Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he [did not take it away]. 2 Cor. 12:7-9a (NRSV)
Speculation as to what St. Paul’s thorn was, is best left to those producing abstruse doctoral dissertations or, perhaps, salacious bestsellers. We may never know the precise nature of Paul’s affliction, but we certainly know the kind of experience with that “messenger of Satan” about which he writes. Most of us will admit to suffering from some “thorn in the flesh”: some painful intrusion into our heart, mind and soul we just can’t seem to rid ourselves of. Depending upon the circumstances or what’s at stake, we might consider our thorn a bad habit, an unwanted personality trait or a sin.
A Thorn by Any Other Name
Thorns in the flesh are not created equally, of course. What is a minor frustration to one will be a major irritation to another. Some relate to their thorn as “something I’ve just learned to live with,” while for others the thorn aggravates an open sore teeming with spiritual or psychological infection. For three decades, I have ministered to seminarians as a professor, spiritual director and confessor. Ask them to name their “thorn in the flesh” and, without hesitation, many will identify it as a struggle with masturbation.
Masturbation seems to be more a thorn for seminarians than for their civilian counterparts, but I don’t think this means that masturbation is a temptation only for those trying to live the celibate life! The fact is, many would argue that masturbation shouldn’t be much of an issue—and certainly not a matter for confession—at all. Some see it a normal part of human development, especially for adolescents and young adults. Others, “going by the numbers,” declare it statistically normal. We hear from some that, since masturbation does no harm to others, it should be treated merely as a private matter—a concern only if the individual considers it something about which to be concerned.
We’ll be reminded that the Old Testament text (Gen. 38:9) referring to Onan’s masturbation condemns more his betrayal of his responsibilities toward his dead brother than an act of self-abuse. Physicians may point out that masturbation is an efficient, effective way of obtaining a sperm sample. And the Internet will tirelessly provide all the information anyone ever wanted to know about the physical benefits masturbation allegedly confers! So: is masturbation developmentally or statistically normal, psychologically and physically healthy and even medically advised in certain situations, a matter for the individual to avoid or adopt according to personal preference?
I’ll steer clear of that endless discussion for two reasons. First, it is endless. Second, ultimately, we return to the teaching of the Church—a teaching we are bound to accept, follow, teach and help others embrace.
The Teaching of the Church
For our purposes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the Church’s teaching on masturbation most economically in two paragraphs. The first begins by defining masturbation as “the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure,” and then offers an objective moral evaluation of the act:
“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.”
To anyone even minimally familiar with the Church’s teaching on sexual matters, there are no surprises here. Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action because it makes use of the sexual faculty in a way essentially contrary to its purpose.
A complementary perspective—not an opposing one—is offered by the following paragraph.
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.
The Context for an Equitable Judgment
Catholics of a previous era were not offered much of a “gray area” in any matter involving sexuality, and this was certainly true when it came to masturbation. I remember that seventh-grade lecture way back in 1965, in which one of our parish priests provided us boys—most of whom were tiptoeing on the front porch of puberty—with a vague and confusing description of what masturbation was, but was clear and certain in telling us it was always to be considered a mortal sin, thus deserving the same condemnation as adultery, murder and missing Mass on Sunday. The Catechism’s paragraph about “forming an equitable judgment” certainly reflects a more nuanced appreciation and understanding of both human behavior and sin.
My experience, though, is that seminarians often have difficulty in forming an “equitable judgment about [their] moral responsibility” as regards masturbation. Some feel the Catechism’s two paragraphs set up the proverbial “rock and a hard place,” and that they are constantly being shoved from one rough side to the other. They may admit that while they do find some reassurance from the Catechism’s second paragraph, they feel it “spiritually safer” to assess their behavior strictly according to the first. Images and experiences of God, sin and grace obviously are at work here.
I know that some claim that a pastoral approach is “whatever makes people happy.” This is not my understanding of a pastoral approach. The Catechism’s guidelines about forming “an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility” are not escape clauses or moral loopholes. Rather, they offer a basis upon which to assess the subjective guilt (moral culpability) in the light of the act’s objective gravity. Pastoral action does not excuse, rationalize or allow—still less does it condone—behavior that is not healthy, wholesome or appropriate. The Catechism’s second paragraph does not offer a concession to lax behavior but, rather, calls one to conversion, with the reassurance that less-than-perfect compliance does not result in automatic and eternal damnation.
Pastoral action seeks to guide, challenge and support a person in a specific situation in the light of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. Sound pastoral practice does not oppose, but rather serves, Church teaching. In line with that, I offer here three principles that provide the context from which my following remarks proceed. The second and third statements are found in the Catechism’s treatment of “The Vocation to Chastity,” and immediately precede the Catechism’s no. 2352 we have considered above.
- Priestly celibacy is celibate chastity. Celibate chastity is not the losing, denying, or surrendering of one’s sexuality. It is a commitment to learn and practice living and loving without genital expression. As is true when considering any virtue, chastity requires disciple and practice, and is ultimately possible only through and with our cooperation with God’s grace.
- Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. …Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.
- Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. Man…day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.
Relying upon these three statements as a foundation, I offer some reflections from my experience in dealing with the spiritual and emotional fallout many seminarians encounter in their struggles with chastity, especially the habit of masturbation. My hope is that these reflections will encourage profitable discussion—discussion between a seminarian and his spiritual director and confessor, to be sure, but also among seminary formators.
They are Good People, These Seminarians
Our seminarians are good men. All of them would agree they need to become better men. They come to the seminary knowing a lot, but most of them know they still have a lot to learn—about God and themselves, about grace and sin, about commitment and conversion.
I find most of them honest and docile. Their openness to their spiritual directors and counselors—and, not infrequently, even their disclosing some of their difficulties and issues to their formators in the external forum—is admirable, reflecting their trust in their formators and a willingness to be confronted by them. We may consider some of them overly pious, and others may seem to us to have too much of a tendency to view life in absolutes (“But, Father, what is the answer?”), but their love of God and their desire to grow in that love is clear. Most approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation far more frequently than their secular peers. The reasons for this frequency may range from an inclination toward being “devotional” to a tendency toward being “compulsive,” but it is clear that the sacrament offers them something they desperately seek.
Beware the “Litmus Test”
Unfortunately, it seems sometimes that what the sacrament offers them is a “quick fix.” I do not mean this in an insensitive or disrespectful way. As mentioned, seminarians approach the confessional far more frequently than do their counterparts outside the seminary. Given the norms outlined by the Program of Priestly Formation, this is encouraged, expected and welcomed. What can be frustrating, however—to the confessor as well as to the seminarian—is that masturbation seems to drive some seminarians to the sacrament.
Masturbation has often been described as an act in and by which an individual “fixates on himself,” and some seminarians tend to fixate further on masturbation as the primary way in which they define themselves. Masturbation can become the fast-acting, rapidly readable litmus test that determines whether they are living virtuously or sinfully. “I am a good seminarian because I haven’t masturbated for x number of days or weeks” or “I am a bad seminarian because I masturbated yesterday.” As is evident from these statements, there is a tendency among some to determine the state of their soul primarily by using one act as the constant and primary reference point.
Once this becomes the habitual way of examining one’s thoughts, words and deeds, the shrinking of one’s conscience is in process and moral myopia is just around the corner (“As long as I haven’t masturbated, I’m fine.”) We can certainly hold that masturbation is not the ideal—that at the very least it always indicates more growth is called for—without making it the defining factor of our relationship with God, our service to our neighbor and our response to our vocation. It is important to recall the Catechism’s words pertaining to chastity, cited above, regarding “self-mastery” and the “laws of growth.”
The Force of Acquired Habit
Our seminarians come from a culture in which what was once unspeakable and forbidden can now be easily accessed, displayed and saved to disk. By the time a seminarian begins priestly formation, he has had more than enough time to acquire a habit that is difficult to break, a habit supported in no small way by having acquired more than enough visual images (virtual or hard copy) that prove difficult to delete.
The Catechism cites the “force of acquired habit” as one thing to consider when forming an equitable judgment about moral responsibility, and I believe not a few seminarians do suffer from an addiction to masturbation. Evidence of this is abundant in their confessions. It is clear they struggle. It is clear they consider masturbation wrong. It is clear they are sometimes desperate to break the “force of this acquired habit,” to excise the thorn that, despite their best prayers, intentions and efforts, seems destined to forever puncture their flesh.
Their frustration is indication enough that masturbation is hardly an act to which they give free, unrestrained, carefree consent. Again, the point here is not to dismiss their and the Church’s concerns about masturbation. It is to remind them of those words of St. Paul that began this article: words reflecting a desperate (and, ultimately, confident) cry to God for help.
The Eucharist: To Receive or to Refrain?
The daily celebration of the Eucharist in the seminary community can pose a regular “rock and a hard place” to those struggling with a habit of masturbation. If he has not had a chance to go to confession, the seminarian may not want to receive communion for fear of committing a sacrilege. Yet the close and familiar confines of the seminary chapel can make not receiving difficult. “If you don’t feel right about receiving and don’t join the communion line, it’s almost like a public confession,” one seminarian remarked. Another asked, with obvious frustration: “If I masturbate three times a week, should I go to confession three times? What does the Church want from me?” Unfortunately, no document can provide the unambiguous answer for every seminarian in every situation. This is a real part of human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation and education!
One approach, of course, is to refer the seminarian to the traditional Church practice in such circumstances: that if he believes he is in a state of mortal sin and it is physically or morally impossible for him to go to confession prior to Mass, he make an act of perfect contrition, receive the Eucharist and seek reconciliation later. But then there is the question, “What do we mean by later?
The Confessor: Effective Encourager or Inevitable Enabler?
I have heard some seminarians say, “Thank God there’s always a priest available for confession here at the seminary.” There is, indeed, something wonderful about that availability but, in my opinion, there is also the danger that it can hinder a seminarian from learning how to deal with such matters in moral and mature ways. The title of this section is overstated only a little. We do want to minister effectively. But what of the seminarian who approaches the confessional several times a week because he has given in to the temptation to masturbate several times?
Do we hear his confession every time he requests it? No priest will want to brush off the seminarian’s concerns or otherwise exhibit a lack of compassion and sensitivity, but neither will he want to encourage a mentality that promotes understanding the sacrament as a spiritual 9-1-1 call. Such seems only to encourage the litmus test syndrome and the fear that one can move completely into and out of God’s favor rapidly and frequently.
Is it possible to misuse the sacrament and unintentionally end up as enablers (“come and get clean”), rather than those who, step by step, help the seminarian in the much more difficult task of gradual conversion? How do we, on one hand, appropriately and necessarily respect where the seminarian is, given his background, education and spirituality and, on the other hand, also appropriately and necessarily lead him into the next stage of development where the sacrament is not hastened to in a spiritual panic, but is celebrated as part of a process of conversion?
What attitudes and approaches to the sacrament are we fostering in those in formation, and how helpful will those attitudes and approaches be in their future? What models are we providing to the seminarian that will help him deal with God and himself when he is alone in his parish, preparing to celebrate the morning Mass, conscious that he viewed pornography and engaged in masturbation only a few hours before?
A final comment about confession. The practice varies among seminarians: some see one priest for spiritual direction and celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a different priest (or priests), while others have the same priest as director and confessor. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and so when I am asked which choice is better, I spend some time discussing those pros and cons.
In the case of a seminarian struggling with masturbation who is inclined to seek the sacrament several times a month (or even within a week), I believe there might be some advantage in encouraging the seminarian to celebrate the sacrament with his spiritual director. I believe this would lend more consistency in advice and approach. It may be difficult for a seminarian’s confessor to advise this, and so I suggest the spiritual director take the initiative in this regard at the appropriate time. The point here certainly is not to diminish one’s freedom in seeking a confessor. But, since obviously a seminarian’s spiritual director and confessor cannot and will not consult with one another, it is, again, to strive for a great consistency in attitude, advice and approach.
My intention here has not been to present the “definitive solution” to the objectively sinful act of masturbation, the “thorn in the flesh” experienced by many seminarians. Rather, I have posed some thoughts and questions to assist spiritual directors and confessors in their work with those in formation. As I noted above, I hope these reflections will encourage profitable discussion between seminarians and their spiritual directors and confessors, and also among seminary formators. I offer four final points.
First, seminarians struggling with the habit of masturbation (and pornography) need assurance they are not alone. That others struggle with similar temptations and tendencies neither dismisses nor diminishes the objective gravity of the act or the subjective feelings of guilt and frustration. One question I often ask a seminarian burdened with guilt and frustration is, “If a good friend of yours—a person you admire for a number of reasons—were to admit to you the sin of masturbation and it was within your power to do so, would you assign him to hell?” Always, the response is, “Of course not.” I then ask the seminarian to explain how he arrived at such an “equitable judgment,” and ask him in what ways it would be appropriate for him to apply some of the same reasoning when assessing his own conscience. This has often been helpful.
Second, a discussion concerning the meaning and use of sacramental reconciliation, especially as it relates to sins against and difficulties with the practice of chastity, would benefit many seminarians. Such a discussion should certainly be part of the seminarian’s pastoral formation for, as a future minister of the sacrament himself, he must understand and appreciate the sacrament as one of the regular means of conversion in the Christian life, and not only or primarily as an eschatological fire extinguisher.
Third, Pope Paul VI referred to priestly celibacy as a “motive for pastoral charity,” and for some seminarians their struggles with chastity might also present them with a motive to develop a greater pastoral charity in their dealings with others. I said above that masturbation should not be seen as the litmus test that gives a quick readout of one’s sin. But a habit of masturbation is a ready reminder of one’s weakness, and so is also a constant counterpoint to one’s pride and self-righteousness. St. Paul himself suggests as much by his comment that the thorn in his flesh was given precisely so that he would not become too elated.
I’m reminded of St. Benedict’s admonition to his monks, “If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself, but be certain that the evil you commit is always your own and yours to acknowledge.” For some, the thorn of masturbation will be a frequent reminder of their need for God’s grace, and that we all seek—and benefit from—another’s compassion more than their judgment. Such reflection can broaden one’s conscience to include sins against charity—particularly, perhaps, sins of omission against charity.
Finally, seminarians must—as must we all, when confronting something in ourselves that is not of grace—be encouraged to trust in God’s mercy. Here is the place to recall those words of St. Paul to which we have been referring, while adding the lesson Paul learned from his struggle with his thorn, a lesson (printed in italics) he passes on to his brother ministers of the Gospel:
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Cor. 12:7-9)
- While the focus of this article is ministry to seminarians, much of what I offer is relevant to the ministry we offer our brother priests and men and women religious. ↵
- Often related to a struggle with masturbation is the habit of indulging in pornography—usually, given its “anonymity, accessibility, and affordability,” Internet pornography. As the Web fosters the disease, it occasionally offers some relief: www.internetbehavior.com is one site that provides helpful resources for understanding and managing this behavior. ↵
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), no. 2352, par. 1. The paragraph includes two citations from Persona humana, the 1975 Declaration published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. ↵
- Catechism, no. 2352, par. 2. Lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, and rape are the six “offenses against chastity” the Catechism cites in nos. 2351-2356. Interestingly, in addition to stating that certain economic or social factors can attenuate the imputability of the offense of prostitution, the Catechism offers a pastoral comment only as regards masturbation. ↵
- Only a few years later the spiritual director of my high school seminary, God rest his soul, stood before all hundred of us, ages 12-18, and declared that masturbation was murder because we were “disposing of half a human being.” Even then we considered him a holy man; even then we were glad he taught geography and not science. ↵
- Catechism, nos. 2339, 2342. ↵
- Catechism, no. 2343. ↵
- Program of Priestly Formation, fifth ed. (USCCB, 2006), no. 110, 120. See also Pope John Paul II’s comments on the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation to seminarians in Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), no. 48. ↵
- One resource offering many practical suggestions concerning the practice of chastity is Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s The Courage to Be Chaste (Paulist, 1985). ↵
- Sacerdotalis caelibatus (1965), no. 24. ↵
- Rule of Saint Benedict 4, 42-43. RB 1980, ed. Timothy Fry (Liturgical Press, 1981). ↵