Gay marriage, contraceptives, abortion… for a religion so preoccupied with using what is or isn’t “natural” as its most salient moral guidepost, Catholicism’s insistence that its spiritual leaders remain celibate is spectacularly odd. After all, what could be more unnatural than suppressing a basic physiological drive as powerful as the need to eat, drink, or sleep? In fact, not only is it unnatural for clergy to completely bottle up their sexuality this way, it’s simply impossible. Try as you might, call it sacred, even, but human nature always has a way of biting through any idealistic muzzles placed over it. When it comes to the male sex drive, sooner or later, you can expect a seminal flood from seminarians if you build an ideological dam against its release.
I’m not just talking about the child sex-abuse scandals we’ve all heard about. It should be a no-brainer by comparison with those unspeakable horrors, but what about mere masturbation? How does the Catholic Church, which not long ago taught that jacking off was “the greatest sin,” address its priests’ ejaculatory needs? Still not very well, it turns out. For the most part, clergy are left to, well, handle it all alone.
The sex lives of so-called celibate clergy are notoriously difficult to study empirically. Even today, there are no perfect data, this despite Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 exhortation in Sexual Behavior in the American Male that it would be “of exceeding scientific importance” to know what’s happening under the sheets of a presumably celibate lifestyle. From the Church’s perspective, too, priestly masturbation is important to understand. “If it is intrinsically evil, as the church teaches,” writes the ecclesiastic-cum-psychotherapist Richard Sipe in his 2003 book Celibacy in Crisis, “and yet is so commonly practiced across the broad spectrum of age, celibacy becomes a sham.”
Why the absence of information? It’s a simple syllogism. People lie. Priests are people. Therefore, priests lie. When you throw into this the millennia of guilt, shame, and embarrassment shrouding sex and religion, you’ll find as many priests staunchly proclaiming their celibacy, as you will prisoners declaring their innocence. If it’s not taught to those in pastoral training outright, it’s insinuated that any man who comes to this calling shall not cum in this calling, and so these are high-stakes questions.
During the past decade, however, a few scholars have penetrated this cloistered world of smothered lust. What Sipe unearthed in Celibacy in Crisis, for instance, is a fascinating picture. His book demonstrates just how creative is the religious mentality when it comes to coexisting with inconvenient facts that, according to dogma, anyway, are in fundamental conflict with the Church’s sex-only-for-procreation worldview. “Rationalizations abound,” he writes of his discussions with priests.
If he does not touch his genitals with his hands the masturbation doesn’t count; or if he goes only so far in his touching, and then the masturbation happens ‘by accident,’ he is not responsible. Therefore, behaviors such as anal manipulation, genital pressure on a pillow, encouraging a partial erection, or simply allowing the water pressure of a shower or whirlpool to do the arousing make the experience acceptable… [One priest said] if he resisted a temptation to masturbate for 4 days, there was no sin after that time.
Sipe writes of a priest with an “ingenious imagination” enabling him to ejaculate at will, thereby avoiding getting his hands (and therefore his soul) dirty. Apparently impure thoughts are a sin only in manual transmission. Another found himself in the rather awkward position of having spontaneous emissions while giving Mass. This wasn’t exactly the sort of rapture he was going for. Yet, he also felt it’d be a sin to pre-empt these untimely carnal explosions by taking care of himself beforehand.
Not all clergy deny themselves the human right to jack off. On the contrary. A 1981 survey of 50 gay Roman Catholic priests in North America by Richard Wagner found that all but one of them masturbated at a mean frequency three times that of the average man. Ninety-six percent of them also admitted to having sex with other males at least twice a week with a minimum of guilt. The secret brotherhood indeed. It was a different, pre-AIDS era back in 1981. But it turns out these men’s straight collared colleagues aren’t particularly celibate either. A 1992 study with 59 heterosexual Roman Catholic priests found that 45 percent of them were in clandestine sexual relationships with women. When asked about their masturbatory habits, 73 percent of these straight clerics also did that regularly. As for the 27 percent who didn’t, as William Masters once quipped, “I don’t think they understood the question!”
Many priests today realize it’s perfectly normal, even healthy, to masturbate. But having received no guidance whatsoever on how to manage their libidinal desires in a world that demands nothing short of their asexuality, that realization can come at considerable mental expense. Sometimes, a priest’s sexual anorexia leads to onanistic deviance. Sipe found priests who, aroused by the erotic stories being confided to them by penitent women, routinely masturbated in their confessional booths. Others rationalized their inappropriate behaviors as being helpful to other clerics. Consider the senior priest who taught his young charges that the best way for them to keep their godless impulses at bay was to masturbate with one hand while holding a cross in the other. He instructed them to shift their gaze to the cross just before they ejaculated to remind themselves of their sacred covenant with God. Oh, and he also offered to observe them—even help them to hold the cross, if need be—while they went about this strenuous daily task. How divinely selfless was his love of man.
In his 2011 book Sex, Celibacy and Priesthood, Lou Bordisso, a psychotherapist as well as the former Bishop of the American Catholic Diocese of California, spoke with a wide spectrum of priests (gay, straight, and bisexual) about their struggles with the flesh. Here are a few, in their own words, on the subject of masturbation:
I have never experienced sexual contact with another person. I have experienced masturbation at infrequent times when I have permitted myself to be exposed to external stimuli in movies and pictures. I have considered my promise of celibacy to be binding under pain of sin. —Father Rick
I prayed to God to deliver me from the practice of intercourse… and I have been free… for 7 years. Since then I have not indulged… I do feel the pull of wanting a relationship with a man and wanting to be celibate… I have been a chronic masturbator since age 14, and this practice continues with regularity.—Father Marcus
I found masturbation to be the least of the evils involved and so resigned myself to that reality in my life early in my seminary career… It may be hard to believe, but I feel pretty happy as a priest when the sexual activity is done and over with… I know this is not the best thing for me, but I still pray that one day I will find myself a celibate, holy priest. —Father Cyprian
Deliberate self-pleasure is one thing. What about nocturnal emissions? Wet dreams are out of our hands, something beyond conscious control. Are celibate priests at least permitted those? I’ve tried to get a formal answer, but you know how they are at the Vatican… busy, busy. Apparently, it’s a complicated issue. Sipe shares an age-old philosophical question, one he says inspired long debates during his own seminary days: “If one awakes during an ejaculation and enjoys the experience, does it become mortally sinful?” One has to believe in the concept of mortal sin even to entertain this kind of question, of course, but let’s play along regardless. If you’ve ever had a wet dream yourself, you’ll notice that it was likely accompanied by a set of incredibly randy images, a plotline somehow involving others’ genitalia, I’d even wager. On the surface, at least, these lewd and lascivious porn movies featuring in our dozing brains evoke Jimmy Carter’s favorite Bible verse. You remember the one… Matthew 5:28? Sermon on the Mount? (“I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”) Look at her? Christ, you should see what the average man does to a woman (or man) in his wet dreams. In other words, whether the climax jolts us awake or not, we’re all going to Hell, boys.
What would Jesus do? I can only tell you what he should have done, which is jerked off more. Maybe the Bible would have made more sense. Data shows that pent-up sexual arousal impairs our cognitive and moral reasoning. In fact, the cleverer priests have figured out that masturbating beforehand is the secret to giving a good sermon.
Just mind those communion wafers they’re handing out.
Jesse Bering, an Associate Professor at the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago, New Zealand, is the author of Perv (2013), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and The Belief Instinct (2011). Follow him on Twitter @JesseBering.