Sin of masturbation

Question: I was trying to instruct someone that masturbation is wrong. And when I went to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it did say masturbation is “intrinsically and gravely disordered.” But then it says this: “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” (No. 2352). What does all this mean? Is masturbation a sin or not? Mortal or not?

Alice Hawley, Lothian, Maryland

Answer: It is a sin. However, in assessing a moral act, three things are considered: the act itself, the circumstances and the intention of the person who acts (CCC, No. 1750). And while the circumstances and intention of the person who commits the act can never make a bad action good, they can affect the person’s culpability. It is to the circumstances and intent that the Catechism speaks in the paragraph you cite.

Integrating sexuality in a way that is healthy is an aspect of maturity which many lack well into adulthood today due to cultural circumstances which mislead and tempt. Some people also develop a habit of masturbation in youth and have difficulty breaking it in adulthood. While many are able to avoid fornication and pornography by taking due precautions, it is not possible for them to be free from their own body or to simply shut down their imagination or thoughts.

None of these factors make masturbation a good thing. It remains a sin, and sin always causes harm. Considered simply, in itself, masturbation is a mortal sin. But it does not follow that everyone who masturbates is guilty of mortal sin each and every time, for the reasons stated.

While it is unusual for the Catechism to include a pastoral note of this sort, it was deemed necessary to include it here. Many struggle in this area and are affected by shame and unhelpful fears rooted in a merely legalistic notion of mortal sin, all of which can discourage growth. The penitent needs some room to breathe, and the pastoral sense of the Church acknowledges this in the passage you cite.

That said, since masturbation is a sin, it should be confessed. The penitent should work with a confessor to, as the Catechism says, “guide pastoral action.” The confessor can advise on a plan of action that regards the sinfulness of the act but also helps the penitent not to lose their sense of dignity or capacity to grow through excessive shame or paralyzing self-reproach.

Question: We renew our baptismal vows each year; why don’t we renew our confirmation?

Dianne Spotts, via email

Answer: In effect, we do renew them when we renew our baptismal promises. In the Rite of Confirmation itself, we begin by the renewal of those very vows and take them up into our intention as we approach the bishop to be confirmed.

To be confirmed means to be strengthened to give witness to the very faith our baptismal vows announce. As such, the two sacraments, while distinct, go hand in hand. To affirm the one is to affirm the other.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.