Roman Catholic teaching on masturbation – part 1

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “in fact 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 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.” [CDF, Persona Humana, IX; inner quote from Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, n. 51.]

The Magisterium teaches that masturbation is an intrinsically evil and gravely immoral act. An act is intrinsically evil only when it has an evil moral object. The moral object in the case of masturbation is the deliberate use of the sexual faculty without the marital, unitive, or procreative meanings. In moral terms, the sin of masturbation is much like all the other intrinsically evil sexual sins. They each lack one or more of the three meanings intended by God for sexual acts.

Since acts of masturbation are intrinsically evil, such acts are never justified by intention (purpose) or circumstances. Therefore, masturbation cannot morally be used for the purpose of obtaining a specimen for medical analysis. Neither does an act of masturbation become moral by association with an act of natural marital relations. Whether this act is committed on one’s self or on another person (also called manipulate sex), the act is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. The good end of natural marital relations does not justify the evil means of masturbation (or manipulative sex). All such acts remain intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of whether these acts occur in marriage or out of marriage, regardless of whether these acts occur before, during, or after an act of natural marital relations, and regardless of whether or not sexual climax occurs.

Masturbation is intrinsically evil for the same reason that other illicit sexual acts are intrinsically evil: because the act does not have all three goods required by the moral law in its moral object: the procreative, marital, and unitive meanings. The absence of sexual climax does not add the unitive, or procreative, or marital meaning to an intrinsically evil sexual act. The commission of an act of natural marital relations before, during, or after an act of masturbation (or other illicit sexual act) does not change the moral object of that illicit sexual act. Therefore, even within marriage, the act of masturbation, whether on one’s self or one one’s spouse, with or without sexual climax, is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure.” [CCC, n. 2352.]

A sexual act is any deliberate use of the genital sexual faculty. The sin of masturbation includes a person stimulating himself or herself, or a person similarly stimulating another person. Although the Catechism states the usual purpose (intended end) of this sin, the purpose is in the first font, and the definition of every intrinsically evil act, in its inherent moral meaning, is in the second font. So even if a person were to use masturbation for another purpose, such as to obtain a sample for medical testing, or such as to prepare for natural marital relations, the act remains intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Intrinsically evil acts are always defined, in their essential moral nature, by their moral object, not by their purpose.

The intention to derive sexual pleasure is in the first font. The result called sexual climax is a consequence in the third font. Neither a change in intention nor a change in consequences has any effect on the moral object of an act. The absence of sexual climax, or the presence of a different intention, does not justify any act of masturbation, nor any other intrinsically evil sexual act.

The same reasoning applies to masturbation before, during, or after an act of natural marital relations. The purpose, in the first font, to facilitate the natural marital act, does not change the moral object, in the second font. The absence of sexual climax, in the third font, does not change the moral object, in the second font. The act itself of masturbation, whether of one’s self or of another person is intrinsically evil because of its moral object. Any deliberate sexual stimulation of the genitals by manipulation (or by devices, or by other means) is a use of the genital sexual faculty without the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings, and is intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. Such acts are not justified by any intention or circumstance, nor by any prior, concurrent, or subsequent act.

It is difficult to judge how widespread the sin of masturbation might be in the world today. This sin is probably widespread even among Catholic Christians. The sin of masturbation is often committed where no one can see. But Sacred Scripture has an insightful rebuke of this sin. For God not only created all things, He continues to behold all things, including sins committed in darkness, or behind walls and closed doors.

{23:22} A desirous soul is like a burning fire, it will not be quenched, until it devours something.
{23:23} And a man who is wicked in the desires of his flesh will not desist until he has kindled a fire.
{23:24} To a man of fornication, all bread is sweet; he will not tire of transgression, to the very end.
{23:25} Every man who transgresses his own bed has contempt for his own soul. And so he says: “Who can see me?
{23:26} Darkness surrounds me, and the walls enclose me, and no one catches sight of me. Whom should I fear? The Most High will not remember my offenses.”
{23:27} And he does not understand that God’s eye sees all things. For fear within a man such as this drives away from him both the fear of God and the eyes of those men who fear God.
{23:28} And he does not acknowledge that the eyes of the Lord are much brighter than the sun, keeping watch over all the ways of men, even to the depths of the abyss, and gazing into the hearts of men, even to the most hidden parts.
{23:29} For all things, before they were created, were known to the Lord God. And even after their completion, he beholds all things.

The sin of masturbation is an objective mortal sin. Some theologians are quick to claim a reduction in culpability, due to various psychological or social factors, to that of an actual venial sin. Now it is true that any objective mortal sin might be reduced, by any of the previously discussed factors that affect culpability, to an actual venial sin. This is particularly true for children, who might not have sufficient maturity or understanding to be able to give a true and full consent to sexual acts. Both full consent and full knowledge are required for an objective mortal sin to be also an actual mortal sin.

However, due to the natural law, and the clear definitive teaching of the Church, many persons (including youths) have sufficient understanding to know that masturbation is gravely immoral. And while psychological factors can reduce culpability, a minor reduction in culpability does not cause an objective mortal sin to be anything other than an actual mortal sin. Only a substantial reduction in the exercise of free will, or in the knowledge of the grave immorality of the act, can cause an objective mortal sin to be less than an actual mortal sin. Many sexual sins in the world today are not only objective mortal sins, but also actual mortal sins. For the world in which we live is very sinful.

[The above text is quoted from the Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 339.]

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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One Response to Roman Catholic teaching on masturbation – part 1

  1. Jonathan says:

    On the subject of masturbation modern psychology provides much valid and useful information for formulating a more equitable judgment on moral responsibility and for orienting pastoral action. 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 presumed; this would be to misunderstand people’s moral capacity.

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