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Masturbation & the Conditions for Mortal Sin


Suppose a person masturbates even though he fully knows that it is regarded by the Church as a grave matter of sin.  Is it still a mortal sin if he were unaware as to the reason why masturbation is a sin?  Would it be reduced to a venial sin?


First, the definition of what constitutes “full consent” must be drawn out.

Second, culpability can never omit the subjective elements that impede free consent.

Fully understanding an act implies that (1) the person knows what he is doing, (2) he knows from moral authority that the action is right or wrong and (3) that he appreciates in conscience the moral or immoral nature of the act.

Free consent can be damaged by coercive factors like vice (bad habit), passion, external enticement or manipulation, emotional states, immaturity, fear, etc.

We can know from just moral authority (like the Church) or from divine positive law (Scripture) or from philosophical reflection (Natural Law) that certain activities are good and that others are bad. However, there is a difference between knowing something is wrong from a stark precept (as we often render to children) and from a truth that is explained and accepted in detail.

Your question seems to be asking the following: are we fully culpable for a sin if we do not understand WHY it is wrong?

We are obliged as believers to follow just authority, both civil and religious. This is a basic given of Catholic social teaching. A child may not know why he or she is obliged to do some things and to avoid others, but the obligation or duty remains. Our obedience honors parents and it honors God. The backdrop to all this is that the parents and God are legitimately communicating what is good and true. No parent or teacher can demand that a child do an immoral act. They would forfeit their overall authority. The danger here is that a child may be innocent and not know what is right or wrong apart from the parent. Similarly, religious people can be deceived by their clergy about the rightness or wrongness of acts. That is why the Catholic Church maintains exclusive claims since we feel that the Holy Spirit has preserved the Church in the truth. Other churches or ecclesial communities do not have such protection. This is also why the Church is often counter-cultural and argues that truth is objective and lasting, not capricious and vulnerable to the fads of the day and/or the accompanying legislation of politicians and rulings from the courts.

Returning to the immediacy of your question, full knowledge would also imply for adults a certain awareness of why masturbation is wrong. As to the gravity of the sin, that can only be known in conscience and between the person and almighty God. Mortal sin implies a lack of love or giving God and his Church their due— not just the benefit of a doubt but that of belief. If it stands to reason that God is right, even if we do not fully understand, then we are still obliged to obey. This is under pain of mortal sin. As we mature, our appreciation of our faith and values should also expand. This is what best fits the human condition.

Why is masturbation regarded as wrong and as a sin? Here is what the universal catechism says about the sin:

[CCC 2352] 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 can lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.

Intentional sexual self-gratification (sometimes termed as self-pollution) is contrary to the natural purpose for the human sexual power or act. The Church contends that sexual activity must always be in terms of congress between a man and woman within the holy covenant of matrimony. Outside of marriage— in masturbation, heterosexual fornication (according to nature) and homosexual acts (contrary to nature)— the activity is wrong and sinful. Sexual expression is directed toward marital intimacy and the act of propagation (non-contraceptive vaginal intercourse). Masturbation short-circuits the whole meaning of human sexuality. Instead of expressing love and unity with another person, a narcissistic self-absorption is pursued instead. Pleasure or gratification is targeted for its own sake instead of as an enticement to be shared in furthering the fidelity and unity of spouses. In contrast to the donation of self to another, masturbation or Onanism is inherently selfish. Masturbation can become an addictive behavior, turning one increasing in on oneself and away from healthy relationships and prospects for marriage and family. This is the very opposite of what true love is about. Young people, given immaturity and the changing hormones or body chemistry, frequently fall into masturbation in their teen years. Here it is most probably a venial sin. However, if left unchecked it can become habitual and/or mortal. What the body does has an effect upon the soul. Given how it feeds selfishness and self-absorption, this wrongful activity has an intrinsic gravity toward mortal sin. The heart becomes hardened. What should be good and wholesome becomes something bad and sordid. It can become a sickness of the soul.

Masturbation and sexual addiction has often been compared to alcoholism. It becomes difficult to stop. There is a sense of being evacuated of grace. The person will frequently feel a terrible weight of shame. This profound sense of guilt will either bring one to the sacrament of Penance (so that the work of healing can begin) or there will be a further turning away from virtue toward vice. The man or woman will rationalize actions and seek to justify his or her immoral and sexual license. The person denies to himself that he is doing anything wrong. This leads to the handmaid of masturbation, the use of pornography to fuel lustful fantasies. Our society has made this jump very easy and the media has attempted to make pornography mainstream on television and the internet. The high of sexual gratification in masturbation and pornography can poison relationships and create seeds for destruction in subsequent marriages. Not only is the sin of coveting another’s spouse violated, but pornography and sexual fantasies encourage virtual adultery. The bodies of others, most often those of women, are dehumanized and treated as meat for hungry dogs. There is a general loss of respect for persons and their bodies. Some have even noted correlations to physical and sexual abuse of others. Every man and woman is someone’s son or daughter. We are all children of God— not nameless flesh to appease the beast.

Finally, the marital act (the use of the sexual faculties in marriage) is rightly directed to the unity in the sacrament. Both fidelity of the spouses and the generation of new human life are at the heart of this wonderful gift of sexuality given by God to men and women. Masturbation by comparison is not life-giving. This should be the clearest natural indication that there is something wrong with it. As spiritual-corporeal composites, we are our bodies. The human body was never intended as a plaything. Indeed, it is so precious that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity took to himself a full human nature and body in order to redeem us. As Catholics and Christians, we should never overlook this fact that with the incarnation our humanity is raised to a higher dignity. We should always honor this truth by how we treat our bodies and those of others.

Chastity is real and possible, both within and outside marriage. Modesty and purity should again be encouraged for teens and adults, men and women alike. It is no wonder that at a time when marriage as an institution is in trouble, that both virginity and celibacy find themselves ridiculed. If we are to reclaim our culture for Christ then we must not neglect the issue of human sexuality. We must also address the sense of alienation that growing numbers of modern men and women feel. Many fall prey to the sin discussed here because of loneliness. But like drinking, you cannot appease your thirst by drinking polluted water. We need the clean and refreshing water that Jesus offers from beside the well. If any should struggle with such sins, please do not despair. Invite God’s mercy and grace into your lives through frequent Confession and the reception of the Eucharist.