A Quote on Marriage misattributed to Pope Pius XII

There is a certain quote, which many sources say is from Pope Pius XII, which is used to justify unnatural sexual acts in marriage. I happened across the original source of the quote. And it isn’t a Pope or Bishop or even a priest.

Here is the quote:

“Marriage is a mutual commitment in which each side ceases to be autonomous, in various ways and also sexually: the sexual liberty in agreement together is great; here, so long as they are not immoderate so as to become the slaves of sensuality, nothing is shameful, if the complete acts—the ones involving ejaculation of the man’s seed—that they engage in, are true and real marriage acts.”

I took the quote from a book, edited by Janet E. Smith: “Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader” (Kindle Locations 1757-1760). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition. The book is a collection of essays by different authors. The quote is from chapter 5, written by G. E. M. Anscombe, titled “Contraception and Chastity”, end of section III.

But that same essay was originally published in the periodical “The Human World” in 1972 as attested by Google books. The article is also in the book “Faith in a Hard Ground: Essays on Religion, Philosophy and Ethics” (p. 185 of the paperback) also written by G.E.M. Anscombe.

Who is Anscombe? She was a British analytic philosopher and a convert to Catholicism, according to Wikipedia.

The same exact lengthy sentence then ends up in the book “Catholic Sexual Ethics” by May, Lawler, and Boyle, without proper attribution (p. 246, 3rd edition paperback). However, in said book, after using the plagiarized sentence, the authors then mention Pope Pius XII, and then they quote some phrases from his Address to Midwives. At no time does Anscombe or May, Lawler, and Boyle attribute the quote to the Pontiff.

It is on the internet that the Anscombe quote is attributed falsely to Pope Pius XII. And then the quote is used to justify unnatural sexual acts in marriage, as if a Roman Pontiff would ever say such a thing. This combination of false attribution and approval of unnatural acts occurs in some EWTN Q and As, as well as in a couple of Reddit threads (now closed), Catholic discussion group threads, and some blogs.

The false attribution claims the quote is from an Address by Pius XII: “Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility,” May 19, 1956. The Address is online in French, Italian, and Spanish. But in any case, there is a long passage in Latin. Here is the French/Latin text. The Speech was given in French and Latin, not in Italian.

I’ve read the Address. At no time, during this speech, did he make the assertion that “nothing is shameful” as long as the sexual acts of the husband are completed only in natural intercourse.

The False Quote

Regardless of who originally wrote it, is the quote a correct expression of Catholic moral theology? Not at all. Here it is again:

“Marriage is a mutual commitment in which each side ceases to be autonomous, in various ways and also sexually: the sexual liberty in agreement together is great; here, so long as they are not immoderate so as to become the slaves of sensuality, nothing is shameful, if the complete acts—the ones involving ejaculation of the man’s seed—that they engage in, are true and real marriage acts.”

The mutual commitment part is fine. Each person is not so autonomous as when they were single, true. But the claim that “the sexual liberty” as long as the two are in agreement “is great” has no basis in ethics, and is essentially an abandonment of sexual ethics. It reminds me of the grave error of sinful secular society, that as long as you have “two consenting adults” nothing is immoral.

Next we have the assertion that the couple must not be immoderate. Yes, immoderation in any moral endeavor is either sinful or will quickly lead to sin. But Anscombe doesn’t just say “don’t be immoderate”. She says that, as long as the couple are not immoderate to an extreme degree, so much so as to be slaves of sensuality, nothing is shameful (or immoral, she implies). Well, it is not true, in ethics, that being immoderate is moral until you reach the extreme of figurative slavery. Certainly, one can sin venially, and then, as the degree of immoderation increases, one might sin mortally, even well short of figurative slavery to sensuality.

Then the other problem with that assertion is she speaks as if being immoderate were the only possible sin in the marital bedroom. In Catholic moral theology, any act, any decision of the human person, can be sinful for any of three reasons: (1) the intention is bad, (2) the chosen act is bad by its very nature (intrinsically evil), or (3) the act can be reasonably anticipated to do more harm than good. Immoderation is a sin of the third type (the third font of morality), which is called circumstances. But one can also sin in the marital bedroom by a bad intention, such as to use bodies and the marital embrace for selfish pleasure, not for the expression of love, the strengthening of the marital bond, and openness to new life.

The declaration that “nothing is shameful” as long as the couple are not immoderate to an extreme degree, and as long as “the complete acts—the ones involving ejaculation of the man’s seed—that they engage in, are true and real marriage acts” is not compatible with Catholic teaching on morality. Listen carefully. The basic principles of ethics apply to all human acts, to all choices in life, including in the marital bedroom. It happens all the time that some author, wishing to justify acts that are not able to be justified by the principles of morality taught by the Church, proposes some new scheme, just for sexual acts. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

To be moral, each and every human act must have only good in the intended end, only good in the moral object (which determines the moral type of the act and whether or not it is intrinsically evil), and then the reasonably anticipated bad consequences must not morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences. There is no special rule saying that you can do whatever you want with your body or your spouse’s body, as long as the right bodily fluid ends up in the right place, at some point in time. The Church has never taught such a rule. Pope Pius XII never taught such a rule. And the Church is unable to teach such a rule, as it would contradict the basic principles of ethics taught by the Church since the time of Christ, and taught by the Old Testament Scriptures for thousands of years further back in time. In fact, it would contradict the eternal moral law which is founded on the eternal justice of God.

In every situation in life, each act is judged on its own as to its morality. You can’t combine a few unnatural sexual acts with one act of natural marital relations, and call the whole set good. That scheme doesn’t work with lying or robbery or murder or anything else. Pope Paul VI specifically considered and rejected that idea for contracepted sexual acts (which are similarly non-procreative as unnatural sexual acts). And you can’t say that, because the sexual act of the husband is supposedly not going to be completed during the unnatural act, that it is not really an act. Any choice you make is an act subject to the eternal moral law of God. So, Anscombe is wrong to make that assertion. And Pope Pius XII never said it.

Finally, please notice that this assertion by Anscombe is not back up with any type of philosophical or theological argument. She simply makes the claim. Ipse dixit. “Married couples, nothing is shameful! Do whatever you want in the marital bedroom. Just close the doors, and pretend there is no morality and no God!” That is essentially the view of so many commentators on this topic. They are not seeking moral truth through reason and faith. They just want someone to tell them that their grave sexual sins are not really sins, so they can get back to living selfish lives, in which Christian spouses treat one another like prostitutes and porn stars and sex objects.

And I’m pretty sure that this single sentence by Anscombe is the source of the wicked “One Rule” of Gregory Popcak. As an author of an article (“Contraception and Chastity”), Anscombe simply asserted that “nothing is shameful” without any basis in fact, reason, or faith. She proposed the rule that the man’s completed sexual acts must be within natural marital relations. This paragraph was plagiarized by May, Lawler, and Boyle for the book “Catholic Sexual Ethics”. Christopher West then quoted the sentence from the May book, and turned that single isolated comment by Anscombe into his basis for approving of unnatural sexual acts. And finally, the comment is further distorted into the “One Rule” of Gregory Popcak, a rule used to justify all manner of obscene and pornographic acts in the marital bedroom.

I don’t really think that Anscombe intended this single sentence to be the sole basis for sexual ethics in marriage (or for the lack thereof). Elsewhere, in the same article, she speaks against unnatural sexual acts and cites Saint Thomas Aquinas, approvingly, in his condemnation of that type of act. Her assertion is not an accurate description of how Catholics should decide what is and is not moral in marital sexual ethics. But she never promoted the kind of shameful and degrading behavior that have made West and Popcak rich and famous.

The most prominent example of this incorrect attribution is found in this Q and A by Fr. Stephen F. Torraco at EWTN.*

“Pope Pius XII put it in this way: ‘Marriage is a mutual commitment in which each side ceases to be autonomous, in various ways and also sexually: the sexual liberty in agreement together is great; here, so long as they are not immoderate so as to become slaves of sensuality, nothing is shameful, if the complete acts – the ones involving ejaculation of the man’s seed – that they engage in are true and real marriage acts.’ Pope Pius XII addressed these matters in his ‘Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility, ‘ May 19, 1956 (AAS, 48.473). The English translation can be found in John C. Ford, SJ, and Gerald A. Kelly, SJ, ‘Contemporary Moral Theology,’ vol. 2, ‘Marriage Questions’ (New man Press, 1964), p. 212. In more recent times, the reasoning behind the Church’s teaching on this matter is presented in Pope John Paul II’s (Karol Wojtyla’s) book, ‘Love and Responsibility’ (Ignatius Press, 1993).”

Fr. Torraco passed away some years ago. But I would think he would like his factual error to be corrected, so I will do so. First of all, Pope Saint John Paul II never said anything supporting the use of unnatural sexual acts in marriage for any reason, neither in ‘Love and Responsibility’, nor in any other work, whether of private theology, or as an act of the Magisterium. Rev. Gregory Gresko confirms this in: At the Heart of the Gospel: the interpersonal communion of hearts

More importantly, the quote is not from Pius XII (“Marriage is a mutual commitment….”), but from the book by May, Lawler, and Boyle. However, they took that exact lengthy sentence from G.E.M. Anscombe; she was a British analytic philosopher, not a priest or moral theologian.

Now, the Address to the Second World Congress is quoted, in part, in Ford and Kelly’s book, “Marriage Questions” on page 212. I will include a photo of that quote with this article, taken from my copy of the book. Here is what the quote from Pius XII in the Ford and Kelly book actually says, in its entirety:

“By reason of this law of nature, the right and power to the complete, directly intended exercise of the sexual faculty [i.e. orgasm] does not belong to man except when he performs the marriage act according to the norm imposed and defined by nature itself….

What has been said up to this point concerning the intrinsic evil of any complete use of the generative faculty outside the natural marriage act is valid in the same way for married people and for single people, whether the complete use of the genital apparatus is exercise by the man or the woman, or by both parties together; whether it is done by means of manual touches or by the interruption of the marriage act; for this is always an act contrary to nature and intrinsically evil.” [Pope Pius XII, Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility.]

There it is. A condemnation from the Magisterium of the claim that the woman can climax at any time, by any means, outside of the natural act. That assertion cannot stand against this teaching of Pope Pius XII.

The word in brackets [i.e. orgasm] was added by Ford and Kelly; it is not in the original address. Notice that the text says “does not belong to man” rather than “to the man”. So this text does not support the idea that the husband alone is under the restriction to climax only in the natural act.

And, further on in the text, we see that this is the correct understanding. It is intrinsically evil for either the man or the woman, in marriage or out of marriage, to deliberately choose “any complete use of the generative faculty” other than in the natural marriage act. Pope Pius XII plainly contradicts the “One Rule” by saying that, no matter in what way it is done, “by means of manual touches” or in some other way, neither the man nor the woman can directly choose the complete use of the sexual faculty (i.e. climax) outside of the natural act. Such use is “intrinsically evil” and “contrary to nature”.

So now we see that these types of acts, that is sexual acts outside of natural marital relations, are unnatural and intrinsically evil, even for the spouses, for both the man and the woman. The only moral sexual act is natural marital relations open to life. That act only is marital, unitive, and procreative. So when the husband or the wife or both choose to commit sexual acts of any kind outside of the natural act, they sin just as much as when “single people” do the same.

Now the Pontiff speaks only about “complete acts”. But his silence on incomplete acts is not evidence for their morality. For, as St. Alphonsus Liguori taught, the lack of climax does not make a sexual act no longer a sexual act, nor can the lack of climax make an intrinsically evil sexual act moral. Moreover, the topic of the address was actually sterility and artificial insemination. What Ford and Kelly leave out of their quote is a long section condemning the use of masturbation as well as coitus interruptus as ways to collect a specimen for artificial insemination. And of course, he condemns artificial insemination itself as well.

Therefore, not only did Pope Pius XII never say the “nothing is shameful” quote, what he actually did say clearly condemns completed unnatural sexual acts in marriage, for either the husband or the wife. So the claim of many persons that “the wife’s climax is not necessary to procreation”, therefore it can occur outside of natural marital relations, was condemned by Pope Pius XII as intrinsically evil and contrary to nature.

More Reading: The Catholic Marriage Bed

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian

* Note that Rev. Stephen F. Torraco, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theology at Assumption College, died on September 22, 2010.