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Is it a sin to masturbate?
Yes. Masturbation is a sin even if you are not thinking sexual thoughts while doing it.
Genesis 38:8-10 records the incident where God slew Onan for purposely spilling his seed, ie. Masturbation. (You will notice that it had nothing to do about whether he was thinking sexual thoughts.)
"Then Judah said to Onan, 'Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.' But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also." (Genesis 38:8-10)
Some theologians try to explain away this passage by saying that it was not Onan's act of purposely spilling his semen that angered God, but rather that it was Onans refusal to raise up children for his brother (the levirate marriage law) which offended God to the point that He punished Onan with death. However, though in Judah's day it was the custom of those people to give the widow in marriage to one of the brothers of the deceased husband, God had not yet instituted the levirate marriage law. God does not institute that law until Deut 25:5ff. And even if that law were to be applied in Onan's case, the punishment for refusing to carry out that law was only the removal of the mans sandal and then spitting in his face--not death (see Deut 25:9). So why did God punish Onan with death? The only other thing Onan did was to purposely spill his seed (waste it). That is the answer. The reason why God punishes Onan with death is because he purposely spilled and wasted his seed in an act that is meant to be open to the possibility of God creating new life through that act.
In addition, masturbating usually, if not always, involves at least imagining sexual encounters with other persons in order to achieve orgasm. This sounds an awful lot like lusting to me. And lusting after imaginary women (or men as the case may be) while masturbating is still lusting - which our Lord condemned. (Mt. 5:28).
Following are some quotes on masturbation from The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality by Paul M. Quay, S.J., Ph.D. published by Ignatius Press.
Consider the evil of masturbation. Though not a symbol of love at all, it is a symbol nonetheless: of withdrawal from reality, of self-pitying loneliness, of the sterility of the self loved in itself. What was meant for fertility, children, and family, the root and source of life and human community, is turned into a mechanism for pleasure, relief of tension, or material to use in a laboratory-analysis or a sperm-bank. Hence, masturbation is a symbol of fear and anxietyof fear to love, of anxiety with regard to other people, withdrawing from them and seeking to live without them. Evidently, it symbolizes frustration. For there is no person to receive the power that is in the mans wasted seed; the womans stimulation and orgasm result in nothing beyond themselves. Masturbation binds the person doing it to no one, but states symbolically personal ineffectiveness. One desires to avoid the risk of love and the responsibility of fruitfulness; he wishes to be by himself or, more tragically, passionately desires to love and to be loved yet chooses to be alone.
It is obvious, therefore, why masturbation can quickly become a habit. The person who performs such an act knows at least subconsciously what it symbolizes. He feels as a result deep shame, degradation, or inadequacy. These feelings increase his isolation and frustration and generate still stronger pressure to state in action his desperation, even without pleasure. One sin begets another.
Masturbation, then, poisons human happiness. It is almost impossible for anyone enslaved to such a habit to enter into marriage positively and fruitfully because masturbation chops away, at their roots, the love, the outgoingness, the generosity, the openness to life and to responsibility that the true sexual act is meant to have.
To cure a habit of this sort requires a real effort, under the competent direction, encouragement, and skillful advice of ones confessor. For, the problem is usually not principally a question of chastity or sexual purity. Masturbation is linked to everything in a person, to the entire personality and emotions; all aspects of ones life are in some way tied in to that act. It is the whole person, himself or herself, that is somehow frustrated, anxious, unwilling to love. But the rewards for making the effort are great. As this slavery is overcome, one becomes master of oneself and can grow at last to adulthood. (pg. 68-69)
If we turn to the fraud, the counterfeit, the use of the sexual powers in other ways than God intends, we see, in general, that God cannot be thought to separate His love for us from His sharing His life with us by making us His sons in Christ. Neither could Christ delight Himself with His Church without granting her fruitfulness by the gift of His Spirit, nor could the Church receive and enjoy the gifts of the Holy Spirit, while refusing to be fruitful, refusing to give that life to others.
As to masturbation: Christ did not come to please Himself, as the Scriptures phrase it; He came to seek a bride. He did not stay by Himself. He came and sought out His people, at the risk of rejectionand indeed He was rejected. Yet, to His own great cost, He espoused her on the cross and made her fruitful by giving her His Spirit, that she might become the mother of all the living. Nor might the Church ever delight in the gifts of the Spirit in isolation, not seeking to share them with those who do not yet know Christ. Such a refusal of missionary endeavor could only bring decay and decline to the local church that so turned in upon itself. (pg. 78)