Catholic Moral Theology on Marital Relations

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

The eternal moral law is universal, applying to all persons, at all times, in all places. There is no exemption from the moral law for sexuality, or for the marital bedroom. Every knowingly chosen act must be good in all three fonts in order to be moral. The same basic principles of morality apply to sexual ethics as to all other areas of human life.

As is true for all knowingly chosen acts, a sexual act is immoral if any one or more of the three fonts of morality is bad. If anyone tells you otherwise, no matter how clever their explanation, they are leading you astray. The teaching of the Magisterium on the three fonts of morality is clear. This teaching on the basic principles of ethics is found in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in the Compendium of the Catechism, and in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Catechism, and in many magisterial documents on particular moral issues. It is not an open question.

Now certainly, when considering any particular act, the particular intention (first font), the particular act with its inherent moral meaning determined by its moral object (second font), and the particular circumstances (third font), must be correctly evaluated in order to determine the morality of the overall act. These particulars will vary from one act to another, and from one type of act to another. But the basic principles are always the same, without any exception, for each and every knowingly chosen act.

If anyone states or implies that the basic principles of morality do not apply to sexuality, or that there are exceptions to the basic principles of morality for sexuality, or that a different set of basic principles of morality apply to sexuality, then he has gone astray from the true Catholic Faith. Marital sexual acts are not exempt from the eternal moral law. They are subject to the same basic principles of morality as all other knowingly chosen acts.

Second Vatican Council: “…there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion.” [Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, n. 36.]

THE FIRST AND THIRD FONTS

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Now according to Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious.” [Cardinal Seper, CDF, Persona Humana, n. X.]

Sexual acts are always a grave matter. Therefore, whenever a sexual act is immoral under the second font, the act itself is not only intrinsically evil and always immoral, but also always objectively gravely immoral. Every intrinsically evil sexual act is always an objective mortal sin.
However, if a sexual act is inherently good, having all three meanings (marital, unitive, procreative), the act may still be a sin under the first or third fonts. And if it is a sin under the first or the third fonts, but not under the second font, then the sin may be venial or mortal, depending on the gravity of the intention and the circumstances.

A sexual act might possibly be done with good or bad intention, or in good or bad circumstances. Even if a sexual act is moral under the second font, the person nevertheless sins if the first or third fonts are bad. A husband and wife are not exempt from the requirement of the eternal moral law that every intention (both the intended end and the intended means) must be good in order to avoid sin. If a husband and wife have natural marital relations open to life, which is moral under the second font, but with bad intention, or in circumstances when the bad consequences outweigh the good, then they sin.

Sexual ethics often focuses on intrinsically evil acts, i.e. acts that are immoral under the second font. But as is true for all knowingly chosen acts, even when an act is not intrinsically evil, the first and third fonts must also be good for the overall act to be moral. It is false to say that, if a husband and wife are having natural marital relations open to life, they are certainly not sinning. The act itself of natural marital relations open to life is not intrinsically evil. But, as is always the case, the first font (intention) and the third font (circumstances) must also be good in order to avoid sin.

THE SECOND FONT

As is true for all knowingly chosen acts, a sexual act is intrinsically evil whenever its moral object is bad. A moral object is bad whenever the act itself is inherently ordered toward the direct and voluntary deprivation of a good required to be present by true love of God, neighbor, self. Every good moral object is a particular fulfillment of true love of God and of your neighbor as yourself. Every bad moral object is a direct and voluntary deprivation that is in some particular way contrary to true love of God, neighbor, self. And this one threefold love is the basis for all morality. Any act that is contrary to love of God, or love of neighbor, or a true ordered love of self, is contrary to all three.

A. Marital

All sexual acts outside of marriage are intrinsically evil. The deprivation of the marital meaning in any sexual act is sufficient to cause that act to be intrinsically evil. All non-marital sexual acts are intrinsically evil. To be moral, a sexual act must be marital.

Pope Leo XIII: “Marriage has God for its Author, and was from the very beginning a kind of foreshadowing of the Incarnation of His Son; and therefore there abides in it something holy and religious; not extraneous, but innate; not derived from men, but implanted by nature.” [Pope Leo XIII, Arcanum (On Christian Marriage), n. 19.]

Pope Pius XI: “Nor must We omit to remark, in fine, that since the duty entrusted to parents for the good of their children is of such high dignity and of such great importance, 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, by the law of God and of nature, and must be confined absolutely within the sacred limits of that state.” [Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, n. 18.]

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “This same principle, which the Church holds from Divine Revelation and from her authentic interpretation of the natural law, is also the basis of her traditional doctrine, which states that the use of the sexual function has its true meaning and moral rectitude only in true marriage.” [Cardinal Seper, CDF, Persona Humana, n. V.]

Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Through marriage, in fact, the love of married people is taken up into that love which Christ irrevocably has for the Church, while dissolute sexual union [16] defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit which the Christian has become. Sexual union therefore is only legitimate if a definitive community of life has been established between the man and the woman. This is what the Church has always understood and taught, and she finds a profound agreement with her doctrine in men’s reflection and in the lessons of history. Experience teaches us that love must find its safeguard in the stability of marriage, if sexual intercourse is truly to respond to the requirements of its own finality and to those of human dignity.” Footnote 16 states: “Sexual intercourse outside marriage is formally condemned I Cor 5:1; 6:9; 7:2; 10:8 Eph. 5:5; I Tim 1:10; Heb 13:4; and with explicit reasons I Cor 6:12-20.” [Cardinal Seper, CDF, Persona Humana, n. VII.] The term ‘dissolute sexual union’ refers to sexual acts without the marital bond.

Numerous other texts could be cited, from Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, all of which teach that any type of sexual act outside of marriage is always inherently gravely immoral. But the faithful already know and live by this truth, that sexual relations is only moral within marriage.

The marital meaning is not the physical sexual act itself. The marital meaning is one part of the threefold moral object that determines the essential moral nature of the sexual act. The full moral meaning of the sexual act is found only within a marriage relationship. The act of natural intercourse is inherently directed at expressing and strengthening the marriage relationship. For the act of natural intercourse is inherently ordered toward the marriage itself, as ordained by God. The physical sexual act is the concrete act (the act itself), but every concrete act has an inherent moral meaning as determined by its moral object. Thus the marital meaning of the sexual act is based upon the physical act, but is itself of the moral order. The marital meaning of the sexual act is based upon, but also transcends, the mere physical act.

B. Unitive

All non-unitive sexual acts are intrinsically evil. The deprivation of the unitive meaning in any sexual act is sufficient to cause that act to be intrinsically evil. To be moral, a sexual act must be unitive.

Pope Paul VI: “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. The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life — and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.” [Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, n. 12.]

The unitive significance (or meaning) of the marital act is found in that type of intimate physical union, between husband and wife, which is inherently capable of procreation (genital-to-genital intercourse, i.e. natural intercourse). The marital act is intended by God to unite two whole persons, and to express and strengthen their union in love. The unitive significance is “the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife.” [Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, n. 11.] The unitive meaning achieves its fullest realization only when united with the procreative and marital meanings. An act of natural intercourse apart from marriage, or with the use of contraception, or both, is not fully unitive, as God intends. For this unitive meaning is more than the mere natural physical union that occurs during the act; it also implies the continuous union of the man and woman in marriage, with openness to the procreation of children. The unitive meaning is not sexual climax, nor sexual pleasure, nor mere physical unity.

The unitive meaning is not the physical sexual act itself. The unitive meaning is one part of the threefold moral object that determines the essential moral nature of the sexual act. This moral object determines the essential moral nature of the natural marital act, so that the act itself is inherently ordered toward the union of a man and a woman, in marriage, with openness to new life, as ordained by God. The physical union of the natural sexual act is the concrete act (the act itself), but every concrete act has an inherent moral meaning as determined by its moral object. Thus the unitive meaning is based upon a particular physical act, but is itself of the moral order. The unitive meaning of the sexual act is based upon, but also transcends, the mere physical act.

C. Procreative

All non-procreative sexual acts are intrinsically evil. The deprivation of the procreative meaning in any sexual act is sufficient to cause that act to be intrinsically evil. Therefore, all non-procreative sexual acts are intrinsically evil. To be moral, a sexual act must be procreative.

Pope Paul VI: “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.” [Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, n. 11.]

Pope Paul VI: “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.” [Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, n. 14.]

Pope John Paul II: “With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: ‘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 (cf. Rom 3:8) — 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’.” [Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 80; inner quote from Humanae Vitae, n. 14.]

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

Even though each sexual act within marriage does not produce new life, only natural intercourse is that type of act inherently ordered toward the procreation of new life. And so, even if the couple is infertile, as long as each sexual act within marriage is the natural type (genital-to-genital intercourse), the sexual act remains inherently ordered toward procreation. For it is not the attainment of the moral object that makes the act moral, but rather the inherent ordering of the act itself toward that moral object. The act of natural marital relations open to life by a married couple who are infertile has the procreative meaning in its moral object, even if no child is conceived. A contracepted act of natural marital relations lacks the procreative meaning in its moral object, even if by chance a child is conceived. For the contracepted sexual act is not inherently ordered toward procreation. But the infertile natural sexual act is inherently ordered toward procreation.

The procreative meaning is not the physical sexual act itself. The procreative meaning is one part of the threefold moral object that determines the essential moral nature of the sexual act. For the act of natural intercourse is inherently ordered toward the procreation of children, within marriage, as ordained by God. The physical sexual act is the concrete act (the act itself), but every concrete act has an inherent moral meaning as determined by its moral object. Thus the procreative meaning is based upon the physical act, but is itself of the moral order. The procreative meaning of the sexual act is based upon, but also transcends, the mere physical act.

The Threefold Moral Object

To be moral, each and every sexual act must be unitive and procreative and marital. The absence of any one or more of these meanings is a deprivation of a good required by true love of God, neighbor, self. The eternal moral law requires each and every sexual act to have all three meanings within the moral object. The deprivation of any one or more of these meanings results in an evil moral object. For evil is properly defined as a deprivation of good, and moral evil is properly defined as the deprivation of a good required by the moral law. True love of God, neighbor, self is the single threefold principle upon which the entire moral law rests.

When the moral object is deprived of a good required by the moral law, the act itself is intrinsically evil. Non-marital sexual acts are intrinsically evil, because the moral object is deprived of the marital meaning. Non-unitive sexual acts are intrinsically evil, because the moral object is deprived of the unitive meaning. Non-procreative sexual acts are intrinsically evil, because the moral object is deprived of the procreative meaning. Without any exception at all, the moral object of each and every sexual act must have all three meanings in order to be good. The deprivation of any one or more of these three meanings makes the act itself intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. A sexual act is never moral unless its moral object possesses all three meanings: unitive, procreative, marital. These three meanings are truly one threefold moral object. For God has ordained that these three distinct meanings be always united and never separated, in each and every sexual act.

The above text is an excerpt from my book:
Roman Catholic Marital Sexual Ethics
available in print (paperback, 388 pp.) and in Kindle format.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to Catholic Moral Theology on Marital Relations

  1. J. Neagram says:

    What is not clear to me in your explanation is what do you mean by each and every sexual act ? I only see one sexual act: sexual intercourse with your wife or husband that emcompasses the meanings as set out in your article. How can there be sexual acts within a sexual act? Now I can see that some may think, well, a couple may like sodomy and what not and include it in the sexual act to legitimize it, if you will, but that is not my concern nor is it a correct understanding of the sexual act. Excluding all manner of depravities in the sexual act, I’m not sure the sexual act can be divided.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Humanae Vitae uses the phrase: “each and every act of sexual intercourse”, so it’s not uniquely my term.

      HV asks the question: “Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act?” And the answer is “No”. We cannot group together a set of acts, and decide their morality based on a subset of the acts. As in all other areas of human life, each act stands on its own as to its morality.

      In morality, an act is a knowing choice, interior or exterior. In the marital bedroom, a sexual act is “a deliberate use of the sexual faculty”, a “genital act” — these are the terms used by documents of the CDF (quoted in my book).

      But all knowing choices are judged as to their morality based on the three fonts (sources)
      1. intention – the intended end
      2. moral object – the type of act being chosen; the moral nature of the act (“the act itself”)
      3. circumstances – the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences
      The three fonts together determine the morality of the overall act.

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