Amoris Laetitia on Contraception and Sex in Marriage

The Latin title of this Apostolic Exhortation by Pope Francis means “The Joy of Love”. But it is also titled, in English, “On Love in the Family”. The exhortation is termed “post-synodal” because it represents the last document of the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family. The document is lengthy and will take some time for the faithful to study and understand. I will offer some comments in a series of short posts on select sections of the document.


Amoris Laetitia:
80. Marriage is firstly an “intimate partnership of life and love”[80] which is a good for the spouses themselves,[81] while sexuality is “ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman”.[82] It follows that “spouses to whom God has not granted children can have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms”.[83] Nonetheless, the conjugal union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature”.[84] The child who is born “does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment”.[85] He or she does not appear at the end of a process, but is present from the beginning of love as an essential feature, one that cannot be denied without disfiguring that love itself. From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning,[86] even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.

[86] Cf. Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae (25 July 1968), 11-12: AAS 60 (1968), 488-489.

In discussions, articles, and posts online, some Catholics have contended that a husband and wife might possibly use a condom, for a good purpose, such as to prevent disease transmission, absent any contraceptive intention, especially in cases where the couple cannot conceive for various reasons (e.g. pregnancy, old age).

My understanding, to the contrary, is that each and every sexual act of the spouses must be open to life. What makes the use of contraception intrinsically evil is not a contraceptive intention, but rather the intentional (deliberate, voluntary, knowing) choice of an act inherently ordered to thwart the procreative meaning of sexual acts. The moral nature of every act of contraception is inherently morally disordered. Therefore, the deliberate choice to commit an act of contraception is always gravely immoral, regardless of intention. A contraceptive intention makes the act more gravely immoral. But a good intention, and a dire circumstance, cannot change the moral nature of the act.

Humanae Vitae teaches this rather clearly:

Humanae Vitae:
11. The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, “noble and worthy.” It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile…. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

Thus “each and every marital act”, meaning each sexual act in a marriage, “must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” And this assertion is preceded by an acknowledgment that sometimes marital relations is “foreseen to be infertile”. Therefore, the teaching that each act must in principle retain its ordering toward the procreative meaning still applies when the couple are infertile. And the doctrine specifies that they are infertile “independent of their will” because the deliberate knowing choice of an act of contraception or (direct) sterilization is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

The phrasing that Pope Francis uses in Amoris Laetitia repeats and clarifies this same doctrine: “Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.”

This plain and clear doctrine, which admits of no exceptions, is currently under attack by unfaithful Catholics. In truth, contraception remains gravely immoral, even when the couple are infertile due to pregnancy or old age. For intrinsically evil acts are not justified by a good intention (such as to prevent disease transmission), nor by the circumstances (such as that the couple cannot conceive). The deliberate and knowing choice of any intrinsically evil act is always objectively immoral, regardless of intention and circumstances.

Sex in Marriage

But another type of grave sin is also necessarily condemned by this teaching of Humanae Vitae, which is also taught by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia: unnatural sexual acts in marriage. An unnatural sexual act is any genital act that is not, by the very nature of the act, ordered toward the procreative meaning. Such acts includes oral, manual, or anal sexual acts, regardless of whether these acts include climax. Such acts are not inherently procreative, and therefore represent a “genital act of husband and wife” which refuses the procreative meaning of conjugal union.

Unnatural sexual acts have been condemned by Saints Augustine, Aquinas, and Liguori. They have never been approved by the Church, under any circumstances, for use as “foreplay” in marriage, nor for any other purpose between spouses. These sins are termed “acts of grave depravity” by the Catechism.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. [CCC 2357]

Some Catholics opine that this condemnation of unnatural sexual acts only applies to persons of the same gender. But the reason for the condemnation of unnatural sexual acts is not solely that the persons are not male and female, or are not married. The Church also condemns unnatural sexual acts because they “close the sexual act to the gift of life”. For sexuality is ordered toward procreation. And this is the very reason that Humanae Vitae and Amoris Laetitia require every sexual act of the spouses to be open to life.

Saints Augustine and Aquinas clearly and strongly condemned unnatural sexual acts in marriage. See my article: May the Marriage Bed Be Immaculate. Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church and a moral theologian, was particularly clear and specific in his condemnation of unnatural sexual acts in marriage: Saint Alphonsus Liguori on Marital Chastity. The claim that unnatural sexual acts are moral if the husband subsequently “completes the act” in the natural manner is specifically rejected by Saint Liguori, as is the claim that the spouses may use unnatural sexual acts on the wife after natural marital relations in order to for her to reach climax.

The wording used by Pope Francis is particularly clear: “no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning”, i.e. the procreative meaning. Thus, Catholics cannot claim that husband and wife may use various types of unnatural genital acts, for any reason or purpose, in any circumstances. For such acts are unnatural precisely because they are not inherently procreative.

The only moral sexual act is natural marital relations open to life.

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

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7 Responses to Amoris Laetitia on Contraception and Sex in Marriage

  1. Patricia says:

    Ron, so you are telling me that if a husband and wife have natural sex – and are open to life – but the wife does not climax – it cannot be done manually outside of the sex act. And the wife has trouble with climax during intercourse then she is sinning if done manually by husband? Would that not frustrate the wife? And cause great aggravation to her? Patti

    • Ron Conte says:

      That is what I am telling you. The circumstance that she is frustrated or aggravated without unnatural sexual acts does not justify this sin.

  2. John says:

    It really makes me wonder how many people are in a constant state of grave sin. Where we live at there are very few NFP classes available. The ones that we have attended have never had more than eight couples in attendance. When I talk to people about nfp most do not know anything about it. Some of them remember hearing something about it in there marriage prep but that’s all. We have used nfp for almost all of our marriage have been open to life to the point of bringing 8 amazing children into the world. We would love to keep having more but now we have been told by more than five doctors that it is no longer safe for us to have another pregnancy at all. There is no way either of us are willing to violate the churches teaching and we have probably at least 30 more years of fertility left. So now we have the option of staying in a state of abstinence or trying to do multiple types of nfp to try and back up one another and pray that a pregnancy doesn’t happen. I sometimes wonder that in our state if we have been advised that a pregnancy could be a fatal danger to mother or baby that could end up being a sin too.Sometimes it feels like a constant catch 22. Especially when you want to be at least somewhat intimate with your spouse. So it almost seems that abstaining is our only option. Trying to get advice from priests is just as difficult at times. I’ve heard advice from every angle and every option for all ends of the spectrum and just end up even more confused. I fear we are not the only ones in this situation. I’m sure there a lot of other couples as well.

  3. Cathy says:

    Ron I have two questions. One: What if a wife should have e.g. Because of cancer her uterus removed. She cannot have any more children. Should they live in celibacy because of this? The other: We are not animals. Women need some foreplay to get ready for the marital act which include kissing and hugging each other. Otherwise for the woman it is as bad as a rape. So what is allowed and what is not? E.g. Kissing the breasts? Or each other genitals? Without something it is just painful but where is the border I do not see just whether it ends up with the normal course open to life or not.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The marital sexual act must be the type of act ordered toward procreation, even if new life is not possible because the wife is pregnant, or post-menopausal, or has had a hysterectomy. So the married couple can have natural marital relations, even if the couple is not fertile.

      Moral foreplay includes kissing, hugging, words, kissing or caressing of the breasts, or other body parts. But moral foreplay does not include unnatural sexual acts (with or without climax). Oral, anal, and manual sex are each unnatural, and they are not justified, even if the purpose is foreplay, even if climax is lacking.

      The human body is designed to be capable of natural marital relations open to life. Unnatural sexual acts are not necessary to arousal, nor to any part of the natural act. Moral foreplay can be used to prepare for the natural act.

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