Sisters of Mercy bring insights into addiction to seminary students and faculty

“Sex” is the number one search topic on the internet, according to U.S. psychiatrist Sister Marysia Weber, a Religious Sister of Mercy. The Seminary of Christ the King at Westminster Abbey in Mission is among the religious institutions in North America turning to Sister Weber and Sister Esther Mary Nickel, to help students and faculty understand how the explosion of Internet pornography, the sexual abuse of minors, and homosexual activity affect seminarians and priestly and religious vocations, said Abbot John Braganza, OSB.

“Our concern is the good formation of healthy and mature religious vocations,” the abbot told The B.C. Catholic. “The Church must be in tune with the signs of the times. We are all struggling to deal with this phenomenon of the Internet in a reasonably healthy and spiritual fashion and how to integrate this gift (and the Internet is a gift) in a balanced way into our lives as people faithful to the Gospel.”

In January, he said, the sisters spoke to the seminarians, the faculty, and the monastic community.

“It was providential and timely, because on-line pornography is a pandemic addiction with 80 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women involved at some point, fuelled, the sisters explained, by the Internet’s omnipresence, affordability, and anonymity.”

Sister Weber, an American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology-certified physician, is widely published on the psychological impact of pornography and other addictions. She has completed her residency and a fellowship in consultation-liaison psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic and practises in her religious institute’s multidisciplinary medical clinic, Sacred Heart Mercy Health Care Centre, where she assesses and treats seminary candidates, priests, and religious.

In 1992 she spoke to the U.S. Catholic bishops on pedophilia and addictions, and in 2002 to the Curia at the Vatican on the sexual abuse of minors by clergy in North America.

Her views on the impact of the issues on seminarians, priests, and religious was followed by Sister Nickel’s talk on maintaining a healthy and thriving liturgical and sacramental life.

In a 2008 article entitled Pornography, Electronic Media, and Priestly Formation published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Sister Weber warned of the “profound impact” of widely and instantly available pornography and its detrimental effect on the Church in North America.

Personal interviews, she said, have taught her that Internet pornography and “inordinate use of electronic media” are common among priests and religious, and therefore issues crucial to the Church’s holistic functioning.

“Pornographic images are imbedded into the memory, affect brain function, and never completely leave the memory where they are stored. Researchers describe the effect as addictive, as mind-altering as cocaine! As a psychiatrist I see the ruined lives and shattered vocations.”

Internet Addiction Disorder, she said, is slated to be added to the next edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry, the official manual of recognized psychiatric disorders.

“Because pornography is addictive, once ingrained into the psyche it can thrive for years,” said Sister Weber. “Boys from 12-17 are large consumers, and for that reason, targets. Ninety per cent of these teenagers routinely view online pornography while doing their homework.” As bad as Internet pornography is for users, for victims it’s even worse.

“The industry,” said Sister Weber, “feeds on the vulnerable, poor, abused and marginalized. Exploiting the weak, especially children, is gravely sinful. Whether need, confusion, or alienation leads people to become objects, their choice to do so certainly cannot be seen as free. Producers and distributors of pornography leave a wide path of broken and devalued men and women in their wake. This destruction of the innocent is an unspeakable act of violence.”

Rape has been shown to be proportionately higher in U.S. states with higher porn sales and lower in states with lower sales, said Sister Weber, which should propel educators, especially those involved in religious formation, to prioritize the understanding of its addictive nature.

“Addictions are often accompanied by feelings of restlessness, depression, loneliness, and low self-worth. Pornography can be an easy fix because it can mask distressing thoughts. It may seem a pleasure-seeking behaviour, but it really stems from a need to suppress or avoid emotional pain.

“Addiction is an escape from reality, from something that is either too full of sadness such as an abusive relationship, or too devoid of joy, like an emotionally empty life. Users become desensitized to on-line sex and heightened sexual intensity is needed to achieve the desired level of arousal.

“Computer-enabled fantasies are highly reinforcing. The association of the Internet with sexual arousal can be so potent that going on the Internet for any reason triggers it. The habit develops into a compulsion.”

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At this stage, said Sister Weber, users don’t even care they are jeopardizing careers or relationships.

“This online fantasy life produces an altered state of consciousness associated with tension reduction and relieved feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression. Compulsive Internet pornographic behaviour is driven largely by tension and agitation, much like an alcoholic is driven to drink at a moment of excessive stress. The downward spiral only ends, often, when the activity is discovered.”

Like everyone else, said Sister Weber, clergy can be addicted to pornography to avoid life’s complications and responsibilities.

“The addiction experience feels overwhelming and stronger than the will power necessary to stop,” she said.

In a pastoral letter entitled Blessed are the Pure in Heart, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City – St. Joseph, Missouri, wrote, “Pornography violates truth. It leads people into a world of unreality, a world of fantasy that isolates them from other people and the commitment and respect which should govern our relationships.”

Since 2004, Bishop Finn has involved his diocese in a comprehensive anti-porn educational strategy including founding groups where men can foster the chaste development of themselves and their families. It’s important to have a support system, he said, “for people struggling with this temptation which, in some cases, is a serious addiction.” The groups are also there to be a help to the pastor “because we want each pastor to have a go-to person.”

Educational programs are crucial, said Sister Weber, to helping priests and religious avoid spiritual dissipation and vocational distress and to fortify them to live chastely.

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Both Bishop Finn and Bishop Paul Loverde, of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, have offered ways to empower people, including clergy, to embrace health and a chaste lifestyle. This includes frequently participating in the sacraments of Holy Eucharist and reconciliation and committing to daily prayer and exercising virtue, said Sister Weber.

“We also must recognize the impact of worldly thinking, especially attitudes about sexuality. We must study examples of holy and virtuous men and women, pray, and receive the sacraments frequently.”

Teaching human communication skills builds fraternity, Sister Weber added, and human formation programs should be available even before a candidate enters a seminary.

“Studies show that most religious and priestly vocations encounter crises within the first five years, and 10 to 15 per cent of priests leave ministry before their fifth anniversary. New priests need mature priests willing to mentor and accompany them through the times of doubt and distress so they can continue an effective, healthy ministry. Make sure the spiritual formation of priests is ongoing,” said Sister Weber.

Electronic media addiction, she pointed out, is a threat to the spiritual life because it limits the amount of time for the reflection and prayer needed to strengthen it.

“Think of the hours spent talking on cell phones, listening to and answering voice mail, responding to pagers, Blackberries, and palm pilots, and plugged into iPods. The need to respond to all these messages can ratchet up our anxiety response, saturate the senses, and make us want to back away from the things of the spiritual life.

“Spiritually speaking, this is called sloth, which simply is a sluggishness of the mind that neglects to begin a good action. The person who suffers from sloth may no longer even strive to live a life of virtue.”

In his message for the upcoming 44th World Communications Day, May 16, Pope Benedict XVI said new forms of communications can act as a stimulus to encounter and dialogue.

In The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word he warned that priests “should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ which enlivens their pastoral outreach, but also gives ‘soul’ to the fabric of communications that makes up the ‘Web.’”

The surest safeguard against sin and temptation, said Sister Weber, is always a deep and abiding relationship with God rooted in love.

“The Pope emphasized maintaining a depth in our prayer and supplications so that we keep a clear focus. The challenge rests with bishops and seminary educators who have the responsibility to share the information, model the behaviour, and call priests and seminarians to accountability in their spiritual lives and ministry.”

Sister Nickel is a professor of Sacred Liturgy and Sacramental Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. She holds a Doctorate in Sacred Liturgy from the Pontifical Institute at Saint Anselm’s in Rome, where her ministry centred on teaching a deep appreciation for the liturgical life of the Church. She also has a Doctorate in Agronomy from the University of Minnesota.

The best remedy for succumbing to sin, including to addictive behaviours, regardless of how they have presented, said Sister Nickel, is to sincerely ask for forgiveness.

“God’s forgiveness of our sins and the graces that come with it can better help us deal with the stresses of life. Just as apologizing to a loved one can be the way to mend a relationship, the sacrament of penance shows Christ you intend to correct your relationship with Him.

“It is a supernatural exchange of friendship and coming to know the forgiveness of Christ. The examination of conscience before confession is a way of saying, ‘These are the things (sins) that separate me from God and the people I love most.’”

We all need to be in the habit of acknowledging that our lives are out of order, said Sister Nickel, and that we want to make sure they stay in order. “Tell those in Christian ministry that the sacrament is one of love and mercy, not of fear and punishment.”

The sisters were invited by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, to speak at clerical study days and to administrators and teachers from the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese.

Michel Gloanec of the CISVA office told The B.C. Catholic, “Having been a high school teacher and having five teenagers at home, I was reminded how pornography seriously impacts our youth. Many of us don’t realize the magnitude of the threat to our families.

“This was one of the most eye-opening talks I have ever attended, and it’s tremendously impressive to see religious sisters take it on. At home I sat down with my children to talk about this issue, and I recommend that all families do the same. The sisters are truly experts, and I am amazed at the statistics they have at their fingertips.”

He said he hopes the sisters can speak at an archdiocesan educators’ conference in the future.

Printed with permission from The B.C. Catholic, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Canada.