Pornography, Electronic Media and Priestly Formation

The fundamental safeguard against sin and temptation is a deep and abiding relationship with God that is rooted in love.

Pornography and electronic media have had a profound impact on American society, which includes the lives of priests and seminarians in the American Church. As a psychiatrist working with a team of physicians and therapists in a medical practice in Michigan, I see the effects of pornography and electronic media in ruined lives and shattered vocations. Statistics regarding the numbers of priests who suffer untoward effects from pornography use or inordinate media viewing are unavailable. However, gleaning information from the available statistics regarding Internet pornography use in the general population and reviewing information from interviews with priests and seminarians about their use of pornography and electronic media substantiates the conclusion that the use of Internet pornography and the inordinate use of electronic media are common among priests and religious and are important issues that the Church needs to address.

In this article, I will describe the distinction between pornography and cybersex, provide statistics regarding the use of Internet pornography, establish a connection between addictive behavior and pornography, consider contributing factors to the sky-rocketing prevalence of Internet pornography use, and offer insights into the effects of inordinate use of electronic media. Finally, I will offer suggestions for educating seminarians and priests about healthy leisure as a formative tool.

What is pornography?

Pornography is a generic term that encompasses all sexually oriented material intended to arouse the reader, viewer or listener. Internet pornography specifically refers to sexually explicit material available to consumers on the Internet. Cybersex refers to a consensual sexual discussion online for the purpose of achieving arousal or orgasm. This may include downloading pornography. Cybersex may also involve reading and writing sexually explicit letters and stories, visiting sexually oriented chat rooms, placing ads to meet sexual partners, e-mailing to arrange sexual encounters, and engaging in interactive online sexual behaviors.

Internet pornography statistics, 2007

Accurate statistics regarding the use of Internet pornography are difficult to obtain. However, statistics demonstrate staggering numbers of pornographic Internet sites and access to these sites. For example, “sex” is the number one search topic on the Internet. There are at least 4,200,000 reported pornographic Web sites currently available. This is four times the reported number in 2003. Boys ages 12-17 are some of the largest consumers of pornography. Pornographers target young boys for that reason. Ninety percent of these teenagers view online pornography while doing their homework. In his pastoral letter, Bought at a Great Price, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va. writes:

The [pornography] industry preys on the most vulnerable: the poor, the abused and marginalized, and even children. This exploitation of the weak is gravely sinful. Whether need, confusion or alienation leads men and women to become pornographic objects, their choice to do so certainly cannot be seen as free. Those who produce and distribute pornography leave a wide path of broken and devalued men and women in their wake.

More and more of these victims are younger, even children. When these, the most vulnerable and innocent of our society, become victims of the dehumanizing demands of an industry willing to destroy innocence for profit, it is an unspeakable act of violence.1

Researchers now predict that millions of Americans are addicted to Internet pornography.2; available from Top Ten Reviews, http://internet-review.toptenreviews.com/internet-porngraphy-statistics.html. ]

What is an “addiction”?

Originally, psychiatrists connected the term “addiction” with the use of chemicals such as alcohol, drugs or nicotine. Psychiatrically, “addiction” refers to the presence of tolerance and withdrawal that hinder affective or psychosocial functioning. These are physiologically mediated symptoms.3 Tolerance is present when the same amount of a substance elicits less of a response. For example, a person who drinks three glasses of wine becomes intoxicated. When tolerance is present, a person needs more than three glasses of wine to produce the same physiologic reaction. Withdrawal refers to the physiologic reactions elicited when the amount of a substance is less present or absent in the body. For example, withdrawal symptoms include tremors, anxiety, elevated blood pressure and increased rate of pulse and respirations. These symptoms are observable when someone is experiencing withdrawal from alcohol, cigarettes and some street drugs. Affective or emotional disturbances may include depression, irritability, impulsivity, impaired concentration, disrupted sleep or aggressive behavior. These symptoms often diminish relationships either in quantity or in quality.

Internet pornography addiction

Experience, research and literature in the mental health field have identified a connection between addictive behavior and the use of Internet pornography. The exponential increase in the use of Internet pornography and the subsequent effects of Internet pornography use demonstrate the presence of an addiction. Addiction disorder experts propose to add Internet Addiction Disorder to the next edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry. This is a topic of controversy because many psychiatrists contend that persons do not become addicted to using the Internet per se. There is agreement, however, that persons can become addicted to Internet pornography. I suggest that the editors of the DSM-V refer to the proposed disorder as Internet Pornography Addiction Disorder. Including the term “pornography” specifies the causative agent that has devastating consequences in the lives of millions of Americans. Pornographic images viewed online are imbedded into the memory, affect brain function and never completely leave the memory where they are stored. Researchers describe the effect of Internet pornography as as addictive, and as mind-altering, as cocaine.4

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. The progression through these stages may be gradual or may occur rapidly after discovering pornographic Web sites.5 In the discovery stage, the individual may stumble into a pornographic Web site that opens the door for sexual experimentation to occur. Encouraged by the anonymity of electronic transactions, online users secretly begin to explore sexual material online without getting caught. With repeated exposure—like building a tolerance to alcohol—a user develops a habit for routine fantasies and begins to access pornographic material that increases the level of arousal. As the user becomes desensitized to online sex, heightened sexual intensity is necessary to achieve the desired level of arousal. Computer-enabled fantasies are highly reinforcing. The association of the Internet with sexual arousal can be so potent that getting on the Internet for research triggers arousal for sexual gratification. The habit develops into a compulsion. At this stage, men and women jeopardize their careers or relationships because of the compulsive behavior. This online fantasy life of sexual excitement produces an altered state of consciousness that becomes associated with tension reduction, relieving feelings of guilt, anxiety or depression. Compulsive Internet pornographic behavior is driven largely by tension and agitation much like an alcoholic is driven to drink at moments of excessive stress.

Online activities continue despite potential risks. Individuals deceive family members and friends to conceal the extent of involvement with Internet pornography. It becomes a means of avoiding life’s complications and responsibilities. Accessing Internet pornography is no longer a voluntary activity. Restlessness or irritability emerges when attempting to abstain from this behavior. Hopelessness is the last stage of addiction. The addiction experience feels overwhelming and stronger than the willpower necessary to stop.

Persons who use the Internet on a daily basis are not addicted to the Internet. The primary intention of men and women who frequently access Internet pornography, however, is sexual arousal. Seeking sexual arousal from Internet pornography limits authentic human relationships.

Why has Internet pornography become so popular?

Principal factors that contribute to the high prevalence of Internet pornography use include accessibility, affordability and anonymity.6 Most households today have at least one computer and most workers have access to a computer at their jobsites. In fact, pornography remains the most frequent diversion and misuse of the Internet in the workplace.7 Additionally, access to pornographic Web sites is free and a person can pretend to be anyone or no one when accessing pornographic Web sites. Anonymity fosters dishonesty, fear, self-focus, de-sensitization and self-deceit about the harmful effects of Internet pornography. Viewers’ need for more sexual stimulation contributes to the increase of compulsive masturbation and more hard-core sexual activities, which can lead to overt illegal behavior.8 As a case in point, rape statistics are proportionately higher in states with higher pornography sales and lower in states with lower pornography sales.9; available from Top Ten Reviews, http://internet-review.toptenreviews.com/internet-porngraphy-statistics.html. ]

No statistics are available to quantify the percentage of priests and seminarians who have accessed Internet pornography. However, my experience as a psychiatrist working with seminarians, priests and formation team members suggests that pornography is likely the most frequent misuse of the Internet in seminaries, parishes and rectories. I also maintain that seminarians and priests use Internet pornography for the same reasons as the general population: accessibility, affordability and anonymity.

While addictions may appear to be pleasure-seeking behaviors, they stem from a need to suppress or avoid emotional pain. Addiction is an escape from reality, from something that is either too full of sadness, such as an abusive relationship, or too devoid of joy, like an emotionally empty life. Persons addicted to Internet pornography may have lacked healthy nurturing and attention during their youth, have a fear of rejection and abandonment, or demonstrate difficulty forming intimate relationships with others. They may also describe common characteristics such as restlessness, depression, loneliness or low self-worth. Internet pornography allows men and women to temporarily run away from their difficulties, provides the illusion of being well-liked or in love, and boosting self-esteem.10 Pornography treats another human being as an object to be used. It assaults human dignity and makes a commodity of people and human sexuality. In his pastoral letter on pornography, Blessed are the Pure in Heart, Bishop Joseph Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph writes:

Pornography violates truth. It leads people into a world of unreality, a world of fantasy that isolates them from other people and the commitments and respect which should govern our relationships. Some persons seek pornography out of loneliness and a low self-esteem. It is a painful irony that their use of pornography serves only to isolate them more and more from other people. The more invested people are in this fantasy world, the more detached they become from real people, real issues and real life around them. Lust isolates. Love unites. Pornography leads people away from the truth. Chastity helps people to grow in truth.11

Internet pornography addiction also offers a fantasy world in which there are endless people who appear to be interesting to—and interested in—the person. Young, sexually inexperienced persons, especially males, may find it easier to engage in Internet relationships than risk the face-to-face rejection of a real person. As addicts become more immersed in this shadow world, denial takes hold, and he or she comes to view the cybersex partners as more real than the actual spouse or family.12 Indiscriminant saturation with electronic media can isolate people, keep them from interacting face-to-face with one another and hinder opportunities for developing human interpersonal relationships.

Are there general concerns about electronic media?

Over time, the use of electronic media has increased exponentially. Each day, people spend hours checking and writing e-mail messages, using cell phones, listening to and answering voice mail messages, pagers, and Blackberries, and using iPods and palm pilots. Society conditions us to respond immediately to the hundreds of messages we receive daily. Society has also influenced persons to believe and imitate what they see and hear on television. Watching television, playing computer games and Internet surfing often lead to dissipation rather than refreshment and relaxation.13

I am sure you know of people who complain that they cannot stand the quiet and who need background noise to be able to work or be in their homes. Such persons do not filter background noise for content. Indiscriminant noise hinders the capacity to become quiet enough to pray and reflect. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., supports this observation. “Accustomed to surfing, we lose our ability to focus on anything in particular. We switch from one perspective to another rather than consistently following up any one point of view.”14

While electronic media can provide useful information, media used solely for pleasure or the reception of information can foster a posture of passivity. When passive reception of sensual material is the norm, men and women experience a barrage of images that indiscriminately fill their minds. Further, passive reception of sensual images can arouse in the receiver an urge for sensual pleasure. Frequent exposure to sexually explicit images contributes to inciting persons to act out in sexual ways. We need to address this problem in a direct manner as a hindrance to human growth and development, and especially to a prayer life.

Indiscriminate reception of images also dulls the mind and moves the will to the emotional reactivity of the sensual appetites. If passive reception predominates, emotions may overcome the capacity to reason and the imagination becomes uncontrolled. Spiritually, this is called sloth. Simply defined, sloth is a sluggishness of the mind that neglects to begin a good action. Saturation of the senses promotes an aversion for the things of the spiritual life. The person who suffers from sloth may no longer even strive to live a life of virtue.

Saint Thomas identifies six “daughters” of sloth.15 The first is lack of hope, which results in discouragement and a lack of interest in things of God. This despair stems from pride. For example, daily challenges of ministry, such as demanding parishioners and lack of affirmation or appreciation, result in discouragement and decreased interest and attention in prayer. Priests who experience a lack of hope lose sight of the meaning of the Divine Office, neglect to pray the Rosary, and become more selfish and “me”-oriented. A priest may even begin to question his vocation, proclaiming, “This is not the priesthood I signed up for!”

The second daughter of sloth is an uncontrolled imagination. Basking in false happiness offered in mental wanderings, the soul gives free reign to the imagination. The good the priest or religious is doing for those in need in the parish may become self-focused. The priest or religious caught in this pattern may gravitate toward people, especially “needy” women, who make the priest or religious feel good; the slothful priest or religious enjoys women who compare them to their husbands, admiring their sensitivity. Pride and puffed up sexual prowess in the imagination borders on sexual behavior or unchastity.

Saint Thomas Aquinas distinguishes two forms of unchastity:

  1. He describes the unchastity of incontinence as a form of loss of self-control. This, he states, is less serious because the sensual urge can be reintegrated repeatedly into an order or reason that is disposed to the truth of real things. Reason corresponds to the reality made evident through faith and knowledge. In short, the person is motivated to repent and strive anew.
  2. Saint Thomas characterizes the unchastity of intemperance as a deeply rooted attitude of unchastity in which the individual directs the will toward sin without much concern. The person has become habituated in what is inordinate pleasure or excesses in food, drink or sex. Desire for pleasure blinds the individual from confronting objective reality with selfless detachment, which alone makes true knowledge of the supernatural or divine possible.

The third daughter of sloth is mental torpor or sluggishness, in which the soul is lazy and indifferent to the interior struggle. This slippery slope emerges when men and women act on their passions because they no longer exercise self-discipline, neglect frequent examination of conscience, and stop praying for the grace of the Holy Spirit. At this level, emotions seduce reason and people are less amenable to reordering sensual urges, bordering on intemperance.

The fourth daughter of sloth is faintheartedness. This is a culpable disposition in which a person refuses to face up to difficult situations that can be addressed and overcome. When priests or religious are fainthearted, they refuse to make appropriate choices. The soul gives way to sins of omission and disregards graces offered by the Holy Spirit. Regular and thorough confession becomes less important or avoided. A priest or religious becomes indifferent to regular venial sins, justifies self-soothing behavior as a benefit, and becomes intemperate.

The fifth daughter of sloth includes rancor or bitter resentment and a critical spirit. People who struggle for sanctity annoy the slothful person. This is seen in the belittling of authority in the Church or the “smorgasbord” approach to the Church’s teachings. When this occurs, faith is becoming cool to cold.

The last daughter of sloth is ill-tempered antagonism or ill-will. The slothful soul makes a conscious, internal decision to commit evil for its own sake. For example, a priest or religious engages in inordinate activities including excesses in drink, food, drugs, sex or worldly interests. All of these actions neglect the promise of obedience, chastity and striving for holiness, all of which are rooted in a prime love relationship with God. This is one of the most serious sins a person can commit.

As you can see, sloth is subtle but very deadly. By nature, sloth is contrary to charity and emerges as the source from which many sins flow.

Strategies for healthy leisure

As he reflects on the petitions of the “Our Father,” Pope Benedict XVI contends that God gives Satan the freedom to test us:

In order to mature, in order to make real progress on the path leading from a superficial piety into profound oneness with God’s will, man needs to be tried…man needs purifications and transformations; they are dangerous for him, because they present an opportunity for him to fall, and yet they are indispensable as paths on which he comes to himself and to God.16

Effective strategies are necessary to strengthen priests and religious in their spiritual lives to avoid spiritual dissipation and vocational distress. As a response to this problem, Bishop Paul Loverde17 and Bishop Robert Finn,18 in their pastoral letters on pornography, propose concrete strategies that empower people to embrace healthy, chaste lifestyles. For example, frequent celebration of the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation, commitment to daily prayer and exercising virtue fortify people in their efforts to live chastely.

Consider also the following:

Realize the impact of worldly thinking, especially the attitudes about sexuality.

We need to be aware of the fact that worldly thinking profoundly influences our perspectives and devalues virtuous living. The lifestyles promulgated on television and in the movie theaters depict vice as fun and exciting. Advertisers also make illogical connections to products, in effect rationalizing sexual behavior because “sex” sells merchandise.

Employ examples of holy and virtuous people.

We have many contemporary holy persons as models. Pope John Paul II, Saint Gianna Molla, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Saint Maximilian Kolbe are persons who exhibited an inner strength rooted in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Every person faces constant battles in the midst of a culture that discourages or affronts virtue with its appeal to immediate gratification of the lower appetites. Growing in virtue requires perseverance in thought and act.

Explain the necessity for prayer and the frequent reception of the sacraments (i.e., Eucharist and confession).

Virtuous living leads people to interior freedom and union with God. It requires a continual striving for an ever-deeper relationship with God, self-discipline and denial of gratification of the lower appetites. Men and women achieve virtue through God’s grace and frequent reception of the sacraments and not by individual effort. A helpful set of guidelines for pastors in the sacrament of reconciliation who are faced with a penitent confessing the use of pornography was previously published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review (October 2006) by Father Brian Mullady.19

Offer formation in human skills.

Some men come from homes in which the family does not gather for meals or the television, blaring during meals, impedes conversation and sharing. Consequently, even the basic table etiquette may be a foreign concept to men who enter seminaries. Building relationships can begin with teaching and modeling appropriate table etiquette. One seminary has the faculty and seminarians eat together at tables of six with table linens. Formators teach seminarians to engage in table conversation with the faculty, to keep the focus on the topic and to take turns in speaking. This is a simple and practical example that has been effective in a seminary setting.

Build fraternity.

Dioceses are providing seminarians with opportunities to build relationships with one another. During the summers seminarians foster healthy relationships by living in community and praying together, eating meals together, going on pilgrimage, taking an intensive summer course together or vacationing together. Participating in diocesan youth rallies, involvement in vocation-promotion activities throughout the diocese, and fulfilling diocesan work projects are means of getting to know one another, as well. Meeting with religious communities in the diocese who support their priestly vocations also creates support systems.

Assist men who need more human formation before entering into seminary training (e.g., house of formation).

In some dioceses, men who need human formation and have a call to priesthood have benefited from a year in a house of discernment with a daily schedule for living to develop habits of prayer and enhance fraternal life.

Ensure ongoing spiritual formation.

The ongoing spiritual formation of priests is crucial. Studies show that most religious vocations and priestly vocations encounter crises within the first five years. “Permanent formation is necessary…[for] the spiritual growth of the priest himself but also for the continued effectiveness of his mission and ministry.”20

Choose healthy mentors for newly ordained priests.

Ten to 15 percent of priests leave ministry before they celebrate their fifth anniversary.21 These statistics demonstrate the necessity for mentors in the lives of newly ordained priests. Recently ordained priests need healthy models of ministry and priestly life and they need to hear the voice of experience when they encounter challenges in parish life. If we want to provide young priests with the support systems necessary for healthy, fulfilling, life-giving ministry, then we need to employ more effectively the use of mentors. In the past, the role of mentoring might have happened spontaneously at the place of assignment of new priests with a mature community of pastors and pastoral associates. Today, it would be helpful to organize mature priests who are willing to be mentors for other priests and to acknowledge their role in the diocese.

In the end, the fundamental safeguard against sin and temptation is a deep and abiding relationship with God that is rooted in love. As priests, seminarians and faithful Catholics invoke God’s help in their daily lives, they must ultimately rely on God’s grace to provide strength and anchor virtue. Further, Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the importance of maintaining a depth in our prayer and supplications so that we keep clear focus. “Our petition must not sink into superficiality…the central point is still ‘that we be freed from sins.’ That we recognize ‘evil’ as the quintessence of ‘evils,’ and that our gaze may never be diverted from the living God.”22 Motivating seminarians and priests to develop virtue, elevate the intellect and will in communion with Jesus, and participate in his mission is essential in the life of the Church and requires faith-filled human formation. The challenge rests with bishops and seminary formators who have the responsibility to share the information, model the behavior, and call priests and seminarians to accountability in their spiritual lives and their ministry.23

  1. Bishop Paul S. Loverde, Bought With A Price: A Pastoral Letter on Pornography and the Attack on the Living Temple of God, 2007, pp. 5-6. 
  2. Internet Pornography Statistics [cited June, 2007
  3. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994) pp. 176-9. 
  4. Jane E. Brody, “Cybersex Gives Birth to a Psychological Disorder,” in the New York Times, May 16, 2000, (nytimes.com, accessed 6/22/2007). 
  5. Kimberly S. Young, Ph.D., Tangled in the Web: Understanding Cybersex from Fantasy to Addiction, (1 st Books Library, 2001), pp. 40-44. 
  6. Al Cooper and Eric Griffen-Shelley, “The Internet: The Next Sexual Revolution,” in Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), pp. 5-6. 
  7. Al Cooper, Irene McLaughlin, Pauline Reich, Jay Kent-Ferraro, “Virtual Sexuality in the Workplace: A Wake-up Call for Clinicians, Employers and Employees,” in Sex and the Internet, pp.111-112. 
  8. Stephen Arterburn, Addicted to “Love,” Understanding Dependencies of the Heart: Romance, Relationships and Sex (Regal Books, 2003), pp. 117-121. 
  9. Internet Pornography Statistics [cited June, 2007
  10. Kimberly S. Young, Ph.D., Tangled in the Web, pp. 60-61. Stephen Arterburn, Addicted to “Love”, p. 187. 
  11. Bishop Robert W. Finn, Blessed Are The Pure In Heart: A Pastoral Letter on the Dignity of the Human Person and the Dangers of Pornography, February 21, 2007, p. 6. 
  12. Anne Wilson Schaff, Escape From Intimacy, Untangling the “Love” Addictions: Sex, Romance, Relationships (Harper & Row, 1989), pp. 102-105. 
  13. Sister Prudence Allen, RSM, Ph.D., “Formation in an Electronic Age,” in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Vol CV, no. 9 (June 2005), pp. 8-16. 
  14. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., “Catholics in the World of Mass Media,” in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, summer 1997, p. 17. 
  15. Saint Thomas Aquinas, O.P., Summa Theologica, trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, vol. III (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1948), II-II, question 35, articles 2 and 4, pp. 1340-42. 
  16. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, (Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, 2007), p. 162. 
  17. Loverde, Bought With A Price, p.12. 
  18. Finn, Blessed Are The Pure In Heart, p.10. 
  19. Brian T. Mullady, “Questions Answered,” in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Vol CVII No. 1 (October 2006), pp. 68-70, 79. 
  20. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Program of Priestly Formation, Fifth Ed. USCCB, Washington, D.C. September, 2006. #368. 
  21. J. Ronald Knott, From Seminarian to Diocesan Priest: Managing a Successful Transition ( Louisville: Sophronimos Press, 2005), p. 5. 
  22. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 168. 
  23. Sacred Heart Mercy Health Care Center sponsored a seminar entitled, The Priest, Man of Communion, for bishops and diocesan vocation directors in September 2006, at which an earlier draft of this paper was presented. I am grateful for suggested revisions to this article from the following persons: Sister Mary Prudence Allen, RSM, Ph.D., Sister Mary Judith O’Brien, RSM, JCD, Sister Joseph Marie Ruessmann, RSM, JCD and Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, DD. 
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avatar About Sr. Marysia Weber, RSM

Sister Marysia Weber, R.S.M., D.O., is a physician in Alma, Michigan who is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. She completed her residency and a fellowship in consultation-liaison psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota in 1989 and practices in her religious institute’s multidisciplinary medical clinic, Sacred Heart Mercy Health Care Center.

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