Good recovery groups usually do not operate perfectly from Day 1. They are forged and re-forged over months and even years.
Proactive parishes that are delving into ministry efforts that focus on recovering from pornography and other sexual struggles and addictions will face a number of tensions. Wise parish priests and group leaders will anticipate these tensions and navigate them intentionally.
Tension #1: How do we make specific groups for those who struggle while not stigmatizing the struggle or addiction?
If parish leaders are not conscious of this tension, the result may be a poorly executed, poorly attended group.
Simply, the groups are most successful when they start out organically. Father Kilcawley explains, “The support groups should simply be offered and referred to by clergy who first encounter people in the confessional. They do not need to be advertised. They begin with a pastor who is willing to walk with the sinners in his parish.”
Another way to share about this group is during marriage preparation or marriage enrichment offerings. When the parish priest or pastoral assistant is working one-on-one with individuals and couples, that is a key opportunity to share about the group if someone is struggling or addicted to pornography or other sexual addictions. Further, leaders can feel free to share about the existence, dynamics, and purpose of a men’s or women’s group in the homily or at educational nights, and that anyone interested can see the parish priest for more information.
Tension #2: How do parish leaders guide men and women to not have a struggle-based identity?
The first tension addresses how the parish should approach support groups in a way that doesn't attract stigmatization. The second tension deals with how group members can tend to identify themselves with their own struggle or addiction.
“Hi, I’m _____, and I’m a porn addict.”
To a parish priest or lay leader, hearing this honest admission from a new member sounds like progress. But hearing this from a group member who's been around for years can be a sign that he or she has developed a struggle-based identity.
Any time a parish develops outreach that focuses on a specific issue of healing and recovery, this tension will most likely present itself.
Father Loya explains why it’s important to help group members identify as nothing other than persons made in the image and likeness of God. “Turn to the wisdom of Saint Pope John Paul II’s teachings, which remind us of the ‘personalistic norm.’ There is only one thing that defines us as human beings— ‘person.’ The definition of ‘person’ takes its form from God, who is the perfect being, the perfect ‘person.’ The only true thing that can be said about the human person is that we are made in the image and likeness of God. All else that we attach to ourselves is a foreign intrusion, a false description of ourselves (our sin, death, sickness, foolishness, etc.) A person is not defined by a ‘diagnosis,’ a condition, a label, a category—this is a terrible practice of our culture. The starting point is that we are all persons. A person has no psycho-spiritual ‘glass ceiling’ over them. Persons are capable of limitless potential and persons are always in the process of their own becoming, of their ‘divinization.’ Things can hinder this process along the way, but this does not change the fundamental truth of who we really are.”
While it is normal for recovery-styled groups to be formed under the premise of a common struggle or common suffering, a group should mature to embrace the identity by which God created them to possess, which is, as Father Kilcawley explains, “beloved children of the Father. Sons and daughters by adoption.” As adopted sons and daughters of God, we are not merely sinners or sufferers. We are persons, his children made in his image, but who sin and who suffer.
Some support groups are designed to be short term for the very reason of not wanting members to build their identity around their struggle or addiction. The groups are structured in a way to function as the other groups in the parish.
Other groups experience rapid growth early on, but some of them very quickly become “binge and purge” groups. The members focus merely on breaking free from acute struggles and white-knuckle it all the way. The right focus to have is Christ himself, His grace, the total life-change He is asking each person to make, while also providing both the spiritual and psychological resources needed to make a major change in one’s life.
Even in thriving sexual addiction ministry in the life of your parish, the focus always needs to be intimacy with Christ, not just breaking free from pornography. As Father Kilcawley explains, it means we’re “constantly preaching the Gospel as it has always been preached.” He adds, “We can forget that sexual brokenness often results in the belief that a person is ‘un-loveable,’ and if that is the case, they need to be continually evangelized in order to speak the truth into this lie.”
As parish priests and lay leaders, make it your goal for something greater to happen to those group members who join just to no longer look at dirty pictures. Make it your goal that the group ends up impacting every aspect of their life, including their relationships, and especially their relationship with God.
Tension #3: Should we devote our time to helping those who directly struggle with pornography or should we help their spouses, too?
Pornography and other sexual addictions are not just personal problems. These impact everyone, especially the spouse or family of the one who is struggling or addicted. Neglecting care for the families of those who are struggling or addicted is categorically one of the worst mistakes a parish can make in this area.
Parishes with sex addiction ministries also quickly learn the importance of ministering to spouses. Father Kilcawley explains, “It is of the utmost importance to minister to spouses of addicts. Marriages cannot heal until both parties have healed. The most successful couples are those where each of them goes to counseling and a support group. In fact, the most successful couples I have worked with began with the betrayed spouse seeking help, then her husband followed.”
Father Loya shares that spouses must be a part of the healing process of an addict. He explains, “There are several reasons for this. The spouse is a victim. But also the spouse lives with the addict. The spouse is an integral part of the addict’s lifestyle even though the addiction by nature tries to exclude the spouse. What the spouse does or does not do is vital to the healing process of the addict as well as to the healing of the spouse’s own victimhood.”
Parishes minister to women through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction and/or by referring them to Christian counselors.
Some parishes offer groups for wives betrayed by their spouse through pornography, prostitution, and long-term affairs.
Contact your diocesan offices to learn if there are Catholic groups for wives available in your area. Additional reading that can be helpful to wives (and spouses together) include:
- Called to Love by Carl Anderson and Jose Granados
- Seven Desires of Every Heart by Mark and Debbie Laaser
- Shattered Vows: Hope and Healing for Women Who Have Been Sexually Betrayed by Debbie Laaser
- Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal by Barbara Steffens and Marsha Means
- Restored: True Stories of Love and Trust After Porn by Matt and Cameron Fradd
While Troy and Melissa Haas were missionaries in Africa, Troy committed adultery. This not only ended their missionary career, but it also shattered Melissa’s world. Upon returning to the United States she got involved in a wives’ support group, and through this, a vital change took place in her.
“It was a very sad time for me because I realized there was not one person I felt like I could call and say, “This is what has happened in my life.” I had, in ministry, isolated myself from others because I thought spiritually mature believers didn’t need anybody. So, when I walked into my first spouses’ group and was just one of “them,” something happened in me that transcended anything that I had ever felt in the church. That was this whole idea that we were created for the “one another’s” in Scripture, that community is vital to our healing and our souls. And I had missed that. I didn’t even know how starved I was for that.”
Having been a missionary, on many occasions, Melissa watched the lone wildebeest at the back of the herd being eaten. She knows now that women isolated from a supportive community are just as vulnerable. Melissa now runs wives’ support groups. “I say this to spouses all the time: When we are not alone, we often have the strength to make choices that would have terrified us before. When we are not alone, it somehow gives us the strength to face our greatest hurts.”[i]
Again, many men and women in your parish are struggling with occasional or habitual use of pornography. Freedom and chastity take perseverance, as well as the appropriate tools and guidance. For additional tools and guidance in approaching the topic of pornography in your parish, visit Clean Heart Online for Ministry Leaders today!
[i] Luke Gilkerson, “Redeeming the Pain of Sexual Betrayal: Interview with Melissa Haas” (2010, June 11). http://www.covenanteyes.com/2010/06/11/redeeming-the-pain-of-sexual-betrayal-interview-with-melissa-haas-part-1/ (accessed July 1, 2019).
How To Form a Support Group In Your Diocese Or Parish
In this 2-minute training video, Father Sean Kilcawley, STL, provides guidance to Diocesan and Parish Leaders on how to form Support Groups.
Audience: Ministry leaders
Resource Type: Training video