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Diversity of Roman Catholic beliefs about masturbation:

Part 2: Church Catechism.
Is masturbation a venial or a mortal sin?

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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Church Catechism:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) condemns masturbation in Part 3: "Life in Christ;" Section 2: "The Ten Commandments;" Article 6: "The Sixth Commandment;" Topic: "Offenses against chastity."

  • 2351: "Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes."

  • 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." 1

The reference to the Magistgerium's "constant tradition" of opposition to masturbation appears to conflict with Giovanni Cappelli's findings that the first mention of masturbation in Church documents dated to the sixth century CE about a half-millenium after Jesus' ministry.

It would appear that the CCC condemns all pleasure derived from genital stimulations, whether masturbation is continued until orgasm or not.

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Is masturbation a mortal sin or a venial sin?

The Roman Catholic Church divides sin into two categories: venial and mortal. Venial sin is relatively minor in nature. However, a single mortal sin can determine one's eternal destiny after death. The Church teaches that It causes a person to be separated from God. If not delt with properly, the individual will to spend eternity suffering in Hell which the church considers to be both a place and a state of existence. The church also teaches that there is no mechanism by which a mortal sin can be forgiven after a person dies.

However, the Church teaches that a person guilty of a mortal sin can confess it to a priest who may give the individual absolution from the sin. This is only possible if the penitent is truly sorry for their actions and sincerely plans to not repeat the sin.

Being a "grave moral disorder" and "an intrinsically and gravely disordered action" the Church teaches that even a single act of masturbation can theoretically send a person to Hell for all eternity. However, the Church does supply a degree of wiggle room. In order to be a mortal sin, two additional factors must be present:

  • The person must commit the act with full knowledge of the sin and of its seriousness.

  • "It must be committed with deliberate and complete consent." 2
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The second factor might lessen the severity of the sin to those who are addicted to masturbation. Its seriousness might not rise to the level of a mortal sin. Here, Catholic theologians have a range of interpretations:

  • Grace MacKinnon, a contributor to the Catholic Exchange, writes:

"The Church recognizes, for example, that in the practice of masturbation, psychological factors including adolescent immaturity, lack of psychological balance, and even ingrained habit can influence a person's behavior, and this could lessen or even eliminate moral responsibility....If they are in doubt about the morality of any sexual activity, a person should talk to his or her confessor, a priest. After listening to all of the circumstances and conditions surrounding an individual's actions, he will make a judgment and give the proper guidance." 3

  • Father Joseph Farraher writes:

"...for a person to be formally guilty of a mortal sin of masturbation his act must be a fully deliberate choice of what he fully realizes is seriously sinful....if there is no free choice of the will there is no guilt of sin at all even if the person is aware of what he is doing." 4

  • "Father Philip" at Catholic Q and A writes:

    "...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...."

    "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'..." 5

  • Father John Ruffo takes a much more liberal position:

    "The Church's official position on masturbation: 'The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.' That's a quote from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "

    "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." 6

    Father Ruffo did not discuss lesbians and gays who have a homosexual oriention. Presumably, he would accept the Church's teachings that a homosexual orientation is a disordered state, and that lesbians and gays are to remain without an intimate "relationship with another person" for the rest of their life. They must remain celibate and lonely forever.

  • Charles Curran, a moral theologian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, is the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values. He wrote:

    "Masturbation is ordinarily not that important a matter. There is no blanket gravity that can be assigned to every act of masturbation. Masturbatory activity is generally symptomatic . ... Masturbation might be expressive of a deep-seated inversion or just an adolescent growing-up process. Generally speaking I believe masturbation is wrong since it fails to integrate sexuality into the service of love. ... This wrongness is not always grave; in fact, more times it is not. ... Catholic educators should openly teach that masturbation is not always a grave matter and most times, especially for adolescents, is not that important. ... However, the teacher should not leave the adolescent with the impression that there is absolutely nothing wrong with masturbation."

  • Fr Seán Fagan, is an Irish moral theologian whose recent books "What Happened to Sin?" 7 and "Does Morality Change?" have been censured by the Vatican. In the former book, he wrote:

    "We face the specific problem in later marriage of impotence in the male, or medical indications in the female which rule out intercourse. Is self-relief or mutual masturbation acceptable and excusable in these circumstances? 'Traditional' morality would condemn such activity as mortal sin because it is not procreative in form. To fight it, however, is simply to increase the tension until it becomes unbearable and sleep becomes impossible. For the wife to satisfy herself can in fact increase her sense of well-being, enabling her to love and care all the more for her husband and family. Why should God condemn her for doing what is natural, using his gifts for her comfort and well-being? In fact, it can be said in general that where there are medical or other marital problems which make intercourse inadvisable or impossible, 'self-service' can be a natural release of sexual tension for both partners. Might the same not be said for those who have no spouse?"

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This topic is continued on the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Catechism of the Catholic Church: Part Three; Life in Christ," The Vatican, at: http://www.vatican.va/
  2. "Mortal Sin," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. Grace MacKinnon, "Is this a mortal sin?," Catholic Exchange, 2005-MAR-09, at: http://www.catholicexchange.com/
  4. John F. Harvey, "Morality of masturbatory activity," Courage, at: http://couragerc.net/
  5. Fr Philip, "Is masturbation a sin?", Catholic Q and A, 2002-NOV-01, at: http://www.catholicqanda.org/
  6. Fr John Ruffo, "What is church's stance on masturbation? Mortal sin in what circumstances?,"  Catholic Q and A, 2002-MAR-11, at: http://www.catholicqanda.org/
  7. Seán Fagan, "What Happened to Sin?" Columbia Press, (2009), Page 98. Read reviews or order this book.
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Copyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Expanded and rewritten: 2011-DEC-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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