Marital sexual ethics, reply to objections 1

The next series of posts will discuss objections to the teaching on marital sexual ethics found in this article:
Unnatural sexual acts as marital foreplay

There are many common objections, each of which is easily refuted. None of these objections are based on the definitive teaching of the Magisterium on the basic principles of ethics, principles that apply in every case without exception. Each of these objections ignores the three fonts of morality and the specific teaching that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. Other specific problems vary from one objection to another.

Objection 1: Foreplay is not a complete sexual act when it lacks climax. So when it is followed by natural marital relations the completed act is procreative and unitive. The things that are done as foreplay are part of one and the same act.

Reply 1: A sexual act is the deliberate use of the genital sexual faculty.

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes ‘the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.’ All deliberate exercise of sexuality must be reserved to this regular relationship.” (CDF, Persona Humana, IX; inner quote from Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, n. 51.).

“every genital act must be within the framework of marriage.” (CDF, Persona Humana, n. VII.).

“every use of the faculty given by God for the procreation of new life is the right and the privilege of the married state alone” (Casti Connubii, n. 18).

A complete sexual act is any deliberate use of the genital sexual faculty that includes sexual climax. An incomplete sexual act is the same type of act, absent climax. Does the Magisterium teach that an incomplete sexual act is not subject to the moral law, or is not a sexual act at all? Certainly not. Any deliberate use of the sexual faculty, any genital act, outside of marriage is always gravely immoral, regardless of whether sexual climax is present or absent. Even within marriage, every use of the sexual faculty must be inherently procreative and unitive, since God has given the sexual faculty to humanity for use in marriage with procreation as its primary end.

Even when the sexual act is called an incomplete act, due to the absence of climax, it is nevertheless morally complete: it has three fonts of morality and it is subject to the eternal moral law based on those three fonts. The incompleteness pertaining to climax is not a moral incompleteness, such that the act would have no morality, or would take its morality from other acts.

In moral theology, an act is an exercise of will and intellect; in other words, an act is a choice of the free will based on knowledge in the intellect. A knowing choice is an act, and all knowing choices are subject to the eternal moral law.

So in the marital bedroom, each and every knowing choice is an act subject to the moral law. No deliberate choice in human life, nor concerning human sexuality, is exempt from the moral law. Labeling an act ‘foreplay’ does not exempt these knowing choices from morality. Each knowing choice of foreplay is an act. Every act of foreplay is subject to the eternal moral law. To be moral, each and every knowingly chosen act must have three good fonts of morality:

1. intention, the intended end or purpose for which the act is chosen;
2. moral object, which determines the moral nature of the chosen act;
3. circumstances, especially consequences.

The intention or purpose of preparing for natural intercourse, the circumstance that climax does not occur, and the nature of any other knowingly chosen acts cannot change the moral object and moral nature of an unnatural sexual act. The three fonts of morality always apply. Unnatural sexual acts have an evil moral object because they are a deliberate use of the sexual faculty that is not procreative or unitive. The intention, the circumstances, the absence of climax, the nature of other acts committed within the same general time frame all cannot change the moral object from evil to good. As long as the choice is a deliberate use of the sexual faculty, this choice is an act that must have the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings as its proximate end in the moral object. The intended end, the end result (consequences), and the fonts of other knowingly chosen acts are not relevant to the moral object of that particular choice.

The moral object of an act does not depend on achieving the end result of the act. So if a person attempts to commit murder, but is interrupted or otherwise fails, he has knowingly chosen the same type of act, murder, that is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Similarly, if a person knowingly chooses to use the genital sexual faculty, but does not reach climax for whatever reason, the act is still intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Climax is a consequence in the circumstances of an act; it is not the moral object of a sexual act. If climax were a good moral object, then any sexual act with climax would be moral, and any sexual act without climax would be immoral. It is absurd to treat sexual climax as if it were a moral object. The moral object of any moral sexual act is the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings.

A deliberate use of the sexual faculty that lacks climax is nevertheless a sexual act, subject to the same moral law as a sexual act that includes climax. When such a deliberate use of the sexual faculty lacks the marital or unitive or procreative meanings, that act is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of whether or not climax occurs.

First example: if a man rapes a woman, but neither person reaches climax, who would claim that a sexual act has not occurred? Rape is a gravely immoral sexual act regardless of whether or not climax occurs.

Second example: if a man or woman begins to masturbate, but is interrupted, so that climax does not occur, the act is nevertheless a gravely immoral sexual act. Under the eternal moral law, the person deliberately chose an act that is intrinsically evil because it is not ordered toward the proper moral object of all sexual acts: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings.

Third example: a young unmarried couple decide to have sexual relations for the first time. Neither person reaches sexual climax. So can we say that they have not have sexual relations? Such a claim would be absurd.

Fourth example: an adult sexually-abuses a child, but absent climax. Who would claim that these acts are not sexual acts at all and therefore are not subject to the condemnation of illicit sexual acts by the moral law?

Fifth example: a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, but they are interrupted and so neither person reaches sexual climax. When the man’s wife and the woman’s husband find out, will they say that no sexual act occurred at all because climax was absent?

In all of the above examples, a sexual act is a deliberate use of the sexual faculty, regardless of whether or not climax occurs, and that sexual act is subject to the same moral law as any other sexual act.

Therefore, when the knowingly chosen acts of foreplay include any sexual act (the deliberate use of the genital sexual faculty), that sexual act must be moral under all three fonts of morality. And concerning its moral object in particular, that sexual act must be inherently ordered toward the threefold good moral object of the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. All unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral because these acts are not inherently procreative or unitive. The lack of sexual climax does not change the moral object or the moral nature of these acts. A subsequent act of natural marital relations cannot change the moral object or moral nature of these prior unnatural sexual acts. Such acts remain morally evil, by their very nature.

Intrinsically evil sexual acts are always gravely immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

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6 Responses to Marital sexual ethics, reply to objections 1

  1. Chet says:

    The three fonts of morality always apply.

    Well, but they apply to acts, not to portions or pieces of an act. The action to contract a muscle is surely not in and of itself moral or immoral; but the act of pulling a trigger and discharging a firearm to lethal effect surely is an act subject to morality.

    Therefore if an act of foreplay is simply a portion of another sexual act, its moral status is wrapped up in the morality of the complete sexual act, not in its intrinsic nature.

    […]

    One further question – imagine that my wife and I are engaged in intercourse absent contraception and with the intent only to reach climax without regard to her pleasure or mine, but we’re interrupted by a phone call. In that situation which of us has sinned? My wife and I or the caller, or all three?

    • ronconte says:

      Each knowing choice is an act subject to the moral law. In saying ‘decision to contract a muscle’ you don’t give enough information to determine the morality of the act. But every decision is either morally permissible or immoral.

      Each act of foreplay is a knowing choice. It is never the case in morality that any number and kind of act can be justified as long as these are followed by one good act.

      The husband and wife who have natural marital relations, but are interrupted (so that no procreation can have occurred) have not sinned. They chose a type of act that is ordered toward procreation. It is not the attainment of procreation that makes the act moral, but the inherent ordering of the act toward that good end. A couple who use contraception, but nevertheless conceive a child, have still committed the sin of contraception. They chose a type of act ordered toward the evil of preventing conception. A couple who have natural marital relations, but are infertile so that they do not conceive, have not sinned, because they chose an act ordered toward procreation. It is not the attainment of the moral object that makes the act good or evil, but the inherent ordering of the act toward that good or evil end.

  2. Chet says:

    It is not the attainment of procreation that makes the act moral, but the inherent ordering of the act toward that good end.

    You don’t apply this standard consistently, because I think you know that it would undercut your argument. But obviously by this standard of “inherent ordering” marital foreplay as a part of, and for the purpose of, procreative intercourse would be permissible, because the act of foreplay was inherently ordered towards a morally good sexual act.

    Either that, or you maintain that foreplay is inherently ordered towards some other purpose, but that’s clearly not the case in the married couples under discussion – their intent is for foreplay to be a part of a sex act that ultimately climaxes in a procreative act, thus we know that their foreplay is inherently ordered towards it. I mean that’s just by the very meaning of the term “purpose.”

  3. ronconte says:

    The purpose for which the act is chosen (as foreplay, to prepare for a subsequent act) is in the font called intention (first font). The inherent purpose of the act itself, i.e. its inherent moral meaning, is in the font called moral object (second font). The third font is the circumstances. All three fonts must be good for an act to be moral. So an act of foreplay is not justified by the intention to prepare for a later act. The moral object is the proximate end (not the intended end, and not an end found in another act).

    Also, unnatural sexual acts are not really deserving of the term ‘foreplay’, since they are sexual acts in themselves. So one cannot justify an intrinsically evil sexual act by saying that it prepares for a subsequent good sexual act.

  4. David says:

    In addition to my comment on the previous post, I have to note with some amusement that the author makes the following statements:
    Rape is “a gravely immoral sexual act”
    Masturbation is “a gravely immoral sexual act”.

    This is the point at which any person whose moral compass hasn’t been utterly warped by their religious beliefs should get up and leave the table – anyone who is prepared to speak of a violent, invasive crime in exactly the same terms as a non-victimising private act has exempted himself from the realms of rational discussion.

    • ronconte says:

      Some mortal sins (grave sins) are more sinful than other mortal sins. Rape is a much more serious sin than masturbation. Adultery is a more serious sin than pre-marital sex. Genocide is a much more serious sin than the murder of one person, but both acts are mortal sins. Calling two different acts ‘gravely immoral’ does not imply that they are equal in sinfulness or immorality. The classification of ‘gravely immoral’ is broad, not narrow.

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