Masturbation: A Catholic Moral and Pastoral Approach by Dr. Paul Flaman

 Winter-Spring 2008 - Edition of a peer-reviewed article from an Issue of the Academic Journal "Fidelitas" of The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars

Masturbation: A Catholic Moral and Pastoral Approach
Dr. Paul Flaman

Prof. Flaman is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Edmonton,Alberta
"By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure," "which is not a part of sexual intercourse."1 As defined here masturbation is a "freely chosen act". It is distinguished from such things as involuntary "nocturnal emissions" and sexual arousal, as well as certain spontaneous behaviors of very young children and animals. This article focuses on solitary masturbation.2
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According to certain surveys most men and many women have masturbated during adolescence. These surveys do not always indicate how often this occurred, how the individuals felt about this, and whether they thought this behavior was good.3 It seems that a certain sense of shame is often associated with masturbation and that most people who have masturbated are reluctant to share about this. In any case, what many people do or have done, occasionally or frequently (consider, e.g., also lying and selfish actions), is not in itself a criterion for how they should behave or what is morally good.
There exist various psychological and ethical interpretations of masturbation. Psychological views range from seeing masturbation as a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young, and a healthy sexual outlet, especially for people who do not have the opportunity for regular intercourse, to seeing it as a complex behavior with various meanings depending on the individual's situation and motivation, etc., to seeing it as an unhealthy and unfulfilling counterfeit of loving intercourse. Ethical views range from seeing masturbation as always an objectively and seriously immoral act, although culpability can vary depending on the subject's moral awareness and freedom, to seeing it as an act that is sometimes immoral and sometimes moral depending on the meaning of the act in the situation or the proportion of premoral values and disvalues involved, to seeing it as a morally neutral or good act.4
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Catholic teaching holds that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act, although subjectively there may not always be serious fault. Concerning this the Vatican's 1975 Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics says:
...both the magisterium of the Church - in the course of a constant tradition - and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act. The main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting in this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely, the relationship which realizes "the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love." All deliberate exercise of sexuality must be reserved to this regular relationship. Even if it cannot be proved that Scripture condemns this sin by name, the tradition of the Church has rightly understood it to be condemned in the New Testament when the latter speaks of "impurity," "unchasteness" and other vices contrary to chastity and continence....
.... Psychology helps one to see how the immaturity of adolescence (which can sometimes persist after that age), psychological imbalance or habit can influence behavior, diminishing the deliberate character of the act and bringing about a situation whereby subjectively there may not always be serious fault. But, in general, the absence of serious responsibility must not be
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resumed; this would be to misunderstand people's moral capacity....5
In the rest of this article we will first of all consider some additional reasons why masturbation is a seriously disordered act, since this conclusion of Catholic teaching is often not appreciated today. I will then outline an appropriate educational and pastoral approach.
Catholic authors Lawler, Boyle and May concur with the judgment of authors teaching that masturbation is "an intrinsically and seriously disordered act". Referring to a number of sources, they say in part:
The Fathers of the Church, the medieval Scholastics, and all moral theologians until most recent times have been unanimous in condemning every deliberate act of masturbation as a serious violation of the virtue of chastity. This same teaching has been proposed by the magisterium of the Church from the time when it was discussed by Pope Leo IX in 1054 to the present....
.... Theologians have frequently cited certain key texts as witnesses to the scriptural condemnation of masturbation - for example, the Onan text in Genesis 38.8-10, or 1 Corinthians 6.9, where St. Paul lists among those who are excluded from the kingdom the malakoi or the "soft," or Romans 1.24, where he points out that those who reject God come to dishonor their own bodies.
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Contemporary scholarship points out that these texts do not unambiguously refer specifically to masturbation. But in condemning irresponsible uses of sex generally, Scripture certainly does include a condemnation of masturbation....
The Church has rightly understood Scripture to teach that genital activity should take place only within marriage in ways that rightly express marital love. From St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 4.1-5, 1 Corinthians 6.15-20) Christians have learned that their bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, that their flesh has become one with the flesh of Christ. Our genital organs, Christians have thus rightly concluded, are not playthings or tools that we are to employ simply for pleasure. Rather, they are integral to our persons, and our free choice to exercise our genital powers is thus to be in service of human persons and of the goods perfective of human persons. The goods to which sexual activity is ordered ... include procreation, marital friendship, and chaste self-possession. By respecting these goods when we use our genital powers, we honor the body that has, through baptism, become one body with Christ and a temple of his Spirit. When we do not respect these goods in our genital activity we act immorally, and we desecrate the temple of the Holy Spirit and abuse the body-person who has been purchased at such great price. It is this deeply biblical vision of human sexuality and of the human person that is at the heart of the Church's teaching on the immorality of masturbation.6
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Some other contemporary Catholic authors argue along similar lines. For example, Grisez says in part that, "...masturbators violate the good of marital communion by violating the body's capacity for self-giving...."7 With regard to the tendency for masturbation to quickly become a habit, and the premarital context, Quay says in part:
It is almost impossible for anyone enslaved to such a habit to enter into marriage positively and fruitfully because masturbation chops away, at their roots, the love, the outgoingness, the generosity, the openness to life and to responsibility that the true sexual act is meant to have.8
Some contemporary non-Catholic Christian authors also speak of certain serious problems with autoerotic or solitary masturbation. For example, Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke says in part:
Masturbation is as a rule regarded as offensive for the following reasons: First and above all because in masturbation sex is separated from the I-Thou relationship and thus loses its meaning as being the
expression and consummation of this fellowship. Second, because the sexual phantasy is no longer bound to a real partnership and therefore roves about vagrantly. Third, because as a rule the absence of this
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bond leads to physical and psychic extravagance. The ethically decisive thing is ... the personal situation that underlies the masturbation, the very invertedness which in the spiritual realm Luther called man's being turned in upon himself [incurvitas in se]. All acts which are centered not upon God and my neighbor but upon my own self are actualizations of sin....9
John and Paula Sandford speak of solitary masturbation as "idolatry". The person who masturbates "is using his body to find the release he should find in prayer to God."10
The above views which consider masturbation to be intrinsically disordered, or which at least consider autoerotic or solitary masturbation to be contrary to a properly ordered love, are consistent with the conclusions of my online book, Premarital Sex and Love (see endnote 1 below). Although Chapters 2-4 of that book do not focus on the issue of masturbation, the perspectives presented there on sex, marriage and love from the Bible, Christian tradition and Catholic teaching strongly support the view that deliberate autoerotic or solitary masturbation is not consistent with properly respecting God's wonderful plan for human sexuality and marriage. Deliberately masturbating is also not consistent with a holistic Christian anthropology, with a properly ordered love in which one finds fulfillment by sincerely giving oneself to God and others in love (see Ch. 5 of that book).

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My own conclusion is that masturbation is a kind of behavior that is always wrong to choose, and that those who think that it is morally neutral or good, or that it can sometimes be moral, are mistaken.11 Although pleasure or relief from tension and the like are not bad per se, one's seeking pleasure and relief from tension should always be subordinated to a properly ordered love of God and persons. This includes, among other things, always respecting God's 'spousal' and 'procreative' purposes for human sexuality, and personal goods such as the truth of the language of the human body, self-giving love and our great dignity as embodied persons. Personal goods or values including truth, self-giving love and the great dignity of persons are rooted in the nature of God and our human nature created in the image of God. One cannot choose to masturbate and properly respect God's purposes for human sexuality and these personal goods at the same time. Deliberate masturbation violates the virtue of chastity, the self-control related to sexuality required by a properly ordered love of God, oneself and others. It is contrary to the call to be holy, to grow in loving as Jesus, as God, loves. Deliberate masturbation is counterproductive to one's growing in an authentic communion of persons which includes God.12
An Appropriate Educational and Pastoral Approach
Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that "masturbation is an instrinsically and gravely immoral act", it also teaches in part:
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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 can lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.13
The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops' document on Human Sexuality summarizes a good educational and pastoral approach regarding the problem of masturbation. Concerning this it says in part: is valuable to consider that masturbation may be a symptom of underlying psychological and interpersonal difficulties that provoke a certain amount of tension that the person seeks to release through these actions. Pedagogical efforts and pastoral care should be focused on the development of the whole person, seeing these actions in context, seeking their underlying causes more than seeking to repress the actions in isolation.
In order to help an adolescent learner "to feel accepted in a communion of charity and freed from self-enclosure," a parent, teacher, or counselor "should undramatize masturbation and not reduce his or her esteem and benevolence" for the person. We encourage all educators and counselors to help those who masturbate to move toward better social integration, to be more open and interested in others, in order eventually to be free from this form of behavior. Thus, they will advance toward the kind of interpersonal love proper to mature affectivity. At the same time, we encourage people who struggle with
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masturbation "to have recourse to the recommended means of Christian asceticism, such as prayer and the sacraments, and to be involved in works of justice and charity."14
Speaking to young men in particular (although most of this can also be applied to others including young women), Fr. Robert Fox treats some of their common worries concerning masturbation and nocturnal emissions in a sensitive and caring manner. While a young man with a problem of deliberate masturbation must work at self-control with God's help, he should not become depressed if he falls in a moment of weakness, but pick himself up and "answer God's call back to confession." He should be confident that he can overcome this problem, even if it takes a few years, as thousands of men have overcome this problem. Understanding the cause can help overcome the problem, including any feelings such as depression, loneliness, and a sense of failure that may be associated with it. With regard to sacramental confession, "Jesus gave us this sacrament of His mercy because He knew our weakness and wanted to give us all the spiritual help we would need to become saints." If a Catholic has deliberately masturbated, normally he (or she) should go to confession before receiving Holy Communion:
Anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not ... receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, which includes the resolve to go to confession as soon as possible.15
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As an example of "a grave reason", Fox speaks of the case where one would be publicly admitting that one committed a mortal sin if he did not receive Holy Communion (e.g. a young man who goes to Mass with his family and had no opportunity for a priest to hear his confession first without exposing himself). The Church does not expect us to reveal our secret sins to anyone "except the priest and then only under the sacramental seal of the confessional." Fox explains that "perfect contrition" is "sorrow based on love of God
Who has been offended by the sin." If someone is in doubt whether he (or she) sinned seriously because he "acted moreimpulsively than with full deliberation," he may presume that he did not sin more than venially. "You need not stay away from Holy Communion because of a doubt." Fox describes a nocturnal emission or wet dream as "natural": "If he awakens during the process, he should do nothing to help or to hinder what nature is accomplishing. He should strive not to consent to sexual pleasure in his mind although he cannot deny that some pleasure may be experienced in his body."16
Pazhayampallil also presents some good insights and practical points with regard to masturbation. Among other things, he says:
Among the remedies that are suggested to overcome the vice of masturbation, practice of humility comes first.... Secondly, self discipline or mortification is necessary... A life of prayer is an indispensable means to preserve the virtue of chastity. A personal love of
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Jesus Christ and a tender devotion to Our Lady is also a guarantee for living a chaste life....
.... Self centredness often is the main cause of masturbation. The problem then can be solved only if one opens oneself to God and to one's neighbour. One should then do something in the way of doing some service to others.
There are also many physical aids ... such as a diet that is free from stimulants, airy, cool, hard bed, early and prompt rising in the morning, some kind of sports in the evening, some useful and enjoyable work, an interesting hobby undertaken, etc. One must avoid periods of solitude; one must keep busy with activities that demand the total attention. Plan deliberately to become physically tired by the end of the day so that sleep comes quickly and is deep.... When one experiences the urge, one should deliberately try to postpone the urge [for periods of five seconds at a time] .... the desire will eventually weaken and one will have gained a victory.
When temptations come, one could vividly represent to oneself some other good or indifferent object, thus one could divert one's attention away from the evil thought. Although turning to God in prayer may not be always effective in halting temptation, it serves as one of the surest proofs of one's not consenting to them because it is a direct act of the will choosing God against evil....
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Those who cannot sleep unless they cause pollution [deliberately masturbate] are not allowed to do so. They should consult a good conscientious doctor.17
A number of the principles presented in other parts of my online book on Premarital Sex and Love (see endnote 1) can also be helpful with regard to the issue of masturbation. See, for example, Ch. 1. "Making Good Choices"; Ch. 6.K regarding forgiveness, healing, and hope; and Ch. 9. "Counseling, Pastoral Action, Sex Education and Spirituality". A holistic Christian anthropology, which appreciates the basic created goodness of human sexuality, and considers sin in relation to redemption, following Jesus and transformation in Christ, is also needed to keep the whole issue of masturbation in proper perspective.(see Ch. 5)
1. The quotes are respectively from: the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] (New York: Doubleday, 1997), n. 2352; and Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle, and William E. May, Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation and Defense: Updated (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1996), 187. Note: This article is adapted from Ch. 8.A of my book Premarital Sex and Love: In the Light of Human Experience and Following Jesus [PSAL] which is published online: <>.
2. Cf. e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas, who says that nocturnal emission in itself is not a sin, for until they come under the control of reason first motions of sensuality have nothing sinful about them (his view regarding nocturnal emission as expressed in ST 2-2,154,5 is summarized in Ch. 3.C.3 of PSAL [see note 1 above] under "Fornication and Other Kinds of Lust"); and Germain Grisez, Living a Christian Life, Vol. 2 of The Way of the Lord Jesus (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1992), 649, note 189, who says with regard to masturbation as a "freely chosen act": "This act's outward similarity to animal behavior is as irrelevant to morality as is the similarity of a parent's deliberate infanticide to the behavior of an animal killing its own young." The Pontifical Council for the Family [PCF],
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"The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality", n. 69, Origins, 1 Feb. 1996, 541, says it is not "repressive" for parents to correct gently any instinctive habits of genital activity in their young children that could become sinful later. For a treatment of deliberate genital stimulation with a partner which is not part of sexual intercourse in the premarital situation see PSAL (see note 1), Ch. 8.B “Petting and the Proper Expression of Affection in Premarital Relationships”.
3. André Guindon, e.g., in The Sexual Language (Ottawa: The University of Ottawa Press, 1977), 251-2, presents some statistics on masturbation.
4. For a summary of a range of psychological and moral interpretations of masturbation, see, e.g., Vincent J. Genovesi, In Pursuit of Love: Catholic Morality and Human Sexuality (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1987), 302-18.
5. Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics Persona Humana [PH] by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1975), n. 9 (the quote within the quote is from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes [GS], n. 51). Cf. United States Catholic Conference of Bishops [USCC], Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning (Washington, D.C.: USCC, 1991), 62; CCC, n. 2352; and PCF (see note 2), n. 103. See also PSAL (see note 1), Ch. 5.A.3, the last 4 paragraphs, regarding the distinctions between material and formal sin, and natural desires, temptation to sin and committing sin; and Ch. 6.D regarding PH, nn. 9- 13.
6. Lawler, Boyle and May (see note 1), 187-9. 7. Grisez (see note 2), 651.
8. Paul M. Quay, S.J., The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality (Evanston, IL: Credo House Books, 1985), 69.
9. Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1964), 256. Thielicke does not speak of masturbation per se as intrinsically disordered. It seems that he focuses on the intention and circumstances, but overlooks the "object" which Catholic teaching considers the primary source of the morality of human acts: see CCC (see
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note 1), nn. 1749-61; and PSAL (see note 1), Ch. 6, note 14, and the response to proportionalism in Ch. 7.I.
10. John and Paula Sandford, The Transformation of the Inner Man (Tulsa: Victory House, Inc., 1982), 289.
11. Cf. PSAL (see note 1), Ch. 6.B with regard to premarital sexual intercourse also being a kind of act that is always wrong to choose, and Ch. 7.I regarding relativism, hedonism, situation ethics and proportionalism, and my responses to these. See also the responses to certain objections to Catholic teaching by Lawler, Boyle and May (see note 1), 189-95.
12. Cf. PSAL (see note 1), Ch. 6.A re: a fuller treatment of the virtue of chastity and Ch. 5. “Some Fundamental Elements of a Christian Anthropology with Respect to Sex, Marriage and love”. See also CCC (see note 1), nn. 2337-59 re: “The Vocation to Chastity”; and Jean Vanier, Man and Woman He Made Them (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 67-8.
13. CCC (see note 1), n. 2352. Cf. PH (see note 5), n. 9.
14. USCC (see note 5), 62-63, quoting from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education’s (CCE) 1983 document, Educational Guidance in Human Love, n. 100. Cf. also PCF (see note 2), n. 103, which says in part: "... adolescents should be helped to overcome manifestations of this disorder, which often express the inner conflicts of their age and in many cases a selfish vision of sexuality."
15. Codex Iuris Canonici, promulgated by the authority of Pope John Paul II (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983). The quotation in this article is from The Code of Canon Law: In English Translation (London: Collins Liturgical Publications, l983), canon 916.
16. Rev. Robert J. Fox, Charity, Morality, Sex, and Young People (Manassas: Trinity Communications, 1987), 79-87. See CCC (see note 1), nn. 1854-63, regarding mortal and venial sin. Regarding nocturnal emissions see also the reference to Aquinas in note 2 above.
17. Thomas Pazhayampallil, S.D.B., Pastoral Guide: Moral Canonical Liturgical (Bangalore, India: Kristu Jyothi College, 1977), 1080-4.