Five years ago, Dr. Jerry Kirk, founder and chairman of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, contacted Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas about launching an initiative to protect families from pornography. Since polling data has shown that many Christians active in their churches admitted to struggling with pornography, the idea was to launch ministries geared toward helping Christians live the virtue of chastity.
Archbishop Naumann was receptive to the idea, but he wanted an apostolate that incorporated Catholic teaching and practice, including Pope John Paul II’s teachings on the theology of the body and the sacrament of penance. Out of this came the Archdiocese of Kansas City’s My House Initiative.
The purpose of the initiative is to raise awareness about the problem of pornography, to offer resources about the Church’s vision of human sexuality through the theology of the body, and to provide support and healing for those who are struggling with pornography. The prototype program has already been adopted by six other dioceses, with more than 20 other bishops expressing interest.
“When I was a child, there were social barriers that protected the young from pornography,” Archbishop Naumann said. “But in this age of personal computers and cable television, we have an entirely different environment.”
The extent of pornography use by Americans is staggering. Deacon Ralph Poyo of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, founder of New Evangelization Ministries and himself a recovered pornography addict, compiled these statistics:
40 million Americans regularly visit pornographic websites;
pornography generates $2.84 billion in annual revenues, and nearly $5 billion worldwide (other statistics show these figures to be much higher);
25 percent of search engine requests are pornography-related;
116,000 daily Internet searches are for “child pornography”;
on average, a child first encounters Internet pornography at age 11;
20 percent of men admit to looking at pornography at work.
While use of pornography is primarily a male failing, a surprising number of women are regular viewers of pornography. A third of those Americans regularly visiting pornography websites are women; 13 percent of women admit accessing pornography at work.
A variety of polls have revealed that those active in Christian denominations are far from free of difficulties with pornography. Promise Keepers, one of the largest Christian men’s conferences in the United States, asked men at their 2008 conferences in anonymous polls if they had viewed porn in the last week. Fifty-three percent of the nearly 10,000 who responded admitted that they had.
Pornography is hard on marriages, too. In a 2002 survey of 350 members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 56 percent said “obsessive interest in pornographic sites” was a major factor leading to marital break-ups.
“People say that pornography is a victimless sin. But that’s not true,” continued Archbishop Naumann. “Many are exploited in the porn industry and we know it causes devastation in marriages.”
SAM AND BETH MEIER
Sam and Beth Meier, who have worked with Archbishop Naumann and offered leadership to the My House Initiative since 2007, experienced that devastation in their own marriage, as Sam’s pornography addiction almost led the couple to divorce in 2004. Sam sought help and overcame his pornography addiction, and now the couple has committed their careers to helping others become porn-free. Today, Sam is a licensed professional counselor and works out of an office in the Kansas City chancery.
Sam’s addiction to pornography began at age 12, when a sixth-grade classmate showed him pornographic pictures. Along with many of the teens attending his Catholic school, he began regularly viewing pornographic magazines and videos. He believed it was a normal part of growing up.
Sam attended the University of Dallas, where he met Beth. A friendship developed, and Sam shared his struggles with porn with Beth.
“It terrified me,” Beth recalled. “I didn’t want pornography to be a part of our relationship.”
Sam believed marriage would cure his problem. In 2001, at age 20, he married Beth, age 19. A few months into the marriage, however, Sam was once again a full-blown pornography addict. One of the couple’s wedding gifts was a computer, which provided unlimited access to the world of Internet porn. Much of his time in those first years of marriage was lost in this virtual world. At his lowest point, he was devoting up to 10 hours per week to viewing pornography.
Sam was honest with Beth, and she was fully aware of his addiction. If she woke up at night and he wasn’t in bed, she knew he was off viewing pornography. “Sam and I had a close bond emotionally,” Beth said. “I could tell by his body language when he had been viewing pornography.”
By 2004, Beth had had enough. She contacted a divorce attorney, and gave Sam an ultimatum. Either the porn had to go or she would. Sam was ashamed of his problem, but felt powerless to overcome it. He had tried to beat the addiction before, but always returned to it. A feeling of hopelessness gripped him. But Beth’s ultimatum shocked him into action. He franticly looked for help, and discovered a Christian counseling center in Colorado Springs that specialized in sexual addiction. With the help of a counselor, Sam recalled, “I took responsibility for my sins and selfishness, and implemented practical ways to change.”
Previously Sam had blamed Beth for his problems, something he now sees as absurd, and he is grateful for what he terms “Beth’s tough love.” Sam’s counseling was based on a modified version of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps, and involved the support of other men with Sam’s struggle.
Twelve-step programs, Archbishop Naumann said, “are helpful on the human level to provide people practical assistance in dealing with addictions, and to dispose them to be better able to access the grace of the sacraments.”
Other components of Sam’s recovery included prayer and spiritual reading. Sam and Beth also began attending conferences and reading books on the theology of the body, which provided healing as well. With one exception, Sam has been free of pornography for more than five years. Beth, too, has been undergoing recovery from anger, bitterness, resentment, and a lack of trust of Sam. She said, “It took me a while to understand the nature of addiction. There were times when I used to ask, ‘Why doesn’t Sam just stop?’”
Accountability is an important tool to “keep Sam honest.” He goes to a support group weekly and talks to someone on the phone every day, both offering and receiving support. He uses filtering software on his computer, and sends a report of his Internet viewing history to Beth and five other people. Should he be tempted to return to pornography sites, he’d quickly be discovered.
When he does feel tempted, he can pick up the phone and call a friend in his support group, or a friend in the same situation can call him. The one time in five years that he fell back into his old habits was when he believed himself cured and drifted away from counseling and his support group.
When Sam began his recovery process and became involved in his recovery group, Beth immediately saw his demeanor change. When he returned home, he was smiling, laughing, and in good spirits. Beth discovered that she needed the help of a wives’ support group. She also came to understand the nature of addiction, and why it was so hard for Sam to leave his old lifestyle.
Sam became a licensed professional counselor and began working for the Christian counseling center that had helped him. He wanted to work for a Catholic apostolate, however, and was excited to learn that the My House Initiative was launched in Kansas City. The Meiers contacted the archdiocese, and re-located to serve as consultants to the program.
Sam has offered counseling to hundreds of men seeking to be porn-free. More than 40 men are part of a recovery group he leads, and 21 men have broken free from pornography for a year or more. My House has shown a video on the effects of pornography on families in most of the archdiocese’s 110 churches; the apostolate also funds an anti-pornography billboard alongside a busy Kansas City roadway and supporters pray the Rosary monthly in front of a prominent “adult” bookstore. The Meiers also prepared an article for Catholic couples affected by pornography for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catechetical Sunday on September 19, 2010.
Beth is a stay-at-home mom with the couple’s child, one-year-old Sam Jr., but still finds the time to facilitate a support group for wives of men with porn addiction. The group gives Beth and her fellow group members the opportunity to share their pain and feelings of betrayal, learn about addiction, and focus on rebuilding their lives.
The My House website includes a list of online resources to help those struggling with porn addiction, including Matthew Fradd’s site The Porn Effect. The Meiers’ story is featured on the website, along with those of others who have battled similar addictions. Matthew observed, “Sam and Beth are a beautiful example of a married couple who have been to hell and back due to Sam’s addiction, but by the grace of God are healing.”
Like many involved in the anti-pornography movement, Matthew himself was addicted to porn at a young age. Matthew is from southern Australia. At age eight, he found pornography in his grandfather’s shed and became “hooked.” By age 12, he was stealing porn from neighborhood stores, and by his teen years had acquired a vast pornography collection.
He commented, “No one had to tell me it was a bad thing. I knew it was shameful. I was hoping I’d grow out of it.” Matthew’s teen years were sad; he recalls how he dressed all in black and wrote suicide poems. His father discovered his porn collection, but only expressed mild disapproval.
In 2000, Matthew spent two weeks in Rome for World Youth Day, and was inspired to become Catholic. In the confessional, he admitted his addiction to pornography, and received mixed responses from the priests to whom he went. Some suggested it wasn’t that serious, but he recalls one who told him, “That’s a terrible preparation for marriage.” Matthew said, “That’s what I needed to hear. I didn’t want to justify my porn addiction, but admit that it was wrong.”
In fact, Matthew stressed, the first thing someone who wants to get away from pornography must do is admit that it is wrong, stop blaming others, and make a commitment to change. For Matthew, now 27, the struggle to be porn-free has been “brutal.” He related, “Every day I wake up and decide what kind of man I want to be. Purity is not a destination one arrives at, but a daily battle.”
Once the porn-user has made the choice for chastity, he must next get rid of all pornographic material in his life, Matthew said. This includes the installation of Internet pornography filters on one’s computer, some of which can be downloaded for free. Having accountability partnerssuch as a spouse or friend undergoing a similar struggleis also important. Matthew makes a point of telling his wife when he is tempted and seeking her support: “She always has great advice and is a great prayer warrior.”
Prayer and fasting also play a key role. Matthew continued, “Self-denial, such as fasting, leads to self-mastery. If you can say no to pleasures that are allowed, such as that extra slice of pizza or dessert, it makes it easier to say no to those that are not.”
Like Sam, Matthew has become a harsh critic of porn and has dedicated his career to battling it. He asserted, “Porn is not just naughty, it’s evil. It emasculates men, degrades women, and destroys marriages.”
Realizing that there were limited resources available to battle porn, Matthew launched The Porn Effect after $12,000 seed money was given to him by a priest friend. Its first day was August 14, 2009, the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the patron of addicts. He is currently receiving up to 7,000 visitors daily, and welcomes articles by prominent promoters of chastity. Beth Meier is a regular contributor, as is well-known chastity speaker Jason Evert.
While his apostolate is less than two years old, Matthew has already seen success among members of his virtual community. One such story is that of “June,” a former stripper from the United Kingdom, whom he helped persuade to leave her profession. Although she hated stripping, June thought it was her only way to survive financially.
Matthew works for NET Ministries of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, is married, and has two children. He has been featured on Catholic and secular radio and television programs. Matthew concluded by noting that it was not only “dirty perverts” who were regular consumers of porn: “There are many otherwise good men who are addicted, some of whom are involved in ministries in the Church.”
Beth Meier had a similar discovery when she got to know the men in Sam’s support group: “These are not bad guys. They’re good men, many of them family men, who got caught up with a bad addiction.”
Archbishop Naumann believes priests have an obligation to promote the virtue of chastity, particularly among the young, while being sensitive to the ages and individual circumstances of their congregations. He remarked, “We fail our people if we’re not courageous in preaching about chastity, as well as offering opportunities to help those seeking to live chastely.” He continued, “When we live chaste lives, we are witnesses of our faith in the world. Chastity also frees us from those things that can enslave us and leave us feeling isolated and sad.”
But for those who have fallen into sexual sin, they must not lose hope, Archbishop Naumann said. “We must remember that God loves us and is ready to offer his mercy to us.”
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer who lives in Newport Beach, California.