Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. My grown children often work on Sunday, and I believe that they don’t feel that it is sinful. Sometimes they ask me to babysit their children while they work — anything from farm work, remodeling their house, mowing the lawn, etc. Am I guilty of aiding and abetting them if I babysit, or am I exempt from guilt because they don’t think they’re sinning? (I’m a little scrupulous and worry a lot about this.) (Morrilton, Ark.)

A. The church’s Code of Canon Law is rather general in its description of the Sabbath rest and leaves room for personal judgments. It says simply in No. 1247 that, in addition to going to Mass, Catholics should “abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a bit more elaborate in No. 2184, saying that everyone should “enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious lives” and in No. 2186 that “Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life.”

The catechism does make allowance in No. 2186 for people who need to work on Sundays because of poverty and No. 2187 for necessary public services.

If I were you, I would be rather lenient in judging family. I am not aware of their economic situation or of the rhythms of life on a farm, but it may be that they view some of their work as necessary. It could be, too, that they find remodeling their house to be recreational and a welcome diversion. (I can’t say, though, that I’ve ever had a lot of fun mowing the lawn!)

What you could do — although you needn’t feel obliged to — is to suggest sometime that you would be even happier to babysit for them on Sundays if they took part of the day off just to relax and enjoy each other’s company, since even God rested on the Sabbath.

Q. When I was a teen I discovered masturbation, and it has been a problem for me ever since. Believing it to be a mortal sin, I would go to confession every week or two. I am now in my 60s and recently a priest told me that it was not a mortal sin. Maybe he meant that it wasn’t a mortal sin for me because I have had a great deal of difficulty controlling those urges for such a long time. Can you resolve my confusion? (St. Louis, Mo.)

A. Referencing the consistent teaching of the magisterium over time, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in No. 2352 that “masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” The reason is that sexual intimacy is intended by God to unite a married man and woman in an outward expression of their total love for each other. As a solitary action turned inward for self-pleasure, masturbation can never fulfill that purpose.

It must be noted, though, that gravity of matter is only one of the three conditions that must be present for mortal sin. The catechism in No. 1859 notes that, in addition to gravity of matter, mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent and goes on to explain that this “presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law” as well as “a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice.”

It may be that certain circumstances — the immaturity of adolescence, for example, or psychological imbalance or even the “force of acquired habit” (specified in No. 2352) — can diminish the level of moral guilt. This is not, of course, to condone the practice of masturbation, but the degree of personal responsibility can vary.

The best course of action is always to entrust oneself to a regular confessor who can understand the psychological makeup of the penitent — with the hope that over time, by consistent effort and the grace of the sacrament, one can conquer this disordered behavior.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.