Topic: Is masturbation a sin?
Date originally posted: December 1, 2002
Source of this posting: Moderator response to emailed question
Moderator who originally posted this source: Father Phillip
Question: I have a problem with your answer regarding masturbation. Your answer suggests that masturbation is not an act which should be considered a serious sin, and that it does not pose a problem to a person's development as a Catholic. Your answer regarding the Church's stance on masturbation states that 'I think the only time masturbation could be considered seriously sinful is if someone is using this activity to avoid one’s obligations to one’s spouse.' This answer is absurd, and is contradictory to all Catholic teachings regarding this matter. Masturbation is a serious mortal sin, and is not acceptable in any circumstances. The fact that lust is such an integral part of masturbation exemplifies the serious nature of this sin. I believe you need to review the teachings of the Catholic church, and not take sake a light-hearted view on this matter. I am surprised that this answer has not provoked any internal disciplinary action. From Vincent Murphy
Thank you very
much, Vincent, for your comment regarding masturbation.
From the profile that you kindly filled out in order to post your comment on the CatholicQandA.org website, I see that you are a male undergraduate student in Australia. How wonderful that the Lord is using this web-based ministry to reach people in all the hemispheres!
Let me assure you that neither I nor any of my colleagues in Catholic Campus Ministry take a "light-hearted view on" the matter of masturbation. We are confident that the Lord, our loving God, is generously and compassionately at work in our discussions with you and with other males who, like you, are between the ages of 18 and 22, and for whom this topic is of great significance in their (and your) moral life.
As you continue to grow in your experience of the God Whom Jesus reveals and as your continue to allow God to form your conscience in accord with the mind of Holy Church, I will certainly keep you in my prayers...and I would beg that you remember me and my colleagues in yours!
The "Cathechism of the Catholic Church" is a magnificent resource which the Holy Father, in his wisdom, has caused to be available to us, and I would direct your prayerful reflection to it on this topic (and others) as a wonderful point-of-departure for the on-going faithful formation of your conscience.
Specifically, look at "Catechism" paragraph 2352. Online you can access this paragraph at the following website: http://www.christusrex.org/www1/CDHN/sixth.html
But for your convenience, please allow me to quote the paragraph in its entirety here:
"2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. 'Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.' 'The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.' For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of 'the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.'
"To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety, or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability."
According to the teaching of the Church, sin has both an objective and a subjective dimension. In the objective moral order the Catholic Church teaches, in the words of the "Catechism," that masturbation "is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."
As paragraph 2352 goes on to point out, an act of masturbation must be considered in light of "the subject's moral responsibility...[taking] into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety, or other psychological or social factors...." That is to say, in order to "form an equitable judgment" about whether a particular act of masturbation constitutes grave sin, a priest or other person must consider all of those subjective elements which may "lessen or even extenuate moral culpability" on the part of the individual who has masturbated.
Only when an objectively wrong action (as masturbation is clearly defined by the "Catechism") is accompanied by a knowing subject's consent of the will, without any of the potentially extenuating circumstances identified by the "Catechism", can we, as good Catholics, say positively that the action in question is "a serious mortal sin" (in the words you used in your comment) for which the person is morally culpable.
Obviously, a careful, prayerful, and thorough reading of the "Catechism" leads us to conclude that masturbation can be a "serious mortal sin", but we must also admit that the "Catechism" foresees situations in which masturbation may not be "a serious mortal sin."
Circumstances that range from "affective immaturity" to the "force of acquired habit" to psychological factors such as anxiety and even to "social factors" can mitigate a person's moral culpability if she/he performs the objectively disordered act of masturbation. In such a case, the "Catechism" is insistent that masturbation would not be "a serious mortal sin" because of any one of those extenuating reasons.
To be sure, neither I nor my colleagues in Catholic Campus Ministry would encourage anybody to masturbate. The teaching of the Church is explicit on this topic, and therefore, we would not encourage something the Church says is "disordered."
At the same time, though, faithfully teaching what the Church actually teaches calls me and my colleagues in Catholic Campus Ministry to recognize the Church's wisdom and God's grace in saying that masturbation is not always and in every case gravely sinful.
Relatedly, you say in your comment that masturbation "is not acceptable in any circumstances." Of course, the import of your remark hinges on the meaning of the word "acceptable," I suppose. As I said above neither I nor any of my colleagues in Catholic Campus Ministry would encourage a person to masturbate, and so, in that sense we would never find masturbation "acceptable."
But when your phrase is read in its larger context, i.e., in the full sentence, it's meaning becomes problematic for me. You wrote, "Masturbation is a serious mortal sin, and is not acceptable in any circumstances."
As the "Catechsim of the Catholic Church" makes clear, masturbation may not be a "mortal sin" if the extenuating circumstances identified in the "Catechism" are found, by a competent moral guide, who has a well-formed conscience, to be present in the life of one who has masturbated. In such a situation the objectively disordered action of masturbation, while not "acceptable," can hardly be considered a "serious mortal sin" as the first part of your formulation would seem to require. The implied equivalency between "serious mortal sin" and "not acceptable in any circumstances" raise not only pastoral but also theological problems for me.
A final remark on the words you chose to use. The traditional distinction in Catholic moral theology -- based on the teaching of Sacred Scripture (I John 5:16-17) -- is that some sin is "mortal" and all other sin is "venial." I think most Catholic moral theologians would agree that within the broad category of "venial" sin degrees of relative sinfulness or severity of sin exist. But I have never heard a Catholic moral theologian talk seriously about 'gradations' within the category of "mortal" sin. The very term itself means sin which causes death. One thing really cannot be "more" dead than another dead thing. So, the words in your comment, "a serious mortal sin" are, actually, redundant, I think: ALL mortal sin is serious; one mortal sin is as serious as any other truly mortal sin.
Again, I want to thank you for writing to www.CatholicQandA.org. I am grateful to God that in places around the globe young Catholic men are thinking and praying about the proper use of the gift of their sexuality. That, surely, is cause for rejoicing.
As a dear and wonderful friend of mine, a nun who has worn the habit of her order for more than 60 years, would always say to me...and as I say to you, "Go gently, especially with yourself!"