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Masturbation and the Meaning of Sex

What does the Church teach about masturbation, and what does that teaching tell us about how to treat sex and our relationships?

When I wrote an entire chapter on masturbation in my first book, Raising Chaste Catholic Men, it was a bit surreal. As I mentioned at the start of that chapter, I had never in my life envisioned that I would be writing extensively on such a subject, and I’m guessing that most folks—at least my Catholic friends and relatives—would not generally choose to read about it!

Because the topic came up in conversations with friends as they asked what I was writing that week, I heard many clever jokes and puns about this particular activity. But whereas most of the jokers were faithful Catholics, a secular friend responded to the topic of masturbation with a simple “Ick.” Even non-religious people can sense that there is something deeply wrong with this allegedly normal and healthy behavior. Sex with a partner (even sinful sex) is one thing, but the concept of having “sex” with oneself doesn’t even make sense.

Though human beings have a distorted view of sex, deep down, there is a subconscious understanding that sex is for uniting people and begetting children. Contraception seeks unity without babies, and IVF seeks babies without unity, but masturbation strips sexual activity of both of those purposes. Instead of sex as self-gift between spouses, masturbation is a solitary act of self-centeredness.

Some might argue that masturbation is simply a feel-good release, like having a good sneeze or clearing one’s nose and breathing better. But if masturbation is just another way of “scratching an itch,” then why do masturbatory acts almost always occur while fantasizing about another person? This is just more evidence that sex is made to unite persons, and masturbation perverts this meaning.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called God’s people to a new standard of holiness. From now on, they wouldn’t just be held accountable for their actions—they would also be held accountable for the content and intention of their hearts. He taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).

This makes sense because our actions and choices spring from what we keep in our hearts, be it good or evil. If we grow evil thoughts in our hearts, they will sprout into a weed that chokes our spiritual life and keeps us away from God forever. Jesus goes on to say:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Matt. 5:29-30).

Did Jesus condemn masturbation? Some biblical scholars have proposed that Jesus refers to it in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s not hard to see why. First, Jesus says that lust is equivalent to adultery. Then he warns us about our right eye causing us to sin (e.g., lustful thoughts) and our right hand causing us to sin (e.g., lustful actions, masturbation). The qualifier “right” refers to “all we hold dear”—anything we see or touch that is an occasion of sin. But the same language also parallels similar descriptions among Jewish rabbis and, according to Anglican priest Andrew Angel, “provides good reason for reading the stumbling with the right hand in Matthew 5:30 as a reference to masturbation.”

But should we literally pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands? No. Jesus is using hyperbole, a rhetorical device that was common among rabbis of his time, to show that sin is serious and that we must always strive to avoid it. That’s why the Catechism says of masturbation, “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” (2352).

The Church also teaches that we must have compassion on people, especially youth, whose anxieties and difficulties adjusting to puberty factor affect their judgment. But with God’s grace, parents can lay the groundwork throughout childhood that will protect their little ones and preserve their joy and innocence.

Remember . . .

  • The Church teaches that pornography perverts the sacredness of the marital act and harms those who consume it as well as those who produce it.
  • Those who use porn and/or masturbate are conditioned to value sex not as fulfillment of marital vows to another person, but as a selfish way to use another person as a means to base sexual pleasure.
  • Jesus told us we’d be accountable not just for sinful sexual behavior, but even for sinful thoughts. That’s why we must rely on his grace in order to protect our families from sexual sin.

If you liked this article, you can find more in Made This Way, a practical and enlightening guide for explaining tough moral issues to kids (and adults). Buy Made This Way at the Catholic Answers shop.

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