How the Basic Principles of Ethics apply to Marital Chastity

Proponents of marital unchastity, that is to say, persons who propose that certain kinds of sexual acts, traditionally called unnatural, are moral to use in Christian marriage, never explain the basic principles of ethics. And they never base their claims on those principles. If they tried to do so, all their arguments would fall apart.

What is an act?

Catholic moral teaching is based on human acts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor explain this at length. I will summarize as follows.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “1749 Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts. Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil.

1750 The morality of human acts depends on: – the object chosen; – the end in view or the intention; – the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the “sources,” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.”

A human act is an exercise of the gifts of free will (“freely chosen”) and intellect. The human person makes a deliberate choice based on knowledge and understanding in the intellect. Every deliberate knowing choice of the human person is an act, subject to the eternal moral law and a judgment of conscience.

Some acts are interior only, such as an act of faith, or conversely, an act of lust. Some acts are exterior. They begin with the interior choice of the free will, but they include an exterior action. But in every case, each knowing deliberate choice is an act.

Each act is comprised of three parts; these are the three fonts (or “sources”) of morality:

1. intention — the intended end; the purpose for which the act is chosen [cf. CCC 1752].
2. object — the end, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. This font consists of the deliberate knowing choice of a concrete act, its interior ordering (which is also called the moral nature or moral species of the act), and its object.
3. circumstances — the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.

Each act stands on its own as to its morality. The three fonts which spring up from each act are what determines whether it is moral or immoral.

Never is one act justified by another act. If you tell a lie, and then apologize, the lie was still objectively immoral. If you rob a bank, and then give the money to charity, the bank robbery was still immoral. Sometimes a set of acts occur in the same time and place, in similar circumstances. Even so, each act must have three good fonts in order to be moral.

If you actually read Veritatis Splendor, you will find that a human act, or “concrete act” (the act in a particular case), is a deliberate knowing choice, consisting of the three fonts of morality, as described above.

For the purpose of justifying certain choices in the marital bedroom, some persons have decided to claim that a series of choices, in the same place, within the same period of time, are one act. That claim is indefensible. It is a false premise chosen so as to justify acts which otherwise would be condemned as gravely immoral. The teaching of the Magisterium on morality does not allow a series of choices, which certainly can be done in a different order, or which can be done individually, one with or without the others, to be considered a single act. Each knowing deliberate choice is an act, which must stand on its own as to its morality.

This not-so-clever “it’s all one act” proposal is used to justify sexual acts which are inherently non-procreative and non-unitive, by combining them with at least one act of natural marital relations — the only sexual act which is marital, unitive, and procreative. They hope to justify the non-procreative non-unitive acts by combining them with the good act of natural intercourse. Then they can say that the “one act” (which is certainly a set of choices and so a set of acts) is procreative. That rhetorical trick was tried on Pope Paul VI, and he did not fall for it.

Humanae Vitae asks: “Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act?” And the answer is that non-procreative sexual acts cannot be said to “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.” [Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 3, 14.]

Can we not justify the use of unnatural sexual acts for the purpose of foreplay, the purpose of preparing for natural marital relations? The question is essentially implicitly asked and answered in Humanae Vitae. The answer is that the procreative finality must apply to “each single act”. One cannot merge a set of unnatural sexual acts, which are inherently non-procreative, with one or more procreative acts of past or future, as if this set of choices could “form a single entity” and then take its moral goodness from only the procreative acts. So a common claim of proponents of unnatural acts is refuted. Performing an unnatural sexual act in the same context as the natural act does not justify the former.

As you can see from the discussion and answer in Humanae Vitae, you cannot take a set of sexual acts and call them “one act” and then claim the “one act” is procreative. Instead, “each single act” (HV 3) must be marital, unitive, and procreative.

But what is a sexual act?

Since an act is a knowing deliberate choice, a sexual act is the knowing deliberate use of the sexual faculty. It is still a sexual act if climax is lacking? The USCCB says Yes.

“Masturbation, which is deliberate, erotic stimulation often to the point of orgasm, commonly occurs together with pornography use. While popular culture largely sees it as acceptable, masturbation is always gravely contrary to chastity and the dignity of one’s body.” [USCCB, Create In Me A Clean Heart”, III. Pornography’s link to other sins]

Masturbation is still a gravely immoral sexual act if climax is lacking. Saint Alphonsus Liguori agrees that a sexual act is still a sexual act, if climax is lacking:

“Whether it is a mortal sin for the husband to begin copulating in a disordered [or perverse] orifice, then afterward consummate the act in the proper orifice?”

“The reason is that this manner of his sexual act (even without climax) is truly sodomy, whether or not it is consummated, just as an act of copulation in the natural orifice of another woman is truly fornication, even if there is no climax.” [Full Article]

Adultery is still adultery, if climax is lacking. Rape is still rape, if climax is lacking. And so on. The idea that a sexual act, such as penetration of the mouth or anus or vagina, is not really a sexual act, unless climax occurs is absurd.

And what is more absurd is that some proponents of unchastity say that the wife can climax at any time, by any means. And they still don’t consider it a sexual act, if the wife climaxes, and the husband does not. That is just a disingenuous absurd rhetorical argument.

Any deliberate use of the genital sexual faculty is a per se sexual act. Such acts are ordered toward climax, even if climax does not always occur. By comparison, acts of ordinary foreplay, such as kissing and hugging, are not ordered toward climax, so they are not per se sexual acts.

“the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.” [CDF, Persona Humana, IX.]

That quote refers specifically to masturbation. But it applies to any per se sexual act in the sense that every sexual act is a deliberate use of the sexual faculty. And if that use “contradicts the finality of the faculty”, i.e. the use is not ordered toward procreation, it is intrinsically evil.

But as we saw from Humanae Vitae, you can’t combine non-procreative non-unitive sexual acts with an act of “normal conjugal relations” in order to justify the former by the latter. Each act must stand on its own as to its morality, including sexual acts.

“The conjugal union is ordered to procreation ‘by its very nature’…. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning….” [Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, n. 80.]

Each knowing deliberate choice to “use” the genital sexual faculty in some type of sexual behavior is a sexual act. Any act, sexual or not, must have three good fonts. And, for sexual acts to be moral, each act must be marital, unitive, and procreative.

Now I’ve already explained that the Magisterium does have teachings which forbid unnatural sexual acts in marriage: Church Teaching on Unnatural Acts in Marriage. First, there is the teaching that each single sexual act must be unitive and procreative. Then there is the teaching that a set of acts cannot be merged, so that they would be considered procreative as a set, even when some individual acts are non-procreative. Then there is the teaching, quoted above, from Amoris Laetitia. Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii says that, for marital sex to be moral, the couple must ensure “the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved”, otherwise, they would be “acting against nature”. Finally, Pope Pius XII in Address to Midwives speaks against “a ‘technique’ of conjugal activity which will not give rise to maternity”, which is a discrete reference to non-procreative sexual acts (i.e. unnatural acts).

I don’t know how anyone can continue to claim that the Church is silent on this issue. Does the Magisterium have to publish a sex manual, with drawings of various sexual positions, and a red circle with a slash through the unnatural sexual acts? Or maybe the Church should to a 1950’s style black-and-white PSA on marital unchastity. There is enough information from the Magisterium, and from the Saints and Doctors, and from the basic principles of ethics to determine that these acts, traditionally called unnatural, are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

More on marital chastity in my book: The Catholic Marriage Bed

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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2 Responses to How the Basic Principles of Ethics apply to Marital Chastity

  1. Matt Z. says:

    This post is well laid out and refutes Christopher West, who is very popular in Catholic circles to this day. I remember years ago reading Chritopher Wests book The Good News on Sex and Marriage because I wanted to learn more about St.JPII Theology of the body. I promoted West and his book and even gave the book away to a friend. I am so sorry for doing so. West makes good points on the problem of contraception but makes huge errors in Catholic sexual morality. Having the internet, and chat rooms, message boards, social media, uncountable websites, we Catholics have to be careful of what we read. Its a great blessing but can be a curse if we dont have true knowledge of our faith.

    • Ron Conte says:

      West is almost universally cited when people promote the error of approving of unnatural acts. That is not a good legacy. I would not want to be in his shoes when being judged by God.

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