The Solitary Sin

Friday, June 13, 2003



I have been extremely busy at work and have taken days to write this one post. I hope it is worthwhile for someone. Here are some Progressive Catholic thoughts on the so-called solitary sin.

Human sexuality is a beautiful gift from God whereby we offer our very self to another person in an act that allows us to participate in God's creation of a new and eternal human life.

Humanity interprets all of reality in God given freedom, and our sexuality seems inherently meaningful even to non-religious people. Indeed, it is so meaningful that we typically call the act of sexual intercourse "love making" even in secular discourse.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches a high standard regarding the virtue, or moral habit referred to as "chastity". This virtue aims at protecting the meaning inherent to human sexuality from de-humanizing and degrading interpretations that are less than the highest human imaginative potential given by our creator. Sexual activity outside of the state of marriage, or sexual activity completely separated from its procreative dimension is considered sinful by the teaching authority of the Church.

According to an article posted on EWTN by Colin B. Donovan, STL, a lustful thought can be a mortal sin. Here is an exact quote:

A serious, grave or mortal sin is the knowing and willful violation of God's law in a serious matter, for example, idolatry, adultery, murder, slander. These are all things gravely contrary to the love we owe God and, because of Him, our neighbor. As Jesus taught, when condemning even looking at a woman lustfully, sin can be both interior (choices of the will alone) or exterior (choices of the will carried into action). A man who willfully desires to fornicate, steal, murder or some other grave sin, has already seriously offended God by choosing interiorly what God has prohibited.

Many Roman Catholics have been taught as children or young adults that auto-eroticism, or masturbation, is a mortal sin. This means that such acts can prohibit one from receiving communion, and a person may feel their salvation is in jeopardy!

The Bible never mentions masturbation per se, so where does this belief derive?

Some people have tried to argue that the sin of Onan in Genesis 38:8-10 refers indirectly to masturbation. However, most Bible scholars see this verse as referring to Onan's sin of refusing to provide children for his deceased brother in order that his sister-in-law, Tamar, would be cared for in her old age. The obligation to provide off-spring for an in-law was part of the Mosaic law according to Deuteronomy 25:5.

The stronger passage potentially condemning masturbation comes from the New Testament and is attributed by Matthew to Christ.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

This passage is taken very seriously by Roman Catholics, and Pope John Paul II has even suggested that it could be sinful for a man to look upon his own wife with selfish lust.

On the surface, many people outside of Christianity might see an obsession with chastity here that is impossible and leads to neurosis, a negative sense of sexuality, and a spirituality that will lead people to constant irritability and anger. However, the same chapter of Matthew's gospel also tells us not to grow angry with another:

"You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, 'Raqa,' will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, 'You fool,' will be liable to fiery Gehenna. (Matthew 5:21-22)

Furthermore, this famous sermon of Christ's known as the Sermon on the Mount also tells us not to worry or be anxious about worldly things:

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat (or drink), or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

The perfect Christain would be a person of great joy and hope in the resurrection, a person of great peace and forgiveness, a generous person, an honest person and so forth. In addition to being chaste, perfect Christian will avoid rash judgments, irritability, anger, and all sorts of neurotic behavior.

Why is it, however, that Roman Catholics seem to take the verse on lust more literally than they might take the passage on anger or worry?

Roman Catholics seem to consider masturbation a graver offense than entering into a heated debate with another person. We speak of "just anger" and even "just war", but seldom speak of "just attractions".

Yet, the Church does teach that just attractions do exist. The sacrament of marriage affirms that Catholics consider human sexuality to be something that is good and holy.

In Genesis 1:27, it is as male and female, in relationship to one another, that we image the divine. Christ echoes Genesis in stating that in marriage, two people become one flesh. In the Second Vatican Council documents, particularly Guadium et Spes, the Church affirms the Biblical purposes of marriage in its unitive and procreative dimensions. The good news about sex is that sexuality is itself a human good. Perhaps God made sexual activity so pleasurable precisely to ensure that we celebrate our sacred sexuality with gratitude as a revelation of divine love for us!

What the Church intends to say in its teaching on sexuality is that we want sex to be as good and pleasurable as possible for people. We want people to have good sex. Rooted in the teachings of Christ, the Church maintains that human experience indicates that sexuality is best expressed when the act is performed in the context of a permanent, publically committed, monogamous relationship expressing total self-offering to one another, where the act is also open to procreation. Sex is so good and pleasurable in such a context that it can be called, not only good, but holy! Anything less than this is a sin in comparison!

Thus, The Catechism of the Catholic Church can say the following:

2351 Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.

It is in the sense that masturbation is separated from unitive love and procreation that it is said to be sinful. Thus, we see in the next paragraph of the CCC the following statement:

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. "

The language used in this paragraph may sound harsh and judgmental to many outside the Church, or even to Church members who may be reading it for the first time. In the First Letter of John, 5:16 speaks of deadly, or mortal sin that is more serious than sin that is not deadly.

Catholic moral theology has traditionally spoken of mortal sins as acts that are gravely disordered, meaning that the act is serious in matter. If a gravely disordered act is done with knowledge, deliberation and freedom, a mortal sin is being committed. To freely and deliberately commit such an act with the knowledge that the act is wrong constitutes mortal sin and can place the soul in eternal jeopardy. Paragraph 2352 of the CCC seems to confirm what many Roman Catholics were taught in grade school or Catholic high school. Masturbation can be a mortal sin!

However, the same paragraph adds an explanatory clause that runs as follows:

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.

What is being said here is that the Church recognizes extenuating circumstances that reduce the personal guilt imputed to the individual person for a single act of masturbation.

We must take into account a person's "affective immaturity". Basically, this is saying that only a fully mature Christian can be held fully accountable for mortal sin in the act of masturbation. This maturity is affective maturity, meaning that it is not simply a matter of knowing doctrine, but of having achieved the emotional maturity to personally appropriate the teaching in the development of integral personhood. A person must be mature enough to distinguish why masturbation falls short of the good and how the act can effect our relationships with God and other people before the guilt mortal sin can be said to be imputed to the person. For many of us, we grow into chastity.

Few people likely reach such full maturity in this regard before sexual awakening, and it might be argued that only a few people ever actually are capable of committing a mortal sin in this regard. I am not saying that the act itself may not involve grave matter at this point. Rather, I am saying that few people reach the level of affective maturity whereby a judgment can be made that the individual acted with full knowledge, freedom and deliberation.

I cannot remember exactly where I saw the article, but around 1992, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, wrote about a young person just entering puberty in the Philippines. The young boy on the verge of manhood ran onto a playground with his own semen in his hand and bragged to the other boys that he was now a man. A nun saw what he was doing and scolded the young man, making him go and wash and shaming him for this sin.

Did this young man act with full knowledge that he was sinning? Even if he were told in advance that this act was a sin, could he affectively understand the act as sin? Should the boy becoming a man have been shamed, or should this exploration of his sexuality been celebrated as a sacred transition?

Indeed, most pastoral theologians and parish priests are inclined to see masturbation among teenagers as a normal rite of passage, rather than a mortal sin. There is a world of difference between a teenage boy exploring his sexuality for the first time, and a married man viewing pornography while masturbating in a hotel room without his wife's knowledge.

The qualifying clause on paragraph 2352 of the CCC goes on to speak of "the force of acquired habit" as a mitigating factor in determining the imputation of the guilt of mortal sin. The Church recognizes that people undergo conversion experiences often times late in life. What was once a mortal sin that led us away from the Church may have become a habit. Perhaps we never formally left the Church, but what was once a singular act has become an addictive habit or vice. This can happen with alcohol and drugs, and it happens sometimes with sexual activity.

The Church is saying that a single act of masturbation may constitute a mortal sin. However, once a person falls into a mortal sin, it becomes easier for the person to repeat the sin, even after repenting of the intial act. If pleasure is derived in the sin, the act can become a habit that is difficult to break. The Church recognizes in this situation that the hundredth or thousand time a sin is committed may not have been done with the same freedom and deliberation that was present the first time we fell into the same sin.

Those who are old enough and mature enough to know that how easily addictions form should avoid all sinful behaviors that might lead to habitual sin. This is called avoiding the occasion of sin. Moderation should be observed in drink, gambling, and all forms of worldly pleasure that can abused. The same rule applies to sexual acts. It would be better not to engage in masturbation if you have not committed such an act before.

At the same time, perhaps due to original sin, most of us fall into the sin of masturbation before we are even close to reaching affective maturity. Some studies indicate that nine out of ten men and six out of ten women have masturbated at least one time in their lives. Typically, this will occur in adolescence or young adulthood. Thus, the first act may not have been a mortal sin, and a habit can form that lessons our guilt even as we are in the process of gaining affective maturity.

Then there are other factors that are mentioned, such as anxiety, psychological and social factors. Who does not experience stess in modern life?

The Church teaches that chastity and purity of heart are actually refreshing and joyful states of the human soul and human character. Speaking from experience that took some time to grow into, I have found the Church is right!

Looking back and around me now, I realize our culture, and in many cases, our parents (psychology) are sending us messages that make chastity difficult to perceive. The effects of our family can range from a father telling his son that boys will be boys, or a mother telling her daughter that a woman needs a man, to more severely perveted messages received by victims of sexual abuse. All these messages reduce individual sin regarding individual violations of chastity when we are not conscious of the effects of these messages.

Yet, full freedom comes to us as we grow in awareness of the programming we have received from our culture and upbringing. We are all products of our past. Yet, we are producers of our future. The virtue of chastity increases our freedom by allowing us the option to say not only "yes" to sexual activity, but the capacity to say "no" when sexual activity does not express the richest meaning we perceive in an act!

Think of times that we have entered a smoke filled room from cigarretts (for those old enough to remember when there were few laws about smoking in public buildings). If we enter such a room from the outside, our eyes will burn and the smell can be overwhelming, even for a smoker. On the other hand, if you were in the room all along, you do not really notice the smoke until you leave and the smell lingers in your clothes.

We live and breathe much of our lives in a smoke filled room when it comes to chastity. If we can get out, the fresh air is great, but the point is that the Church recognizes that this environment lessons our individual guilt before God for sin.

Thus, it may be that very few people actually fall into mortal sin through a single act of masturbation taken in isolation. Nevertheless, because the act is less than the perfect expression of the full meaning of human sexuality, none of us should consider masturbation completely free of sin. If we can break out of the smoke filled room of our environment and conditioning, we may find chastity rewarding!

The Church is holding a very high standard up to us, though she is also acknowledging that very few people can reach this standard throughout their entire lives. God, who is infinitely merciful, who perfectly understands all mitigating circumstances in his omniscience, and who is perfectly just based on his mercy and omniscience, will condemn very few people for a single act of masturbation.

Some people rightly raise the question of how masturbation is ever a mortal sin if no other person is hurt. I say this is a right question because Christ tells us that the entire law can be rooted in the golden rule:

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

The CCC confirms in paragraph 1789 in the section on conscience that the golden rule applies in every case to moral judgments:

1789 Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- the Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."
- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one's neighbor and his conscience: "Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience . . . you sin against Christ." Therefore "it is right not to . . . do anything that makes your brother stumble."

The question here is not whether there are mitigating circumstances that lessen the guilt of what would otherwise be called a mortal sin. Rather, the question is whether it is correct to say that masturbation is a mortal sin in the first place.

Those who ask this question - and I am one of them - are not necessarily saying that there may not be some degree of venial sin involved in masturbation. There are actually different ways to view this.

One can view masturbation as simply less than the highest good - imperfect, but not sinful at all. This is somewhat like our attitudes toward eating a single greasy cheeseburger for lunch. It's not good for you, but not a sin either in most people's minds.

Then there are those progressives who admit some degree of sin even in eating the greasy cheeseburger (gluttony), and therefore argue with conservatives that there can be a degree of sin in masturbation, but it is no more a mortal sin than eating the cheeseburger is to be considered a mortal sin.

I'm still trying to make up my own mind between the two positions, but lean heavily toward the second in most cases. Yet, in either case, masturbation would not be a mortal sin per se, even if it is a venial sin.

We should all strive to be saints, and saints avoid even venial sins to the best of their ability. Furthermore, all sin is offensive to God to some degree, and even a venial sin would have been enough to merit damnation had there been no atonement on the cross. Furthermore, I think God loves us so much that She wants us to take good care of ourselves. We are to strive to perfection without striving to the point of unhealthy anxiety.

I am in agreement with the Church that masturbation is less than the fullest and most perfect expression of human sexuality, and therefore, it is sinful to some degree. I simply do not believe that it is a mortal sin in most cases, and in almost all cases, there are too many mitigating factors and too little harm to others to judge culpability for a grave offense, or even call the act grave.

Yet, there is a saying among computer programmers that garbage in gets garbage out of the system (GIGO). If we fill our hearts with sin, sin comes out. Chastity is worth the effort.

Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile." (Mark 7:15)

Christ clearly tells us that sin occurs in the heart even before it is given expression in the world. While all sin is ultimately destructive to relationships with those outside of the self, it is possible to sin without causing direct harm to another person. A sin of the heart offends God not because of what is directly done to another person, but because we "miss the mark" in interpreting reality in the richest sense God intended. Saint Paul's word for sin means to msiss the mark (as in archery) in its literal sense.

However, because there is no tangible harm to another person, I wonder why masturbation is treated in moral theology as so much more grave and so much more clearly wrong than certain acts of anger and violence. After all, we saw above that Christ was portrayed in the same Gospel pericope condemning lust as saying that anger in the heart is murder!

Why don't we Catholics make love instead of making war?

Why are we more obsessed with sexual sin than sins of violence and hatred?

Could it be that our obsession with sexual sin leads to a scrupulosity in sexual matters that is really a desire to control other people, and that we allow some "wiggle room" for our own violence precisely in order to have a means of exercising this control?

The Church teaches that scrupulosity is also a sin that can lead to despair. It is wrong to be too perfectionistic, to the point where we become rigid and judgmental pharisees. Christ taught mercy and forgiveness and compassion and humility and love as the highest virtues.

Perhaps it is actually spiritual pride and will to power that leads us Catholics to understand masturbation as a mortal sin while believing a harsh word to another is simply part of the human condition?

I am not arguing that we should all run around encouraging masturbation. I have stated clearly that masturbation is probably sinful to some degree, at least venially. It is always less than our fullest human potential.

However, venial sin does not prevent one from going to communion, and this is important to our Catholic spirituality. Venial sin does not lead one to fear that you might go to hell if you died immediately.

Even though venial sin carries some consequence, such as purgatory or adverse earthly results of the universal law of justice, venial sin is simply part of our fallen human condition. We can strive against it, but even canonized saints likely committed venial sins on the day they died. Many of will not progress enough in the spiritual life to overcome all venial sin before death, but we will be saved due to the infinite love and mercy of Christ, whose blood covers our offenses!

I am not questioning the ideal of perfect chastity expressed either in the ideal marriage or by a celibate living in perfect continence. Nevertheless, in our fallen human condition, I am saying that a little "wiggle room", pastoral sensitivity, compassion and admission of possible historical scrupulosity in this area may be a healthy move for the Church.

If masturbation is a sin at all, which I am arguing it can be, and perhaps always is to some degree, how do we live chastely?

I say above that I have made som progress, so how is this done? This is actually the burning question for most Catholics (especially men).

Many people who take the Church seriously on this issue are struggling to maintain chastity as they understand it. There tend to be cyclic periods of going to Confession, having limited success for a short period of time, falling into a habit, and then returning to Confession to start over. Periods of success seem to be achieved through ascetic practices such as cold showers, exercise and praying the Rosary and other repetitive prayer during moments of intense temptation.

There is a better approach than the Rosary and cold shower approach. A spiritual director once told me that rather than fighting against our sexual desires, we should work with them to grow in affective and spiritual maturity. This is consistent with Saint Thomas Aquinas' famous axiom that grace builds on nature. This spiritual director suggested that rather than trying to fight against temptation to fantasy by retreat into formal prayer, we should embrace fantasy.

The key in his mind is that if you are prone to fantasize about body parts, try to form a face. If you already see the face, try to imagine the conversations leading up to sexual encounter, and the conversations afterwards. If we are married, we should also fantasize about the conversation we would have with our spouse about this inappropriate relationship. What all of this does is help to contextualize sexual fantasy where it belongs, in the context of all ofour relationships.

The gift of human sexuality calls us into relationships, and so our fantasy should incoporate not only the act in isolation, but in context. This permits us to begin to see the object of our fantasy life as a person, rather than an object of lust. In turn, this actually helps to reduce the occurrence of sexual fantasy. This robs fantasy of much of its power and helps us to see where God's grace is leading us through our nature to deeper relationships and deeper communion with other people.

We should see frequent temptations to sexual fantasy as an invitation to interact more with real life people. God speaks to us in the heart, and the heart drawn to fantasy relationships is really trying to tell the body to get out of the house and meet and interact more intimately with some people. This is especially true for single men and women, but may even apply to a married man or woman who has been isolated from social interactions outside of the home due to introverted work or family demands.

Another reason for frequent fantasy may simply be that the mind is trying to exercise the right side of the brain. People who work with numbers all day may find it hard to avoid fantasy in the evening or early mornings. An artistic hobby may help to channel some of this energy. All Catholics, and especially Catholic men could grow in spirituality and chastity and simply enjoy life more by developing artistic hobbies such as painting, poetry, or music.

Some people may have the opposite problem of the introvert, the single man, or the person working with numbers all day. With more men and women working long hours together than ever, sexual temptations can be part of everyday life at the office. It is important to know how to establish boundaries and avoid the occasion of sin. This is also part of affective maturity. If you perceive you are starting to flirt, you probably are! Set a boundary so that you are free to act appropriately and not driven to act inappropriately!

A particularly pernicious temptation for many people is that of pornography.

2354 Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.

The Church rightly points out the social dimension of the use of pornography. Using pornography is never an isolated or solitary act. It would sadden most people to know how many of those who become involved in the production of pornography were either forced into business, or have been victims of incest or rape. Furthermore, the acts are often painful for participants and those involved often have higher than average suicide rates. Bearing in mind the real pain, physical and emotional, that is involved in manufacturing this material may be incentive for many people using such materials to question their purchases and perhaps change their habits.

An overall healthy life-style can help all of us to live chastely. Adequate sleep and exercise, good time management and stress relief, a healthy diet and a regular prayer life and frequent participation in the sacraments all support a life of chastity.

Regarding prayer and participation in the sacraments, I spoke against using prayer to suppress sexual fantasy, and I want to emphasize the distinction I am making. Prayer should be something we do at all times. Formal prayer requiring our full concentration can and should be regular. It should not be spurred solely by temptation, and it should not be a technique we use to suppress or repress our feelings. Rather, prayer should be an ongoing and honest conversation with God who dwells within!

Prayer is not a distraction from sexual fantasy, and sexual fantasy is not a distraction from prayer. When confronted with fantasy, talk to God about it during your regualr prayer to see where She is leading you. Remember, grace builds on nature. If your nature is wired for attraction, God is trying to tell you something through those attractions!

The reasons for other aspects of a healthy life-style in order to live chastely are born out by empirical research in fields such as psychology. Men tend to have sexual fantasies more forcefully when they are anxious, sleepy or stressed. Women tend to feel sexual temptation when feelings of guilt or anger are strongest. Good health tends to reduce stress, anger, irritability and tiredness that can trigger such states. Men and women also have both have bodily monthly cycles wired for reproduction. Knowing your cycles and triggers can help you to act with greater freedom.

As a progressive Roman Catholic I wish to affirm the notion of personal morality and the value of the virtue of chastity.

At the same time, I wish that those labeling themselves most often as conservatives would express more compassion when speaking of sexual sin, as well as focusing more energy on issues of peace, conflict resolution, and anger management!

Furthermore, I question the opinion of those who consider masturbation always and everywhere to be a grave offense and mortal sin. The fact is that most of us probably sense intuitively that most acts of masturbation ae not grave enough for the attention given it by those called to celibacy in Rome. While chastity is a wonderful goal, our infinitely loving and infinitely merciful God has graver concerns for us to consider than excessive focus on the so-called solitary sin!

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 4:17 PM

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting by