Sister Margaret Farley is a Sister of Mercy (nuns, not a rock-and-roll band, unless they’re nuns who also do rock-and-roll music). She’s also professor emerita of Yale Divinity School. She’s not the kind of person who would write a bestseller that hit the top ten in Amazon six years after publication.
The Vatican’s “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (the Holy Office, aka the Inquisition) took six years to consider Just Love:A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, which on Monday 4th June was at 142,982 on Amazon’s bestseller list. They announced to the world, very sternly, that this nun had written a book showed: “defective understanding of the objective nature of natural moral law” and pose “grave harm to the faithful.”
Twenty-four hours later, Just Love was in the top ten list on Amazon.
To give you an idea of the kind of awful thing Sister Margaret Farley is saying, her book was reviewed four years ago by Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, who kindly re-published an excerpt yesterday in his Catholic Herald blog:
In a brief section (pp. 235-236), a mere one and a half pages, she deals with ‘self-pleasuring’, a topic that, usually under a different name, has, historically, led to the spilling of rivers of ink. Farley notes that the judgment of tradition has been overwhelmingly negative; even Kant disapproved very strongly; however now ‘most’ theologians and medical practitioners view the activity as ‘morally neutral’; in other words it all depends on reasons and circumstances. Her final word is that ‘This remains a largely empirical question, not a moral one’. This is certainly a coherent point of view, but where is her evidence for this position? She mentions Kinsey and the empirical evidence of some human experience, but she does not explain how the change from moral evil to moral neutrality occurred. One can be forgiven for thinking that the 20th century arrived and the mists of obscurantism vanished before the bright sun of reason (‘Christian traditions … judged it harshly before the 20th century’ (p.236)) – but this is not an argument.”
In order to judge the morality of a human act, certain conditions have to be considered. The Church recognizes, for example, that in the practice of masturbation, psychological factors including adolescent immaturity, lack of psychological balance, and even ingrained habit can influence a person’s behavior, and this could lessen or even eliminate moral responsibility.
The condition that many persons claim for their innocence regarding masturbation is habit, and we certainly know how difficult habits are to break. We must keep in mind, however, that habit does not completely destroy the voluntary nature of our acts. As Christians who are going to be held accountable for our actions, we must strive to unite ourselves to the Lord and, therefore, do all we can to curb or eliminate all habits that detach us from Him. So, if a person is masturbating and knows fully that it is wrong, and does it willingly without doing anything to resist, then he or she is guilty of grave sin.
From the Catholic Answers discussion board:
The Catechism is very clear that while masturbation is grave matter it is not always a mortal sin. There are some mitigating circumstances that reduce culpability and the compulsion that you describe could be one of them. No one here on this forum can say whether or not you committed a mortal sin. Only you and your confessor can discern this in the confessional. If you are uncertain if you comitted a mortal sin (chances are that you may not have) but it would be my advice to withhold the Eucharist until you see a priest in the confessional.
The “natural law” argument for regarding masturbation as a mortal sin is the same as for contraception, abortion, and sex between two women or two men: according to the Catholic Church, sex and sexual feeling only complies with “natural law” for humans if they are a monogamous couple who are capable of engendering children together. (The Catholic Church kindly makes an exception for Natural Family Planning – a couple who are capable of having “Natural law” sex deliberately choosing to have “natural law” sex when, and only when, they know the woman can’t actually conceive.) “Natural law” sex does not actually correspond to what we know is natural for human beings and other primates: it’s a backward proof which assumes the theorem
“Humans are meant to live together in male/female monogamous pairings and have only procreative sex”
is true, and then declares that this “leads to basic truths” about human nature.
House: You mix rocking, grunting, sweating, and dystonia with concerned parents and you get an amateur diagnosis of epilepsy. In actuality, all your little girl is doing is saying “yoo hoo” to the hoo-hoo.
Mother: She’s what?
House: “Marching the penguin.” “Ya-ya-ing the sisterhood.” “Finding Nemo.” [The little girl laughs]
Little Girl: That was funny.
House: It’s called gratification disorder. Sort of a misnomer – if one was unable to gratify oneself…that would be a disorder.
Mother: [covers her daughter’s ears] Are you saying she’s masturbating?
House: I was trying to be discreet – there’s a child in the room! (House MD – Euphoria)
Biblical justification for claiming masturbation is forbidden by the Abrahamic God (it’s not mentioned in the Mosaic laws nor in the gospels or epistles) is from a later interpretation of a story in Genesis. From The Unspoken Bible‘s deconstruction of Onan, Judah, and Tamar:
In sum, religionists have applied the story of Onan to practically every form of male non-procreative sex.
But most of all, Onan’s curse supported a widespread fear of masturbation, primarily in the 1700s and 1800s. It was believed by doctors of theology and medicine to lead to mental and general health illnesses, like vomiting, nausea, indigestion, epilepsy, pimples, blindness and insanity. In fact, John Harvey Kellogg the founder of the cereal company that bears his name, developed corn flakes in the belief that his “science” and wholesome food could steer young minds away from unclean thoughts. There have even been a slew of inventions designed to discourage masturbation. I would have thought by now that religions have outgrown their concerns about masturbation, but apparently the Mormon Church thinks it “is a sinful habit that robs one of the Spirit and creates guilt and emotional stress.”
Genesis 38 is ordinarily treated as if it contained two distinct stories, the first about Onan and the second about Judah and Tamar. Actually, Onan’s role is contained within the story of Judah and Tamar. It is not until we get to the end of the story when the real reason for Onan’s death becomes apparent.
Every interpretation I’ve seen relates Onan’s demise to coitus interruptus. This report argues that he wasn’t killed for reason of coitus interruptus. He was killed because of what he did before he committed coitus interruptus. That is by penetrating her, he consummated the marriage. Because Judah had married a Canaanite woman, Onan was half-Canaanite. Thus he blocked Judah’s name from the tribes of Israel.
Why does this matter?
I have huge ethical issues with swathes of Catholic doctrine – the child sex abuse cover-up, the inhuman ban on abortion under any circumstances, the lethal opposition to contraception – whether for prevention of unwanted pregnancy or even when a HIV+ man wants to use a condom to avoid infecting his HIV- wife – but surely (in this day and age?) it doesn’t really matter that the Church thinks masturbation is a mortal sin?
I think it does.
I have been following a blogger for a while now (listed in my blogroll as Mark Reads) for his beautifully hilarious deconstructions of some of my favourite novels, from The Lord of the Rings to The Sandman. From Mark Oshiro’s blog, as he discusses chapter two of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife:
The thing is…I don’t want general complaints about the Church. I want to know why they are a Thing That Should Be Fought Against.
That being said, if you give this statement personal context, it’s not hard for me to feel there is some slight theological truth relevant to (again) specific situations. In my case, my years spent in the Catholic church most definitely came close to what Ruta is talking about: I was taught to hate and fear the things that actually made me feel whole and make me feel good, and that was a disorienting, confusing, and frightening time in my life.
When a glance at an attractive guy would send me into a deep, shameful despair, something was wrong with a system that put that into my brain. I was told to fear sexual feelings. I was told to fear masturbation. I was told to fear anger, to fear the vast majority of music that had gotten me through an abusive childhood, I was told to fear the rage that came with being abused, I was told to fear wanting affection, I was told to fear presenting myself as anything other than a straight dude, and I was told to blame myself for being bullied.
That’s me. That’s not you. And I get that, and I get that the context of our experiences with God or Catholicism or god or religion or anything are always our own, and they belong to no one else and they should represent no one else, and yet…it bothers me. I suppose it’ll always bother me. But if anything, I want specificity to these things. I want to talk about experiences and theology and, to be honest, I’m a bit tired of the indolence that comes with talking about religion.
If the Catholic Church think that “self-pleasuring” is a sin sufficient in itself to send an unrepentent sinner to hell for it, then we should welcome their saying so, explicitly and publicly. As an atheist I am annoyed by blanket condemnations of religion and churches: what matters is not what religion a person holds to, but how it makes them behave towards others. A person who goes around making a kid feel bad for “self-pleasuring”? How is that a good use of faith?
How do you make a book a bestseller?
Be a wanker.