Is it a sin? It depends

Question: In a television program recently, a priest said that masturbation is a mortal sin. But during confession, another priest said that it is sometimes not a mortal sin, depending on circumstances. The second priest seems to have the Catechism of the Catholic Church on his side (see No. 2352). How do you understand this matter?

-- Name and address withheld

Answer: Being a faithful son of the Church, I understand the matter as the Church understands it. Whether something that is morally wrong is a mortal sin depends on circumstances. For something to be a mortal sin, there must be an action that is first of all intrinsically wrong. Second, there must be full knowledge and understanding of the immorality of the act on the part of the person committing the wrong. Third, there must be full consent or unfettered free will in the commission of the act.

As a general principle, one cannot say that something is automatically a mortal sin. There are always conditions involved. If I murder my mother, I am certainly doing something that is morally wrong -- no matter what I think or what my mental condition is. However, if I am insane and do not know what I am doing, then I do not have full knowledge of my action. By the same token, if I murder my mother when I am forced to do it at gunpoint and am at my wits' end, then I do not bring full consent to the act.

Masturbation, according to Catholic moral theology, is a seriously disordered action. It goes against the understanding that sexual activity belongs between a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of love, at the center of which is procreation. It represents a disorientation of sexuality from its other-centeredness and its intrinsic character as an act of mutual self-giving.

This is the objective component of masturbation. But there can be mitigating circumstances, and a person may be either fully or partially unaware of its wrongness or undertakes it under psychological compulsion.

As you point out, the Catechism underscores the mitigating circumstances: "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 can lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability" (No. 2352).

Pentecostal confusion

Question: In our parish, there has been the practice of proclaiming the first and second readings on Pentecost Sunday in foreign languages that most, if not all, of the congregation does not understand (Gaelic, Tagalog, French). The idea is to emphasize the truth that at the first Pentecost everyone heard the Good News in their own tongue. I would appreciate your opinion.

-- Name and address withheld

Answer: While the Church provides for the use of different languages in multicultural parishes, practice has to be tempered with good pastoral sense. If a significant portion of the congregation speaks a non-English language, then the priest and ministers appropriately pray or proclaim readings in the language of that group. A number of languages may be used, for instance, in the prayers of intercession.

However, the practice you mention seems to go beyond solid multicultural principles. The first Pentecost had its unique and unrepeatable character. It was amazing that all the listeners heard the proclamation in their own tongue. This unique event is not repeated in the liturgical life of the Church today.

The chances are that in your parish if one of the readings was proclaimed in Gaelic, nobody in the congregation would understand a thing. In my opinion, the practice you mention is apt to be counterproductive.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.