I was touched by a letter from a young man, struggling with the issue of masturbation and Catholic teaching. The letter gives no indication of his sexual orientation, and there is no reason to think that he is gay (or that he is not). His concerns however, are applicable to all Catholics, especially when young and vulnerable.
With his permission, I publish below his full letter, leaving out his name and geographic location, followed by my full reply.
Hi My Name is ……… , I am a catholic teenager who is wondering if the act of masturbation is still considered to be a sin. Also is it really considered to be gravely disordered and always morally wrong. I am 18 years old and I am somewhat late going through changes physically. I do believe that it is a natural way to find out about ones body and how it can be used . I have heard that it is not a sin but a natural and healthy thing to do. I have also heard that it is a sin. I have heard mixed reviews I have heard that a vast majority of both boys and girls do it. I can understand if one does it while thinking about other people then it is a sin but if one is doing it to get rid of old stuff then does it count as a sin. I have done it recently and I am going through puberty .There are no thoughts, images or fantasies involved. I do think that it is better then having a nocturnal emission and having to clean your underpants and to hide it so no one think that i wet the bed. I also believe that it is better to masturbate rather than waking up to find a sticky mess in my underpants which has happened to me and it was not fun. I don’t want to have to go to bed worrying about a mess in the morning. I have also heard that it can help reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Is it normal to feel confused about it after doing it. I am planning to talk to my parents and a priest to see what they think of it. If my parents say that it is natural and a normal thing to do does that mean it is alright to do. The only tricky thing is that I am not entirely sure how to approach the subject with them. I have mentioned it to my mother and she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. She said that it is better to do that than to be out having intercourse with girls. I haven t done it in 3 weeks and I feel conflicted over it I see both views on the issue and i am not sure.. I dont want to feel guilty for doing something that has been labelled natural and normal. I love and believe in god and want to know what the views are on it. I do not have any addiction whatsover I have very good control over myself . I am just a curious teenager wondering if masturbating is a sin or not .
(Where I live) the sexual education curriculum (for schools) mentions that masturbation is natural and normal. There is a part of me that really wants to do it as I feel it takes the edge off. I have heard that some catholic organizations are backing it. This leaves me confused if it is still considered to be a sin. I also believe that it is a crucial part of understanding how ones body works and learning about onself . I do find it a little hard to understand that we can somewhat accept the sexual orientation of people but people still consider touching ones genitals to be a sin.
Thank You God Bless
I’m a Catholic who is a lot older than you (now 63), and one who has wrestled with this question, and many others in Catholic sexual doctrines, for many decades.
The short answer to your very reasonable and important questions is – relax, don’t worry about it. (If I’d been told that 50 years ago, I would have been spared years of torment).
In terms of formal, stated teaching in the official documents of the Church, yes, masturbation is still considered a sin – but then, so are many other things, notably including contraception. But we know full well that the overwhelming majority of married Catholics worldwide, do in fact practice it, except when they actually want to start a family. What is more, we also know that they generally do so with the support of their priests and bishops, who acknowledge the importance of conscience in this matter.
You ask further, is it “always morally wrong?”. That answer is clear – definitely not. Even the Catechism states that there could be extenuating circumstances to consider:
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.(2352)
More pertinently, most priests would not be too concerned about the issue. When I raised it in a parish discussion group 20 years ago, my parish priest replied that no matter what the Catechism said, it is “no longer considered” a sin – not even what used to be called a venial sin. Rather, he said, it was seen as just a form of “weakness”. 20 years on, I’m not sure even that would hold.
You’re quite right – medical advice is that is not only harmless – – unless it becomes addictive – but could even offer some health benefits. It’s also true that the vast majority of people do it, men and women, married and unmarried.
You’re also right that there are good, sound, religious reasons to do it, in preference to alternative forms of sexual release. Beyond the Vatican documents, there are many theologians, Catholic and other, who would agree with your reasoning.
I’m impressed that you were brave enough to discuss this with your mother. I could never have done that at your age, nor even have thought about doing so. She’s not bothered. I would leave it there. Don’t even bother talking to a priest (unless he’s someone you already know well, and trust). He’s very likely to be supportive – but there are still some antiquated old school types who could give you a hard time. If he did, where would you be then?
Trust your own reasoning and conscience. Official Church teaching still says that masturbation is a sin – but it also says a number of other things you should be aware of, which I believe are more important.
First, it is absolutely clear that the prompting of conscience takes primacy over all else – even the dictates of a pope.
Also, the Catechism describes sexuality as an important part of our human make – up, which must be fully integrated into our personalities.
Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. (2333)
Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.(2337)
Getting to know our bodies, and our sexual feelings, is part of that integration process.
And for me, this is key: there exists an important principle of the “sensus fidelium” (also known as “sensus fideii”), or “sense of the faithful”, which holds that any formal doctrine which is not “accepted” or “received” by the people of the Church as a whole, simply cannot be considered to be valid. The full implications of that in practice, are complicated (it’s not just a matter of taking an opinion poll). What is abundantly clear though, is that the overwhelming majority of Catholics clearly have not accepted the whole of Catholic teaching on sexual matters. I’ve also seen estimates that the majority of professional Catholic theologians believe that the entire structure of sexual doctrine needs extensive revision.
My bottom – line advice is, don’t bother with what the Catechism says in this respect. Your own reasoning is perfectly sound, and the overwhelming majority of Catholics, including priests, would agree with you.
The only caution I would add, is don’t overdo it.
Go ahead. Get to know your body, explore your sexuality and integrate it into your personality. That’s one of the good things that the Catechism commands.
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