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For many men and women who struggle with pornography, shame clings to them like a wet blanket and often becomes the biggest barrier to seeking help. However, the problem is not the sense of shame itself.     

Father Robert Schreiner, STL, explains:

Shame and guilt arise when the moral act contradicts the truth. God has hard-wired the human soul for the truth. Even a faulty conscience still has the lingering effect of knowing it has failed the moral truth. Even the hardened pornography user knows at a certain point of self-gratification that this has failed them. And the deeper the addiction the deeper the sense. Without a merciful/spiritual off-ramp, the addiction just spirals deeper and deeper.”

Shame is the natural reaction when sin collides with body-soul persons created in the “image of God.” Our consciences recognize we are failing and are even missing out on God’s design for us. Shame is meant to wake us up to the relational breaches caused by sin and push us toward healing.  

But this does not often happen. Shame gets mixed with the false belief that we are too broken for God to accept or change us–much less our family, friends, and parish community. Then shame becomes toxic. Then we hide. 

Father Thomas J. Loya, STB, MA, explains:

“Saint Pope John Paul II presents marvelous insights into shame. He said that ‘Shame has… a dual significance; it means…the endeavor to conceal sexual values so that they do not obscure the value of the person…But it also means the longing to inspire or experience love…Shame is the natural form of self-defense for the person against the danger of descending or being pushed into the position of an object for sexual use’ (Love and Responsibility, 1993).  

Shame shows the ‘frontier’ between the original innocence of mankind (Adam and Eve before the Fall) and mankind in history as we now know ourselves—broken by Original Sin. The danger of shame and guilt in the negative sense, and especially in the case of pornography, is that it can actually affect a person’s disposition. 

They can become a more angry person and also a person who becomes victim to what I call the ‘D’ words, which are all related to the ultimate ‘D’ word: ‘D-evil’ These words are in progressive order: Disappointment, Discouragement, and Despair.  A victim of pornography who is ‘D’escending (another “D” word itself!) into the ‘D’ words also runs the risk of resisting the very healing that they need.  The descent into shame becomes a vicious cycle.” 

To break through shame and the vicious cycle it may hold, we need to supply the narrative for the hiding person. Ask direct questions that give the person permission to be honest and transparent. Father Kilcawley shares how God did this for Adam and Even when they hid:

“In Genesis 3:9-11 the Lord looks for Adam, and when Adam [responds to God’s question ‘Where are you?’], he says, ‘I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.’ 

The Lord [then] supplies the narrative, ‘Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’ In supplying the narrative, the Lord breaks through Adam’s shame so that Adam can experience mercy.

Like the Samaritan woman at the well, Adam can say, ‘Come see a man who has told me everything I have done (John 4:29).’”

For many, toxic shame is so acute that being open and honest in a spiritual community sounds like the last thing they want to do. So, for parishes that are proactive about the issue, disinfecting the shame dynamic is a constant battle. We need to keep offering an invitation to honesty by first supplying the narrative to those who are in hiding. 

The Church Is a Field Hospital for the Broken

Parish communities can be a place where you come across masks and pretension. The people of God, sometimes even the clergy and religious, might conclude from their own personal experiences that the Church maybe isn’t a place to be transparent and talk about real problems. 

But that isn’t the Church our Lord founded. Pope Francis explains that the Church “must be like a field hospital that cleans and heals wounds.”[i] Many know and belong to this Church. Many more people are beginning to experience the joy of belonging to this Church, the Catholic Church—a Church for the wounded and the sick. 

Father Kilcawley comes from a non-traditional family. His parents were divorced and each remarried Catholics. His father had three children with his first wife, and his mother had two sons with her first husband. Two years after Father Kilcawley was born, his mother died, and his father remarried a third time and had three more children. That marriage lasted until Father Kilcawley was a sophomore in college. This was the family that Father Kilcawley was born into—the family that God gave him.  

While Father Kilcawley has a deep love for all his siblings, he also felt very alone growing up as the only child from his parents’ union. He had his first conversion on a youth retreat in 1990 as a junior in high school. Then he spent years running away from God in college and as an active duty army officer. In 1999, he entered the seminary and was ordained in 2005. In 2009, he went to study marriage and family at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, Italy. 

While there, he learned the truth and beauty of the Church’s teaching on the human person, marriage, and family. He began to experience a depression that rose from the tension between his experience of family and the Church’s teaching. This depression became so powerful that he had to ask his Bishop permission to step out of his studies for three months to seek help from a good therapist.  

While in prayer during that time, Jesus brought clarity to the tension, frustration, and darkness that he was experiencing. Jesus reminded Father Kilcawley of his constant presence and provision. If Father Kilcawley was willing to do whatever it took, Jesus would bring healing to his life.  

No matter what else was going on in his life and his family, Father Kilcawley was Christ’s beloved son. 

As he shares, this life experience “had a great impact on my ministry as it is the core message of healing from pornography addiction. Pornography use robs us of our identity. We begin to ‘take refuge’ in pornography rather than in our Lord—it becomes a false God and is oftentimes a violation of the first and not the sixth commandment.”

Like Father Kilcawley, we will need healing at some point in our lives. Pope Francis states,

"So many people need their wounds healed! This is the mission of the Church: to heal the wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good, God forgives all, God is the Father, God is affectionate, God always waits for us.”[ii]

In line with this, Father Kilcawley explains:

“My personal healing only came in the midst of transparency. It came in finding safe people that I could share my life with.  It came in learning to be completely honest with Jesus and with others. The Church as field hospital can only be realized as the Church becomes a safe place for hurting people to come and share their lives with one another and with Jesus.”  

Transparency comes when we offer men and women a safe place and safe people to be vulnerable. 

We want our parishes to be a place where men and women can be honest and public about their struggles, where they can have daily conversions with holy companionship along the way. We want our parishes to be the place where men and women know their desires and compulsions have their origins in the holy and beautiful, receive the encouragement they need in order to respond to their conscience and change course if need be. 

The Safe Place – A Church Without Masks 

The Church must be the safe place for people to share openly about their secrets and struggles in order to experience both emotional and spiritual healing. 

Parishes can make two mistakes when helping those who struggle with pornography:

  • Either the parish is not a safe place,
  • Or they lack a safe process. 

Our parishes need both. Priests and their pastoral assistants hold the role of creating this environment. The parishioners will follow their lead.  

Psalm 89 shows us we can be honest about our discouragement and struggles. Written to be sung aloud by a congregation, this powerful lament ends with the tension unresolved. After the psalmist celebrates God’s promises and acts of deliverance, he faces his current situation with nothing but disappointment. His enemies have breached the walls. His king is totally defeated in battle. Exile is imminent. The psalmist is reaching the end of his life, and there is no sign of hope. He cries out to God, “How long, Lord? Will you hide forever?” (Psalm 89:47), but God is silent. There is no answer. 

Are our parishes safe places where people can admit to being in the ugly stage of a long process? Full of thankfulness for the Good News, yes, but still feeling the weight of struggle and sin. Are our parishes places where it is okay to not be okay? 

How to Begin Creating a Safe Environment

This transparency starts when priests and parish leaders address the issue of pornography openly and honestly. 

To create safe places, priests need to know how to help people overcome pornography. They need a game plan. 

Father Loya explains, 

“The Church is indeed like a hospital. Priests are the physicians. As with any physician, there is a very, very delicate and arduous balance of doing what has to be done to heal a patient while having good bedside manners and not frightening the patient away. Like a good doctor, a priest has to ‘name the disease’ but also assure the patient that they can be healed. 

The risk for pastors is to have the perception of their people lean one way or the other. Either the sick person feels condemned for being sick or their sickness is not being properly recognized or ‘diagnosed’ by the priest. This is either because the priest is inexperienced, lacks adequate knowledge, or he is too fearful of ‘offending’ or ‘losing’ a parishioner.” The physician needs to understand and communicate the balance." 

The Catholic Church is a place where it’s okay not to be okay, and the Church will guide them to a place of healing and freedom. 

Father Schreiner adds too, that the priest can respond in two extremes when ministering to the person struggling or addicted to porn. The priest can be “too dismissive of the problem in an attempt to make the sinner comfortable, and too harsh thinking it is just a matter of exertion of proper interior disciple. Understand the saturation for the culture and compassion will come more easily.” 

Along these same lines, another priest shared,

“Fear of upsetting or making people uncomfortable is always going to be [an impediment to ministry around this issue. Another issue is] not having a clear game plan—you don’t want to keep yelling at an addict to just stop.

Using the opioid addiction problem as an analogy, a lot of times you know people from the confessional who are good people, who are using [Internet] filters, praying regularly, striving for holiness, and maybe even getting counseling, and are still entangled in the addiction.”

If the priest needs a “game plan” or better yet a “battle plan,” in order to create a safe place. What does this “battle plan” look like? 

1. Education 

Educate yourself about the topic, both the spiritual and psychological components of it. It’s very important not to over-spiritualizing or under spiritualizing the issue. Consider reading Are you over-spiritualizing your porn struggle?

2. Talk About It 

Make a point to compassionately talk about the issue in your homily and do it regularly. Consider having an annual RCIA session dedicated to the brain science, as well as the spiritual and psychological impact of pornography. Learn more about how pornography actually changes the way we think in the Covenant Eyes ebook Your Brain on Porn

3. Bring It Up 

Address the issue in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and be able to speak to the struggle, as well as provide materials to help the penitent. Offer the Catholic Answers You are Loved booklet in the confessional. It comes with a 30-day free trial to Covenant Eyes. For additional guidance on how to approach the topic of pornography in the confessional, watch How to Help People in the Confessional.

4. Parent Offerings 

Host educational events to educate and guide parents on the topic of pornography. Provide information about Screen Accountability™ and porn blockers. Download Equipped: Smart Catholic Parenting in a Sexualized Culture

5. Publish 

Regularly include helpful information in the bulletin and parish newsletter. Include local counselors and spiritual directors that specialize in sex addiction. Include links to Clean Heart Online free resources, such as email challenges, ebooks or the Novena for Purity.

6. Share 

What is the Catholic Church saying about pornography? Post on the bulletin board or find other ways to share what the Holy Father, the U.S. Bishops, and other Catholic leaders are saying about the negative impacts of pornography on vocations, marriage, and family life. 

Finding the Right Balance as We Share

We create a safe place by creating an environment where it’s okay and comfortable to talk about the issue of pornography. We need to give “the gift of going second.” That’s when transparency starts. When the leaders of the Church address the issue of pornography first, it makes it so much easier for those struggling with pornography to ask for help. 

In practice, this means that in the Sunday homily, the parish priest is not teaching his congregation to just confess their “safe sins” in the Sacrament Reconciliation, like “I didn't make my bed this week.” Using these types of sins as examples do not invite people to confess taboo problems. They invite people to hide. 

Communicate to your congregation that people struggle with various addictions, including pornography. Tell them they are in the right place to heal, be forgiven, and receive Christ’s mercy. This can even include a story from the priest’s own life or ministry. 

Father Kilcawley shares how this openness can play out in a priest’s life, 

“Pope Francis, in his first Chrism Mass homily, told priests to ‘smell like their sheep.’[iii] This means being accessible to the people because they can identify with their shepherds. One does not have to reveal everything about their lives, but it certainly could involve telling the story of how they were first exposed to pornography or how they were in need of healing leading up to their priesthood. If it is a story of redemption it can be powerful for pastors to share with their congregations, just as Saint Paul often told the story of his own conversion in his letters.” 

However, priests should only reveal specific sins from prior to their ordination; any current struggles (however real) would only distract from the congregants’ own worship. Father Loya explains, 

“Once a man is a priest, sharing current personal struggles will be counter-productive. It could confuse laity and really rattle their faith in the Church and priesthood. The priest has to have proper boundaries in terms of self-revelation. This is actually a service to his people. 

When a patient goes to a physician they are encouraged if the physician themselves at least seem to be living in their own life what they are ‘preaching’ to the patient. Furthermore, a good physician would not talk about themselves. They would focus on the patient. Laity by nature do not like it when priests talk about themselves or get too personal or whiny. ‘Sharing struggles’ has too much risk for a pastor to come off self-centered, less competent, and less attentive to the needs of his people.”

As you can see, we need to find the right balance. The priest must not be too revealing of his own current sins, yet we know that vulnerability and honesty from one individual brings about vulnerability and honesty in another. 

How Do We Encourage Vulnerability?

How do we get people to this level of vulnerability and honesty? To share their own stories?

Through holy friendships and accountable relationships found in the life of the parish—accountability and support groups.

Accountability and support groups must be #7 in your battle plan to really fight against pornography in your parish. 

Father Kilcawley explains,

“Vulnerability invites vulnerability. It opens the door and makes it safe for others to come forth and get help. Many men in my support group found their way there because a friend had first opened up to them about their struggles and the fact that they were getting help.”

It’s important to create venues to talk about the topic and provide the opportunity for men and women to tell their story. This is where evangelization and conversion occurs. 

Father Kilcawley and Father Kujawa have the somewhat rare experience in the Catholic Church of forming support groups for men fighting pornography in their lives, marriages and families. 

 “A support group is a place where we can openly share our lives with one another,” Father Kilcawley explains. “It is a sort of ‘laboratory for learning to have friendships.’ A spiritual support can be one tool among many for those who are seeking healing for themselves and their marriages.” 

Father Kilcawley started a support group, simply named “Group,” with two men who sought his spiritual direction. He asked them if they wanted to meet someone else who was in the same situation. Then he started inviting men from the confessional to the support group. It all started with an invitation. 

He explains,

“This 'Group' Model is really just a disciple group where everyone is honest about every aspect of their lives. These groups seem to be most successful when they follow the Courage Apostolate model of having a priest chaplain present. To provide structure they can use a number of books or other resources. The groups are most successful when they form organically.” 

Father Kujawa co-leads his parish group, called “Millennium Men” (men equipped to live in the new millennium). Their weekly meetings includes check-ins, accountability, encouragement, prayer, and friendship. He shares, 

“Before I arrived, there was a recovering porn addict who would meet with a handful of guys on a monthly basis individually. That wasn’t working at all, so we started this group that meets on a weekly basis. 

On any given week, there are between 10 and 20 of us who show up to the meetings. Each guy gives his check-in, starting with his first name and sobriety date (sobriety date refers to the date since the last instance of porn or masturbation), then talks about the week and the temptations that came with it. If I notice any patterns during the sharing, I’ll bring those up at the end. Otherwise, either the other leader or I will share a word of encouragement and then we finish with the Lord’s Prayer. The whole meeting takes one hour.”

While these two examples emphasize the struggle of men with pornography, it is also important to form support groups for female addicts, as well as groups for spouses of an addicted husband or wife. 

Many archdioceses, dioceses, parishes, and organizations have already begun initiatives to address pornography. You can look to these as examples or for assistance in beginning support groups for overcoming pornography addiction for men and women. You can learn about many of these efforts by viewing Partnering Dioceses of Clean Heart Online.

 

[i] Pope Francis, “The Church should be like a field hospital” (2015, May 2). http://www.romereports.com/2015/02/05/pope-francis-homily-the-church-should-be-like-a-field-hospital (accessed July 6, 2017).

[ii] Ibid. 

[iii] Chrism Mass Homily of Pope Francis (2013, March 28). http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2013/
documents/papa-francesco_20130328_messa-crismale.html (accessed July 6, 2017)

 

Resource
Confessional Video

How to Help People in the Confessional

Description

In this 5-minute training video, Father Sean Kilcawley, STL, guides and teaches priests on what questions to ask in the confessional in order to help those who struggle with pornography.

Audience: Priests 
Language: English 
Resource Type: Training video   
Cost: Free  

Amanda Zurface is the Catholic Campaign Coordinator for Covenant Eyes. Amanda holds a License and MA in Canon Law and a BA in Catholic Theology and Social Justice. Amanda has served in various roles within the Catholic Church both in the United States and internationally. She is the co-author of Equipped: Smart Catholic Parenting in a Sexualized Culture and Transformed by Beauty. She resides in Pueblo, Colorado, where she also serves as the Vice-Chancellor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pueblo.