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Let’s Talk About The Church’s Dirty Little Secret: Masturbation

The Catechism is clear:

2352 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.

2396 Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.

If masturbation, like “homosexual acts”, contraception and cohabitation is indeed “gravely disordered”, why is the Church not talking about it? (It’s not as though nobody does it.)

Masturbation by Klimt, drawing 1913

"Masturbation" by Klimt, drawing 1913 (Image via Wikipedia)

As always, let’s begin by considering some simple facts, the reality behind the theology.

It is widely known that to some degree or other, masturbation is widely practised by both men and women, of all ages, partnered or single, alone or with others, in all humans societies. It is also common in all animal species that have hands – and even some that do not (dolphins use their flippers).

The clear hostility of orthodox doctrine is not based directly on scripture, or on the teachings of the early Church Fathers.

A study by Giovanni Cappelli of the church’s stance on masturbation during the first millennium CE shows that:

  • The Bible is silent on the topic.
  • None of the Apostolic Fathers wrote about masturbation.
  • The first mention of masturbation within the Catholic Church is found in sixth century CE penitentials.

-Religious Tolerance

Later, Church opposition for many centuries was unequivocal, largely based on the writing of St Thomas Aquinas, who named it as one of the three classes of “sodomy”.

Yet other religions have a range of views. Some conservative Christians agree with Catholic doctrine that the practice is sinful.  Other Protestants, both liberal and evangelical, see it as morally neutral, or even as a suitable release to avoid more serious sin.

James Dobson, chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, a nonprofit Christian organization, considers it part of normal adolescent exploration and strongly urges parents not to shame their children over the act lest they have marital difficulties later because of shame over their sexuality….Dobson says fathers should urge their sons, if they masturbate, to imagine their future wife, and never some girl they may know.

Other faiths are also divided, with some branches of Islam merely restricting the practice during times of fasting, some reformist Jews recommending it in some circumstances, and the Hindu Kama Sutra advising on the best technique to follow.

In spite of Church claims that the “moral sense of the faithful” has no doubt on the matter, the overwhelming evidence from research is that ordinary Catholics simply do not agree with Church teaching on this.

Medical views long ago abandoned any claims that masturbation is harmful, unless practiced in excess.

The Catholic church has been curiously silent on the subject for years. All the references I have come across in Church documents seem to be based on quotes from the relevant section of the CDF document on human sexuality “Persona Humana“, which was released in 1975.

Now, let’s move on to some reflection. Why has the church been become so silent? Even when the US bishops released their document on sexual ethics earlier this year, reminding American Catholics once again of the moral gravity of contraception and cohabitation, there was no mention of masturbation. Informally, there has been some clear movement. I recall sitting in a parish “faith enquiry” evening, when the subject came up in question time. The parish priest replied unequivocally that modern theologians would see this as a “weakness”, and no longer as a sin. On another occasion, when I spoke of some sexual frustrations with my spiritual director (a senior man in his order, and with a doctorate in spirituality), he asked whether I had considered masturbation as a solution. (My reply? It’s not a very satisfactory substitute for a human interaction with another person).

This was the reply of another priest, to an on-line query at Catholic and and A:

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.

– Father John Ruffo, posted at Catholic Q and A

What of the clergy themselves? We known that a significant proportion of them, priests, bishops and cardinals alike, do not keep strictly to their vows of celibacy, and conduct sexual relationships with others, either furtively, or sometimes even more openly. What of the rest, who avoid sex with others. How many also avoid solitary pleasures? Or do they fall back on the advice of so many Protestant theologians, and accept self-stimulation as a way to avoid more serious temptation?

I suspect that there can be only two possible reasons for the continued institutional silence on the matter. The first is simple embarrassment: they know that they cannot defend a prohibition that they ignore themselves.

The second is far more intriguing. This is that my former parish priest and Fr Ruffo, quoted above, are right. Modern theologians have agreed that the old prohibition is unsound, and can no longer be defended. To say so though, would create untold difficulties. For the basis of the argument is that no genital activity outside marriage and ordered to procreation is acceptable, “Every sperm is sacred”. To accept some circumstances where masturbation is not sinful, also calls into question the implacable arguments against contraception, premarital sex, and homoerotic relationships.

When I was still teaching, the headteacher at one of one my schools regularly advised the staff to “Choose our battles”, to avoid taking a stand on issues we could not win. This, I think, is the key to understanding the present Church position on masturbation. They know that the traditional stance is a battle they can not win.

If that is so, perhaps that is all the more reason for us to take up the challenge instead. Perhaps progressive Catholics should be forcing a reasoned, public discussion. This is one battle where indeed, we can win.

(Originally posted at Queering the Church, 15th November)

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