The Three Moral Objects of Marital Relations

Evil is a deprivation of good; moral evil is a deprivation of a good required by the love of God, and the love of neighbor as self. An intrinsically evil act is an act with evil in its object.

Natural marital relations open to life is the only moral sexual act. The reason is that this act, and no other sexual act, has three good moral objects: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. Contraception deprives sexual acts of the procreative meaning; that deprivation, in the object, makes the act intrinsically evil. All non-procreative sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, due to the deprivation of the procreative meaning in the object of the act.

Non-marital sexual acts — fornication, adultery — are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral because they are deprived of the marital meaning. Even if the non-marital sex is unitive and procreative, it remains intrinsically evil because of that deprivation in the object.

The unitive meaning is the result of the sexual union of a man and woman as they become one flesh in natural intercourse. They are united in body, in a particular manner, and so the unitive meaning refers to sexual union. But this physical sexual union is also a symbol and expression of the love between the man and woman. Thus, it has two components, one bodily (the sexual union) and the other spiritual (a loving spiritual union). I would use the analogy of body and soul united as one human person. The unitive meaning requires the type of sexual union called natural intercourse. But that mere physical act is not sufficient. This union must be an expression of love between the two persons. Only then is the fullness of the unitive meaning present.

If a couple have natural intercourse, without love for one another, they have only the bodily component of the unitive meaning, not the spiritual component, and so the unitive meaning is present, but with substantial harm to its fullness (cf. 1 Cor 6:15-16).

If a couple have unnatural intercourse, the act is thoroughly non-unitive. The presence of a mere physical union, of a type which is not the sexual union ordained by God for human persons, does not suffice for the bodily component of the unitive meaning. And if the couple have love for one another, but express that love in an inherently gravely disordered manner, even the spiritual component of the unitive meaning is absent. For the spiritual component is built upon the bodily component, just as the spiritual (or indirect) meaning of Scripture is built upon its direct meaning. Truth cannot be built upon a lie. The spiritual component of the unitive meaning cannot be present if the bodily component is absent.

Any two persons can love one another, in the Christian spiritual sense of love thy neighbor. But the specific loving union found in the unitive meaning (as the moral object of a sexual act) is dependent upon that type of physical sexual union found only in natural intercourse. Thus, the unitive object is the result of a loving and bodily union, of a type ordained by God for husband and wife.

Non-unitive sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. And they do not become moral when combined as a set with other sexual acts, ones that are unitive and procreative, within the same period of time or the same place. This principle is clear from a consideration, below, of the procreative meaning.

Non-procreative sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral because they are deprived of the procreative meaning in the moral object. Can a husband and wife use a barrier method of contraception, for several sexual acts, and then commit one non-contracepted sexual act, followed by more contracepted sexual acts? Can a set of acts be said to be procreative and therefore moral, because one act in the set is open to life? Humanae Vitae answered this question definitively and in the negative.

“Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.”

A non-procreative sexual act does not become moral by its inclusion in a set of sexual acts, only some of which are procreative. And so, it is patently false to claim that a series of unnatural sexual acts is justified by the inclusion in the set of one act of natural intercourse. The unnatural intercourse is non-procreative. Contracepted sexual acts are non-procreative. Even though the reason for the deprivation of the procreative object differs, they both are intrinsically evil for the same essential reason. And so an unnatural (non-procreative) sexual act does not “merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity” and therefore become moral. And yet this is exactly what many Catholic authors claim: that one act of natural intercourse justifies completed unnatural sexual acts on the wife, and incomplete unnatural sexual acts on the husband, as long as they are part of the same set (done about the same time). But that claim is contradicted by magisterial teaching.

Certainly, in the above quote, the Pontiff was speaking about contracepted sexual acts, not about unnatural sexual acts in marriage. However, the principles of ethics which he applies to contracepted acts applies also to any non-procreative sexual acts, and even to any intrinsically evil acts at all. If an act is intrinsically evil, it does not become justified by being considered as part of a set of acts, only some of which are moral. If a human person commits one intrinsically evil act, and a thousand moral acts, in the same day, the intrinsically evil act remains immoral. An intrinsically evil cannot be justified by being juxtaposed with a moral act.

Three Good Objects

In order to be moral, each sexual act must retain all three good moral objects: marital, unitive, and procreative. A couple cannot claim that premarital sexual acts are justified by later marital sexual acts. They cannot claim that contracepted sexual acts are justified by earlier or later non-contracepted sex. And they cannot commit unnatural sexual acts and then justify these by at least one act of natural intercourse, before or after. That is not how ethic works with regard to any type of intrinsically evil act.

A intrinsically evil act of lying does not become moral by being preceded or followed by an assertion of truth. An intrinsically evil act of theft does not become moral by being preceded or followed by a donation to charity. An intrinsically evil act of murder does not become moral by being preceded or followed by the saving of a life. No intrinsically evil act is ever justified by its inclusion in a set with moral acts.

The only moral sexual act is natural marital relations open to life. This sexual act and no other has three good moral objects. Any other sexual act has a deprivation in the marital, unitive, and/or procreative meanings, making those acts intrinsically evil. Nothing can justify the knowing deliberate choice of an intrinsically evil act.

Relationship Between the Meanings

What happens if a married couple have contracepted sex? Does the deprivation of the procreative meaning also destroy the other two meanings? Certainly not. Contracepted marital sex is not the same as contracepted adultery or contracepted fornication. Contracepted natural intercourse is not the same as unnatural sexual acts, which are neither unitive nor procreative. When one meaning is absent, the other two meanings are harmed. The unitive and marital meanings are less full when the procreative meaning is deprived by a knowing and deliberate choice (i.e. by an intrinsically evil act). But the deprivation of one meaning does not entirely take away the other two meanings.

[1 Cor]
{6:15} Do you not know that your bodies are a part of Christ? So then, should I take a part of Christ and make it a part of a harlot? Let it not be so!
{6:16} And do you not know that whoever is joined to a harlot becomes one body? “For the two,” he said, “shall be as one flesh.”

Saint Paul says that a man who has sex with a prostitute becomes “one body” with her. Thus, Sacred Scripture teaches that the deprivation of the marital meaning does not entirely deprive the sexual acts of the unitive or procreative meanings. And it stands to reason that non-marital sex is still procreative, since a child can result from that act.

So the idea that a deprivation of any one meaning takes away entirely the other two meanings is a serious error in moral theology. It incorrectly results in the claim that the use of contraception by spouses makes the act a type of adultery. It also incorrectly results in the conclusion that the use of contraception by unmarried persons has no moral meaning or consequences. For they claim that the deprivation of the marital meaning makes the act already non-procreative (even though they can still conceive a child) and non-unitive. That is absurd. Natural intercourse open to life, by a man and woman who are unmarried, is procreative and unitive; it is sinful due to the lack of the marital meaning.

When contraception is used by unmarried persons, this knowing deliberate choice is the sin of contraception because the act is inherently ordered to deprive sexual acts of their procreative finality. And that is why Catholic hospitals are forbidden from dispensing or cooperating with contraception or sterilization for anyone, even the unmarried.

“Any cooperation which involves the approval or consent of the hospitals to actions which are in themselves, that is, by their nature and condition, directed to a contraceptive end, namely, in order that the natural effects of sexual actions deliberately performed by the sterilized subject be impeded, is absolutely forbidden. For the official approbation of direct sterilization and, a fortiori, its management and execution in accord with hospital regulations, is a matter which, in the objective order, is by its very nature (or intrinsically) evil. The Catholic hospital cannot cooperate with this for any reason. Any cooperation so supplied is totally unbecoming the mission entrusted to this type of institution and would be contrary to the necessary proclamation and defense of the moral order.” [Quaecumque sterilizatio: Latin |English]

What is at issue in contraception is “the natural effects of sexual actions” [Latin: actuum sexualium], which therefore refers to the procreative meaning, not the marital meaning. Contraception is still contraception when the couple is unmarried, as is obvious to reason alone and also clear from magisterial teachings (e.g. Casti Connubii 55).

The claim is ridiculous that contraception is morally disordered only when it deprives marital sexual acts of their procreative meaning. What if the couple later obtain an annulment? Is the immorality of their contracepted acts, during their putative marriage, also annulled? Is it really true that, when a husband and wife use contraception, no one can know if that use is moral, until and unless it is proven that their marriage is valid? The divorced and remarried do not have a valid second union, and this would imply, according to certain commentators, that their use of contraception, in acts which are not really marital, is not really contraception. And this despite the fact that their use of abortifacient contraception deprives sexual acts of their procreative finality, but when that effect fails, it deprives conceived prenatals of their lives.

If contraception is not really contraception except in a valid marriage, then why doesn’t this principle apply to the related intrinsically evil acts of sterilization and abortion? Contraception is essentially just temporary sterilization; it is the sterilization of acts, rather than the sterilization of the body. And abortion is closely related to contraception, especially when the contraception that is being approved, by one ridiculous theological rationalization or another, is abortifacient. Is abortion only abortion when the couple are married? No? Well, claiming that contraception is only contraception when the sex is marital is equally absurd.

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

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8 Responses to The Three Moral Objects of Marital Relations

  1. Matt Z. says:

    This teaching also flies in the face of those that justify unnatural sex acts as being part of the one act of natural marital relations open to life. An unnatural sex act is a separate act(and an evil one.) Mutual masterbation is another separate evil act. Every act stands on its own.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Yes, each act stands on its own. The currently popular approach is to invent a new set of principles of ethics, just for the marital bedroom. That is patently absurd. Instead, each act must be moral, according to the three fonts that rise up from, and apply to, that act.

    • Marco says:

      Part of the problem is, Ron, that catholic sexual morality is often seen as too much restrictive.

      And, even when confronted with other religions or other Christian Churches (such as the ortodox Church), i think there is some truth in that.

      This makes me think that if what conservative say about mitigating factors (according to them only a very, very small minority of the population, such as people with mental problem and the like, can benefit from mitigating factors) at least 95% of the human population would be lost, and nearly 100% among people who die in their youth.

      I think that this is the reason behind the grim view about salvation of the early fathers: they saw that nearly nobody managed to live according to these standards and they concluded that most poeple were going to Hell.

      However, it’s impossible to deny that, given how many acts are covered by the sixth commandment, the sixth is by far the commandment that is violated easier, for you have to live like a semi-monk in order to respect it.

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is difficult to live a holy life in a sinful world. But we have a merciful and forgiving God, and all the benefits of the Church. So it is not impossible or heroic to avoid mortal sin.

  2. Awesome post about a very important issue and topic that Needs to be discussed. I like how you presented the information in a way that clearly shows why marriage the reasons behind are essential. You backed it up with clear Church teachings that really are rooted in natural law. We use NFP and truly admire God’s gift in marriage for us. Thanks!

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    Which of the objects does obtaining the pleasure of orgasm come under?

    • Ron Conte says:

      That end is in the circumstances of the act. The inherent moral meaning is not pleasure, but the marital, unitive, and procreative ends.

  4. Matt says:

    Ron, your post is the truth. Yet our society has become so far removed from the truth as fornication, adultery, and divorce is rampant in the western culture. Sex is no longer considered sacred and is used and discarded at will. There are now dating apps where you can simply hook up with someone anywhere anytime. These apps are apparently the ones most downloaded of any apps. We live in a society where the moral decay has become so rotten that we desperately need God’s intervention as soon as possible.

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