The full Catholic teaching on masturbation seems to be a secret to most people.
It is a challenging teaching.
But because this teaching calls us to live in a fully human way, it's good news!
"Is masturbation wrong?"
Yes. The Catholic teaching on masturbation says that masturbation is always morally wrong.
Sex is intended to be both an expression of love for your spouse, and a beautiful means of procreation.
Sex is so special, powerful, and valuable that it is properly used only within marriage. If you're not married, you should abstain from sexual activity.
I know: this is all very counter-cultural.
The truth sometimes is!
Sex is the ultimate gift husbands and wives can give: a total gift of self, body and soul. Sex is how you fulfill your wedding vows to love totally, freely, and completely. As long as you both shall live. The secret of life is hidden in that intimate sharing.
The Catholic teaching on masturbation says that masturbation denies every aspect of that promise of sex — of that promise of your vows!
- Focused on yourself
- A withholding from your spouse
- A statement that sex is only about pleasure — your own pleasure
- Inherently sterile
- Often accompanied by "adultery in your heart" through pornography and fantasy
Catholics don't condemn masturbation just because of some lofty idea of what the natural purpose of sex is. We speak the truth about the harm it does to people.
That is the true reason for the Catholic teaching on masturbation: it denies the meaning of sex. It makes you less than fully human.
"But everyone else says masturbation is healthy!"
Yes, they do.
The world has a way of saying that a lot of disordered things are "good".
Masturbation is radically self-centered, and radically un-Christian. That's why the Catholic teaching on masturbation says it's wrong. It turns us and our sexuality away from God and toward ourselves by:
- Training our sexuality in the habit of self-indulgence, not self-giving
- Divorcing the pleasure of orgasm from union with the "other", your spouse
- Turning away from the risks of loving another
- Refusing fertility & the full responsibility of sex
I know — many educators and health professionals seem to be having a love affair with self-centered, self-indulgent sexuality. Why that is, I don't know.
They're wrong. They're not telling you the truth about sex, about yourself, or about life.
You and your sexuality are worth more than you can imagine.
The Catholic teaching on masturbation is centered on a virtue called chastity. It means giving sexuality its proper place in our lives. Not snuffing it out, but not giving it free reign. A proper place. Chastity is one of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. (See Catechism, 2337 - 2359)
The deep truth of the Catholic teaching on masturbation is confirmed by the enormous damage this so-called "private" act causes in people's lives and marriages. Large numbers of men and women are starting to name their habit of masturbation for what it is: sexual addiction.
If we tell our teens that masturbation is normal and healthy, we're setting them up with a habit that can yield a lifetime of difficulty. We're telling them that self-indulgence and lack of self-control are positive things. This cannot form a strong foundation for mature, loving sexuality.
How is that either loving or healthy?
Freedom & responsibility
This talk of habit raises an important point: when is masturbation a sin? And how bad a sin is it?
The Catholic teaching on masturbation says that masturbation is a grave sin, what we call a mortal sin, by which we reject God's offer of life.
However, Catholic morality also acknowledges that the force of habit can reduce or even eliminate our responsibility for our actions.
- We have to freely consent in order to be fully responsible.
- If a habit makes something less than a free choice, it also reduces our responsibility for our actions.
This does not give us free reign if we just call something a habit! Sinful actions still harm us greatly, even if we may not be fully charged with the guilt of committing them.
We have a responsibility to seek help and diligently strive to overcome our habits.
The Lord is patient & merciful. He desperately wants to free us from the slavery of sin. But we have to do our part, too.
If you think you're trapped in the habit of masturbation or one of its close cousins (pornography, infidelity, prostitution, etc.), seek the competent help of a priest who supports the Church's sexual morality, and specifically the Catholic teaching on masturbation. (Don't be shy! They've heard it all before. Sadly, it's quite common.)
"Does the Catholic teaching on masturbation say we should repress our sexuality?"
There's a difference between repression and self-control.
Repression means to "stuff" those feelings down when they arise, denying them and wishing they weren't there.
Repression doesn't work. Many people try this route and fail.
Self-control is different. You don't deny the reality of your sexual drive, but seek to control it according to your will. That's called being free! If you're a slave to your urges (sexual or otherwise), you're not free.
The key to this is to redeem our sexuality, not to repress it. Christopher West makes this point about the Catholic teaching on masturbation in Good News About Sex and Marriage:
When sexual feelings, desires, and temptations present themselves, as they inevitably do, instead of trying to ignore them or "stuff" them by pushing them down and under, we need to bring them up and out. Not up and out in the sense of indulging them, but up and out and into the hands of Christ our Redeemer. You might simply say a prayer such as this:
Lord Jesus, I give you my sexual desires. Please undo in me what sin has done so that I might know freedom in this area and experience sexual desire as you intend. Amen.
The more we invite Christ into our passions and desires and allow him to purify them, the more we find we're able to exercise proper control of them. And we begin more and more to experience our sexuality, not as the desire for selfish gratification but as the desire to give ourselves away in imitation of Christ. This is what redemption is all about.
(Good News About Sex and Marriage, p.81)
The Catholic teaching on masturbation reminds us that we need to redeem our self-centered, disordered desires.
It's a matter of bringing our disorders to Christ, naming them for what they are, and letting Christ heal us. We experience that healing as the gradual increase of self-control.
It is possible.
You're worth far too much to live according to a lie about yourself. For your freedom was bought at a great price: the price of the blood of Christ.
So go on: Let yourself be redeemed. Live in the "glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:21).
The Couple to Couple League website has a wonderful pastoral letter about chastity written in 2004 by Bishop Martino of the Diocese of Scranton, PA. It provides good background about sexuality in general, as well as the Catholic teaching on masturbation (opens in a new window).
Also check our home page for more articles about the Catholic faith!