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Diversity of Roman Catholic beliefs about masturbation:

Part 1: Quotes. History of church teachings,
The Bible.
Papal document: "Persona Humana"

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Quotations:

  • Fr. John F. Harvey: "So often the habit of masturbation becomes compulsive, that is to say, the person is not able to control masturbatory activity in spite of great efforts to do so. Usually such a person is lacking in insight and needs therapy in conjunction with spiritual direction." 1

  • E. Michael Jones: "The struggle with the temptation to masturbate is the smithy in which adolescents form their character. They either learn how to control themselves, with all that that entails, or they do not, with all of the self-loathing projected as hatred of authority which that entails. Masturbation is, in a sense, the root sexual evil first of all from a developmental point of view -- it is the child's introduction to sexual sinning -- but also because all other sexual sinning is at its root masturbatory." 2

  • Pope Paul VI: "... masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act...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." 3

  • Email we received from a member of the Catholic laity: I don't see any problem with masturbation, in spite of what the church teaches. I am a single, heterosexual male who does not have a girlfriend at this time. Masturbation feels good. It does not detract from any relationship that I am involved in. It helps me understand how my body reacts to sexual stimulation that will come in handy later in my life. It lowers my chances of developing prostate cancer. i don't see it becoming an addiction. I just do not see any negatives.
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The history of Catholic teachings about masturbation:

A study by Giovanni Cappelli of the church's stance on masturbation during the first millennium CE shows that:

  • The Bible is silent on the topic.

  • None of the Apostolic Fathers wrote about masturbation.

  • The first mention of masturbation within the Catholic Church is found in sixth century CE penitentials. 1 These were books containing a set of church rules concerning the sacrament of penance. They were first developed by priests as unofficial handbooks that gave standard penances for the most commonly confessed sins.

In commenting on Cappelli's findings, Fr. John Harvey suggests that silence by the Apostolic Fathers does not necessarily mean either a tacit approval or indifference towards masturbation. Their silence may have been caused by their prime concern being interpersonal sexual sins. 1

However, the Church placed much greater emphasis on masturbation later in its history. For example, Thomas Aquinas (circa 1225 to 1274 CE) is the most famous classical proponent of natural theology. He founded the Thomistic school of philosophy and is considered by many Catholics to be the Church's greatest theologian. 4 He taught that God designed the penis to insert sperm into a woman's vagina. He believed that any other use of the penis, except perhaps for urination is unnatural and a "grave offense to the sagacious plan" of God. So is any other destination for the sperm other than that that can lead to conception. This concept many sexual behaviors immoral: bestiality, anal sex, oral sex, masturbation, sex with a person of the same gender, femoral intercourse, etc.

Alan Soble of The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes:

"Aquinas's line of thought yields an anatomical criterion of natural and perverted sex that refers only to bodily organs and what they might accomplish physiologically and to where they are, or are not, put in relation to each other." 4

The church has historically viewed sexuality as having been designed only for procreation. In recent decades, the unitive role that sexual behavior plays in strengthening the marriage bond has been acknowledged. Still, sexual acts that cannot lead to conception continue to be condemned as being against natural law. Also, the Church considers all sexual acts are a serious sin unless performed by one man and one woman who are married to each other, in which there is a possibility of conception. Masturbation meets these criteria for sinfulness.

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What does the Bible say about masturbation?

Nothing, really.

Genesis 38:7-10 discusses the actions of Onan whose brother had died without producing a child. Onan was thus required by tradition to marry his sister-in-law and produce a child. When Onan engaged in sexual activity with his new wife, he did not want her to conceive and have the child credited to the brother. So, he engaged in the least reliable known method of birth control: withdrawl, followed by ejaculating away from her body.

Genesis was written in a pre-scientific era when the role of spermatazoa and ova in the process of conception unknown. The ancient Hebrews believed that sperm -- referred to as seed in the Bible -- contained complete microscopic human beings. The function of the woman's body was only to receive this seed and perhaps nurture one of the human beings contained in the sperm through to childbirth. Spilling the seed on the ground would thus prevent any of these humans from maturing into fetuses and being born. It was considered a form of murder by the Medieval Church, just as most pro-lifers today consider any procedure that terminates the life of a zygote, embryo, or fetus to be murder. According to Genesis, God killed Onan for his behavior. However, the text is not clear whether he died because he violated tradition, or because he spilled the seed on the ground to prevent conception, or both.

Even as late as the middle 18th century, many scientists -- called spermists -- "... thought that a fully formed human being in miniature form, called a homunculus , was found within the male sperm. ..." 5

Medieval theologians concluded that to masturbate would be to repeat the sin of Onan and was thus a serious sin. Masturbation was called onanism. Masturbation is similar to the behavior of Onan's because it usually produces an ejaculation of sperm with no possibility of conception. The church now accepts the finding of scientists that sperm contains only half of the DNA necessasry to produce a human being, and that, at fertilization, the ovum provided by the woman supplies the other half. The Catholic Church has abandoned their earlier beiefs; "modern Catholic moralists are agreed that the ‘wastage of seed’ is not sinful." 6 However, they still believe that masturbation is sinful The only form forms of sexual activity that are not sinful are those between one woman married to one man that are open to the possibility of concepton.

Some conservative Protestants still regard masturbation as the "sin of Onan" and condemn it because of Genesis 38.

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Persona Humana:

Pope Paul VI issued a declaration in 1975 on many aspects of human sexuality. 7 It is titled: "Persona Humana - Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics." Priests and other officials in the Roman Catholic church are currently forbidden to offer alternative opinions in public, or even to suggest that change is needed. 

Some of the pope's comments in Persona Humana condemn masturbation with no room for ambguity:

  • "...masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder..."

  • "...masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act...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."

  • "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." 8

John Wijngaards writes:

"Many Catholic theologians and moralists now reject the view expressed in this papal letter and in similar ones regarding the intrinsic nature of sex. They do not accept the traditional view that sexuality has been exclusively designed for procreation and that all sexual acts that cannot lead to conception are condemned as against natural law.

Sexual acts have other legitimate purposes apart from procreation, such as releasing sexual tension in the individual and strengthening the bonds between partners. In other words: though unimpeded intercourse of husband and wife is the ideal, there are valid reasons for a married couple to use contraceptives during intercourse or fondle each other in mutual stimulation, also for homosexual partners to be involved in physical acts of love, and for individuals to allow themselves to masturbate in certain circumstances." 6

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This topic is continued on the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. John F. Harvey, "Morality of masturbatory activity," Courage, at: http://couragerc.net/
  2. E. Michael Jones, "The Solitary Vice Goes Public", Editorial, Fidelity, Notre Dame, IN, 1985/5.
  3. Pope Paul VI, "Persona Humana - Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics," on 1975-DEC-29, issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
  4. Alan Soble, "Philosophy of Sexuality," The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (2006) at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/
  5. Gamel Hamed, "History of embryology," Medicine for Faith, 2010-MAR-01, at: http://www.medicine4faith.net
  6. John Wijngaards, "Touching oneself - masturbation, self-gratification: a Catholic view," The Body is Sacred, at: http://www.thebodyissacred.org/
  7. Lampert Dolphin, "Masturbation and the Bible," at: http://www.ldolphin.org/
  8. Pope Paul VI, "Persona Humana - Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics," issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 1975-DEC-29. See: http://www.vatican.va/
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Copyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Expanded and rewritten: 2011-DEC-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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