LINCOLN, Neb. — Fifteen-year-old Alex (not his real name) has been thinking of a possible vocation to the priesthood for several years already. Aware that he’s still young, he’s comfortable with the ongoing discernment process: He’s busy trying to deepen his prayer life — and delighted, as well, with some initial dating experiences.
When he thinks of considering the priesthood, though, one of his main motives for hesitating is his freshly conquered addiction to pornography and the ongoing temptations he faces.
Alex’s introduction to pornography came as a preteen, when he first heard the word in the context of a news report. Unsatisfied with his mom’s answer to his question — "What’s that?" — he looked up the term on the Internet to find out for himself. It was as easy as that for him to be introduced to pornography.
Now, almost four years later and after periods of frequent confession and some professional counseling, he’s finally feeling some self-mastery and peace.
Confronting the Problem
Is his history a sign any possible vocation to the priesthood has been forfeited? Not necessarily, according to Father Sean Kilcawley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
"I don’t think we can exclude guys from entering the seminary because they once had a pornography problem," Father Kilcawley said. "Part of seminary formation is a time for growing in virtue, and one virtue they need to grow in is the virtue of chastity."
Father Kilcawley is assisting Bishop James Conley in leading the local Church’s response to the growing problem of pornography. Their main efforts are focused on prevention.
"When I came back to the diocese after four years in Rome, there was one cultural change that stood out: Every teenager has a smartphone," Father Kilcawley explained. "Many junior high-school students have smartphones. Those who don’t have smartphones have iPods or iPads or video-game systems — all of which are Internet-ready — which means that each of these children has [potential] access to pornography. This [awareness] led to the decision to focus our efforts on prevention rather than treatment of pornography addiction."
But even as the Church beefs up its efforts to ward off pornography addictions before they start, Father Kilcawley recognizes that, for many young men discerning the priesthood today, it’s already too late to prevent exposure to sexually explicit content.
"Statistically, 90% of high-school boys have looked at pornography," he explained. "So that means that many of our seminarians have looked at pornography at some point in high school or college. Some of them probably entered the seminary with a pornography problem. And seminaries are right now trying to come up with the solution."
Father Kilcawley is working with the seminary for his own diocese and communicating with others around the country to confront the problem. He mentioned strategies already in place, such as creating a requirement for seminarians to achieve nine months or a year pornography-free before they start the third year of seminary. A requirement such as this goes hand-in-hand with assistance provided at the seminary, such as the support of on-staff psychologists and tools such as an accountability software called Covenant Eyes.
Still, he emphasized, "if somebody has been working [to break free from addiction], and you give them all the tools that are available to them, and they still can’t achieve any freedom, at a certain stage in their formation [it is determined] — and this would be up to their vocation instructor or their bishop or their rector to determine — that they aren’t going to be able to live chaste celibacy. But I think it’s really important to give the guys all the tools that are available to them in order to overcome that problem."
Peter Kleponis, one of the leading Catholic psychotherapists trained to deal with sex addiction and pornography addiction, echoed Father Kilcawley’s evaluation.
Pornography, he said, "can definitely impact the vocation. We wouldn’t want an active alcoholic or drug addict to become a priest; why would we want a sex addict or a pornography addict?"
"It can be a real impediment to vocation, to the sacrament of holy orders," he continued. "Like any addiction, it can get to the point where it totally consumes a person’s life."
However, like Father Kilcawley, Kleponis suggested that a young man who has overcome a pornography addiction can still be fit for a vocation of celibate chastity.
That’s because, he said, "pornography is not about sex. … It’s the drug that eases emotional pain."
A young teen like Alex, the doctor suggested, "could have easily chosen drugs or alcohol or gambling. It’s just that pornography was readily accessible."
When pornography addicts get to the root cause of their addictions, he said, they understand it was a symptom of something other than sex: "It was about loneliness. It was about a search for intimacy. It was about easing the pain of a broken family."
Added Kleponis, "I work with many seminarians and priests who have overcome their pornography addiction — and in fact have become real champions in helping other people to overcome it."
Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va., has been a leader in providing guidance into how Catholics can address the evil consequences of pornography; and on March 19, he released an updated version of his 2006 pastoral letter, "Bought With a Price."
Bishop Loverde does not address the specific question of assisting seminarians in the pastoral letter, but the tools he recommends are equally applicable to their circumstances. And, like Kleponis, he highlights a misguided search for intimacy as a fundamental element of the pornography problem.
"The false promise of intimacy offered by pornography leads instead to an ever-deeper alienation that cripples the user’s ability to experience truly intimate human contact," Bishop Loverde comments. "The user of pornography, while longing for intimacy, turns ever more surely back into himself, becoming ever more isolated and alone."
Since the first edition of the pastoral letter, Bishop Loverde notes in the preface to the updated version, "the porn epidemic engulfing our families, marriages and communities has reached a pandemic scale." To help address this, "practical takeaways, a study guide for individuals, groups and families and a plan of life" have been added to the earlier text as "a timely and encouraging tool for purity and holiness of life."
And later in the pastoral letter Bishop Loverde stresses that authentic intimacy with God, as well as with other people, is vital to the successful living out of all Christian vocations, including those to religious life.
"Remember that God has created you for perfect intimacy with himself," Bishop Loverde counsels. "Your struggle against sin — whether involving pornography or other temptations of life — is actually your preparation for this true intimacy for which your loving Father has created you. In whatever vocation to which the Lord invites you, your successful battle against impurity will contribute to the true happiness that will be found in the intimacy of that call."
Kathleen Naab writes from Houston, where she covers
news of the Church as a coordinator for Zenit News Service.
Register staff contributed to this report.