The Whys and Wherefores of Catholic Sexual Ethics (3)

3. Major Issues in Sexual Ethics -- Evaluating Specific Sexual Acts

"Like all choices, sexual choices must conform to the truth if they are to be morally good and enable men and women to give to themselves the dignity to which they are called from the depths of their being. This means that sexual choices must respect the inviolable dignity of human persons as made in God's image and to this they must respect the real goods of human persons."

Like all choices, sexual choices must conform to the truth if they are to be morally good and enable men and women to give to themselves the dignity to which they are called from the depths of their being. This means that sexual choices must respect the inviolable dignity of human persons as made in God's image  and to this they must respect the real goods of human persons.

The Goods at Stake in Sexual Choices

What goods are at stake in making sexual choices? What goods come into focus (or ought to come into focus) when one is thinking about exercising his or her genital, sexual capacity? They are the following: (1) the good of life itself in its transmission, or the procreative good; (2) the good of intimate human friendship; (3) the good of marriage itself; (4) the good of personal integrity, a good intimately related to what Pope John Paul II calls the "nuptial meaning" of the body.

The first two of these goods are obviously at stake when one considers engaging in genital sex. That the good of life itself in its generation is "in focus" in the exercise of one's genital sexual powers is clearly indicated by the fact that the powers in question are called "genital." The act of sexual coition is the sort or kind of act intrinsically apt for the generation of human life. The practice of contraception confirms this, for a person does not contracept if he or she is about to go fishing or read a book or shake hands, etc., for one realizes that acts of these kinds are not intrinsically apt for generating human life. One contracepts only when one (a) chooses the kind of act, genital coition, which one reasonably believes is the kind of act intrinsically apt for generating life and (b) chooses to make it to be the sort of act through which human life can not be given. As is easily seen, (b) is the contraceptive choice. Contraception makes no sense otherwise. That the good of intimate human friendship is also at stake in genital coition is evident from the fact that genital coition is possible only between two persons, one male, the other female. In short, when one chooses to engage in genital coition the goods at stake are those identified as the "unitive" and "procreative" goods of human sexuality. Even if one chooses to exercise his or her genital sexuality solitarily, as in masturbation, or in sodomitical or non-coital acts (anally or orally or what have you), or in having coition with a non-human animal such as a dog or cat or chimpanzee, one realizes that one is exercising a personal sexual power that has inherently both life-giving (procreative) and person-uniting (unitive) dimensions.

Also at stake in genital choices is the good of marriage itself. Marriage is truly a basic human good, complex in nature. But it is an intrinsic good of human persons, inwardly perfective of them and a component of human flourishing. It is indeed, in the words of Vatican Council II, "an intimate partnership of life and marital love" (intima communitas vitae et amoris coniugalis), a covenant of love ordered by its very nature to the procreation and education of children,[1] who are indeed the "crowning glory" and "supreme gift" (praestantissimum donum) of marriage.[2]

 

"Human choices and actions, including sexual ones, are not morally good and in conformity with the truth and dignity of the person if they fail to respect fully all these goods perfective of human persons, goods such as life itself, friendship, marriage, and personal, bodily integrity, the body's "nuptial meaning." If one acts contrary to any of these human goods, one violates personal dignity and closes one's heart to integral human fulfillment."

Another good intimately affected by the choice to have sex is the good of "personal integrity." This good, as John Finnis notes, requires "fundamentally, that one be reaching out with one's will, i.e., freely choosing real goods, and that one's efforts to realize these goods involves, where appropriate, one's bodily activity, so that that activity is as much the constitutive subject of what one does as one's act of choice is."[3] The good of personal integrity entails one's own bodily integrity, for one's body is integral to one's being as a human person. Hence this good of personal integrity is basically an aspect of what John Paul II calls the "nuptial meaning" of the body. The human body is the "sacrament" of the human person, the revelation of the person. And since the human body is inescapably either male or female, it is the revelation of a man-person or a woman-person. Precisely because of their sexual differences, revealed in their bodies, the man-person and the woman-person can give themselves to one another bodily in the act of genital coition. The bodily gift of the man-person to the woman-person and vice versa is the outward sign of the communion of persons existing between them. The body, therefore, is the means and sign of the gift of the man-person to the woman-person. This capacity of the body to express the communion of persons existing between the man-person and the woman-person constitutes its nuptial meaning.[4]

Human choices and actions, including sexual ones, are not morally good and in conformity with the truth and dignity of the person if they fail to respect fully all these goods perfective of human persons, goods such as life itself, friendship, marriage, and personal, bodily integrity, the body's "nuptial meaning." If one acts contrary to any of these human goods, one violates personal dignity and closes one's heart to integral human fulfillment.

Evaluating Specific Kinds of Sexual Acts

I will now consider (1) marriage and the marital act; (2) contraception, whether by the married or the nonmarried; (3) heterosexual coition outside of marriage; (4) solitary genital activity (masturbation) and sodomitical intercourse (anal and oral sex) with another person, whether of the same sex (homosexual activity) or of the opposite sex.

1. Marriage and the Marital Act

Marriage comes into being when a man and a woman, forswearing all others, through "an act of irrevocable personal consent"[5] freely give themselves to one another as husband and wife. At the heart of the act establishing marriage is a free, self-determining choice through which the man and the woman give themselves a new and lasting identity. The man becomes this particular woman's husband, and she becomes this particular man's wife, and together they become spouses. Prior to this act of irrevocable personal consent, the man and the woman are separate individuals, replaceable and substitutable in each other's lives. But in and through this act they make each other irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable persons.[6]

By their choice to give themselves to one another in marriage husbands and wives capacitate themselves to do things that non-married persons simply cannot do. First of all, they capacitate themselves to give one another conjugal or marital love, a love universally regarded as utterly distinctive and exclusive.[7] Husbands and wives, moreover, capacitate themselves to engage in the marital or conjugal act, an act exclusive and proper to them whereas non-married individuals have not so capacitated themselves. It is absolutely imperative to recognize that a marital act is not simply a genital act between persons who "happen" to be married. Husbands and wives have the capacity to engage in genital acts because they have genitals. Unmarried men and women have the same capacity. But husbands and wives have the capacity (and the right) to engage in the marital act only because they are married. Precisely as marital, the marital act inwardly participates in the goods of their marital union, their one-flesh unity, one open to the gift of children. The marital act, in other words, inwardly participates in the different goods or "blessings" which go to make up the marital good itself, i.e., the good of steadfast marital fidelity (the mutual self-giving, the unitive good of marriage) and the good of children (the procreative good of marriage). This act, moreover, is fully respective of the personal integrity of both husband and wife, of the "nuptial meaning" of their bodies. It speaks the "language of love."

The marital act is unitive, i.e., a communion of persons. In it husband and wife come to "know" each other in a unique and unforgettable way, revealing themselves to each other as unique and irreplaceable persons of different but complementary sex.[8] In this act they "give" themselves to one another in a way that concretely expresses their sexual complementarity, for the husband gives himself to his wife in a receiving sort of way while she in turn receives him in a giving sort of way. The "nuptial significance" of the husband's body, which expresses his person as a male, enables him personally to give himself to his wife by entering her body-person and doing so in a receiving sort of way, while the "nuptial meaning" of the wife's body, which expresses her person as a female, enables her to "receive him" personally into herself and in doing so to "give" herself to him.[9]

The marital act is also a procreative kind of act. In giving themselves to each other in this act, husband and wife become, as it were, one complete organism capable of generating human life. Even if they happen to be infertile, their marital union is the sort or kind of act intrinsically apt for receiving the gift of new human life should conditions be favorable.[10] Moreover, and this is crucially important, husbands and wives, precisely because they are married, have capacitated themselves, as nonmarried persons have not, to cooperate with God in bringing new human persons into existence in a way that responds to their dignity as persons. Marriage itself has capacitated husbands and wives to "welcome life lovingly, nourish it humanely, and educate it in the love and service of God and neighbor,"[11] to give this life the "home" it needs and merits in order to grow and develop.

In short, the marital act is open to the good of human life in its transmission (the procreative good), to the good of marital friendship, and to the good of personal, bodily integrity, for in this act the bodily activity of husband and wife is as much the constitutive subject of the act as is their choice to engage in it. This act thus also respects the nuptial meaning of the body, for in it the man-person gives himself to his wife in a receiving sort of way, while the woman-person, in turn, receives her husband into herself in a giving sort of way. Thus the marital act fully respects the good of marriage itself considered as a complex whole. In choosing to engage in the marital act, husbands and wives commit themselves to the pursuit of real human goods, executing this commitment by an interpersonal bodily act of communication and cooperation. The marital act actualizes and allows the spouses to experience their real common good - their marriage itself, with the other goods of procreation and friendship and personal bodily integrity which are the parts of marriage's wholeness as an intelligible common good even if, independently of the spouses' will, their capacity for parenthood will not be fulfilled in a given marital act. The marital act is, consequently, a morally good kind of act.

2. Contraception, Whether Marital or Nonmarital

Pope Paul VI provided a clear description of it. He identified it as any act intended, either as end or as means, to impede procreation, whether done in anticipation of intercourse, during it, or while it is having its natural consequences.[12] When persons engaging in coition contracept they execute two choices. First (1), they choose to engage in sexual coition, an act that they reasonably believe is the kind of sort of act through which human life can be given. But because they want to engage in this act of coition but do not want new human life to come to be through it, they then choose, secondly (2) to do something prior to, during, or subsequent to their freely chosen act of sexual coition precisely to impede the beginning of the new life that they reasonably believe could begin otherwise. Choice (2) is the choice to contracept.

Although persons engaging in genital sex may have good reasons to avoid causing a pregnancy (e.g., the health of the woman, the fact that the sexual partners are not married, etc.), and although they may appeal to these good reasons to rationalize their behavior, their present intention is precisely to impede the beginning of a new human life. They do not want that life to be, and thus do something in order to prevent it from being. In other words, the precise object of their choice[13] is to prevent new human life from beginning. Contraception is, therefore, an anti-life kind of an act, as a long Christian tradition, extending to the Fathers of the Church, has taught.[14] In choosing to contracept, therefore, one is choosing to violate a basic human good: human life in its transmission.[15] Moreover, should new life come to be despite one's efforts to impede it, that life will come to be as an unwanted child. This does not, of course, mean that all those who contracept will be willing to abort the life conceived despite the efforts to prevent its conception, but this temptation will be present, and it is for this reason that contraception can be regarded as the "gateway to abortion."[16]

"Contraception is an anti-life kind of an act, as a long Christian tradition, extending to the Fathers of the Church, has taught. In choosing to contracept, therefore, one is choosing to violate a basic human good: human life in its transmission."

Contraception is not only anti-life, it is also anti-love, and for this reason it has an added malice when married couples choose to contracept. When they do so, their freely chosen genital union can no longer be considered truly a marital act, which, as we have seen, is open to the goods of marriage, including the good of human life in its transmission. When spouses contracept, "they 'manipulate' and degrade human sexuality-and with it themselves and their married partner-by altering its value of 'total' self-giving." As John Paul II says, "the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality."[17]

3. Heterosexual Coition Outside of Marriage

When nonmarried men and women choose to have sexual coition, their choice is immoral because it violates the goods of human life in its transmission, of marriage and human friendship, and of personal integrity and the nuptial meaning of the body.

Nonmarital sexual coition (fornication or adultery) violates the good of human life in its transmission precisely because this life has a right to a home where it can grow and develop. But nonmarried persons simply cannot give new life this home precisely because they have not capacitated themselves, as married couples have, to "welcome life lovingly, nourish it humanely, and educate it in the love and service of God." Practically all civilized societies, until recently, rightly regarded it irresponsible for unattached men and women to generate new life through their acts of fornication, and it is a sign of a new barbarism, completely opposed to the "civilization of love," that many today assert the "right" of "live-in lovers" and of single men and women to have children, whether the fruit of their coupling or the "product" of new "reproductive" technologies. Fornicators can-and usually do-attempt to avoid generating life by contracepting, but, as we have already seen, by doing so they add to the immorality of fornication the immorality of contraception.

Fornicators and adulterers also act contrary to the good of friendship and of marriage. Although they may whisper to each other, "I love you," as they engage in fornication or adultery, their chosen act of coition is not and cannot be a true act of love. It can not be such precisely because they have refused to "give themselves" to one another in marriage, to make each other irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable. Their genital act, far from uniting two irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable persons, in reality merely joins two individuals who remain, in principle, replaceable, substitutable, and disposable. The partners may have some deep feelings of tenderness and affection for one another, but such feelings are far different from authentic human love, which takes such feelings, the "raw material of love" as Karol Wojtyla calls them, and integrates them into an intelligent commitment to the personhood of the other.[18] The genital union of the nonmarried cannot be the sign and expression of a full personal giving. Rather, it merely simulates this sign and falsifies it. It is, in short, a "lie."[19] Such persons do not give themselves to each other or give their bodies to each other; rather they simply loan their bodies to each other.

Not only does nonmarital sexual coition violate the goods of human life, marriage and marital friendship; it also violates the good of personal integrity insofar as those choosing this act are not reaching out with their wills and bodies to participate in authentic goods of human existence. They are rather using their bodies to participate in the sensibly experienced pleasure of genital orgasm separated, precisely because of their free choice, from the intelligible goods (those of human life itself, marital friendship) into which this pleasure is to be integrated.

Finally, if one of the parties to nonmarital coition is married to another, adultery is committed, an utterly unjust act insofar as it is specified by the choice to put into the marriage bed someone other than the one whom one had made nonsubstitutable by one's free choice to marry.

4. Masturbation and Sodomy

A. Masturbation. Masturbatory sex does not directly violate the goods of human life in its transmission and of marriage and marital friendship, although it is definitely a choice that scorns these goods. But masturbation directly attacks personal integrity and the body's capacity for self-giving, its "nuptial meaning."

The immediate intention of the masturbator is to have a sentient and emotional experience: the sensation of orgasm and the accompanying emotional satisfaction. Masturbation is the choice to have the sentient and emotional experience of sexual orgasm by the manipulation of one's own sexual capacity. But, as Grisez says in a very perceptive passage,

In choosing to actuate one's sexual capacity precisely in order to have the conscious experience of the process and its culmination, one chooses to use one's body as an instrument to bring about that experience in the conscious self. Thus the body becomes an instrument used and the conscious self its user. This is done when one works and plays, and also when one communicates, using the tongue to speak . . . the genitals to engage in marital intercourse. In such cases, the body functions as part of oneself, serving the whole and sharing in the resulting benefits [in short, in such cases the body is integrated fully into "personal integrity"]. By contrast, in choosing to masturbate, one does not choose to act for a goal which fulfills oneself as a unified bodily person. The only immediate goal is satisfaction for the conscious self; and so the body, not being part of the whole for whose sake the act is done, serves only as an extrinsic instrument. Thus, in choosing to masturbate one chooses to alienate one's body from one's conscious subjectivity.[20]

Such self-alienation amounts to an existential dualism between the consciously experiencing subject and his/her body, i.e., a division between body and conscious self. Masturbation damages the unity of the acting person as conscious subject and sexually functioning body. But "this specific aspect of self-integration is . . . precisely the aspect necessary so that the bodily union of sexual intercourse will be a communion of persons, as marital intercourse is. Therefore, masturbation damages the body's capacity for the marital act [its "nuptial meaning"] as an act of self-giving which constitutes a communion of bodily persons."[21] Because it does this, masturbation violates the good of marital communion insofar as such communion can only be realized by the bodily gift of self. Masturbation is therefore intrinsically evil.

B. Sodomy. Sodomitical acts, e.g., anal sex, oral sex, can be either heterosexual (done by persons of the opposite sex) or homosexual (done by persons of the same sex) [emphasis added]. Such acts are in many ways similar to acts of masturbation insofar as sodomites choose to use their own and each other's bodies as a mere means of providing consciously experienced satisfactions. They thus choose in a way that violates the good of personal integrity as bodily persons insofar as they treat their own and each other's bodies as mere instruments of the consciously experiencing subject. They thus violate the nuptial meaning of the body and thus the body's capacity for the marital act, and in this way they violate the good of marriage itself.[22]

Today many claim that individuals who find that their homosexual disposition cannot satisfy their sexual urges and natural inclination toward intimate communion save by establishing a more or less permanent and exclusive relationship, including genital intimacy, with a person of the same sex, are morally justified insofar as their relationship can be regarded as marital. Indeed, some today claim that homosexually inclined persons have a right to marry and that their sexual unions ought to legally recognized as marital.

This apologia for homosexual sodomy is specious. We can grant that homosexual partners can share a committed relationship with sincere mutual affection, with a desire to express their friendship in appropriate ways. But their bodily coupling does not in truth unite them so that they form, as do husbands and wives, one complete reproductive couple. Their acts of sodomy do not contribute to their common good as friends or to the goods specific of marriage. The intimacy they experience is private and incommunicable and is no more a common good than the experience of sexual arousal and orgasm. It can only provide the illusion of a communion of persons in one-flesh. As Finnis has pointed out:

[T]heir activation of one or even each of their procreative organs cannot be an actualizing and experiencing of the marital good - as marital intercourse (intercourse between spouses in a marital way) can be, even between spouses who happen to be sterile - it can do no more than provide each partner with an individual gratification. For want of a common good that good be actualized and experienced by and in this bodily union, that conduct involves the partners in treating their bodies as instruments to be used in the service of their consciously experiencing selves; their choice to engage in such conduct thus dis-integrates each of them precisely as acting persons . . . . Sexual acts cannot in reality be self-giving unless they are acts by which a man and a woman actualize and experience sexually the real giving of themselves to each other - in biological, affective, and volitional union in mutual commitment, both open ended and exclusive - which . . . we call marriage.[23]

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William E. May is an adviser for Catholics for the Common Good and the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.


Copyright 2006. Posted with permission from Dr. William E. May

  1. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudiium et spes, no. 48.
  2. Ibid., nos. 48, 50. In his Encyclical Veritatis splendor Pope John Paul II explicitly includes "the communion of persons in marriage," violated by adultery, among the goods of human persons (no. 13; see also nos. 48, 50, 67, 78, 79). On marriage as a fundamental good of human persons, intrinsically good, see Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1993), pp. 555-584.
  3. John Finnis, "Personal Integrity, Sexual Morality, and Responsible Parenthood," Anthropos: Rivista di studi sulla persona e la famiglia 1 (1985) 46, emphasis added. Anthropos is now called Anthropotes.
  4. The "nuptial meaning of the body" is developed by Pope John Paul II in many of his addresses on the "theology of the body" given between at his Wednesday audiences, in particular those given between September 5, 1979 and May 6, 1981. These addresses are found in Pope John Paul II, The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1997. See in particular, "The Nuptial Meaning of the Body" (General Audience of January 9, 1980), pp. 60-63; "The Human Person Becomes a Gift inn the Freedom of Love" (General Audience of January 16, 1980), pp. 63-66; and "The Mystery of Man's Original Innocence" (General Audience of January 30, 1980), pp. 66-69.
  5. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, no. 48; see also Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1627-1628; Code of Canon Law, can. 1057.
  6. Here the words of the late German Protestant theologian Helmut Thielicke are most significant. He wrote: "Not uniqueness establishes the marriage, but the marriage establishes the uniqueness." The Ethics of Sex (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 108.
  7. On the distinctive characteristics of conjugal love see Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, no. 48; Pope Paul VI, Encycllical Humanae vitae, no. 9.
  8. On this see Pope John Paul II, "Analysis of Knowledge and Procreation" (General Audience of March 5, 1980), The Theology of the Body, pp. 77-80. In the marital act husbands and wives, the Pope says, "reveal themselves to each other, with that specific depth of their own human 'self,' which, precisely, is revealed also by means of their sex, their masculinity and femininity . . . [T]he reality of the conjugal union . . . contains a new and, in a way, a definitive discovery of the meaning of the human body in its masculinity and femininity."
  9. The ideas briefly set forth here are developed by me at more length in Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Built (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), chap. 2, "Marriage and the Complementarity of Male and Female." See also Robert Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy of Man and Woman (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), pp. 35-50.
  10. On this see Robert George and Gerard V. Bradley, "Marriage and the Liberal Imagination," The Georgetown Law Review 84 (1995) 301-320.
  11. See St. Augustine, De genesi ad literam, 9, 7 (PL 34.397).
  12. Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Humanae vitae, no. 14.
  13. On this see Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis splendor, no. 78. See also the excellent essay of Martin Rhonheimer clarifying this passage, "Intrinsically Evil Acts and the Moral Viewpoint: Clarifying a Central Teaching of Veritatis splendor," in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology, eds. J. A. DiNoia, O.P., and Romanus Cesssario, O.P. (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1999), pp. 161-194.
  14. See, for instance, the following: (1) St. John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans, PG 60.626-627; (2) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, 3.122; (3) the "Si aliquis" canon into the canon law of the Church in the Decretum Greg. IX, lib. V, tit. 1, cap. V and part of the Church's canon law from the mid-thirteenth century until 1917; text in Corpus iuris canonici, ed. A. L. Richter and A. Friefburg (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1881), 2.794; (4) the Roman Catechism, Part II, chap. 7, no. 13. See also John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, ch. 38:9,10; this text, in which Calvin likens contraception to homicide (as do sources 1-4), is cited by Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control (Monongahela,, PA: Zimmer Printing, 1989), p. 15. Provan notes that this passage is omitted by the editor of the "unabridged" series of Calvin's Commentaries, published by Baker Book House.
  15. The argument that contraception is anti-life is developed at length by Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, and William E. May, "'Every Marital Act Ought To Be Open to New Life': Toward a Clearer Understanding," The Thomist 52 (1988) 365-426.
  16. On this, see Chapter Four, "Contraception and Respect for Human Life," in my book Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2000).
  17. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation on The Role of the Family in the Modern World Familiaris consortio, no. 32.
  18. See Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, pp. 73-84.
  19. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation The Role of the Christian Family iin the Modern World, Familiaris consortio, no. 11.
  20. Grisez, Living a Christian Life, p. 650.
  21. Ibid.
  22. See ibid., pp. 653-654.
  23. John Finnis, "Law, Morality, and 'Sexual Orientation,'" Notre Dame Law Review 69 (1994) 1066-1067. See also Robert P. George and Gerard V. Bradley, "Marriage and the Liberal Imagination," Georgetown Law Journal 84 (1995) 301-320; Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, "What Sex Can Be: Self-alienation, Illusion, or One-Flesh Union," American Journal of Jurisprudence 42 (1997) 135-157.

 

 



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