Father James Martin: No, celibacy does not make priests more likely to watch porn

Last week I posted on Facebook an America article written by an anonymous priest struggling with his porn addiction. I knew it would get strong reactions. (For the record, I am not the anonymous priest.)

I expected people to say more or less the following: “Thank God someone was brave (or mature, or selfless, or vulnerable) enough to talk openly about this. You know, I struggle (or my husband struggles, or my son struggles, or my boyfriend struggles) with this addiction. It is always best to be honest, and, as we all know, we are only as sick as our secrets (or the truth will set us free, or we have to keep working the program, or the more we know about these addictions the better).”


And those were, in fact, the most common responses.

What I did not expect were the number of people who said (I am paraphrasing): “Of course he is addicted to porn; he’s celibate! That’s what happens when you don’t have any outlet for sex!” Or: “More proof of how bad celibacy is. If we had married priests this would never happen!”

If you sit in the confessional long enough, you will realize that almost every man struggles with porn.

It reminded me of the frequent and erroneous conflations of celibacy with pedophilia during the height of the publicity surrounding the clergy abuse crisis in the early 2000s. In articles, in lectures and when speaking with reporters, I had to remind people that celibacy does not inevitably lead to sexual abuse. How do we know that? One way to know that is to remember that the majority of sex abuse takes place within families, often by adults preying on children.

So saying celibacy, or the celibate priesthood, leads inevitably to sex abuse is false. Think of an unmarried aunt or uncle. Does one assume that they are predators or pedophiles?

It is the same with porn. If you sit in the confessional long enough, or if you just listen to men talk honestly, you will realize that almost every man struggles with porn. (And, I would assume, many women do as well.) Its availability online only makes the problem worse.

Why, then, do so many people think that celibacy leads to porn use? Probably for the same reason that people thought it led to sex abuse. Basically, some people think it’s weird. Unnatural. Impossible. Sick.

Why do so many people think that celibacy leads to porn use?

Celibacy is a complex topic, but it is one that I can speak about from experience—30 years of experience. It is a different way of loving people—freely and deeply but without the attachment of what we call an “exclusive relationship.” One has many friends, and one gives and receives love, but one is not committed to a single person.

One could make the argument that the sexual intimacy that the celibate person sacrifices leads him (or her) to seek gratification in porn, but you could make the same argument about a married man (or woman) who is sexually or emotionally unfulfilled in his (or her) marriage. You could also make that case for an engaged person. Or a single person who is dating. Talk to enough married men and women and you will also find out that there is a kind of “involuntary celibacy” that goes on in marriages. Yet no one assumes that the married life inevitably leads to porn addictions.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways of living celibacy just as there are healthy and unhealthy ways of living a married life. There are psychologically healthy married men and psychologically healthy celibate men.

It’s a complicated topic of course, worth a book, but I lament the widespread lack of understanding around celibacy and chastity. Usually, in a discussion on celibacy with people who have little experience with it and who know few committed celibates, the following issues get lumped together: celibacy, mandatory celibacy, chastity, sexual abuse, homosexuality, pedophilia, ephebophilia, married priests and women priests. Some of these things are related to one another; most, however, are not.

Porn is a real problem, an occasion of sin, as it was for that anonymous priest-writer. But that’s not because he’s a priest. It’s because he’s a human being.

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Phil Tanny
1 year 9 months ago

Father Martin,

I agree, celibacy does not inevitably lead to abuse, porn etc.

Having the Catholic Church led for 2,000 years exclusively by unmarried celibate men is however a form of insanity, as it so removes the experience of the shepherd from that of his flock as to make the shepherd far less than fully credible. This waning credibility is proven by the fact of the churches emptying out all over the Church's traditional European homeland.

You're a very neat guy and I always enjoy hearing from you, but like the rest of the clergy you seem not to grasp that more of the same old stuff from the same old people is not going to reverse the very troubling trends afflicting the Catholic Church. How many epic failures will be required for the clergy to get this?

Finally, porn is not sin, it's a stimulant, and like all stimulants it can be abused. This particular stimulant is labeled sin because 2,000 years of celibate male clergy has created a Catholic culture obsessed with sex.

Bruce Snowden
1 year 9 months ago

Hi, Mr. Tanny - I hope this makes some sense to you. Regarding the charism of voluntary celibacy, it’s not simply “the same old stuff, from the same old people.” It’s a directive from Jesus, not a Church invention, offered by Jesus to those who freely choose it, a recommendation not a mandate. Blame Jesus then for this celibacy thing since it came from him? Of course not. As Church we should appreciate celibacy as a Gift of the Spirit invigorating and inspiring the Mystical Body when evangelically understood and accepted. As best I understand, only then can it be successfully lived.

Optionally, I believe Jesus offered celibacy not to a “chosen few” but to the whole Church. Pope St. JP II indicated as much when he recommended “occasional celibacy” to the married so as to allow them to participate in its charism and to benefit from its altogether out of this world spirituality. Remember Jesus said in heaven nobody marries, all are like the angels. Celibacy offers opportunity to begin on earth the life of the world to come, a naturally repellant offer for flesh and blood to sink its teeth into. Those who attempt it deserve high fives from the Church. May we inexactly call it something like a Divine birth control devise for the married, not sure. However, narrowed interpretation as mentioned above corralled in celibacy and made it regulatory to the Latin priesthood, effectively dulling much of its grandeur with a man-made restriction. I believe celibacy must be a freely chosen decision, something like the Orthodox Church practices.

You also said that porn is not a sin. If you mean in and of itself I can probably agree with you. But I do have some trouble there, as porn sexually enslaves the human person violating th Dwelling Place of the Holy Spirit, desecrating as it were something holy and this is done to illicitly excite sexual passion which can lead to sin, all in the name of avaricious and greedy, monetary enterprise. I understand that circumstances do alter cases and that one must Will to sin, to sin at least subjectively as sin resides in the Will, not in any external act. However we do have a moral obligation to sincerely try to avoid sin and the first way to do so is to avoid occasions that lead to sin. Porn could very easily be an occasion leading to sin.

If remembered correctly you also suggested that a male celibate clergy has created a Catholic culture obsessed with sex. For sure we live in a sexually saturated secular culture, a sexually obsessed culture especially in “modern times” whatever that means, but if truth be told, it seems to me sexuality has always had an obsessive grip on humanity. I don’t think we should blame the Church totally for its apparent sexual obsession, trying to understand that morally correct effort to honor the Decalogue and the NT teachings in some ways led to excesses, a good gone bad so to speak. In a nut shell, by all means correct what clearly needs correcting, but for heaven’s sake, don’t end up throwing out the baby with the bath water killing the baby! I think enough said, perhaps too much?

Dominic Deus
1 year 9 months ago

Fr. James--so good to read your piece! I was one of the *agent provocateurs" commenting on the original article from the priest troubled by his interest in "pornography" to the extent it was damaging his social interaction and getting in the way of working on an academic thesis.

I really don't have an opinion on whether or not priestly celibacy leads to the reading or viewing of erotic materials but I really don't care. My concern for "Fr.Smith" was that he was feeling tortured by guilt and a sense of terrible sinfulness. That I care about. That does not make for a healthy man which means it doesn't make for a healthy priest. It also means that there is human suffering which I, personally, do NOT celebrate as a Catholic value.

I want to know if there is any depth to the Church's thoughts on the erotic? Or is "pornography" all it recognizes.

What I am interested in today is, "Does the Church have any words for a sex-positive description of graphic or literary art describing or showing men and women in provocative or passionate sexual activity?" In other words, "What's porn and what isn't?" And a related question,"What is a priest allowed to look at or read?" I advised Fr. Smith to go to a fine art museum and look at works that celebrated the beauty of women, naked or not. Can I advise him its ok to watch the NCAA women's basketball? How about beach volleyball?

Happy to read your posts!


PS Can America change its format for comments so we can post pictures? No, not porn! Just relevant pictures to some discussions. It's quite fun and adds a new dimension. The Disqus format allows that.

Phil Tanny
1 year 9 months ago

Dominic, excellent comment, well done sir. Yes, is there any depth to the Church's thoughts on the erotic, I want to know that too. Thanks for framing the question so intelligently.

Dominic Deus
1 year 9 months ago

Thank you :-)

Iavora Daraktchieva
1 year 9 months ago

Dominic, I know the question was meant for Fr. James, but if I may?

Nudity and sexuality become problematic (for all of us, not just for those who are celibate) when they are gratuituous, when they distort the subject of representation into an object of self-gratification, and when they are meant to simply titillate rather than stir understanding and appreciation with their aesthetic merits.

Same with beach-volleyball, really. Is the hypothetical priest in question watching because he loves the game, admires the athletic prowess of the players, and finds pleasure in the sense of community that comes from supporting a particular sports-team? Or is he watching because the female athletes' uniforms happen to be particularly skimpy? (Again, the complexity of the motivation in beholding the naked other(s) hardly applies only to men or women who adhere to a celibate lifestyle.)

In my opinion, nakedness and sexuality in and of themselves are not problematic for the contemporary Catholic church; the intentions and motivations with which one beholds the other--with all of her or his inherent dignity--is what distinguishes pornography from appreciation.

Phil Tanny
1 year 9 months ago

Iavora, you said, "....when they are meant to simply titillate rather than stir understanding and appreciation with their aesthetic merits."

I see your comment as pretty concisely illustrating the "living in one's head" culture which seems to dominate Catholicism. That which happens in the head, ie. understanding and appreciation, is seen to be automatically more valid than what happens in the body. I feel such an assumption merits closer inspection.

I wouldn't draw the line at titillation myself. I would draw it at unloving acts. Human beings are highly social sexual creatures. We're supposed to attract each other. But we're not supposed to abuse each other.

But, given that half of American Catholics voted to give a proudly bragging sexual predator the nuclear launch codes, it sometimes seems pointless to have such conversations on Catholic web sites. There's so much holy talk which is turned to ash by unholy actions.

Dominic Deus
1 year 9 months ago

Brother Phil--Thank you for your comment:

"I see your comment as pretty concisely illustrating the "living in one's head" culture which seems to dominate Catholicism. That which happens in the head, ie. understanding and appreciation, is seen to be automatically more valid than what happens in the body. I feel such an assumption merits closer inspection."

Well, I think it merits more listening by us men. I believe Iavora is a woman and on that basis, the first thing I appreciate is that she analyzes, synthesizes, communicates and interprets differently then a man would. There is much to be learned from her.

Though I am a scriptural scholar, I study in a classical humanities program combined with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). I mention this because, at present, I am studying the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) and one of the things I have learned is that there is actual, testable, provable psychology and neuroscience that establish mechanisms by which women process information differently, organize and communicate it differently, and in some ways, better.

The point is, when we read what women write, for example, we may very well disagree with them but asking them to "prove it" is actually saying "explain it in man thinking." Neuroscience has demonstrated that, in varying degrees, women are capable of doing this but other women understand perfectly well what was meant in the first place and regard us, at best, as needing constant translation, and at worst, clueless.

Women demonstrate significantly greater abilities at "knowing the mind of another", a real, provable, social-pyscholgical concept which recognizes women are better at seeing elements of agreement or disagreement and thus better at promoting consensus and unity within a group.

In other words, debate with Iavora is not the way to learn from her let alone arrive at consensus. The thing to do is invite her to keep talking and writing while we listening read. That, of course is the exact, opposite of what many men do; they prefer to shush "their women." I'm not saying you are doing this, Phil. I'm just taking this opportunity to to try to hear more from Iavora.


P.S. I have developed a Theory of Rightness Relativity on this based on a decades long study of my wife, JoAnn of Arc: "She's not always right but 95% of the time she's not wrong."

Dominic Deus
1 year 9 months ago

Iavora--Your name is very nice. I assume it's feminine but from what language and what is its meaning?

Thank you for your response! Your reply is just as important as Fr. James; I need other perspectives to formulate my new Unified Theory of What's Porn and What's Not.

I am grateful for your advice and am not trying to talk you out of your views. To the contrary, I need your perspective and that of others. I merely have questions.

"Nudity and sexuality become problematic when they are gratuituous, when they distort the subject of representation into an object of self-gratification, and when they are meant to simply titillate rather than stir understanding and appreciation with their aesthetic merits."

1.There must be more to self-gratification than I know. Don't we do that everyday in many ways? Could you elaborate on the good and bad of self gratification?

2. What's wrong with titillation? Its blush-worthy double entendre' is recognized by everyone starting at about age ten. Pretty innocent stuff. As to the act itself, isn't that something women routinely do in the exercise of their "feminine charms", to use a quaint old term?

3. I'm all in favor of understanding and appreciation, which is why I recommended fine art to Fr. Smith, but there are many "titillating" photographs and drawings that are just fun to look at--doesn't that count for appreciation? That's my perspective as a man but I have heard from credible sources that women react in the same way. As to understanding, my experience has been that the incomprehensible nature of women eludes us men for a lifetime but, at about age forty, we start achieving some enlightenment.

4. Your refer to "the complexity of the motivation in beholding the naked" and I agree that it exists in us even as children but I wonder if the complexity resolves in part as we go through puberty? I would be concerned about telling young teens that their interest in seeing nude images is "complex" the they would probably say "I'm just curious."

5. Finally, I agree that there is pornographic representation of nakedness or sex that is disturbing (to me) but, amazingly, not to others who seem to be pretty normal. That's why I am in search what defines the "pornography" the Church finds abhorrent. What I am looking for now is a magisterial statement on what is *not* porn It's the beach volleyball conundrum.

Thank you for your thought response and remember, I am not arguing against your points--just asking if you more thoughts.


Crystal Watson
1 year 9 months ago

I don't think celibacy "causes" addiction to porn anymore than it "causes" the clerical sex abuse of children, but I think an organization that promises to enforce lifelong celibacy for its members is bound to attract a higher than average number of emotionally/sexually troubled men.

Phil Tanny
1 year 9 months ago

Thanks Crystal, I think you nailed it quite concisely.

We should be asking, why did the child rape scandal happen in the Catholic clergy instead of some other place? Why didn't it happen at say, Apple, General Motors, the Mormon clergy, the Teamsters Union, an atheist convention, or a thousand other places? Why did it happen on this scale within the Catholic clergy?

Or, if you prefer, why is Catholic culture at large, clergy and laity, obsessed with sex, porn, masturbation, homosexuality etc seemingly like no other culture on the net?

Ok, maybe celibacy is not the problem, that could be, a theory worth exploring. But what then? What is the source of all the sex focus and sex problems?

Adam Matthews
1 year 8 months ago

Hi Phil -

Very interesting conversations here. You expressed one misconception most people hold - that this scandal was somehow unique or more widespread within the Clergy. Interestingly, the incidence rate of child abuse among Clergy members was roughly the same as in the general population. Meaning priests were neither more not less likely to abuse minors. A great book that goes into some detail about that element, as well as trying to understand the "why" behind it, it "Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture" by Marie Keenan. It's a tough read though, to be sure.

I think the reason it feels like the scandal was significantly more widespread in the Catholic Church had to do with elements like the cover-ups, moving known predatory priests around, and the fact that priests are in a position of high trust. Kind of like how a teacher who has sex with a student is a much bigger story than...just about anyone else.

I'm also curious why Catholic culture seems more obsessed with porn, masturbation, etc. than other cultures. Maybe it has to do with the ease of access and therefore proliferation. Maybe it's because the modern world says "if it feels good, do it" while Catholicism still focuses on human dignity and other teachings that are a little counter-cultural. (Like how we view using pornography as unchastity within marriage.) Or maybe it's because it's rolled right up into the whole "culture wars" and it's easier to point constantly at these things than explore other elements of becoming human beings fully alive.

In Christ,

Jim MacGregor
1 year 9 months ago

RE: "celibacy does not make priests more likely to watch porn" No, but celibacy does not make priests more likely to relate (other than intellectually) to a lot that married people bear up under.


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