I was confronted with the drastic difference between these views at a time when masturbation was discussed as a form of “autoeroticism” or “self-satisfaction” in my high school biology classes. Make no mistake, neither Woody Allen nor the Church were ever discussed. In fact, no moral judgment was made at all. All sexual activity was discussed strictly under the idea of gaining understanding of the functioning of the human body. Surprisingly, the entire project addressed only the physical organs. At no time did we talk about the operation of the human mind, the imagination, love, hate, or desire. Don’t even think about bringing God into the discussion.
Allen was right when he brought love into the discussion of sexual activities. So did the Catholic Church. Love, correctly understood, is the proper context for all sexual activity even though, as C. S. Lewis reminds us in The Four Loves, sexual experience can occur without love. In the case of masturbation, Allen’s statement exhibits a particular kind of love that is perhaps best characterized as make-believe. It is shaped by two misconceptions: first, that love of self is an acceptable context for sex, and second, that sex is a sufficient manifestation of love. I say “sufficient” here, because sex, in the right context, is a manifestation of love, but it is not a complete manifestation. Sex alone always remains an incomplete manifestation of love. Thus, just as problematic as Allen’s statement is the popular euphemism for sex as “making love.” The question of masturbation finds its most potent implications in our understanding of love and its proper context.
In the history of Christian thought, Augustine offers a classic description of love when he states that love is not love unless you love someone (On the Trinity, VIII, 12). The point being: someone other than yourself! Love of oneself is seen as imperfect and ultimately unacceptable as an image for God. God, who is love (1 John 4:8), cannot exist only in his love for himself. Augustine here paints a picture of love as relational and as requiring a relationship with someone other than ourselves. In this sense, masturbation is a celebration of one’s own love of self. One is satisfied with oneself and content with one’s own love. For a Christian, nothing could be further from the truth.
The biblical Scriptures show that it is important to love yourself, since we are to love others in the same manner we love ourselves (see Lev 19:18 and its frequent use in the New Testament). Yet, this love is not a simple one-on-one relationship. the love of a Christian is not a simple line from one person to the other. Rather, it is always a triangular desire. It is only in the fact that God is love that human beings can also understand and direct their own love for themselves and for others. We love because God first loved us. For Christians, therefore, masturbation is fundamentally a theological concern about the right ordering of desire.
Masturbation presents the Christian with a theological dilemma: how to reconcile love of self and love of God in the sexual activity of the human person. One alternative is to shut God out of the picture. As I have stated previously, we keep God out of the bedroom. Theology does not engage sexuality. The other alternative is to excuse our actions in one form or another (“God does not care” or “This does not affect my salvation”). In any case, we suppress God. More precisely, we suppress our love for God. And by the same token, we suppress our love for ourselves and for others. The Catholic Declaration emphasized this point when it rejected psychological and sociological factors as the sole explanatory powers for accepting or rejecting masturbation. The problems of masturbation as a habitual practice lie deeper. Christians who continually practice masturbation find themselves in the way of their own love for God and others. Masturbation becomes a form of self-gratification when no such gratification seems warranted. Studies show that the frequent response to this insight is guilt and often the resolve to discontinue one’s practice. As it has become habitual, however, many Christians find themselves caught in a loop between masturbation, guilt, and resolve. In this loop they learn to love themselves less and less. Masturbation becomes sex with someone we hate.
How do we respond to this problem? It is precarious to discuss this aspect, since there seem to be only two sides in the issue: those who practice masturbation and those who do not, and few want to locate themselves squarely on the first side. If recent studies are correct, then masturbation continues to be the most prevalent form of sex. Period. If I am correct that masturbation is ultimately a theological problem, then we are justified in saying that masturbation is one of the most significant theological problems of our time. Were do we start to find a solution? Who should be engaged in the process? What does it take to overcome the problem? And what exactly do we see as the end result?