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.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • jeff

    Good post. The Catechism does handle it well. We have a neo-hardline priest at our parish who insists on calling this a “mortal sin,” when all the Church can really say about it is that it is grave matter. Given the pathetic catechesis of the last 40 years it is no surprise that the teaching can come as a shock. Most were taught that it was a normal part of human sexuality, even healthy. I think Shea is also incorrect to suggest that it is worse than adultery to the extent he overlooks that this behavior can include a forlorn love for another person on a mental or memory level.

  • Mandy P.

    I just read through your older piece. It goes ber well with Mr. Shea’s, which I’d read earlier today. This is a teaching I struggle with because I worry greatly how I will eventually handle it with my children when the world is doing everything it can to make sex as casual and meaningless as possible. I’ve got some time to absorb the teaching (my oldest is only 4), so I’m praying that I will be able to teach them in a way that will reinforce just how special our sexuality is and not make it into something with which they could easily develop disordered (ie, shameful) ideas about themselves. Yours and Mr. Shea’s thoughts on the matter have been very helpful in that regard. Thanks!

  • Karl

    My question is this:

    A spouse has a problem with masturbation but is able to “handle it” (sorry for the pun but I cannot help from laughing out loud as I type it, although the question I pose is quite serious) through their marital relations.

    Years later, that spouse is abandoned, wrongly and with the support of the Catholic Church(not a game, a factual reality) and the abandoner is supported in their adultery and civil remarriage as well as in having children (all still fully supported by the ACTIONS of the Church, which includes bishops and priests among countless laity).

    That abandoned spouse, knowing the marriage was/is valid and which is substantiated by tribunal decisions in the highest court in the Catholic Church leaves the Catholic Church after years of trying to enlist help at all levels in the Church to heal the marriage, even asking for help in the Vatican.


    Besides the abandoned spouse who succumbs to their old nemesis of masturbation, how responsible for those same sins, if they are mortal, is the abandoning spouse, their partner in adultery, the clergy who support this and the clergy in the Church who patently refuse to help heal the marriage, including the Pope who has been directly solicited and never replied?

    I know you cannot answer this, I think. But I wonder.

    I ask because I know SEVERAL people facing this and it is a nightmare to them. Some have left the Church, others no longer receive the Eucharist and I see this as a terrible injustice, which the Church openly refuses to address. Some, including myself, do not accept that it is possible to sin mortally under these circumstances.

    I have NEVER, EVER heard this addressed even in passing, as it relates to marriage, divorce, adultery and nullity. It should have been comprehensively addressed, even canonically, before the flood gates of nullity were opened up.

    This Catholic has little but contempt for the clergy, including the past and current Popes and sees them, intentionally not addressing
    any of these issues that are buffeting marriages and individual Catholics who are suffering tremendously and they are alone, except for those who share their weaknesses.

    I am glad I am a layman. I would be filled with terror, knowing what I have experienced, for offering no real help to these poor souls except teachings without support, if I were a cleric.

  • Manny

    Sorry I don’t agree with Mr. Shea or I guess you Anchoress. When something as trivial as masterbation is ranked in the same league as murder (as mortal sins), then we have cognitive dissonance. And to say that masterbation is worst than adultery, well, tell that to the broken family of the adulterer. Masterbation is trivial nonsense that hurts no one. It’s childish and adulencent, but to call it a mortal sin is an insult to my intelligence. That cognitive dissonance is extremely damaging to the church in the long run.

  • SteveM

    Agree with Manny. The Church categorizing a behavior as a sin is one thing, but declaring the implicit punishment is presumptuous. I.e., masturbation = mortal sin = eternal damnation.

    I thought that Jesus fulfilled the Law by transcending it. I never understood why the Church felt it necessary to create a theological labyrinth as a replacement for the labyrinth that is the Torah. And parenthetically in parallel with the Talmud.

  • jeff

    There are important distinctions to be made on this issue which even those in the Church frequently forget to make. Ultimately, the Church does not declare with certainty any act by a particular person to be a sin. The Church only informs us what acts are, objectively speaking, gravely wrong. The subjective culpability for that act is something God alone can accurately determine. For any mortal sin three conditions must be met: 1) full knowledge that the act is wrong, and 2) full consent of the will, and 3) grave matter. The Church is an expert in declaring what is grave matter and leaves 1) and 2) to the conscience of the penitent and the judgment of God.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I know—equivalent to murder, or adultery? Sorry, I just can’t wrap my head around that.

    And I dislike theological labyrinths too, Steve.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I know—equivalent to murder, or adultery? Sorry, I just can’t wrap my head around that.

    And I dislike theological labyrinths too, Steve.

  • Manny

    Excellent point Steve. I think you hit on the head what the problem with Catholicism is. They have created a “labyrinth” based on supposition on top of supposition. In the end one steps back and looks at some of the rules and wonder how it can be justified. On this I think the Protestants are correct in their assessment of Catholcism. Despite that, I still remain a Catholic. But you know, perhpas the Orthodox, who do not rely on convoluted logic as much as the western rite, may have it right. There is only so much we can know, and the rest is mystery upon which God will enlighten us in due time. This Catholic notion of basing everything on some logical formulation gets to be as out of touch as most philosophy.

  • Manny

    Not sure if you’re agreeing with me Rhinestone. I always value your thoughts. Could you clarify?

  • Dan

    Dogma is what you get when positions are challenged.

    That scaffold of logic that attends just about any dogma is a reflection of the mind of man at work.

    We were given a brain; we’re expected to use it, ESPECIALLY when working out moral issues.

    One more thing, this lament of the seemingly formulaic logic that attends certain doctrines suggests a nostalgia for a subjective standard.

    As for Shea, it’s difficult to read anything he writes without recalling that this was the guy going off his rocker about Iraq and John McCain. And this his latest offering seems to be of the same school of “reasoning,” —————————- equating masturbation to adultery, to murder. I mean is he for real.

    It doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

    There’s something of the fanatic about his writing, about the positions he takes. And he’s far too apt to pronounce on subjects with an air of the magisterium about him. Often he pronounces more magisterially than the magisterium itself!

    Needs to take a look in the mirror, get himself off the set of EWTN and take a deep breath.

  • Karl

    I cannot question what the Church teaches in the Catechism. I am required to educate my conscience under its guidance. That it is MY decision to act as I please of perceive that I need to, does not free me to reject official teaching of the Church, simply because I cannot countenance it.

    However, the way the Church practices its teachings is another thing, altogether.

    With regard to marriage, the Catholic Church is terribly wrong in its mission to express its teachings. It has developed a system which incentivizes the destruction of marriages and abandoned spouses.

    The arrogance of the clergy is unfathomable. They refuse to be confused with the facts, as their minds have been sealed. This is destroying the Church from within.
    It is a given that we sin. But those who draw the line, violate their vows and then walk away, must be held to account by more than simply waiting for the abandoned spouse to die before the Catholic Church welcomes the adulterous spouse, again, for another go at it.

    I do not understand what bloggers, like Elizabeth and so many, are not constantly in touch with each other, pounding ceaselessly upon the Church to address this fundamental injustice that is INTEGRAL to how things have been done in the Church
    for my lifetime. I am 56.

    Except for the reality of Christ having chosen this Church as His own, I do not see whyanyone would cling to her, as she is so utterly abusive to faithful, abandoned spouses(except in her very sick, sick mind). I am Catholic because of Christ alone.
    I would not be Catholic for what I see and experience in the Catholic Church.

  • Mark Shea

    I can certainly see why the dazzling success of our war in Iraq and our unending quest to build the Great Society in the Islamosphere, plus John McCain’s eager support for embryonic stem cell research and phony Come to Jesus maneuver on abortion are an excellent reason to suppose that the Catechism is just kidding about the gravity of the sin of masturbation and trust in the workings of the mighty machine of Dan’s intellect.

  • Mark Shea

    I can certainly see why the dazzling success of our war in Iraq and our unending quest to build the Great Society in the Islamosphere, plus John McCain’s eager support for embryonic stem cell research and phony Come to Jesus maneuver on abortion are an excellent reason to suppose that the Catechism is just kidding about the gravity of the sin of masturbation and trust in the workings of the mighty machine of Dan’s intellect.