Tag Archives: body theology

“Theological Endorsements of Masturbation”

As an adolescent boy in a Catholic High School staffed by priests, where daily Mass was on offer and regular confession a clear expectation, a continuing source of anguish was having to deal with confessing the “sins of impurity” which (we believed) were the particular bane of teenaged boys. The difficulties included the challenge of finding suitable words that could make my meaning plain, without actually spitting out precise wording, and also that of getting over my embarrassment (shame?) at patently having failed in my earnest promises at the last confession, to do my best to avoid that particular sin in future. In my innocence, I fondly believed that the curtain separating me from one of my teacher – priests protected my anonymity. In fact, in a particularly small school, and with a distinctive accent, it’s likely that any one of the priests would have instantly recognized and identified me. – but thoughtfully avoided addressing me by name. Invariably, these encounters ended with variations on a familiar penance – and an exhortation to pray to the Virgin Mary for the “gift of purity”. This coupling of Mary with sexual repression, I suspect, is partly responsible for my continuing ambivalence to Marian devotion. Later in life, growing wary of the continuing need to deal endlessly with the difficulties of the confessional led me first to abandon its trials altogether, and then (necessarily, in Catholic logic), to stop taking communion, and eventually to cease Mass attendance or any other practice of the faith.

Masturbation, along with any other genital activity not open to procreation, remains firmly prohibited in the Church documents (in the Catechism, for example). But as I have grown older, I have gained an impression that at the level of pastoral practice, at least, priests are far more sensible (and sensitive) on the subject that when I was at school or than the Catechism would suggest. I have also learned that far from being a vice especially affecting adolescent boys, it is widely practiced by people of all ages, men and women,  alone or with others, and is an entirely natural impulse. Even in the animal kingdom, non – primate species lacking hands for manual stimulation can get remarkably inventive in finding alternative means of self – stimulation. But still, the documents are explicit: this is a practice that is not just frowned on, but is described as a “grave evil”. Really?

I’ve been reading two college text books on theology and sexuality, by Susannah Cornwall and by Elizabeth Stuart and Adrian Thatcher. Reading in parallel their chapters on masturbation, it’s refreshing to find that both books present verdicts of respected Catholic theologians that differ sharply from the orthodox presentation of the CDF. Cornwall, always scrupulously even – handed and neutral in her presentation, first presents the orthodox Catholic view, and then goes on to present the contrasting view of other theologians:

…some people argue that masturbation, even if it is not the fullest expression of sexuality possible, is still preferable either to extramarital sex (if the masturbator is unmarried) or to adultery (if the masturbator does not have his sexual desires met within their marriage). Masturbation has been figured either as a harmless, pleasurable form of self-exploration, or as “the lesser of two evils”. Masturbation may provide a safe way for people to satiate their sexual urges without engaging in a sexual relationship for which they are not emotionally ready and which exposed them to the risks of sexually transmitted infection and unwanted pregnancies. Masturbation may promote the integration of self-esteem and body – esteem, re-inforcing confidence in one’s personal identity, “which in the long run can enhance the quality of one’s attachments and commitments. (Louw 2011). Masturbation may also be a healthy way for young people to learn what feels pleasurable to them so that they are later able to  communicate this better to a sexual partner – and may be an important way for girls, in particular, to explore their bodies and their sexual anatomies as sites of joy, not shame (Jung 2000).

Patricia Beattie Jung, a Roman Catholic ethicist, suggests that masturbation should not be figured as inherently selfish or self-indulgent. Rather, she says, “Arousal draws us toward others, and ignites their attraction to us; sexual desire sustains relationships. Even the delights of solitary sex can enliven in us our sense of connection to life. Sexual pleasure inclines those who enjoy it not toward a sense of selfish isolation but toward the world”. Along similar lines, Margaret Farley notes that although masturbation might seem contrary to a central tenet of just sexual activity, namely that it promote relationality, in actual fact many women, in particular, may through masturbation learn things about their own bodies’ capacity for pleasure which then enrich their sexual relationships with their partners (Farley 2006 ),  In other words, masturbation does not inherently or inevitably make people selfish or inward – focused. Rather, sexual pleasure in itself, even outside a relational context, disposes people to relationality.

Stuart and Thatcher do not attempt to retain the same degree of neutrality. They too first present the orthodox view, quoting some choice extracts, but respond with undisguised incredulity:

“Does one assume that clerical embarrassment precludes any acknowledgement of it?”

These conclusions must be considered amazing, whether considered theologically or pastorally.

Does anyone believe them? Other approaches to ethics do not arrive at this extreme position. Biblical ethics, for instance, is noncommittal on the subject, since masturbation is not mentioned in the Bible. The Church of England makes no mention of the subject in their influential “Issues in Human Sexuality”. The strong influence of natural law, the strong imposition of authority, a strong fear of the body and sexual pleasure, a strong feeling of guilt all combine here with bad biology to produce pastoral chaos.

They then continue by describing alternative Catholic approaches which are more useful and pastorally sensitive.

 Another Roman Catholic approach to masturbation, unofficial yet deeply devout, acknowledges the goodness and value of what is called “self – pleasuring”, whether for women discovering the mysteries of their own bodies and the pleasure available to them; for adolescents anticipating full sexual experience; for married couples whose “mutual caresses” sometimes “lead to orgasm without intercourse”; for married people whose partners are temporarily unavailable; for lonely people acknowledging their sexual needs; even women who have been abused, and who “re-learn the loveliness of their bodies, the goodness of sexual pleasure” with a loving female partner. Only when a positive account of self-pleasuring has been given is there then a very proper warning given about “the possibility of disorder in the solitary exercise of sexual arousal”.  The contrast between these two evaluations in striking, and the pastoral sensitivity of the second is only one of the grounds for preferring it.

It’s important to recognise here, that warning about “the possibility of disorder”. The rigidity and complete lack of understanding of human sexuality displayed by the orthodox Catholic teaching makes it gravely flawed, as widely recognized by a substantial proportion of Catholic ethicists – especially by those who are themselves married and so with some real – world experience of loving sexual relationships. But to dismiss the gravely disordered and destructive orthodox view should not lead to an embrace of “anything goes” sexual licence. The challenge for all Catholics is to steer a sound and healthy middle course between the twin dangers of a rigid sexual repression, and complete lack of self  discipline. The really important question should be not, “Is self – pleasuring good or bad?”, but “When, under what circumstances, is it healthy and good – and when is it harmful and bad?”

The sources quoted above are all those of eminent, respected academic theologians, mostly from the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, in senior academic posts at top universities. Sister Margaret Farley is a Mercy Sister, and (now retired) professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University. Professor Adrian Thatcher is a Professorial Research Fellow in Applied Theology at Exeter University. Professor Elizabeth Stuart is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and  Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Winchester. Dr Susannah Cornwall is a post-doctoral research associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute, University of Manchester.

But it can be helpful to listen not only to the voices of learned academics, but also to reflections on simple human experience. Here’s the openly Catholic, openly gay journalist, and educated layman, Andrew Sullivan:

It’s worth recalling that the formal, theological case against masturbation is identical to that against contraception and gay marriage. It is sodomy, as defined in the early modern period, i.e. ejaculation outside the vagina of a married female. So, as I argued at length a decade ago, we are all sodomites now. Men, anyway. Has any priest now living not masturbated?

For the record, I could never grasp why this was so wrong. My instinctual reaction to my first teenage orgasm was total wonderment. Of course, I had been taught nothing about this strange liquid coming out of my dick. It happened while I was reading – of all things – one of the Don Camillo short stories by Giovannino Guareschi. Not the most predictable erotic trigger – but when you’re fourteen, it could be the ceiling and you’d hit yourself in the eye if you weren’t careful.

To me, having this amazing thing suddenly come alive in my body was so obviously marvelous, so instantly ecstatic, it never occurred to me that God forbade me to forsake it. Why give me this 24-hour, unlosable instrument of blind, transcendent pleasure – and then bid me not to touch it? I had never experienced anything so simply pleasurable in my whole life until then. If we’re talking natural law, all I can say is that masturbation was the single most natural thing I had ever done at the moment in my life. More natural than watching television or riding a bus. If I felt guilt, it required some excruciating effort – until I realized that the most effective thing to trigger the constantly loaded rifle was thinking of another man. Usually naked. I had no porn or access to it. So I drew the men I wanted (and they all looked scarily like my husband). It was only then that the culture began to bear down on my nature.

But as I’ve grown older, and mercifully less driven by my dick, I can see the point of self-denial. In your teens, you have a constant unstoppable production of more sperm than could ever merely reproduce (another natural refutation of natural law). By your forties (unless I’ve just had my testosterone shot), not so much. So a little self-restraint definitely increases the pleasure and intensity of the orgasm you eventually get. And no, I feel no guilt about it whatever. It’s so psychically natural, so obviously intuitive, it was the first step for me toward dismantling the strange doctrines of natural law on human sexuality, devised in the early middle ages by men who knew a lot at the time – but tiny shards of truth compared to what we know now.

Wank on, my brothers and sisters. Wank on.

-Andrew Sullivan, the Dish

Cornwall, Susannah SCM Core Text: Theology and Sexuality

Stuart, Elizabeth and Adrian ThatcherPeople of Passion: What the Churches Teach About Sex

Church of England House of Bishops, “Issues in Human Sexuality: A Statement by the House of Bishops

Farley, MargaretJust Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Jung, Patricia Beattie, “Sexual Pleasure: A Roman Catholic Women’s Perspective on Women’s Delight“, in Theology and Sexuality 12, pp 26 – 27.

Louw, Daniel J, The Beauty of Human Sexuality Within the HIV and AIDS Discourse: The Quest for Human Dignity Within the Realm of Promiscuity”

Whitehead, Evelyn Eaton and James D. WhiteheadA Sense Of Sexuality: Christian Love & Intimacy


Catholic Sexual Ethics, Social Ethics, and Reality-Based Theology

One of the key points in Salzmann & Lawler’s exposition of Catholic sexual ethics (“The Sexual Person”) is the importance of considering theology in the context of history. Explaining this idea, they describe two approaches to theology,a “classical” view, which sees all moral standards as static and fixed for all time, and an “empirical” view, in which we recognize that circumstances and human understanding (for example,of science), is constantly changing, and which implies that we must be constantly ready to refine our expression of those standards.

In its classicist mode, theology is a static, permanent achievement… In its empirical mode, it is a dynamic, ongoing process……. The classical understanding sees the human person as a series of created, static and definitively ordered temporal facts. The empirical understanding sees the person as a subject in the process of “self-realization in accordance with a project that develops in God-given autonomy, carried out in the present with a view to the future”. Classical theology sees moral norms coming from the Magisterium as once and for all definitive; sexual norms enunciated in the fifth or sixteenth century continue to apply absolutely in the twenty-first. Empirical theology sees the moral norms of the past not as facts for uncritical and passive acceptance but as partial insights that are the bases for critical attention, understanding, evaluation, judgement and decisions in the present sociohistorical situation. What Augustine and his medieval sources knew about sexuality cannot be the exclusive basis for a moral judgement about sexuality today.

The empirical approach, they say, was endorsed by by Vatican II. Later, this view was clearly articulated by Pope John Paul II, in Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987).

Yes, JP II, that arch- nemesis of gay and other progressive Catholics hoping for a rational basis for Catholic sexual ethics. How can this be? Well, the problem is that there is a double standard applied here. In practice, the Church applies the empirical approach to theology (which strikes me as similar in its import to what I call “reality-based” theology) only to social ethics – and a generally good job it does, too.

Continue reading Catholic Sexual Ethics, Social Ethics, and Reality-Based Theology

“The Sexual Person”: Bishops, Theologians Clash on Sexual Ethics

In 2008 two Catholic academic theologians at a reputable Jesuit university published a book, “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)“,  on the Church’s sexual theology which represented a fundamental critique of its entire foundations. The United States Catholic Bishops have now launched a strong counter-attack, concentrating their fire especially on the authors’ section on homosexuality.

I am grateful to the Bishops for this attack: it has brought to my close attention a book that I was previously aware of, but had not considered too seriously. After reading some reviews and the extracts available at Google Books, I will now most certainly read it in full – and will later discuss its conclusions with my readers. As I have not yet had this opportunity to read the book for myself, I will not attempt in this post  to evaluate the content or conclusions. However, I have read the authors’ intent and methods as presented in the prologue, and can contrast these with the bishops’ disappointing response, which I have read and re-read in full.

Todd A Salzman and Michael G Lawler are both married, faithful Catholics who are careful in this book to work strictly within the Catholic tradition. However, as married Catholics living in the real world, they are compelled to recognize the well-known fact that most Catholics simply do not believe or follow the orthodox Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. In response, they have considered the teaching in its historical development, considered the Scriptural foundations, and examined also the findings of modern science and anthropology.

The bishops reject their book primarily because they disagree with its findings.

As married men with real-life experience of sexual love in marriage, the authors are able to bring some personal insight to their discussion.

The bishops reject the value of personal experience.

Salman & Lawler recognize that sexual theological ethics are a complex web affecting many different aspects, including marital morality, cohabitation and the “process” of marrying, homosexuality and reproductive technology.

The bishops train their fire specifically on the easy target of “the gays”.

The authors discuss the many disconnects and contradictions in the Vatican’s own abstract pronouncements, such as those of “Gaudium et Spes” on the unitive value of conjugal love  and the failure of the Magisterium to give this formal expression, or between the guidelines on scriptural interpretation, and the complete failure of the Magisterium to follow these guidelines when pronouncing on homosexuality.

Even in the prologue to “The Sexual Person”, the authors point to the dependence of the Catechism on the Genesis story of Sodom to condemn homosexuality, whereas  most Biblical scholars no longer believe that this was remotely the point of the passage.

The bishops respond,

In the final analysis, all interpretation of Scripture is subject to the authoritative judgment by those responsible for the Church’s deposit of faith.

In other words, scripture means what the Church decrees that it means.

The medieval scholar Mark Jordan has shown from an analysis of its rhetorical style, that the Vatican is incapable of rational debate, instead depending primarily on techniques such as simple repetition of its own mantras. So it is here: in the  24 page document constituting their response to what is clearly a thoughtful, reasoned and thoroughly researched piece of academic writing which draws on a wide range of sources and approaches, the US bishops can refer only to the writings of the Church itself.

The book was prompted by the recognition that most Catholics simply do not accept the orthodox sexual ethics of the Catholic Church. There is nothing in the bishops’ response to suggest that it will change anybody’s mind (or sexual behaviour).

The bishops’ full statement is here.

This is what some others have said about “The Sexual Person”:

“This superb volume courageously explores Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. The authors’ exploration of the biological, relational and spiritual dimensions of human sexuality engages Catholic teaching respectfully, critically, and creatively. The book is a significant contribution to both sexual ethics and moral theology generally.”

–Paul Lauritzen, Director, Program in Applied Ethics, John Carroll University.

“This book is a much-needed contribution to the contemporary Catholic discussion of sexual ethics. The authors utilize the most recent sociological and psychological data to supplement their careful parsing of the Catholic theology of sex, gender, and embodiment. It is a work that manages to be highly theoretical while addressing everyday concerns about premarital sex, contraception, homosexuality, divorce and reproductive technology.

Salzman and Lawler embrace the model of theology as dialogue, and as a result, their treatment of both traditionalist and revisionist views about human sexuality is constructive and helpful. They succeed in moving a seemingly stalled conversation forward”.

–Aline Kalbian, associate professor, Department of Religion, Florida StateUniversity.

“A bold and brave book! Tightly argued and well documented, this book lays out an understanding of human sexuality that expresses the profound work that theologians do on behalf of the Church in order to find ever better understandings of what the Church teaches in light of the witness of scripture, the tradition, and our understanding of human experience.”

–Richard M Gula, SS, The Franciscan School of Theology. Graduate Theological Union

This is from the publishers’ blurb posted at Google Books:

In this comprehensive overview of Catholicism and sexuality, theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler examine and challenge the principles that any human genital act must occur within the framework of heterosexual marriage, and must remain open to the transmission of life. Remaining firmly within the Catholic tradition, they contend that the church is being inconsistent in its teaching by adopting a dynamic, historically conscious anthropology and worldview on social ethics and the interpretation of scripture while adopting a static, classicist anthropology and worldview on sexual ethics. “The Sexual Person” draws from Catholic tradition and provides a context for current theological debates between traditionalists and revisionists regarding marriage, cohabitation, homosexuality, and reproductive technologies.. This daring and potentially revolutionary book will be sure to provoke constructive dialogue among theologians, and between theologians and the Magisterium.

The bishops may disapprove, but this will not prevent this important book attracting careful attention from the growing band of Catholic theologians not tied to their apron strings, and from ordinary Catholics who place a search for truth above simplistic rule-book Catholicism.

I will have more on this once I have been able to source and read a complete copy. For a taster meanwhile, I list here the table of contents:


One:     Sexual Morality in the Catholic Tradition: A Brief History


Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome

Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in the Catholic Tradition

Reading Sacred Scripture

The Fathers of the Church

The Penitentials

Scholastic Doctrine

The Modern Period


Two:     Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Traditionalists

“Nature” defined

The Revision of Catholic Moral Theology

Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology

Traditionalists and Sexual Anthropology


Three:  Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Revisionists

Revisionist Critiques of Traditionalist Anthropologies

Karl Rahner: Transcendental Freedoms

Revisionists and Sexual Anthropology


Four:    Unitive Sexual Morality: A Revised Foundational Principle and Anthropology.

Gaudium et spes and a foundational Sexual Principle

The Relationship between Conjugal Love and Sexual Intercourse

Multiple Dimensions of Human Sexuality

Truly Human and Complementary


Five:     Marital Morality

Marital Intercourse and Morality

NNLT and Marital Morality

Modern Catholic Thought and Marital Morality

Marital Morality and Contraception

A Renewed Principle of Human Sexuality and Contraception


Six:       Cohabitation and the Process of Marrying

Cohabitation in the Contemporary West

Betrothal and the Christian Tradition

Complementarity and Nuptial Cohabitation


Seven:  Homosexuality

The Bible and Homosexuality

Magisterial Teaching on Homosexual Acts and Relationships

The Moral Sense of the Christian People and Homosexual Acts

The Morality of Homosexual Acts Reconsidered


Eight :  Artificial Reproductive Technologies

Defining Artificial Reproductive Technologies

The CDF instruction and Reproductive Technologies

Parental Complementarity, Relational Considerations, and Social Ethics