According to the Roman Catholic Church, when it comes to sexual sins, there are no venial (minor) sins. This means that masturbation is placed at par with rape and adultery: this doesn’t make any sense to me. Moreover, if a married person masturbates while imagining a love session with one’s spouse, one is still guilty of mortal (serious) sin. How can thinking about the marital act be a serious sin while performing the actual act is not? How is one supposed to cease a lifetime of sexual activity, cold turkey, when one’s spouse dies or becomes disabled? Is one expected to find another spouse, at an old age, to save one’s soul? Furthermore, sin consists of being mean or unkind to others. How could one possibly be unkind to others if one simply masturbates alone? This article tries to sort out this doctrinal mess.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
“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 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.’ (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Persona Humana 9)” (¶ 2352, pp. 478–79)
Notice that the Catholic Church makes no reference to any biblical passage; it only quotes an internal document, Persona Humana, issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Now Catholics believe the Bible to be God’s revelation, and yet, they cannot find one biblical passage that clearly condemns masturbation. Nevertheless, the Church still declares it a mortal sin. The sad thing is that although both the Bible and the Church are not truth factories, if someone believes a certain action to be a mortal sin and still indulges in it, it still constitutes a mortal sin—albeit unnecessarily.
What makes this Catechism paragraph even shakier is the way it ends,
“To form an equitable judgement about the subject’s 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 or even extenuate moral culpability.” (¶ 2352, p. 479)
But this is always the case: God is always the real and final judge of everything. I thought, if it’s a mortal sin, it’s a mortal sin—period! Consequently, I tried to research some questions and answers to see is there is some kind of secret formula I was not aware of; here’s what I found:
Leading question-and-answer columnist Fr. John Dietzen’s book Catholic Q & A: Answers to the Most Common Questions about Catholicism has the following on masturbation:
“Question: Several years ago because of the incapacitation of my wife, our sex life was over. We still have a warm and loving marriage of over 30 years, but during the last few years I have fallen into the habit of masturbation. Because I was unable to control this, I no longer received the sacraments and then gradually stopped attending Mass. I despair of ever breaking this habit. Is there an answer for me?” (p. 322)
“Answer: I am sure there is. The details will have to be worked out gradually, but a most important part of the answer is to return to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. Where there is good will, as there obviously is in your letter, the life and grace available to us in these ways is valuable and powerful. I suggest you try to find a priest, a confessor, who is willing to take the time and give the attention to assist you. Several explanations are possible for your development of this habit. Considering your faith and your desire to live a good life, there is serious question about how deliberate, and therefore how sinful, such actions may be on your part. A kind and willing priest will help you sort this out. Be calm and peaceful about it, do the best you can, and trust that God knows where your heart is. I’m sure that with prayer, the Mass and the sacraments, you will find a way to deal with this that will give you peace of mind.” (p. 322)
What can a “confessor” say to him? If masturbation is a mortal sin, one cannot do it, period, no? What I think is the real situation, however, the Catholic Church, deep down, does not consider masturbation a mortal sin any longer, but it does not want to admit it: thereby retracting its past doctrine. In other words, for the church, masturbation is acceptable in private, through “pastoral” guidance, but the church will not dare declare a change in its past doctrine in public: a few generations need to pass by before it does that, so that people can forget somewhat past teachings. Meanwhile the faithful, in general, must keep on suffering—as historian Garry Wills contends in his book Papal Sin, “structures of deceit”!
Now, according to Wikipedia, “Roman Catholic (including Eastern Catholic), Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and some Protestant Christians consider masturbation to be a [mortal] sin. … [On the other hand,] the Church of England does not have a position on whether masturbation is a sin or not. … [And,] the United Methodist Church does not have an official position on masturbation”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_on_masturbation. So, all those Christian denominations that condemn masturbation have no biblical backing for such a stance: in effect, therefore, they are sending people to hell on their own responsibility: they are, in fact, doing more harm than good by their instructions—even following their own moral rules. This article tries to remedy this by making one think for oneself.
Wikipedia continues, “The biblical story of Onan (Genesis 38:6–10) is traditionally linked to referring to masturbation and condemnation thereof, but the sexual act described by this story is coitus interruptus [interrupted intercourse], not masturbation. There is no explicit claim in the Bible that masturbation is sinful.”
Onan’s account goes as follows.
“Judah [the fourth of the twelve sons (tribes) of patriarch Jacob] took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar. And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him. And Judah said unto Onan, ‘Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.’ And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it [the semen] on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.” (Genesis 38:6–10, KJV)
As Wikipedia explains,
“A constant of the ‘prescientific mind’ to consider that the child is contained in the sperm the same way a plant is contained in its seed, and masturbation as well as homosexual acts by men have been condemned more strongly than same acts by women in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
In other words, the woman’s role was thought to be only as the ground where the seed is planted; so, female masturbation is not even hinted at in the Bible. This might explain why men were somewhat reluctant to spill their seed outside a woman’s vagina. And this is probably why we have a ‘paternal,’ rather than a ‘maternal,’ society; despite the obvious fact that it is much easier to track the mother of a child than the father.
Despite all this, it is quite clear that the Bible does not condemn the spilling of male semen/seed as such because in Leviticus, we read,
“If any man’s seed of copulation go out from him [through nocturnal emission or masturbation], then he shall wash all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the even [evening]. And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the seed of copulation, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even. The woman also with whom man shall lie [have intercourse] with seed of copulation, they shall both bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the even.” (Leviticus 15:16–18, KJV)
In other words, nocturnal emissions (wet dreams) or masturbation only causes ritual uncleanness for a day. This is the worst case scenario; that is, if one believes that the Bible is God’s word. If, like me, one doesn’t believe the Bible is God’s word, then one has to resort to one’s own reason.
However, someone might still argue that Matthew portrays Jesus saying,
“But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28, KJV)
Admittedly, this puts a damper on ogling at women and subsequent masturbation; still, one must interpret this verse in its proper context. In the very next couple of verses, Matthew also portrays Jesus saying,
“If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna (NAB)]. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna (NAB)].” (Matthew 5:29–30, JKV)
Nobody takes these verses literally. Why not? Jesus thought that the ‘kingdom of God’ would be in full bloom on this earth within his generation (see Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30 & Luke 21:32). He believed the coming of God’s kingdom would entail a new world order where everything would be perfect and God would reign supreme in our heart.
In his book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, author, journalist, political philosopher, and historian Garry Wills explains,
“These passages belong to that body of sayings that proclaims a transvaluation of all values at the arrival of the reign (basileia) of God [kingdom of God]. Thus we hear of a disciple having to hate his father and mother (Luke 14:26). … We hear you must give a bandit the things he forgot to ask for (Luke 6:29). … Unless Jesus was talking here about a clean break with the past order in provocative symbols, he was talking nonsense.” (p. 127)
Unfortunately, God’s kingdom was never established on earth: Jesus jumpstarted it but it stalled (see Acts 2:42–47). See my article on the “Kingdom of God/Heaven” for further details.
I concede that it’s not wise to use pornography while masturbating. However, releasing sexual tension, without lusting for anybody, is certainly not a sin; this is especially handy for an unmarried person, or if one’s spouse is unable or reluctant to accommodate: imagining a love session with one’s own spouse, therefore, is not sinful. Lusting for someone, especially if socially remote from us (e.g., a movie star), is still a venial (minor) sin, as long as it remains private: in other words, no attempt is made at seducing others: which can have devastating effects if accepted. Like anything else (e.g., food and drink) everything requires moderation. Naturally, sin starts with desire; so, if one becomes addicted to masturbation, one will eventually need to do something about it. However, as long as it remains private, it remains a venial sin. We must not jump the gun and make it a mortal sin before it becomes so.
Arguments against Masturbation
Wikipedia gives a couple of groundless historical arguments against masturbation:
(1) “John Wesley, founder of Methodism, as quoted by [pastor] Bryan C. Hodge, believed that ‘any waste of the semen in an unproductive sexual act, whether that should be in the form of masturbation or coitus interruptus, as in the case of Onan, destroyed the souls of the individuals who practice it.’ … Like his contemporaries, he believed that many people had become badly sick and even died because of ‘habitual masturbation.’ He argued that ‘nervous disorders, even madness, could be caused by another form of bodily excess—masturbation.’”
However, “One of the most prominent American evangelical leaders, James Dobson has stated: ‘The Bible says nothing about masturbation, so we don’t really know what God thinks about it. My opinion is that He doesn’t make a big issue of it. … Despite terrifying warnings given to young people historically, it does not cause blindness, weakness, mental retardation, or any other physical problem.’”
(2) “Some argue that masturbation is wrong on the basis of nature. … They argue that God did not design the human body and reproductive system to work in this manner, that God’s general revelation in nature condemns the practice. This is a tenuous argument at best. In fact, there is some evidence to the contrary. For example, many human beings learn to masturbate without ever having been taught it or having heard about it. It would seem to be their ‘natural’ impulse. Moreover, human beings are naturally equipped with the necessary body parts to accomplish masturbation (unlike most animals). It could be argued on these bases that it is natural. Moreover, most Protestants reject the idea that what is natural is necessarily what is good—especially in light of our ‘sin nature.’ This is simply a poor ground on which to base the argument against masturbation.”
Interestingly enough, “Another American Evangelical writer, James B. Nelson, notes in his book, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology, that ‘The physiological intensity typical in masturbatory orgasm frequently surpasses that of intercourse, and relational fantasies usually accompany the act in compensation for the absence of the partner,’ implying this is a gift from God for those who lack a spouse.”
May I therefore suggest that sexual desire is not a Trojan horse implanted in our body to constantly tempt us and humiliate us? Masturbation is God’s gift to humans, to enjoy whenever they feel like it: the same way we enjoy savoring our food three times a day.
Indeed, according to Church Father John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), “Sex is not evil; it is a gift from our God.” It was Augustine of Hippo (354–430), after he had had his fill of sex, and Jerome of Stridon (c. 342–420) who first made sex a taboo in Catholicism.
We must stop blackening the heart of our adolescents with imaginary sins: distancing them away from God from a very young age. To sin is to be mean or unkind to someone else: whatever one does alone, in one’s privacy, can hardly hurt someone else. And who’s to say that people never wish to be the object of fantasy of another person, anyway?
Dietzen, John J. Catholic Q & A: Answers to the Most Common Questions about Catholicism. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005. (ISBN: 0824523091)
Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Translated by Concacan Inc. Ottawa, ON: Publications Services, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1994. (ISBN: 0889972818)
New American Bible: Revised Edition. (NAB) Translated from the original languages, authorized by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and approved by the United States Confraternity of Catholic Bishops. Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2010. (ISBN: 9780899429519)
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Persona Humana: Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics (1975).
The Holy Bible: King James Version. (KJV) Oxford, UK, 1769.
Wikipedia, “Religious Views on Masturbation”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_on_masturbation; last edited January 22, 2023.
Wills, Garry. Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit. New York, NY. Image Books, 2001. (ISBN: 0385494114)
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