I once had a professor who had converted from the Catholic Church to the Russian Orthodox Church. One of his complaints about the Catholic Church was what he called the “legalism” of her spiritual structure. Although I would not entirely agree with that assessment, I think the Church’s teachings on masturbation is a case of that “legalism”. Legalism to me is when Church teaching and theology become abstractly, intellectually and minutely divorced from the realities of human growth and behavior. A series of exact rules are created, the violation of which have certain and clear consequences for one’s soul. Call it Orthodox Judaism on steroids.
One of the things that is not considered permissible is masturbation. It considered a serious sin. Now, for those of you who are not Catholic, the Catholic Church divides sin into two categories: mortal and venial. Mortal sin is serious sin, which, if you die unrepentant, can lead to hell. For instance, murder is a mortal sin. Venial sin is a lesser sin, such a telling a white lie. You can die in sate of venial sin and still make it to heaven, after of course many eons undergoing the cleansing fires of purgatory. Read Dante for more details on that. According to the Church, any act of masturbation, conducted with full, free consent of the will, and complete knowledge of the sin, is a mortal sin, and as I said a mortal sin, unless you confess it, is a one way ticket to hell. I am not embellishing this: according to the Church, if you die in a state of mortal sin, unrepentant, you will go to hell. No questions asked. Case open and closed. God is a stern judge. Now perhaps there is a certain justice to that for those who commit serious sin and die without repenting, but the question is what constitutes a serious, or mortal sin. Does masturbation?
So what does the Church actually say about masturbation? Two examples will suffice.
Popes speak with authority on these types of issues and in 1975 Pope Paul VI published a declaration on human sexuality called: “Persona Humana – Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics”. When it came to masturbation he stated: “Masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder…” and, “Masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act.”
Even more authoritative than Pope Paul’s statements is The Catechism of the Catholic Church. For those of you who are not Catholic, the Catechism is a book which outlines in detail the theology and teachings of the Church, and what constitutes sinful acts. The Catechism states (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.”
So now lets apply these teachings to the every day lives of flesh and blood humans such as myself who want to have a spiritual life without becoming sexual neurotics obsessed over what is and what is not sexual sin and might cause you to be eternally damned by God.
So, does the phrase “deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure” mean that if I am sleeping, and wake up with a hard on, while lying on my stomach, and that feels good, and I lay there for a few seconds because it feels good, that I have committed a mortal sin and am now going to hell, to spend all eternity being tortured by lusty little devils? Yeah, it feels good when I am aroused. Why is that a mortal sin to pleasure oneself? Why is it even wrong at all? Why did God give me such easy access to sexual pleasure? Only to send me to hell for enjoying it a little bit?
Now I am not here to bash the Church. As a Catholic, I love the Church and I need the spiritual structure the Church offers me. The entire sacramental system is appealing to me. The contemplative mysticism inherent in Catholicism is intoxicating for me, and leads me to a deeper relationship with God. I believe that the Church is the body of Christ and the ultimate instrument leading us to Him and salvation. However, on this one issue of masturbation, I have serious qualms.
Why is something which is so common, which is practiced by so many people, both men and women, and used as form of pleasure and sexual release, sinful? Why is it an “intrinsically and gravely disordered action?” I just don’t believe it. Why is it mortal sin, a sin which leads to the death of the soul? Is this comparable to murder, stealing, lying, cheating or abuse of others? Sure, I can see where masturbation can become a problem in people’s lives, especially if it is used as a substitute for real relationships, or even worse, as substitute for sex within marriage if you are married, but beyond that, I don’t see why it is such a problem. Most men masturbate, and many women do, at least at some point in their lives. Yet there is such a divide between what the Church teaches and what people actually do. Does not this divide have the potential to distract people from the essence of Christianity, namely, following Christ? If someone is obsessing over something as minor as masturbation, as I have known many to do, constantly going back and forth in an endless cycle of pleasure and guilt, sin and repentance and then returning to the pleasure and guilt soon afterward, is this not bad? I have known many people who have lost their faith over these issues and struggles. I mean, most serious or mortal sins are not things that people cycle in and out of. Usually they are simply bad, and are recognized by most, if not all, of society as being seriously wrong and harmful. Yet masturbation is a mortal sin under certain circumstances. As a matter of fact, all sexual pleasure outside the bond of marriage, and (within the bond of marriage) which does not have the potential for procreation, is considered a mortal sin by the Church. This is the kind of legalism which I think can be dangerous for one’s faith, and for spirituality in general. It can become, like the law, a cold, punitive system which instills fear more than anything else in people. It seems more like a system created by cool, sexually repressed intellectuals devoid of true spirituality, rather than something that reflects the mystery, magnificence and ultimately incomprehensible nature of God. It seems so divorced from the reality of who we are as humans, as creations of God, and that is sexual creatures who long for intimacy with others, who long for love and yet who may not always be in a position of marriage to express that love or enjoyment or even simple sexual release.
Christianity in general is more restrained than the culture around us when it comes to sexual matters, this is simply part of following Christ. I believe this is a good thing, a counter witness to the decadence of much of modern society. But does this restraint have to include an complete prohibition on masturbation. Sure, I can see the problems and sinfulness of fornication. This often constitutes the abuse of others, lying and manipulation, pain and heartbreak and unwanted pregnancy and children. Just look at the ugliness and nihilism of the PUA world to see the destructive, corrosive nature of unbridled sex, sex for mere conquest by men, or sex used as a form of self validation by women (and men). But masturbation? There are many thoughts on this subject, and, despite the official teachings of the Church, there seems to be no clear consensus about this among theologians and priests, those working with people out in the world. Some say it is always a mortal sin, others say it is not a serious sin at all, still others try to take the middle position, which is sort of where I stand on this.
For me I have to take what Fr. John Ruffo said: “What is the Church’s stance on masturbation? Mortal sin in what circumstances?,” Catholic Q and A, 2002-MAR-11, http://www.catholicqanda.org/ He states:
“Can masturbation be sinful? 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. Modern moral theologians tell us that masturbation is a normal part of one’s psychosexual development. Most people go through phases of masturbation, during adolescence, for example, individuals separated from their spouses in war time, the elderly, and others in unique situations of life. It’s hoped that individuals not become fixed or stuck in only this form of sexual expression, but rather develop a relationship with another person with whom one can express one’s own sexuality in an appropriate loving and intimate way.”
This is one of the most reasonable things I have read on masturbation. Yet this theologian would be condemned by the Church for saying it.
Again, I am not bashing the Church here. I am simply raising questions that have troubled me my entire life, for which I have never gotten a clear answer that seems consistent with the reality of the world I see around me, or my own personal experiences. I have seen too many people, good and conscientious people, fall away from belief in God, or following Christ, because of these legalisms regarding sexual behavior, and to me that is a great tragedy.