Action Alert!

Pornography and Priestly Vocations

by Raymond Cleaveland


This compelling article about the impact of pornography on priestly vocations demonstrates the supreme importance of purity for young men, whether contemplating a priestly vocation or not. The impact of pornography on the imagination and its addictive character combine to make chastity and, in particular, celibacy extremely difficult, as well as undermining a man's understanding of and relationships to women. The author not only details the problem but offers ideas for ensuring that pornography does not further infect the priesthood.

Larger Work

Homiletic and Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, July 2004

In Madison, Wisconsin, a Roman Catholic priest admits to viewing sexually explicit pictures of children on the Internet as he pleads guilty to attempted possession of child pornography.1

In St. Louis, a Catholic priest is sentenced to 90 days in a halfway house, placed on probation for five years and fined $5,000 for receiving obscenity through his computer.2

In Detroit, a Catholic priest is placed on administrative leave because of an ongoing investigation into his alleged possession of child pornography.3

And in Des Moines, a 38-year-old Iowa priest faces 15 years in prison and as much as a $250,000 fine for child porn.4

These are only a few of the headlines that have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the nation on Catholic priests indicted for trafficking in pornography. And the bad news just keeps coming. Such stories are disheartening for Catholics who love the Church and demoralizing for the good priests and seminarians trying to make a difference. Clergy and laity alike are asking tough questions: How did this happen? How we can make it stop?

Promoting vocations to the priesthood is indeed a high priority for every diocese and religious order, but should every man who applies to the seminary be accepted? Pornography is a growing threat to the future of priestly vocations, for it can render a man incapable of living a serene and healthy life of celibacy. Furthermore, pornography is widely available, highly addictive and a hugely destructive influence on behavioral patterns in a manner unfit for the priestly life. This essay will explore the impact of pornography on vocations ministry and its effects on candidates for the priesthood. It will also consider some solutions so that vocations directors and the seminary staff can do everything possible to ensure a porn-free seminary environment.

A new national scourge

Pornography addiction is spreading throughout North America at a terrifying rate, leaving in its wake truncated careers, disintegrated marriages, and ruined lives. It knows not the barriers of age, race, religion or sex. And the situation is not going to get better soon because high cash returns continue to line the porn king's pockets and fuel the spread of the smut. According to Dick Thornburgh and Herbert S. Lin of the National Research Council, the porn industry now generates more than $1 billion in revenues annually and is expected to bring in between $5 billion to $7 billion over the next five years.5

Like never before in the 2000-year history of the Roman Catholic Church, the young men called to the priesthood today have been immersed in a pornographic world from the day of their birth. Even erotic 1st century Rome could not match the sex-satiated 2111 century America. In a 1985 study, Dr. Jennings Bryant found that by the time boys reach the age of 15, some 92 percent had been exposed to pornographic magazines such as Playboy; the average age they started checking out the centerfolds was 11.6 But an 11year old growing up in the 1980s didn't need a copy of Playboy to see dirty pictures. All he had to do was go to the movies, read teen magazines or turn on prime-time television.

That was the '80s. Now, pornography has a dangerous, new medium of propagation: the Internet. Exposure risk for children and teens has grown exponentially. More than 100,000 pay-porn sites exist in the United States alone; over 400,000 porn sites are operational worldwide.7 Many X-rated Web pages employ aggressive e-marketing strategies and tricks that aim to lure the unwary "client." The multiplying porn sites and steadily rising Internet use among teenagers make for a dangerous combination. Currently, 75.6 percent the 14- to 17-year-olds use the Web.8 Today teens are more likely than ever to stumble inadvertently upon porn sites.

When kids get to college, they aren't any safer. To the contrary, college-aged men are bombarded on a daily basis by Internet smut. A recent University of Victoria study assessed the reactions of 760 university students to sexually explicit material giving some startling and scary results. Forty percent of the students tested reported viewing Internet pornography daily; 44 percent started using the Internet to view sexually explicit material at age 16 or younger; the high mark, though, went to those who acted out their cyber-sex fantasies-71 percent of the men surveyed reported masturbating while viewing porn online.9 Pornography, and to a greater extent, the sexual revolution of 1960s, have transformed college campuses into breeding grounds for licentiousness. Because the great majority of young men enter the seminary after a few years of college, vocation directors should carefully determine what the candidates may have seen.

Danger: Highly addictive!

It may be well near impossible to find college-age men who have not been exposed to pornographic images. But when a young man with clearly good intentions says he wants to be a priest, should his past experiences with porn raise red flags? Absolutely, says Bishop Victor Galeone of St. Augustine, Florida, precisely because pornography is so highly addictive. Even if a candidate's viewing patterns are as infrequent as one "binge" a month, it may be a sign that he is hooked on porn.

"An addiction means that the candidate cannot do without plugging into the source of the pornography on a regular basis—whether that's daily, or weekly, or off and on during the month," Galeone said. Medical findings seem to confirm Galeone's fears about porn's addictive nature. Pornographic images are "burned in the brain" through the release of a chemical hormone called Epinephrine. According to recovered sex-addict and pornography expert Stephen Wood, Epinephrine makes it nearly impossible for a man to "erase" the sex image from his brain. Even an inadvertent brush with porn can be the start of a sex-addiction that lasts for years. And when an act of self-stimulation occurs while viewing the porn, an even stronger dose of Epinephrine is released.10 David Canton, author of Pornography: the Addiction, notes that the locked-in images "can result in severely changed behavior, including an obsession with pornography that has much in common with chemical addiction."11

Recovery from porn addiction is an uphill battle, but it is not impossible. We must never discount the power of God's grace. An addict can' beat sex addiction, and even help others to beat it, as Stephen Wood has done. And a recovered porn-addict can certainly be a good husband and father. Yet in Bishop Galeone's mind, the Church must be extremely cautious when it comes to seminary admittance. Galeone is very involved in his diocese's interview process, often presiding over the vocations screening committee. He has instructed his vocation director to investigate seminary candidates for possible porn addictions during the one-on-one interviews. "If they did admit to an addiction, whether it was on the Internet or via magazines, we would not accept him," he said. Therefore, it would behoove vocation directors to screen potential seminarians closely for past porn use, determining how much and how often they have dialed up, tuned-in or logged-on. A latent porn addiction that appears vanquished could potentially resurface 10 or 20 years down the road.

Celibacy difficult

Thirty-eight years ago, the Second Vatican Council advised bishops to warn seminarians about "the very severe dangers with which their chastity will be confronted in presentday society."12 Those predictions were right on the mark, according to Auxiliary Bishop George Thomas of the Archdiocese of Seattle. "The Council fathers prophetically anticipated a climate that is hostile toward Christian morality and antithetical to those who seek to serve the Lord with undivided hearts," he said. For Bishop Thomas, pornography is one of the primary components of that hostile climate and one of the gravest 21st century threats to priestly celibacy.

Father Anthony Bannon, Provincial of North America of the Legionaries of Christ, has seen firsthand the effects of pornography in his congregation's vocations program. According to Bannon, last year over half of the Legionaries of Christ's seemingly "best prospects" had to be counseled against beginning postulancy because the screening process revealed serious problems in the area of pornography. Like Bishop Galeone, Bannon screens potential seminarians for porn addiction, saying he would exclude any candidate who had more than just a "brush" with pornography because it poses a serious threat to his commitment to celibacy. "It skews a man's whole view of life; it makes celibate chastity well nigh impossible because the imagination is filled with images; it affects the way he deals with women," he said.

Thus emerges the bottom line in priestly vocational discernment: Can a candidate who has used pornography to any serious extent truly live a celibate lifestyle? For Father Richard Paperini, Rector of Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, it is not enough to say: "I want to be celibate." Good will and a firm determination are necessary, but seminary formators, and ultimately, the ordaining bishop, must determine whether a candidate for the priesthood is capable of a life of celibacy. Paperini tells the students at Mount Angel: "I don't want you to accept chastity; I want you to choose chastity." According to Paperini, this means choosing celibacy for one's own life, not simply accepting it because the Church demands that of priests.

Bishop Galeone sees an absolute incompatibility between priestly celibacy and porn. "I feel that anyone who regularly tunes into a source of pornography, from whatever source, has a major problem in maintaining a celibate life," he noted. Frequent pornography consumption does indeed influence judgment, attitudes and behavior in a way that nearly always renders a man unfit for the priesthood. "Why? Because it is addictive, and it leads to acting out—at the very least it usually causes a habit of masturbation," Bannon said. Bishop Galeone concurs. "Such an addiction is usually the last step before someone starts acting out on whatever the pornography deals with," he said. In the wake of the sex scandals, the risk of future priests who "act out" their sexual fantasies is too great to take a chance.

Frightening effects

Bannon and Galeone's fears about the behavioral effects of pornography have been confirmed by recent studies. For starters, the "soft" porn found on many prime-time television shows can lead to significant attitude changes, often inducing adolescents to adopt a view of sexual morality that clearly contradicts Gospel teaching. In a 1991 study, Drs. Brown and Newcomer showed the relationship between teens viewing sexual content on television and their own behavior. "Adolescents exposed to a high proportion of 'sexy' television shows were significantly more likely to report having had intercourse than were those exposed to a lower proportion of such programming."13 Among the mass media culprits, Music Television (MTV) is particularly aggressive. In a 1993 study, Drs. Calfin, Carroll and Schmidt reported that college students who were exposed to certain music videos were more likely to exhibit liberal attitudes toward premarital sex than those who did not see the video.14 Many music videos and current MTV programming are more akin to R-rated movies than wholesome teen entertainment. Even without tapping into hard pornography, young men today enter the seminary often having viewed countless hours of prime-time television. The effect will not be negligible.

Hard-core pornography, however, is far more sinister. The images and scenes go way beyond the boundaries of prime time, and they are anything but innocuous. In a series of studies on young adult behavior, Drs. Neil Malamuth and Emily Impett of University of California at Los Angeles note that exposure to sexually explicit material can affect fantasies, attitudes, perceptions of norms and behavior."15 Furthermore, when porn images are combined with violence, as they often are, the effects on the human psyche and conscience can be devastating. This technique, known as "embedding," laces pornographic images with masochistic content. Drs. Linz, Donnerstein and Penrod reported in a 1984 study that after exposure to violent porn movies such as the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, subjects were less sensitive to victims of sex crimes. For example, exposure to a sexually explicit rape scene tends to produce a lessened sensitivity to rape, increased acceptance of rape myths and increases the self reported possibility of raping.16 X-rated movies will often show women who "enjoy" being raped. And studies show that men are particularly open to messages embedded in porn because their "guard" is down. Donnerstein's laboratory research showed that pornography desensitizes adolescent males who are in the process of forming values and beliefs, and exposure to aggressive pornography increases aggression against women.17 In a parallel study, extensive exposure to non-aggressive porn significantly increased males' sexual callousness toward women.18 These are hardly the kinds of values desired in a future priest.

While Donnerstein and other researchers' studies were confined to the laboratory, criminal justice records tell the same chilling story in real life. One report demonstrates that 86 percent of convicted rapists used pornography; 57 percent of those rapists admitted that they were attempting to imitate pornographic images when they committed their crimes.19 In his testimony before the U.S. Senate hearing on pornography, Charles Keating of Citizens for Decency Through Law, reported that 77 percent of child molesters of boys and 87 percent of child molesters of girls admitted imitating the sexual behavior they had seen modeled in pornography.20 Cardinal Francis George of Chicago agrees with this assessment. "The studies that are available show that the use of pornography tends eventually to lead to sexually aggressive action towards others," the Cardinal noted. "The sexual abuse of minors is often prepared by a predator's showing a child pornographic films or pictures."21

Dr. Don DeMarco points to the demeaning nature of pornography as a cause for such ghastly behavior. "Pornography use replaces love with lust," says DeMarco. It debases the person, reducing him or her to an object of another's pleasure. "Lust prefers the experience of pleasure to the good of the person ... man becomes an object for man: the female for the male and the male for the female," notes DeMarco, echoing the words of John Paul II's Theology of the Body.22

Pornography consumption is far from harmless. While there is no absolute correlation between porn and pedophilia, pornography is perhaps the greatest propellant of sex crimes against women and children. Because the protection of children must be our highest priority, the Church cannot risk ordaining a man who has a history of hard-core porn consumption. Seminary formators and vocations directors must proceed with extreme caution in cases where pornography addiction is suspected. Ordaining such a man to the priesthood would be risky at best because it leaves too many questions unanswered that might result in a repeat of the 2002 crisis in the years to come.

Fighting back

Solutions to the threat of pornography are far behind the running start that the purveyors of porn have. The dimensions of pornography addiction are so great that any remedy sought may be too little, too late. Nevertheless, here are several ideas that those involved in vocations ministry and seminary formation may want to consider.

The first is simply realizing that pornography is a growing threat to the priesthood. As mentioned above, the dawn of the 21st century brings the Church a unique set of historical circumstances. Never before have vocations been so badly needed; and never before have vocations been so greatly threatened by the menace of widely available pornography.

The second tactic that should be employed is the aforementioned screening process. A candidate for the seminary should be extensively interviewed on this matter. The use of interviews, tests and psychological profiles can help determine the extent of a candidate's pornography consumption.

Third, a renewed emphasis must be placed on the spiritual life to strengthen priests and seminarians in their commitment to celibacy. Bishop Galeone prescribes the following regimen for his priests: "a solid, daily prayer life, brutal honesty with one's regular confessor, participation in a support group, and participation in the annual retreat." Those are the spiritual means sine qua none to keep clean from pornography use and to live celibacy in an ever more sexually permeated world. Like Galeone, Bishop Thomas sees in the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis a strong Magnetic North for the formation of seminarians for celibate chastity. As the Exhortation points out,

In the seminary, that is, in the program of formation, celibacy should be presented clearly, without any ambiguities and in a positive fashion. The seminar ian should have a sufficient degree of psychological and sexual maturity as well as an assiduous and authentic life of prayer, and he should put himself under the direction of a spiritual father.23

Since pornography is but one assault on moral life that affects seminarians, Thomas sees the need to broaden the emphasis on the interior life from the first days of the seminary. Among other things, Thomas said this should include "a renewed emphasis on the Eucharist and Divine Office, frequent celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, a healthy companionship with fellow seminarians ... and a lifetime commitment to self-mastery and governance."

Fourth, Pastores Dabo Vobis did not limit itself to addressing the spiritual formation of future priests; it also stipulates that human formation is a vital component of the seminary program. The human formation of the seminarians is carried out in the external forum and thus can form part of the rector's evaluation of the candidate for ordination. Father Paperini relies heavily on the human formation component to evaluate his seminarians at Mount Angel. "What you say to a priest in the internal forum of confession and spiritual direction stays with the priest; what you say to a priest in external forum of human formation goes right to the bishop or superior," said Paperini. At Mount Angel, Paperini interviews his seminarians in the external forum about their past. "No, it's not comfortable and it's not fun, but we are as sick as our secrets," he said. And sex addiction, says Paperini, is a "huge secret." Therefore, he continues, "these things have to come out in the external forum and they have to be talked about—not with the whole world—but with the bishop, with a priest, with a trusted friend." This is the first step toward evaluating whether a candidate for the priesthood can life a holy, celibate life.

An important part of the human formation process involves helping a candidate integrate his cognitive processes with his affect—his feelings. When a candidate does not think about what he feels or feel what he thinks, that man has no sense of guilt. In the case of sex-offenders, according to Paperini, there is a complete dichotomy between the two. He cited the case of a deceased pedophile priest who was interrogated by his superiors about why he committed his crimes against children. The priest responded that it was the parents' fault because "they didn't watch over him." "That is the most ludicrous statement that one could hear," said Paperini. "He kept his cognitive so far separated from his affect that he felt no guilt," he concluded. This integration of the cognitive and affective processes therefore is a key element in Mount Angel's human formation program. "Whenever I meet a student who can't do that, or refuses to do that, I have to ask him to leave the seminary because they're too much of a risk for the future of the Church," Paperini noted. These and other elements make up the component of human formation in the seminary program, which Paperini sees as indispensable. "It absolutely must be done. We can't keep secrets—the Church can't afford to keep secrets any more with men training for the priesthood," he concluded.

Fifth, seminarians must be taught accountability—to their superiors, to their spiritual directors and to one another. This accountability will carry over into their life of ordained ministry, not in some form of Orwellian supervision, but as a path to a coherent life of celibacy in a porn-filled world. For pornography is not only a threat to seminarians; it can affect priests as well. Pat and Marsha Means, a Protestant husband-wife counseling team, have noted the impact of sex addiction among Protestant ministers. "Those involved in pastoral ministry are often more vulnerable than others to the allure of Internet pornography," say the Meanses.24 They point to several factors: long hours spent working alone in the office in front of their computers; an escape from loneliness and discouragement of ministry; and lack of peer support and accountability. The Meanses say that accountability is a key factor in keeping clean and porn-free. Galeone concurs. He insists that his priests must make their annual retreat that is scheduled at their retreat house. If a man cannot participate for a legitimate reason, he must write the bishop a letter of explanation. Galeone says he will not permit anyone to miss two successive years from the diocesan priests' retreat—and the years they cannot participate, they must tell him where and when they plan to make their retreat. For Father Paperini, accountability can also take the form of priest support teams such as Jesu-Caritas groups. But Paperini is quick to note that priests must address issues of spiritual and sexual intimacy with other priests or their bishops, but not with the laity. "Priests have made the laity too much their 'friends' in recent years," said Paperini. "The laity in our parish cannot be our 'friends' because that is a violation of agency," often spawning an unhealthy relationship, he concluded.

Sixth, the seminary formation program should help candidates develop personal conviction. No one is exempt from temptation. One must not forget that priests and seminarians are human, and pornography plays on instincts that every man has as part of his nature. A man has to honestly recognize his own weakness and therefore be convinced of the need to avoid temptation. Once that conviction is deeply rooted, then priests and seminarians will apply any practical means of protection on their own accord. Because the online pornographers are so aggressive, they are a real danger and temptation. Internet use is one area where personal conviction should combine with practical steps. Priests and seminarians must learn to set boundaries and stick to them. In some cases, that may mean forgoing a computer that is Internet accessible in their own rooms where no one can see them. Any Internet access that is needed for parish duties or research could be done on a computer in an open place where others can see what is being viewed. Priests already in ministry could get a buddy system going and hold each other accountable for the use they make of TV and Internet. This will also increase the sense of accountability and conviction. Seminaries and parishes should have good filters on computers, but as any computer expert can tell you, even the best filters can be circumvented. At Mount Angel Seminary, Father Paperini cuts off the seminarians' Internet access at 11:00 pm. He also monitors Internet use through the local server and he knows what types of Web pages the seminarians are logging onto; if a seminarian is accessing pornographic material, Paperini said he would confront him about it in no uncertain terms.

Finally, a concerted effort must be made to foster vocations from a young age and help them to grow in the absence of porn. Bishop Thomas would like to see greater support given to parents and pastors in creating a Catholic home environment for junior and senior high school aspirants. "I could envision Catholic parents of younger seminary candidates working closely with diocesan vocation directors and pastors to cultivate the student's vocation in the context of the Catholic home," said Thomas. Catholic high schools should take steps to create a more positive environment for priestly vocations, ensuring that the figure of the priest is held in high esteem and that those in vocational discernment are in no way the object of ridicule or made to feel abnormal.

The sex scandals of 2002 have taught us a valuable lesson: No matter how badly priests are needed, a man's moral integrity and his resolute commitment to celibacy can never be compromised. On the day of ordination, the bishop asks if the candidate is worthy. Behind the affirmative response are many years of formation and evaluation. Pornography addiction is not only a real danger for the man on the street; it is also a danger for the Church, charged with determining whether a candidate is fit for the priesthood. Because of the highly addictive nature of pornography and its negative influence on behavior, it poses one of the greatest dangers to bringing priestly vocations to their fruition. May all those involved in vocations ministry and seminary for oration be aware of and take action against pornography now to avoid a scandal in the near future.

End Notes

1 The Associated Press. Priest Pleads Guilty To Child Pornography Charge, The Independent News, June 18th, 2002.

2 The Associated Press, Catholic Priest Sentenced For Possessing Child Pornography, The Jefferson City News Tribune, February 4, 2003.

3 Priest Investigated For Child Pornography, February 13th 2003. 1975677/detail.html

4 Pitt, David. Priest Pleads Guilty on Child Porn Charge, August 29th, 2003. http://www. timesleader. com/mld/timesleader/6652473.htm

5 Thornburgh and Lin, eds. Youth, Pornography and the Internet. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.: 2002. 72.

6 Malamuth and Impett, "Research on Sex in the Media: What Do We Know About Effects on Children and Adolescents?" in Handbook of Children and the Media. Ed. Singer D. and Singer J. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA: 2001. 273.

7 Thornburgh and Lin, eds. Youth, Pornography and the Internet. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.: 2002. 72.

8 National Telecommunications and Information Admin., 2002, A Nation Online: How Americans are Expanding Their Use of the Internet. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Washington, D.C. Cited in Thornburgh, 120

9 Boies, Sylvain C. "University Students Uses of and Reactions to Online Sexual Information and Entertainment: Links to On-line and Off-line Sexual Behavior." The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, vol. 11, 2. Summer 2002. 87.

10 Wood, Stephen.

11 Demarco, Don. "Pornography and Despair" in The National Catholic Register, Aug. 27th, 2000.

12 Optatam Totius, 10.

13 Brown and Newcomer in 1991, "Television Viewing and Adolescents' Sexual Behavior." Journal of Homosexuality, 21 (1/2) 77-91. Study reported in Donnerstein and Smith, "Sex in the Media: Influences and Solutions" in Handbook of Children and the Media. Ed. Singer D. and Singer J. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA: 2001. 296.

14 Study reported in Malamuth and Impett, "Research on Sex in the Media: What Do We Know About Effects on Children an Adolescents?" in Handbook of Children and the Media. Ed. Singer D. and Singer J. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA: 2001. 277.

15 Malamuth and Impett, "Research on Sex in the Media: What Do We Know About the Effects on Children and Adolescents?" in Handbook of Children and the Media. Ed. Singer D. And Singer J. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA: 2001. 281.

16 Cited studies in 1981 and 83 by Malamuth & Check. Reported in Donnerstein and Linz "Mass media Sexual Violence and Male Viewers" in Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity. Ed. Michael S. Kimmell. Sage Publications, Newbury Park: 1987.

17 Donnerstein and Linz "Mass media Sexual Violence and Male Views" in Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity. Ed. Michael S. Kimmell. Sage Publications, Newbury Park: 1987. 296, 201.

18 Donnerstein and Linz, 210.

19 Study cited in Colson, Chuck. "Larry Flint: The Great Journalist?" Breakpoint with Chuck Colson. May 14th, 1999.

20 Wildmon, Donald, The Case Against Pornography. Cited in Sarnecky, Ellen. Pornography: the Silent Killer. Archdiocese of Washington Pro-Life Office.

21 Francis Cardinal George, as reported in Zenit News Service, Dec. 20th, 2002. English Edition.

22 Demarco, Don. "Pornography and Despair" in The National Catholic Register, Aug. 27th, 2000.

23 Pastores Dabo Vobis, 50.

24 Means P. and Means M. "The High-Tech Snare of the Pornographer" Pastor's Family Bulletin.

© Homiletic & Pastoral Review

This item 6182 digitally provided courtesy of