“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.

“Let’s talk about sex”, Bart says – quite rightly.  This is crucial, and needs to be done by people who are speaking with some knowledge from personal experience, or from sound empirical research among others with that experience.   The extraordinary thing about the Catholic Church today is that at a time when people are leaving the church in droves, overwhelmingly for reasons related to the gravely disordered teaching on sexuality, there is remarkably little talk about sexual ethics. There is hectoring and lecturing from the clerical oligarchy to the rest of us, but of serious talk, discussion between adults – what? Read the rest of this entry »

“Adultery”, and the Problem of Heterosexuality, Revisited

My recent post, “The Problem Of Heterosexuality“, has drawn a comment from my reader David, who refers to the desire of the pope and bishops to protect the sanctity of sacramental marriage. In his response, he raises two important questions. The first, I think goes right to the heart of the matter:

“..how can the beauty and sacredness of the sexual relationship within the context of marriage, and the ability to produce children be promoted, and sex outside of a sacramental relationship be promoted without appearing to judge those outside of the relationship?”

How, indeed? Orthodox Catholic doctrine simply avoids this challenge entirely by falling into the binary trap of insisting that “sacramental marriage+ children = good” implies that “any other erotic relationships = bad”, which is a complete logical fallacy. The problem is that this simplistic thinking is not based on Scripture, which in fact contradicts it, as does the practice and teaching of the Church in history.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.


Let’s Talk About The Church’s Dirty Little Secret: Masturbation

The Catechism is clear:

2352 Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.

2396 Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.

If masturbation, like “homosexual acts”, contraception and cohabitation is indeed “gravely disordered”, why is the Church not talking about it? (It’s not as though nobody does it.)

Masturbation by Klimt, drawing 1913

"Masturbation" by Klimt, drawing 1913 (Image via Wikipedia)

As always, let’s begin by considering some simple facts, the reality behind the theology.

Read the rest of this entry »

Church, Sex – and Silence

A light-hearted aside here yesterday brought a typically pertinent response from reader Etienne:

I’m not too sure that yet another code will do the trick, but otherwise I get the point. May I suggest a thorough theological [re-]thinking in the preparatory phase? I’d want to explore the following subjects for a start: freedom, love, play, the body, sexuality.

Earlier, Colleen (of Enlightened Catholicism) had this useful observation about the Vatican in response to  my previous post, “Episcopal Pornography”:

What they lack is any understanding of sexuality as a relational experience. Reducing sexuality to acts, divorced from it’s relational aspects, is in itself a definition of pornography.

Mareczku, responding to the same post, refers to the Sipe report. By wonderful serendipity, National Catholic Reporter now has an article by Richard Sipe, discussing precisely these ideas we’ve all been circling. I also have an extended post in preparation,  on the “Nature and Purpose” of sex, as observed in real lives (human and animal) and in history, rather than in dry and dusty theological manuals. When I responded to Etienne, I wrote that the re-thinking of the issues  he proposes must involve lay debate, in plain language. My reply to Colleen noted the irony that the “relationships” we are seeking are exactly what the Vatican accuses us of being incapable of, while themselves focussing exclusively on acts.

This discussion and re-valuation has already begun, even without the participation of the Vatican. Long may it continue, and may the discussion here play some small but constructive part.

Here’s Sipe:

Theologian Yves Congar once said, “In the Catholic Church it has often seemed that the sin of the flesh was the only sin, and obedience the only virtue.” This dynamic dichotomy forms the linchpin to the structure of the entire clergy sexual abuse crisis currently embroiling the Catholic Church.

But the sexual abuse of minors by clerics vowed to celibacy is only the symptom of a system desperately in need of fundamental reconsideration.

Human sexuality is the core of the whole Catholic upheaval that the Pope and the Vatican still refuse to face and discuss realistically.

In 1990 a bishop returning from Rome told me that Pope John Paul II personally instructed every new bishop that he “should not discus in public” birth control, a married priesthood, women’s ordination, abortion and the host of celibate/sexual issues that constitute an agenda that theologians have pointed out for decades are precisely the “tangle of issues that clog up” the Catholic agenda.

Roman Catholic leadership has failed to deal credibly and openly with all of human sexuality. William Shea outlined the challenge most elegantly already in 1986 when he listed the issues that need discussion: “divorce and remarriage, premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, [women’s ordination, mandated celibacy] and the male monopoly of leadership.” He opined that the fear and perhaps hatred of women could be at the bottom of the ecclesial hang up.

It would be disingenuous to protest that the Church has discussed these issues or invites dialogue about human sexuality. True enough, the Vatican has made pronouncements and declarations on every item on the list, but none invite dialogue. Congar’s observation is validated; sex is all sin virtue is submission and obedience to authority and its dictates.

Despite Pope John Paul’s four-year effort to define a Theology of the Body he never transcended some of the basic constraints of church teaching that sex is sin. Sex remains permissible and holy only within a valid marriage.

A chronic problem with church pronouncements about sex is their use of the idea of natural law as they define and apply it. The Vatican represents their interpretation of sexual human nature as an absolute determination. They isolate the idea and impose it as an instrument of control. The approach fails to acknowledge that natural law is also the inherent practical and reasonable guide to conscience independent of revelation. Many Catholics use natural law as the road map to guide their sexual behavior. For instance natural law often trumps the dictates of Humanae Vitae in matters of family planning. Some behaviors labeled by the Church “contrary to natural law” (masturbation one instance among many) should be open for examination and dialogue in the minds and hearts of many serious Catholics.

“Intrinsic” is a church-word that seals off any possibility of conversation. Birth control is presented as intrinsically evil; so is abortion; and masturbation. Sex with a minor girl, however, is not considered intrinsically evil only gravely sinful.
Homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” A 1986 document authored by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declared that homosexual orientation although not sinful in itself, “is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” As if the concept of Original Sin were not sufficient to cover all human beings of any orientation or inclination.

The definition of sex as sin establishes and maintains authoritarian control because bishops and priests (alone) have the power to forgive mortal sin. They are lords over the inner territory of the soul where secret violations are stored. Catholics are required to submit grave sins in sacramental confession for a priest’s absolution at least once a year. All sexual sins, of course, are grave according to Catholic teaching.

(Read the full article at NCR)