Catholic Education and Masturbation

Fr. Damien Ference

Much has been written about the dramatic shift that took place in Catholic education after the Second Vatican Council. The Baltimore Catechism was out and Buddy Christ was in. The memorization of basic foundational formulations of our faith such as the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and the Corporal Works of Mercy took a backseat to a new style of catechesis fueled by construction paper, paste, and pictures that were assembled into a collage about how Jesus made us feel. Sin was a topic we never heard much about, unless sin meant disobeying mom and dad. God was nice and we should be, too. Jesus had long hair, wore sandals, and ate organic food. The whole experience of Catholic education in the early 1980s can best be summed up by the title of the hymnal filled with songs by Carey Landry and his fellow St. Louis Jesuits (who gave us the hit “Great Things Happen When God Mixes with Us”): Hi God!

Of course, I am oversimplifying the situation, and I understand that Catholic education before the council was often rigid, formalistic and at times lacked the imagination that our tradition holds so dear. And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that such a shift occurred the way that it did. Sometimes it takes a few hard turns to right a ship.

It has been said that Catholic education before the council lacked heart and after the council it lacked head. I hope we are well on our way to striking a balance in the catechesis of our young people today. Colleen Carroll Campbell’s critically acclaimed book The New Faithful offers hope and direction to those interested in striking this balance by examining the differences between Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers in terms of Catholic education and formation. Campbell argues that in order to find this balance, it is imperative to stay rooted in the deposit of faith handed on by the apostles, while at the same time allowing that faith tradition to remain relevant and be salt and light in the modern world. This is at the heart of orthodoxy. But if we are not careful, the salt may lose its flavor and the lamp may make its way under a bushel basket.

Take masturbation for instance. The generation before mine was taught that masturbation was a serious sin that needed to be confessed. It was a violation of the sixth commandment, a grave act that could easy become habitual and therefore was to be avoided at all costs. There was even a story about how masturbation could make you blind.

A generation later, many confessors and catechists told young people (and some still do) that masturbation is a natural phenomenon of adolescence: healthy, safe, therapeutic, and good for you. Such instruction was intended to liberate a generation from “senseless guilt” and to celebrate the gift of our sexuality. Rather than making us blind, the opposite would happen. We would be able to see… like God sees! Sound familiar?

Masturbation has been and always will be understood by the Catholic tradition as an intrinsically and gravely disordered act. Granted, the Catechism takes into consideration affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety, and other social factors that can lessen, or even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability. But masturbation is always a gravely disordered act. It is a violation of the sixth commandment and needs to be confessed.

However, the question remains: Can masturbation really make you blind? One’s initial response is a resounding “Of course not!” followed by a full-bellied laugh that suggests that one would have to be an imbecile, unenlightened or medieval, to believe such a thing. But upon further reflection and a generous application of the depth of the Catholic imagination, this myth about blindness actually holds water.

Here’s what I think. A few hundred years ago a young man went to his spiritual director and asked about the moral implications of masturbation. The spiritual director told the young man that although the word masturbation is not found in Scripture, natural law and the tradition of the Church forbid it because it is not a self-giving or procreative act. The spiritual director then opened Matthew’s gospel to the Sermon on the Mount and read, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The director told the young directee, “When your heart is not pure, you turn in on yourself and will be unable to see God or grace in your life. Consequently, you will become spiritually blind.” The young man understood the advice of his director and applied it to his life. He shared the wisdom of his director with others. However, somewhere along the way spiritual blindness was replaced with physical blindness and the teaching lost its authority. It became an old wives’ tale, as incredible as the myth about hairy palms.

It seems to me that no matter how the whole masturbation and blindness business got started, the truth to which the old myth points is theologically on target. Our sexuality is a great gift from God that allows us to participate in his very life. However, when we don’t live and love according to our nature and his divine plan for us, we don’t see things clearly.

Masturbation is neither procreative nor unitive. It is an act that by its very nature is selfish, no matter what the circumstance. Rather than making one’s self a gift for the other, one treats the other as an object rather than as a person, and in turn uses the object rather than loving the person. Masturbation trains one to use another. If you don’t believe me, ask any porn addict. Or better yet, ask his wife. It’s impossible to see God while objectifying his people, even if only in the mind. The masturbation myth is only one example of many that points to a serious lack of imagination and creativity in educators’ dealings with Catholic matters. However, I think my speculation regarding masturbation does point to the wonderful irony that the traditional teaching on the subject brings one into a Technicolor Catholic world of profound beauty and freedom in a way that a more avant-garde approach promises but can never deliver.

Rather than diving deep into the tradition of Catholicism, many catechists would rather wade in safe and shallow theological waters in case the waves of orthodoxy become too much to handle. Whether it be explaining away the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection or the divinity of Christ, educators far too often take the easy way out by diluting the faith. I don’t enjoy watered-down scotch, and watered-down Catholicism is far worse. Young people long for transcendence, beauty, goodness, and truth in all its glory, yet all too often, rather than being brought to the fullness of the marital embrace between God and humanity, they are left in the banal throes of spiritual masturbation thanks to bland catechesis.

So here’s the bottom line: It is very easy to fall into the trap of judging something at first glance as superstitious, archaic, or untrue and then to dismiss it entirely. But because we Catholics are steeped in such a rich, complex, and mysterious tradition, recklessness must be avoided at all costs, especially when disguised as reform and liberation. Our first instinct is often to grasp for a black or white answer and settle a score immediately rather than to sit with the mystery and tradition for a while and allow it to speak to us. But that is precisely the task of the Catholic in the twenty-first century. Too often in our recent history, Catholics have lacked the imagination to make sense of our rich tradition and have diluted it and sterilized it for the sake of “comprehensibility.” Our faith is not like a math problem; it can never be solved or comprehended in a way that allows us to move on to the next equation. In the life of faith, there is only one equation. And unlike all other equations, this one is not for us to grasp. This one grasps us.

Write a song about that, Carey Landry.