What might a (future hypothetical) papal encyclical on sexual ethics teach concerning non-marital sexual acts? This teaching would certainly be based on and continuous with current teaching.
Certainly the various types of non-marital sexual acts are individually condemned as grave sins by the Magisterium, including masturbation, fornication (e.g. premarital sex), homosexual acts, adultery, prostitution, rape, and child sexual abuse. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has clear teachings against each of these grave sins in the section ‘Offenses against chastity,’ n. 2351 and following.
But the Magisterium also condemns non-marital acts per se: “Sexual intercourse is a moral and human good only within marriage, outside marriage it is wrong.” (Pope John Paul II, Speeches, 1979).
In the encyclical Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI, in the course of teaching the faithful about holy matrimony, condemns sexual acts outside of marriage.
“7. By matrimony, therefore, the souls of the contracting parties are joined and knit together more directly and more intimately than are their bodies, and that not by any passing affection of sense of spirit, but by a deliberate and firm act of the will; and from this union of souls by God’s decree, a sacred and inviolable bond arises. Hence the nature of this contract, which is proper and peculiar to it alone, makes it entirely different both from the union of animals entered into by the blind instinct of nature alone in which neither reason nor free will plays a part, and also from the haphazard unions of men, which are far removed from all true and honorable unions of will and enjoy none of the rights of family life.”
The term ‘haphazard unions’ refers to sexual acts other than sexual union in marriage. Notice that no specific type of sexual act is mentioned — all non-marital sexual acts are rejected. Casti Connubii continues the same teaching more clearly, when it presents a choice of only two states of life, marriage or virginity.
“8. From this it is clear that legitimately constituted authority has the right and therefore the duty to restrict, to prevent, and to punish those base unions which are opposed to reason and to nature; but since it is a matter which flows from human nature itself, no less certain is the teaching of Our predecessor, Leo XIII of happy memory: ‘In choosing a state of life there is no doubt but that it is in the power and discretion of each one to prefer one or the other: either to embrace the counsel of virginity given by Jesus Christ, or to bind himself in the bonds of matrimony. To take away from man the natural and primeval right of marriage, to circumscribe in any way the principal ends of marriage laid down in the beginning by God Himself in the words ‘Increase and multiply,’ is beyond the power of any human law.’ “
This choice between virginity and marriage implies that no sexual acts outside of marriage are moral. The choice is between virginity (no sexual acts) or marriage (sexual acts only in marriage). And Pope Pius XI goes so far as to say that non-marital sexual acts can be punished by temporal authority, because they are “base unions which are opposed to reason and to nature.” Any knowingly chosen act that is contrary to reason and nature is contrary to the natural law, and therefore immoral.
“34. Therefore although the sacramental element may be absent from a marriage as is the case among unbelievers, still in such a marriage, inasmuch as it is a true marriage there must remain and indeed there does remain that perpetual bond which by divine right is so bound up with matrimony from its first institution that it is not subject to any civil power. And so, whatever marriage is said to be contracted, either it is so contracted that it is really a true marriage, in which case it carries with it that enduring bond which by divine right is inherent in every true marriage; or it is thought to be contracted without that perpetual bond, and in that case there is no marriage, but an illicit union opposed of its very nature to the divine law, which therefore cannot be entered into or maintained.”
In the above quote, Pope Pius XI reaffirms this basic principle upon which much of sexual ethics is based: any sexual union other than in a true marriage is an “illicit union opposed of its very nature to the divine law.” But any human act that is, by its very nature, contrary to Divine law is an intrinsically evil act. And intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.
So the teaching of the Magisterium against non-marital sexual acts is clear, not only for specific types of sexual acts, but for any sexual act that is non-marital, precisely because it is a sexual act outside of marriage.
There are two types of dissent: by word and by deed. All too many Catholics dissent from this teaching that all non-marital sexual acts are sinful, by living lives filled with sexual sin. It is not necessary to list all the non-marital sexual sins that Catholics commit, for every non-marital sexual sin is found among those who call themselves Catholic. This type of dissent is very common.
Dissent by word, against the teaching that all non-marital sexual acts are immoral, is not hard to find. In many an online ‘Catholic’ discussion group, there will be some posters (usually anonymous), who claim to be Catholic and who will explain why they believe that one sexual act or anther, outside of marriage, is not necessarily a sin. Their reasoning is foolish, but none of the faithful Catholics who attempt to convince them of the Church’s teaching succeed in doing so. For such persons have departed from both faith and reason.
Unfortunately, dissent is not usually a result of lack of knowledge or lack of intelligence. Many well-informed intelligent theologians have openly proclaimed various new theories in ethics which have the effect of permitting all manner of non-marital sexual acts. Often this dissent is presented under the guise of a deeper understanding, or under the guise of an altogether new approach to ethics. The system called ‘virtue ethics,’ at least in the view of some proponents, allows one to disregard the chosen act, even when it is intrinsically evil, and instead use another basis for moral evaluation. Another approach, also subsumed under the term ‘virtue ethics’ bases morality on relationships, so that discrete acts are no longer even considered. No act is said to be intrinsically evil or always immoral, because the very concept of acts is replaced with relationships and virtues. The result of these new approaches to ethics is always the same: the acts that are approved by sinful secular society are approved by the new approach. But this is a mere contrivance to bring Catholic theology into line with, and subservient to, whatever the prevailing culture teaches.
One of the most common points of dissent on non-marital sexual acts is the widespread acceptance among Catholics of so-called ‘gay marriage’. By approving of the legalization of same-sex marriage, these Catholics not only explicitly dissent from the teaching of the Magisterium on the true nature of marriage, but also dissent implicitly from the teaching that all non-marital sexual acts are gravely immoral. For a gay marriage is not at all a true marriage; it is neither a merely natural true marriage, nor a true Sacrament of Marriage. Therefore, all the sexual acts of such a relationship are gravely immoral.
Open Questions and Disputed Points
Apart from blatant dissent, are there any open questions or disputed points on the teaching that non-marital sexual acts are always immoral? The only point that might not be entirely clear (although it is clear to my mind) is the reason why non-marital sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral solely because they are non-marital: the moral object.
Every sexual act deprived of the marital meaning in its moral object is an intrinsically evil act, with an evil moral object. The deprivation of any moral good, required by the love of God and neighbor, within the moral object of an intentionally-chosen act, makes the moral object evil and the act intrinsically evil.
Many Catholics know that non-marital sexual acts are condemned as immoral by the Church. But they do not understand why. The teaching of Veritatis Splendor and the CCC on intrinsically evil acts has largely been ignored by the minds of most Catholics. They have not understood and accepted the teaching of the Church on intrinsic evil. This privation in the understanding of Catholics about intrinsically evil acts is clear from a recent online discussion about lying (an intrinsically evil act). Most Catholics do not accept the idea that an intrinsically evil act is always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.
The other point that is sometimes disputed is the gravity of every per se sexual act that is non-marital. The CDF has taught that all direct violations of moral order in sexuality are grave sins:
“Now according to Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious.” (Persona Humana, n. X).
Some intrinsically evil acts are venial sins (e.g. a venial lie), other intrinsically evil acts are mortal sins. But all intrinsically evil sexual acts are mortal sins because the moral order of sexuality is a high value and a serious matter. But this particular point as to why sexual sins are grave sins is not often emphasized.
What might a new papal document contribute? Certainly, any papal encyclical can benefit the faithful by a reaffirmation of past teachings. And perhaps restating a past teaching with different wording will make that teaching clearer to some persons.
A papal encyclical on this subject could also teach more authoritatively on particular points. I understand that the magisterial teaching on the grave sinfulness of all non-marital sexual acts is an infallible dogma under the Universal Magisterium. But many Catholics do not seem to realize the level of authority that this teaching currently possesses. A new encyclical on the subject could strengthen the authority of current teaching.
The Pontiff could also take this opportunity to refute various false teachings, which have tried to either justify some non-marital sexual acts, or at least reduce their gravity from grave to venial. And he could repudiate various newly-devised, seriously-misguided ethical systems, such as virtue ethics.
But the Church, and certainly Her head the Pope, has both spiritual and temporal authority. So in addition to teaching, a papal encyclical can affect the practices of the Church. The Pontiff could forbid anyone to receive holy Communion who is not living in accord with the teachings of the Church against sexual acts outside of a true Sacrament of Marriage (for Christians). He could also make it clear to the faithful that anyone who rejects the definitive teaching of the Magisterium on any point of sexual ethics commits the sin of heresy.
Pontifical Response to Heresy
There is a grave problem in the Church today, on the subject of heresy. Many theologians, many lay leaders, many online commentators, and some priests and religious teach and promote abject heresy, especially on sexual ethics. The Pontiff could make it clear that all such persons are automatically excommunicated (latae). He could also require the Bishops to issue a judgment of excommunication (ferendae). Priests who teach heresy should be suspended, and if they refuse to repent laicized. Religious who teach heresy should be removed from their order and lose all financial support from the Church. Theologians who teach heresy should be fired from their positions and forbidden from all employment at any Catholic educational institution (rather than merely taking away their mandate to teach Catholic theology). Educational institutions which refuse to fire heretics, or which promote or allow the promotion of heresy, should be forbidden from calling themselves Catholic. The reticent leaders of that institution should be excommunicated, along with any teachers of theology who refuse to leave their jobs at such heretical institutions.
Sexual ethics is not merely theoretical. At Fatima, our Lady revealed that more persons are sent to Hell by God for sins of the flesh than for any other reason. Teaching or promoting heresy on sexual ethics is formal cooperation with the intrinsically evil sexual sins that are being approved or promoted. So those who teach or promote heresy on sexual ethics are committing a grave sin of the flesh also.
More on this topic in future posts, I hope.