Imagine, if you will, that you are a woman in her seventies, happily married for over forty years. Your 70-something husband has been very considerate of the physical issues that arise with advancing age—not only agreeing that marital intercourse isn’t possible (for whatever private reasons the two of you have presumably assessed) but to separate bedrooms so you both can get a good night’s sleep. Then, one fine evening, you’re happily kissing your husband good night when he takes you by the hand and says, “Dear, we’ve got to talk.”
Turns out, your husband has been a bit, shall we say, “frustrated” with the status quo and has been, ah, “taking matters into his own hand” a few times over the past year. Rather than go to confession for an occasional personal vice (the two of you are faithful Catholics and believe this particular act is not morally permissible), he decided to contact a moral theologian who writes an advice column for his favorite Catholic periodical. He pours out this intensely personal problem, in graphic detail, to the moral theologian (not to mention to the Internet once the column is published online), even signing his first name to the letter just in case you might not recognize yourself in the public description of your sex life.
In the last year there have been several nights when I have awakened in the night and lay there remembering intimate adventures in our early marriage. This has led to masturbation. I know this is sinful and I feel ashamed. When I am doing this, I never think about pornographic images or other women or anything like that. I just replay in my mind those intimate moments when we [he and his wife] were first married. At the time I’m doing this I try to convince myself that this type of masturbation might not be sinful. However, I know Satan likes to whisper in our ears and convince us sin is not sin. I would very much like to know your opinion.
The moral theologian, E. Christian Brugger, Ph.D., a youngish man (married 25 years, has three children still living at home) with a lot of fancy degrees (at least four by my count in his author bio), has weighed in on the matter. His verdict? Who cares what the physical issues may be, you owe your husband sex, damn it! No need to feel ashamed, honey, we can talk to a priest about your sexual problems (which, we know, are likely your sexual problems since your husband has been jacking off in his lonely bed at night to thoughts of your past “intimate adventures”):
Catholic tradition hands on St. Paul’s wisdom on the “conjugal duty” or “debt” of spouses. St. Augustine, for example, teaches that one of the central expressions of marital fidelity is spouses providing for one another a “remedy” for sexual temptation. St. Thomas Aquinas says that spouses owe [emphasis in original] to one another the “marital debt,” that is, they are obliged to offer to one another their bodies so that each may not be tempted to have recourse to illicit sexual outlets.
… You said your marriage is good. I take this to mean that you and your wife respect one another, that there is mutual good will between you. If so, there should be a joint willingness to do what’s necessary to keep your marriage healthy. You may need to seek medical or psychological assistance. If so, don’t let embarrassment or shame prevent you. If you need financial help, ask your parish priest or confessor or another who cares about the health of your marriage. Only after exhausting all options can you [singular] conclude that God is calling you and your wife [plural] to continence.
Can you imagine the wife’s humiliation at seeing this in print? Not to mention her distress at the fact that she is now going to be under pressure to “fix” what she had reason to assume up until this very moment had been a mutually satisfactory private arrangement between her husband and herself?
When I worked as a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, I answered a lot of apologetics questions online, both on Catholic Answers’ web site and in the apologetics forum on EWTN’s web site. In the early years, I was both both inexperienced at giving counsel and believed that all that was necessary to answer moral questions was to look up what Church fathers, popes, and catechisms had to say on the subject. I trusted my sources and passed on that information without a whole lot of thought as to how it would impact couples and families in their personal lives.
As time progressed, I became uncomfortable with weighing in on personal issues, especially those involving a couple’s sex life. I flatly refused to answer sex questions from men. Not only was I personally squicked out at the thought of talking about men’s intimate questions about their sex lives, but I found myself becoming extremely unsympathetic listening to men complaining about what they believed their wives “owed” them. So, those questions got passed on to the male apologists on staff. But I also found myself discouraged in answering the women’s questions. More often than not, the women wanted to know how they could “satisfy” their husbands when it wasn’t possible, for whatever reason, to complete marital intercourse.
Of course, couples often do need assistance with sexual issues. It’s not unreasonable or inappropriate for them to seek out advice, not just from a medical doctor or mental health professional but from someone who can give them perspective from a religious point of view. As disgusted as I am with Doctorate Brugger’s blather about the “marital debt” and what an elderly woman “owes” her husband so that he won’t “be tempted to have recourse to illicit sexual outlets,” moral theologians do have insight to offer that a couple may find valuable.
Assuming that those moral theologians act with prudence and respect boundaries.
I no longer advise couples, but I’m happy to offer suggestions to moral theologians who envision themselves as the Catholic version of Dr. Ruth.
Respect privacy. There’s absolutely no reason for questions like the one Brugger answered to appear publicly, either in a print publication or online. If the question is framed as a non-specific hypothetical (“Is it okay for a husband to pleasure himself when his wife isn’t available for sex?”), that can be answered publicly. But specific questions that include intensely personal, couple-specific details should be answered privately. If you feel strongly that a couple needs an answer to their dilemma, write a private email or letter. You needing to make a column deadline is no reason to risk humiliating the spouse who didn’t consent to having his or her sex life become fodder for social media chatter.
Respect boundaries. Just because there are hints in a client’s question about “physical issues” is no reason for you to address the possibility of “physical issues,” especially when you don’t have the full story. In the letter to Brugger, the husband not only doesn’t mention the “physical issues” he and his wife have experienced, he also doesn’t mention what steps they may have already taken to address those physical issues. For all Brugger knows, the couple may already have sought out medical and psychological help, making his advice to do so redundant and insulting to their intelligence (by presuming that they don’t already know that they can go to a physician or therapist). Which leads to the next point….
Answer the question that was asked. This gentleman wanted to know if masturbation is a sin, given the conditions he has outlined (within marriage, not using pornographic aids). He wasn’t asking Brugger for advice on how to convince his wife to restart their sex life. Brugger could’ve answered that question without extraneous comment on what spouses “owe” each other in the bedroom.
Offer the least invasive solution possible. Brugger was correct that the Catholic Church teaches that masturbation, even under the conditions outlined in the letter, isn’t morally permissible. That doesn’t mean he needed to presume to advise a couple he’s never met on their sex life. The husband was the one approaching Brugger with a problem. If Brugger was going to suggest a solution to that problem, he should have limited himself to suggestions that solved the husband’s problem. If the husband’s problem is occasional temptations to a personal vice, then give suggestions for how he can overcome those temptations—not by pressuring his wife to act as a substitute for his hand, but by practicing personal moral virtue (resisting the sin).
Practice personal humility. Don’t presume you have the full answer to a couple’s problem. You can acknowledge the husband’s distress and offer information and suggestions without presuming to solve the problem for him. Let him know that personal struggles of this kind are normal and that he has recourse to confession when he falters.
Toward the end of my tenure at Catholic Answers, the kind of one-to-one apologetics I practiced was being undervalued (to put it mildly). The apostolate wanted to focus on reaching the masses through radio, television, seminars, and products. Answering phone calls, letters, and emails from individuals was seen as “Dear Abby” apologetics. But, of course, the questions still come in and, evidently, are still being answered. If no longer by Catholic Answers then by other organizations that offer a platform for “Catholic experts” to publicly pontificate on people’s private lives.
The one-to-one contact that respects the privacy and the human dignity of individuals is what has been lost.
(Image: Couple seated on bench, Pixabay.)