Masturbation and the Meaning of Sex

What does the Church teach about masturbation, and what does that teaching tell us about how to treat sex and our relationships?
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When I wrote an entire chapter on masturbation in my first book, Raising Chaste Catholic Men, it was a bit surreal. As I mentioned at the start of that chapter, I had never in my life envisioned that I would be writing extensively on such a subject, and I’m guessing that most folks—at least my Catholic friends and relatives—would not generally choose to read about it!

Because the topic came up in conversations with friends as they asked what I was writing that week, I heard many clever jokes and puns about this particular activity. But whereas most of the jokers were faithful Catholics, a secular friend responded to the topic of masturbation with a simple “Ick.” Even non-religious people can sense that there is something deeply wrong with this allegedly normal and healthy behavior. Sex with a partner (even sinful sex) is one thing, but the concept of having “sex” with oneself doesn’t even make sense.

Though human beings have a distorted view of sex, deep down, there is a subconscious understanding that sex is for uniting people and begetting children. Contraception seeks unity without babies, and IVF seeks babies without unity, but masturbation strips sexual activity of both of those purposes. Instead of sex as self-gift between spouses, masturbation is a solitary act of self-centeredness.

Some might argue that masturbation is simply a feel-good release, like having a good sneeze or clearing one’s nose and breathing better. But if masturbation is just another way of “scratching an itch,” then why do masturbatory acts almost always occur while fantasizing about another person? This is just more evidence that sex is made to unite persons, and masturbation perverts this meaning.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called God’s people to a new standard of holiness. From now on, they wouldn’t just be held accountable for their actions—they would also be held accountable for the content and intention of their hearts. He taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).

This makes sense because our actions and choices spring from what we keep in our hearts, be it good or evil. If we grow evil thoughts in our hearts, they will sprout into a weed that chokes our spiritual life and keeps us away from God forever. Jesus goes on to say:

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Matt. 5:29-30).

Did Jesus condemn masturbation? Some biblical scholars have proposed that Jesus refers to it in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s not hard to see why. First, Jesus says that lust is equivalent to adultery. Then he warns us about our right eye causing us to sin (e.g., lustful thoughts) and our right hand causing us to sin (e.g., lustful actions, masturbation). The qualifier “right” refers to “all we hold dear”—anything we see or touch that is an occasion of sin. But the same language also parallels similar descriptions among Jewish rabbis and, according to Anglican priest Andrew Angel, “provides good reason for reading the stumbling with the right hand in Matthew 5:30 as a reference to masturbation.”

But should we literally pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands? No. Jesus is using hyperbole, a rhetorical device that was common among rabbis of his time, to show that sin is serious and that we must always strive to avoid it. That’s why the Catechism says of masturbation, “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” (2352).

The Church also teaches that we must have compassion on people, especially youth, whose anxieties and difficulties adjusting to puberty factor affect their judgment. But with God’s grace, parents can lay the groundwork throughout childhood that will protect their little ones and preserve their joy and innocence.

Remember . . .

  • The Church teaches that pornography perverts the sacredness of the marital act and harms those who consume it as well as those who produce it.
  • Those who use porn and/or masturbate are conditioned to value sex not as fulfillment of marital vows to another person, but as a selfish way to use another person as a means to base sexual pleasure.
  • Jesus told us we’d be accountable not just for sinful sexual behavior, but even for sinful thoughts. That’s why we must rely on his grace in order to protect our families from sexual sin.

What Was the Snake Before Eden?

Q: I have a question about the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. Could humans communicate with all animals in the garden, or is the snake a metaphor? Why is there this one talking animal in the whole of the Bible? Also, I know it talks about God’s having cursed the snake so that it had to slither and eat dirt. So, what was the snake before it was a snake? – Anna

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: For the record, there is a talking donkey in the passage beginning at Numbers 22:21.

The Genesis story need not be read in a literalist way. It is trying to convey deep lessons about what went wrong at the start of human history that accounts for evil in the world.

Talking animals were a standard device in ancient stories (think Aesop’s Fables). Even in our day there are cartoons which use talking animals to convey political and moral lessons.

The same thing is happening in Genesis: The writer is relying somewhat on a literary device to transmit an important message.

We need not try to figure out every specific detail. The writer doesn’t mean to imply that snakes had legs before the Fall. Rather, this story in Genesis is, in part, a way for the ancients to explain why (widely feared) snakes are relegated to slithering while most other creatures get to walk or fly.

Polio Detected in New York City Sewage? Return Of Polio?

Health commissioner alarmed.

It suggests everyone check vaccinations as threat is spreading locally

Polio, extremely rare since the disease was virtually eradicated years ago, now has been detected in the sewage system in New York City, alarming state Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, according to a new report.

Bassett said local and federal officials are trying to determine how far it has spread, according to a report from CNBC.

The disease raged across the United States in the 1920s, when the Iron Lung machine was developed to assist breathing for patients who had been paralyzed by the health threat. Those encased a person’s body, and created a negative air pressure, essentially “breathing” for the paralyzed victims.

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“For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” worried Bassett. “The best way to keep adults and children polio-free is through safe and effective immunization.”

Polio, besides permanent paralysis, also can cause death.

The report noted some 14% of New York City children ages 6 months to 5 years have not finished their vaccination series against polio.

In fact, the report said there are some areas of the city where fewer than 70% of the children have fully vaccinations completed.

There was a case, in an unvaccinated adult, in Rockland County, a suburb, last month, and the threat later was detected in sewage in Rockland and Orange counties.

It’s not clear where the infection began, but the new tests show it’s spreading locally in New York.

There is no cure, and one in 25 infected will develop viral meningitis and one in 200 will be paralyzed.

Author The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie, On Ventilator After Attack On Stage In New York

Salman Rushdie on ventilator after stabbing, may lose an eye

ADDS NAME OF DETAINED PERSON This still image from video shows Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, N.J., at left, being escorted from the stage as people tend to author Salman Rushdie, center right, at the Chautauqua Institution, in Chautauqua, N.Y., Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. Salman Rushdie, the author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was attacked and apparently stabbed in the neck Friday by Matar who rushed the stage as he was about to give a lecture in western New York. (AP Photo)
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ADDS NAME OF DETAINED PERSON This still image from video shows Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, N.J., at left, being escorted from the stage as people tend to author Salman Rushdie, center right, at the Chautauqua Institution, in Chautauqua, N.Y., Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. Salman Rushdie, the author whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was attacked and apparently stabbed in the neck Friday by Matar who rushed the stage as he was about to give a lecture in western New York. (AP Photo)

MAYVILLE, N.Y. (AP) — Salman Rushdie remained hospitalized Saturday after suffering serious injuries in a stabbing attack, which was met with shock and outrage from much of the world, along with tributes and praise for the award-winning author who for more than 30 years has faced death threats for his novel “The Satanic Verses.”

Rushdie, 75, suffered a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm and an eye, and was on a ventilator and unable to speak, his agent Andrew Wylie said Friday evening. Rushdie was likely to lose the injured eye.

Rushdie’s alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, was due in court on Saturday to face attempted murder and assault charges, authorities said. A message was left with his lawyer seeking comment.

Authors, activists and government officials condemned the attack and cited Rushdie’s courage for his longtime advocacy of free speech despite the risks to his own safety. Rushdie’s fellow author and longtime friend Ian McEwan called him “an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world,” and the actor-author Kal Penn cited him as a role model “for an entire generation of artists, especially many of us in the South Asian diaspora toward whom he’s shown incredible warmth.”

Matar, 24, was arrested after the attack at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education and retreat center where Rushdie was scheduled to speak.

Authorities said Matar is from Fairview, New Jersey. He was born in the United States to Lebanese parents who emigrated from Yaroun, a border village in southern Lebanon, the mayor of the village, Ali Tehfe, told The Associated Press. Flags of Iran-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah and portraits of leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his late predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and slain Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani are visible across the village. The village also boasts a small Christian population.

Rushdie, a native of India who has since lived in Britain and the U.S., is known for his surreal and satirical prose style, beginning with his Booker Prize-winning novel from 1981, “Midnight’s Children,” in which he sharply criticized India’s then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi.

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“The Satanic Verses” drew death threats after it was published in 1988, with many Muslims regarding as blasphemy a dream sequence based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. Rushdie’s book had already been banned and burned in India, Pakistan and elsewhere before Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death.

Khomeini died the same year he issued the fatwa, which remains in effect. Iran’s current supreme leader, Khamenei, never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict, though Iran in recent years hasn’t focused on the writer.

Investigators were working to determine whether the assailant, born a decade after “The Satanic Verses” was published, acted alone.

Journalists present in Yaroun, the village where the suspect’s parents emigrated from, were asked to leave Saturday. Hezbollah spokespeople did not respond to the AP’s inquiries about Matar and the attack on Rushdie.

Iran’s theocratic government and its state-run media assigned no rationale for the assault. In Tehran, some Iranians interviewed by the AP praised the attack on an author they believe tarnished the Islamic faith, while others worried it would further isolate their country.

An AP reporter witnessed the attacker confront Rushdie on stage and stab or punch him 10 to 15 times as the author was being introduced. Dr. Martin Haskell, a physician who was among those who rushed to help, described Rushdie’s wounds as “serious but recoverable.”

Event moderator Henry Reese, 73, a co-founder of an organization that offers residencies to writers facing persecution, was also attacked. Reese suffered a facial injury and was treated and released from a hospital, police said. He and Rushdie had planned to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.

A state trooper and a county sheriff’s deputy were assigned to Rushdie’s lecture, and state police said the trooper made the arrest. But after the attack, some longtime visitors to the center questioned why there wasn’t tighter security for the event, given the threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than $3 million to anyone who killed him.

Matar, like other visitors, had obtained a pass to enter the Chautauqua Institution’s 750-acre grounds, said Michael Hill, the institution’s president.

Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience for Rushdie’s appearance.

The assailant ran onto the platform “and started pounding on Mr. Rushdie. At first you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then it became abundantly clear in a few seconds that he was being beaten,” Savenor said. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.

Another spectator, Kathleen James, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.

Amid gasps, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.

The stabbing reverberated from the tranquil town of Chautauqua to the United Nations, which issued a statement expressing U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ horror and stressing that free expression and opinion should not be met with violence.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack, which led an evening news bulletin on Iranian state television. From the White House, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan described the attack as “reprehensible” and said the Biden administration wished Rushdie a quick recovery.

After the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” often-violent protests erupted across the Muslim world against Rushdie, who was born in India to a Muslim family and has long identified as a non-believer, once calling himself “a hard-line atheist.”

At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived.

The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, which included a round-the-clock armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years of seclusion and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism overall.

In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie used while in hiding. He said during a New York talk the same year the memoir came out that terrorism was really the art of fear.

“The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid,” he said.

The Chautauqua Institution, about 55 miles (89 kilometers) southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place for reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors don’t pass through metal detectors or undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors to their century-old cottages unlocked at night.

The center is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before.

At an evening vigil, a few hundred residents and visitors gathered for prayer, music and a long moment of silence.

“Hate can’t win,” one man shouted.