I regularly receive inquiries from individuals–particularly young men–who wish to overcome the habit of masturbation and who have a variety of pastoral questions about it.
Recently I decided to begin a page on my blog answering questions concerning this so that others can benefit from the answers. Please be assured, as always, that any questions submitted to me by e-mail will be rigorously “anonymized” (stripped of personally identifying information).
Before beginning to answer the questions, I’d also like to offer a word of hope.
In 2 Timothy 2:22, St. Paul tells St. Timothy to “shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart.”
Masturbation is not specifically what St. Paul is referring to here (“youthful passions” is a broader category than just masturbation), but I’d like to call attention to his phrase “youthful passions” because it implies hope for those who are struggling against these. While sexual temptation can be an ongoing problem, it is felt with particular intensity by young men.
So, if you’re in your teens or 20s and the struggle is truly great at this point, have hope! Things will get easier with time, and you won’t have to fight this kind of struggle forever. I can’t promise that temptation will go away entirely, but the kind of intense struggle that many young men go through does get better.
Also, as a general matter, I would recommend that individuals check out the materials that are available at chastity.com and see if these are of help to them.
Now, on to questions/issues from readers:
The situation which is troubling me so much began before I arrived at puberty, when I discovered masturbation. At first I wasn’t sure what I was doing. But I felt that whatever it was, it was wrong.
It is not uncommon for individuals to discover masturbation before puberty, and when this happens it is not uncommon for them to not know what the activity is. The reader’s insight at this early age that it was wrong is unusual and precocious. Since people of this age often don’t understand sex and what it is for, the conceptual framework often isn’t in place to understand its moral status.
I have been incurring in mortal sin by masturbating periodically.
While any act of masturbation is objectively grave sin, it is not necessarily mortal. If adequate knowledge or deliberate consent is not present then it does not become a mortal sin. It is helpful, in this regard, to look at what the Catechism has to say concerning masturbation:
By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability [CCC 2352].
As far as I know this passage is unique in the Catechism. I don’t know any other place where it characterizes something as gravely sinful and the immediately names factors “that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability” for committing the act.
The reason it does so here is because masturbation is such a common sin and it is so easy for young people (especially males) to fall into. Unlike other sexual sins–adultery, fornication, prostitution, incest–it is not necessary to involve another person. As a result, it is very easy for individuals to fall into a habit of masturbating–sometimes a habit formed before they even understand what they are doing.
Thus there can be and often are conditions of “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, [and] conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors” that reduce culpability for the act.
Another common situation for many young people is to wake up in the middle of the night already performing the act or on the edge of performing it and–under the stress of the moment–not stopping. This is a kind of case where lack of deliberate consent (being in a semi-conscious state and then failing to stop in the heat of passion) is quite likely to apply.
I don’t know what factors of this sort apply to any given reader or whether they are sufficient to render the act venial, but I do know that such factors can keep the act from being mortal, and the Church felt strongly that these kinds of considerations should be pointed out in the Catechism in the very same place that the sin is described, so nobody would read its definition without also reading the mitigating factors that often apply to it.
I also have been receiving Communion in mortal sin at least once a week too because of the embarrassment that missing the Eucharist meant. I’m from a devout Catholic family, and when I did try to refrain from Communion my parents were deeply concerned. As consequence of this double-bind situation, life became hell for a long while.
You definitely have my sympathies. This is a common dynamic, and it has become more common now that the Eucharistic fast is only an hour before receiving Communion.
Before, when it was three hours, or before that, when it was from midnight, people received Communion less frequently and this kind of situation did not arise as often. Even today there are lots of reasons one might not receive Communion–e.g., the person ate just before Mass, the person is a celiac or otherwise has the potential for a severe allergic reaction to the sacred species, the person is suffering from a condition like scrupulosity or obsessive-compulsive disorder, the person just has an older-fashioned spirituality, and there are others. Being in unconfessed mortal sin is only one explanation, but people don’t think of the other reasons as quickly.
This kind of double-bind situation also is a problem that can lessen as one gets older. Moving out of one’s parents’ house and having your own ability to get to confession and Mass without having to depend on them allows one to either go to confession first or to not receive Communion without it being obvious to your parents.
As long as that is not the case, however, I can see several possibilities for a person who is struggling in this situation:
1) Turn more intensely to God and find the strength to stop masturbating. Obviously this is the best solution.
2) Failing this, find a way to get to confession.
3) Failing this, tell one or both parents what the situation is. One might say, “Look, right at this point in my life I am really struggling with sexual temptation. I still care about my faith, in fact I care about it so much that I don’t want to commit sacrilege by receiving Communion without going to confession. It is embarrassing for me to admit this, but I ask for your patience and your prayers. I know that by God’s help I will be able to overcome this.”
Is this the right thing to do in a particular case? I can’t say. Families are different. Some parents would be able to handle this kind of admission from one of their children. In other families this would be a disaster.
I don’t know any given reader’s family, so I can’t say whether this course would be advisable. I can say that I would not undertake this course of action without a lot of thought (once it’s done, it can’t be undone) and preferably advice from one’s priest or spiritual director.
4) Finally, one might judge–if mitigating considerations like those named in the Catechism apply–that one is, in fact, not in mortal sin after a particular act of masturbation.
If this is true then one would be free to receive Communion.
However, people should not lightly presume this to be the case.
I would strongly advise a reader considering this option to have a discussion (or a few discussions) with an orthodox confessor or spiritual director to get a sense of when an act of masturbation is and is not mortal in a particular reader’s case.
And in case one is wrong in making this assessment, one should make an act of perfect contrition prior to receiving Communion.
This brings up one additional possibility . . .
5) If one knows that one is in a state of mortal sin and cannot get to confession prior to Communion, one might receive under the terms specified by Canon 916 of the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin [they mean “mortal sin” in this case; see here] is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.
Can there be a grave reason to receive the Eucharist in this situation? Yes. If failing to receive would cause grave pain (e.g., by creating a nightmare family situation) or if failing to receive would lessen one’s resolve not to fall into the same sin (i.e., “I’ve already done it once; I’ll refrain from receiving Communion so that I can do it twice) then a grave reason to receive Communion exists.
If the other conditions of the canon are fulfilled (not reasonably able to go to confession before Communion, makes an act of perfect contrition including the resolve to go to confession as soon as reasonably possible) then one could in good conscience receive Communion in these circumstances. (Making the act of perfect contrition including the resolve to go to confession put one back in a state of grace, and the circumstances specified in the canon make one legally eligible for Communion as well.)
As with the previous solution, no one should lightly exercise the provisions of this canon. It is, however, a possibility that one can be in this kind of situation, which is why the Church has Canon 916 in the Code.
The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (a.k.a. “the green commentary”) states:
Grave reasons for going to Communion without confessing include danger of death and serious embarrassment if Communion is not taken [p. 1111].
The best solution is #1, and it is the goal toward which one need to work, even if other the solutions presented above are used as temporary measures.
I’ve long felt that what I’m doing has really no forgiveness, and that even if it did, I wouldn’t be able to get proper forgiveness because the act of confession is such an embarrassment for me.
On the first point, the Church is quite clear: There is forgiveness for this sin, as there is for all sins when people repent of them. Do not worry about that. In fact, this is an extremely common sin and, while it is grave, it is not nearly as grave as some other sins. Christ made a sacrifice of infinite value, and that is more than enough forgiveness for this.
On the second point, there are ways of helping the embarrassment that comes with confessing this sin. We will deal with these methods below.
I would literally describe it as torture every time I go to confess, and I’m not sure that I have made a valid confession ever in my life. I always hide things, or try to forget them during confession.
Deliberately failing to disclose things that one is obliged to disclose in confession does invalidate the confession, but let’s make sure that you are required to disclose these things. Often times people think they need to disclose things that they do not.
What is required is: (1) the kind of sin and (2) the number of times it occurred (approximately if a specific number is not known; e.g., “once a week,” “once a day,” “a lot,” “I don’t know how many times,” etc.). The Code of Canon Law provides:
Can. 988 §1. A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.
One is not bound to get into a lot of detail. In fact, when it comes to sexual sins, it is pastorally advisable not to get into a lot of detail because this not only makes it harder to confess due to the embarrassment, it also can put oneself (and potentially even the confessor) in the proximate occasion of sin by stirring up impure thoughts.
The same applies to making an examination of conscience beforehand. One should not dwell on or over-analyze what one has to confess. If that means not being able to confess in as much detail (e.g., exact numbers) then so be it. Avoiding the near occasion of stirring up impure thoughts excuses from the need to confess in that detail.
As one can see from the simple requirement to confess sins by number and kind, one is not required to confess aggravating or mitigating circumstances. It is enough to say, “I did this” and leave it at that.
One does sometimes encounter statements that one needs to confess certain circumstances connected with sin, but only those that would change the species or the kind of sin. For example, masturbating with another person would change the species from ordinary masturbation to mutual masturbation. It is the addition of the extra person that changes the kind of sin. Similarly, masturbating with a close relative would add the element of incestuous sexual activity and thus, again, change the kind of sin. But as long as this kind of major, top-level change in the kind of sin is not present, one does not need to confess circumstances.
Regarding your concern that you may never have made a valid confession, this concern may be exaggerated. However, in this case I would recommend that you make a general confession.
Be sure to do it in such a way that will maximize your chance of avoiding future scrupulosity about whether it was valid: Sit down with a really thorough examination of conscience and make a list of everything mortally sinful that you think you may have done. Write it by hand; don’t use a computer. Then take this list with you into the confessional and read it or, if it is too painful, give it to the priest and say “I confess this.” Then get the list back and DESTROY it (e.g., burn it and then flush the ashes).
Also, be sure to set up a special appointment time with the priest. Don’t show up to do it right before Mass or when there are other people waiting in line.
While confessing I’m never sure if I should describe all the unbearably embarrassing things with which I arouse myself, or just what qualifies as valid confession without it being too intimate.
As the previous discussion shows, one does not have to go into a great deal of detail about these matters and, in fact, it is pastorally prudent not to.
Stick to broad categories of easily identifiable acts: “I masturbated,” “I used pornography,” “I put myself in a situation where I knew I would experience temptation,” “I had impure thoughts.”
One priest actually encouraged me to describe him the whole thing. He did so because I told him of my guilty by always hiding that part during confession, and I recall that incident as one of the most uncomfortable of my entire existence.
If you said that you had been hiding things then the priest was obliged to inquire as to what things, to try to ensure that the confession would be valid. However, it is not necessary to confess beyond the kind of sin and the number of sins. You do not need to and should not subject yourself to a detailed recounting of what you did or imagined.
Additionally, this masturbation thing has led the way to some scary things, such as as my thinking of Virgin Mary in an obscene (insane!) way. This last thing, I would like to blame on my apprehensive nature I’m not really sure if I suffer from an actual disorder, say of the obsessive-compulsive sort, but at least I can say that I’m a very, very nervous guy. I’ve read that some patients who suffer obsessive-compulsive disorders actually have recurring thoughts of things they know wrong (like obscene thoughts about religious stuff) because of their condition, and I can think of a number of similar (if much less grave) symptoms that might qualify me as a victim of that condition.
I can’t diagnose whether a particular reader has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but even individuals who do not have OCD sometimes experience momentary symptoms of it, such as perverse thoughts that they know are wrong and do not wish to have.
If one is experiencing involuntary thoughts then there is no sin at all and thus no need to confess.
If there is some degree of voluntariness to the thoughts but one is not choosing to foster them with full, deliberate consent then they are venially sinful and do not need to be confessed. (And, in fact, to prevent stirring them up again one likely should not confess them.)
If one does choose to foster the thoughts with deliberate consent then they do need to be confessed. However, this does not mean getting into lots of detail. One may simply say, “I have had impure thoughts with sacrilegious content.” The fact that one has said sacrilegious tells the species of the sin adequately. One does not need to go into specific subtype of sacrilege. And, in fact, doing so would likely cause more problems.
If one has significant doubt about whether one has fostered the thoughts with deliberate consent then one is not obliged to confess them, particularly if doing so could stir up such thoughts.
If one suffers from scrupulosity or OCD the one should confess the thoughts only if one knows for a fact that one has deliberately fostered them.
If you have a priest who asks what you mean, say that you have been advised (and you have–by me, Jimmy Akin) not to go into further detail lest it stir up more thoughts of the same kind.
In fact, needing to avoid putting oneself in the proximate occasion of sin is itself an excusing cause from confessing something. If you know that confessing certain sins will cause you to be in danger of new ones then do not confess them. Your will to do God’s will is shown by the fact that you are trying to avoid committing new sins. That is a sign of repentance.
In all things, trust God. None of what the reader has written is unusual. Confessors hear this type of material all the time, and God’s mercy is more than sufficient to cover it.
Relax. Trust God. And be thankful for his love.