have risen to their best by offering events of universal interest in the fields of religion and politics, sports, human events, and matters of justice. Through television, we have witnessed heroic moral courage and non-violent struggle against injustice.
Decent television promotes universally-held values: self-discipline, compassion and respect for others, responsibility, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. The Bill Cosby Show of the 1990’s, better known as “The Huxtables,” embodied these virtues and enjoyed wide acclaim. Here was quality entertainment; its hallmark, standards of excellence. It was all about family, and not just an African-American family. Today, “the Huxtable Effect” is being studied in college courses as re-runs continue to be shown across the country.
It is an understatement to say that television exercises enormous power on us. Frequently, programs portray the darker and demeaning sides of the human condition instead of respecting it. What do we find? Violence and vulgarity, self-absorption and personal gratification at any cost, breakdown of the family, deception, meanness, and worst of all, the sexualization of our culture. Such programming would have us believe that whatever is base is to be realized as an ideal. Writing in the January 2008 issue of “First Things,” Jason Byassee observes that “we are so awash in pornography these days that most of us don’t recognize it any more.” Pornography, as an aspect of ugliness, appeals mainly to the body passions. Pornography corrupts the soul. It denigrates human beings and treats them like things, the ultimate consumer product. A far cry from the psalmist who proclaims, “You have made man and woman a little lower than gods” (Ps 8:5). Pornography titillates but creates restlessness; good entertainment offers lasting satisfaction. As the sexualization of our culture accelerates, our young people, who deserve their innocence, and all of us, are at risk of being manipulated by it. Yet, at heart we are repelled by debasement and drawn to what affirms life.
According to Thomas Merton, “bad art [indecent entertainment], is like “polluted air” and “constitutes a really grave spiritual problem;” it “affects us only slightly at first, but in the long run, the effect is grave.” A culture of reverence and a retrieval of our infinite dignity as persons, made in God’s image and likeness, has assumed new urgency. We gasp for beauty! We need loveliness “to prevent us from sinking into despair,” wrote Paul VI at the close of Vatican II. What can we to do to improve the quality of television? Here are five suggestions:
1. Examine your television choices. Be aware that indecent entertainment carries with it long-range consequences. Develop discerning taste.
2. Change the channel when programming offends your dignity and that of the family. Engage television producers. Write to them expressing your concerns. Many will reply and thank you for your comments and suggestions.
3. Support family channels, especially Catholic television.
4. Rent videotapes of family entertainment. The American musicale is America’s pride and joy. Research newspapers and web sites listed as “Family Entertainment.”
5. Create your own entertainment by tapping into your talents and those of your family.
Finally, in addition to papal exhortations, the documents of the Pontifical Council for Culture (especially those of 1999, 2004, and 2008) and the Pontifical Council for the Family are two important guides for engaging the media, holding on to the faith and for handing it on to others.