Musing on Masturbation

Every once in a while, I’ll get a sneering or giggling, always condescending email from someone who has stumbled upon this old piece about artificial birth control, oral sex, and other things and feels the need to sound off on the unreasonable stupidity of Catholicism.

Well, I can certainly be stupid and unreasonable — I often am, about many things — and I am the first one to admit that others know a great deal more than I do. But Catholicism is the farthest thing from stupid or unreasonable. There is not a life-question that has not been faithfully thought-out, explored, considered from all perspectives and given thorough exposition by some of the finest theological and philosophical minds of the past 2,000, and then burnished with nuance and humanity via the lives and examples of possibly less-educated, but phenomenally gifted saints.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a valuable condensation — or distillation, if you will — of all of the wisdom of our forebears and our contemporary fellows. It is a shame so few people ever pick it up. When I was beginning to discuss human sexuality with my kids, the catechism was a great springboard into some terrific discussions. I thought the section on masturbation was eminently wise and useful — it touched on both the gravity of the matter, and acknowledged how broadly misunderstood is the Church’s teaching, and how psychology, maturity, social factors and other human aspects are relevant to considerations.

Often I think that people’s resistance to even accepting the concept of “sin” in their lives is rooted in a simple unwillingness to understand what the nature of sin is at its core — a selfishness and a turning away from the Source of All Love — because they simply see it as a rejection of themselves.

Over at Inside Catholic, the tireless Mark Shea, who sometimes leaves me breathless with the amount of copy he generates, has decided to flesh out the Church’s understanding and teaching regarding masturbation

. . .it is worth noting a few things about the specific sin of masturbation my reader references. First, of course, is the fact that his is not the first somewhat incredulous reaction I have seen to this teaching. When most folk run across this teaching for the first time it can be a shock, since it seems (to our culture) like the matter of masturbation is so trivial that to talk of mortal sin in connection with it is (they suppose) surely some sort of holdover reaction from the Dark Ages. In a world full of war, rape, pillage, and murder, how can anybody take seriously the notion that this seeming triviality is a sin as capable of sending somebody to Hell (if unrepented) as adultery or murder?

Yet, from the logic of divine charity and, in particular, the theology of the sacrament of marriage, the Church’s teaching about the gravity of masturbation makes perfect sense. Indeed, I would note that it can (not must, but can) be argued that it is, in fact, graver than adultery. After all, which sin — adultery or masturbation — at least involves the disordered love of another person and so participates, to that degree, in divine love (albeit, I repeat, in a radically disordered way)? Answer: adultery. With masturbation, even disordered love of another person is totally excluded. It is a much more purely selfish sin, reducing the core act of marriage to something ordered completely toward one’s own appetite with no love for any other human being involved at all.

This is a long, thoughtful piece, well-reasoned, instructive and — if one reads it in good faith — very sensible and sensitive. It completely gives lie to the notion that the church is “unreasonably stupid,” although I hold out no hope of people who want to believe she is stupid being easily persuaded otherwise. I suggest printing the piece out, and reading it with adults or older children who can be trusted to actually give the subject its due. If nothing else, it will give folks something to think about.

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