The Politician and the "Private" Sin: Christine O’Donnell Runs Afoul of the "New Morality"

Christine O’Donnell, the Republican nominee for the US Senate from Delaware has surely run afoul of the advocates of the “new morality.” She has most surely transgressed by speaking against, premarital sex, homosexual activity and masturbation. The ABC News video below speaks of her positions as “eye-brow raising.”

Now this is not a political blog and I am not attempting to enter a realm where I am unskilled and uncomfortable. Further, I am not trying to make a hero of Christine O’Donnell. It has been my experience with politicians of every stripe that if you expect them to be real heroes in the moral realm, they will almost always let you down. Sadly Ms. O’Donnell is already showing signs of backtracking by indicating her statements (especially about masturbation) came from a time when her faith was “immature.” In “Kennedyesque” fashion she is quoted in the video below as saying her faith will not be her guide, just the Constitution when she goes to Washington.

Since it has come up in the news, I want to discuss Catholic teaching on masturbation. Clearly Ms. O’Donnell’s remarks on that topic have elicited many negative reactions from derision to scorn. And yet the consideration of masturbation as a sin is standard Catholic teaching.  Hence the scorn and derision, the laugh-out-loud ridicule that anyone would take such a notion seriously reflects also upon Catholic, and I would argue, Biblical teaching. So let’s look at the reasoning behind Catholic teaching on masturbation and why it is considered sinful.

First let’s be honest, masturbation is a hard topic to talk about. Many people experience significant embarrassment in relation to this topic. Many even struggle to say the word out loud. It is, for many, a humiliating matter to discuss in confession, or with others. It is the “private” sin. Some use euphemisms in their mentioning of it: “solitary self abuse” or just “self abuse.” Others refer to it with irreverent words and phrases I cannot repeat here. But the fact is, many are hesitant to discuss masturbation. Parents struggle as how and what to teach their children. Children struggle to speak to parents. Priests and educators in Catholic schools often dread to raise the topic in mixed company. And so the pattern goes. Hence this teaching is poorly understood or even known by many.

What is wrong with masturbation?– At the heart of masturbation is sexual fantasizing. To the degree that this fantasizing is willful, one commits sin. Consider this passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matt 5:27-30)

In understanding this passage we need to begin with what it means to look at someone with lust. While there is some debate as to its exact meaning we ought to exclude a few things from it. First it is not wrong or lustful to experience some one as being attractive. It is a normal thing for a man to see beauty in a woman, or a woman to find a man handsome. This is not lust, it is a God-given appreciation for beauty and part of the essential attraction God himself has given to draw men and women to each other in marriage and ultimately to procreation. Secondly, it can be a rather common occurrence that sexual thoughts occur in the mind about someone we find attractive. This is usually a spontaneous thought and may not be willed at all. It just occurs and we usually dismiss it as inappropriate. This too is usually excluded from the notion of lustful  thinking because it is not willed and hence is not a sin,  if it is not entertained.

But where lust begins is when we begin to fanaticize sexually about someone in a way that is willful. We have these thoughts and not only accept them but also entertain and dwell on them. This is where looking lustfully begins. Now this look may be of a person right before us or it may be the inward look of the imagination of some one we know or have imagined. This is what makes masturbation sinful for it clearly involves fantasizing about sexual activity about some one not our spouse. It is a a form of lustful looking or lustful thinking. To the degree that it is connected to pornography, its sinfulness is increased. So the essential wrongness of masturbation is the lustful thoughts that accompany it.

Now it may be popular today to ridicule anyone who sees masturbation as wrong and to make light of masturbation as of no account. Yet, the Lord did not have this attitude. He actually speaks quite strongly in the passage above using vivid hyperbole, (exaggeration), to underscore that this is something to take seriously. In indicating that the eye should be gouged out or the hand be cut off, he is not speaking literally. But the Jewish expression amounts to saying that it is a more serious thing to sin in this way that to lose your eye or hand. He goes on to warn that lustful thinking (a widespread problem today) can lead to hell. So, we ought to consider again if we choose to make light of lustful thinking and masturbation. The Lord did not take this attitude and neither should we.

The Struggle is Recognized – It is a true fact that many people, especially the unmarried, struggle to be entirely free of this sin and there may be things that limit a person’s freedom. But making light of the sin is no way to win a battle. Balance is necessary so that a person who struggles with this sin is not devastated by a morbid, unproductive guilt, but neither are they unmotivated by a false presumption that nothing is wrong here.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks well and pastorally on the sin of 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)

Hence, one will notice that, while the Catechism is clear to state the sinful nature of masturbation there is also pastoral recognition that there are factors that make this sin difficult for some to overcome. While it is an objectively serious sin, there can be subjective matters that lessen culpability (blameworthiness).

Time will prove where wisdom lies – So the Church is not a prudish mother with no sensitivity. But sex has a purpose and a place: it is oriented to the marital relationship, to procreation and it’s place is thus marriage. Masturbation strays from this and is also rooted in the lustful thinking condemned by Jesus. The world may laugh, but the Church is being faithful to the Lord’s teaching here. These days the Gospel is out of season, but the the Lord, through St. Paul, told us to preach it even when it is out of season (2 Tim 4:2). Let the world laugh, but time will prove where wisdom lies.

A final thought. Masturbation as indulging fantasy is also problematic. It is generally not a good idea to indulge in a lot of fantasy. When this is done the real world can seem less appealing, even disappointing. Sexual fantasizing involves imaging the perfect and ideal sexual encounter. The other person is perfect, wholly willing and when pleasure has been achieved they vanish. This is not real. In the real setting people are not perfect, do not share in identical preferences and pleasures. Real people have moods, imperfections and inadequacies as well as good qualities. Further, a spouse does not vanish after sexual intercourse. They remain there with needs, struggles, ups and downs. Real sex is with a person and happens in relationship. (Clearly this relationship should be marriage). Masturbation side-steps all this and imagines something quite unreal. To indulge this is unhealthy and can lead to unrealistic expectations.

The use of pornography can escalate this unreality dramatically. Air-brushed photos of relationless sex often depicting exotic and extreme versions of sexual behavior can destroy appreciation for normal, natural sex with a real person in the relationship of marriage. Pornography and sexual fantasy are very unhealthy in terms of preparing one for the real relationship of marriage. It is no wonder that in these lustful times so permeated with pornography that marriage and family are so devastated.