2 At the Intersection of Challenge and Choice: The Threat of Online Sexual Activity to Authentic Celibacy Formation

Sister Diane Pharo, SCN



At the crossroads where our Church and our technological society converge, discerning adults stand poised at an intersection of challenge and choice. It is a time in our American society of seemingly unlimited access to information, a time when the expectation of instant gratification is prevalent, and the desire for heightened stimulation is strong. It is a time in our Church when the expectation of authenticity, integrity, transparency and fidelity cannot be overstated.

Reconciling the lures of a permissive culture with the call to be open to God’s work of transformation demands a disciplined response to the challenges that free the mature person to make respectful and prudent choices. For discerning adults, it is a time of challenge and choice.

Society’s Influence

Men discerning priesthood and actively involved in seminary formation today are not immune to the messages and the enticements of the society and culture from which they have emerged into adulthood. They are immersed in a world where boundless information is available via the World Wide Web, a reality that facilitates with ease endless attempts toward satisfaction of curiosity, desire and perceived need.

Al Cooper and Eric Griffin-Shelley describe an entangled connection between the Internet and sexuality, suggesting that each “fuels and ultimately contributes to the transformation of the other.”[1] Michael Leahy warns that the latest tools of technology are creating a “new sexual revolution with limitless accessibility.” He describes a “world that is increasingly pornographic” with the increased availability of wireless Internet access via cell phones, iPods, etc.[2]

With the rapid acceleration of technological means for producing and engaging in sexual activity, the gathering and reporting of precise and current data is highly challenging. Nevertheless, statistics provide an alarming glimpse into the harsh reality of online sexual activity. As reported by Cooper and Griffin-Shelley, an estimated 20% of Internet users in 2002 were engaging in online sexual activity.[3] Just three years later in 2005, ComScore Media Metrix reported that 40% of Internet users had visited adult sites.

“According to ComScore Media Metrix, there were 63.4 million unique visitors to adult websites in December of 2005, viewing over 15 billion pages of adult content.”[4] Every second, an estimated $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography; every second, an estimated 28,258 Internet users are viewing pornography.[5] Mark Kastleman cites reports at www.max.com and www.afafilter.com/vitalfacts.asp of more than 4.2 million separate and distinct pornography websites identified on the Internet with 2,500 new sites appearing online each week.[6]

Clinicians and researchers testifying before a U.S. Senate committee in 2004 described pornography as the new crack cocaine (Wired.com). Kastleman highlights the work of Dr. Judith Reisman, Douglas Reed, and other noted neuroscientists and neuropsychologists whose research findings lead them to describe pornography and its effects as “a drug, a chemical dependency, a form of substance abuse…an endogenously processed poly drug providing intense, although misleading, sensory rewards.”[7]

Douglas Reed likens the “arousal dependence” experienced through persistent use of pornography to the “biochemical alterations associated with excessive amphetamine use.” The “satiation effects” acquired through hours of viewing Internet pornography are compared to the “satiation effects of opiate use.”[8] The risks are glaringly apparent: online sexual activity leads to online sexual problems that can lead to online sexual compulsivity and addiction.

The far-reaching implications of the Internet with regard to sexuality and psychosexual development will continue to impact our society and our Church. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops exhorts priesthood candidates to “appropriate a cultural-critical attitude that discerns the positive and negative potentials of mass communication, various forms of entertainment, and technology, such as the Internet.”[9] Intentional, disciplined and honest efforts in overcoming patterns of behavior, behaviors that in some instances have become addictive, will demand honest appraisal, unwavering challenge and support, and ongoing dialogue.

Access, Affordability, Anonymity

What is it that fuels the acceleration and intensity of online sexual activity? According to Cooper, it is a threefold phenomenon he describes as the “Triple-A-Engine,” the central components of which are “access, affordability, and anonymity.”[10] Ease of access is undeniable. Equally undeniable, yet perhaps not readily recognized or acknowledged, is all that is neglected, un-accessed in one’s life, as a consequence of ease of access to online activities and interactions. Solitude, creative leisure, friendship, ministry, prayer are all too often sacrificed for the ease of online pleasure.

The affordability of online sexual activity is significantly more costly than can be assessed in dollars and cents. The determination, effort, motivation and will required to free oneself from the grip of affordable online sexual activity are costly. The toll on self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem is a price far too great to wager. Unfortunately, the expense of what, at first glance, appears affordable is significantly underestimated. Equally unfortunate is the enticement of anonymity that provides a false sense of security and confidence in acts of self-disclosure and sexual expression. The intimacy of genuine encounter is compromised for perceived online anonymity.

Human Formation

In stark contrast to the immediate gratification and anonymity of online sexual activity, the work of human formation is a slow, steady, deliberate and disciplined process realized in an intimately personal encounter with God, one’s self and others. “The human formation of candidates for the priesthood…fosters the growth of a man who can be described as a free person, a man of communion, a person of affective maturity, and a man who respects, cares for, and has vigilance over his body.”[11]

“A free person is a person who is free to be who he is in God’s design.”[12] In this freedom, there exists the desire and the willingness to be known. In this freedom, there exists the vulnerability necessary for intimacy in relationship. Freedom, however, is not an identifying characteristic of the person who is trapped in the grip of the addictive power of online sexual activity. Neither is it a place experienced as reflective of God’s design. Rather, it becomes a world of shame, fear, guilt and loneliness.

“A man of communion is a person who has real and deep relational capacities…capable of making a gift of himself and of receiving the gift of others.” This capacity “requires the full possession of oneself.”[13] Sadly, for the person caught up in the world of online sexual activity, the freedom of self-possession is sacrificed. The world of online sexual activity does not authentically fit into the life of one pursuing a celibate commitment.

Hence, that reality is sooner or later compartmentalized, relegated to a subconscious compartment, as if somehow neatly tucked away. But not without a terrible cost! The more compartmentalized one is, the more disintegrated. The cost becomes the compromise of integrity. The “inner joy and inner peace” that mark the man of communion are likewise compromised.[14]

A person of affective maturity strives for balance in the integration of feelings, reason and values, living a life “freely enriched by feelings, not driven by them.”[15] Affective maturity is expressed in warmth and caring, empathy and compassion. Affective maturity opens one to “a passionate life of pastoral love and relating” that channels sexual energy in generative ways.[16]

Development toward affective maturity becomes stunted at the place where balance and integration break down, where self-absorption takes hold. The anonymity of online sexual behavior, with its accompanying superficiality of false relationships grounded in fantasy, is no substitute for the mature, generative relationships born of authentic celibate loving.

We celebrate sexuality as a gracious gift of God. We understand sexual energy to be relational, creative energy. As such, healthy sexuality, a fundamental underpinning for celibacy that is authentic, free and loving, is expressed in relationships that are honest, mutual and respectful. “Sexuality finds its authentic meaning in relation to mature love.”[17] The use of pornography, acts of auto-eroticism and other online sexual behaviors are a misdirection of sexual energy and compromise the process of psychosexual development that leads to affective maturity.

“A man who respects, cares for, and has vigilance over his body” is a disciplined man.[18] Discipline requires mindfulness – consistent, faithful mindfulness! In this faithful stance of mindfulness, one grows in self-awareness, self-understanding and freedom. That which promotes and supports celibate loving is freely chosen. That which diminishes and thwarts the capacity for celibate loving is carefully avoided. Breaking free of habitual or compulsive online sexual behavior will demand a recommitment to living with vigilance and discipline.

Challenges to the Goals of Human Formation

The seminarian involved in online sexual activities faces serious challenges in his formation for celibate priesthood. An honest assessment of the nature and complexity of online behavior – frequency, duration, intensity – is an essential, initial step on the journey toward overcoming online sexual behaviors that are incongruent with an authentic celibate commitment. An honest assessment of desire, motivation and will to engage the hard work of breaking free of online sexual behavior is a necessary undertaking.

Denial is a hazardous defense that blocks growth in self-awareness and self-insight and foils successful behavior change. Denial is sustained in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways in an effort to avoid the stark reality of the dangers and the incongruity of online sexual activity. Patrick Carnes categorizes denial as “global thinking, rationalization, minimizing, comparison, compartmentalizing, intellectualizing, blaming, and manipulation.”[19]

Breaking down the walls of denial opens the door to recovery. Avoiding rationalization and compartmentalization will lay the foundation for honest self-appraisal. Avoiding harsh generalizations and negative judgments about self-worth, well-being, and relationship with God opens one to the grace of conversion and the reality of change.

Overcoming Online Sexual Activity

“Requisite skills for living chastely” are identified in the Program of Priestly Formation as “ascetical practice, prudent self-mastery, and paths of self-knowledge, such as a regular personal inventory and the examination of conscience.”[20] Self-knowledge, self-denial and self-mastery provide a firm and essential framework for engaging the work of overcoming online sexual activity. Overcoming an undesirable or problematic behavior or habit requires an understanding of what motivates and reinforces the behavior.

Paul Simpson identifies “seven goals” that motivate and sustain compulsive sexual behaviors: “excitement, comfort, escape, affirmation, power, revenge, and helplessness.”[21] Identifying the ways in which these goals drive online sexual activity will enhance self-knowledge. Courage and honesty are required. Self-denial and self-mastery born of prudence, discipline and endurance lay the groundwork for facing the challenges.

Which of these goals are legitimate needs that can and ought to be met in mature and healthy ways that promote authentic celibate loving? Which of these goals serve only to mask unresolved hurt and pain in need of reconciliation and healing? Only with courage and honesty will these questions be confronted and resolved. Only then will informed, deliberate choices direct the way out of self-destructive online sexual activity toward personal, affective maturity and healthy, celibate relationships.

Self-knowledge, self-awareness and self-insight are, of course, necessary but not sufficient for modifying behavior. Strategies that facilitate successful recovery from online sexual activity and other compulsive sexual behaviors have been identified by a number of authors. Simpson highlights the significance of self-care. “Physical, spiritual, emotional and relational self-care” are essential for “building and maintaining” personal, inner strength.[22] It is self-care grounded in balance.

Behavioral changes directed specifically to Internet use include “reducing access, reducing anonymity, and reducing objectification.”[23] In this way, healthy online habits are developed, and the Internet is used solely for healthy, constructive purposes. Simpson encourages the identification of “violations” and recommends constructing a list of “Don’ts” to which one commits: I will not view pornography on the Internet; I will not engage in fantasy; I will not withdraw into isolation when lonely.

Building a realistic and useful list of “Don’ts” will necessitate taking an honest, in-depth, personal inventory. In addition, Simpson highlights the importance of establishing “boundaries”: boundaries for dangerous places and people, boundaries for the Internet, boundaries for television viewing, boundaries for movies and DVDs, and boundaries for whatever toxins need to be avoided.[24]

Developing the skills essential for acquiring healthy online habits and adhering to the boundaries and parameters necessary for avoiding dangerous and toxic situations will serve as secure guideposts on the road to recovery from online sexual activity. This will not, however, be sufficient to nurture and sustain a meaningful and generative life of celibate loving that far surpasses the fleeting pleasure and instant gratification sought in the hollow void of online sexual behavior. The man discerning priesthood and actively involved in seminary formation is challenged to “fashion his sexual desires and passions in such a way that he is able to live a healthy, celibate lifestyle that expresses self-gift in faithful and life-giving love.”[25]

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops identifies “certain habits or skills that are necessary instruments on the path to effective and healthy celibate chastity.”[26]

Among these habits or skills is appropriate self-disclosure, a cultivated capacity for self-reflection, an ability to enter into peaceful solitude, ascetical practices that foster vigilance and self-mastery over one’s impulses and drives, and a habit of modesty. An especially important practice is holding all persons in the mystery of God, whether they are encountered in the course of formal ministry or ordinary life.[27]

The acquisition and integration of these habits and skills shifts the focus from a view of the restrictive, self-absorbing limits of what needs to be avoided or harnessed to the freeing “yes” of celibacy that is yes to living life with passion and zeal for the reign of God. Energy formerly expended in the endurance of celibacy is transformed in the embrace of a commitment to faithful celibate loving.

Living with Freedom and Integrity

In the declaration made prior to ordination, decisive words of understanding and freedom are proclaimed. “Especially I swear that I understand the implication of the law of celibacy and that I freely embrace it and will keep it faithfully with God’s help until the end of my life.” This understanding and freedom are firmly grounded in the knowledge and integration of one’s sexuality and sexual desires and the “acceptance and valuing of one’s sexuality as a good to be directed to God’s service.”[28]

We read in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ call of Nathaniel, whom Jesus regards as a “man in whom there is no duplicity” (John 1:43). Mastering the lure of empty sexual enticements and breaking free from the grip of online sexual activity conquers the duplicity contained therein. An honest and disciplined response to the challenges posed by online sexual activity opens the way to an honest and free choice in embracing the commitment to faithful, celibate loving.

  1. Al Cooper and Eric Griffin-Shelley, The Internet: The Next Sexual Revolution, introduction to Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians. New York: Routeledge. 2002. 4.
  2. Michael Lehey. Porn Nation: Conquering America’s Addiction. Chicago: Northfield Press. 2008.106.
  3. Cooper and Griffin-Shelley. The Internet. 4.
  4. Mark Kastleman. The Drug of the New Millennium: The Brain Science Behind Internet Pornography Use. Power Thinking Publishing. 2007. 3.
  5. The Child Protection Guide, 2009 http://www.childprotectionguide.org/archives/vol2_iss9.php.
  6. Kastleman, The Drug of the New Millennium. 4.
  7. Ibid. 61-62.
  8. Ibid. 62.
  9. Program of Priestly Formation. 5th Edition. Washington D. C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 2006. 79.
  10. Cooper. Sex and the Internet. 5-6. (first reference?)
  11. Program of Priestly Formation. 76.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Stephen J. Rosetti. The Joy of Priesthood. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press. 2005. 90.
  17. Program of Priestly Formation. 90.
  18. Ibid. 76,
  19. Patrick Carnes, David L. Delmonico, and Elizabeth Griffin. In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior. Center City: Hazelden. 19-21.
  20. Program of Priestly Formation. 79.
  21. Paul Simpson. A Resource Handbook for Treating Compulsive Sexual Behaviors. Amedco LLC. 2003. 1-2.
  22. Ibid. 3.
  23. Patrick Carnes, David L. Delmonico, and Elizabeth Griffin. In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior. 123-125.
  24. Paul Simpson. A Resource Handbook for Treating Compulsive Sexual Behaviors. 1-2.
  25. Program of Priestly Formation, 94.
  26. Ibid. 93.
  27. Ibid. 92.
  28. Ibid. 93.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Celibacy by Sister Diane Pharo, SCN is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book