Dr. Robert Fastiggi on Marital Sexual Ethics

Dr. Fastiggi posted a comment on this blog after a post about a debate I had on Twitter on marital sexual ethics. The information he presented is noteworthy, so I’ve decided to write this brief article offering the whole text and discussing its value.

Dr. Fastiggi’s background, taken from his page as Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where he teaches Systematic Theology, is as follows:

“A.B. (Religion), Dartmouth College, 1974;
“M.A. (Theology), Fordham University, 1976;
“Ph.D. (Historical Theology), Fordham University, 1987.

“Bio / Information:
“At SHMS 1999-

“During his time at Sacred Heart, Dr. Fastiggi has taught courses in Ecclesiology, Christology, Mariology, church history, sacramental theology, and moral theology.

“He served as the executive editor of the 2009-2013 supplements to the New Catholic Encyclopedia and the co-editor of the English translation of the 43rd edition of the Denzinger-Hünermann compendium published by Ignatius Press in 2012. He also revised and updated the translation of Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma for Baronius Press in 2018.”

Dr. Robert Fastiggi: In 2009 I published a book entitled “What the Church Teaches about Sex” with Our Sunday Visitor. When the book went out of print, I had it reprinted with Wipf and Stock in 2017 under the title “Catholic Sexual Morality.”

In my Preface to the 2017 edition, I discussed the issue of anal penetration, and I cited the Jesuit, Tomas Sanchez (1550-1610), and St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). I’ve copied below what I said about anal penetration in the 2017 Preface.

I should mention that since then, I’ve come to believe that the 1916 Response of the Sacred Penitentiary rules out anal penetration as a means of foreplay because what is condemned as “against nature” is for the spouses to unite in this sodomitic manner. Nothing is said about justifying such sodomitic union if semination is intended to take place in the vagina.

My comments: In his tome Moral Theology, Saint Alphonsus Liguori often cites Sanchez as a reliable source on Catholic ethics, a source with whom he often agrees. So Liguori and Sanchez are clearly more reliable sources on marital sexual ethics than, say, Jone and Merkelbach, or West and Popcak. And Dr. Fastiggi’s credentials are unimpeachable.

In 1916, the Sacred Penitentiary, also called the Apostolic Penitentiary, during the Pontificate of Benedict XV, answered some questions on unnatural sexual acts in marriage. The first part of the April 3, 1916, decision condemns any act by the husband which culminates in his climax outside of the natural act. That point is not a matter of controversy today. All agree that unnatural sexual acts which end with climax for the husband outside of the natural act are gravely immoral. The second part of that decision is as follows:

“If, however, the husband wishes to commit the crime of the Sodomites with her, since sodomitic intercourse is against nature on the part of both spouses who are united in this way and, in the judgment of all the learned teachers, is gravely evil, there is clearly no motive, not even to avoid death, that would permit the wife legitimately to carry out such a shameless act with her husband.” [Denzinger 3634 from the 43rd edition (2012)]

Dr. Fastiggi is co-editor of that edition of Denzinger. His understanding as a Catholic theologian, scholar, and editor is that “anal penetration as a means of foreplay” is included in this moral prohibition, as what is condemned is not male climax in vase indebito but the mere union of the spouses’ bodies in this way. No exception is made for non-consummated acts followed by natural marital relations.

I add that the act is said by the Holy See to be “against nature”, and this implies that the act is intrinsically evil, as does the use of the term “shameless”. And since the act is “gravely evil”, it is an objective mortal sin for the spouses. The wife is not excused as if she were merely a passive recipient, according to Romans:

{1:32} And these, though they had known the justice of God, did not understand that those who act in such a manner are deserving of death, and not only those who do these things, but also those who consent to what is done.

The phrase “deserving of death” does not imply the death penalty in Christianity for grave sexual sins, but rather that the acts are mortal sin; they kill the state of grace in the soul (when done with full knowledge and full deliberation).

Now when the Holy See says that no motive, not even death, permits this type of act, this implies the conclusion asserted by Dr. Fastiggi, that the motive of preparing for natural marital relations does not justify this type of sexual act. If the motive to avoid death does not permit the act, then nothing does. So the purpose or motive of foreplay, i.e. the intention to follow the sodomitic act with semination in the vagina, cannot justify that or any other intrinsically evil sexual act. But this point is also implied by the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on the basic principles of ethics, that neither intention (also called motive or purpose) nor circumstances can justify any intrinsically evil act.

Notice that the Holy See presents this decision on marital sexual ethics as not only a decision of Church authority, but also as the common opinion of orthodox theologians. For the act is condemned “in the judgment of all the learned teachers.” This refutes claims such as that most orthodox theologians approve the act, or that there is a broad consensus or longstanding “tradition” of orthodox theologians who approve. I should also point out that the internet (and certain speakers or authors) tend to give great weight to any theologian who approves these sexual acts between spouses, and tends to ignore those whose judgment accords with “all the learned teachers”.

Dr. Fastiggi: I also should mention that in his original text of “De Matrimonio” Sanchez believed oral sex and anal sex as preparations for normal marital intercourse were only venial sins. His book, though, was submitted to the Jesuit censors (one of whom was St. Robert Bellarmine). The Jesuit censors, after Sanchez’s death in 1610, ordered corrections to be made to “De Matrimonio,” and one of the corrections was to specify that oral sex or anal sex as preparations for marital intercourse are by their nature mortal sins (see Stefania Tutino, “Uncertainty in Post-Reformation Catholicism: A History of Probabilism” [Oxford University Press, 2018] p. 95).

Saint Alphonsus Liguori taught that oral and anal sex, even absent male climax as foreplay, are mortal sins [On Matrimony, Book VI, n. 491-492; n. 916]. Sanchez wrote that these were venial sins. However, his book, as it stood at the time of Liguori, stated that these acts (oral or anal “stimulation”, as they say) are mortal sins. And the reason for the change is that Saint Robert Bellarmine and other Jesuit censors corrected Sanchez according to the common theological opinion. Note also that, in 1602, Bellarmine became Archbishop of Capua. So his participation in this correction is not solely that of a private theologian.

Now Dr. Fastiggi states that “one of the corrections was to specify that oral sex or anal sex as preparations for marital intercourse are by their nature mortal sins.” Acts which are mortal sins by their nature are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. And intrinsically evil acts do not become moral due to good intended end, such as to prepare for marital intercourse. And this decision encompasses not only sodomitic intercourse (in the narrow sense of anal sex) but also oral sex, as both body cavities are unfit vessels for intercourse.

Dr. Fastiggi continues: I hope this information is of some use. Below is the section from my 2017 preface to “Catholic Sexual Morality:”

“Another topic that generated some questions was my brief paragraph discussing the possibility of anal-genital stimulation as a form of foreplay for married couples (p. 111). In treating this delicate topic of marital chastity I chose to summarize the views of Christopher West and John Kippley, who question such a practice on the grounds of hygiene and marital sensitivity. One person, though, thought I should have rejected such behavior in an absolute manner as a form of sodomy. Others, on the contrary, thought I should have mentioned that several respected Catholic moralists (e.g. Benedict Merkelbach, O.P.) have maintained that anal penetration could be justified in marriage as long as it is done for a sufficient reason devoid of sodomitic desire with the act being completed in the proper conjugal manner (cf. Benedict Merkelbach, O.P., Quaestiones de Castitate et Luxuria 4th ed. [Liège, 1936], p. 110).

“Because of the unexpected interest in this topic, I decided to do some further research. In terms of magisterial teaching, the Sacred Penitentiary in 1916 rejected any recourse to “the crime of the Sodomites” by married couples (Denz.-H, 3634). This act was described as “against nature on the part of both spouses” and “gravely evil.” This rejection of marital sodomy, however, seemed to assume that act would be completed in the anal cavity rather than in the normal marital manner. For some, this left open the possibility of anal penetration as a means of foreplay in accordance with the stipulations of Merkelbach and others.

“In doing further research, I was surprised to discover how openly this topic was discussed in moral manuals going back to the 17th century. For example, Tomás Sánchez, S.J. (1550-1610) in his treatise, De Matrimonio (1603), believed it was a mortal sin for a husband to initiate intercourse in the anal cavity of his wife even if this is used as a prelude to marital intercourse (De Matrimonio, Liber IX, Disputatio XVII [Venice: Apud Ioannem Guerilium, 1614, Vol. II] p. 222). St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787), in Theologia Moralis, Book VI, Tract VI (De Matrimonio) no. 916, raises the question: “An peccet mortaliter vir inchoando copulam in vase praepostero, ut postea in vase debito eam consummet?” [Does a man sin mortally by initiating intercourse in the anal cavity in order that he may later consummate it in the proper receptacle?]. Liguori mentions a few theologians who deny that this is a mortal sin, but he upholds the opinion of Tomás Sánchez and others on this question as “communiter et verius … quia ipse hujusmodi coitus (etsi absque seminatione) est vera sodomia, quamvis non consummata” [as the more common and true [opinion]… because this manner of intercourse—even if semination is absent—is true sodomy, albeit not consummated].

“For Sanchez and Liguori there was no question of such initial anal penetration being acceptable. The only question was whether it was a venial sin or a mortal sin; and both believed it was a mortal sin. Merkelbach thought such anal stimulation could be allowed for a sufficient reason: for example, when the husband could not otherwise be aroused sexually. On this question, I find the opinion of Sanchez and Liguori much more persuasive than that of Merkelbach. If a husband needs to be sexually aroused by anal penetration then he seems to have an inclination toward the act of sodomy, which is rejected by Scripture (e.g. Gen 18: 20–21; 19:7; 1 Cor 6:9) and Catholic tradition. This consideration, combined with the factors of hygiene and marital love, give good reason for rejecting any anal penetration as a means of marital foreplay.”

The above text is from the preface of Dr. Fastiggi’s book Catholic Sexual Morality [2017 edition].

To my mind, the fact that Fastiggi previously held a different view, and then changed it to conform to the position of Saint Alphonsus Liguori and the Sacred Penitentiary, shows that he has thoroughly considered the opposing (and rather popular) point of view. He is familiar with the arguments on both sides.

Dr. Fastiggi has changed his position to agree with that of Saint Alphonsus Liguori and Tomas Sanchez [in the corrected text]. In his updated comments, even more recent than the 2017 edition (early in this article), Fastiggi notes that this position is not only that of Liguori and Sanchez, but agrees with his current understanding of the decision of the Sacred Penitentiary. For that text prohibits this act whenever the spouses are united in this way, and not only if male climax occurs. No exception is made for a subsequent act of natural marital relations. And the condemnation implies that the act is intrinsically evil, which then could not be justified by the intention to complete the natural marital act later. Furthermore, all motives to the contrary are excluded, even the motive to avoid death.

Moreover, sodomy is rejected by Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Is anal penetration as foreplay excluded from the definition of sodomy? Not in the view of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, who says that even without semination, the act is still truly sodomy, just as fornication without semination is still fornication.

Saint Alphonsus: “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.” [On Matrimony, Book VI, Q. 916]

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….” [Moral Theology, Book IV, n. 466]

Since anal penetration is still sodomy without make climax, St. Alphonsus judges that “the disposition to an undue sex” is always objectively present in the act itself. This refutes the opinion of Merkelbach and West, who claim that the act is moral when the person lacks a subjective disposition toward sodomy (the sodomitic emotion).

Other factors are also noteworthy, including that the act involves serious hygiene problems. Women are taught to wipe from front to back, so that bacteria and fecal material from the anus does not move to the vagina, and to pee after natural intercourse, to lessen the likelihood of a urinary tract infection. Anal penetration as a prelude to natural marital relations (excluding a condom in the latter as its use would be gravely immoral) does far more to cause such problems.

As for the conflict between such acts and true expressions of marital love, Lawler, Boyle, and May, in Catholic Sexual Ethics (3rd edition) state that: “the goods of marriage cannot be properly pursued in masturbatory, oral, and anal sexual activity on the part of married couples.” [p. 245]. An act of non-consummated sodomy is not the type of bodily act which fittingly expresses marital love, as it is devoid of the unitive and procreative meanings, which makes the act also not truly marital. Thus, it lacks all three good objects found in the natural marital act: the marital, unitive, and procreative ends.

Note: As I explained in my book, when I quote any priest or theologian on marital sexual ethics: “Each author’s position is nothing other than what they have plainly stated.” Inclusion of Dr. Fastiggi’s position in this article does not imply that he agrees with me on all points of marital sexual ethics, nor other subjects. His book Catholic Sexual Morality is available from Wipf and Stock here or from Amazon here.

— Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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3 Responses to Dr. Robert Fastiggi on Marital Sexual Ethics

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,

    Thank you very much for posting these comments of mine and for your own good comments. I should mention that author of the book, “Uncertainity in Post-Reformation Catholicism” is Stefania Tutino not “Stefanio Tutino.” This was a typo on my part.

    Those of us who teach theology must always be willing to revise earlier opinions upon further research and reflection. After reading the views of Liguori and Sanchez (as corrected by the Jesuit censors), I needed to revise my earlier position. I also came to see that the 1916 response of the Sacred Penitentiary rules out the sodomitic union of spouses completely (even if it is intended as a prelude to normal intercourse).

    Thank you for posting my comments and for mentioning my book, “Catholic Sexual Morality.” Perhaps I don’t agree with you on everything, but I certainly agree with you on marital anal penetration and also with your reading of Vatican I and the divine protection of the Roman Pontiff from grave error (even in his ordinary Magisterium).

    God bless you,
    Robert Fastiggi

  2. Ron Conte says:

    I’ve corrected the typo in the name Stefania Tutino.

  3. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Thank you for making the needed correction.

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