John Paul II on Marital Sexual Ethics

Pope Saint John Paul II wrote the most extensive teaching document on the basic principles of ethics in the history of the Church: Veritatis Splendor. That monumental work of the holy Pontiff is utterly ignored by theology of the body teachers today. For they wish to teach sexual ethics without the ethics. And if they were to incorporate the magisterial teachings of John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor into their own writings, they would have to change what they teach.

For Veritatis Splendor condemns all intrinsically evil acts as always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstance. Therefore, unnatural sexual acts must also be condemned, whether they are committed by single persons or married persons, whether by same-sex couples or a husband and wife. Nothing can justify the deliberate knowing choice of any type of intrinsically evil act, including unnatural sexual acts. And while some commentators have tried to claim that John Paul II approved, in some way, of the use of unnatural sexual acts in marriage, a close look at this writings refutes this falsehood.

His theology of the body lectures

John Paul II gave a series of 129 lectures on one topic, which has come to be known as the theology of the body catechesis. Despite the lengthy nature of these talks, not once does he say anything in approval of unnatural sexual acts. He does not even say something innocent, which proponents of unnatural sexual acts would be able to distort to seem to approve of unnatural acts. And yet they put his name and the term “theology of the body” on their own approval of grave sexual sins.

The real theology of the body, as taught by John Paul II, contains zero approval for unnatural sexual acts in marriage. The real theology of the body contains nothing even remotely like the “One Rule”. The real theology of the body contains no approval for completed sexual acts for the wife, outside of the natural marital act, and no difference in the application of the eternal moral law to wives as compared to husbands.

Does he speak about unnatural sexual acts in the lecture series? Not directly. But he does teach that the conjugal act must be both unitive and procreative. And the basis for unnatural sexual acts to be called unnatural is that they are neither unitive nor procreative. That deprivation is the reason these acts are sinful in the first place. And Pope John Paul II teaches that each conjugal act must, instead, be unitive and procreative. This teaching is an indirect condemnation of unnatural sexual acts. (There are direct condemnations of unnatural sexual acts by the Magisterium, as explained in the chapter The Teaching of the Church.)

John Paul II, Theology of the body: “In the Encyclical Humanae Vitae we read: ‘The Church, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches as absolutely required that in any use whatever of marriage there must be no impairment of its natural capacity to procreate human life’ (HV, n. 11).” [TOB 115]

The Church teaches, based on natural law, as an absolute requirement, that in “any use whatever” of marriage, there must be “no impairment of the natural capacity to procreate”. Even though the topic is Humanae Vitae and contraception, the teaching of the Church is broad, not narrow: “any use whatever of marriage” and “no impairment” of any kind. This includes using contraception and choosing non-procreative sexual acts. It would be self-contradictory to say otherwise.

As the lecture continues, John Paul II speaks broadly of “two significances of the marital act” as well as “their inseparable connection” And his conclusion is equally broad: “Herein lies precisely the moral norm and the corresponding regulation of human acts in the sphere of sexuality.” This is a moral norm based on natural law, and it regulates all “human acts in the sphere of sexuality”. [TOB 115]

“Moreover, since in the norm the moral value is expressed in a binding way, it follows that acts in conformity with the norm are morally right, while acts contrary to it are intrinsically illicit.” [TOB 115]

Any acts in the sphere of sexuality which are in conformity with the norm — that any use of the sexual faculty in marriage must be unitive and procreative — are “morally right, while acts contrary to it are intrinsically illicit.” It would be simply dishonest to restrict his meaning to contraception alone. The wording is consistently broad, encompassing any deliberate use of sex in marriage. (Of course, outside of marriage, non-unitive and non-procreative sexual acts are also intrinsically illicit.)

Although unnatural sexual acts are not mentioned specifically, those acts are undeniably non-procreative, and therefore they fall into the category of acts in marriage which are “intrinsically illicit” because they do not contain both significances: unitive and procreative. If every conjugal act must be unitive and procreative, then unnatural sexual acts are necessarily excluded. The broadness of the language in the theology of the body lectures and in Humanae Vitae must be taken as it is written. And in the very next lecture (#116), Pope Saint John Paul II makes this clear:

“This encyclical [Humanae Vitae] is not limited to recalling the moral norm concerning conjugal life…. It also constitutes the development and completion of the questions contained there, especially regarding the question of the ‘harmony of human love with respect for life.’ On this point, we read the following words in Gaudium et Spes: ‘The Church issues the reminder that a true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life and those pertaining to the fostering of authentic conjugal love’ (GS 51).” [TOB 116]

The bodily expression of conjugal love, in marital sexual acts, must always respect “the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life”. These two aspects of marital sex, the unitive expression of love and the openness to procreation, can never be separated by any deliberate knowing choice. Therefore, Pope Saint John Paul II’s reading of Humanae Vitae and of Gaudium et Spes (from the Second Vatican Council) is that the Magisterium teaches the existence, under natural law, “of the inseparable connection between the transmission of life and authentic marital love.” [TOB 116]

In the next lecture (#117), Pope Saint John Paul II speaks of responsible parenthood.

“Married people should realize that in their behaviour they may not simply follow their own fancy but must be ruled by conscience — and conscience ought to be conformed to the law of God in the light of the teaching authority of the Church, which is the authentic interpreter of divine law. For the divine law throws light on the meaning of married love, protects it and leads it to truly human fulfilment” (GS 50). [TOB 117]

In theology of the body lecture #118, Pope Saint John Paul II speaks on the same subject. But in doing so, he inevitably reviews the fundamental teaching of the Church on the conjugal act, a teaching which also applies to unnatural sexual acts.

“According to the criterion of this truth, which should be expressed in the language of the body, the conjugal act signifies not only love, but also potential fecundity. Therefore it cannot be deprived of its full and adequate significance by artificial means. In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act. The one is activated together with the other and in a certain sense the one by means of the other. This is what the Encyclical teaches (cf. HV 12). Therefore, in such a case the conjugal act, deprived of its interior truth because it is artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love.” [TOB 118]

Whenever the conjugal act (marital sex) is “deprived of its procreative capacity” — not by nature, as when old age or disease intervenes — but by the deliberate choices of husband or wife, it is thereby “deprived of its interior truth”, and it “ceases to be an act of love”. But contraception is not the only way to deprive sex of its procreative capacity. Sinful persons sometimes do so by choosing non-procreative non-unitive types of sexual acts. However, such a choice is intrinsically illicit because it contradicts the meaning and truth of the conjugal relationship and its sexual expression.

In lecture #108, John Paul II speaks of concupiscence, that tendency in persons conceived with original sin (remaining even after baptism) toward sinful desire. As a tendency, it is not, in itself, sin. But the holy Pontiff notes that concupiscence certainly can and often does lead to “moral evil”, including sins “contrary to the virtue of chastity (whether conjugal or extra-conjugal)”. The spouses in a Christian marriage can sin against the virtue of chastity, not only by “extra-conjugal” sins of adultery, but also within the conjugal relationship. [TOB 108]

In the course of 129 lectures on the theology of the body, and a book titled Love and Responsibility, John Paul II speaks of marital sex very many times. He never states, suggests, or implies anything remotely like the “One Rule”, that nothing is shameful as long as the husband climaxes in the natural act. He never says that. Instead, he repeatedly states the teaching of the Church, which is from natural law, that each conjugal act must be unitive and procreative. And he clearly teaches that there are sins against chastity within the conjugal relationship. Not every marital sexual act is moral. Non-unitive non-procreative sexual acts are grave sins against marital chastity.

In the theology of the body lectures, John Paul II uses the word “shame” over one hundred times, and the word “lust” over three hundred times. And the reason is that the sexual faculty is prone, in fallen sinners subject to concupiscence, to misuse in sexual sins. The Sacrament of Matrimony does not remove concupiscence, and so the spouses must guard against moral evil of the type contrary to the virtue of chastity. Conjugal sins are possible. It is false to say that the only possible sexual sin within marriage is male completion outside of natural relations. That claim is contrary to reason and irreconcilable with the theology of the body lecture series. It is a claim found only in the radically reinterpreted version of theology of the body, offered by certain popular authors.

His book: Love and Responsibility

This book deals with the subjects of marriage, the body, and marital sex. It is a continuation of, and further exploration of, themes discussed in the theology of the body lecture series. Love and Responsibility is essentially a work of the theology of the body. The book is strongly analytical, and contains some technical material from the sciences, as well as philosophical reflections. The basis for this analysis is the human being as a person, that is, as a person in himself, before others, and as someone with a personal relationship with God.

Unlike the popular versions of the theology of the body, Love and Responsibility emphasizes true spiritual love as expressed in chastity and self-denial, and as it struggles against concupiscence:

“For the person, being a person, should be an object of love. Sex, however, which is above all manifested in the body, and which as a property of the body falls under the senses, creates a possibility of concupiscence. The concupiscence of the flesh is most closely linked to sensuality.”

Whereas John Paul II discusses the serious moral dangers of the flesh, of sensuality, and of the misuse of the body, the popular authors quickly dismiss these things and instead exalt sex unequivocally, sensualize the theology of the body, and sexualize Christianity. That approach is foreign to the writings of the holy Pontiff.

But on the topic at hand, Love and Responsibility contains no approval for unnatural sexual acts. The popular theology of the body authors repeatedly make the claim that such acts are permissible (under the “One Rule”). But Pope Saint John Paul II, in his magisterial teachings, his theology of the body lectures, and his book Love and Responsibility NEVER states that such acts are good, or holy, or even technically permissible.

Proponents of unnatural acts will point out that the Pontiff is silent on the topic, never condemning such acts. But I disagree. He repeatedly states the absolute necessity that each conjugal act remain ordered toward procreation. This is stated in many different ways. We saw this in Familiaris Consortio, and in his understanding of Humanae Vitae, and in the theology of the body lectures. But in Love and Responsibility, the same requirement of natural law is explained at length, apart from Humanae Vitae.

“Both, i.e., procreation (reproduction) as well as love, are realized on the basis of the conscious choice of persons. When a man and a woman within marriage consciously and freely choose sexual intercourse, then together with it they choose at the same time the possibility of procreation; they choose to participate in creating (to apply the proper meaning of procreatio). Only then do they place their sexual intercourse within marriage on the truly personal level, when they consciously unite in their conduct the one and the other.”

The words in parentheses are in the original; they are not my additions. Pope Saint John Paul II states unequivocally that the choice of “sexual intercourse” within marriage must always be “at the same time” a choice of the possibility of procreation. The choice of sexual intercourse is the choice “to participate in creating”. Only then is their sexual intercourse truly on a personal level, when they consciously unite the conduct of sexual intercourse with openness to procreation. This implies an unstated rejection of sexual acts which are not inherently ordered toward that good end of procreation.

But as the book continues, the point is stated more clearly:

“When a man and a woman who have conjugal relations together positively exclude the possibility of fatherhood and motherhood, then eo ipso the intention of each of them turns away from the person and is directed toward the use alone: the ‘person co-creating love’ disappears and what remains is a ‘partner of an erotic lived-experience.’ And this most thoroughly contradicts the proper orientation of the act of love.”

“By positively excluding the possibility of procreation in conjugal intercourse, a man and a woman inevitably shift the whole lived-experience toward sexual pleasure alone. Then the content of the lived-experience becomes the ‘using,’ whereas it should be precisely the ‘loving,’ while the using (in the second meaning of the verb ‘to use’) should merely accompany the conjugal act.”

The Latin phrase “eo ipso” means “by the thing itself” or “in itself”. Any deliberate knowing choice of the husband or wife in their sexual acts which positively excludes parenthood is sinful. It thoroughly contradicts the proper orientation of the conjugal act as an act of procreative love. And especially when this is done by unnatural sexual acts, the meaning of the act becomes “sexual pleasure alone”, rather than cooperating together in an act of love open to new human life.

The truth of this destruction of the meaning and value of the conjugal act, by positively excluding the possibility of procreation, is clearly demonstrated (unintentionally by that author) in the book “Holy Sex…” which promotes all manner of perverse sexual acts as well as the use of sex toys, and which contains short fictional stories with sexually explicit details. When you deprive sex, even marital sex, of the unitive and procreative meanings, you end up idolizing sexual pleasure. And this is also seen in discussions of theology of the body online, where the main focus is most often on which unnatural sexual acts are permissible. There is no orientation toward love or procreation. The whole point of the discussion becomes: how can we get more sexual pleasure, while pretending to follow the rules, and, who will provide us with rationalizations, which we can use to justify unrestrained sexual pleasure.

There are different ways to “positively exclude the possibility of fatherhood and motherhood”. Contraception is one way. But the Pontiff goes on at great length in this point about openness to parenthood, and he mentions contraception only occasionally. It is evident that John Paul II knows that some sexual acts are inherently non-procreative. He does not state this in crass and obscene language, as some theology of the body authors do. But do you really believe that, in all of his theology of the body writings, the topic is entirely excluded? Other theology of the body authors deal with this point, as do authors on marital sexual ethics. But instead the Pontiff uses the language of theology and philosophy to absolutely exclude the use of unnatural sexual acts, without using language that would be unbecoming of a Roman Pontiff, even in a book of private theology.

The same point holds true, even more so, for the theology of the body lectures, which were papal audiences given at the Vatican. He could not discuss unnatural sexual acts in that setting in any kind of direct or frank language. And so he places the main body of the discussion on this topic in Love and Responsibility, worded with sufficient clarity and specificity to make his meaning clear.

“Sexual intercourse of the spouses carries with itself the possibility of procreation, and therefore their love in this act of intercourse demands the inclusion of the possibility of parenthood, of motherhood and fatherhood. The positive exclusion of this possibility contradicts not only the order of nature, but at the same time love itself — the union of a woman and a man on a truly personal level. For this exclusion makes sexual ‘use’ itself the only content of the conjugal act.”

This is the same teaching with a somewhat different wording. I don’t know how many times one Pope or another, one magisterial document or another, one Saint after another, has to say the same thing before the faithful will accept it. The act of sexual intercourse in marriage “carries with itself”, that is, in the very nature of the act, “the possibility of procreation”. And therefore conjugal love, the true spiritual love of the spouses expressed in the natural marital act, “demands the inclusion of the possibility of parenthood”. John Paul II says that the possibility of procreation is inherent to sexual intercourse, and it absolutely demands that the spouses not do anything to positively exclude procreation from their sexual acts.

And why is this inclusion of procreation demanded by conjugal love? It is because its positive exclusion, by any deliberate knowing choice, “contradicts not only the order of nature, but at the same time love itself”. Which kinds of acts represent this positive exclusion? Not only contraceptive acts, but also all unnatural sexual acts. That is why John Paul II says it contradicts “the order of nature”, i.e. these acts are unnatural. They are also not acts of true conjugal love. Instead, this exclusion, by the choice of unnatural sexual acts, makes the activity of the spouses “sexual ‘use’ itself” as the “only content of the conjugal act”.

Now I have a question for the reader. How naïve are you? We all know that Pope John Paul II was a celibate priest (bishop, cardinal, pope) and a Saint. But, prior to becoming a priest, he was also a university student, an actor, did compulsory military training, and he worked variously: “as a messenger for a restaurant, a manual labourer in a limestone quarry and for the Solvay chemical factory….” [Wikipedia] And later, as a priest, he heard innumerable confessions. So, when he wrote Love and Responsibility, he was an elderly man, with varied life experiences that would inform him about the facts of the sexual activities of sinners.

My point is this: the holy Pontiff knew about unnatural sexual acts. He understood that these acts are inherently non-procreative. So when he writes at length, saying that conjugal acts demand, by their very nature, to be ordered toward procreation, and then he warns the faithful against the evil of choosing to exclude this procreative end, do you actually think that he does not realize this applies also to unnatural sexual acts? Later on, he does delve into the topic of contraception. But he goes on for page after page, about the necessity of conjugal acts to be open to parenthood (even if only in principle for elderly persons), before any mention of contraception. Note the bold portions of the following quote:

“It is not necessary for them to will procreation explicitly. They can also have conjugal relations despite permanent or periodic infertility. For infertility itself does not exclude this interior basis of ‘I can,’ i.e., ‘I am ready’ to accept the fact of conception, should it occur. It is another matter when conception does not occur because it is excluded by nature. After all, even old spouses who physically are unable to become parents have relations — in this case procreation is excluded by nature.”

“It cannot be otherwise. Man must reconcile himself to his natural greatness. But precisely when he so deeply enters into the order of nature, when he immerses himself, as it were, in the vehement processes of nature, he cannot forget that he is a person. Instinct alone will not solve anything in him, for everything appeals to his ‘interiority,’ to reason and responsibility. What appeals to him in a particular way is this love that stands at the cradle of the coming to be of human kind. Responsibility for love — to which we paid particular attention in these reflections — is bound most closely with responsibility for procreation. Therefore, by no means can love be separated from parenthood, the readiness for which constitutes a necessary condition of love.”

First, John Paul II notes that “infertility itself does not exclude this interior” willingness to accept conception. He also points out the obvious, that elderly spouses still have sexual relations. But even when procreation “is excluded by nature”, the holy Pontiff requires that love, expressed in sexual acts, nevertheless must retain its ordering toward procreation, its “readiness” for parenthood. He goes so far as to say: “It cannot be otherwise” and “by no means can love be separated from parenthood”.

Now why would he mention that elderly persons, who cannot procreate due to old age, still need to retain this “responsibility for procreation”? Is the holy Pontiff concerned about elderly married couples using contraception in order to … do what? The only reason he would have for teaching the faithful that even married couples who are unable to procreate, due to infertility or old age, must retain the procreative ordering of their acts, is precisely this: to exclude unnatural sexual acts from the conjugal activity of all spouses.

Pope Pius XII knew that some married couples use unnatural sexual acts, that is why he repeatedly mentions the same point (as discussed in the chapter on The Teaching of the Church). And the same thing is true for Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii [n. 59]. So when Pope Saint John Paul II insists that even elderly spouses, who cannot conceive a child, must nevertheless include in their sexual acts this “responsibility” or this requirement of the “order of nature”, he certainly understands that some married couples do, but should not, use unnatural sexual acts.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian