Dear Souls and Hearts Members,
To celebrate the 100th episode of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, many of you co-created that 100th episode live with me. In that experience, I guided you through a meditative reflection to help you connect and understand the parts of you that resist God’s love. We created a space where you could:
- Understand much more deeply understand the negative, distorted God images that some of your parts may have — mistaken ways they see God
- See more clearly how your parts assess the costs of embracing God’s love
- Assess how your parts see you – and why some parts of you might not believe you are worthy to be loved by God
- Gently and kindly invite yourself to greater vulnerability in connecting with God
- Address anger and other negative emotions toward God in a healthy way
With gentleness, kindness, and love for your parts, your parts might be ready for your innermost self to be a bridge between them and God and Mother Mary. We work to overcome the human formation obstacles to embracing God’s love for us. It’s not therapy, counseling or any clinical service – it’s a guided reflection, an experiential exercise.
The focus is to help us to understand better at a felt, experiential level the concepts presented in Episode 99 of Interior Integration for Catholics, titled Why We Catholics Reject God’s Love for Us and How to Embrace that Love.
On to our weekly reflection…
In last week’s reflection, Legalism vs. License – Two Bad Options for Sheep, I described how a one form of legalism is to fixate on one signpost of the law – to focus on one particular sin to the extent that most or all of the spiritual life revolves around resolving that vice and building the corresponding virtue. And that is a trap.
And you might ask me, “But why is focusing on a serious moral issue a trap, Dr. Peter? Should we not be working hard to overcome our vices, especially mortal sins, the ones that could condemn us to hell? Do you not agree with the St. Dominic, who said ‘A man who governs his passion is master of the world. We must either command them or be enslaved to them. It is better to be the hammer than the anvil.’ And are you, Dr. Peter, getting all soft and permissive about serious sexual sins such as masturbation like so many secular mental health professionals?”
So first off, let me reassure you – I have no doubt that masturbation is grave matter. If a Catholic masturbates with adequate knowledge of the sinfulness of the act and with enough free consent, that is a mortal sin. Period. Full stop. One of the Fatima children, St. Jacinta, revealed that according to Our Lady, “The sins which cause most souls to go to hell are the sins of the flesh,” or sins against chastity, which, of course, include masturbation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2352 (quoting from section 9 of the 1975 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled Persona Humana) reads as follows:
By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “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 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 question is how — how do we go about recovering from masturbation?
I maintain that it is a mistake to focus solely or primarily on masturbation and to make stopping masturbating the center of one’s spiritual life. I call this approach the religion of “anti-masturbationism,” and it is not Catholic. I’ve so many young Catholic men, and some Catholic women make this mistake of narrowing their spiritual lives down to their struggle with masturbation.
In short, their mistake is focusing on the Law, not on the Lord. It’s a form of legalism.
These Catholics become obsessed with being on the right side of the signpost, the moral law about masturbation, making sure they are not stepping into the Deep, Dark, Dangerous Forest of Woe™. They do not focus on Jesus, or God the Father, or the Holy Spirit. They often are exerting tremendous effort, but they are relying on their own natural strength, not grace. And it does not work very well. As Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (§1). We need to encounter the person of Jesus in a personal, close relationship, not just conform to a moral code, adopt an ethical choice, or live by a lofty idea.
Maladaptive Spiritual Cycle
In anti-masturbationism, a dysfunctional spiritual cycle develops. There are many different variations of an anti-masturbationist cycle; here is just one example:
- The man experiences an activating impulse or precipitating event
- Then comes a temptation to masturbate
- And he masturbates, perhaps after resisting for a while
- He feels shame, guilt, and other unpleasant emotions
- He might engage in more episodes of masturbation at this point, since he has already sinned
- Eventually, he attempts to recover and repents, makes an act of contrition, and goes to Confession
- He experiences some emotional relief after Confession.
- He plans to never masturbate again
- Eventually he returns to Step 1 in the cycle.
The major difficulty in a cycle like this is that the man avoids seeking a deep intimacy with God.
Rather, the man focuses primarily on himself – on his experiences within (i.e., impulses, temptations, shame, guilt, relief after Confession, etc.) and on his acts (i.e., resisting temptation, masturbating, making an act of contrition, going to Confession, etc.).
The man is preoccupied with questions like:
- How will I resist temptation?
- How long have I gone without masturbating?
- How sinful was my last act? Am I still in a state of grace?
- Why do I sin like this — why am I so stupid?
- How can I strengthen my will to resist temptation?
Can you see how isolated the man has become, wrapped up in a focus on self and the Law?
This focus on self and on the Law leaves little relational room for God to act in his soul. The problem is that he is not seeking God first. He is seeking to save himself by his own strength and by conforming to the Law.
The deeper problem
Why? Why is he not seeking God?
There are multiple reasons.
The first is tunnel vision. The cycle of anti-masturbationism preserves the fantasy that the man just has to conquer this one sin and everything will be all right — life will then be great. If a man sees masturbation as his only sin, then masturbation will be the primary symptom of many of his deeper sins (in addition to masturbation being a sin itself). That may be the reason why God does not simply answer the prayer to free the man from masturbation. God is going much deeper, down to the core of the man – he doesn’t just want the man free from masturbation. He wants the whole man.
And what would become of a man who had multiple, deeper sins, but saw masturbation as the only major vice – and then was freed from that vice? Might he not become prouder, more self-sufficient, more self-focused?
The second reason why the man does not seek God is because he misunderstands who God really is. He greatly underestimates God’s willingness to engage with sinful men, whom He loves with an infinite love. He minimizes how God’s readiness to deal with the messiest of moral situations, the grossest of sins for the sake of His beloved children. Because God is Love. Instead, the man is plagued by distorted and destructive God images – how he feels God to be in his bones – I’ve discussed those at length in episodes 23 to 29 of my podcast Interior Integration for Catholics.
This leads to the third reason – refusing to embrace God’s love and allow that love to free him from sin.
The man does not run to God first because he fears that God will reject him. He may believe (perhaps unconsciously) that he first needs to become good enough by his own strength for God to tolerate him. Shame dominates, and I discussed how shame is The Silent Killer Who Stalks You from Inside in episode 37 of the IIC podcast. He lacks faith in God’s benevolence.
The anti-masturbationism cycle culminates in a refusal to tolerate being loved by God first. This refusal to receive God’s love was the theme of the most recent IIC episode, number 99, titled Why We Catholics Reject God’s Love for Us and How to Embrace that Love.
There are other reasons why Catholic men remain trapped in the religion of anti-masturbationism, and I cover these additional reasons at length in the IIC podcast in episode 52 Breaking Free from Masturbation, Part 1, and episode 53, Breaking Free from Masturbation, Part 2. These include how, if the man feels close to God only when he is repenting from masturbating, then paradoxically, he may feel a “need” to masturbate in order to feel close to God – that is what he knows experientially. He needs to broaden his relationship with God. I also cover ten common mistakes that Catholics make in trying to overcome masturbation in those episodes.
You can substitute many other vices for masturbation and come up with religions around them – alcohol use, gambling, excessive shopping or screen use, video games – any of the idols driven by the underlying attachment and integrity needs that I detailed in the September 6, 2022 reflection titled The Top 10 Needs That Fuel Modern-Day Idol Worship. Masturbation and other idols shut down our imaginations and limit our capacity to see God as He is – our loving Father, our Redeemer.
Let us remember that Jesus told us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). He is the way. Jesus, true God and true man, is the way.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,
P.S. If masturbation or porn is an issue your marriage or romantic relationship, I urge you to check out Dr. Gerry’s online video course titled Be True: Restoring Your Marriage After the Discovery of Pornography. It’s the only course I know of that is for both the husband and the wife, but it’s not necessary for both to participate.
P.P.S. If you resonate with these weekly reflections and with the IIC podcast, and especially if you are wanting to learn experientially, consider joining the Resilient Catholics Community. Find out more details in this downloadable PDF and also on our landing page. Join us on an experiential pilgrimage!
P.P.P.S. Do not hesitate to reach out to me – my email is firstname.lastname@example.org and my cell is 317.567.9594, and I am available for 10-minute private conversations during my conversation hour which are every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 to 5:30 PM Eastern time.
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