The internet has suddenly exploded with articles on pornography, so I thought I would talk about a few things our parishes can do to create the opportunity for men and women to break free who are struggling with it.
Last month I was honored to take a good friend and priest out to lunch to celebrate his ordination to the priesthood. I had been sick the weekend of his ordination that summer and wasn’t able to be there. During his Mass of Thanksgiving I had to stay in the back and crept away as soon as it was over to avoid coughing on anyone. It was good to finally sit down and thank him for laying down his life for the good of the Church. Over the course of our lunch at the local tavern we started talking about young adult ministry, especially ministry to men and young fathers. The elephant in the room had always been what to do about pornography. Church leadership had long since been aware of the statistics; bishops had written letters on it; and there was plenty of free (and often useless) advice. We talked about how frequent confession and regular Mass attendance often is not enough to help men and women break their habit. They were always surrounded by a culture that suggested that sex be used illicitly, as often as possible, for recreation. Our sexual value was to be used as a mean’s to an end instead of a person’s dignity being an end in itself.
Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials. (CCC 2354)
When I worked as a director of religious education I had men, even parish leaders, come to me frequently to confess they were struggling with it. They had been using it and battling the temptation for years, even decades. A few years ago one father, a great guy whom I have no doubt loves the Lord, shared with me privately that he had been trapped by it for more than 30 years. One time. One idle moment of curiosity when he was a teenager and found his dad’s stash and it was over. What caught me off guard was when he told me that porn finally wasn’t enough anymore. He started going to strip clubs. I was floored for a moment. This isn’t exactly empirical evidence but one priest told me that if you look out into any crowd at Mass you can bet well over 50% of the men in the pews have a problem with sexual sin. I have been to Catholic youth conferences where 90% of the teen boys stand up when asked if they feel addicted to pornography. But there was a line that they don’t cross right? Since then I have spoken to men who have gone further and have seriously endangered or destroyed their marriages, health, and souls.
There was one common denominator to every single one of their experiences. The friend who confessed to going to strip clubs – after he went to confession he sat for hours alone in the church examining himself. He talked to his wife (who forgave him) and he talked to his pastor. He had a moment where he realized that it wasn’t merely about sex. He said he really abhorred being in the clubs, but he was desperate for real human connection and to fill the emptiness he felt. Even though he knew he wasn’t going to find it there, he was trying to find it. He realized he suffered a profound loneliness and a spiritual desolation. He had tried to find connections in his local parish, but everything he experienced was fake, and when he tried to reach out he was rejected. He said he had plenty of friends at the time, but no one he could be vulnerable enough with to confide in. He had been part of a men’s group at church for over a decade but they were never vulnerable with one another. They only talked about how amazing their lives were (they were happy and he was lonely), or if something went wrong, it was either health related or otherwise benign.
As Father and I talked over lunch he talked about his work to start a new men’s group, specifically for this problem and hoped I could give him some feedback on how to get guys to show up. In my experience there are three things that had to exist to help them crawl out of this terrible hole they found themselves in. It would work no matter what the sin was. They needed grace, grace, and more grace.
The grace of friendship. These guys are used to shame. Shame leads to isolation, and sin finds a refuge in secrecy. Even church groups can be isolating. If you are not on the ‘in’ crowd it can be tough just to show up. And if you are comfortable in the group, it can be tougher to get people to move from being nice to each other because that is what you are supposed to do, to being in love with another for the sake of the good of the other person. To form real friendships and open the possibility of vulnerability, true vulnerability. That kind of vulnerability where a guy can say “I have a real problem and I need your support.” That is how you know your faith sharing group has succeeded. It might not happen out in the open, but someone might pull you aside because they see you as a real friend. Those friendships lead to accountability. Every guy I have talked to that had a porn problem and no longer has a porn problem had a friend to keep him accountable because he was understanding. “Brother, you have a porn problem, I understand, I was there, and the great news is that God wants to do something amazing in your life.” Accountability alone is okay, but it doesn’t fix the root of the problem – loneliness. We need the grace of friendship.
The grace of forgiveness. People who deal with addiction or habit for years experience a real unrest in their life. When I went to sacrament of penance and said “Father, I feel like I’ve confessed the sin of jealousy 50 times in a row!” he responded “What, do you want a whole new set of sins?” His point was that God was working on me, don’t give up, and keep coming back to see Jesus in confession. We all need absolution, a fresh start. I’ve talked to guys who were so eaten up by guilt that I had to say “So, you deal with sexual sin. Guess what, you’re not alone. Not even remotely. God wants to heal the brokenness in you, but you have to let him by forgiving yourself and letting him forgive you.” Guys who get out of bad habits with porn have the grace of friendship & the grace of forgiveness. This forgiveness comes through the sacrament of reconciliation and by binding and casting out the spirits we are dealing with. If I just threw you off consider that the ordinary work of the devil is temptation. We have a guardian angel watching over us, and we have evil influences convincing us our sin isn’t that bad and we deserve to indulge because our legitimate needs aren’t being met. We need to deal with this brokenness by engaging in spiritual warfare. By allowing others to pray with us for freedom. There are methods to help parish ministries through this process. Confession alone often is not enough. Imagine what our parishes could do in the world if we were creating intentional disciples who lived in the freedom of Christ instead of the slavery of sin?
So – Friendship. Accountability. Freedom from spiritual desolation.
The grace of communion. We are not made to be alone. We are made to be in communion with each other and with God. Once we deal with the loneliness, brokenness, and need for forgiveness we come to spiritual growth through communion. Men need to go to Mass, pray the rosary, and spend time in Eucharistic Adoration. Guys I talk to who walk free of sexual sin typically go to Mass at least one day a week along with Sunday’s and days of obligation. They know they will fail if they don’t spend time with Jesus Christ. This is war. Don’t leave yourself exposed. I feel it in my gut if it has been too long since I have been to Eucharistic Adoration. It’s like being away from your spouse. If you love them you miss them, and the longer you are away the more your heart aches to be with them. When we grow in our relationship with God, the more we miss Him when we don’t spend time with Him. I know when it’s been too long. Guys who are free also spend time talking to their mom every day through the rosary. I haven’t met a guy who prays the rosary daily who still uses porn. It’s like losing weight right? We all know the answer, we just don’t like the answer because we love to eat. “Exercise and healthy eating?! No way, I’ll just take this magic pill the guy on TV sold me!” We know what we need to do to break bad habits, we just don’t like the answer. There is something to be said for fasting too. The church maintains its regular Friday fast throughout the year, even if it is not obligatory to fast from meat outside of Lent.
Implications for Evangelization
These are just a few of the ideas that we mulled over.
- Do we have parishes places where real friendship is possible? I know, you are thinking “Of course! We have coffee and donuts, a Knights of Columbus group, and a men’s Bible study! If someone isn’t getting help, it’s their fault.” Oh, dear reader, you see the problem with that thinking by now don’t you? If not, think about who isn’t in the Bible study or men’s group. Most of the men in your parish right? Many parishes have serious problems attracting men to those groups. I remember one day at a men’s group when we were all standing around talking to one another and one of the guys who was there was left standing alone. He was never that outgoing, and we knew he was standing alone – we were feeding our own egos by not talking to him, staying in our little groups and ignoring him, even if it wasn’t conscience. We would be lucky if the guy even came back. The implication is that we need to examine each of our parish groups and decide if they are disciple making, evangelizing micro-communities in our larger Catholic community. Make sure that no one is ever left alone in small groups. There are small group training programs to help with this. At St. Paul Street Evangelization we encourage every one of our teams to work at growing in friendship, because friends who evangelize together will survive as a team in the long run.
- Do our parishes offer opportunities for intentional discipleship and healing? Porn and strip clubs (as horrifying as they are) don’t compare to some of the guys I’ve helped work through and start on the path of redemption from more difficult places of betrayal and infidelity. The hurt and brokenness is deep – and these are Catholic guys who long to serve God and raise families who are at peace. Do parishes offer healing services with prayer teams & the opportunity for reconciliation? Are we upfront about the confidentiality in which we treat what is revealed there? Eucharistic Adoration is a private devotion and is a great place for people to deal with the spiritual struggles they face. In the light of the possibility of eternal damnation we need to do a better job offering these opportunities with great music, a message of freedom, and places for prayer and forgiveness. Are parishes offering Alpha for Catholics or Christlife? What about Cursillo or Life in the Spirit seminars? What about the extraordinary form of the Mass? Opportunities for Marian consecration? Do they have strong faith sharing small groups? How are they fostering friendship in such a way that everyone has the opportunity to grow through the organic and natural growth of friendships? We need to put our own house in order and evangelize & disciple those in our pews.
- Do our parishes offer opportunities for communion? How are we doing in our parishes to create the possibility for men to be vulnerable and let these sins out into the light of the Son. Yes, sinners need to have courage in seeking help, but can we do a little more to make it a little easier to ask for help? We have to get into the mind of the addict and ask “what conditions need to exist for them to come forward and talk?” This is a difficult question that we are still working out. People care about their reputations, and rightly so.
As we finished our lunch it left me thinking about the ministry of the Church as we propel ourselves forward to the implementation of the New Evangelization. I am excited by the genuine renewal taking place at all levels of ministry, and hope to see it continue to grow. Our ministries exist so we can foster relationships with one another and grow in sanctity as we get each other to Heaven. Every time I go out to the street to evangelize, every time I meet someone, I meet someone for whom God is loves, is passionate about, and is jealous for. “This person, this is my Son. He’s run away from home. Tell him I love him.” Pope Francis is right in reminding us of the urgency of the New Evangelization. It can’t wait. Our enemy is on the prowl.
St. Michael, pray for us.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
Galatians 5:16-25 RSV-CE