Pope Francis Is Right: Pornography Consumption Opens a Gate to the Demonic
COMMENTARY: Father Hermann Backhaus’ promotion of pornography consumption as something benign is refuted by Scripture, Tradition, the magisterium, scholars and exorcists.
In October 2022, during his meeting with seminarians and priests who study in Rome, Pope Francis rightly emphasized the diabolical element of pornography consumption. When responding to a question about the digital world and social media, Francis highlighted the temptation of internet pornography, and stated:
It is a vice that has so many people, so many lay men, so many lay women, and also priests and nuns. The devil enters from there. And I’m not just talking about criminal pornography like child abuse, where you see live cases of abuse — that’s already degeneracy. But of somewhat more ‘normal’ pornography. Dear brothers, be careful about this. The pure heart, the heart that receives Jesus every day, cannot receive this pornographic information. That today is so commonplace. And if from your cell phone you can delete this, delete it, so you won't have temptation in your hand. And if you can't delete it, defend yourself well not to get into this. I tell you, it is something that weakens the soul. It weakens the soul. The devil enters from there: It weakens the priestly soul.
About a month later, Father Hermann Backhaus, a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Münster, Germany, who works as a psychologist, disagreed with Pope Francis and offered a common secular narrative, saying that pornography consumption is benign and that it “can have a relieving effect” for celibate people and serve a couple in a sexual relationship, “making their love life become more alive.”
Father Hermann Backhaus’ promotion of pornography consumption as something benign is refuted by Scripture, Tradition and the Catholic Church’s magisterium, as well as scholars and exorcists.
Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium
When one reads Deus Caritas Est, pornography clearly strikes at the heart of the Christian faith. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, pornography consists in “removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties” (2354). It “perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other,” and 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.”
Pornography is listed as an offense against chastity under the Sixth Commandment (“Thou shalt not commit adultery” — Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18; Matthew 5:27-28), alongside lust, masturbation, fornication, prostitution and rape. Pornography is a mortal sin “whose object is grave matter” (specified by the Ten Commandments) committed with “full knowledge and deliberate consent;” sin is the gravest when it is committed through “malice, by deliberate choice of evil” (Catechism, 1857). Mortal sin results in the “loss of charity” and the “privation of the state of grace,” and if not redeemed by “repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell” (1861).
Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est argues that the purification of eros requires a “real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character;” it must become renunciation but also a readiness and willingness for sacrifice. According to Benedict, purification is twofold: exclusive (a particular person alone) and forever.
Since eros “looks to the eternal,” he continues, love is indeed “ecstasy,” but not a self-seeking intoxication. It is an intentional and deliberate seeking of the beloved’s good; it is a “journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self” toward self-giving, authentic self-discovery and discovery of God; it is a shared journey with Jesus Christ, who likened his own death and Resurrection to the ‘grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit.’ (John 12:24).”
Now consider the base and filthy image of the overfed and sloven cleric in soft clothes, sunk in his comfortable chair, sitting alone in front of his computer, totally absorbed in his lustful pleasures. It is a portrait of inner dissolution. It is in stark contrast to the crucifixion. Christ — beaten, sweaty and bloodied — is nailed to a cross standing between heaven and earth. The bottom portion of the vertical beam is sturdily pounded into the ground, while the top portion ascends toward God the Father, and the horizontal beams extend to the ends of the earth. The divine face is disfigured; it stares upward hopefully with ascending love for the Eternal Father, while at other times, looks downward painfully with descending love for sinners. His body is mangled in an agonizing posture of total vulnerability — stripped naked with arms wide.
Benedict describes Christ’s death on the cross as “love in its most radical form;” it is “the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him.” It is the point, where truth should be contemplated, and love understood. In brief, from this perspective, pornography consumption is a rejection of the image of the Triune God, a communion of Persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) distinguished by their relations with each other, and the resulting image and destiny of man: “a unified creature body and soul,” created by God to love and serve him and neighbor and to return to him, in love. It is a rejection of Love itself, understanding that “God’s eros for man is also totally agape.” It is a rejection of the Person of Jesus Christ, with his death and resurrection, who “united into a single precept” the commandment to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and the commandment to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Mark 12:29-31).
Scholarship on Pornography
More than 10 years ago, an interdisciplinary group of experts gathered in the United States to study the problem of internet pornography. They were from various fields (e.g., economics, law, neuroscience, philosophy, psychiatry, psychology, sociology) and religious backgrounds (e.g., atheism, agnosticism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam). The result of their collaboration was a 2010 monograph, “Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations,” which rebuts the proposition that pornography consumption is harmless entertainment or benign sexual expression, often useful as a marital aid or stress reliever. The “Statement” underlines that most of the digital pornography is hard-core (of the graphically violent or sadistic sort) increasingly realistic, highly addictive, easily accessible to all, and harmful to individuals and society at large, with negative effects on interpersonal relationships.
That pornography consumption and related solitary sins can escalate into criminal conduct has been studied by Father Sean P. Kilcawley in his chapter, “Compulsive Sexual Behavior and Seminary Formation: The Root of the Crisis” in Clerical Sexual Misconduct: An Interdisciplinary Analysis.
Consider, for example, convicted felon Thomas Bruce, a former Protestant pastor, whose computer “included queries for child pornography and violent, forced sex acts.” He held three women at gunpoint in a Catholic Supply Store of St. Louis, demanded intimate acts and shot one when she refused. Moreover, in the case of child pornography, studies demonstrate that persons “who collect and disseminate child pornography are likely to molest an actual child,” and a 2000 study by the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that “76% of offenders convicted of internet related crimes against children admitted to contact sex crimes … and had an average of 30.5 child sex victims each.”
Exorcists on Pornography
Given all that has been said above, it is not surprising that as pornography consumption has increased, so have reports of demonic activity. According to Patti Maguire Armstrong’s article, “US Exorcists: Demonic Activity on the Rise,” more exorcists are reportedly needed to deal with rising demands regarding infestation (places and things), oppression (external events), obsession (thoughts) and possession (the person).
Exorcism is a sacramental or sacred sign instituted by the Church, employed “[w]hen the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion” (Catechism, 1673). It has two forms: simple and major. The former is performed, for example, at baptism in the rejection of Satan and all his works. The major exorcism is performed in cases of demonic possession “only by a priest and with permission of the bishop … the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church” (Catechism, 1673; Code of Canon Law, 1172).
In Armstrong’s article, Father Vincent Lampert, pastor and exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, is quoted as saying, “The problem isn’t that the devil has upped his game, but more people are willing to play it.” Similarly, Msgr. John Esseff, president of the board of directors at the Pope Leo XII Institute, which provides spiritual formation for exorcists, says, “As the acceptance of sin has increased, so, too, demonic activity.” The exorcist must be able to distinguish between “[i]llnesses, especially psychological illness,” a medical matter requiring medical treatment, on the one hand, and demonic activity (oppression, obsession or possession), a spiritual issue requiring an exorcism, on the other hand. Making the distinction can be difficult. Father Gabriele Amorth, in An Exorcist Tells His Story, states:
An expert exorcist will be able to detect the difference more easily than a psychiatrist because the exorcist will keep his mind open to all possibilities and will be able to identify the distinguishing elements. The psychiatrist, in the majority of cases, does not believe in demonic possession.
Father Amorth had great esteem for those psychiatrists who are “professionally competent and know the limitations of their science” and recognize “when one of their patients exhibit symptoms that go beyond any known disease.” In the end, the two fields of expertise need to cooperate. Consequently, it might be prudent for those addressing the psychological aspects of pornography to consider referring the person, in certain cases, to an exorcist to assess the possibility of a diabolical dimension to one’s pornography consumption. Certainly, this will be necessary in some cases.