Monday, March 19, 2012


I just saw this video clip by Michael Voris (the first in a series, apparently) on the spiritual effects of masturbation, which reminded me of something I'm been meaning to post.

Faithful Catholics have sometimes lamented that they hear so little teaching or preaching these days about the "hard" doctrines of the Church. It certainly must be tempting for priests to preach on the easy subjects that win the approval of parishioners fed on the New Age values of Oprah Winfrey.

I remember being surprised the first time I heard a priest preach against contraception. It was an auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia some ten or fifteen years ago. One seldom hears teaching on such subjects, except from champions like Janet Smith, which is part of the problem of the abysmal response of lay Catholics to the administrations current HHS mandate.

Even more surprising was to actually hear one of our intrepid priests at St. Josaphat Church in Detroit actually discussing the subject of sexual impurity in a couple of homilies recently. He wasn't exactly preaching a series of homilies on the subject. He simply brought up the subject in two consecutive sermons in the course of discussing self-denial during Lent in a succession of Sunday sermons.

So few priests are willing to spell out Church teaching in any sort of practical way. But without having Catholic morality spelled out for them, people remain at sea, often in complete ignorance about these subjects. And if they're never mentioned, they don't take them seriously.

This is where our priest was a remarkable exception. He brought up the subject in the context of discussing the significance of the Lenten disciplines of self-denial, not just during Lent, but as a matter of cultivating good moral habits generally. Unless one sometimes denies himself the immediate satisfaction of indulging in physical pleasures (sleeping in, satisfying his sweet tooth, enjoying a hot shower, sating his appetite, etc.), how can he ever expect to master the virtue of self-control in the area of sexual purity? Cold showers or hair shirts anyone?

What is remarkable about traditional Catholic teaching on this subject is how seriously it takes something the rest of the world treats with jocular indulgence if not indifference. Not only is there Woody Allen's awful joke in Zelig about being late to a class he's teaching on masturbation at the university and not wanting the class to start without him; even Evangelical champion of family values, James Dobson, for whom I otherwise have considerable respect, tells followers of his Focus on the Family magisterium not to worry too much about masturbation, because it's probably something with which God isn't really too concerned.

By contrast, St. Thomas Aquinas treats the subject among "unnatural vices" that are the "greatest sins among the species of lust." Not as evil as incest, beastiality, or sodomy, certainly; yet, because of it's disordered and unnatural character, worse than many other sins people today would generally consider far worse. But then, Thomas also regarded the rape of a wife as far worse than adultery, which reveals that there may be more at work in his moral reasoning here than may meet the eye, especially if one enjoys Woody Allen.

"Blessed are the pure in heart," says Jesus at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, "for they shall see God." Think about the logic here and the seriousness with which He takes this subject will be soon apparent.

Kierkegaard adds: "Purity of heart is to will one thing." What we need today is a single-mindedness in the love of our Lord that can root out the duplicity of a divided mind.



I am not Spartacus said...

Lust leads to spiritual blindness thus rendering absurd the attempted dismissal of the serious sinfulness of masturbation in this supposedly wry quip- Can I do it just until I need glasses?

The ancient truth - "If you do that it will make you blind,"- is today laughed and sneered at by the smart set who do not in the least bit care that it is the Toll Gate on the road to Perdition for uncountable souls

Anonymous said...

I was under the impression, though, that while masturbation is recognized as a sin against nature by Thomas, and thus a greater sin against *chastity* than say, fornication, or even rape ... those sins violate other virtues and may therefore be "cumulatively" worse, right? Beside, in terms of culpability, it would seem that the latter ones I listed would require more forethought and are less likely to "take one unawares" as masturbation is. It's also good to see how the scholastic theologians developed these things into the 20th century - the terms are a lot clearer than St. Thomas laid out - didn't he and others needlessly categorize a variety of sex positions or just about any foreplay as "unnatural"? I'm not saying Catholics should get hedonistically obsessed with "trying to all", just that using Thomas's own logic the later scholastics arrived at a much clearer idea of what is truly "unnatural" (that which positively THWARTS nature), to where for married folk, there's no need for anxiety as long as things "finish the right way".

Pertinacious Papist said...


My preferred expert in this neck of the woods would be Janet Smith, from whom I'll try to get an answer for you.

Mercury said...

Spartacus - I doubt masturbation itself is the sin that ends up damning people - most who care will confess it, and most who don't will be involved in all kinds of other sins of the flesh. Or do you mean that it's a "gateway drug" to other sins and sinful lifestyles?

Christine said...

Mercury: If you're saying that masturbation is merely a venial sin, that is completely wrong. The Catholic Catechism states that "masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action" and counts it among "the sins gravely contrary to chastity."

It is a mortal sin to do this, and yes, it ALONE will damn a person.

Hot Tub O'Leary said...

Sometimes I wonder if many priests aren't "at sea" as well. The refusal to discuss the many aspects of lust openly goes way back. In the days prior to V2, it wasn't "discussed." It was proscribed -- it's a mortal sin, dummy, don't do it. What more is there to discuss?

But one undeniable "fruit" (or "spark of light," as the inimitable Bux would have it) of V2 has been the willingness to discuss, discuss, discuss, and never condemn, just discuss to the point of exhaustion, and then slough it off as a responsibility of the individual conscience. Strange fruit.

Anyway, that's where it ends up:
(1) don't do it -- no discussion necessary
(2) follow your conscience - silence

There are subjects that ought not to be "discussed" except in the most dire of circumstances. To "discuss" is to legitimize. How do you "discuss" that which is illegitimate? You can't. That is, you can't unless your seditious purpose is to legitimize it.

Thus, there is nothing to be gained from "discussion" on the pulpit. There is a great deal to be gained from proscription on the pulpit.

Anonymous said...

"Hot tub O'Leary" -- I like the name, but it sounds more like Roister-Doister than O'Leary.

Regardless, you make an excellent point, as does Not Spartacus.

Not all discussion legitimates, however, I would argue. Clearly much aimless "perspective"-sharing does. But some kind of discussion, perhaps more "explanation," can illumine the Church's rationale for proscription.

JPII somewhere refers to the "predatory" view of women that masturbation can cultivate in men, eventually shifting this view from the world of fantasy and pornography to real people in the real world. This can hardly be healthy. That sort of teaching from some venue or another in the Church would be helpful, don't you think?

Pertinacious Papist said...

Here is a summary of what Dr. Janet Smith had to say by way of reply to the first "Anonymous" comment above:

She says that masturbation is more unnatural because it can't possible lead to a baby. She also says you're right that in those terms masturbation is worse than rape but that rape is more evil for additional reasons. She says she doesn't know anything about Aquinas and "positions" and "foreplay," that she has never even seen this charge against him before. She wonders whether you are talking about anal penetration as part of foreplay, which has been an issue of controversy in some circles a year or two ago. It is clear, she says, that some moralists thought it was permissible as foreplay. Yet she also says it is not clear what reasons would make it permissible. (Ya think???) One theologian has opined, she says, that it would only be in extraordinary circumstances, when, for some reason (hard to conjecture), the male needed it to help get an erection -- possible because of childhood sexual abuse and an introduction to sex of an unnatural kind.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

"She says that masturbation is more unnatural because it can't possible lead to a baby."

If possibility of conception is the criterion that matters in discerning the "naturalness" of sex, then masturbation is no more "unnatural" than anal sex, oral sex, and sex with the drugs and contraptions of artificial contraception. And since, with masturbation, only one soul is engaged in a gravely sinful act, one could argue that the overall damage is less.

Janice, stay home and bake cookies. Cogitating such questions is what puts the "jerk" in . . . . oh, never mind.

Robert Allen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Robert Allen said...


Masturbation is a mortal sin. Having said that, it is less natural for the reason Dr. Smith gives because IN THAT SETTING conception is impossible. With the other unnatural forms, there is the possibility of a change of heart, one (unnatural) thing leading to another (natural) thing, or a malfunctioning of the contraceptive device. In other words, it takes 2 to tango and these forms at least meet that minimal, background requirement. Whereas it is dead certain that the onanist is going nowhere conception wise. Ask yourself, who is more likely to give parenthood a try or end up with children in spite of themselves? As for the piece of advice you offer Dr. Smith, that is an insider joke, right? You know her and are just trying to be jocular, correct? (Her name is Janet, though, not Janice. Or is that part of the joke too?) You are surely not seriously suggesting that one of the world's leading ethicists switch from essays to bake goods.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Robert Allen,
Once we are in the territory of grave sin, these "degrees of unnaturalness" cogitations are useless and ridiculous, as your response demonstrates. Sex with condoms is "less unnatural" than masturbation because the two lunkheads so engaged might muck it up? That is certainly funnier than anything I said. And by what preternatural insight do you conclude that those who masturbate by other means (artificial contraception) might be any more open to conception than the husband who indulges himself when his wife is unavailable? The whole discussion is absurd, and the "ethicists" who insist on peeling this particular onion in such a way are no less absurd.

Janet, make mine oatmeal raisin.

Robert Allen said...


Allow me to begin with argument from authority: in slamming Dr. Smith, you are really criticizing the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas: the good professor is only reporting his views per the PP's request. Do you deem yourself more knowledgeable here than the Angelic Doctor? (Who are you, anyway? I have a real problem with pseudynoms in this context: an author should put his reputation on the line in publishing his views.) You also are now using the term 'masturbate' ("those who masturbate by other means (artificial contraception)") so as to deprive it of its meaning, begging the question against those (like Thomas) who think that there is an important moral distinction to be drawn in this area. I would finally invite you to consider the case of a formerly unrepentent onanist who has decided to give sexual relations with a woman a try, albeit employing contraceptives: do you not think that he has at least taken a step in the right moral direction? Has he not become less depraved?