Marital sexual ethics, Reply to objections 3

This post is the third and perhaps last ‘Reply to Objections’ based on my article: Unnatural sexual acts as marital foreplay.

The article became controversial last week when an atheist scientist blogged about my post, and his link sent thousands visitors to my site, many of them atheists as well. A number of visitors then submitted comments arguing against Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, or against Catholicism in general, or against religion in general. Some of these comments were openly malicious, or showed hatred and contempt, or used obscenities to deliberately offend. Some comments were virulently anti-Catholic. Some comments expressed a complete rejection of any use of conscience and any moral limits concerning sexuality. (All comments are moderated; I prevented many of these comments from ever being posted on the site.)

It is not necessary for me to make an argument based on faith or reason to refute comments which are filled with hatred, malice, and contempt. Neither is it necessary for me to reply to persons who deliberately and openly reject any use of conscience and any moral limits pertaining to sexuality. No person possessing free will and reason could possibly speak or write in this way in good conscience. Their own conscience argues against them, so I don’t need to do so.

However, other visitors posted comments that, while flawed in their reasoning, deserve a reply. For the Church and the faithful are called to teach the truths of faith and morals to unbelievers, to those outside the Faith. And such teachings must at times rely more on reason and natural law, than on Divine Revelation, since unbelievers have reason, but not faith. My reply to this type of criticism of Catholic teaching on marital sexual ethics follows.

Objection: Unnatural sexual acts are committed by animals, therefore, this type of act is natural, not unnatural.

Reply: The Magisterium teaches from natural law, not only from Tradition and Scripture.

But natural law is not based on observation of the behavior of animals. For example, some animals kill innocent human persons, but this does not imply that we may morally do so. And some animals kill their own young, but this does not imply that natural law approves of such behavior in human persons.

Natural law is based on the nature of human persons and on the relationship between human persons. Human persons have free will and intellect, whereas the lower animals do not. No person of reason and good will believes that human persons should act like animals, or that the behavior of wild animals somehow justifies the same behavior in human persons. So the use of this type of argument to justify unnatural sexual acts is invalid and perhaps disingenuous.

The teachings of natural law on human sexuality are based on human nature and the relationship between human persons. Human sexuality is inherently directed toward procreation, without which the human race would die out and cease to exist. Reason alone indicates that procreation is the primary end of human sexuality. Sexual acts must be procreative, they must reach toward that good end. Sexual acts deliberately deprived of this good (by contraception, or by the choice of a non-procreative type of act) are inherently evil. Such acts are unnatural because they are contrary to the natural law.

Concerning procreation, human persons differ from the lower animals; we have free will and reason. Human persons love one another; love is an exercise of free will and intellect. By intellect, we know other persons; and by free will we choose to love what we know. Reason reveals that love is one of the greatest goods of human life. But sexual acts are by their very nature intimate acts. Therefore, to be moral, human sexual acts must not only be procreative, they must be marital. For marriage is a union in love, and marital sexual acts properly express that love, but only in a manner that is also procreative. The intimacy of sexual acts requires not only love, but a continuing lifelong commitment in love, which is called marriage.

But the union of two men, or of two women, cannot be considered any type of true marriage, because such unions are inherently non-procreative. They do not reach toward the good of procreation, which is the primary purpose of human sexuality.

The union of husband and wife in marital sexual acts properly expresses their love only when these sexual acts both reach toward procreation (even if it does not achieve procreation on each occasion), and only when those acts are also unitive. Natural intercourse is unitive and procreative, where as unnatural sexual acts are not procreative. Neither are unnatural sexual acts truly unitive, for the union of spouses is not merely a physical joining of body parts, but a procreative union, which only occurs by natural intercourse.

The above is the natural law argument against unnatural sexual acts, and in favor of the teaching that each and every sexual act in a marriage must be unitive and procreative. This teaching also implies that marriage must be heterosexual, since homosexual marriage is neither procreative, nor truly unitive.

Objection: No one is harmed by unnatural sexual acts; it is the choice of two consenting adults.

Reply: Morality is not based solely on the harm that occurs in the consequences of the act, but also on the intention of the person choosing the act, and on the type of act that is chosen. Certain types of acts are inherently immoral because they are, by their very nature, ordered toward evil, not good. These acts are called intrinsically evil because their end is inherently contrary to the love of God and neighbor.

Adultery is the act of two consenting adults, and yet adultery is gravely immoral. A mutual suicide pact is the act of two consenting adults, and yet such an act is gravely immoral. The basis for morality is not whether the persons involved all gave their consent. Consent is necessary for a sexual act to be moral, but it is not sufficient.

Objection: A great range of sexual activity is said to be healthy (physically, emotionally, etc.), therefore it is moral.

Reply: Morality is not determined by whether the act promotes health and well-being. For example, a soldier who defends his country may suffer serious injury or death, and yet his act is moral, not immoral. In a contrary example, a captured soldier who agrees to help the enemy in order to avoid torture and death does what is most healthy for himself, and yet his act is immoral.

The Crucifixion by which Christ suffered and died for our sins was not the most healthy choice for Him to make. But he suffered torture and death because it was the right thing to do.

Objection: The Church cannot teach sexual ethics because some priests sexually abuse children.

Reply: I think that this objection is disingenuous, but I’ll reply because it is so common. The source of the teaching of the Catholic Church on sexual ethics is Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture and the teachings of many Popes and Bishops throughout the history of the Church. The same teaching has been taught and lived by many Saints, whose lives have been beyond reproach.

The small minority of priests who have committed grave sexual crimes are not the source of the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics, nor are they usually even among the main proponents of Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. In fact, all such priests are violating Catholic teaching on sexual ethics.

Objection: The Church cannot teach sexual ethics because the bishops and most priests are celibate.

Reply: The teaching of the Church on sexual ethics is from God, through Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium. But the first Pope, Peter the Apostle, was a married Jewish man before he became the leader of the Church established by Jesus Christ. Some priests and many permanent deacons are married. And many married faithful believe and live by the teachings of the Church on sexual ethics.

On the question of unnatural sexual acts, St. Augustine, before he converted, lived with a woman and conceived a child with her, so he was not ignorant of sexuality. And yet he taught against unnatural sexual acts used within marriage. So also did St. Aquinas, who was a chaste virgin even before he became a priest. The celibate, and the virgins, and the married faithful of the Church agree. So these teachings are not the result of a lack of sexual experience.

Objection: The teaching that procreation is the primary purpose of sexual acts seems to forbid sex by infertile couples.

Reply: In order to be procreative, a sexual act must reach toward procreation by its very nature. (In theology, we say that each and every sexual act must have the procreative meaning in its moral object, its proximate end in terms of morality.) Thus, infertility, and fertility when it happens not to result in conception, and natural family planning, all still allow a sexual act to be of the natural type and therefore moral. Natural intercourse is inherently ordered toward procreation, and this ordering makes the act procreative by its nature, even if that procreative end is not attained.

Objection: It is unreasonable to place rape and adultery, as gravely immoral acts, on the same level as masturbation and unnatural sexual acts between spouses.

Reply: Catholic teaching broadly categorizes all sin into two types: mortal sins and venial sins. But this does not imply that every mortal sin is of the same gravity. Murder is gravely immoral. Genocide is gravely immoral. But genocide is much more gravely immoral than a single murder. Deliberately denying another human person a fundamental human right is a grave sin. Deliberately denying a group of human persons all their a fundamental human rights (thereby enslaving them) is a much graver sin.

Objection: The teaching that procreation is the primary purpose of sexual acts seems to forbid any other intention or good related to sexual acts.

Reply: Natural marital relations has procreation as its primary good end, but there are also other good ends that the married couple may also seek, as long as their act is of the natural type and is therefore unitive and procreative.

“Now, the truth is that matrimony, as an institution of nature, in virtue of the Creator’s will, has not as a primary and intimate end the personal perfection of the married couple but the procreation and upbringing of a new life. The other ends, inasmuch as they are intended by nature, are not equally primary, much less superior to the primary end, but are essentially subordinated to it. This is true of every marriage, even if no offspring result, just as of every eye it can be said that it is destined and formed to see, even if, in abnormal cases arising from special internal or external conditions, it will never be possible to achieve visual perception.” (Address to Midwives, Pope Pius XII)

Procreation is the primary good of sexual acts, and the procreation and education of children is the primary purpose of marriage.

“Nevertheless, here also, husband and wife must know how to keep themselves within the limits of a just moderation. As with the pleasure of food and drink so with the sexual they must not abandon themselves without restraint to the impulses of the senses. The right rule is this: the use of the natural procreative disposition is morally lawful in matrimony only, in the service of and in accordance with the ends of marriage itself. Hence it follows that only in marriage with the observing of this rule is the desire and fruition of this pleasure and of this satisfaction lawful. For the pleasure is subordinate to the law of the action whence it derives, and not vice versa-the action to the law of pleasure. And this law, so very reasonable, concerns not only the substance but also the circumstances of the action, so that, even when the substance of the act remains morally safe, it is possible to sin in the way it is performed. ” (Address to Midwives, Pope Pius XII)

Pleasure is not the highest good of life, nor of married life, nor of sexual acts. And concerning marital sexual acts, not only the intention and the circumstances, but also the ‘substance of the act’ must be good. The substance of a sexual act is its moral nature, the type of act in terms of morality as determined by the moral object. Unnatural sexual acts are sinful by the very nature of the act.

“Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.” (Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI)

In order for a marital sexual act (‘the marital right’) to be moral, the married couple must “use their right in the proper manner”, that is to say, they must engage only in natural sexual acts, not unnatural sexual acts. For only natural sexual acts are procreative, and procreation is the primary end of marriage and of marital relations. Other good ends cannot justify an act that is deprived of the primary end of procreation. Only when a marital sexual act is unitive and procreative is the intrinsic nature of the act preserved.

“Each and every sexual act in a marriage needs to be open to the possibility of conceiving a child.” (USCCB Catechism, p. 409)

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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