Friday, February 15, 2013

7 Quick Takes (Vol. 29): Catholic Perspective on Masturbation

I recently read a post from a respected friend of mine, Amy, with whom I occasionally completely disagree. This post sets forth her reasons for believing that masturbation is neither unnatural nor sinful. I thought about simply writing a comment, but I wanted to go into a bit of detail and share my thoughts with my readers, not just hers. :-)

For the record, I agree with her position that there is nothing in the Bible explicitly forbidding masturbation. However, there is nothing forbidding abortion, either, which was also happening. Lack of explicit instruction requires discernment and interpretation. (I assume Amy would agree with this, I'm just setting that as groundwork.)

Here is where we diverge. I am Catholic, Amy is not. As a Catholic, I believe that the Church has 2000 years of accumulated wisdom, including some of the most brilliant theologians to live. I believe that the Church is a teaching authority guided by the Holy Spirit. The Church has discerned that God's plan for the physical expression of human sexuality is to be within the covenant of marriage and be procreative. If you're looking for Biblical support (not explicit instructions, but support), see Genesis 2 and Matthew 19.

One part of Amy's post argues that our sexual drive needs to be satisfied just as surely as hunger and thirst. I disagree. She writes, "Eating, drinking, sleeping, and personal hobbies are all solo activities, too—they serve no purpose other than nurturing our own bodies." The physical expression of sexuality does have a higher purpose, though - through it, we are allowed to become co-creators with the eternal God, helping to create a person with an eternal soul. That's not really comparable to a peanut butter sandwich.

Unfortunately, the positive teaching on our sexuality has been reduced to a list of "thou shalt nots". Thou shalt not have sex outside of marriage, have a same-sex partner, use contraceptives, use certain fertility treatments, or masturbate. Yes, those are wrong and a distortion of God's plan for us, but they're not an arbitrary list of restrictions. They all come from the understanding that sexuality is a procreative covenant act.

If one does not believe that the physical expression of our sexuality is meant to be procreative, then I can see the argument that forbidding masturbation doesn't make sense. But for me, masturbation is not a stand-alone issue. Masturbation is wrong for the same reason contraceptives are wrong. Both take a covenant act, meant to honor God and open us to the possibility of collaborating with Him in the creation of a new human, and turn it to our own ends. It profanes what is sacred. That's why I think it's wrong.

A final note: I completely agree with Amy that as a culture, particularly as a Christian culture, we focus far too much on guilt and shame for sexual sins. Our sexuality should be taught primarily as a positive gift. Sin should never be condoned, but sexual sin is not the only way we fail God. Those who have committed it can receive God's mercy and a new start just as surely as those who lie or cheat on taxes or gossip or commit any number of other offenses. Christ died for all, not just those with socially acceptable sins.


  1. You know, that was the best-phrased disagreement with a couple of my points that I've seen. Most of the rest has been--you guessed it--shame-based. Thanks for the respect! :)

    1. You've earned it. :-) Thanks for sharing this with your readers!

  2. Excellent! And totally right on!

  3. Having read both posts, the referenced one by Amy and the present one by Catholic Mommy I suppose I have come to a conclusion to makes sense at least for me. The sentence above "If one does not believe that the physical expression of our sexuality is meant to be procreative, then I can see the argument that forbidding masturbation doesn't make sense." almost gets there. I would amend slightly to say " meant solely to be procreative..."

    Clearly, like the other biological activities Amy mentions that are required for the survival of the species, sex must sometimes be procreative. However, to fulfill the destiny God lays out for us it need not be only procreative. Truly, procreative sex implies such a weighty responsibility, with social implications beyond the participants, it should not be done lightly. To act within the covenant of procreation it is certainly wise to do so with the support of the covenant of marriage, but this responsibility does not seem to me to preclude non-procreative sex either within or without the covenant of marriage.

    As we look around at the rest of His creation there are numerous examples of species that engage in all manner of positive sexual expression, including therapeutic and recreative. Though we were given dominion over the rest of creation and so might fancy ourselves morally above the rest, I think this latitude of sexual expression translates to the human experience where we have been endowed so as to discern between sex that destroys our relationship with others and sex that does not. It is by this measuring stick, I believe, that we may judge the impact such behavior has on our relationship with the Father. Let the brilliant theologians interpret and deepen our understanding of the metaphysical, but let God's creation model and let our own God-given instincts (to eat, to breathe, to experience sexual pleasure) guide our understanding of the physical.

    1. Thank you for a thoughtful comment.

      I don't think sex is meant solely to be procreative as God has clearly designed us to get physical pleasure from it. But I do think sex is meant solely to be the covenant act of marriage. Part of a Catholic marriage covenant is openness to children; every sexual act must welcome procreation as a possible outcome. (Similarly, it's not OK to sleep around and say, "Well, when I promised to be faithful, I didn't mean every time.")

      I don't think comparing our sexuality to that of animals is particularly useful. There are animals that eat their young, too, but we don't consider them to reflect God's plan for us. We are different from animals. I do indeed fancy myself to be morally above them. :) I reject the dualism that metaphysical and physical are two distinct realms. We are both body and soul. Understanding of one must impact the other, so I believe my Church to be well within her rights as a teaching authority to give instruction on sexuality.

      Thanks again for spending the time to state your thoughts. I appreciate it.

  4. As a Catholic, I agree with you. ;)

    The animals do whatever feels right. We're humans, endowed with reason, and called to something greater.

    I do think masturbation harms you, EVEN IF you've never been told it's wrong or shameful (as I wasn't) ... but, cough cough, this is hardly the place for my life story. :P

    YES, this is a hard teaching. It's really hard. For some people more than others, and with people getting married later, those teenage years are ROUGH! But we are never expected to be perfect ... we are expected to try. Some of us (cough, cough) end up back in the confessional with the same sins week after week, especially when we're young and single. God understands that we're not going to get it right all the time. He gives us advice that is GOOD for us, about how to use our bodies. When we fall short, there's plenty of mercy to go around.

    It's very difficult to strike this balance with my own children. They're small, but it's already come up. But I seek to find ways to help them develop good habits that will stand them in good stead when they're old enough to understand ... without any shaming. When they're older, I will explain what the Church teaches and why ... and offer rides to confession every Saturday, no questions asked. What they do with that knowledge is up to them.

    1. Yes, thank God for mercy!!

      If you're willing to share, I'd like to know how you've addressed it with your kids. Peter hasn't really asked/done anything yet to start the conversation, but I'd like to think ahead of time what direction to take it.