Pornography, Masturbation, and the Confessor

The spread of pornography is a new pastoral challenge for confessors, but I want to suggest that there is another moral issue…deserving to be taken seriously, which is often overlooked in the discussion over pornography.  That issue is masturbation.

Confessors today undoubtedly note an increase in a phenomenon that other social observers have also noticed: a growth in use of, as well as addiction to, pornography.  Two factors are particularly responsible for that spread of pornography: ever easier access, and a growing cultural toleration.

The former is primarily a result of the internet.  Whereas once upon a time, pornography had to be sought out in seedy neighborhoods, or bought furtively—both social conditions which helped tamp down on its spread. Today, pornography is universally available with just a few clicks on a computer.

The latter is a more complex phenomenon.  While undoubtedly the greater availability of pornography is, in some measure, responsible for its social toleration, social acquiescence in pornography is more complex than that.  A progressive corrosion of public morality owes its roots to the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s/1970s, which attacked the notion of public morality itself, as well as ingraining the message that personal pleasure and “fulfillment” is the be-all, and end-all, of sex.  The spread of pornography is, like abortion, also an instance where sexual ethics have been “dumbed down” to general male standards rather than raised to general female standards.

What do I mean?  In the case of abortion, justification for “a woman’s right to choose,” when most abortions occur for reasons of convenience, means that society acquiesces to a general male promiscuity, while providing a utilitarian solution for women to avoid having to bear the consequences, and the child.  In the case of pornography, its spread is also in some measure an acquiescence in general male promiscuity: men want sex, so women need to match male images and expectations.  Men shouldn’t become more chaste; women should become more provocative.  Pamela Paul identified this trend in 2005, rightly coining a term to describe it: we are being “pornified.” 1

The spread of pornography is, indeed, a new pastoral challenge for confessors, but I want to suggest that there is another moral issue, lurking here in the background, which also deserves to be taken seriously, and which is often overlooked in the discussion over pornography.  That issue is masturbation.  Masturbation is typically the “silent partner” in pornography use and addiction.  Its powerful erotic experience plays no small part in cementing an attraction to pornography.  When addressing the issue of pornography, masturbation is often overshadowed and, indeed, overlooked. But this essay aims to lay out a more explicit connection between pornography and masturbation, providing some ways for this vicious relationship to be addressed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Catholic teaching on masturbation was among the second tier casualties in the rebellion against Catholic sexual ethics, unleashed by contraception and the dissent against Humanae Vitae.  While the immediate bone of contention against the encyclical was an effort to justify contraception, at least in certain instances, the rejection of Humanae Vitae targeted its central moral teaching, i.e., that there is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man, on his own initiative, may not break, between the unitive significance, and the procreative significance, which are both inherent to the marriage act.” 2

If, however, the nexus between the procreative and unitive meanings of the sexual act can be broken apart by human initiative, then man can also reassemble the shards anyway he wants.  It was not surprising, therefore, that within half a decade of the rejection of Humanae Vitae, there were already revisionist moralists who were downplaying the moral significance of masturbation.  Nor was it surprising that within a decade of the encyclical, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found it necessary to issue a “Declaration on Certain Questions Related to Sexual Ethics,” one of which was masturbation.  Persona Humana reiterated Catholic teaching that: masturbation is a “grave moral disorder” and not “a normal phenomenon of sexual development;” its moral significance is not limited only to those instances when a moral agent chooses masturbation over interpersonal relations, so that he “deliberately indulges in solitary pleasure closed in on self;” the frequency with which a particular behavior is encountered has nothing to do with its moral evaluation; while recognizing that moral responsibility is frequently diminished in cases of sexual sin, particularly when the moral actor is young and/or immature and when that sin has become a habit; and, the confessor should look at the specific efforts of the penitent to use “means, both natural and supernatural” to observe “the particular precepts of chastity,” and not just the more general “practice of charity and justice.” 3

Persona Humana unleashed its own round of dissent.  Interestingly, even those who rejected Humanae Vitae could in theory have upheld Catholic teaching on the moral nature of masturbation.  Those who dissented from the encyclical were ostensibly trying to justify the occasional use of contraceptive intercourse within a marriage when such use was supposedly justified for “serious” or “grave” and “proportionate” reasons. 4  Dissidents could have recognized that, by its very nature, masturbation is: (1) neither procreative nor unitive; and (2) has nothing to do with marriage.  That they chose instead to chisel away at ecclesiastical teaching rather than limit their revolution to their original stated objectives, indicates that, at best, reality demonstrated their naïvete about the self-containing possibilities of their dissent or, at worse, that they were more committed to their agenda rather than the Church’s teaching. 5

After the initial wave of dissent, discussion of the morality of masturbation among dissident “Catholic” theologians waned.  A few, at least, sounded less permissive about the subject, recognizing that some moral issues were posed. 6  There were, of course, theologians who continued to affirm ecclesiastical teaching on the subject. 7  But, the most telling fact is that, in one of the key books of a leading contemporary dissenter on Catholic sexual ethics, masturbation does not even rate mention as an issue. 8

A similar silence tends to overlook masturbation when discussing the contemporary widespread use of, and addiction to, pornography.  It is an oversight that is pastorally unwise.

I assume that the reader of this journal already accepts the basic rationale of Catholic sexual ethics and, therefore, recognizes that masturbation does pose a moral issue.  But why is it an issue in its own right, as opposed to being just an aspect of the growing contemporary involvement with pornography?  Let me suggest three main reasons: its attitude-forming qualities; its habit-forming qualities; and its practical impact.

Masturbation occupies a unique place in the formation of attitudes towards sex.  Part of the reason for this is that, usually, masturbation is often a person’s first sexual sin, as well as first sexual experience.  That “first-ness” is indeed a telling fact.

A person’s “first” experience of something always tends to leave a deep and profound impression: we talk, for example, of one’s “first love.”  That “first” experience tends to establish wants, desires, and expectations for subsequent experiences, what psychologists call “imprinting”—the unconscious development of reacting a certain way to external stimuli.  Polish doctor and ethicist Kinga Wiśniewska-Roszkowska calls it the “law of ‘first union.’” She states: “According to the well-known law of ‘first union’ in psychology—otherwise known as the ‘law of psychic imprint’—the first powerful experience in a wholly new sphere {of life} leaves a permanent mark on the psyche, ever more permanent the more one is engaged {in it}, and the frequency with which it is repeated.  It creates certain conditional, instinctive stereotypes concerning that sphere, and of activities associated with it.” 9

What message, what “psychic imprint,” does masturbation leave?  That sex is primarily about pleasure, and primarily about me.  The pleasurable aspect of masturbation is one reason why people turn to it, again and again, making its habit-forming tendencies so seductive.  The egocentric aspect of masturbation flows from the very nature of the act: older Catholic terms rightly called it “self-abuse” or “self-ipsation.”  Its message, however, is clear: if sexual satisfaction can be pursued by the self, then the other will often/always be seen (even unconsciously) through the prism of my libidinal satisfaction.

The ingraining of such attitudes towards sexuality is inherently inimical to receiving, or living, a Catholic sexual ethic.  A Catholic sexual ethic, which focuses on self-giving open to life, represents the polar opposite of the sexual ethic learned from masturbation.

Pornography compounds the problem by reinforcing the genito-physical pleasure with visual pleasure, thus creating physico-psychological responses to these stimuli that ingrain the habit even more deeply.  The unreality of pornographic images, where airbrushed photographs create models of women no living and breathing female can attain, further drives the pornography-addicted masturbator into himself.

But the problem does not start with pornography, but with masturbation.  Pornography at “best” begins as a habit in tandem with masturbation.  At worst, it is to masturbation what crack cocaine is to drugs: a particularly powerful cause of addiction.

In his book Sources of Renewal, Karol Wojtyła spoke about certain “attitudes,” ways of looking at the life and the world, that mark the Catholic Weltanschauung.  A Catholic worldview, for example, is marked by an appreciation for the goodness and earthiness of physical creation as an expression of the principle of incarnation.

In the same way, a Catholic worldview about sex should be marked by certain “attitudes.”  One of the most basic is that the meaning of the human sexual urge is “existential.” 10  The meaning of sex comes from what it can do, and what it can do is to bring new persons into the world.  It does not “give life” generically: it gives life to a concrete person, to John or Jane.  Because it is connected with personal existence, therefore, the value to be attributed to the sexual urge is likewise personal: what one does with sex is expressive of what one does with/to the person.

Masturbation has often, therefore, in some sense, been the “original sexual sin.”  That is the case because, especially among male adolescents entering puberty, it is often their first sexual experience.  But it is an experience that fundamentally distorts one’s attitudes towards the meaning and purpose of sexuality so that, the longer and more deeply it is persisted in, the greater the damage in perspective that ensues.

This leads directly into the question of its habit-forming qualities.  Any Catholic confessor with some experience knows that masturbation often develops into a habit.  It is also often the first bad habit whose eradication a young Catholic must attempt.

The early dissenters against ecclesiastical teaching on sexual ethics frequently pooh-poohed the moral issue of masturbation, arguing that it really presents no moral issue unless it becomes a habit to the exclusion of interpersonal sexual communion.  Among the problems with their position was, however, a naïve approach to habit formation, which in turn was the outcome of the faulty theological anthropology out of which the revisionists were operating.

Those who rejected Humanae Vitae originally argued in favor of the limited use of marital contraceptive intercourse, as long as this behavior was undertaken for serious reasons and was limited, i.e., it did not become the dominant characteristic of a couple’s marital sexual life.  The argument was that individual acts of marital contraceptive intercourse were not morally problematic, as long as they did not become habits.  The problem with this approach, of course, was its erroneous understanding of how habits are formed.  Habits do not rise or fall on the basis of explicit intentions to make or not make something a habit.  They come from the much more mundane, and sometimes only partially conscious, choice to repeat a particular act over and over, until it, in fact, becomes “second nature.”  If a couple was engaging in repeated acts of contraceptive marital intercourse, it would be very difficult for them to preserve a mental attitude that this behavior “is generally not good and should be limited.”  It is quite natural, given the human desire to act according to what is seen as good (whether that good is real or not), for couples eventually to conclude that their behavior is, in fact, good.  The seduction of pleasure, separated from the “threat” of children, could only facilitate that mentality.

Thus, when the revisionists said that masturbation only posed a problem when it became a habit, they disingenuously ignored the fact that if a person—especially an adolescent whose experience of sex is wholly new—masturbates, he is likely to repeat that action, and that repetition will likely become a habit.  The slide into habit-forming action was far easier than the revisionists allowed, entrapping young people in behavioral patterns that are somewhat difficult to break.  Besides, when revisionists said that masturbation was morally problematic only when chosen in lieu of interpersonal relationships, they were again being unrealistic.  On a sexual plane, the interpersonal relationship likely to replace masturbation was fornication: if a young person associates sex with libidinal pleasure, he is likely to “graduate” to the egoism-à-deux of fornication, not to chaste dating over a cup of tea.  The most cursory survey of the spread of teenage sex indicates that this progression represents a “natural course” in sexual sin 11  Such a “big boy” wears his headphones all day, sees eros as if he were still a teenager, tends to drink too much, uses technology as an escape and, thus, primary form of recreation, and otherwise refuses to grow up.  To think, then, that sexual experience, born in masturbatory self-isolation, should somehow progress to an interpersonal communion personarum without first breaking with the onanism is, simply, a fantasy.  When masturbation is associated with pornography, the break is even harder. 12

One also needs to reckon with the fact that the Church’s understanding of masturbation will very likely be a minority opinion in terms of what a young person hears about this issue.  In the mainstream sex education, to which he will be exposed, it is highly likely that he will be told that masturbation poses no problem whatsoever, and may even be encouraged to masturbate. 13

On the practical level, confessors must reckon with those cultural factors that reinforce these patterns.  The “boy-man” who starts with masturbation in adolescence today is also typically involved with pornography, or will move on to it.  If he starts with it, then his perspective on sexual morality is even more skewed: in addition to seeing sex primarily through a libidinal, self-centered lens, the person whose sexual experience begins with pornography also starts from the perspective of the voyeur. 14 The prolonged adolescence that American, and other Western societies impose on young people—where physical sexual maturity is separated by years from psychological, emotional, legal, and moral sexual maturity—makes it likely that masturbation as a habit persists longer, while its self-centering perspectives that can lead to fornication, also has more time to operate.  These, in turn, make one more prone to take risks for one’s habits: the growth in cases where employees—especially twenty-somethings—need to be disciplined or dismissed for accessing pornography on the job, is growing.  Finally, the self-centeredness of masturbation, coupled with our prolonged social adolescence, will make it even harder for a male to understand and realize an authentic communion personarum in marriage.

The Witherspoon Institute reported last year that the number of divorce cases, in which internet pornography played a role, is exploding.  The number of wives, who report feeling betrayed and lacking trust upon discovering a husband’s pornography habits—which typically also find symptomatic expression in a worse sex life for the couple—is growing.  And, as Marc Oraison noted, half a century ago, the learned experience of masturbatory sex makes it ever more difficult for a husband, even on the physical plane, to “become one” with his wife.  Men have always faced the challenge of “synchronizing” their relatively quickly explosive sexual urge with the far more gradual and extended female period of arousal.  When a man brings to a marriage an extended period of masturbatory activity—where he has learned that he can reach orgasm powerfully and quickly—the extended period of accommodating his wife’s slower arousal curve is likely to be one that frustrates the man, whose rapid response, in turn, is likely to frustrate his wife.  In either case, union, even on the physical level, leaves much to be desired. 15

In light of all these facts, confessors would do well to redouble efforts, in charity and in firmness, both to take seriously the moral significance of masturbation when it manifests itself alone, and to explore its nexus with pornography (especially when the latter alone is confessed).  Without being harsh or judgmental, and recognizing the impact that habit can play on moral culpability, confessors should strive to help penitents to overcome these very seductive, and very addictive habits.  But, in order to do that, confessors first have to notice, and take seriously, both sins: pornography and masturbation.

  1. Pamela Paul, Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families.  (New York: Times Books, 2005).  For a more recent and academic study of the spread of pornography and its baneful consequences in America today, see Mary Anne Layden and Mary Eberstadt, The Social Cost of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations (Princeton: Witherspoon Institute, 2010).
  2. Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, §12.
  3. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics” (Persona humana) published December 29, 1975, particularly §9 but also §10 and §1. The Declaration also deals with fornication and homosexual activity. Text available at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19751229_persona-humana_en.html
  4. The inability of the advocates of contraception to contain their rejection of the received Christian tradition of sexual ethics to marital sexual intercourse was, of course, already demonstrated by the Church of England when its 1930 Lambeth Conference likewise sought to allow contraceptive marital intercourse under limited circumstances.  As Pope Pius XI predicted in his encyclical, Casti Connubii, and as history subsequently documented, the so-called limited exception quickly ate up the entire rule.  The same prediction, of course, was made in the Catholic Church by the so-called “Minority Report” of the Papal Birth Control Commission, which correctly foresaw that attempts to justify marital contraceptive intercourse would ineluctably undermine the entirety of Catholic sexual ethics.
  5. Examples of dissenting theologians include Anthony Kośnik et al., Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (New York: Paulist, 1977), p. 228; and Philip Keane, Sexual Morality: A Catholic Perspective (New York: Paulist, 1977).   I document the general range of dissent against Persona humana in my “On the Validity of the Vatican Declaration Persona humana in Light of the Personalism of Pope John Paul II,” unpublished M.A. Final Paper, Fordham University, 1983.
  6. In his 1977 review , for example, John Giles Milhaven took Kośnik et al to task for still treating masturbation as even a sometimes moral issue.  They did not, he says, “seem to recognize that the teenager starting to masturbate is usually taking a good, positive step forward, a step requiring new psychic energy and maturity.”  See his “Review of ‘Human Sexuality,’” National Catholic Reporter (Magazine), June 17, 1977, p. 9.  By 1987, Jesuit Vincent Genovesi was instead writing that “especially among adolescents and young adults, recourse to masturbation indicates not a selfish or inverted aversion with regard to love, but a concession to the fact that one is presently prepared for, and capable of, neither love and its obligations nor parenting and its responsibilities.  People who masturbate do so not because they fear or reject love, but because they have not yet discovered it . . . “ {In Pursuit of Love: Catholic Morality and Human Sexuality (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1987), p. 316}.
  7. Ronald Lawler, Joseph M. Boyle, and William May, Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation and Defense (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1985); Paul M. Quay, S.J., The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985).
  8. Lisa Sowle Cahill, Between the Sexes: Foundations for a Christian Ethic of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress/New York: Paulist, 1985).
  9. Kinga Wiśniewska-Roszkowska, Eros zabłąkany {Eros Gone Astray} (Warsaw: ODiSS, 1986), p. 144, translation mine.
  10. Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility: An Ethical Study, trans. H.T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981), p. 52.
  11. Underlying this attitude is a kind of utilitarianism: since young people are assumed to be incapable of chastity, no sex is unrealistic, so let’s pick the least bad sex (with government-supplied birth control).   In 2009, British newspapers reported that the National Health Service (NHS) Sheffield had supposedly circulated a brochure, “Pleasure,” which dispensed the advice: “An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away.” (The theory is that, by encouraging masturbation, a teenager might not move on to promiscuous out-of-wedlock sex).  See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/5806691/NHS-tells-school-children-of-their-right-to-an-orgasm-a-day.htm l

    When one considers the awkwardness and isolation experienced by many teens, this ongoing self-centeredness should surprise no one.  One need only to look at the phenomenon of social media: young people often have 8,481 “friends” whom they have never met on Facebook and feel the need to twitter their latest thought to their mobs of “followers,” but in reality most young people that age have few real, flesh-and-blood friends, and often feel socially awkward with their peers.  That this failure to grow up is an ever-longer chronological phenomenon in American society is documented by Gary Cross in his discussion of the “boy-man,” a male who chronologically is an adult but who—apart from perhaps a job—still acts like a boy. [12. See Gary Cross, Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity (New York: Columbia UP, 2008).

  12. Consider, for example, the growing employee problem of twenty-something “boy-men” disciplined or even dismissed for internet pornography use on the job.
  13. Consider, for example, the 2010 “matrix” issued by the European Regional Office of the World Health Organization, with standards for European sex education.  The document indicates what should be taught in terms of sex education and when.  With the usual ambiguity that marks such documents, the matrix prescribes that 6-9 year olds be given information on “enjoyment and pleasure when touching one’s own body (masturbation, self-stimulation) as well as indoctrination in “sexuality and rights,” including “the right of self-expression.”   Elsewhere, when speaking about 9-12 year olds, the document explicitly calls for instruction in “sexual rights” as contained in the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s 1999 “Sexual Rights: An IPPF Declaration.” That document declares the “principle” that: “Sexuality, and pleasure deriving from it, is a central aspect of being human, whether or not a person chooses to reproduce” and which concludes that: “All persons have the right to explore their sexuality, to have dreams and fantasies free from fear, shame, guilt, false beliefs and other impediments to the free expression of their desires, with full regard for the rights of others.”  One can certainly imagine those who would hold Catholic sexual ethics to be a “false belief and other impediment to the free expression of {one’s} desires.”  See WHO Regional Office for Europe and BZgA, “Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe: A Framework for Policy Makers, Educational and Health Authorities and Specialists (Cologne: 2010), pp. 42, 43, 45.  See also the British NHS Sheffield brochure, “Pleasure” referenced in note 11.
  14. Natasha Walter, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (London: Virago Press, 2010), pp. 89-91. Interestingly, although Walter sees the damage done to girls by “pornification,” her post-modern feminism makes her reticent to declare that a “hooking up” culture is simply and wholly evil.
  15. See Marc Oraison, Man and Wife: The Physical and Spiritual Foundations of Marriage (New York: Macmillan, 1962).
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avatar About John M. Grondelski

John M. Grondelski is an independent scholar from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Fordham, and served as associate dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He has written for Angelicum, Antonianum, Irish Theological Studies, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

Comments

  1. avatar Laurettas says:

    As someone who married a man who had been masturbating since he was 7 years old, I would like to offer a few comments.

    First of all, as I stated, masturbation does not always commence at puberty. My husband discovered this “pleasure” accidentally when he was 7 years old and the habit continued until he was nearly 50.

    This one “habit” caused us more marital strife than anything else. I began to feel very used and objectified after a few years of marriage and no matter how much I shared my pain with him, he would not stop the addiction.

    He began to confess it but the addictive nature of the habit was used to give him a justification for not stopping the sin.

    Finally a priest did tell him in no uncertain terms that he was to never engage in the act again, that it was always a sin. He made a firm resolution to stop and was able to with little effort. One thing I noticed, however, was that his reason for stopping was still self-centered–he didn’t want to be punished for sinning.

    I believe that confessors need to make it very clear to married men that they are causing deep and potentially irreparable harm to their spouses by not gaining a mastery of self in sexual matters. They need to be made to see the hurt that they have caused their spouses and be repentant for that as well as the personal nature of the sin. It is very difficult for the wife to heal if the husband has no real understanding of the depth of psychological damage that has been done to her.

    • avatar Ed Peters says:

      “One thing I noticed, however, was that his reason for stopping was still self-centered–he didn’t want to be punished for sinning.” Well, okay, so what?

      What you have described is “attrition”, distinguishable from “contrition”, yes, but still sufficient for the sacrament and its grace to go to work. Moral progress in usually made in small steps, so be careful about bemoaning the paucity of great strides. Besides, you said he quit, no?

      • avatar Laurettas says:

        Yes, Ed, he stopped the sin of masturbation and that was wonderful, but without recognizing the effect that this habit had on me and our marital relationship, there were many other things that did not get resolved.

        I am sure it is very difficult to understand without experiencing it the effect that being used in such a manner has on an individual’s dignity and happiness. It is particularly painful when the use is from the one person that you thought was going to love you, protect you and sacrifice his own well-being for you.

        I say these things not to denigrate my husband in any way but to try to help others, particularly men, to understand that these things have a very profound effect on the spouses as well. And that, as much as possible, men who fall into these sins should be helped to see the deep damage they have done to their spouses by engaging in these acts. These wounds do not go away quickly or easily.

  2. avatar theodosius says:

    Excellent article. The author concluded with the following:
    “In light of all these facts, confessors would do well to redouble efforts, in charity and in firmness, both to take seriously the moral significance of masturbation when it manifests itself alone, and to explore its nexus with pornography (especially when the latter alone is confessed). Without being harsh or judgmental, and recognizing the impact that habit can play on moral culpability, confessors should strive to help penitents to overcome these very seductive, and very addictive habits. But, in order to do that, confessors first have to notice, and take seriously, both sins: pornography and masturbation.”

    I would go one step further, and suggest that the confessor must be acutely aware of the habitual nature of masturbation on the part of the individual, it’s frequency and possible tie to pornography. The individual, if he is truly serious about trying to rectify this problem, may clear his conscience through frequent confession. However, the individual is susceptible to playing ‘games’ with his confessor, if he falls frequently and for expediency purposes, chooses a different confessor each time, roving from church to church, in search of a priest who may not be away that this is a habitual problem.

    To the extent possible, for these individuals, I would highly suggest a regular confessor, or spiritual advisor priest, who could get to know the person on a more in-depth basis, and advise spiritual exercises appropriate for that particular individual, so that his number of trips to the confessional do not become a ‘revolving door’, and the habitual problem can be effectively dealt with once and for all.

  3. avatar bill bannon says:

    Lisa Cahill may not have written affirming masturbation in 1985 but Sister Farley did in 2006 at least for females and the CDF denounced her book this year…but I’ve heard nothing about the CDF as to follow up…ie seeking to have all Catholic libraries rid themselves of the book if they have purchased it between 2006 and 2012. Young people might feel that CDF non follow up means its not that important even to the CDF.
    Remember we have no encyclicals or CDF statements at all on gluttony ( a capital sin too) and its more of a non issue in the Catholic consciousness such that a very overweight Catholic is judged by no one in the way that some Catholic couples with no children can be judged by large families ( read some NFP comboxes). Church as occasional document writing is not working. Covetousness is in two of the ten commandments and no where in Catholic worries. It’s as though we allegedly conquered gluttony and covetousness by not writing encyclicals on either.
    Our non biblical sexual ethics (like prolonged kissing as mortal sin) and masturbation as mortal sin seem to derive from Aquinas and are not in the 600 plus laws God gave to the Jews in the Bible. The young person may well wonder why they are mortal sins rather than venial sins and why didn’t God mention them to the Jews since they were possible then unlike abortion and pornography were in that primitive culture. Is prolonged kissing seen as putting one in hell for the 1200 years prior to Aquinas?
    What do the penitentials pre Aquinas give as penances for long kissing? I think the young people deserve a thorough historical piece on these topics from the CDF rather than “because we say so since the 12th century”. Yes I believe porn and masturbation is bad for especially young people but according to Aquinas…so is fast eating as a form of gluttony…and no one in the Church is warning about that. And are all three mortal or venial? Can you enter endless hell if you suddenly die during kissing too long as a teen or during eating a big Mac too fast? Aquinas said yes. Christ mentioned neither kissing too long nor eating too fast. Young people see that discrepancy between Christ and post Aquinas. The CDF needs to write more historical overviews on such matters.

  4. avatar Joshua Paine says:

    @bill bannon, I won’t argue with a call for more thorough and clear moral teaching, but for the details on Aquinas’ views you might consult the doctor himself. First off, when in the summa he answers questions of whether X is a mortal sin, in modern parlance he’s usually talking about whether it’s grave matter. He’s not making any statement about how culpable any individual sinner may be.

    On the matter of kissing he answered your objections already, tying his answer both to the words of Christ and the teaching of an earlier church doctor. The answer is shocking to modern ears, but it’s clear and well-explained, if tersely. Gluttony he states unambiguously is mortal sin only if a person holds the pleasures of eating above all else and is willing explicitly to subordinate the love of God to the love of food.

    I could find nothing about eating *too fast* or kissing *too long*, qualifiers that at a glance make the doctor sound like a moral quack or Pharisee, praising and blaming variants of behavior on whether they suit his personal taste. But there’s much more of the summa that I haven’t read than that which I have, and there may have also been differences of translation.

  5. avatar bill bannon says:

    Joshua,
    I read the entire Summa T. You’ll see speed of eating in the final sentence way below in the word “greedily.” ( newadvent…source).
    I think you are really making him say gluttony is rarely mortal after you say he sees it as unambiguously mortal because of your addition and the need to put eating explicitly above the love of God but then who does that? What glutton says I’m going to eat greedily even though God forbids it? Aquinas in another place says: “the fornicator does not intend to depart from God but to enjoy carnal pleasure, the result of which is that he departs from God.” So either Aquinas has two concepts
    of preferring sin to God or you are interpreting him very leniently on gluttony while he is way stricter on sex. In any event your understanding fits with its abscence as a subject of worry throughout the Church. I don’t see how it is deadly and rarely deadly at the same time. Here in any event is the apposite section:

    Second Pt. of the Second Pt.
    Question 148 art.4
    I answer that, As stated above (Article 1), gluttony denotes inordinate concupiscence in eating. Now two things are to be considered in eating, namely the food we eat, and the eating thereof. Accordingly, the inordinate concupiscence may be considered in two ways. First, with regard to the food consumed: and thus, as regards the substance or species of food a man seeks “sumptuous”–i.e. costly food; as regards its quality, he seeks food prepared too nicely–i.e. “daintily”; and as regards quantity, he exceeds by eating “too much.”
    Secondly, the inordinate concupiscence is considered as to the consumption of food: either because one forestalls the proper time for eating, which is to eat “hastily,” or one fails to observe the due manner of eating, by eating ‘greedily.’”

  6. avatar Bill Carmon says:

    I have had this problem for 40 years. What I wonder is, and I guess it is because I hardly think about it before it happens, …is…. it always a mortal sin?? I’m scared about the nature of the sin and the fact that I have had such problems for years. Obviously I don’t want to lose my soul because of what I see as a horrible habit.Often it is the ONLY sin I confess. I feel sometime like it is second nature. I go to confession often, and stop for a while, but it has a real attraction for me. I’m single.

  7. avatar James J says:

    Bill, are you reading the Summa in translation? Or in the original. Some have found nuances which, especially in the context of the time, may lead to a different take on his otherwise presumed meaning.

  8. avatar bill bannon says:

    Bill Carmon,
    Consider Ezekiel 16 in your remedies. Speaking for God about Sodom, Ezekiel is very non Western in that he mentions the roots of their “abominations” rather than centering on the sexual sin…and one of those roots of the sexual sins is overeating along with pride and no alms giving:
    Ezekiel 16:49-50
       “ Now look at the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were proud, sated with food, complacent in prosperity. They did not give any help to the poor and needy.
    50 Instead, they became arrogant and committed abominations before me; then, as you have seen, I removed them.”

    A therapist could help you with any emotional roots of the habit but Ezekiel is helping you with the moral roots. The Ezekiel passage is telling our confessors that in sexual sins, they might ask the penitent non sexual questions…ie are you moderate at meals, are you helping the needy…try those areas because Scripture is saying there’s a connection. Aquinas once said, “granted one absurdity, others must needs follow”. We can use that in an extended sense here. Granted insufficient alms giving and granted overeating, sexual sins will follow in at least many people.

  9. avatar bill bannon says:

    James J.
    Does the Church read Scripture in the original at Mass? Maybe no one ever understood Christ because no manuscripts of the NT are original? Extreme…isn’t it? I think your suggestion is rarely a factor and often part of our cover up, pan infallible tendencies. Aquinas is wonderful but he was wrong in any language on the IC and on the venial sin nature of asking for the marriage debt if procreation is not willed ( he copied Augustine on that verbatim). So for about 1400 years, literate married Catholics thought they were sinning venially if they asked for sex without willing children thanks to our giving Augustine and Aquinas unreasonable infallibility which actual Catholicism does not give them. But unfortunately their view on lying is stricter than Jerome’s and is in the current catechism but Jerome is more biblical because Solomon, Judith, Jehu ( whom Jerome cites) and Christ all indulge in verbal ruses that verbally lead their listener in a wrong direction ( for Christ…the Canaanite woman with the possessed daughter). If you read section 42 of Verbum Domini by Benedict, you’ll see him repulsed by things that are actually from God…massacres and trickery in the OT….ergo Aquinas and Augustine’s view of lying made it into his catechism. Try and find a pre 20th century Pope denouncing the massacres of the OT. Christ predicts the worst one from God via the Romans…Jerusalem…and He predicts that infants will be killed within mothers. Catholic authors will note that the temple was destroyed as Jimmy Akins did recently but they avoid the horror…1.1 million people were killed (Josephus). According to Ezekiel…”all souls are mine saith the Lord”. He takes millions of people per year from this earth. If He takes infants, I suspect He’s taking them home…despite the younger Augustine.

  10. avatar bill bannon says:

    Bill Carmon,
    Here is the Douay Rheims based on the Vulgate for Ezekiel 16:49-50:
    ” [49] Behold this was the iniquity of Sodom thy sister, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance, and the idleness of her, and of her daughters: and they did not put forth their hand to the needy, and to the poor. [50] And they were lifted up, and committed abominations before me: and I took them away as thou hast seen.”

    • avatar Bill Carmon says:

      I give to the church, I deliver meals on wheels, I am a member of 2 civic clubs, I’m not overweight, I give and volunteer in other community ways…..I help care for my mom. I feel like I do those things.

  11. avatar bill bannon says:

    Bill,
    Then the other thing I mentioned which you did not address was a therapist. If it is true that virtually all else in your life is moral except this area, then it may be an emotion based compulsion.

    • avatar Bill Carmon says:

      That’s kind of why I posted…would that reduce the seriousness of the sin???

      • avatar bill bannon says:

        Yes….anything that reduces free will, reduces formal guilt. God be with you. If a therapist is good, he will accept your moral beliefs and work with that. If he tries to convince you your actions are ok, drop him and move on to one who works with your morals as the context.

  12. avatar James J says:

    Bill Bannon, thank you for your response.

    No, reading in the original language is not generally necessary. However, you are surely aware of nuances and mistranslations which can cause incorrect meanings to be assumed. Not too many years back, ICEL translated the EXACT SAME Latin passage in the old Enchiridion of Indulgence, but included in two different parts of the text, completely differently. That was because parts of the book were assigned to different translators. That was a serious error. (I have not checked the revised version.) Translation issues should not always be so easily dismissed, especially, as here, in cases where they provide for you the foundation for pronouncements on teachings.

    Without a personal review at the moment and, therefore, possibly with incomplete consideration, I may take issue with your interpretation of “hastily” and “greedily”, as examples, as meaning simply eating too fast.

    I also believe that we need to continue to keep an overview of the Church in front of us. The basics to which we are called should not be clouded. Prayer, love, our over-arching relationship with God. What children are able to understand in their simplicity are those things which should still guide us. Looking at the simplicity of Our Lady’s messages to us going back centuries should be part of the spiritual foundation for which we should strive.

    Aquinas and Augustine, appropriately given great stature in the Church, are not the Church themselves.

    Your comments are thoughtful and appreciated. I hope I have not misunderstood them, which is not impossible. I hope I have answered with respect for them, as I have intended.

  13. avatar bill bannon says:

    James J,
    “Hastily” is referring to eating prior to the proper clock time of eating…check the passage above. “Greedily” can only mean speed of eating since Aquinas already addressed quantity of food….check the passage. “Greedily” is the Dominicans’ translation of Aquinas’ “ardenter” from the Latin in the original of Aquinas:
    ” vel quia non servat modum debitum in edendo, quod est ardenter”.
    “or if someone did not (obey or serve) the due mode in eating, which is ardently” bill bannon
    translation ( 6 years of Latin).

    • avatar James J says:

      Well, BIll, your six years of Latin beat my four+ (unless, perhaps, I add in the years I taught first year Latin)!

      Nonetheless, I will still take issue with your interpretation in this instance. I enjoy your analysis and I’ll certainly consider your position as time passes more leisurely. Regardless, I do not believe we are under an obligation to accept Aquinas’s apparent defining of certain mortal sins as the final authority. Sometimes a difficult position I take in the case of Aquinas, whom I do love and periodically quote to others. But I do not believe any of the recent Bishops of Rome would take a position, as one example only, that eating too quickly in itself would be a sin at all. Signs of gluttony beyond that would be a different situation.

  14. avatar N. W. Flitcraft says:

    MALE promiscuity is to blame for permissiveness concerning abortion and pornography? I would be much quicker to blame FEMALE promiscuity, especially seeing as the promiscuous female has the most to gain from them, both monetarily and in the avoidance of maternal responsibility. And, furthermore, we have feminism to blame for this condition.

    • avatar James J says:

      N.W., promiscuity by either party goes back much further than the current influence of feminism. I will agree that the feminist movement has caused harm, as is happening with the current gay agenda. But you speak without a proper foundation to blame feminism for ills that precede the current movement by centuries and beyond.

      • avatar N. W. Flitcraft says:

        I didn’t say, or mean to imply, that promiscuity is a “contemporary” problem. What I was saying is that while male promiscuity shares culpability for relaxed attitudes toward abortion and pornography (certainly the latter), female promiscuity is a better candidate. I say this because while these “ills” obviously are ancient, what is not ancient is the insistence that promiscuity, abortion, pornography, etc., are not, in fact, moral ills at all, and that guilt is illusory. In the minds of many these sins are praiseworthy forms and expresssions of liberty. Such opinions, I think, do stem from feminism, and modernism in general. Indeed people have never been chaste; but there was a time — before the Reign of Ideology — when people at least acknowledged that they ought to be.

  15. avatar Kraner says:

    Wonderful post, thanks so considerably for sharing. Do you happen to have an RSS feed I can subscribe to?

  16. avatar Doug says:

    This is an awesome essay – a very lucid view of the mechanics involved ; mechanics which, when presented objectively, give us a world of understanding subjectively . In other words, John M. Grondelski has presented us with a valuable tool which should help us as individuals not only to look at our habitual sins face to face , but to comprehend how they got that way .

    . . . A tip of the hat to Laurettas for reminding us that every one of our sins and each expression of love/act of charity we make, has a real effect on the Body of Christ.

  17. avatar Eleven says:

    In my experience with this sin and in advice from confessors, I think one monsignor acknowledged a sobering cause of this sin – a personal unsettlement or unfulfilment or non-sexual disorder of some kind within. It may not always be “solely” the search for a physical pleasure. I say this because of the following: I am a single man in this habit for a number of years, but true to the faith (I try to anyway) and have not transitioned to fornication as the article mentions happens to some. Anyway, I found it much easier to stop after I had attended a theology class with some younger adults and I thought there was one young lady who would be willing to entertain a proper dating relationship with me. I had a good rapport with this young lady, and she was the one who had invited me to the class. My association of her as such was a grace of sorts, and I reached the point where I did not commit the masturbatory sin for an unusually extended period. Perhaps a void that contributed to my habit had been filled. I do believe I viewed her as a dignified other person, and because of that, I did not feel my sin was compatible with courting her. There was a respect and my mind was well-ordered on the matter. A chaste relationship with her was proper and right. Masturbatory sin was not. Such a relationship was something for which I had prayed for years and it was my hope that God would grant me the blessing for which I had so long asked. Then my heart split when she unexpectedly chose someone else. She is since engaged to this man. And I since fell back into the sin and it haunts me still. Great frustrations persist as a result of the ever “unanswered” prayer, and the loss of such a virtuous woman whose very company helped lead me away from the disordered sin. I had prayed for help in conquering the sin, and this woman seemed like such an answer to that and so much else, and then she was gone. The proper order of man and wife, of complementary helpmates, remains to me, a fiction in a fallen, disgusting world. And it remains vexing why God must render pleading children to abandonment, crying “why have you forsaken” as a bloody wreck on the cross. And the only remaining choice is to abandon the faith which still merits belief, or to say with confusion, “To whom else shall we go?” and remain in God’s presence as a broken-hearted, destroyed sinner with little hope in the temporal life.

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