The stress in the common Catholic teaching that, for the unmarried, all directly intended sexual stimulation is objectively grave matter, has led many to the false conclusion that whenever an unmarried person experiences sexual stimulation while awake, he is inevitably guilty of mortal sin. Such a conclusion overlooks the equally common teaching of the Church that a person incurs mortal guilt only when he has fully and deliberately chosen what he clearly realizes to be seriously wrong. Difficulties can arise in determining whether a particular act is fully deliberate or not. But even here there are certain guidelines especially applicable in this matter that may help to avoid the two extremes of considering all such experiences mortal sins or of declaring that there are never any mortal sins in this matter.
What takes place spontaneously during sleep cannot involve guilt. Furthermore, generally speaking, when one is in a sleepy state of just having wakened on trying to get to sleep, his acts will hardly be fully deliberate. There is a natural interplay of sexual stimulation and phantasm or imagination that can easily lead to spontaneous and involuntary actions by the process known to psychologists as ideomotion. Serious sin must always involve a fully deliberate choice of what one fully realizes to be seriously wrong. Such a choice not easily presumed to be that of anyone who wants to love and serve God.
On the other hand, the sexual instinct is one of man’s strongest instincts, and the pleasure connected with its activation is one of the keenest of sensual pleasures. For this reason, many normal persons may at times choose this form of self-gratification when other more natural forms are not available without difficulty or unwanted involvement. Such a deliberate choice is always a mortal sin.
A fully deliberate choice to offend God in this matter will usually be recognized by a confessor without need of questioning if the penitent confesses other grave sins or indicates deliberate grave negligence in avoiding sinful occasions of sin. One who freely chooses to offend God for the pleasure of self-gratification in masturbation will probably be willing to do other actions against the law of God.
A truly neurotic compulsion will usually cause other symptoms of emotional disturbance that can lead one to suspect some emotional imbalance. This may be from a glaring inconsistency between the person’s usual attitude of trying always to please God in all things and his seemingly deliberate setting up of a situation that leads to masturbation. Sincere sorrow immediately after an experience is suggested by some theologians as a fairly good sign that the action was not truly a fully voluntary choice. Constant obsession with sexual thoughts and imaginations by one who wants to love God is usually a sign of some underlying psychological conflict. An absence of any experience of pleasure from the act combined with a feeling of compulsion to perform it is another indication. Even extreme frequency with apparently genuine sorrow after each occurrence can be a significant indication.
These norms are not absolute guarantees of accuracy in a diagnosis, but they can help toward reasonable presumptions of guilt or innocence of formal mortal sin for the subject and for his confessor or counselor.
Where the experience is rather of an involuntary emission, perhaps touched off by involuntary actions or phantasms, even when the subject is awake, he should be reassured that he is not guilty of grave sin and perhaps of no sin at all. To tell him that he can avoid even these involuntary experiences if he tries hard enough and uses supernatural means can cause severe anxiety and even despair, since he may not be able to avoid what is really involuntary. Drugs are not to be recommended for reducing normal sexual instincts, but only on advice of a physician when there seems to be excessive sexual sensitivity. Normal expectancy for some kind of involuntary emission by a sexually mature male without any other sexual outlet ranges from about once a month to about twice a week on an average. For women, there is not the same spontaneous pressure of sperm buildup, but for many the onset of menstruation can cause involuntary stimulation, as can other accidental causes, e.g., constipation or bladder pressure.
Theologians are agreed that while one must ordinarily offer positive resistance to temptations, one may omit such resistance for sufficient reasons, As a sufficient reason, they mention the need for rest or study: that one need not put off required rest nor interrupt legitimate study or work to fight positively for any long time against such involuntary motions and temptations. One cannot study or get to sleep while concentrating the mind on positive resistance to such motions or temptations. This does not mean that one may deliberately seek the physical release of masturbation either. But if an unintended process leads to an emission, there is no fault in such a case. This is true even when one foresees that such a release will take place. Even movements of the hand or body at such times can be reflex, involuntary actions.
Having said this, however, it must also be understood that deliberate masturbation can never be used or advised as a remedy or help in fighting mental or physical disease or abnormality. This would be to use an immoral means to achieve a good end, a practice condemned by Holy Scripture (Rom. 3:8) and the teaching of the Church. Pius XII expressly condemned any such activity for psychotherapeutical purposes (addresses of Sept. 13, 1952, and April 13, 1953), and the Holy Office denied the licitness of masturbation to obtain a semen specimen for the detection and cure of gonorrhea (reply of Aug. 2, 1929).