Which sexual acts are moral for a Catholic marriage couple? Each and every sexual act in a marriage must be both unitive and procreative. The unitive meaning includes the love of the spouses for one another, but it is not found in every physical or sexual act whatsoever. Only the union of the spouses in natural intercourse, as an expression of love, includes the unitive meaning. Canon law phrases natural marital relations in this way: "a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh." [n. 1061] The unitive meaning (one flesh) and the procreative meaning are intended by God to be inseparable, along with the marital meaning.
To be moral, a sexual act must be marital, unitive, and procreative. The deprivation of any one or more of these meanings from any sexual act makes the act intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. All non-marital sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. All non-unitive sexual acts and all non-procreative sexual acts are also intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.
But the Church on earth is populated by fallen sinners. And at the present time, many Catholics are poorly-catechized and have adopted into their minds, hearts, and lives grave sins promoted and approved by sinful secular society, but condemned by a proper understanding of Church teaching. Worse still, many false teachers have risen up to lead astray the weakest members of the flock of Jesus Christ, by approving and promoting grave sins, as if these acts were moral or holy. Their explanations are mere fables, designed to justify the grave sins of the teachers and their listeners.
[2 Timothy 4]
So it is today. Many Catholics have gathered to themselves false teachers, who justify grave sins will all manner of ridiculous false claims. This post reviews some of the more common false claims about unnatural sexual acts within marriage.
-- 1 --
Reply: This claim, sometimes called the 'one rule', has no basis in Catholic moral teaching at all. It ignores the teaching of the Church on intrinsically evil acts, as well as the basic principles of ethics.
It is never the case in Catholic ethics that persons can do whatever pleases them, as long as a set of acts meets one condition (whatever that condition might be). Catholic moral teaching is based on the idea that each knowing choice of each human person is an act of the free will subject to the eternal moral law, and that each act has three fonts (sources of morality), which determines the morality of that particular act. A set of sexual acts cannot be justified by the inclusion of one act of natural marital relations in the set, precisely because no set of acts of any type are justified by the inclusion of one good act in the set. Each act, that is, each knowing choice of each human person is subject to the eternal moral law. Each act is moral or immoral based on the three fonts that spring up from, and apply to, that particular act.
Moreover, intrinsically evil acts are never justified by any intention (purpose), or any circumstance (context). Unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil, and so they are always gravely immoral.
-- 2 --
Reply: No such teaching of the Magisterium exists. If you hear or read someone making this claim, insist that they present a quote from a magisterial document. They cannot do so. The Church has never approved of unnatural sexual acts in any "context", nor for any purpose (intention).
Catechism of the Catholic Church: "1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it."
The Magisterium condemns the idea that the context of an act and/or its intention (purpose), can make the act moral, without regard to its object. The object or moral object of an act determines the essential moral nature (or inherent moral meaning) of the chosen concrete act of a human person. Unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil because they are inherently disordered sexual acts, deprived of the unitive and procreative meanings. Each of these types of sexual acts are not ordered toward the procreative meaning, and not truly unitive. Despite some type of mere physical union, these acts do not offer the type of sexual union that God intends for a married couple. Disordered sexual acts are intrinsically evil, and so they are not justified by intention (purpose) or circumstances (context).
-- 3 --
Reply: The Magisterium has never taught any such idea. In fact, the Church teaches that the purpose of an act (also termed the intention or intended end) never justifies an act that is intrinsically evil. And unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil because they lack the unitive and procreative meanings, which God intends for marital relations.
Pope Saint John Paul II: "No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church." [Evangelium Vitae 62].
To be moral, each and every act (whether sexual or not) must have three good fonts of morality:
When an act has any evil in the moral object (any deprivation of a good required by the moral law), such as the deprivation of the unitive and/or procreative meanings, then the act is intrinsically evil and cannot be justified by a good purpose ("foreplay") or a dire circumstance.
-- 4 --
Reply: This claim is a ridiculous rationalization, which ignores and contradicts the basic teaching of the Church on ethics.
The ethical teachings of the Church are based on human acts. Each knowing choice of the human person, that is, each exercise of reason and free will, is subject to the eternal moral law. It is never the case, in any area of human life, that a set of acts can be grouped together, so that an act that is gravely immoral to do on its own becomes justified by another act in the set. Instead, each act -- each knowing choice of each person -- must be moral based on the three fonts of morality. And those fonts can never be borrowed from another act.
Therefore, a non-procreative and/or non-unitive sexual act cannot be justified by a subsequent or prior natural sexual act. The inclusion of one good act of natural marital relations in a set of otherwise unnatural sexual acts does not justify those other acts. If a sexual act is immoral to do without the inclusion of natural marital relations, then it is immoral to do in conjunction with an act of natural marital relations. An intrinsically evil act never becomes moral by being done about the same time or in the same place as a morally good act.
I should also point out that this type of claim implicitly acknowledges that unnatural sexual acts are gravely immoral. Otherwise, why is a good act of natural marital relations needed to justify these other acts? If a married couple engage in moral foreplay (kissing, hugging, etc.) -- absent any unnatural sexual acts -- they do not need to progress to marital relations to make those acts of foreplay moral; they are moral all on their own. So the claim that unnatural sexual acts need to be joined with natural marital relations to make these other acts moral is an implied admission of guilt.
-- 5 --
Reply: The Magisterium has no such teaching. In fact, every single magisterial text on procreation requires marital relations to be unitive and procreative for both spouses. Never has the Church said that the woman is excused from the procreative requirement or the unitive requirement. Never has the Church said that the wife is under a different standard of sexual ethics than the husband. This false claim is a baseless excuse to allow the wife to climax in unnatural sexual acts, as if she were exempt from sexual ethics merely by being female.
-- 6 --
Reply: First, the persons who make this false claim also say that the wife may climax, from any unnatural sexual acts, rather than natural marital relations. So it is a disingenuous claim. They approve of unnatural sexual acts with or without climax.
Second, everyone understands that sexual acts can occur without climax. Suppose that two young unmarried persons unfortunately decide to have sex outside of marriage. But due to their inexperience, neither reaches climax. Should we then say that they did not have sex, and are each still virgins? Suppose that a rapist attacks a woman sexually, but he does not reach climax. Can we say that no sexual act occurred at all? Suppose, finally, that a husband cheats on his wife with her best friend, and she interrupts them "in flagrante delicto". Can they claim that no sexual act occurred (and no adultery) because their sexual act was not completed in climax?
It is an absurd claim, a thinly-veiled rationalization, to claim that deliberate genital sexual acts (of various kinds) are not sexual acts at all, if the husband waits to climax until a subsequent act of natural marital relations. And to show their dishonesty in making this claim, the same proponents then allow the wife to commit climax from any type of sexual act whatsoever.
-- 7 --
Reply: You and your wife have a female friend of hers over for dinner. You greet her with a kiss on the cheek. Does your wife mind? Probably not. You greet her instead with a kiss on the lips. You wife might mind, because a kiss on the lips has a different meaning. But let's say she still doesn't mind. Now your wife catches you with her friend, naked, and you are "kissing" her genitals. Are you really going to say to your wife that kissing one body part is no different from kissing another? Will you claim that you were not engaged in a sexual act with her friend? How stupid are you? Or how stupid do you think your wife is?
Not all body parts are the same. Some body parts are used for sexual acts (unfortunately in many different ways), and that is the difference. Obviously, what is disingenuously being called, one case a "kiss" or in another case a "caress" is actually a per se sexual act. The people who make this claim know very well that they are referring to sexual acts. It is blatant intellectual dishonesty to pretend as if these are mere kisses or mere caresses.
And the fact that these acts occur within marriage does not justify them; to be moral, each and every sexual act in a marriage must be unitive and procreative.
-- 8 --
Reply: I think people already understand this distinction. They pretend to be confused so as to hold fast to their favored sinful behavior. But I will give an explanation that is very accessible to any reader, and does not rely on theological terminology.
You go to a Christmas party at your office, but your wife decides not to join you. When you return, you confess to her that you had a little too much to drink, and things when too far with a secretary. Your wife might be a little upset, or she might be very upset and consider leaving you. The difference is whether a certain line was crossed. It is the line between mere foreplay, and per se sexual acts of any kind (natural or unnatural). If all you did was "making out", absent any sexual acts at all, your wife will not be too upset. But if you engaged in any type of sexual act at all, she will be very upset. And if so, you will not help your case by saying that the per se sexual acts in question lacked climax.
A per se sexual act does not necessarily include climax. The absence of climax does not change a grave sexual sin into a moral act, nor into a mere venial sin. Adultery is still adultery, rape is still rape, premarital sex is still premarital sex, and an unnatural sexual act is still an unnatural sexual act.
-- 9 --
Reply: Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Alphonsus Liguori all condemned unnatural sexual acts in marriage.
Alice and Dietrich von Hildebrand, Roman Catholic theologians and married couple, also condemned unnatural sexual acts in marriage. Dietrich (now deceased) was called "the 20th Century Doctor of the Church" by Pope Pius XII, and "one of the great ethicists of the twentieth century" by Pope Saint John Paul II [Source].
Alice von Hildebrand: "It is precisely because the marital bed is sacred that one should approach acts within it with enormous reverence. Degrading and perverse sexual behavior -- even it is it done by a married couple, who do not practice contraception -- should be condemned, as an assault on human dignity. The pornification of marriage should be resisted as vigorously as the pornification of our culture."
Some commentators speak as if the majority opinion of Catholic theologians, or of the laity in general, should determine the correct answer on this subject. But Catholic moral teaching is often the minority view, even among those who call themselves Catholic Christian. It is very unfortunate that so many commentators on this subject show no regard for the will of Jesus, and the examples of Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, and Saint John the Baptist (all chaste virgins), no fear of God, and no shame in approving of nearly every possible sexual act. But it will always be the case, in the Church on earth, whose members are fallen sinners, that many will reject sound teaching on faith or morals. Until Christ returns, there will always be some sinful lay persons and some foolish theologians and priests, who give sinners the excuses and rationalizations they desire to justify their grave sins.
The truth is not determined by the secular principle of "the majority rules".
-- 10 --
Reply: The opinion of theologians is subordinate to the teachings of the Magisterium, and so is the conscience of every faithful Catholic.
USCCB Catechism: "Each and every sexual act in a marriage needs to be open to the possibility of conceiving a child." [p. 409]
The Magisterium definitively teaches that each and every sexual act in a marriage must be unitive and procreative. Humanae Vitae actually considered whether a set of sexual acts could be grouped together, so that the non-procreative sexual acts would be justified by the inclusion of some procreative sexual acts in the set. The Magisterium has rejected this idea unequivocally. And yet it continues to be presented to the faithful by false teachers, in new forms.
"Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act?"
Each single sexual act in a marriage must be inherently procreative and inherently unitive. Unnatural sexual acts are not the type of union ordained by God for human persons. And Unnatural sexual acts are not inherently procreative. So we cannot justify unnatural sexual acts by the inclusion of an act of natural marital relations in a set of acts. Each act stands on its own as to its morality. Each sexual act must be marital, unitive, and procreative to be moral.
"This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.
The claim that this teaching only applies to contraception is absurd; such a claim is contradicted by the text of the teaching itself. It is fundamental to marriage and to human nature that all sexual acts be marital, unitive, and procreative in order to be moral. (In the above quote, the phrase "the use of marriage" is a discrete way to refer to sex between the spouses.) Moreover, the Church condemns masturbation, pre-marital sex, adultery, and the unnatural sexual acts of homosexuals. So the teaching that sexual acts must be marital, unitive, and procreative is not solely on the subject of contraception.
Many promoters of unnatural sexual acts in marriage do not offer any coherent theological argument. They simply tell their listeners what they wish to hear. They make baseless false assertions approving of all manner of grave sexual sins in the marital bedroom. They offer no basis in magisterial teaching for their claims, and their listeners do not ask for any basis. They are all complicit in justifying gravely immoral sexual acts, without any sincere search for moral truth. And without the sincere search for moral truth, the human person cannot possibly be in good conscience. If you are a Catholic who decides the morality of acts in the marital bedroom, with no regard for the will of God and the teachings of the Magisterium, then you are not in good conscience.
[1 Timothy 4]
If a Catholic married couple unfortunately decide to commit grave sins of unnatural sexual acts in their marriage, they are responsible for their own sins. May God correct them. Until they repent and confess, they are not worthy to receive holy Communion. It is a sacrilege for anyone to commit any type of grave sexual sin, and then receive holy Communion without prior repentance (and ordinarily also Confession). And this prohibition against receiving Communion includes grave sins of unnatural sexual acts in marriage.
Now if a Catholic priest or theologian -- or an unqualified anonymous online commentator -- publicly speaks in favor of unnatural sexual acts (especially if he convinces Catholic married couples to actually commit these sins) then he is guilty of formal cooperation with grave sexual sins. The public promotion of grave sexual sins harms many souls, and is therefore of very grave moral weight. In some cases, if many persons are thereby led astray, the sin of publicly approving and promoting unnatural sexual acts may be more gravely disordered than the sins of a married couple who commit such acts.
For a priest, this type of sin -- the public assertion that grave sexual sins are moral -- is also an indirect violation of his vow of chastity. The same is true for a priest who publicly approves of gay marriage, or contraception, or abortifacient contraception, or any type of direct abortion, or any gravely immoral sexual sins. Abortion and contraception are closely related to sexual acts, so these are in some sense sexual sins. Any approval and promotion of sexual sins by anyone who has taken a vow or promise of chastity is a violation of that vow or promise. For the approval or promotion of unchaste acts is entirely incompatible with a vow or promise of chastity.
One final point. Some deacons and priests are validly married under Church law. Married priests are more common in the Eastern Rite, but some are found in the Latin Rite. And the Latin Rite now has many married permanent deacons. So what happens if a married priest or married deacon commits the grave sin of unnatural sexual acts with his spouse? The priest becomes unworthy to celebrate Mass and unworthy to receive Communion, unless he repents, makes an act of contrition with Confession, or an act of perfect contrition with later Confession. The deacon becomes unworthy to assist at Mass and unworthy to receive Communion (again, unless he repents and confesses).
I'm given to understand that, due to the influence of sinful secular society, most married Catholics and perhaps many married clerics commit unnatural sexual acts without remorse or repentance. And yet they continue to act as clerics, to administer the Sacraments, and to receive Communion. This failure to recognize and repent from grave sexual sins is a great sacrilege against all the Sacraments and against God. Priests should be pure and holy. A married priest can have natural marital relations with his wife, but any grave sexual sins committed in his marriage are made all the worse by his higher calling and by the scandal, if these things become known.
The Virgin Mary said, at Fatima:
The Virgin Mary said, at La Salette:
More on marital chastity in The Catholic Marriage Bed: A book of Roman Catholic moral theology.
Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.