Alright, let's talk about masturbation. This is an extremely sensitive topic because so many people (especially young males) struggle with it. There is something uncomfortable about it; many Catholics, even in the past, were very reluctant to talk about "the solitary sin." For example, there is no entry for masturbation in the otherwise very voluminous 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia. This traditional reluctance is somewhat understandable. To discuss the matter is to admit one into a very intimate aspect of one's life, an aspect that is sometimes not proper to discuss at all with certain people. And to admit of masturbation is a serious embarrassment; it is like admitting that one lacks the most basic self-control. However, given the prevalence of masturbation, the awkwardness surrounding it, the confusion many young people have about it, and the silence of many in the Church about this issue, it is fitting to take some time to address it here.
Is Masturbation a Sin?
There are various positions on masturbation in the Christian world today. Some, like evangelical Protestant pastor and doctor James Dobson, have taught that masturbation is a natural and normal part of human development that one should not feel bad about masturbating. Others have described it as positively healthy and encouraged masturbation, especially among young men.
But the Catholic Church has taken a different approach. The most recent authoritative statement on masturbation comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which defines masturbation as the "deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure" (CCC 2352) and says that these actions are intrinsically disordered and morally wrong. The Catechism says masturbation is "an intrinsically and seriously disordered act."
Obviously, there is no place in the Scriptures where it says "Thou shalt not masturbate." Some - mainly evangelicals taking a sola scriptura approach - will argue from this that there is no sin in masturbation. This is pure sophistry. Of course, Catholics do not go by the Bible alone; but even if we did, it is not too much of a stretch to apply the moral principles of the Scripture to this action to see it is immoral, as even Protestants do when it comes to figuring out that abortion is murder and slavery is immoral, even though the latter is not explicitly mentioned as a sin and the former is actually allowed in the Scriptures. Chastity is chastity. Lust is lust. We are all called to chastity, and offenses against chastity are sins.
Why is Masturbation a Sin?
What exactly makes masturbation sinful? What can be so bad about a person touching their own body?
The Catechism cites the 1975 document Persona Humana from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its statement. Persona Humana Chapter 9 attempts to explain the Church's teaching on masturbation in the context of its broader teaching on the human person and the moral quality of human actions. This document is worth citing at length, with relevant sections emboldened:
The traditional Catholic doctrine that masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder is often called into doubt or expressly denied today. It is said that psychology and sociology show that it is a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young. It is stated that there is real and serious fault only in the measure that the subject deliberately indulges in solitary pleasure closed in on self ("ipsation"), because in this case the act would indeed be radically opposed to the loving communion between persons of different sex which some hold is what is principally sought in the use of the sexual faculty.
This opinion is contradictory to the teaching and pastoral practice of the Catholic Church. Whatever the force of certain arguments of a biological and philosophical nature, which have sometimes been used by theologians, in fact both the Magisterium of the Church--in the course of a constant tradition-- and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act.
The main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes "the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love." All deliberate exercise of sexuality must be reserved to this regular relationship. Even if it cannot be proved that Scripture condemns this sin by name, the tradition of the Church has rightly understood it to be condemned in the New Testament when the latter speaks of "impurity," "unchasteness" and other vices contrary to chastity and continence.
Sociological surveys are able to show the frequency of this disorder according to the places, populations or circumstances studied. In this way facts are discovered, but facts do not constitute a criterion for judging the moral value of human acts. The frequency of the phenomenon in question is certainly to be linked with man's innate weakness following original sin; but it is also to be linked with the loss of a sense of God, with the corruption of morals engendered by the commercialization of vice, with the unrestrained licentiousness of so many public entertainments and publications, as well as with the neglect of modesty, which is the guardian of chastity.
On the subject of masturbation modern psychology provides much valid and useful information for formulating a more equitable judgment on moral responsibility and for orienting pastoral action. Psychology helps one to see how the immaturity of adolescence (which can sometimes persist after that age), psychological imbalance or habit can influence behavior, diminishing the deliberate character of the act and bringing about a situation whereby subjectively there may not always be serious fault. But in general, the absence of serious responsibility must not be presumed; this would be to misunderstand people's moral capacity.
In the pastoral ministry, in order to form an adequate judgment in concrete cases, the habitual behavior of people will be considered in its totality, not only with regard to the individual's practice of charity and of justice but also with regard to the individual's care in observing the particular precepts of chastity. In particular, one will have to examine whether the individual is using the necessary means, both natural and supernatural, which Christian asceticism from its long experience recommends for overcoming the passions and progressing in virtue (Persona Humana, 9).
This document establishes a few normative principles:
First, the Catholic Church still does regard masturbation as a disordered action and hence sinful. This is based on the constant tradition of the Church and the moral convictions of the Christian faithful.
Second, the reason it is considered wrong is the same reason fornication or adultery are wrong - it constitutes the use of the sexual faculty outside of marriage, which is the purpose to which it was intended by God.
Third, while modern psychology can tell us about the motivations or prevalence of the practice of masturbation, it cannot legitimize or pass judgment on the moral quality of the act. Just because it is common does not mean it is acceptable; lying and drunkenness are very common as well.
Fourth, immaturity, force of habit, etc. may diminish an individual's guilt for this sin. This is not to say the act is not objectively sinful, only that there are circumstances in which the person's guilt for that sin may be diminished.
Finally, it is presumed that any Christian struggling with the sin of masturbation will avail himself of all "necessary means", both physical and supernatural, to overcome this vice and progress in virtue.
It should be noted that some argue that masturbation is only sinful to the degree that one lusts after women during the act; that is, it is the lustful thoughts that accompany masturbation that make it immoral, not the act itself. It is certainly true that the accompanying lustful thoughts are also wrong, but that does not mean the act itself is neutral, as if one who was capable of masturbating without any corresponding lustful thoughts would not be doing anything wrong. This is incorrect; Catholic tradition has always held that the act itself is immoral, regardless of what sorts of thoughts may or may not accompany it.
The Purposefulness of Human Acts
In the modern world, we tend to view our bodies are objects which "belong" to us. We tend to think we are free to do whatever we wish with "our" bodies and that any moral prohibition on certain bodily activities is a burdensome hindrance on our freedom.
It is helpful to recall the classical definition of freedom, which is not the ability to do whatever we wish, but the ability to fulfill our natural ends. An "end" refers to the purpose or meaning for which a thing is created. The end of human existence is beatitude with God; thus, we are only truly free to the extent that we move towards fulfilling that end.
But each faculty or part of the human person has an end proper to it as well. The end of the mind is rational thought. The end of the nose is smelling, the tongue of tasting, etc. How do we know what the ends of these faculties are? It is quite easy to discern; since we hold that the human body was created by God and has a certain nature proper to it, the ends of our bodily faculties are found in the very biology of those faculties.
The purpose of the nose is smelling, and we know this because the very biological structure of the nose orders it towards this function. The purpose of the tongue is taste, and this is discerned by examining the very biological construct of the tongue, which orders it towards tasting.
What, then, is the purpose or end of the genital organs? The sexual organs of men and women are clearly meant for procreation. Nobody really denies this; it is evident from the biological structure of the penis, testicles, vagina, etc. and the way they interact, as well as the fruits they bring forth (i.e., the conception of children). Masturbation, as noted by Persona Humana, contradicts the purposefulness of the human genital faculty by separating sexual action from the marital act - the same reason contraception and fornication are sinful.
It is certainly not sinful for us to touch our own genital organs, as if a part of the body could be in itself bad or unclean. The problem is not the touching of the genitals; the problem is in their self-stimulation for sexual gratification.
It is sometimes objected that masturbating is simply part of the human sex drive and therefore is natural. It is natural to have a sex drive, obviously, but it is not therefore moral to satisfy this sexual drive by pleasuring oneself. It is interesting that, in the case of men whose sex drive is typically much more intense, the semen is regularly discharged through nocturnal emission. This is the natural means God has provided to the male body to periodically discharge semen. While there is a lot of medieval speculation about Incubi, Succubi, and possible demonic influence behind these events - and while not denying that the devil certainly can and does attack us through our sexual passions - nocturnal emission itself is perfectly natural and the manner by which the single or celibate man discharges his semen. If a man is married, obviously his and his wife's sexual impulses are gratified in conjugal intercourse (1 Cor. 7:9).
How to Stop Masturbating
One of the greatest lies of the devil is the belief that we will never get over a particular sin (see "The Distraction of That One Sin", USC). With masturbation, it is particularly easy to fall into the deception that there can never be total victory - that one will be masturbating forever, especially if the force of habit has reinforced the action.
This is a patent lie. Persona Humana says that a person is to make use of "the necessary means, both natural and supernatural, which Christian asceticism from its long experience recommends for overcoming the passions and progressing in virtue." If we persevere, total victory is possible. I myself struggled with this vice in my early life; often times it seemed like I would never get over it. I am happy to say that at the time of writing this article, I have gone the better part of a decade without a single lapse. This seems miraculous in retrospect, since there was a time when even a month was extraordinarily difficult.
What are the "natural means" mentioned for overcoming this habit? This means altering our surroundings and routine in such a way that minimize the occasions of the sin. This is also referred to as "putting a hedge around" the sin. When you are lying down in your bed, sleep with the door open. Don't spend more than five minutes in the shower; direct someone else to come knock on the door after a certain amount of time. You don't have to say why; "Hey, I'm gonna take a quick shower. Please come knock on the door after five minutes." Basically, look at the occasion in your life in which you find yourself engaging in the sin and try to minimize those occasions.
Remember also, the old adage "Idle hands are the devil's plaything" is very true. Your danger of falling into the sin of masturbating increases greatly if you are sitting around alone with little to do. The Benedictine motto Ora et Labora ("Pray and Work") is helpful. Occupy your spare time during the day with prayer, spiritual reading, or manual work. When you wake up in the morning, get out of bed promptly and begin your daily routine.
The supernatural means for overcoming masturbation are the graces of God made available through prayer and the sacraments of the Church. Make sure you pray Morning and Evening Prayers. The Church's traditional Divine Office has a beautiful prayer called Te Lucis Ante Terminum ("To thee before the close of day") which in the second verse prays:
From all ill dreams defend our sight,
From fears and terrors of the night;
Withhold from us our ghostly foe,
That spot of sin we may not know
This is a very helpful prayer to ward off temptations that may come at night.
One must also confess this sin. Every time. No matter how embarrassing it seems. No matter how the evil may try to tell you that you don't need to confess it or that it is not a serious sin. Take it to confession. That's the only way you will ever be rid of it. Confess it again and again, however much you need to. And make those firm resolutions to not commit the sin again with extra devotion. Imagine what your life would be like without this sin. Keep hope that total victory is possible, because it is.
I want to note also that there is a profound connection between the sexual appetite and the appetite for food, such that to discipline the latter is to reign in the former. Fasting is an excellent remedy against lust. We recommend our article "Gluttony and Lust" for more background on this connection.
Eventually, you will notice instances of it declining. If you masturbated weekly, you will notice being able to succeed for longer periods. Two weeks, three weeks. This will give you strength and hope. Continue to pray. Gradually your falls will become rarer; you will find you have gone two months. Then four. Then before you know it you will have gone a whole year. Remember this date and recall it to give you confidence in the power of divine grace.
I have found, in my own struggle with this, that the most singularly important fact in overcoming it was maintaining a lively hope that total victory was possible, and praying towards that end. Although, I also want to give credit to the miraculous cord and medal of the Angelic Warfare Confraternity. The medallion features an image of two angels girding St. Thomas Aquinas with a cord of chastity in reference to the famous story where Thomas' family tried to tempt him away from the religious life by sending a courtesan to his room. I had already largely overcome this sin by the time I learned about the Angelic Warfare medallion and cord, but after I enrolled in the Confraternity I never struggled with it again.
Masturbation can be hard to overcome. And it is embarrassing to admit. It can be easy to lie to oneself that this action is acceptable, or perhaps that it is only a small sin. But it has traditionally been regarded as a sin in the Catholic tradition, and a serious sin at that. Why live in bondage to it? Why declare a truce with it? With God's grace - and some prudence - this sin can be overcome totally. Fight the good fight and live in the freedom meant for the sons of God (Rom. 8:21).