Sex is About ‘Mutual Self-Giving and Human Procreation’ — Accept No Counterfeits
DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: An ongoing conjugal life is important to marital and moral wellbeing.
Q. My wife and I have been married 44 years. She’s 73 and I’m 71. We have a good marriage, and our Catholic faith is the most important part of our lives. But because of physical issues we have not had intimate relations for close to 10 years. We also sleep in separate bedrooms so we can each sleep better. In the last year there have been several nights when I have awakened in the night and lay there remembering intimate adventures in our early marriage. This has led to masturbation. I know this is sinful and I feel ashamed. When I am doing this, I never think about pornographic images or other women or anything like that. I just replay in my mind those intimate moments when we were first married. At the time I'm doing this I try to convince myself that this type of masturbation might not be sinful. However, I know Satan likes to whisper in our ears and convince us sin is not sin. I would very much like to know your opinion. —Tom
A. I do not know what issues led you and your wife to give up on sexual intercourse. Given that you are committed Catholics, the issues must have been serious. I know therefore that what I advise may no longer possible. Nevertheless, you may consider revisiting these serious issues. An ongoing conjugal life, however infrequent, and even if awkward and at times difficult, yet consistent, is important to marital and moral wellbeing.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians St. Paul teaches husbands and wives that they should not refrain for long periods of time, “lest Satan tempt you through your lack of self-control” (7:5). The husband, he says, “should fulfill his duty toward his wife, and likewise the wife toward her husband.”
Catholic tradition hands on St. Paul’s wisdom on the “conjugal duty” or “debt” of spouses. St. Augustine, for example, teaches that one of the central expressions of marital fidelity is spouses providing for one another a “remedy” for sexual temptation. St. Thomas Aquinas says that spouses owe to one another the “marital debt,” that is, they are obliged to offer to one another their bodies so that each may not be tempted to have recourse to illicit sexual outlets. The Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches that one of the reasons men and women marry is to provide assistance in overcoming the weakness of the flesh; marriage as a remedium concupiscentiae (a remedy for concupiscence). Although marriage is much more than this, it certainly provides such a remedy.
The Second Vatican Council teaches a deeper theological reason why marital intercourse is important for marriage. The Council teaches that marriage is an intimate community characterized by conjugal life and love. The word “conjugal” means coming-together or joining. So marriage is a community that joins the spouses. In what sense? In a one-flesh sense.
Marriage then is a community joined by the one-fleshness of the spouses. Since all love is an orientation of will for the good of the beloved, conjugal love, which Vatican II says characterizes this community, is an orientation of the spouses’ wills toward mutual perfection through their conjugal, one-flesh communion (Gaudium et Spes, 49).
This one-flesh communion is typified in marital intercourse, which Scripture and Tradition teach is the only adequate and morally appropriate context for seeking sexual pleasure.
A person who masturbates seeks such pleasure extramaritally. Using pornography and fantasizing about other women would indeed be worse. But even when a man fantasizes about his own wife, his pleasuring is still solitary. He does not enjoy the fruit of a one-flesh interpersonal communion with his wife. The self-referential nature of what’s meant to be a means to the realization of interpersonal fulfilment, divorces him from this reality, damages his marital communion and separates him from God.
As Catholic philosopher Alex Pruss argues, masturbation is a kind of self-deception, where one makes oneself feel what’s not actually there — namely, the interpersonal reality of a real one-flesh union. Seeking pleasure in the absence of that which makes it truly worth having makes the pleasure fraudulent. As you yourself have indicated, the fruit you experience from it turns bitter in your mouth.
All this is to say that spouses who struggle with their sexual relationship should make every effort to overcome obstacles to maintaining their conjugal life.
You said your marriage is good. I take this to mean that you and your wife respect one another, that there is mutual good will between you. If so, there should be a joint willingness to do what’s necessary to keep your marriage healthy. You may need to seek medical or psychological assistance. If so, don’t let embarrassment or shame prevent you. If you need financial help, ask your parish priest or confessor or another who cares about the health of your marriage.
Only after exhausting all options can you conclude that God is calling you and your wife to continence. If this turns out to be the case, then you will need to deal with sexual temptation as all who are committed to continence should do, with the assistance of frequent spiritual direction (and perhaps Christian therapy), the help of a lively sacramental life — if possible, daily Mass and weekly confession — and, most importantly, a firm resolution to trust in God’s grace and turn a deaf ear to the whisperings of the flesh and the devil, who speciously suggest that fulfillment awaits us on the other side of infidelity.
Many Christian men struggle with masturbation. You are not alone. If you fall, do not get discouraged. Under the new dispensation, since Jesus died and rose from the dead, the truth that we are sinners is no longer bad news, but good news. It’s good news because the Son of Man came to call not the righteous, but sinners (Luke 5.32).
If we fall, we should at once be thankful, not for our sin, but for the fact that we have a way back to the Father when we stray.
So, pray for grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and speak with your wife and gently ask her to begin again this difficult journey.
Church Teaching on Masturbation
- Pope Pius XI, “Decree of Holy Office on Masturbation” (Aug. 2, 1929) (See Denzinger 3684)
- Pope Pius XII, Address to a Congress of Italian Urology, Part II (Oct. 8, 1953) (in French; run through Google Translate)
- Pope Pius XII, Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Infertility (May 19, 1956) (he references the Holy Office decree from 1929, and his own address from 1953)
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics (Persona Humana) (1975), No. 9
- Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, “Educational Guidance in Human Love” (Nov. 1, 1983), No. 98
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), No. 2352.
- Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Question 154, articles 11-12; see also De Malo, q. 15, 1c