A Common Question in Marital Sexual Ethics

Can a husband and wife morally use unnatural sexual acts as foreplay, if these acts lack climax, and are performed in the context of an act of natural marital relations open to life?

No, certainly not. Unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

The Roman Catholic Magisterium teaches:

1. Morality concerns the knowing choices of human persons, which are called human acts (or simply “acts”).

2. Each and every knowing choice is a distinct act, and each act is subject to the eternal moral law of God.

3. Eat act has three components, called fonts: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances. In order to be moral, each and every act of the human person must have three good fonts of morality.

4. The moral object of an act is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. Each and every knowing choice (act) is inherently directed, by the very nature of the act, toward a good or evil end (its object). The relationship between the chosen act and its moral object is direct (morally immediate).

5. An act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil and always immoral, regardless of intention and circumstances. Such acts are inherently disordered; they are wrong by their very nature. The knowing choice of an intrinsically evil act is always a sin.

6. In order for a sexual act to have a good moral object, rather than an evil moral object, the sexual act must be marital and unitive and procreative. Any sexual act that is non-marital OR non-unitive OR non-procreative is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Thus, each and every marital sexual act must be unitive AND procreative (Humanae Vitae 11-12).

7. This teaching applies to individual sexual acts, because each act must stand on its own as to its morality. The idea that a set of sexual acts, some procreative and some non-procreative, can be grouped together to justify the non-procreative acts has been specifically rejected by the Magisterium. (Humanae Vitae 3, 11; USCCB Catechism, p. 409.). Moreover, Roman Catholic moral theology has always rejected the idea that a bad act can be justified by a prior, subsequent, or concurrent good act.

8. The moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious. Therefore, every intrinsically evil sexual sin is not only always immoral, it is always gravely immoral.

These clear and definitive teachings of the Magisterium necessarily imply that all unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, even within marriage, regardless of intention or circumstances.

The intention to use an act as foreplay cannot justify an act that is intrinsically evil. The circumstance that completed natural marital relations would (supposedly) be difficult otherwise, does not justify the use of unnatural sexual acts. Intrinsically evil acts are never justified by intention or circumstances. The absence of climax in an unnatural sexual act does not make the act procreative, and so that type of sexual act remains non-procreative, intrinsically evil, and gravely immoral.

Neither can a set of acts in the marital bedroom be justified by viewing them as if they were one act. Roman Catholic moral theology has always distinguished each knowing choice as a separate act. Each act has three fonts of morality, and each act is evaluated by its own three fonts. A non-procreative sexual act cannot borrow the moral object of an act of natural marital relations open to life, so as to justify the former by the latter. Catholic moral theology have never permitted an evil act to be justified by being done about the same time as a good act.

For a complete explanation of the Church’s teaching on marital sexual ethics, see my book: Roman Catholic Marital Sexual Ethics

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

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4 Responses to A Common Question in Marital Sexual Ethics

  1. SAHarris says:

    If all acts must be “procreative”, does that mean that my wife and I can only have sex during the 3-4 days a month when she’s fertile?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Procreative sexual acts are ordered, by their nature, toward procreation. Each procreative sexual act may or may not achieve procreation on any particular occasion. But it is the ordering of the act toward a moral object, not the attainment of that object, which makes the act good or evil by its nature.

      A married couple use contraception, but the method fails and they procreate a child. The act that they chose, contracepted sex, is non-procreative by its nature; its moral object is deprived of the procreative meaning. Even though they procreated a child, they still chose an inherently immoral, inherently non-procreative sexual act. So they sinned gravely.

      A married couple have natural marital relations open to life, but fail to conceive a child (let’s say, due to old age). The type of sexual act that they chose is inherently ordered toward procreation, even though it cannot attain that end due to old age. They chose a good type of act, so they did not sin.

      It is not the attainment of the moral object that makes the act inherently good or inherently evil, but rather the ordering of the chosen act toward that object. So a married couple may have relations at any time during the wife’s cycle, as long as each sexual act is unitive and procreative by its nature.

  2. John says:

    A returning Catholic had a vasectomy while away from the Church 30+ years ago. Is it immoral to have sex as a Catholic since there is no chance that a pregnancy can take place.
    My wife is over the age of childbearing as well.

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is moral for the spouses to have natural marital relations, despite the two reasons for infertility that you cite. The type of act that they are choosing is inherently ordered toward procreation, even though it cannot attain that end for those two reasons. The decision to get a vasectomy was gravely immoral. But at this point, nothing can be done about it. So what matters is the current acts and their moral nature. Natural intercourse between spouses is moral, even when infertility is unavoidable, because the act itself as a good nature.

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