By Konrad Noronha, SJ
Pornography affects all ages, races, religions, and sexes. It is one of the 21st-century challenges faced by those who have accepted celibacy as part of their vocation to priesthood. It is extremely addictive and has a damaging influence. Because of its addictive nature, it can make chastity and, in particular, celibacy extremely difficult. Pornography is likely the most frequent misuse of the internet in seminaries, parishes and rectories for the same reasons as the general population: accessibility, affordability and anonymity. Loneliness and isolation, the lack of self-care, higher expectations of themselves, entitlement, and lack of education about the addictive nature of the internet are some of the reasons why an increasing number of priests and religious become victims of addiction to pornography.
The three reasons why pornography is a problem in seminaries, parishes and rectories are accessibility, affordability and anonymity.
Bad Effects of Pornography
Studies have demonstrated that pornographic images get locked in the brain, affect brain function and never completely leave the memory. The locked-in images can result in changed behavior, and an obsession with pornography, similar to chemical addiction. The behavioral effects of pornography have also been confirmed through various studies. Soft porn found even in many prime-time television shows can induce adolescents to adopt a view of sexual morality that contradicts the gospel teaching. Hard-core pornography is far more sinister. Studies have also shown that those exposed to certain music videos were more likely to exhibit liberal attitudes toward premarital sex than those who did not see such videos. Young men entering the seminary today have viewed countless hours of television and videos and therefore their impact would be strong.
Pornography desensitizes adolescents who are in the process of forming values and beliefs. Extensive exposure to non-aggressive and aggressive porn increased males’ sexual insensitivity toward women and children. These are hardly the kinds of values desired in a future priest, who is expected to be compassionate and merciful. The key to formation in chastity is to focus primarily on love versus sex. In his ‘Theology of the Body’ Pope John Paul II said, “The use of pornography replaces love with lust.” What leads to serious sins against chastity is the failure to love real, concrete people. A person addicted to pornography or cybersex engages in sexual activity that does not involve the complications of relating to a real person. This happens insidiously.
Studies have demonstrated that pornographic images get locked in the brain, affect brain function and never completely leave the memory.
Therefore what is crucial today is formation for celibacy. Inadequate formation has led to scandals, shattered lives, and crises of faith. An adequate formation, on the other hand, would bring to light those persons who lack human and sexual integration. These might be persons who might harbor psychopathologies that could lead to abuse and other deviations. Experts in addiction-disorders describe five successive and interdependent stages through which individuals progress into an addiction to internet pornography. These include: discovery, experimentation, habituation, compulsivity and hopelessness. Treatment would imply understanding at which stage the person is, and working with the person from there.
Clergy and religious are by no means immune to struggles with pornography. A deeper concern is when a priest does not seek treatment when struggling with an addiction. When a priest does not seek help, he is unable to live as he has promised to and may even contribute to the problems of others. The priest who struggles with pornography use may find it difficult to effectively guide those who come to him for help in this area. It is not enough that a priest or seminarian commits himself to a life of celibacy; it is also essential to continuously engage in celibate formation in the different seasons of life.
Skills for celibate living
Living a priestly and religious life requires skills different from that of a secular way of life. Just as much as commitment is required in the married way of life, commitment to the priestly life is important. This commitment is an ongoing process and leads to a continuous configuration with Christ. Before the seminarian enters the major seminary, he is expected to complete developmental tasks of earlier stages. Therefore, he can respond to the challenges of transcendent values and attitudes that will be proposed to him at the later stages of his priestly formation. Otherwise, his attention and efforts will be directed at dealing with his struggles, addictions, and defenses. The seminarian and priest should be motivated for a life of celibacy and should be able to sustain his commitment to the priestly life and the evangelical counsels.
Recovery from porn addiction is not impossible but could be an uphill battle. An addict can beat the addiction, and even help others beat it. The power of God’s grace cannot be discounted. Effective strategies are necessary to strengthen priests and religious in their spiritual lives to avoid spiritual dissipation and vocational distress. Some strategies could be:
- Formators and those in formation should realize that pornography is a growing threat to priesthood. Priests unfamiliar with the internet and its effects should educate themselves about the deceptive nature of pornography. They need to realize the impact of worldly thinking, especially attitudes about sexuality.
- Interviews, tests, and a psychological profile could confirm the extent of a candidate’s pornography consumption. The seminarians and priests could be helped to identify events or behaviors that trigger inappropriate use of the internet, like underlying problems of anger, loneliness, grief, anxiety, loss, etc.
- There should be an emphasis on the spiritual life to strengthen priests and seminarians in their commitment to celibacy, demonstrated by an authentic life of prayer. There should be an emphasis on the interior life from the first days of the seminary, which includes the frequent celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, healthy friendships with fellow seminarians, and a lifetime commitment to the evangelical counsels.
- A person struggling with pornography use requires the assistance of someone who is both mature and informed, such as a spiritual guide, to help navigate the problem.
- An important part of the formative process involves helping a seminarian integrate his cognitive processes with his feelings. He should consider the quality of relationships he has and how they influence the use of pornography. He should also consider how he views people in his life, and whether he tends to objectify others.
- Those in formation must be taught accountability in their early years of formation as well as in their life of ordained ministry.
- No one is exempt from temptation. Priests and seminarians are human and if they honestly acknowledge their weakness, they could avoid temptation. Therefore, seminary formation programs ought to facilitate candidates developing a personal conviction about their choice for celibacy. Once that conviction is deeply rooted, they will apply practical means of protection on their own accord. They must learn to set boundaries and stick to them.
No matter how badly priests are needed, moral integrity and resolute commitment to celibacy can never be compromised in the life of a priest. At ordination, the bishop asks the candidate publicly about his worthiness for ordination. The answer is usually in the affirmative, because of the many years of formation and evaluation. Pornography addiction is a danger for the Church, seminarians, and priests. It poses one of the greatest dangers to bringing priestly vocations to their fruition. The fundamental safeguard against sin and temptation is a deep and abiding relationship with God that is rooted in love.
Konrad Noronha, SJ, is a Professor and Director and Coordinator of the Pastoral Management Program at Jnana Deepa Pontifical Institute of Philosophy and Theology, Pune, India. He has a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Loyola University Maryland, USA and a Masters in Systematic Theology from Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi. His Doctorate is in Counselor Education and Supervision from Loyola University, Maryland, USA.He is also the Director of the Center for Safeguarding and Human Formation at De Nobili College, Pune, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.