marital sexual ethics

Ethics concerns knowingly chosen acts. When a human person makes a choice with the free will, based on knowledge in the intellect, that choice is subject to the eternal moral law. Every knowing choice is an act, and every act is either moral or immoral. A moral act is a licit act; it is permissible without sin. An immoral act is a sin; it is not morally permissible. Sin is nothing else but a knowingly chosen immoral act.

What makes an act good? A moral act is a good act, chosen for a good intention, with the reasonable expectation that the act will result in more good consequences than bad consequences. Thus there are three sources, or fonts, of morality:

FIRST FONT: The intended end (or purpose) for which the act is chosen.

SECOND FONT: The inherent ordering of the act itself toward its moral object. This ordering constitutes the moral species, i.e. the essential moral nature, of the chosen act.

THIRD FONT: The circumstances pertaining to the morality of the act, especially the consequences.

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.” (p. 311-312)

The principle of the three fonts of morality applies to all human acts, that is, to all knowing choices of the intellect and free will.

Second Vatican Council: “…there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion.” (LG 36)

The eternal moral law applies to all areas of human activity, including sexuality. There is no alternate set of principles for sexual ethics. The same basic principles of morality apply also to sexuality. And the same is true for sexual ethics within marriage. The marital bedroom is not an exception to the eternal moral law. Every knowingly chosen act in the marital bedroom, in order to be moral, must have three good fonts. Any one bad font makes any act a sin.

It is a very great wickedness to claim that the marital bedroom is subject to different principles of ethics, or is not subject to ethics at all. God did not give marriage to humanity in order to exempt us from the moral law. God did not give the Sacrament of Marriage to the Church in order to encourage or approve of sinful behavior.

{19:9} And I say to you, that whoever will have separated from his wife, except because of fornication, and who will have married another, commits adultery, and whoever will have married her who has been separated, commits adultery.”

Jesus taught that a married couple may separate (with the Sacramental bond intact, as we phrase it today) in cases of fornication. He uses the broad term fornication, rather than the narrow term adultery, because a husband and wife are capable of committing grave sexual sins with one another. Adultery is not the only sexual sin that can be committed by married persons. For the marital bedroom is still subject to the eternal moral law.

An intrinsically evil act is an act with an evil moral object. Every act, good or evil, has an inherent moral meaning, in other words, the act has an essential moral nature. And this nature is inherently directed toward a type of end, an end in terms of morality called the moral object. An act with an evil moral object is called intrinsically evil because the act is, by its very nature, ordered toward an evil end.

There are many ways to commit murder. What causes all of these many different ways to be morally the same type of act? Each act properly called murder is inherently directed toward the end of depriving an innocent human person of life. The deliberate choice of this type of act is, necessarily and always, the choice of the inherent moral meaning of that act, as determined by its end. Whoever chooses the act of murder is choosing to deprive the innocent of life.

A sexual act is the deliberate use of the genital sexual faculty. Every act is a knowing choice, and every sexual act is the knowing choice to use the sexual capability given to human nature by God.

The only moral sexual act is natural marital relations open to life. This act has the threefold moral object required by the love of God and neighbor: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. Every non-marital sexual act (e.g. premarital sex, adultery) is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Every non-procreative sexual act (e.g. contracepted sex, unnatural sexual acts) is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Every non-unitive sexual act (e.g. unnatural sexual acts) is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

An unnatural sexual act is a per se sexual act, i.e. a deliberate use of the genital sexual faculty, that is not inherently procreative. Unnatural sexual acts include oral sex, anal sex, and manipulative sex. The use of ‘sex toys’ is included in the type of unnatural sexual act called manipulative sex. It is just as immoral to manipulate with an object as with the hand. Unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil because they are non-procreative and also because they are not truly unitive, even if there is a type of mere physical union. For this is not the type of union intended by God for the use of human sexuality.

Some commentators have claimed that unnatural sexual acts might be justified if they are performed about the same time, or in the same context, as an act of natural intercourse. They justify unnatural sexual acts within marriage by means of a number of false claims and foolish arguments.

1. They claim that all the sexual acts in the marital bedroom in one session are one act.

This claim is patently false. In moral theology, an act is a knowing choice. In the marital bedroom, the spouses are able to choose one act, then another, then another, in whatever order, and at whatever point in time they wish; some of these acts may be moral, and others may be immoral. They are able to omit one act, include another act, commits the acts in various orders, just as they choose. Therefore, each of these choices is an act subject to morality.

To say otherwise is to exempt certain choices and certain bodily acts from the moral law. On the pretext that one moral act of natural intercourse occurs, they speak as if none of the other choices in the marital bedroom is subject to the moral law. But in the teaching of the Church, an act is subject to the eternal moral law when it is a knowing choice of the intellect and free will. The Church has never taught that, by combining a series of acts into one set, immoral acts can be justified by a prior, concomitant, or subsequent good act.

When a sexual act is intrinsically evil, due to the deprivation of the marital or unitive or procreative meaning(s), then that act is always gravely immoral. Nothing can justify an intrinsically evil act: not a good intention, not a difficult circumstance, not another act. Intrinsically evil sexual acts are always gravely immoral, even between spouses. Marriage is not a license to commit unnatural sins against human nature, against the Sacrament, and against God.

2. They claim that acts of oral sex, anal sex, and manipulative sex (masturbation of self or of the other person) become moral when used as a type of foreplay.

This claim is utterly false. The aforementioned unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil because they have an evil moral object, specifically, the deprivation of the unitive and procreative meanings from the act. Foreplay is a means to an end, it is a way to prepare for a subsequent act of natural marital relations. The intention to use an intrinsically evil act as a type of foreplay does not change the moral object of the act. The subsequent act of natural marital relations open to life has the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. But the prior sexual act does not. Each act must be evaluated on its own, according to the three fonts of morality as those fonts spring up from, and apply to, that same act. The good end of natural marital relations open to life does not justify the evil means of intrinsically evil sexual acts. The intention to achieve natural intercourse does not justify the choice of an intrinsically evil act. A good intention cannot make an intrinsically evil act moral.

USCCB Catechism: “Each and every sexual act in a marriage needs to be open to the possibility of conceiving a child.” (p. 409)

Unnatural sexual acts are not procreative or unitive; they are not open to the possibility of conceiving a child.

3. They claim that unnatural sexual acts become moral when the climax of the husband is lacking, or occurs at another time during natural intercourse.

The moral object of every good sexual act is threefold: the marital meaning, the unitive meaning, the procreative meaning. Sexual climax is not the moral object of sexual acts. If a sexual act lacks climax, does it become immoral? Suppose that a husband and wife have natural marital relations and she does not achieve climax. Has she sinned because of the deprivation of climax from the act? Not at all. Sexual climax is a consequence in the third font, not a moral object in the second font.

Unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil because they lack the unitive and procreative meanings in the moral object of the act. The presence or absence of climax in an unnatural sexual act does not affect the moral object. And so the absence of climax in an unnatural sexual act cannot cause that act to become moral, even within marriage.

4. They claim that all sexual acts in the marital bedroom are moral, as long as the husband does not spill his seed (i.e. does not climax outside of natural intercourse). This has been termed the ‘one rule’ by some persons.

The teaching of the Magisterium is that each and every act must have three good fonts of morality in order to be moral. The Magisterium has never taught an alternate set of basic moral principles for sexuality, or for marital sexual ethics. If the husband does not spill his seed, but he has a bad intention, then he has sinned. If the husband only climaxes within natural intercourse, but at some point he chooses to commit an intrinsically evil sexual act, he has sinned. If at any time any of the spouses chooses an act with either a bad intention, or an evil moral object, or bad consequences (when the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences), then the person has sinned.

There is no ‘one rule’ that can be used to replace the basic principles of morality when spouses are in the marital bedroom. The following quote is from an article by theologian Alice von Hildebrand, at, comparing the theology of her late husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, with some modern ideas about sexuality (those of Gregory Popcak and Christopher West).

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.’ … 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).”

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

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