A discussion or debate on marital sexual ethics unfolded on Twitter over the past couple of days. David Robert Gordon (@DavidRobertGor1) engaged me (@RonConte) on this topic, but it’s difficult to present a theological argument in a series of tweets. So I’m summarizing my position and reply to some objections here.
David Robert Gordon describes himself in his Twitter profile as: “Lawyer, theologian, author, sportsman, family man.” His Patreon site states he has an MA in theology, and has two books in the works on theology, co-authored with his brother Tim Gordon (of “TnT” YouTube video fame). One is a book “decrying the lie of “Christian” feminism”, and the other is “on how to take the culture back from heathen radicals”.
My background is here. My book on marital sexual ethics is The Catholic Marriage Bed, and is available this weekend (Nov 16 and 17, 2019) for free from Amazon in Kindle format here. Chapter titles are as follows:
1: The Basic Principles of Ethics
2: The Teaching of the Saints
3: The Teaching of John Paul II
4: The Teaching of the Bible
5: The Teaching of the Church
6: The Teaching of Priests and Theologians
7: A Long List of Claims
8: The So-called “One Rule”
9: No Rules for the Wife?
10: The “One Act” Claim
11: Heribert Jone Is No Expert
12: West Misquotes Saint Alphonsus
13: An Alleged Consensus
14: Smith on Marital Foreplay
15: Licit Marital Foreplay
16: The Harm Done to Marriage
David Robert Gordon began this discussion with this tweet:
“Ron, did you, a neo-Puritan who manufactures rigorist edicts on conjugal sexuality out of thin air in contradiction to the Church’s finest moral theologians and explicit pontifical statements, leaning only on his BA degree, just accuse people of issuing pseudo-dogmas? Pot/kettle.”
Rather than repeat my tweets, I’ll give a more lengthy reply in this post.
Many of Gordon’s tweets to me on the topic were largely rhetorical, and some contained name-calling and personal attacks. I will not reply in kind, but will simply point out this is mere rhetoric.
My position on marital sexual ethics is the same as that of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, and the same as the teachings of Saints Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, and Francis de Sales as well. In addition,
I disagree with nothing they all say. So my position is not puritanical or rigorist, nor am I issuing edits “out of thin air”. Moreover, these Saints are all Doctors of the Church, and they are all “the Church’s finest moral theologians”, while Saint Alphonsus Liguori is THE Church’s finest moral theologian. So to ignore the Saints and Doctors, while rhetorically exaggerating the status in the Church of modern theologians is self-contradictory. If you wish to learn from the Church’s finest moral theologians, they are the Saints and Doctors, especially Liguori.
Note that Pope Saint John Paul II requires every marital sexual act to be unitive and procreative, and this is true across his magisterial teachings as well as his private theology in the theology of the body lectures and his book Love and Responsibility. And his magisterial teachings on the basic principles of ethics make the position of persons who approve of unnatural sexual acts as foreplay entirely untenable. Each act must have three good fonts of morality, and intrinsically evil acts are never justified. This applies to sexual acts as well as to any other human acts.
The so-called “explicit pontifical statements” turned out to be that misquote falsely attributed to Pius XII, as I found out later. There are not “explicit pontifical statements” approving of the “one rule” or the use of unnatural sexual acts as foreplay or the wife’s climax outside the natural act. And the true quote from Pius XII on this topic condemns climax for husband or wife outside the natural marital act as intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.
In addition, my book has 50 pages of discussion on magisterial teaching all of which condemns unnatural sexual acts in marriage, regardless of purpose or context. So I am not leaning only on my BA (philosophy/theology), nor am I making things up out of thin air.
On the other side of this debate, most proponents of unnatural acts merely state what they think is moral or immoral, without any theological argument, and certainly without discussion the teachings of Scripture, Saints, and the Magisterium that I discuss. That is edicts out of thin air.
Gordon: “But thank you. You actually just gave me an idea for our next show.”
I believe the show he references is here: RULES FOR RETROGRADES on YouTube, with his brother Tim Gordon.
David R Gordon: “Lol. I’ve read your arguments. You contradict Pius XII, who says that the freedom in the marital bed is great as long as the man’s seed ends in the right place. You parse every single kiss during the marital act from the act itself, taking it upon yourself to outlaw foreplay.”
That quote is actually from British analytical philosopher GEM Anscombe: A Quote on Marriage misattributed to Pope Pius XII. And interestingly, it is usually falsely referenced as from the Pius XII Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility — in which the Pontiff actually states the opposite of the Anscombe quote.
Also, I do not outlaw foreplay. My book has an entire chapter: “Licit Marital Foreplay”. But according to the basic principles of ethics taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, each human act has three fonts of morality (intention, object, circumstances) and each act must have three good fonts to be moral. Foreplay is no exception. Some acts of foreplay are moral, and others are immoral. In particular, intrinsically evil sexual acts are gravely immoral to use, even in marriage, for the purpose of foreplay, about the same time as a good act of natural marital relations.
I’m going to skip over some tweets that are redundant, or to which I have essentially replied above or below. But Gordon did use some personal attacks and negative rhetoric, such as “It’s sheer nuttery. I don’t know what is behind your daft and indefensible position…” And my reply is that I have the same position on marital sexual ethics as Saint Alphonsus Liguori, and I am presenting the teachings of Sacred Scripture, the Saints, John Paul II, and the Magisterium on this topic, not some unique position of my own. Also, my book reviews 11 different priests and theologians who have similar positions. (I don’t know if they agree on every point.)
Gordon: “Anytime climax happens outside the right place, it’s sinful (pollution).”
Yes, it would be sinful (if deliberate of course). However, Gordon later approves of climax for the wife while the spouses are not one flesh and when there is no procreative finality. So he contradicts himself.
By the way, Fr. Chad Ripperger agrees that pollution outside the natural act is gravely immoral for the wife as well as for the husband.
Ripperger : “Among the married, some kinds of foreplay are permissible, and some are not.”
“Pollution also applies to women…. the same actually applies to women as does to men. I know that some moralists say that it’s okay for women to … reach climax outside the context of [marital sex] and that it’s fine as long as the male doesn’t do it. But the moralists … the Saints and those who’ve written based on the Saints say that that’s not the case…. because God condemned Onanism in the Old Testament, you can’t engage in anything that is basically on the level of Onanism, and so you have to be very careful about observing that.”
So my position is not unique, and is found among Catholic theologians today, as well as in past times.
Gordon: “I’ve read your stuff. I don’t have much time for a whole Twitter debate. How about we debate it on my show or in front of a live audience? Consider the gauntlet thrown down. I’ll whup you and end your nonsense for good. You game?”
He has not read (yet) my book “The Catholic Marriage Bed: Revised Edition” which was just released. He must have read some older posts or articles some years ago.
I declined his offer for a debate on a live show. I think this topic requires written theological arguments. Mine are in many articles at Catechism.cc and in my book The Catholic Marriage Bed. Gordon has no book or articles (AFAIK) on this topic. Also, his heavy use of negative rhetoric and personal attacks, as well as his repeated false statements on this topic lead me to conclude that I should not participate in such a live debate.
Gordon: “lol. You just don’t want to get pwned and lose the rest of your credibility. You just make stuff up and call it Church teaching. Back to fooling the rubes. I know you know what Jone says and reject it out of hand.”
What theologian speaks this way? Across several tweets: “pwned, fooling the rubes, the gauntlet thrown down, whup you, you game?, sheer nuttery, lol, daft, neo-Puritan, pot/kettle”.
But soon afterward, Fr. Dave Nix, whose position seems to be similar to my own, offered to debate Gordon.
Fr. Nix to Gordon: “Quote me on this thread and debate me. I’ll take you on publicly or privately, as I said.”
And Gordon’s reply was silence (as far as I know). Perhaps they will debate at some time. Fr. Nix also cited Fr. Hugh Barbour on this topic, whose position is also similar to my own and contrary to Gordon, Christopher West, et alia.
“And I suppose you don’t like Prummer either? The argument from silence is also incredibly strong. If foreplay leading up to unitive climax were wrong, don’t you think the Magisterium would have mentioned it like ever?”
“The argument from silence?” Okay. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote and spoke extensively on marital sexual ethics, and he never once approved of the use of unnatural sexual acts in marriage, even as foreplay, even without male climax. Never did he approve of the wife’s climax outside the natural act either. He instead requires each sexual act to be unitive and procreative.
Why have recourse to a subset of recent or not-so-recent theologians, when other theologians disagree AND the Saints, Doctors and Magisterium also disagree?
Not all foreplay is immoral. And the Magisterium has frequently taught on this subject, as explained at length in chapter 5 of my book. Recent theologians who disagree with the use of unnatural sexual acts in marriage are discussed in chapter 6 of my book. Basically, a small number of theologians disagree with the Saints, the Magisterium, and other theologians.
Gordon: “St Augustine was a great theologian too, and he thought all sexuality at least venially sinful.”
No, he did not. Venial sins often arise in daily life, period. These types of sins are called “light and daily” by the Council of Trent. But Augustine did not hold that all sexuality in marriage was at least venial.
Gordon to Fr. Nix: “Father, I meant no disrespect. I recently read your great article on 15 sins Catholics aren’t confessing. https://padreperegrino.org/2019/08/mortalsins/. You said oral sex in marriage is a mortal sin. Sin #5. Imperfect acts of oral sex leading up to the full unitive acts are not a sin.”
“I didn’t mean you were on a heterodox side. I just meant you fell more in with Conte’s position on this one issue.”
Yes, oral sex in marriage, performed on either the husband or the wife, is a mortal sin. Repent and confess, just as Fr. Nix said.
Also, Gordon misrepresents his own position here. Elsewhere, he approve of oral sex to completion on the wife, so above he must be speaking only of the husband. My reply is that the teaching of Saint Alphonsus Liguori and of the Magisterium is that intrinsically evil sexual acts remain intrinsically evil with or without climax. This is proven in chapter 5 of my book, subsection 2. “An incomplete sexual act (i.e. lacking climax) is still a sexual act.”
That chapter has nine subsections, each proving its own point from clear magisterial teachings:
1. A sexual act is any deliberate use of the sexual faculty.
2. An incomplete sexual act (i.e. lacking climax) is still a sexual act.
3. Even in marriage, completed sexual acts must occur only in the natural marital act.
4. To be moral, a sexual act must be marital, unitive, and procreative.
5. The morality of sexual acts is based on each single act, not a set of acts.
6. Unnatural sexual acts are specifically condemned by the Magisterium within marriage.
7. Masturbation is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.
8. Contracepted sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.
9. Homosexual sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.
Gordon then cited Heribert Jone and provided an image from his book of moral theology.
My book has a chapter reviewing the work of Jone and proving that his positions on sexual ethics are false, absurd, contrary to reason, and contrary to magisterial teaching. Jone is not a Saint or Doctor, not a Pope or Bishop, and is work predates many magisterial teachings on this subject. Why reference him? It is only because he states, in a few places, approval for unnatural sexual acts in marriage without any theological argument nor any reference to Church teaching. These are baseless claims by a theologian writing in the 1920’s.
De bono conjugali 6:6
Gordon: “That would be theological opinion though. All the magisterial pronouncements that I’ve ever seen seem to favor my position. Also just logic favors me. The body is good. Within marriage, as long as the act taken together with all its parts is unitive and procreative, it’s ok.”
Then you haven’t read the relevant magisterial teachings. “logic”? The basic principles of ethics teach that an act which is intrinsically evil to do on its own, as these unnatural sexual acts are widely admitted to be, remain intrinsically evil when done about the same time as another act, or when done for a different purpose (such as that of foreplay) or in a different context or circumstance.
The Magisterium specifically rejects the claim that a set of acts can be grouped together, for the purpose of moral evaluation, as a set, such that only one or some of the acts need be unitive and procreative. Humanae Vitae is very clear on this point — “each single act” (meaning each single sexual act in a marriage) must be unitive and procreative [HV 3, 14]. The “principle of totality” which would group together sexual acts is rejected by Pope Saint Paul VI. And other magisterial documents as well as the private theology of John Paul II say the same thing.
The body is good. But it can be misused, especially in the area of human sexuality, for grave sin. Jesus Christ did not establish the Sacrament of holy Matrimony for the purpose of justifying intrinsically evil sexual acts.
“Answer me this: why would it be wrong to caress your spouse’s body? Are certain parts “bad”? Note, I’m no moral theology slouch. I TA’d an undergrad moral theo class in grad school, and I still haven’t heard a decent argument against foreplay.”
Again, foreplay is not necessarily immoral, nor is it necessarily moral. The idea that a sexual act becomes justified merely because it is used for the purpose of foreplay (i.e. it has one good font, that of intention) is not sufficient to prove the act more. Three good fonts are needed. And intrinsically evil sexual acts remain gravely immoral even without climax, even with a good intention.
Different parts of the human body have different meanings, so kissing or touching those parts also has different meanings. Kissing the genitals is not the same as kissing the mouth or face of your spouse. “Kissing” or touching the genitals is a per se sexual act because it stimulates the genitals directly, and therefore is ordered toward climax apart from the unitive and procreative ends — even if climax happens not to occur. Such acts are also a near occasion of mortal sin, since attempts to engage in non-consummated unnatural sexual acts may result in pollution or even in a decision, in the moment, to commit a consummated unnatural act.
And intrinsically evil sexual acts, even without climax, are still intrinsically evil as they still lack the unitive and procreative. One act cannot borrow the fonts of another act. The proximity in time and place of two acts, an unnatural act of foreplay and the natural marital act, does not justify the former as it is intrinsically evil. It cannot take the unitive and procreative ends from the subsequent (or a prior) act.
FrDave Nix liked a Tweet you were mentioned in
I would heed the Doctor of Moral Theology’s opinion. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Magisterial pronouncement directly addressing the question of oral stimulation. St. Alphonsus provides that.
It is not true that this position is my own idea, or that it is held only by heterodox theologians.
Underground Catholicism – Dig deeper (@ElijahElishaRap) then wrote this tweet, in answer to Gordon’s question “Answer me this: why would it be wrong to caress your spouse’s body?”
“Because there’s a chance of pollution. My wife wrote her thesis on this very topic in which Dr Robert Fastiggi was her thesis director and approved of her position.”
Dr. Fastiggi is one of two editors of the current edition of Denzinger. He is a supporter of Pope Francis against claims that Francis has failed in faith. He teaches systematic theology as Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
Gordon: “You’re resorting to wordplay to cover your bad theology. “Outside” the sexual act doesn’t mean parsing every kiss/touch from the act of penetration. One sexual act subsumes/incorporates all of its component parts. Stimulation is licit when not wholly divorced from intercourse.”
Pius XII is very clear in condemning any acts to climax, even on the wife, even just before the natural marital act by manual touches (the common act that moral theologians discuss before natural marital relations on the wife), even just after the interruption of the act. If Pius XII actually had the same position as Dave Gordon, that of considering all these acts to be “one sexual act”, his position would make no sense. And the same is true for Pius XII’s teaching in Address to Midwives, where he specifically condemns the idea that acts done in the preparation (i.e. foreplay) are justified by one normal performance of the act itself [n. 68].
The Church has never taught that “One sexual act subsumes/incorporates all of its component parts”, nor that “Stimulation is licit when not wholly divorced from intercourse.” Instead, the Magisterium has condemned this principle of totality, that a set of deliberate knowing choices constitutes “one sexual act” for purposes of moral evaluation.
This truth was taught by Pope Pius XII in his Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility:
“By the force of this law of nature, the human person does not possess the right and power to the full exercise of the sexual faculty, directly intended, except when he performs the conjugal act according to the norms defined and imposed by nature itself. Outside of this natural act, it is not even given within the matrimonial right itself to enjoy this sexual faculty fully. These are the limits to the particular right of which we are speaking, and they circumscribe its use according to nature…”
“What has been said up to this point concerning the intrinsic evil of any full use of the generative power outside the natural conjugal act applies in the same way when the acts are of married persons or of unmarried persons, whether the full exercise of the genital organs is done by the man or the woman, or by both parties acting together; whether it is done by manual touches or by the interruption of the conjugal act; for this is always an act contrary to nature and intrinsically evil.”
Therefore, the idea of using unnatural sexual acts (oral, anal, manual, sex toys) on the wife to completion is condemned by the Magisterium. And the above teaching would make no sense of Pius thought that acts of foreplay are morally one act with the natural marital act. Instead, he speaks of any use to climax “outside the natural conjugal act”, even at its interruption.
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.” Rather, each single sexual act in a marriage must be unitive and procreative. This answer implies a condemnation not only of all forms of contraception, but also all forms of unnatural sexual acts.
USCCB Catechism: “Each and every sexual act in a marriage needs to be open to the possibility of conceiving a child.”
Pastoral Letter of the U.S. Bishops: “A marriage is only as open to procreation as each act of intercourse is, because the whole meaning of marriage is present and signified in each marital act. Each marital act signifies, embodies, and renews the original and enduring marital covenant between husband and wife.”
In Address to Midwives, Pius XII condemns any ” ‘technique’ of conjugal activity which will not give rise to maternity.” In other words, he condemns all non-procreative sexual acts.
Pius XII in Address to Midwives: “This anti-Christian hedonism too often is not ashamed to elevate itself to a doctrine, inculcating the ardent desire to make always more intense the pleasure, in the preparation and in the performance of the conjugal union, as if in matrimonial relations the whole moral law were reduced to the normal performance of the act itself, and as if all the rest, in whatever way it is done, were justified by the expression of mutual affection, were sanctified by the Sacrament of Matrimony, and made worthy of praise and reward before God and conscience. There is no thought at all of the dignity of man and of the Christian — a dignity which restrains the excess of sensuality.” [n. 68]
Acts done “in the preparation” are not justified merely because there is one “normal performance of the act itself”. Thus, the Magisterium teaches that acts of foreplay are not necessarily moral.
In Persona Humana, the CDF teaches: “whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.”
This was in reference to the sin of masturbation, but it applies to all other intrinsically evil sexual acts. No matter what the purpose or motive may be (even the purpose of foreplay), any deliberate knowing choice to use the sexual faculty, outside of the natural marital act, is gravely immoral because it “essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.” That finality is the procreative end. Unnatural sexual acts are inherently non-procreative and non-unitive. So they cannot be justified by intention, circumstances, or by being done along with other acts.
Gordon: “You should post an article by St. Augustine about why all marital intercourse is venially sinful at least. It would be every bit as authoritative—and more ancient.”
I replied to Dave Gordon with a quote from St. Augustine proving that he did not teach that “all marital intercourse is venially sinful at least.”
@RonConte: Augustine “In marriage, intercourse for the purpose of generation has *no fault* attached to it, but for the purpose of satisfying concupiscence, provided with a spouse,…is a venial sin; adultery or fornication, however, is a mortal sin.” [De bono coniugali 6;6].”
Gordon claimed that I was “proof-texting”, which apparently is a term meaning proving someone wrong with a quote. He then changed his claim about Augustine.
The argument he was trying to make was that Augustine was supposedly wrong, so he and other Saints can be ignored. It turns out Augustine did not say what Gordon claimed. But also, though Saints can be mistaken, on this topic all the Saints and Doctors who have opined agree and so does Scripture and the Magisterium.
Gordon: “Giving one’s spouse pleasure isn’t bad/unnatural. It’s good and natural….”
Saint Alphonsus Liguori says it’s a mortal sin outside of the natural marital act. Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, and Francis de Sales also condemn such acts. Pope Pius XII teaches that a sexual act to climax (we are talking about venereal pleasure) other than the natural marital act “is always an act contrary to nature and intrinsically evil.” So you are contradicting the Magisterium.
You are also rejecting the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on the basic principles of ethics. Each deliberate knowing choice is an act; each act is moral only if it has three good fonts. So the mere fact that an act results in “giving one’s spouse pleasure” proves none of the fonts to be good. The mere search for pleasure, apart from the unitive and procreative ends, is called “lust” by the Catechism. Thus, a sexual act is not proven to be “good and natural” by the mere fact that a spouse enjoys it.
CCC: “Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.”
So, Dave Gordon, an act which gives one’s spouse pleasure is not proven to be moral by that very fact. It may in fact be an act of lust. And when St. Thomas Aquinas writes on this subject, it is under the heading of “the parts of lust”.
A completed unnatural sexual act on one’s wife is in fact and in Catholic teaching “isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes” and is therefore an act of lust, not a good and natural act.
Gordon: “…You argue that direct genital pleasure can only come from the intercourse itself, which is something the Church doesn’t teach. In the penumbra of the unitive/procreative act stimulation can be oral/manual.”
False. It is taught by the Church in Her many expressions of the teaching that each marital sexual act, which Humanae Vitae even called “each single act”, must be unitive and procreative. Only natural intercourse is unitive and procreative. Pius XII absolutely condemns as intrinsically evil any, as you call it, direct genital pleasure outside of that one-flesh act which is procreative. The CCC calls that type of pleasure, outside of natural marital relations, “lust” and “disordered”.
When such sexual acts are performed by same-sex couples, they are called “acts of grave depravity” by the CCC. So how can essentially the same acts become “good and natural”? They cannot. Traditional Catholic moral theology calls the same-sex acts sodomia perfecta, and the similar acts by man and woman, or by husband and wife, sodomia imperfecta. And that term applies to any “unfit vessel”, not only to the posterior vessel.
The claim about a “penumbra” (shadow) of the unitive and procreative act is false. It is condemned by the above quoted teachings. An act in moral theology is a deliberate knowing choice. An act outside of the unitive and procreative act is not justified by its shadow — something the Church has never taught. Rather, the Church condemns “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations.”
In fact, oral and manual sexual acts, with or without climax, are traditionally referred to along with anal acts as types of sodomy.
St. Alphonsus: “Every sexual act is true sodomy which either entails the union of bodies taking place with a person of the same sex, or in a vas praeposterum, or in another part; for then, speaking plainly, the disposition to an undue sex is always present….”
A “vas praeposterum” is a disordered vessel, that is to say, any orifice used for sex other than the natural one (the vagina). Notice that the sin occurs when there is sexual “union of bodies”, without regard to whether climax occurs. Saint Alphonsus calls every type of unnatural sex act a type of “true sodomy”. And in his teaching later (Book VI, n. 916), on unconsummated unnatural sexual acts as marital foreplay, he condemns all such acts as mortal sins and as sodomy. So the fact that the acts are used in heterosexual marriage, and are used as foreplay before the natural act, and lack climax, still does not justify this type of act. It remains a true type of sodomy, which is a mortal sin.
Well, after this, there were still more tweets on both sides. But I think the above texts cover all the main points.
My position on marital sexual ethics, as expressed in my book The Catholic Marriage Bed: Revised Edition, is not my own idea. It is the teaching of the Church on the basic principles of ethics and on marital sexual ethics. It is the teaching of the Saints and Doctors of the Church, as well as Sacred Scripture. And it is a teaching followed by many orthodox priests and theologians. Objections to this teaching are easily refuted by reference to those sources.
Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.