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Unnatural sexual acts as marital foreplay

Question --

Are unnatural sexual acts moral to use as foreplay, prior to an act of natural marital relations open to life?

This all-too-common question asks whether married couples might use various types of unnatural sexual acts -- manual sexual acts (masturbation of self or spouse, or various devices used in the same way), or oral sexual acts, or anal sexual acts -- in the context of a subsequent, concomitant, or prior act of natural marital relations open to life. Sometimes the question refers specifically to completed sexual acts, i.e. acts that include sexual climax for one or both spouses. Other times the question refers to these same types of acts, but absent climax.

The Three Fonts of Morality

There are three fonts of morality: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances. The Magisterium definitively teaches that to be moral an act must have three good fonts; any one bad font makes the act immoral and therefore sinful.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: "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." (CCC, n. 1750).

Compendium of the Catechism: "The morality of human acts depends on three sources: the object chosen, either a true or apparent good; the intention of the subject who acts, that is, the purpose for which the subject performs the act; and the circumstances of the act, which include its consequences." (Compendium of the CCC, n. 367.)

USCCB Catechism: "Every moral act consists of three elements: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act.... All three aspects must be good -- the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances -- in order to have a morally good act." (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, July 2006, p. 311-312).
The three fonts may be summarized in this way:

FIRST FONT: The intended end (or purpose) for which the act is chosen by the human person. The intention or purpose of the act is in the subject, the person who acts.

SECOND FONT: The intentionally chosen act with its moral nature, which is determined by the inherent ordering of the act toward its moral object. The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the chosen act is directed, in and of itself. The choice of an act by the human person necessarily includes a choice of the act and its essential moral nature and its moral object. The moral nature and moral object of the act are in the objective act, not in the subject who chooses the act.

THIRD FONT: The circumstances pertaining to the morality of the act, especially the consequences. A moral evaluation of the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences of the chosen act, in terms of the love of God and neighbor, determines the morality of this font.

There is no other basis for the morality of an act apart from these three fonts. For any act to be moral, all three fonts must be good. If any one font is bad, the act is immoral, even if the other fonts are good. Each and every knowingly chosen act is judged solely by the three fonts of morality. The three fonts of morality are the sole determinant of the morality of each and every knowingly chosen act, without any exception whatsoever. Whoever rejects or contradicts this teaching overturns the very foundation of every moral teaching in the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Analysis of the Question

1. First Font - The intention is to use certain types of acts as foreplay, for the purpose of preparing for an act of natural marital relations. The intended end is good: natural marital relations open to life.

2. Second Font - The Magisterium teaches that, in order to be moral, a sexual act must be marital and unitive and procreative. The marital, unitive, and procreative meanings are the three interrelated good moral objects of any moral sexual act.

Evil is a deprivation of good; moral evil is a deprivation of some good required by the moral law, i.e. required by the love of God and the love of neighbor as self. The love of God and neighbor requires that each and every sexual act be marital, unitive, and procreative. When a sexual act is non-marital or non-unitive or non-procreative, then the act has a deprivation in its moral object, making the object evil and the act intrinsically evil.

An unnatural sexual act is intrinsically evil because this type of act is not procreative; it is inherently ordered toward the procreative meaning intended by God for each and every sexual act. Unnatural sexual acts are also not truly unitive (even if there is a type of mere physical union) because this is not the type of union intended by God for marriage. So even when the two persons committing the unnatural sexual acts are married to each other, the procreative and unitive meanings are absent, making such acts intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

3. Third Font - Sometimes this question is posed with a description of some dire (or supposedly dire) circumstance, such that the spouses would supposedly be unable to achieve natural marital relations without unnatural sexual acts as foreplay, or the wife would be unable to achieve sexual climax without unnatural sexual acts before, during, or after natural marital relations.

I find it difficult to believe that a Catholic married husband and wife cannot possibly consummate their love for one another, within the holy Sacrament established by the love of God, without the use of intrinsically evil and gravely immoral sexual acts. But even if this were the case, the Magisterium teaches that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: "A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting "in order to be seen by men"). The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts - such as fornication - that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil." (CCC, n. 1755).

Catechism of the Catholic Church: "It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it." (CCC, n. 1756).

Pope John Paul II: "Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances." (Veritatis Splendor, n. 80).
Furthermore, "the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious." (Persona Humana, n. X). Therefore, any sexual act that is intrinsically evil, is not only always immoral, but always gravely immoral. Some intrinsically evil acts are venial sins; other intrinsically evil acts are mortal sins. An intrinsically evil sexual act is always an objective mortal sin.

So my answer to the above question is that neither the intention (purpose) to use an act as foreplay, nor any circumstances whatsoever, can justify a sexual act that is intrinsically evil. Unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil due to the deprivation of the procreative and unitive meanings. And the presence or absence of sexual climax does not change the moral object. An unnatural sexual act with sexual climax has the same evil moral object as an unnatural sexual act without sexual climax. The moral object has not changed, and so the moral nature of the act has not changed; it remains intrinsically evil. Therefore, no type of unnatural sexual act, with or without climax, can be used by a married couple at any time, regardless of whether or when an act of natural marital relations occurs.

All non-marital sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. All non-unitive sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. All non-procreative sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

This question recurs rather frequently in Catholic discussion groups. Some persons have tried to claim that my answer is unique, or that no priests or theologians have the same general type of answer. The quotes below disprove these claims.

The answer of Catholic priests:
(updated 11 July 2012)

A similar question was asked, in Catholic Answers discussion group (forums.catholic.com), as to whether "Anything goes within the marriage act as long as the seed goes in the right place."

Fr. John Gow answered as follows:
"I have always taught that it is wrong. That part of the body is not meant for that. Sure, it might be physically possible and/or enjoyable, but it is not what makes the sexual act unitive. It is wrong to think that as long as a person concludes the sexual act in the appropriate place that they were justified in doing x, y, and z (which were non-unitive) before that conclusion happened. In the conjugal act, the husband and wife completely give the gift of themselves to each other. Part of that is their gift of fertility, the potentiality of new life. My argument has always been that the sexual act is one act and that there should always be the unitive and procreative elements present; once either of them are taken away from the act itself, the nature of that sexual act has changed."
He then quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church (adding his own emphasis with underlining).
CCC 2366 Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child 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. So the Church, which is "on the side of life," teaches that "it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life." "This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act."
Fr. John Gow's personal blog is called Sanctus Daily.

Another Catholic priest gives a similar answer to that of Fr. Gow. In the article "Probabilism, Probabiliorism, and Marital Chastity, Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., S.T.D., condemns even unconsummated unnatural sexual acts as gravely immoral. I quote from his article extensively below:
I am referring to the question of whether unconsummated acts of oral-genital stimulation and anal penetration are permissible for married couples as part of sexual foreplay. Of course, all orthodox Catholics know that consummated acts of this sort - those deliberately terminating in orgasm - are mortal sins of impurity. For, together with masturbation, homosexual acts, 'withdrawal', contraception and bestiality, those practices belong to that general category of perverse sexual acts which by their very nature exclude the possibility of procreation.....

St. Thomas Aquinas, in discussing "the sin against nature" (under which heading he understands the whole ensemble of deviant acts listed near the beginning of my previous paragraph), has a couple of terse remarks that could really only refer to impure and unnatural forms of foreplay. In ST IIa IIae, Q. 154, art. 11, at the end of the corpus, he speaks of a man and woman "not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial methods of copulation" (my emphasis). Since these "monstrous and bestial methods", being clearly the worst of the "either/or" alternatives he has in mind, would have to include consummated (orgasm-attaining) acts of oral and anal sex, what could the previous alternative be ("undue means") other than unconsummated acts of the same sort?

The very end of the next article (Q. 154, art. 12, ad 4) is similar, but clearer. Here Thomas again brands as an unnatural sin the behaviour of a man and woman who "do not observe the right manner of copulation". But he adds that such a sin "is more grievous if the abuse regards the receptacle (vas) than if it affects the manner of copulation in respect of other circumstances"....

And how grave are such sins? These same articles of the Summa make it clear that St. Thomas sees unnatural male-female acts as being the least grievous form of the “sin against nature” except for masturbation. But, like all orthodox Catholic moralists, he considers even unconsummated masturbation to be per se mortally sinful (“grave matter”, in theological language). So does the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that masturbation, defined simply as deliberately seeking isolated sexual pleasure from one’s own organs (i.e., with or without reaching orgasm) is “gravely disordered” (no. 2352). So it is clear that Aquinas, even though he does not spell this out, would logically consider even unconsummated oral and anal sex between husband and wife to be mortally sinful, thus creating a need for sincere sacramental confession prior to approaching Holy Communion.

Fortunately (in my opinion), a few contemporary Catholic authors are now explicitly endorsing the teaching that Aquinas expresses in veiled, oblique language in the Summa. For instance, Fr. Thomas G. Morrow has stopped holding his breath waiting for the magisterium to speak on this issue. Instead, he has boldly 'taken the plunge' and published an article expressing what millions of devout and chaste married Catholics have undoubtedly intuited over the centuries without ever talking about it (Cf. "Rethinking Marital Foreplay", Homiletic & Pastoral Review, May 2010, pp. 58-63). According to Fr. Morrow, oral and anal foreplay partially simulate unnatural mortals sins, are therefore acts of lust that treat one's spouse as a pleasure object rather than as a person, and consequently do not measure up to true standards of conjugal love and respect for human dignity. Thus, he concludes, such acts "should be considered illicit, in (or out of) marriage" (p. 63).

Bravo! I find these considerations, together with the teaching of St. Thomas and my years of confessional experience, strongly persuasive. The total data available to me up till now ground a more probable opinion against that sort of foreplay, even though I can't prove I'm right by citing a magisterial document condemning it. And as a probabiliorist, I will continue to tell Catholics who ask my opinion that those practices are mortal sins against purity and should definitely not be carried out.
Notice that Fr. Harrison cites St. Thomas Aquinas on this point, thus establishing that his position (and mine) is not some new idea. Fr. Harrison also cites Fr. Thomas G. Morrow as reaching much the same conclusion, that such acts are grave sins. Each of these priests has an S.T.D., a doctorate in sacred theology, which is the equivalent of a Ph.D. but from a Pontifical University. Each condemns the use of unnatural sexual acts as marital foreplay.

But there are other theologians who also condemn such acts. Consider the following quotes from Catholic theologian Alice von Hildebrand. She wrote an article, criticizing the approach to sexuality used by Christopher West, and explaining the position of her late husband, theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand, on sexuality and in particular marital sexual ethics. Her answer is the theological position of herself as well as her husband, whom Pope Pius XII called a "twentieth century Doctor of the Church."

The answer of two married theologians:

Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to Love, Marriage and Sex by Alice von Hildebrand
Having acquainted myself (reluctantly) with Popcak's Holy Sex, I do not believe it merits the extravagant praise West grants it. I do know that my husband would never write such a review. For one thing, he would have strongly objected to the book's graphic, explicit nature, which West mistakenly sees as "boldness" rather than vulgarity. For another, Dietrich would have vigorously opposed Popcak's so-called "one rule"--that married couples "may do whatever they wish," as long as they don't use contraception, "both feel loved and respected," and the marital act culminates within the woman. (p. 193). As another reviewer commented , this reduces marital love to a lowest common denominator, where "everything else can be left to the judgment of each couple. A variety of sexual positions, oral sex, sexual toys, and role playing are all judged permissible as long as couples follow the 'one rule.'" (Catholicbookreviews.org, 2008)

These ideas would have struck Dietrich von Hildebrand as abhorrent. It is precisely because the marital bed is sacred that one should approach acts within it with enormous reverence. Degrading and perverse sexual behavior-- even it is it done by a married couple, who do not practice contraception-- should be condemned, as an assault on human dignity. The "pornification" of marriage should be resisted as vigorously as the pornification of our culture.

I cannot describe what Dietrich thought of pornography: the very word triggered an expression of horror on his noble face. The same thing is true of sodomy. He had such a sense for the dignity of human persons that any posture, which sins against this dignity, was repulsive to him. It is in this context, that we should judge Popcak's shocking suggestion (p. 248) that "as Christopher West has noted in his book, Good News About Sex and Marriage, there is nothing technically forbidding a couple from engaging" in sodomy (provided the husband culminates the normal sex act within his wife); and that, while he discourages the practice of marital sodomy, "nevertheless, following Augustine's dictum and in the absence of greater clarification from the Church, couples are free to exercise prudential judgment" in this regard.

That a Catholic author would cite "Augustine's dictum" (presumably the much-misinterpreted "Love, and do what you will") as a justification for sodomy would have broken my husband's heart. Furthermore, the fact that an act is not formally condemned does not entitle us to believe that it is right or good. When Cain murdered his brother, he was not disobeying a formal order from God, but he knew he was committing a grave moral evil -- against the Natural Law -- already written on mankind's heart. Similarly, petri dish "conception" is an abomination in and by itself, even though it is not in the Ten Commandments. It is against the dignity of a person to be "made" in a laboratory. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mathew 11: 15)

In this context, it is important for couples to avoid what Canon Jacques Leclerc calls "any corruption of love" in the marital bed. He writes: "There are many who believe that once they are married, they may do whatever they like." But "they do not understand," he continues, that "the search for every means of increasing pleasure can be a perversion." He cautions: "Now, there are even among the most Christian young people many who know nothing of the moral aspect of the problem and have only the rudimentary idea that everything is forbidden outside marriage, but that within marriage everything is allowed. It is thus a good thing to remember that the morality of conjugal relations does not allow that pleasure should be sought by every means, but calls for a sexual life that is at the same time healthy, simple and normal." (Marriage: A Great Sacrament, 1951, p. 88). These are sentiments which my husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, would have thoroughly approved.
Now let's consider the answer given by Augustine and Aquinas, each a Doctor of the Church and a Saint.

The answer of St. Augustine:

Saint Augustine of Hippo, in his moral treatise 'On the Good of Marriage,' writes on the subject of sexual intercourse within marriage:
"…nor be changed into that use which is against nature, on which the Apostle could not be silent, when speaking of the excessive corruptions of unclean and impious men…. by changing the natural use into that which is against nature, which is more damnable when it is done in the case of husband or wife." (Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, section 11).
The expression 'that use which is against nature' refers to unnatural sexual acts, such as oral sex, anal sex, or manual sex. Saint Augustine condemns such acts unequivocally. He even states that such unnatural sexual acts are even more damnable (i.e. even more serious mortal sins) when these take place within marriage. For God is even more offended by a sexual mortal sin that takes place within the Sacrament of Marriage, since this offense is not only against nature, but also against a Holy Sacrament. "So then, of all to whom much has been given, much will be required. And of those to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be asked." (Lk 12:48).
"For, whereas that natural use, when it pass beyond the compact of marriage, that is, beyond the necessity of begetting, is pardonable in the case of a wife, damnable in the case of an harlot; that which is against nature is execrable when done in the case of an harlot, but more execrable in the case of a wife…. But, when the man shall wish to use the member of the wife not allowed for this purpose, the wife is more shameful, if she suffer it to take place in her own case, than if in the case of another woman." (Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, section 12).
In this passage, Saint Augustine first compares natural sexual relations within marriage, done out of impure desires, to the same natural sexual acts outside of marriage. He teaches that having natural sexual relations within marriage, when done to satisfy a somewhat impure desire, is pardonable, i.e. a venial sin, but that natural sexual relations outside of marriage is damnable, i.e. a mortal sin. Then Saint Augustine goes on to consider 'that which is against nature,' i.e. unnatural sexual acts. He condemns such unnatural sexual acts as 'execrable' (utterly detestable, abominable, abhorrent). Therefore these acts are among the worst of the sexual mortal sins. He also teaches that unnatural sexual acts within marriage, far from being permitted because they take place within marriage, are even worse, calling them 'even more execrable,' than the same unnatural sexual acts outside of marriage. Again, this is because the sin is not only against nature, but against a Holy Sacrament instituted by Christ himself for the sake of our salvation.

Therefore, unnatural sexual acts do not become permissible when these take place within marriage. Instead, unnatural sexual acts are made even more sinful when these take place within marriage because they offend against both nature and a Sacrament.

The answer of St. Thomas Aquinas:

Notice, in the quote below, that St. Thomas held sexual sins within marriage to be worse than adultery, because the act occurs within the good of marriage. He did not teach that all sexual acts within marriage are moral, nor did he teach that all sexual acts between a husband and wife are moral.
"And since the man who is too ardent a lover of his wife acts counter to the good of marriage if he use her indecently, although he be not unfaithful, he may in a sense be called an adulterer; and even more so than he that is too ardent a lover of another woman." (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 154, article 8).
The phrasing 'if he use her indecently' refers to unnatural sexual acts within marriage. This is clear because the good of marriage emphasized by St. Thomas is the procreation of children (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 154, article 2). St. Thomas could not be referring to natural marital relations when he says 'if he use her indecently' because even natural marital relations done with some disorder of desire still retains the unitive and procreative meanings. But unnatural sexual acts lack both meanings, and so they are contrary to the good of marriage. The use of unnatural sexual acts within marriage is therefore worse than adultery.

St. Thomas again condemns this same type of act later in the same question.
"Lastly comes the sin of not observing the right manner of copulation, which is more grievous if the abuse regards the 'vas' than if it affects the manner of copulation in respect of other circumstances." (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 154, article 12).
First, the word 'vas' is Latin for vessel, referring to the use of other bodily orifices for sexual acts. If a husband treats his wife lustfully during natural marital relations, he sins. But he commits a more grievous offense, which is called by St. Thomas an abuse, if he sins by committing unnatural sexual acts (i.e. using an unnatural part of the body as a 'vessel' for sexual intercourse). Here St. Thomas explicitly (but in discrete language) condemns the sin of unnatural sexual acts within marriage.

Second, it is clear (in the quote from article 8 above) that St. Thomas taught that a married couple is not justified in committing any sexual acts whatsoever within marriage. Otherwise, he would not have taught that a man who is too ardent a lover of his wife commits a sin that is like adultery and yet worse than adultery. Therefore, those who claim that there are no sins for a husband and wife having sexual relations with each other are in error.

Third, neither does St. Thomas even consider the absurd argument that acts which are intrinsically evil and gravely immoral by themselves could become good and moral when combined in some way with natural marital relations open to life. If this were the case, then St. Thomas could not have compared a man who is too ardent a lover of his wife to an adulterer. For if he took the position of certain modern-day commentators, then he would have to say that a husband's ardent love would be entirely justified, as long as "the semen are not misdirected." Notice that Saint Thomas takes no such position; he does not sum up the marital act as merely the proper direction of semen, as so many persons erroneously claim today.

Next, let's consider what the Magisterium teaches about the morality of sexual acts within marriage.

The answer of the Magisterium:

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI explicitly considers the idea that a set of sexual acts within marriage would be justifiable as long as some of the acts are procreative:
"Moreover, if one were to apply here the so called principle of totality, could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act?" (Humanae Vitae, n 3).
This principle of totality is, in essence, what is being proposed by some commentators today, who claim that only one sexual act out of many in the marital bedroom needs to be natural marital relations open to life. They suggest an approach that would justify any arbitrary number and kind of non-procreative and non-unitive sexual acts, as long as these occur as part of a set, or within the same arbitrary time frame, as an act of natural intercourse.

Pope Paul VI rejects this approach:
"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. This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act." (Humanae Vitae, n. 11-12).
The unitive significance and the procreative significance are inherent to the very nature of the marital sexual act. Therefore, the unitive and procreative meanings are moral objects, essential to make sexual acts within marriage good by their nature. And their absence makes the moral object evil, by the deprivation of a good required by the will of God for marriage, and the act intrinsically evil, by its very nature. Unnatural sexual acts are non-unitive and non-procreative, therefore these acts are intrinsically evil.

Neither can a set of sexual acts be justified if only one or a few of the acts is unitive and procreative. For the Church teaches by its constant doctrine that "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life." Furthermore, any doctrine of the Church that is constantly taught and often expounded by the Magisterium is infallible under the ordinary and Universal Magisterium.

Now it is true that the main focus of Humanae Vitae is the condemnation of contraception. But the Magisterium of the Church is not restricted to teaching only one doctrine in each document. She can and often does teach many different related truths in the same breath. So when the Magisterium condemns contraception because it is non-procreative, She also thereby condemns unnatural sexual acts, which are also non-procreative. Can a set of sexual acts, some of which are non-procreative, be justified by the inclusion in the set of one or more procreative sexual acts? Not at all.
"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. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good," it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it -- in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong." (Humanae Vitae, n. 14).
The procreative and unitive sexual acts of past or future cannot be merged to form a single moral entity, such that these intrinsically evil acts would become just as moral as natural marital relations open to life. For the deprivation of the unitive and/or procreative meanings is intrinsically evil. An intrinsically evil act (of any kind) is always intentionally chosen, and the act always has a direct relationship to its evil moral object. The evil moral object makes the act evil by its very nature, such that the nature of the act contradicts the moral order. And no good intention (or purpose) such as the protection or promotion of individuals, families, or society can justify such an intrinsically evil act.

Is Humanae Vitae the only magisterial document that requires each and every sexual act within marriage to be unitive and procreative? Not at all.
"Each and every sexual act in a marriage needs to be open to the possibility of conceiving a child." (USCCB Catechism, p. 409)
Unnatural sexual acts are inherently non-procreative; such acts are, by their very nature, not open to the possibility of conceiving a child.
"But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who, in exercising it, deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose, sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious." (Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, n. 54)
Unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically against nature because the conjugal act is primarily directed toward procreation, the begetting of children. Those persons (married or not) who deliberately choose sexual acts deprived of the natural power and purpose of procreation "sin against nature" and commit a shameful and intrinsically evil act.
"Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin." (Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, n. 55)
This teaching of the Church, that "any use whatsoever of matrimony in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature," must be understood to condemn not only contracepted sexual acts, but also any and all non-procreative sexual acts, even within marriage, including unnatural sexual acts. For all sexual acts are a deliberate use of the sexual faculty, and all unnatural sexual acts are a deliberate choice of act that are inherently non-procreative. If the Pope had wished to narrow his statements to only contraception, he would not have said "any use whatsoever," or if he had wished to allow unnatural sexual acts within marriage, he would not have said "any use whatsoever of matrimony." Instead, he unequivocally proclaimed the Magisterium's definitive teaching, which is also found in natural law, that each and every marital sexual act must include both the unitive and procreative meanings. This teaching necessarily prohibits the married couple from engaging in any kind of unnatural sexual act (with or without climax), because all such acts lack the procreative and unitive meanings.

In speaking to Catholic obstetricians and midwives, Pope Pius XII dealt with the question of medical cases in which the married couple cannot engage in natural marital relations open to life, because a pregnancy would be life-threatening to the mother.
Pope Pius XII: "Perhaps now you will press the point, however, observing that, in the exercise of your profession, you find yourselves sometimes faced with delicate cases, in which there cannot be a demand that the risk of maternity be undertaken, a risk that in certain cases must be avoided absolutely, and in which as well the observance of the agenesic periods either does not give sufficient security, or must be rejected for other reasons. Now, you ask, how can one still speak of an apostolate in the service of maternity?" (Pope Pius XII, Address to Midwives, n. 40.)
What can a married couple do, if "the observance of the agenesic periods" (i.e. the use of NFP) is not sufficient because any risk of pregnancy is too great. Perhaps a pregnancy would likely result in the death of the mother, or in a serious birth defect in the child. What if the reasons for avoiding pregnancy are so grave that the small chance of conception that is always present with NFP is too much? Such cases are rare, but they do occur from time to time.
Pope Pius XII: "If, in your sure and experienced judgment, the circumstances require an absolute 'No', that is to say, the exclusion of motherhood, it would be a mistake and a wrong to impose or advise a 'Yes'. Here, it is a question of basic facts, and therefore not a theological but a medical question; and thus it is within your competence. However, in such cases, the married couple does not desire a medical answer, of necessity a negative one, but seeks an approval of a 'technique' of conjugal activity which will not give rise to maternity. And so you are again called to exercise your apostolate, inasmuch as you should leave no doubt whatsoever that, even in these extreme cases, every preventive practice and every direct attack upon the life and the development of the new life is, in conscience, forbidden and excluded, and that there is only one way open, namely, that of complete abstinence from every performance of the natural faculty. Your apostolate in this matter requires that you have a clear and certain judgment, with a calm firmness." (Pope Pius XII, Address to Midwives, n. 41.)
In the first place, there must be a medical judgment as to whether it is true that pregnancy would have such a grave result that all possibility of conception must be avoided. Given that conception must be entirely avoided for a very grave reason, the only moral option that the spouses have is to abstain from all sexual relations.

Some couples will respond to this situation by seeking "an approval of a 'technique' of conjugal activity which will not give rise to maternity," in other words, the use of unnatural sexual acts (oral, anal, or manual sexual acts). The spouses seek someone -- a priest or theologian or other person -- who will tell them that these unnatural sexual acts are moral, due to good intentions or dire circumstances. There are many such false teachers in the Church today, who approve of this type of gravely immoral act. But no such approval can be given by the Church, since unnatural sexual acts are inherently non-procreative; these acts are deprived of the procreative meaning and are therefore intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. These acts are also non-unitive, even if there is a mere physical union, since this is not the type of sexual union willed by God for husband and wife (or for anyone).

And what does Pope Pius XII say regarding this question? That abstinence in the only option: "you should leave no doubt whatsoever that, even in these extreme cases, every preventive practice and every direct attack upon the life and the development of the new life is, in conscience, forbidden and excluded, and that there is only one way open, namely, that of complete abstinence from every performance of the natural faculty." (Pope Pius XII, Address to Midwives, n. 41.)

The 'natural faculty' refers to the sexual faculty, and the term 'every performance' means any and all types of sexual acts. Natural intercourse is excluded only because of the risk of grave consequences if the wife becomes pregnant. But the Pontiff absolutely excludes all other sexual acts, allowing only complete abstinence from every exercise of the sexual faculty, because each and every sexual act, to be moral, must be inherently procreative. In terms of the three fonts of morality, a sexual act is only moral if it has the proper threefold moral object: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. Every unnatural sexual act is non-procreative, by definition, since only natural intercourse is inherently procreative. Therefore, the Magisterium excludes the use of unnatural sexual acts, even within marriage, even in the grave circumstance that natural intercourse and pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother or the well-being of a conceived child. Even in extreme cases, every intrinsically evil act remains immoral: "in conscience, forbidden and excluded".

Finally, consider the words of Sacred Scripture on marriage and sexuality:

[Hebrews]
{13:4} May marriage be honorable in every way, and may the marriage bed be immaculate. For God will judge fornicators and adulterers.

[Ephesians]
{5:12} For the things that are done by them in secret are shameful, even to mention.

[Romans]
{1:26} Because of this, God handed them over to shameful passions. For example, their females have exchanged the natural use of the body for a use which is against nature.

[Titus]
{3:10} Avoid a man who is a heretic, after the first and second correction,
{3:11} knowing that one who is like this has been subverted, and that he offends; for he has been condemned by his own judgment.


by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
20 February 2011
Updated 11 July 2012

For an in-depth explanation of the basic principles of Catholic moral theology
and their application, as well as a more detailed exposition of sexual ethics,
see my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics

See also: Roman Catholic Marital Sexual Ethics



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