I feel compelled to comment on this area as I was reading Fr. Vincent Serpa’s response in the Ask an Apologist section to a question regarding masturbation and it being a mortal sin, as it brings up a greater issue in context to similar controversial subject matter. There are some acts that are irrefutably wrong, those that involve the direct harm against another individual. When one carefully reads the Ten Commandments, it is rather clear that the first three deal specifically with one’s relationship with God and the last seven involve one’s relationship with others. In as far as we can deduce from this assessment, it is clear that offenses such as abortion and infidelity are quite clearly violations against others and so it makes the moral determination much more clearly black or white.
However, what is less clear are actions that are to be considered offenses against God or one’s own self due to the very gray and vague nature of the reality of existence. Sins such as masturbation and contraception are certainly less clear in moral context. This is not to suggest that I am unaware of how the Catholic Church views such sins. I am also quite familiar with how the Catechism of the Church defines such offenses. And I am quite aware that many would interpret such determinations as being unambiguous and in no need of further discussion, however, I find it important to address these issues because they are issues that speak to the very heart and soul of human nature and thus affect everyone on a level that is certainly less pervasive in its moral application.
I have read postings on this forum that have included the boastings of individuals as to how they have overcome masturbation, how it has never affected them, and so on. Having a degree in psychology, having spent many years studying human nature, having watched infants masturbate, and having witnessed other primates doing the same, leads me to have some problems with the practicality of calling masturbation a mortal sin, and I am what many would consider to be more on the end of a conservative Catholic than a liberal. I believe the Catechism uses the term “gravely disordered action” regarding this practice and it also labels it as a violation against the life of chastity all Christians are called to live according to their own state in life. My first problem with this stems from the fact that whether or not people choose to admit it, masturbation has occurred at some point in our lives. It being common to all human beings as well as to many animals, leads me to conclude that it may actually have a specific purpose or function to serve.
My second problem involves the issue of adolescent sexuality. Whether our society likes it or not, teenagers are raging with hormones for a reason. Biologically, they are entering a time when nature has prepared them for procreation. Now because society has conditioned the prolonged immaturity of youth, especially in western culture, it is generally not accepted for a teenager to be sexually active. Problems relating to unwanted pregnancies, the possibility of facing abortion, etc. all contributes to this position. Is not masturbation, then, a preferred course of action in this case when it is absolutely unreasonable to insist or expect a teenager to psychologically avoid what his/her own body is telling them to do? What’s worse is then to tell such a person that what they are doing is committing a mortal sin (direct severance of one’s relationship with God). Then to add even more shame to the act, they are told they must confess this to their priest before they can receive Jesus in Holy Communion? We are not talking about the temptations of Satan here. We are talking about how God designed our bodies to work. When Jesus Christ welcomed his own betrayer to receive his body and blood, would He not do the same for someone acting out of a biological impulse his own Father created?
In my mind, it is irrational, archaic, and a bit of a moral stretch for the Church to produce a concept such as comparing masturbation to committing adultery, which is what it does by listing it in the Catechism under the section of the Sixth Commandment. The scrupulosity that can occur in the mind of someone who has normal human sexual desire with no morally acceptable outlet can create a generalized anxiety condition that could lead to a lifetime of dysfunctional behavior. No spiritual progress can be made for such a person as they become so obsessive with their own behavior in relation to their own salvation. I have had so many Christian clients with this problem that it leads me to wonder if the APA should classify it as a separate disorder.