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Use of Marital Aids (Sex Toys) - Catholic Moral Theology

Can a Catholic Husband and Wife Use Sex Toys?

It might surprise you to learn that the Church has an official ruling on this subject, found in Denzinger 3638-40, given by the Sacred Penitentiary. Denzinger is a compilation of Church teachings all in one book, in Latin and English. The Sacred or Apostolic Penitentiary is a department of the Holy See, in charge of the Sacrament of Confession (among other things). The decision is in a question and answer format. The term used for sex toy is "artificial instrument".

"Is a wife, when her husband wishes to practice onanism by means of an (artificial) instrument, required to exercise positive resistance?"

The term "onanism" is used here to refer to masturbation. Sometimes onanism refers to contraception. Other times it refers to masturbation, even by a female. Both contraception and masturbation are similar to the sin of Onan in the Bible. In some cases, onanism can refer, more broadly, to a range of unnatural sexual acts between a man and a woman. In his article The Sin of Onan Revisited, Fr. Brian W. Harrison explains:

" 'Onanism', the term derived from Genesis 38:9-10 which in traditional Christian usage has designated both masturbation and unnatural intercourse between a man and woman, is not exactly a pleasant theme to write about."

"The classical Jewish commentators -- who can scarcely be accused of ignorance regarding Hebrew language, customs, law, and biblical literary genres -- certainly saw in this passage of Scripture a condemnation of both unnatural intercourse and masturbation as such."

As Fr. Harrison states in his article, Onan's sin is used to refer to contraception, or to unnatural sexual acts between man and woman, or to masturbation, since all these acts are "intrinsically sterile forms of genital activity".

So the term "onanism", in the Denzinger quote above, refers to an unnatural sexual act committed on a wife, by her husband, by means of an instrument (i.e. a sex toy, such as a vibrator or phallic device). This can be considered a type of masturbation, in some cases. And when it is used by a husband and wife acting together, it is still an unnatural sexual act -- an intrinsically non-procreative form of sexual activity.

The answer given by the Sacred Penitentiary is that the act is gravely immoral, and the wife must offer active resistance, not merely passive resistance. It is a gravely immoral act for both the husband and the wife, even if she is, in a sense, the passive recipient of the act. And this implies that a wife cannot use such an instrument on herself, nor on her husband. All such sexual acts are gravely immoral. They are unnatural sexual acts.

What if the sex toy is used before or after the natural marital act, in the case where the wife is unable to climax during natural relations? Pope Pius XII condemned the use of any means at all, whether "manual touches" or any other method, which would bring the husband or the wife to climax, other than in the natural marital act.

"By the force of this law of nature, the human person does not possess the right and power to the full exercise of the sexual faculty, directly intended, except when he performs the conjugal act according to the norms defined and imposed by nature itself. Outside of this natural act, it is not even given within the matrimonial right itself to enjoy this sexual faculty fully. These are the limits to the particular right of which we are speaking, and they circumscribe its use according to nature....."

"What has been said up to this point concerning the intrinsic evil of any full use of the generative power outside the natural conjugal act applies in the same way when the acts are of married persons or of unmarried persons, whether the full exercise of the genital organs is done by the man or the woman, or by both parties acting together; whether it is done by manual touches or by the interruption of the conjugal act; for this is always an act contrary to nature and intrinsically evil." [Pope Pius XII, Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility, 19 May 1956]

It is not true, as many online commentators claim, that the wife may reach climax by any means, at any time, as long as this is done within the context of natural relations. Rather, the husband and wife are under the same moral law; neither may do anything so as to climax outside of "the natural conjugal act" -- "for this is always an act contrary to nature and intrinsically evil." This is the teaching of Pope Pius XII and therefore the teaching of the Catholic Church.

What if the sexual device is used during natural marital relations? The basic principle of ethics which applies here is quite simple. When an act is intrinsically evil, the choice of that same act before, during, or after a good act does not justify the intrinsically evil act. An intrinsically evil act is not transformed into a different type of act, one that is morally acceptable, by being done during, or in the context of, a good act.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: "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." [CCC 1756]

If a husband lies to his wife, during natural marital relations, does the good act of natural marital sex make the lie moral? No, of course not. What if the lie has a good purpose? Intrinsically evil acts do not become moral when used for a good intention or purpose. What if the lie helps the couple deal with a difficult circumstance? Intrinsically evil acts do not become moral when done in difficult circumstances.

If a husband and wife use sex toys to prepare for the natural marital act, does that use become moral? No, intrinsically evil acts are not justified by a good purpose or intention. If a husband and wife use sex toys after the natural conjugal act, because of the difficult circumstance that the wife is unable to climax during the natural act, does that use become moral? No, intrinsically evil acts are not justified by a difficult circumstance.

Can the husband and wife use sex toys during natural marital relations? No, they cannot. An intrinsically evil act does not become moral when done during another act, one that is good. Each act is judged on its own as to its morality.

And what do you think Jesus or Mary would say, if asked this question by a married couple? Do you think they would recommend particular sex toys, for use in certain cases? Of course not. The very idea is absurd. But it is no more absurd than claiming that the Church of Jesus Christ would approve of such acts.

If you require a longer explanation, please see the book: The Catholic Marriage Bed. The entire book deals with a single question: Which sexual acts are moral between a husband and wife? And the answers are based on the Bible, the teaching of the Saints, the teaching, in particular, of Pope Saint John Paul II, and various clear and definitive teachings of the Magisterium.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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