A reader writes to Mark Shea, one of the finest and most prolific writers on Catholic Issues today [See his blog, Catholic and Enjoying It: Mark's Motto for his blog: "So That No Thought of Mine, No Matter How Stupid, Should Ever Go Unpublished Again!"]:
I'm wondering if you could help me with a question about mortal sin. I recently learned that the Catechism teaches that masturbation, if done with full knowledge and consent, would count as a mortal sin. (I realize there are a few additional caveats.) Does this mean that masturbation is, in the eyes of the Church, on par with adultery? Or are some mortal sins worse than others? To my mind, adultery is a far more heinous offense, but perhaps I am missing something.
Sure, some mortal sins are worse than others. The notion of degrees of sin can be elaborated beyond the two basic categories of mortal and venial sin -- and sometimes this is useful, provided we do it in the right spirit (namely, that of charity). So, for instance, we can extend charity to the thief and say, "Well, at least he didn't shoot his victims, but just left them bound and gagged" (by which we acknowledge that murder is a more serious sin than theft.)
This is basically the reasoning behind Dante's division of Hell into various circles, each one worse than the last. Similarly, he ranks the different sins being purged on Mount Purgatory from the most to the least grave. Pride is the worst, followed by envy and anger, because all these are spiritual sins that corrupt more deeply than the sins of the flesh. Interestingly, the one that modernity focuses all its energy on -- lust -- has typically been regarded as the least of the seven deadlies (though that's like saying, "Mercury poisoning doesn't kill you as quick as a bullet to the brain"). Just as we understand that there are different degrees and kinds of beatitude (so that, as Jesus taught, the apostles were to be accorded special honors to sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel and, as the Church teaches, Mary is the greatest of all the saints), so there are different degrees and kinds of damnable offense.
But of course, it is also possible to exploit all this distinction-making in the wrong spirit, too, as the Guardhouse Lawyer Catholic does when he tells himself, "Hey! It's just a venial sin, so it's not really a sin at all compared to serious sin like the stuff That Guy Over There does." Thinking that way can lead people to justify all kinds of sins (typically starting with venial ones and leading on to mortal ones), with the excuse that, "As long as I don't do [insert despised mortal sin here], then I'm not really a sinner sinner, but just an adorable rogue with a few charming foibles." No doubt those in the upper circles of Hell gloat over those in the lower circles in just such a manner.
In reality, of course, the trick is to stay out of Hell completely, not to find the least uncomfortable spot. So I think that, as a general rule, trying to rank mortal sins according to gravity, while it may be useful in extending charity to others, is probably best avoided in one's own case. I think the impulse to try to figure out where one's own grave sins go on the hierarchy of mortal sins is usually pernicious and an introduction to rationalization. If one realizes one is committing a grave sin, our first impulse should not be, "Yeah, but is it as bad as this other sin over here that I'm not committing?" Rather, one should think, "Okay, how do I tackle this sin and free myself from it by the grace of God?"
That said, it is worth noting a few things about the specific sin of masturbation my reader references. First, of course, is the fact that his is not the first somewhat incredulous reaction I have seen to this teaching. When most folk run across this teaching for the first time it can be a shock, since it seems (to our culture) like the matter of masturbation is so trivial that to talk of mortal sin in connection with it is (they suppose) surely some sort of holdover reaction from the Dark Ages. In a world full of war, rape, pillage, and murder, how can anybody take seriously the notion that this seeming triviality is a sin as capable of sending somebody to Hell (if unrepented) as adultery or murder. . . ?In contrast, the newer sort of narcissist, such as the pathetically self-obsessed Woody Allen, doesn't even attempt that. He simply voices chemically pure selfishness: "The heart wants what it wants." Not surprisingly, Allen likewise offers the ringing defense of masturbation as "sex with someone I love" -- which pretty much sums up the deep (and banal) evil of the thing.
If you want to transpose the evil of this perversion of marriage to the indulgence of another sort of appetite excluding all communion with other persons, then transpose it to another sacrament: the Eucharist. Think of it as analogous to guzzling the consecrated blood to the last drop and leaving nothing for anyone else. Imagine it as breaking open the tabernacle to wolf down the last particle of Eucharist. Blasphemous desecration of the sacrament, you say? Yeah, that's kind of the point.
The trick, of course, is to communicate this, not in such a way as to terrify scrupulous people or unnecessarily enrage licentious ones, but to get people to see what the Church is trying to guard: namely, the joy of mutually self-donating marital love, which is one of our great icons of and sacramental participations in the union of Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride the Church. Seeing this, those who are in the thrall of this particular sin can, with the help of grace, begin to overcome it and step out of their loneliness in the hope of the love of marriage or of the still higher state of consecrated virginity, which are both ordered to love and communion with God and neighbor in exactly the way masturbation is not. . . .
Read the entire article at the Inside Catholic blog: