Tag Archives: masturbation

Krzysztof Charamsa, on masturbation

According to Dr Dick’s Sex Advice, May is “Masturbation Month”. (Who decides these things?). With that in mind, I was intrigued by the brief interchange below, in the Berliner Zeitung interview with Msgt Krzysztof Charamsa.

To put it into context, recall that the official position of the Catholic Church remains steadfastly opposed to the practice, even though there is no clear biblical or medical evidence against it, and the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of people do so, at least occasionally. For Catholic priests attempting to live within their promise of celibacy, masturbation may be their only possible form of sexual release – yet, in theory at least, this too is forbidden.

Yet, when the interviewer raised the question, it is not in terms of “Do you masturbate?”, or “Would you masturbate?”, but an automatic assumption that, yes – he does: “When you did….” In response, Charamsa does not attempt to avoid or deflect the question, but in his simple reply of “yes”, he is in effect acknowledging that yes, he did  masturbate.

Would that other priests would be  so frank and honest, about a subject that is too often simply avoided.

When masturbating did you have homosexual fantasies?


That was not nice?

I was anxious. I spent my puberty in communist Poland, in the Catholic Church. Both hyper-homophobic facilities! With whom could I have spoken? How? I had no words for it. I had feelings of guilt. I would have had them, even if I had been heterosexual. But my gay fantasies increased my insecurity.

Masturbation: Advice to a Catholic Teenager.

I was touched by a letter from a young man, struggling with the issue of masturbation and Catholic teaching. The letter gives no indication of his sexual orientation, and there is no reason to think that he is gay (or that he is not). His concerns however, are applicable to all Catholics, especially when young and vulnerable.

With his permission, I publish below his full letter, leaving out his name and geographic location, followed by my full reply. Continue reading Masturbation: Advice to a Catholic Teenager.

“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


“So be it! Let’s talk about sex”

Having laid down the groundwork by talking more generally about love (not simply love as eros), I will now enter the minefield. That a priest – of all persons – should wish to directly talk about sex is problematic enough. Throw the gay ingredient into the mix and we have a bomb in our hands. So be it! Let’s talk about sex.

The words above are those of my colleague Bart, who uses them to introduce the next post in his series on the challenges facing a gay priest. Following the three initial reflections that have already appeared, the next post (which will appear on Monday) begins to get into the really sensitive, crunch issues. Look out for it, read it, and respond in the comments. I do not propose to anticipate Bart’s own writing, but I do want to stress that Bart’s series here is a serious exercise, an honest and courageous extension of his spiritual journaling, and so part of a process of his discernment, as he continues his journey of honesty and integrity. I feel privileged to be hosting such personal thoughts here – as you are to be able to read them. It is my hope that by responding in the comments, you will be able to give Bart some encouragement, and possible some food for thought.

Continue reading “So be it! Let’s talk about sex”

A Masturbation Conversation

We continue to live in the late Soviet period of Catholicism. They pretend to make sense; we pretend to believe them.

-Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish

When I suggested yesterday that we should be talking seriously about masturbation, I was not aware that Andrew Sullivan had done exactly that in a post at The Daily Dish back in January (“How Natural Is Masturbation?”), with a couple of follow-up posts to report on reader comments.

Here are some pertinent extracts:

Now there’s a topic for some interesting dialogue. The Catholic church proclaims that wanking is as serious a sin as gay sex because all sexuality is designed to be exclusively procreative – both as a matter of divine will but also, critically, because this is readily apparent to anyone by reason alone.

(This claim of justification by “reason alone” is a favourite in Church documents and of church spokesmen – but frequently signals that there is no justification whatever outside the closed reasoning of the Vatican mind, not apparent to outsiders.)

Shaw was certainly right in saying that 99 percent of men masturbate and 1 percent are liars. I once caused a little stir at Notre Dame by pointing out that every priest in the audience was masturbator, as of course they all were.

(One could reasonably dispute Sullivan’s precise figures here – but I am certain they are in the right ball-park).

From a reader:

Recently scientists have determined that, at least in a man’s older years, masturbation seems to have some preventative properties in relation to prostate cancer. Indeed, some doctors are now prescribing “masturbation therapy” to men over fifty. If further research sufficiently determines the health benefits of masturbation, will the Catholic Church endorse it on that basis? Even more importantly, can I get a return on the several hours of Hail Marys I said in penance in my teenage years?

And an observation which is relevant to so much of the orthodox sexual ethics:

Nature is an elastic concept. The Church’s grasp of it remains umbilically linked to the biology of the thirteenth century. And its allegedly celibate clerisy is the only group allowed to examine it. Hence what most adult, intelligent human beings regard as the hilarity of the hierarchy’s claptrap.

At least one reader was appalled.

I think your beliefs about masturbation are largely at odds with traditional Christian teaching. I’m surprised someone as smart as you are would not think more critically about this issue, especially since you are a self-described Christian.

Sullivan’s reply is that his argument is in fact deeply rooted in orhodox theology:

My reader misses the focus of my posts, which was on the arguments of the new natural law. This …..posits, after Aquinas and Aristotle, that nature, as observed by reason alone, tells us something about the purpose of human behavior and life. When something is as ubiquitous as masturbation, when we now understand that massive over-production of sperm is in fact an evolutionary strategy to maximize chances of reproduction, and when we also notice that even in a marital, procreative relationship, a wife’s nine months of pregnancy renders all that spousal sperm incapable of producing children … then one wonders why rubbing one out from time to time is so unnatural.

From another reader, an important danger in the doctrine:

Telling teenagers in particular that both premarital sex and masturbation are sin, while providing no outlet for their proverbial raging hormones other than the delayed gratification of an ill-prepared prepared rush into marriage in their early twenties, sets an impossible and unhealthy standard.

Is the doctrine thereby contributing to disastrous marriages? And from one more reader, some thoughts based on real experience, not mere cerebral speculation:

The real objection the Church has isn’t that you are indulging in a lie. It is that you are indulging. The pleasure of any sexual activity, solo or otherwise, is a very inconvenient reality for the Church. One that priests are no better at denying themselves of than the rest of us. As much as the rational side of us might want to define sex as a utilitarian function, used only for procreation, no amount of scholarship can change the fact that it’s fun, that it feels good. That, at its best, it is ecstatic. Certainly not the kind of thing you want people engaging in if you’re trying to get them to forget about this world and focus on the next one.

On a personal note, my first wife, raised Catholic, had a great deal of guilt and anxiety about sex, and we had a truly awful sex life. Masturbation, although at times something of an indulgent vice, was also an activity I credit with keeping me somewhat sane through a highly frustrating time of my life, sexually speaking.

I can think of some Irish priests that maybe should have done a little more fantasizing and masturbating. Maybe not a long term answer, and certainly less fulfilling on so many levels than good sex mutually shared. But surely better that than preying on acolytes.

The Catholic Church originally instituted its policy of compulsory clerical celibacy in part as a means of control. It thereby created a two-tier caste system, whereby the supposedly celibate clergy were thereby perceived as morally superior – and the rest of the population, living sexual lives, were constantly faced with the prospect of falling into states of sin, which had perforce to be confessed to a priest for absolution.

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