February 6, 2016

On Masturbation

I received a message via the contact form, and given that it touches upon an issue that arises with some frequency in confession, and which probably touches the consciences of many of the faithful who try to live chastely according to their state of life (whether in marriage or in the single or consecrated life), I thought I would answer in a post rather than privately.

Here's the message, with the personal details removed, of course:
I just have a serious question about our faith which needs a clear answer. I believe that you can help me reflect and understand what is really true. I am now...years old and I am still struggling with masturbation. I have tried many times to get rid of it. For the record, I was able to stop it for 8 months. However, there came a time that I can't resist it anymore. Honestly, it feels so natural but a voice in my head says its wrong. I am really confused if its a sin or not? This is a hard battle.

On this question the Catechism is clear and very helpful:
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, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.
The first paragraph makes clear that masturbation is an "intrinsically and gravely disordered action." That is to say that as a behavior masturbation is ordered to our misery and unhappiness, and therefore, if committed willingly, would be a sin. Masturbation 'misses the mark' of the "total meaning of mutual self-giving" for which we were created as sexual creatures, and so is a misuse of ourselves that nourishes selfishness.

So, yes, masturbation is a sin. That is to say it is something that falls short of who we were created and are called to be, and tends toward our unhappiness both in this life and the next. But is it a serious sin?

Is a mortal sin? Or is it just a venial sin?

This is a serious question, because venial sin only injures the love of God within us, while mortal sin destroys it. Someone in a state of mortal sin risks the final loss of God that is hell and in the meantime cannot receive Holy Communion (or offer Mass, if he is a priest) without committing the compounding sin of sacrilege.

Let's review the conditions that must be met for a sin to be mortal: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." (Catechism, 1857) We have already established that masturbation is a grave matter in the quote from number 2352 above. Therefore, it seems that masturbation done with full knowledge that what one was doing was wrong, and with deliberate consent to the act, would be a mortal sin.

However, in a rather extraordinary way and for this sin in particular, the second part of number 2352 goes on to list those conditions that "lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability," that is to say those things that can interfere with and make defective the "deliberate consent" to the sin. These are "affective [emotional] immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors." For example, an attachment to a habit of masturbation may very well be more rooted in psychological issues than in moral failure.

Probably the editors of the Catechism had some experience in the confessional.

Therefore, according to the Magisterium of the Church, masturbation in itself is a gravely--that is to say seriously--disordered act, which in and of itself would make for a mortal sin. However, when it comes to the actual moral culpability of the individual, there are many factors by which the guilt can be reduced below, and even well below, what must be the case for a sin to be mortal.

In a few words, in and of itself masturbation is a serious sin, but in an individual situation there are many reasons why it is possibly--even probably--less so.

The Catechism says that this is a matter of an "equitable judgment" and something "to guide pastoral action." Therefore the best course of action for someone who is struggling with this sin is not to try to make a pastoral judgement for himself, but to find a patient confessor or spiritual director. Explain the situation and ask for advice and guidance for the struggle. It is in this context that particular questions can be worked out, such as how often to go to confession and whether or not to receive Holy Communion, identifying near occasions of sin, etc. This will ease the conscience. Don't be afraid to ask a confessor direct questions about these things, or for the "equitable judgement" of which the Catechism speaks. He was ordained for you. If a priest doesn't seem to take you seriously, find another one.

The key thing about any struggle with a sinful  habit is just that, to struggle. Even given all these considerations and the probability that a small percentage of acts of masturbation are mortally sinful, it's still a sin and worth struggling against for the sake of blessedness and peace in this life and the next. So be about the struggle. Do the detective work on yourself to find the occasions of sin, the times of the day or the week when you are vulnerable to temptation, the negative emotions that set you up for falls. Look for opportunities to treat others with chastity, that is to say according to their dignity as God's creatures and not according to any use they might have for you. Avoid, as much as is practical, the world's unchaste entertainments and advertising. Receive Holy Communion devoutly and know that in that sacrificed Body your soul is made clean in the righteousness of Christ. Go to confession regularly. Pray your rosary and ask Our Lady to pray for you for the grace of chastity. Read books that encourage chastity and give practical advice on obtaining it, like Benedict Groeschel's The Courage to be Chaste.

When dealing with sinful habits the real moral and spiritual danger is perhaps not the occasional slip or fall into the behavior, but giving into discouragement, despair, or the doubt that God's love is abiding that can lead to scruples. The question of being a Christian is not whether to be a 'saint' or a 'sinner,' but of deciding what kind of sinner you want to be; the sinner who lets sins lead to discouragement and an increasing selfishness, or the sort of sinner who allows the experience of sin to lead to humility and an abiding awareness of the immense mercy of God, a mercy which one can then radiate to others.

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