In Which We Deal with a Delicate Subject

A reader writes:

I'm wondering if you could help me with a question about mortal sin. I recently learned that the Catechism teaches that masturbation, if done with full knowledge and consent, would count as a mortal sin. (I realize there are a few additional caveats.) Does this mean that masturbation is, in the eyes of the Church, on par with adultery? Or are some mortal sins worse than others? To my mind, adultery is a far more heinous offense, but perhaps I am missing something.

Sure, some mortal sins are worse than others. The notion of degrees of sin can be elaborated beyond the two basic categories of mortal and venial sin and sometimes this is useful, provided we do it in the right spirit (namely, that of charity). So, for instance, we can extend charity to the thief and say, “Well, at least he didn’t shoot his victims, but just left them bound and gagged” (by which we acknowledge that murder is a more serious sin than theft.) This is basically the reasoning that underlay Dante’s divisions of Hell into various circles, each one worse than the last. Similarly, he ranks the different sins being purged on Mount Purgatory from the most to the least grave. Pride is the worst followed by envy and anger, because all these are spiritual sins that corrupt more deeply than the sins of the flesh. Interestingly, the one that modernity focuses all its energy on—lust—has typically been regarded as the least of the seven deadlies (though that’s like saying “Mercury poisoning doesn’t kill you as quick as a bullet to the brain.”) Just as we understand that there are different degrees and kinds of beatitude (so that, as Jesus taught, the apostles were to be accorded special honors to sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel and, as the Church teaches, Mary is the greatest of all the saints), so there are different degrees and kinds of damnable offenses.

But of course, it is also possible to exploit all this distinction-making in the wrong spirit too, as the Guardhouse Lawyer Catholic does when he tells himself “Hey! It’s just a venial sin, so it’s not really a sin at all compared to serious sin like the stuff That Guy Over There does.” Thinking that way can lead people to justify all kinds of sins (typically starting with venial ones and leading on to mortal ones) with the excuse that “As long as I don’t do [insert despised mortal sin here] then I’m not really a sinner sinner, but just an adorable rogue with a few charming foibles.” No doubt those in the upper circles of Hell gloat over those in the lower circles in just such a manner.

In reality, of course, the trick is to stay out of Hell completely, not to find the least uncomfortable spot. So I think that, as a general rule, trying to rank mortal sins according to gravity, while it may be useful in extending charity to others, is probably best avoided in one’s own case. I think the impulse to try to figure out where one’s own grave sins go on the hierarchy of mortal sins is usually pernicious and an introduction to rationalization. If one realizes one is committing a grave sin, our first impulse should not be, “Yeah, but is it as bad as this other sin over here that I’m not committing?” Rather, one should think, “Okay, how do I tackle this sin and free myself from it by the grace of God?”

That said, it is worth noting a few things about the specific sin of masturbation my reader references. First, of course, is the fact that his is not the first somewhat incredulous reaction to this teaching. When most folk run across it for the first time it can be a shock, since it seems (to our culture) like the matter of masturbation is so trivial that to talk of mortal sin in connection with it is (they suppose), surely some sort of holdover reaction from the Dark Ages. In a world full of war, rape, pillage and murder, how can anybody take seriously the notion that this seeming triviality is a sin as capable as adultery or murder are of sending somebody to Hell if unrepented?

Yet, from the logic of divine charity and, in particular, the theology of the sacrament of marriage, the Church’s teaching about the gravity of masturbation makes perfect sense. Indeed, I would note that it can (not must, but can) be argued that it is, in fact, graver than adultery. After all, which sin—adultery or masturbation—at least involves the disordered love of another person and so participates, to that degree, in divine love (albeit, I repeat, in a radically disordered way)? Answer: adultery. With masturbation, even disordered love of another person is totally excluded. It is a much more purely selfish sin, reducing the core act of marriage to something ordered completely toward one’s own appetite with no love for any other human being involved at all.

One can, not without reason, still find it difficult to avoid the opposite conclusion: that adultery is far more damaging to a spouse and to a marriage than masturbation. You can argue (as an acquaintance of mine did) that, “If masturbation is selfishness, adultery is downright betrayal—just as an elected official who sells government secrets to the enemy is worse than an elected official who pursues self-interest (i.e. almost all of them) over the common good.”

However, for my part I’m not convinced that adultery is like selling secrets to the enemy (which is just another form of self-interest: namely monetary gain). On the contrary, adultery is typically rooted in the (subjectively) sincere love of the Other Woman or Other Man, not in pure self-interest and appetite. Indeed the older sort of adulterer will (like many mortal sinners) often manage to convince himself that he is being “courageous” (a very common trope among those doing grave evil) on behalf ofThe Woman I Love”. He strikes a brave and romantic pose and says, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right” He fancies himself a martyr to love.

In contrast, the newer sort of narcissist such as the pathetically self-obsessed Woody Allen doesn’t even attempt that. He simply voices chemically pure selfishness: “The heart wants what it wants.” Not surprisingly, Allen likewise offers the ringing defense of masturbation as “sex with someone I love”—which pretty much sums up the deep (and banal) evil of the thing.

If you want to transpose the evil of this perversion of marriage to the indulgence of another sort of appetite excluding all communion with other persons, then transpose it to another sacrament: the Eucharist. Think of it as analogous to guzzling the consecrated blood to the last drop and leaving nothing for anyone else. Imagine it as breaking open the tabernacle to wolf down the last particle of Eucharist. Blasphemous desecration of the sacrament, you say? Yeah, that’s kind of the point.

The trick, of course, is to communicate this, not in such a way as to terrify scrupulous people or unnecessarily enrage licentious ones, but to get people to see what the Church is trying to guard: namely, the joy of mutually self-donating marital love which is one of our great icons of and sacramental participations in the union of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church. Seeing this, those who are in the thrall of this particular sin can, with the help of grace, begin to overcome it and step out of their loneliness in the hope of the love of marriage or of the still higher state of consecrated virginity, which are both ordered to love and communion with God and neighbor in exactly the way masturbation is not.

Of course, precisely because most people in our culture have no idea about the Church’s teaching on masturbation, the culpability for the sin is greatly reduced if not eliminated altogether in many, if not most cases.

The Catechism walks the tightrope of emphasizing the gravity of the sin while acknowledging that most people are clueless about it this way:

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. CCC 2352

You need three things for a mortal sin: grave matter, knowledge of the sin’s gravity, and consent of the will. Most people have no idea what the Church teaches concerning masturbation, or have the notion “that went out with Vatican II” or have even had their heads filled with therapeutic TV bafflegab about how “everybody does it and it’s a healthy form of release.” So “sufficient knowledge” of the gravity of the sin is a pretty dicey proposition in our Oprahfied culture (and, in any case, it is not, thank God, ours to adjudicate our neighbor's sins anyway). Also, exactly because most people are ignorant about the gravity of the sin, it is quite possible that even when they discover it is gravely sinful and concede that Church is right, they may now be so addicted to old habit that, even with their now-sufficient knowledge, a person may lack sufficient freedom to be able to break the addiction immediately. All of which is to say, mercy is very much in order here as with all sin.

At the same time, lack of culpability does not mean lack of consequences, as every confused driver who has ever driven onto the freeway via the exit ramp can tell you (if they survive the head-on collision with Reality). So here. Masturbation (like the other sexual sins the Catechism mentions) trains the soul in habits of selfishness which are hard to break and damaging to our capacity to create healthy relationships. It does this regardless of our culpability just as smoking causes cancer even in the 1930s when everybody is telling you it “relaxes the throat”. That smokers in the 30s did not know any better did not reduce the destructive effects of smoking. Hence, education, not ignorance, is bliss.

As with all sins, the Church urges us to seek the mercy, grace and love of God and warns us against both presumption and despair and, as with all sins (but especially sexual ones), the Church understands that there is often a quality of addiction at work. People often respond to the discovery that masturbation is grave matter for sin with either despair or fury: both of which assume that the Church is asking the unreasonable and the impossible. Combine that with the common presumption that she is asking the unreasonable and impossible about the trivial and that explains most of the anger. But this merely emotional reaction doesn’t face the real problem, which is that the sin nonetheless roots in the soul a vice radically contrary to love. That is why it is sinister and the Church needs to be heeded and the grace of God sought to confront it.

It scarcely need be said that the nature of this particular sin is such that almost the only discussion of masturbation will arise for the average person is

a) when (as my reader did) we read about it in some book of Catholic teaching and are astonished to discover it is considered a grave sin (and then, as here, have to puzzle out why); and/or,

b) when we encounter the sin in ourselves.

For, of course, we are unlikely to encounter it in our neighbor since a perfectly understandable shroud of discreet silence covers the matter. It’s never discussed in the pulpit since Mass is rated “G”. It usually doesn’t come up (or is swiftly glided past) in RCIA, Confirmation class, marriage prep, or any other adult ed forum in your average parish because… you know, ick! Indeed, the curious thing is that the Catholic media chatters all the livelong day about the Pelvic Issues—with one exception. Abortion, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and pornography—heck! even polygamy is an up-and-comer as a topic for conversation in the Catholic press what with the popularity of Big Love and the growing prominence of Islam. We even see the occasional story about incest when some insane academic tries to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge with the claim that these are “sexual orientations” as normal as daisies in spring. And pedophilia, alas!, we must still hear about due to the awful crimes of some of our clergy.

Yet for some reason we remain oddly reluctant to discuss this one peculiar form of disordered appetite. That’s why I suspect you, like me, are having trouble remembering the last time we read a discussion about it in the Catholic press or in catechetical circles. To put it plainly, everybody feels awkward talking about it and so we are unlikely to encounter the subject in polite society—which is why that passage from the Catechism retains the power to surprise people: it just never gets mentioned so nobody expects it till they stumble over it as my reader did.

That said, we may now and then be confronted with this sin in the lives of others. For instance, on rare occasions, it may happen that some close friend feels compelled to confide the inmost details of his or her sex life, precisely because he or she is seeking prayer and moral support in dealing with this sin. Or it might conceivably be that this sin is troubling a marriage and a spouse comes to us seeking help in bearing the burden of their struggle and turns to us for solace or counsel. If so, prayer and gentleness are the first order of business, it seems to me, given that the very fact they are talking about this betokens a penitent heart that seeks to do the right thing or a compassionate heart that seeks to help a spouse in the grip of sin (though I would be extremely cautious if a troubled spouse seeks the solace of a friend of the opposite sex in such a trial, since that is an open door for catastrophe).

Naturally, the best place to turn with this or any other sin is to the confessional for the grace to change and the mercy one needs to confront the problem in a safe place, coupled with persistent and frequent recourse to the Eucharist and the help, prayers and support of trusted friends and family. Also, a spiritual director or good Catholic therapist can be invaluable in helping to get to the root of the problem (which will always turn out to be some disordered pursuit of a real Good). Finding the rightly ordered way to pursue that Good is the essence of spiritual healing and will always bring peace.

Copyright 2011 - Mark P. Shea