See John Mulderig’s review of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The new movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” is “a direct assault on Christian marriage and on the moral and spiritual strength of God’s people,” Cincinnati’s archbishop told pastors in his archdiocese.

“We need to inform our people about the destructive message of this movie and to highlight the beauty of God’s design for loving relationships between a husband and a wife in the bond of marriage,” Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr said in an early February letter.

“The story line is presented as a romance; however, the underlying theme is that bondage, dominance, and sadomasochism are normal and pleasurable,” he added.

Archbishop Schnurr’s letter echoed the sentiment expressed by several Catholic and other religious leaders and organizations that have criticized the film, hitting theaters Feb. 13.

It is based on the first book in a trilogy by E.L. James that features an erotic and sadomasochistic story line about a young college student who agrees to become a sex slave to a business tycoon.

The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth in a letter to his fellow bishops urged them to alert Catholics to such an objectionable film, which he said is being promoted as a romantic story but is a “graphic portrayal of a young woman agreeing to be abused and degraded in a sexual relationship.”

“Remind the faithful of the beauty of the church’s teaching on the gift of sexual intimacy in marriage, the great dignity of women, and the moral reprehensibility of all domestic violence and sexual exploitation,” wrote Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, New York.

John Mulderig, Catholic News Service’s assistant director for media reviews, said in a Feb. 11 review that “Fifty Shades” — about Anastasia Steele, a “socially awkward” college student, who becomes involved with an “intimidating business tycoon” named Christian Grey — has “a pornographically narrow focus and a potentially dangerous message.”

The couple’s “uncommitted pleasure” displaces a spiritual union “for the sake of a disordered exchange of possession and surrender,” Mulderig wrote.

The CNS classification is classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

In mid-January when the MPAA announced the film would have an “R” rating, Morality in Media criticized that decision, saying the rating “severely undermines the violent themes in the film and does not adequately inform parents and patrons of the film’s content.”

The story of “a childlike, mousey, young woman” becoming the “target of a powerful, intimidating, older man … glamorizes and legitimatizes violence against women,” the organization said in a statement.

It warned women “lining up to see this film” that “there is nothing empowering about whips and chains or humiliation and torture. Women as a group will not gain power by collaborating with violent men.”

Founded in 1962, Morality in Media describes itself as the leading national organization opposing pornography and indecency by educating the public and urging vigorous enforcement of the law.

“The contrast between the message of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and God’s design for self-giving and self-sacrificing love, marriage and sexual intimacy could not be greater,” said the Religious Alliance Against Pornography in its statement criticizing the film.

The movie’s main message, the alliance said, is that “bondage, dominance and sadomasochism are normal and pleasurable.”

In the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, Bishop R. Walker Nickless in a Feb. 9 memo to priests and deacons spoke out strongly against the book and movie.

“This book is a vile and vicious piece of pornography of the worst sort, promoting not merely promiscuity and marital infidelity, but also violent and degrading views of and sexual behavior against women,” he said.

Bishop Nickless particularly pointed to the immorality of pornography, “its objectification of both men and women.”

“When that objectification is combined with masochism and other forms of violence in the sexual act, as in this case of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ the harm it does to women, and thus also to families and children, is immensely greater,” he said.

Bishop Nickless applauded clergy who have already preached about the book and movie “for their pastoral energy, awareness, and initiative.”

“I encourage all of you to help me to share, again and again, the truths of God’s plan for marriage and family, and the grave harm that pornography does to women and children, and likewise to those who use it,” he said. “We must not be silent in the face of such debilitating cultural mores, but bring the saving light and grace and truth of our Lord to those who need it most.”

In Virginia, a week before the premiere of “Fifty Shades,” the Arlington Catholic Herald diocesan newspaper had a ticket giveaway for a showing of “Old Fashioned,” described as a wholesome romance about a former frat boy and a free-spirited woman who embark on an old-fashioned courtship in contemporary America.

The tickets were provided by Carmel Communications.

“Going up against big-budget, blockbuster competition that offers a dark take on love, ‘Old Fashioned’ puts romance and respect in the heart of relationships,” producer Nathan Nazario said in a statement.

He said audiences were responding to the movie’s “simple message that chivalry is not dead, and real love is worth waiting for.”

Teresa Tomeo, an author and syndicated Catholic talk radio host, noted that the “Fifty Shades of Grey” book trilogy “continues to bring in the big bucks — breaking book sale records wherever the ‘Mommy porn’ fictional novels are available.”

The film, she said, was also “expected to be a cash cow at the box office.”

“Women make up the majority of this particular and very sad market and, unfortunately, also can’t seem to get enough reminders of the abusive relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele,” Tomeo wrote in a widely circulated commentary.

Women are “snatching up” all manner of accessories tied to the books and film, she noted. “So far the collection features everything from candles, bed sheets, earrings, chokers and bracelets in the form of handcuffs.”

The Catholic Church in its teaching “couldn’t be clearer when it comes to why pornography, any type of porn, is a grave offense,” she said, adding that “secular family study experts are now agreeing that pornography poses great danger to women and to relationships in general. It’s unhealthy in a myriad of ways — physically, emotionally and spiritually.

“It is also highly hypocritical to cry foul when cases of abuse involving actions similar to those exhibited in ‘Fifty Shades’ … make headlines,” she added. “We can’t have it both ways.”

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Contributing to this story were Joanne Fox in Sioux City and Mary Stachyra Lopez in Arlington.