This post is dedicated to a comparison between the positions of the Catholic Church on the masturbation and the reality of the phenomenon, as it appears through a simple analysis of the facts.
The definition of masturbation given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Part Three, Section Two, Chapter Two, art. 6, n. 2352) (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P85.HTM) is: “deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure“. The English text uses “sexual pleasure”, but the Latin one uses ”veneream voluptatem” (venereal lust). The use of the adjective venereal, now obsolete in everyday language and even in medical terminology where the expression “venereal diseases” has been replaced by the more accurate expression “sexually transmitted diseases”, is indebted to Thomas Aquinas, who, in the “quaestio” of Summa Theologica dedicated to lust (Summa Thelogica II^ IIae, q. 153), frequently uses expressions that refer to “venereal lust (ἀφροδισιαστικός)” such as “delectationes venereae”, “voluptates venereas”, “actus venereus”, “usus venereorum”.
The Catechism is limited to a mere reference to the Declaration “Persona Humana” of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (end of 1975) that however treats the subject in a much more structured way.
The point n. 9 of the Declaration Persona Humana on masturbation is one of the most typical examples of closed dogmatic structure of Catholic morality.
The Declaration Persona humana approaches the topic “masturbation” recalling that: “The traditional Catholic doctrine that masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder is often called into doubt or expressly denied today. It is said that psychology and sociology show that it is a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young.” The Church opposes these psychological or sociological theories only with its authority stating that “according to someone” that the Church considers certainly in error, in masturbation “there is real and serious fault only in the measure that the subject deliberately indulges in solitary pleasure closed in on self (“ipsation”), because in this case the act would indeed be radically opposed to the loving communion between persons of different sex which some hold is what is principally sought in the use of the sexual faculty.” Beyond the fact that the text expressly speaks of “persons of different sex,” it introduces a distinction, in the context of masturbation, between “heterosexual” affective masturbation and “ipsation”. The term “ipsation” (from the Latin “ipse” = myself) was coined by Magnus Hirschfeld and was used in the psycho-biological questionnaire to be filled from patients of the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin founded by Hirschfeld himself in 1919.
The question. 35 of the questionnaire was as follows: “Do you ever let yourself go to ipsation, i.e. to the satisfaction achieved through onanism? When did you start masturbating? How did you contract this habit? Have you been encouraged by people of your age or of different ages? From people of your same sex or different sex? Up to what age? With what intervals and what mental representations and how did you masturbate? If you are a woman, by external caresses or through the introduction of foreign objects in your body? Have you ever struggled against this trend? If so, by what means (vows, prayers, etc.) “.
The document Persona humana uses the term ipsation (now very rarely used by sexologists) to indicate a “solitary pleasure closed in on self” that would be the reason for the immorality of this “only” kind of masturbation. Obviously the Declaration does not consider any psycho-sexual topic and merely judges morally irrelevant the distinction between “heterosexual” affective masturbation, which implies at least a projective couple dimension, and ipsation i.e. the non-affective masturbation, as if it was that there is a dividing line between the two, and as if the question of the moral legitimacy of masturbation was reduced to this. The document points out that masturbation is still and always condemned by the Church for constant tradition and that whatever the reasons that induce certain indulgence toward affective masturbation: “This opinion is contradictory to the teaching and pastoral practice of the Catholic Church. Whatever the force of certain arguments of a biological and philosophical nature, which have sometimes been used by theologians, in fact both the Magisterium of the Church – in the course of a constant tradition – and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act.”
The Document specifies the reason behind this judgment: “The main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting this way, 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.” Whatever the value of the arguments to the contrary, the sentence is therefore bases its unfailing motivation on the teaching and tradition of the Church that legitimizes the use of the sexual faculty only in “normal conjugal relations“.
Very interesting is the evaluation of the significance of sociological research on the topic of masturbation, as proposed by the Vatican document: “Sociological surveys are able to show the frequency of this disorder according to the places, populations or circumstances studied. In this way facts are discovered, but facts do not constitute a criterion for judging the moral value of human acts.”
The Congregation in practice only paraphrases a document of Pope Paul VI, “If sociological surveys are useful to know the mentality of the environment and the concerns and needs of those to whom we proclaim the word of God, as well as the resistance that human reason could oppose in the modern age, with the widespread notion that does not exist outside of science, any legitimate form of knowledge, the findings of such investigations could never constitute in themselves a determinant criterion of truth.”(Paolo VI, Esort. apost. Quinque iam anni).
The Congregation goes to the identification of the causes of the frequency of masturbation as follows:
“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.
Then the document mentions the “modern psychology” although it is not clear to what it refers specifically:
“On the subject of masturbation modern psychology provides much valid and useful information for formulating a more equitable judgment on moral responsibility and for orienting pastoral action. Psychology helps one to see how the immaturity of adolescence (which can sometimes persist after that age), psychological imbalance or habit can influence behavior, diminishing the deliberate character of the act and bringing about a situation whereby subjectively there may not always be serious fault. But in general, the absence of serious responsibility must not be presumed; this would be to misunderstand people’s moral capacity.”
It follows that masturbation is always objectively a serious fault but not always subjectively and it is for this reason that modern psychology can be useful to discern case by case. Clearly, modern psychology is regarded as legitimate as instrumental and compatible with Catholic morality. The Congregation provides also other criteria that go beyond the “modern psychology”:
“In the pastoral ministry, in order to form an adequate judgment in concrete cases, the habitual behavior of people will be considered in its totality, not only with regard to the individual’s practice of charity and of justice but also with regard to the individual’s care in observing the particular precepts of chastity. In particular, one will have to examine whether the individual is using the necessary means, both natural and supernatural, which Christian asceticism from its long experience recommends for overcoming the passions and progressing in virtue.”
But let’s consider only the facts leaving aside moral prejudices.
That masturbation concerns basically all guys in adolescence, this fact is generally known and confirmed by all serious surveys carried out in this field. Masturbation in adolescence is very important: gradually leads guys to the consciousness of their sexual orientation, determines the sexual archetypes, i.e. physical types of the people who induce a clear sexual response and sexual behaviors that will be considered to be more exciting all life long, creates and stabilizes the association between masturbatory fantasies and physiological reactions of erection and ejaculation.
Induce feelings of guilt related to masturbation in adolescents through moral prejudices means severely and negatively interfere with the maturation of their sexuality and with the formation of their moral sense, pushing them to neurotically react with a completely unnatural rejection of the masturbation, to consider masturbation as a vice which they must try in every way to get rid of, and to build a morality based on repression rather than liberty.