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"It is through conscience that human beings see and recognize the demands of the divine law. They are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in everything they do."
Religious Liberty, no 2.

The Methodological Anomaly of Catholic Sexual Ethics

by Joseph Selling

Personal notes of 2013 by the author, published here with his permission

The problem with talking about sexual ethics among Roman Catholics is that so few people, including moral theologians and the clerical leaders of the church, have a comprehensive understanding of the history of that subject in our long, and developing, tradition.

The Catholic version of Christian ethics is generally presumed to rely upon two things, scripture and natural law. Although the bible is frequently invoked in the course of ethical discourse, more often than not it is used to proof-text a conclusion that is arrived at via some other means. A good example of this can be found in the traditional use of the story of Onan to condemn the sin of masturbation (Gen 38). So strong was this connection that masturbation was classically referred to as ‘Onanism’.

Modern exegesis, which Catholic scholars only began to engage in seriously since the time of the Second Vatican Council, [1] has demonstrated that the story of Onan has nothing to do with masturbation and indeed has little or nothing to do with sexual ethics. It is now generally recognized that Onan was punished for violating the Levirate law (Dt 25) in refusing to ‘give a child’ to his widowed sister-in-law. Thus, neither the Vatican’s “Declaration On Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics” (1975) nor the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, 1997), both of which claim that masturbation is a serious sin, refer to Genesis 38. The ‘argument from silence’ testifies to the misinterpretation of the scriptural passage throughout most of the tradition.

As far as natural law reasoning is concerned, one could say that ‘from the beginning’ church teaching was based upon the same, erroneous, presumption held by most of humankind, namely that the male ejaculate (semen, which literally means ‘seed’) contained everything that was necessary to start a human life. Woman’s role in reproduction was merely passive, she provided the ‘fertile’ ground within which the man’s seed would grow into a child. It is easy to understand that if the male seed alone is the source of human life, then to tamper with this in any way was equivalent to performing an action that attacked life itself. The same, unfounded, sentiments are still echoed in contemporary church teaching that considers any male ejaculation that takes place without the seed being deposited in a woman’s body to be ‘anti-life’.

The natural law presumption that semen was sufficient to produce a human being, as long as it was placed in the appropriate ‘receptacle’ of a woman’s body, also prompted church teaching to consider an act of sexual intercourse to be ‘reproductive’. Thinking that each and every coital act is (at least ‘potentially’) reproductive also ignores the fact that the vast majority of sexual acts do not result in the coming to be of a human fetus, either because the couple performing the act are not ‘fertile’ at the time of intercourse or because the fertilized ovum that might result from such an activity does not survive. (Recent findings suggest that up to 75% of fertilized ova either do not implant or are spontaneously aborted.)

When we couple these misconceptions with a certain strain of religious fervor that considers every pursuit of physical pleasure, every act of ‘unnecessarily’ indulging the sensitive appetites, to be unworthy of a Christian life and therefore sinful, we encounter the type of reasoning expressed by Augustine who considered marital sexual intercourse to be morally licit only when it is performed for the sake of having children: concubitus propter solam procreationem. This was the basis for the ‘traditional’ teaching on sexual ethics from the beginning of the middle ages until the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et spes, December 7, 1965).

Contrary to popular belief, in his encyclical Casti Conubii (1930), Pius XI did not teach that it was morally licit for Catholics to restrict their sexual encounters to the period of a woman’s infertility in order to avoid having children. That teaching did not emerge until Pius XII’s “Address to the Italian Midwives” (1951)  in which he declared that a couple could deliberately restrict their sexual relations to the infertile period only on the condition that they had a ‘serious’ reason to do so: medical, social, eugenic, or economic.

Up until the first quarter of the twentieth century, the teaching of the Catholic Church remained fixed on the notion that only ‘procreation’, i.e., setting the ‘process of reproduction’ (sic) on its (natural) course, justified the engagement of sexual intercourse for married persons. Although some moral theologians had speculated that intercourse known to be infertile because of physiological reasons, old age, or pregnancy was not illegitimate, this did not become the position of the official teaching of the church until 1930. Furthermore, the reasoning of these theologians was grounded in the notion that engaging in infertile intercourse served the purpose of ‘quieting concupiscence’ so that neither partner would be tempted to acts of incontinence, all of which constituted serious sins.

Before the discussions with respect to ‘using’ the period of infertility to avoid having children (1930-1951) began, there was no teaching of the church suggesting that sexual relations had anything to do with love, unity, or strengthening the marital relationship. Sex was considered by most theologians and church leaders to be a ‘necessary evil’, something that was so close to sinful lust that it should be closely restricted to the process of penetration and ejaculation without interference. Female sexuality was considered to be of no importance, and anything that might be associated with the sexual encounter of a married couple such as foreplay or alternative forms of sexual stimulation was generally considered to be sinful.

When the speculation about a woman’s fertility being ‘predictable’ became accepted in the late 1920’s, Pius XI faced the predicament that the standing teaching that was bound to the notion that only procreation legitimated (in distinction from ‘excusing’ it as in the case of avoiding incontinence) marital sexual intercourse would be under threat if the time of actual fertility could be precisely determined. He therefore ‘ruled’ that if a couple knew beforehand that their sexual encounter would be infertile, it was permitted to engage in that sexual act because it served the secondary ends of marriage.

Note that infertile intercourse did not fulfill any other end or purpose or meaning of sexual intercourse itself. In the mind of Pius XI, coitus had one and only one end, purpose or meaning: procreation. It’s ‘use’ (in Latin, usus matrimonii) for “rendering assistance and providing a remedy for concupiscence” served what Canon Law had defined as the secondary end of marriage as an institution, not an additional end or ‘meaning’ of the sexual act itself. [2]

When Pius XII ruled that periodic continence might be justifiable because of serious reasons, he maintained that the sexual act itself had only one purpose or end. This is confirmed by the fact that he continued to teach that nothing whatsoever could be done to hinder or tamper with the physical structure of the act itself, even during times of infertility. The ‘deposit’ of semen in the body of the woman had become an absolute norm. That said, there was still no mention of marital intercourse having a second end or meaning that needed to be respected or preserved.

When the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” of Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, devoted the first chapter of its second part to “Fostering the Dignity of Marriage and the Family”, it took an entirely new approach to the subject of marriage.  In its very first section, 48, it took a theological, rather than a canonical, perspective on marriage by referring to is as a ‘covenant’ rather than a contract. That same section relegated the doctrine of marriage having ‘three goods’ – procreation, fidelity, and indissolubility – to a simple, historical footnote.

While the traditional teaching on marriage stressed its procreative function, the next section of GS, 49, moves on to the topic of conjugal love as the very core of the marital relationship. This love is said to be expressed through “noble and worthy actions within marriage by which the couple are intimately and chastely united”. The following section, 49, goes on to describe conjugal love as ‘human, total, faithful and exclusive’. Throughout these two sections, there is no mention of procreation or marital fertility.

Only in GS, 50 do we find the reference to fertility, but the entire paragraph is devoted to the notion that the couple is called upon to exercise what came to be known as ‘responsible parenthood’. It states that, “The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God. But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.” There is no reference to natural law here, while there is an explicit reference to the Gospel as the source for moral inspiration. Technically, theologically speaking, ‘Divine law’ refers to that which is revealed in the scriptures. To repeat, there is nothing in the scriptures that directly addresses issues pertaining to sex and reproduction.

When GS, 51 eventually takes up the problem of reconciling what it clearly saw as a possible conflict between limiting family size and maintaining “the faithful exercise of love and the full intimacy of their lives”, it does not address the issue of the regulation of fertility because that question had been referred to the work of a special, papal commission, the work of which was still going on at the close of the council. It did, however, point out that any solution to this conflict should be resolved in light of “objective standards … based on the nature of the human person and his acts.” [3] There is, again, no reference to natural law here.

When the papal commission finished its work, midway through 1966, it recommended to Pope Paul VI that the teaching on the regulation of fertility should be allowed to further evolve and that the traditional notion that procreation is the primary purpose of marriage should be understood as applying to the whole of married life and not to individual acts of sexual intercourse. For the next two years, Paul took further advice on the issue and finally published his encyclical on the regulation of fertility, Humanae vitae (1968).

In this letter, Paul rejected every manner of ‘artificially’ regulating fertility, and in order to substantiate his position he put forth a new teaching that had never before been articulated. HV, 12 states that the teaching “is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.”

This was a truly innovative teaching. Yet, no evidence, either from scripture or from tradition, is offered to substantiate the claim made by Paul VI. On what basis could he write that this was something “willed by God” when there is no evidence for this? If indeed it somehow was “willed by God”, why did it take the teaching office nearly 2000 years to decide that there was a ‘unitive meaning’ attached to sexual intercourse that needed to be closely protected? This had never before been part of the official teaching of the church.

At the time, there was some speculation about the origin of this new idea, but little concrete evidence had surfaced. More recently, it has been discovered that the notion about there being ‘two meanings’ attached to the act of sexual intercourse was in fact suggested to Paul VI by the then Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, later to become Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla. [4] After the Council, Cardinal Wojtyla had called together his own commission in Krakow to study the issue of regulating fertility and it was this commission that came upon the notion of an ‘inseparable connection between two meanings’ attached to the individual act of intercourse.

It is no surprise that when he later became pope, Karol Wojtyla strongly defended the teaching of HV and insisted upon the notion of this ‘inseparable connection’. It has in our own day even been described as some kind of ‘inseparability principle’ in the writings of the Swiss philosopher teaching at the Opus Dei institution, Santa Cruce, in Rome, Martin Rhonheimer.[5] Yet, this idea has no precedence in the teaching of the Catholic Church.

The former absolute norm about depositing semen in the receptacle of the woman’s body had now become an absolute norm about preserving an inseparable connection between two ‘meanings’. It should be stressed that this ‘procreative’ meaning has nothing to do with procreaction actually being achieved. The ‘meaning’ is achieved simply by the deposit of semen. Furthermore, any violation of this norm is said to be ‘intrinsically evil’ and may never be violated under any circumstances nor understood to be permitted because of important or even urgent factors.

While the notion of an ‘inseparability principle’ has been allowed to slip into Catholic teaching without precedence or substantiation, this phenomenon begs the question about why the performance of a contraceptive act, or indeed the performance of any activity that allows a male ejaculation to take place without the semen being deposited in a woman’s body, is considered to be absolutely inviolable? One can, and should, also ask about the very status of something being referred to as ‘intrinsically evil’. Exactly what does this label mean?

An Inconsistency of Moral Reasoning

The position that all sexual acts – and even the voluntary enjoyment of ‘venereal pleasure’ –  aside from complete, non-contracepted, marital intercourse are intrinsically evil represents a moral judgment upon a physical, material action all by itself, without any consideration of who is performing the activity or the reasons why they are performing it. This is the literal meaning of ‘intrinsic evil’ – something that neither a good intention nor a given set of circumstances might be able to justify.

This form of reasoning begins with a moral judgment about a physical act (or omission) and only later proceeds to consider other aspects of human activity. If the physical act (or omission) is, itself, good or ‘indifferent’ then one considers first the questions about the circumstances in which that act occurred and then the questions about the intention of the person who performed that action or omission. Either one of these aspects can transform a good or indifferent action into an evil moral event.

For the sake of illustration, let us apply this form of reasoning to other cases. What could we say about impinging upon or seriously restricting a person’s freedom, coercing a person to do something or using force to prevent someone from accomplishing their goals, causing psychological or physical pain to a person, causing injury to another,  or even killing another person? Is it not evident that each of these activities can be designated to be ‘evil’?

All of these activities, however, could be justified as forms of punishment – and have been so justified for the vast majority of our moral tradition. What is the difference between these ‘evils’ and the evils of various sexual activities? Why are these evils not designated to be ‘intrinsic evils’? Is not killing a person more serious than using a condom to prevent one’s spouse from contracting a potentially fatal disease?

The teaching (of the) church has never addressed these questions. It pretends that there are two kinds of evil: one which could be justified if one has a proper motive for doing it and a balanced sense of proportion (e.g., the punishment must fit the crime); and another which can never be justified because someone decided to call it an ‘intrinsic evil’. But what is the difference?

The fact is that there are two, distinct and actually incompatible methodologies operative in Catholic moral teaching. One method, used in the social teaching of the church, begins with the assessment of human situations and attempts to gather as much information as possible about the motivation of the acting parties, the circumstances within which they find themselves, the consequences which might flow from a specific course of action, and only then attempts to make a moral assessment of the human situation as a whole.

The other method, used primarily in sexual ethics, begins with a moral judgment about a physical, material activity (or omission) without taking into account any motivation, circumstantial evidence, available options, or pertinent consequences. This is a method that utilizes the needless or redundant concept of ‘intrinsic evil’. Stating that something entails, contains, or brings about an ‘evil’ would appear to be sufficient for engaging in ethical discourse. Simultaneously, the presence of an ‘evil’ in human activity does not necessarily mean that this activity should not be performed.

I have already provided the example of punishment (actually taken from Aquinas, ST, II-II, q. 108). If our punishing activity did not contain negative elements that fit the category of an ‘evil’, the punishment could hardly be expected to bring about what one might hope (retribution, restitution, rehabilitation, protecting justice in the social system). However, there are several more examples that can be invoked, the most prolific coming from medical practice. The use of numerous medical interventions bring about a healing process only by employing ‘means’ that involve an evil. Amputating a limb, for instance, for the sake of saving a person’s life nevertheless results in the loss of a limb, something that could rightly be described as mutilation.

More recently, the development of possibilities for living, healthy persons to donate organs also involves the aspect of mutilation. The ‘official’ position of the church on this procedure is that the donating person is performing an ‘act of charity’. But the use of this euphemism only thinly disguises the fact that something that entails an ‘evil’ – the loss of a completely healthy organ and the risk that is entailed both in the procedure and for the future health of the donor – is being justified because one hopes that this well-intentioned, ultimately (or consequently) beneficial effect will come about.

In the case of the organ donation, there is no guarantee that a good result will follow. In fact, the two ‘events’, the donation and the implantation, have nothing to do with each other. In this case, it is impossible to even imagine that this is a case of ‘double effect’ because the two events are completely unrelated. According to traditional moral theology, one could no more justify the donation of organs than one could justify unjustly taking something from one person in order to donate that thing to another person in need (stealing to give alms).

It is time that Catholic theological ethics admits that it is being hampered by the simultaneous presence of two, incompatible methodologies that are arbitrarily applied to different but frequently very similar cases. Sexual ethics has been plagued by the concept of ‘intrinsic evil’ and the notion that physical, material actions are more important than virtuous motivation and responsible, appropriate activity that is aimed at bringing about human well-being.


[1] Although the encyclical of Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), supposedly gave Catholic scholars a green light to investigate the scriptures in a more scientific, exegetical manner, the discipline suffered a crippling setback in 1950 with the appearance of the same pope’s Humani Generis.

[2] From this perspective, at the risk of stating the obvious, there is no foundation whatsoever for claiming that protecting the “unitive meaning” of conjugal sexual intercourse represents the “constant teaching of the church”.

[3] The official commentary on this text, the Expensio modorum, further explains the intention of the drafters of this text. Although (a very few) bishops at the council had proposed that a reference should be given here to ‘natural law’, the drafting committee rejected this suggestion on the grounds that there was no precedence for doing so. They further elaborated that the concept of the person at work here refers to the “human person integrally and adequately considered”. Therefore, what is being spoken of here is not restricted to a physiological understanding of ‘human nature’.

[4] See, George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 1999); and Ted Lipien, Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church (Washington: O Books, 2008).

[5] See, Martin Rhonheimer, Ethics of Procreation and the Defense of Human Life: Contraception, Artificial Fertilization, Abortion, ed. William F. Murphy Jr. (Washington: Catholic University of America, 2010).