Gravity of sexual sins

All sins of a sexual nature are grave matter. This is a given. That being said, our faith tells us that some sins are, by their very nature, much more grave than other sins. There are degrees of disorder - degrees of deviation from God’s design. If my understanding of St. Thomas Aquinas is correct, he taught that masturbation is far graver, far more disordered, than fornication between a man and a woman, as the former is even farther removed from God’s intention for sex. In the case of fornication, the act itself (one man with one woman) is completely natural, and the man and woman involved may even have the good (though disordered) desire to please the other out of love, but the context, outside of the marital covenant, is wrong. In the case of masturbation, the act is completely unnatural, completely foreign to natural law, and always in every case disordered. I believe St. Thomas placed it in the same general category as homosexual acts.
Why then do we as Catholics seem to treat fornication as a much more serious issue? When posters start a thread discussing their struggle with masturbation the general consensus is “this is a sin, but you will sometimes fall, keep praying and working at it”, but when a poster starts a thread admitting to fornication the general consensus is more like “run as fast as you can - there is nothing more dangerous that you could do.” It seems to me there is a disconnect between theology and the moral compass of the faithful on this issue. Was St. Thomas simply wrong on this particular issue? I personally struggle with the idea that masturbation is more harmful than fornication, even if I understand the “logic” behind it from the perspective of natural law.

This is a fascinating point you bring up. It does indeed seem that the posters here respond more urgently to fornication than to masturbation.

I’m inclined to think this is the case because the solution for escaping from fornication is much easier to accomplish than the solution for escaping from masturbation. In the case of the former, the most practical way to get out of a situation is to “run”, as you say, that is, get out of the relationship. This seems like a very strong reaction to the sin. For masturbation, on the other hand, you can’t physically separate yourself from the occasion of sin, because it is yourself. It is impossible to “escape” from the temptation by physically removing yourself from it, as is the case with escaping fornication.

Thus, since no physical action can occur, but only spiritual healing, people tend to respond with advice on quelling personal temptations and suggest praying and making sacrifices to fight off the sin. This reaction seems much less “bombastic” or strong than the commonly suggested method of leaving a situation where fornication is a temptation.

However, it is certainly more difficult to escape from the temptation of masturbation, and the poor souls who are trapped in that cesspool of sin need our prayers dearly.

Well, for starters, it’s news to me that masturbation is greater than fornication. I won’t argue that or the reasoning behind it, but it just seems like fornication is worse because it’s regarded as a “higher” and more “complete” sexual act. :shrug:

From what I understand, masturbation is more disordered than fornication, because our sexual drive is meant to direct us outward, toward a beloved “other”. Masturbation, also sometimes called ipsation, is a collapsing inward upon oneself, directing toward oneself that which should propel us toward another. Collapsing in upon oneself is a dangerous thing to do, psychological speaking, and we now know it creates neural pathways over time that further cement a person in their narcissistic approach to sexual longing. Fornication, while being outside the proper context (marriage), is still properly directed, that is, outward.
Regarding cultural impressions of the gravity of the acts, it is a recent phenomenon. I have read quite a bit about former ways of thinking about masturbation and fornication, and up until the middle of the 20th century, masturbation was commonly seen as a perverse and shameful habit that would make a person unfit for marriage. Fornication was seen as a more natural failing; still grave, but one that could be amended by either marrying one’s sexual partner or giving up one’s partner and returning to a chaste lifestyle.
It is strange that the values have become so inverted. I suspect that the more modern fetishization of virginity, rather than a valuation of chastity, and the sexual revolution, and the increased prevalence of STDs, and the medical community’s trumpeting about the so-called benefits of masturbation, have all contributed to the modern inversion of values.

I’m glad you first noted that all of these types of sins are grave. This is a concept that can be foggy as people try to justify their actions (to themselves many times).

Key is to confess often even if stuck in habits with these sins.

Then you have participants in both activities that absolutely will not eat meat on Friday’s in Lent.

I find this to be even a larger irony than splitting gravity in the sins you mentioned. Why the no meat rule vs seemingly more grave sins is so strong amongst the flock has always been an interesting item to me.

Take care,

That is an interesting insight that had not occurred to me. I figured fornication was the greater sin precisely because it involves another person, that is, it leads another person into sin as well as oneself.

I think that is a separate issue. Looking at the sexual act itself, objectively speaking, masturbation is more disordered than fornication; however, if a boyfriend (or girlfriend) deliberately tempts his/her girlfriend/boyfriend into the sin of fornication, he or she is committing a separate and distinct sin on top of the sin of fornication.

I was taught that anything done to arouse yourself or others sexually (outside marriage) is a grave matter. I’ll leave it up to moral theologians to determine whether one’s culpability (of masturbation, fornication, adultery, etc.) is lessen by factors such as seduction, force of habit, etc.

While I can surely see the reasoning behind the gravity of thee sins I would caution those teaching high school youth. Truth being said, most teenagers masturbate and we can teach that it is grave matter and that they seek confession. But if we give them this perspective then we open up the door to promiscuity. Kids will still masturbate but then knowing that fornication is a lesser evil they will be more apt to engage in it. If given the choice a teenager would much rather engage in sexual intercourse than masturbate. So, to underscore my point, I am only cautioning from a pastoral standpoint the many catechists out there. I will continue to teach that both are grave matter and need confessing and leave out the “graver” of the two when teaching the youth. Anyone else agree?

I would agree with this approach. Especially as fornication brings with it other potential dangers. And in the case of masturbation, especially among teens, I think culpability is often lessened by a variety of factors even if the act itself is objectively very disordered.

Yeah, I don’t think there needs to be emphasis on ‘this is much worse than that’ when your talking about 2 things that are only very bad for the person.

The key is to promote what is good for the person, what can be done instead of bad things for the soul and when temptation seems strong.

A great practical thing is exercise.

Exactly my thoughts. Thank you for your input on this. God bless. :slight_smile:

For one thing, fornication might result in pregnancy, the implications of which far outstrip a momentary lapse that leads to masturbation.

Frankly, I don’t understand the number of threads about the different gravity of mortal sins. It is totally irrelevant. It does not matter if one mortal sin is graver than another because if you die unrepentant you go to Hell whatever the mortal sin is.

Wow; I never thought about it this way, but I think there is a lot of truth to this. I think that for some people this inward collapse can lead to self-centered thinking in many areas of their life, not just sexually. With these people, one could argue whether that self-centered nature was a result of the masturbation or the masturbation fit well into their already existing personality… which came first? I’d guess that masturbation is pretty common among narcissists!

I think that the issue of how to guide teens is a tricky one. I agree that the best defense is a good offense; really emphasize the ways to re-focus that sexual energy in other directions until the appropriate time in their lives, and to make sure they understand the dangers and seriousness of both fornication and masturbation.

Another thing that is related here is that there is such an epidemic of porn addiction and it is so easy to find. If a teen has an addictive personality, this can have a profound effect on relationships as they get older. I don’t know if one even needs to have an addictive personality to become addicted to porn. I think that this also needs to be addressed with the youth more clearly than it is. Culture here in the US very clearly tells us that porn is no big deal and everyone is looking at it.

A great practical thing is exercise.

You know there is a chapter in Screwtape Letters about how dumb this is.

I think one sentence of it reads - ‘how someone can believe this given the notorious lustfulness of soldiers and sailors is beyond me’

On the original question, I’m of the opinion Aquinas simply had this wrong, given the vast difference in temporal consequences of each. Graver sins usually have graver consequences. This would be as if murder was less grave than striking someone. We recognize this relationship in sin. To kill is graver than to wound. To steal a man’s only possession is graver than taking his spare change. To lie and cause someone to lose their job is graver than to lie about someone looking nice in a hideous dress.

Now try to say ‘to masturbate is graver than to seduce and corrupt a virgin’. That’s how Thomas had it…and that is very difficult to believe.


There are more obvious consequences with fornication. Pregnancy, Stds, getting your heart-broken, gaining a poor reputation. I do not know what the consequences are for masturbation.

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