Mortal sin means “deadly” sin, the choice to so reject God’s love that the life of grace “dies” in a person. The meanings of masturbation range over a variety of acts and life situations. An overly “act” centered approach to sexual morality, in my humble opinion, fails to take into account the multiplicity of meanings and complexities of the human condition. Masturbation by a 13 year old boy is radically different from masturbation by a person who is refusing to have sexual relations with a spouse because of unresolved anger and conflicts. Overall, it is difficult to imagine someone using masturbation alone in such a manner that God is definitively rejected, with full consent of the will and a clear and total understanding of the implications of one’s choice (cf. CCC #1858).
The church teaches that masturbation is “gravely disordered” (CCC #2352) as are acts of lying, stealing, etc. In the same way, one can easily discriminate the difference between “stealing” a $1.00 from your mother’s purse when you are 10 years old and embezzling thousands on your job, or overcharging the government billions, so too we should judge the different levels and meanings of masturbation. In judging the moral responsibility surrounding masturbation, many conditions can “reduce to a minimum moral culpability” (CCC #2352).
Fr. Rick Malloy, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, fisherman and author. He is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, and serves as a Chaplain at the college. His book, A Faith That Frees: Catholic Matters for the 21st Century, (Orbis Books 2007) examines the relationships between the practices of faith and the cultural currents and changes so rapidly occurring in our ever more technologized and globalized world.