E. Christian Brugger is a moral theologian. He has Master degrees in moral theology and moral philosophy from Seton Hall, Harvard and Oxford Universities and received his D.Phil. (Ph.D.) in Christian ethics from Oxford in 2000. Christian has published two books, the most recent titled “The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent” (CUA Press, 2017), and over 300 articles in scholarly and popular periodicals on topics in bioethics, sexual ethics, natural law theory, as well as the interdisciplinary field of psychology and Christian anthropology. He writes from his home in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, where he lives with his wife and five children.
Q. I am 78 years old and have been married to my wife for 53 years. Lately I have begun to experience periodic impotence. My doctor recommends masturbation as he thinks my problem is psychological. Under these circumstances can masturbation be legitimate? Thank you.
A. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has this to say about 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’ [internal quotes from Persona Humana, 9]” (2352).
The Catechism defines masturbation here, in fact two times, as the deliberate stimulation of the genitals in order to derive sexual pleasure. So the desired end is sexual pleasure, and the means by which that end is pursued is the stimulation of the genitals. And the Catechism teaches that choosing these means for that end is gravely disordered and always wrong.
Now you ask whether it could be licit to self-stimulate at the recommendation of your doctor. I suspect your doctor is recommending this in the hopes that you will achieve sexual satisfaction through the behavior; and that this will help you overcome whatever psychic block he thinks might be present. I also suspect he assumes you will use erotic images, certainly sexual thoughts, to facilitate this. If so, then he is prescribing as a treatment for overcoming periodic impotence self-stimulation to achieve sexual pleasure, a prescription that would be gravely immoral for you to carry out. The Catholic Church teaches that it is never morally good to seek sexual pleasure outside of the marital act.
Pleasure of itself is neither good nor bad. Its value derives from that in which it is taken, usually from some kind of action.
Sexual acts, according to God’s design, and as recognized by common sense reasoning, are meant to express two things: the one-flesh love of committed married persons; and the orientation of this love — that is, its openness — to new life.
Masturbation, not directed toward another in love, but self-directed, seeks isolated pleasure. And it is not and never can be open to new life.
Thus the constant teaching of the Catholic Church since apostolic times is that all deliberate use of the sexual faculties should be reserved to marital intercourse.
What then should you do? I recommend you seek out a medical practitioner who is both skilled in treating the condition in question as well as committed to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, and explore morally good options for achieving the desired outcome.
Masturbation for Sperm Collection?
What about self-stimulation for reasons other than pleasure — say, purely for collecting a sperm sample?
Notice the second internal quote above in the text from the Catechism: “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” This would seem to include self-stimulation for purposes of sperm testing.
At the same time, it is true that in the modern period, the Church has not taught specifically on the question of masturbation for clinical purposes. But let’s think the scenario through in light of what is clearly taught.
We know that self-stimulation for the sake of pleasure is wrongful, because it inverts the order of sexuality, turning something that should be directed to another, to whom I am committed for life and with whom I am ready to bear the responsibility of parenthood, into a solitary act of self-pleasuring. We also know that fostering sexual fantasies is wrongful, falling under what moral theology calls sins of thought.
Now if one could self-stimulate to the point of ejaculation without seeking sexual pleasure and without fostering impure thoughts, then that act would seem fall outside of the act description condemned by the Church.
But is this ever realistic? It seems that if a man begins to stimulate his genitals, he is very likely to turn to impure thoughts to assist the process; and after the train gets revving, as it were, it is extremely likely that he will begin to seek pleasure in the ensuing orgasm. These become even more likely if he has struggled with masturbation.
Therefore, adopting this mode of behavior, that is, choosing self-stimulation unto ejaculation, would be placing himself willingly in a near occasion of serious sin; and we solemnly resolve at the end of every act of contrition to avoid such near occasions.
It therefore does not seem that masturbation can be safely recommended.
Morally Licit Options for Sperm Collection?
What then may a man do if he needs to obtain a sperm sample?
Married Men — If he is married he may use a perforated condom in marital intercourse, so that the act both consummates a true one-flesh union through the depositing of semen, while at the same time leaving semen behind in the sheath for collection and testing. Or he may collect sperm from his wife’s birth canal after a conjugal act with no condom.
Single Men — I do not know what clinical alternatives are available. These should be explored with a physician. I therefore offer the same advice that I offered above: Explore morally licit options for collecting semen samples with a competent physician who respects Catholic values.
Following sound moral principles, the following conditions should guide this exploration and any accompanying behavior:
1. Serious reasons
Because of the complexities discussed above, there should be serious reasons before a single man decides to collect a sperm sample. For example, he has had chemotherapy for a dangerously enlarged prostate, is planning to get married and believes he has an obligation to let his fiancé know whether or not he is infertile.
2. Upright intention
Whatever procedure is chosen for collection, it must not be performed with the intention of deriving sexual pleasure. For this is reserved for marital intercourse.
3. Upright means
The collection must not involve sins of thought.
4. Avoid near occasions of sin
The procedure should not place the man in a near occasion of sin; for example, if he struggles with pornography and masturbation, he should be confident before he consents to any procedure that it will not elicit within him an irresistible desire to masturbate.
5. Avoid scandal
Accepting and carrying out the procedure should not lead anyone else to conclude that masturbation, as defined by the Catechism, is sometimes legitimate.