Church teaching

Church Teaching on Marital Sexual Ethics

This article is divided into 7 subsections:
1. A sexual act is any deliberate use of the sexual faculty.
2. An incomplete sexual act (i.e. lacking climax) is still a sexual act.
3. Even in marriage, completed sexual acts must occur only in the natural marital act.
4. To be moral, a sexual act must be marital, unitive, and procreative.
5. The morality of sexual acts is based on each single act, not a set of acts.
6. Unnatural sexual acts are specifically condemned by the Magisterium within marriage.
7. Masturbation is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

All of these points and their explanations are from magisterial documents, supported by reasonable arguments and conclusions.

1. A sexual act is any deliberate use of the sexual faculty.

This teaching is found in a number of documents which speak about sexual acts, including both sexual sins and the natural marital act. As a type of human act, a sexual act is certainly a deliberate knowing choice. What makes one act a per se sexual act, and another act not so, is the deliberate knowing choice to make use of the sexual faculty.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines masturbation as: “the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure.” [CCC 2352] In this definition, notice that the act is a deliberate choice. Accidental arousal is not masturbation. The CCC states the usual motive (or intended end) of the act, sexual pleasure. However, as an intrinsically evil act, it remains gravely immoral, even if done for a different purpose, such as to obtain a medical specimen (as the Holy See has taught). [Denz. 3684]

In Persona Humana, the CDF condemned the same sin, saying: “whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.” [n. IX] Again, the definition includes a deliberate knowing choice, specifically to make use of the sexual faculty. (The “finality of the faculty” is its procreative end.)

In the Persona Humana quote, the phrase “deliberate use of the sexual faculty” is applied to two types of acts: the sin of masturbation, and “normal conjugal relations”. For the document teaches that this natural marriage act is the proper “deliberate use of the sexual faculty”. Both moral and immoral sexual acts are a type of deliberate use of the sexual faculty.

Other magisterial documents use the same definition of sexual acts: CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger, Letter To The Bishops Of The Catholic Church On The Pastoral Care Of Homosexual Persons, n. 7; CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger, Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition To Unions Between Homosexual Persons, n. 3; and an Address of the Pontifical Council for the Family, 9-19-2010.

Does this definition imply that washing the genitals, or urination, or applying a medication are sexual acts? No, it does not. Those acts do not use the genitals in a sexual manner. In those cases, the sexual use of the genitals is not the subject of a deliberate knowing choice.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that this definition of a sexual act is entirely consonant with reason. It is not an arbitrary definition, nor a changeable rule or regulation. Reason attests that what people commonly refer to as this or that sexual act is always some deliberate use of the sexual faculty.

2. An incomplete sexual act (lacking climax) is still a sexual act.

The USCCB teaches the following:

“Masturbation, which is deliberate, erotic stimulation often to the point of orgasm, commonly occurs together with pornography use. While popular culture largely sees it as acceptable, masturbation is always gravely contrary to chastity and the dignity of one’s body.” [Create In Me A Clean Heart, III.]

The USCCB says “often to the point of orgasm” because climax is not essential to the definition of masturbation, nor to the definition of a sexual act. Masturbation is still a gravely immoral sexual act if climax is lacking. Adultery is still adultery, fornication is still fornication, and unnatural sexual acts are still unnatural sexual acts, if climax is lacking. All intrinsically evil sexual sins are “gravely contrary to chastity and the dignity of one’s body”, even without climax.

But what if a sexual act lacking climax is done within marriage? Can it still possibly be a grave sexual sin? The Magisterium has condemned a certain type of sexual act called “amplexus reservatus” (meaning “reserved embrace”). [Denz. 3907] The act in question is natural intercourse in which both the man and the woman entirely refrain from climax. Yet the act was promoted by Catholic authors for use in marriage, and the condemnation specifically applies to marriage.

When a sexual act is intrinsically evil due to the deprivation of the marital or unitive or procreative meanings, taking away climax in no way justifies the act. For the deprivations in the moral object remain. Is adultery transformed into a moral act, into a sexual act that is not adultery or into a non-sexual act, if climax is lacking? Obviously not. Reason alone tells us that, if a man begins to have sexual relations with his neighbor’s wife, but climax is lacking for some reason (maybe because he feels guilty, or because they were interrupted), he has still committed the grave sin of adultery. The evil moral objects of adultery remain: the deprivation of the marital meaning, and the violation of marital fidelity.

3. Even in marriage, completed sexual acts must occur only in the natural marital act.

This truth was taught by Pope Pius XII in his Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility:

“By the force of this law of nature, the human person does not possess the right and power to the full exercise of the sexual faculty, directly intended, except when he performs the conjugal act according to the norms defined and imposed by nature itself. Outside of this natural act, it is not even given within the matrimonial right itself to enjoy this sexual faculty fully. These are the limits to the particular right of which we are speaking, and they circumscribe its use according to nature.”

“What has been said up to this point concerning the intrinsic evil of any full use of the generative power outside the natural conjugal act applies in the same way when the acts are of married persons or of unmarried persons, whether the full exercise of the genital organs is done by the man or the woman, or by both parties acting together; whether it is done by manual touches or by the interruption of the conjugal act; for this is always an act contrary to nature and intrinsically evil.” [n. 22 and 25]

So there are no instances in which married persons can enjoy the “full exercise” or “full use” of the sexual faculty (sexual acts to climax) outside of the natural marital act. And this applies whether the sexual act “is done by the man or the woman,” or by both together. They may not perform any sexual act to climax other than the natural marital act.

The above document, too, defines a sexual act as the “use” or “exercise” of the “sexual faculty” or, similarly, the “generative power”. That is the definition implied or stated by many different magisterial documents.

The above teaching absolutely refutes the popular claim that the wife may reach climax at any time, in any manner, as a result of oral, anal, or manual sexual acts, as long as the natural act also occurs in the same context. The Magisterium teaches the contrary. Pope Pius XII clearly and emphatically stated that, according to natural law, the full exercise of the sexual faculty (sex of any type to climax) may only morally occur in the natural marital act. And he specifically says that it doesn’t matter if we are talking about climax for the man, or the woman, or whatever type of acts they might do together, other than the natural act. For “this is always an act contrary to nature and intrinsically evil.”

Furthermore, the claim that all the sexual acts of one session in the marital bedroom are “one act” is absolutely incompatible with this teaching. The husband and the wife are under the same “law of nature”. Any sexual act to climax, outside of “the natural conjugal act”, is intrinsically evil. He does not allow an exception to this law for unnatural sexual acts committed about the same time as the natural marital act, and he does not allow an exception for the wife.

4. To be moral, a sexual act must be marital, unitive, and procreative.

This statement sums up a teaching found in many different magisterial documents. The Church condemns every non-marital sexual act as intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Then, within marriage, sexual acts must be unitive and procreative.

USCCB: “Never is it permitted to separate these different aspects [unitive and procreative] to the point of excluding positively either the intention of procreation or the conjugal relation.”

The above quote is from a USCCB document “Unitive and Procreative Nature of Intercourse” citing: Pope Pius XII, Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility, 19 May 1956. So the USCCB also interprets that Address as teaching truths beyond the mere condemnation of artificial procreation. The separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of conjugal relations is never permitted. Even if a married couple intend to commit a sexual act which is unitive and procreative in the near future, or even if they did so in the recent past, it is still never permitted to deliberately choose a sexual act which is inherently non-unitive or non-procreative. Please note that the phrase in brackets in the quote above is in the USCCB document; it is not my addition or comment.

Humanae Vitae: “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.” [n. 12]

Both the unitive significance and the procreative significance are intended by God to be “inherent to the marriage act”. This act renders the couple “capable of generating new life”. Sexual acts which are inherently non-unitive and non-procreative are contrary to this purpose and plan of God, which is “written into the actual nature of man and of woman”. These qualities, the unitive and the procreative, are “essential” for the marriage to retain “true mutual love” along with “its ordination” toward procreation.

In the encyclical Familiaris Consortio, Pope Saint John Paul II teaches that, when a married couple: “respect the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality, they are acting as ministers of God’s plan and they benefit from their sexuality according to the original dynamism of total self-giving, without manipulation or alteration.” [Familiaris Consortio 32]

Many of the texts referencing the unitive and procreative dimensions of the natural marital act are addressing the subject of contraception (or, in the case of the quote from Familiaris Consortio, natural family planning). This is not surprising, since one common way to interfere with the plan of God for marriage and marital relations is to contracept, depriving sexual intercourse of its procreative meaning. But the teaching applies just as it is stated: marital sexual acts must be unitive and procreative.

5. The morality of sexual acts is based on each single act, not a set of acts.

Is it not possible to consider a set of sexual acts in the marital bedroom as a single act or “a single entity”. And if one natural marital act occurs, open to life, within that set, would it not be sufficient to satisfy the procreative requirement of marriage and sex? The question was raised and answered in Humanae Vitae.

Humanae Vitae asks: “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 that non-procreative sexual acts cannot be said to “merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these.” [n. 3, 14]

Can we not justify the use of unnatural sexual acts for the purpose of foreplay, the purpose of preparing for natural marital relations? The question is implicitly asked and answered in Humanae Vitae. The answer is that the procreative finality must apply to “each single act”. One cannot merge a set of unnatural sexual acts, which are inherently non-procreative, with one or more procreative natural acts of past or future, as if this set of choices could “form a single entity” which would then take its moral goodness only from the procreative acts. So a common claim of proponents of unnatural acts is refuted. Performing an unnatural sexual act in the same context as the natural act does not justify the former. Each single sexual act must be marital, unitive, and procreative.

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.]

Pastoral Letter of the U.S. Bishops: “A marriage is only as open to procreation as each act of intercourse is, because the whole meaning of marriage is present and signified in each marital act. Each marital act signifies, embodies, and renews the original and enduring marital covenant between husband and wife.” [Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan]

The basic principles of ethics require each deliberate knowing choice, each act, of a human person to be morally licit. Acts are not judged, as to their morality, as a set, but as individual choices. Each and every sexual act must be open to at least the possibility of new life, that is to say, each sexual act must be inherently procreative. Unnatural sexual acts are inherently closed to life, and so they are gravely immoral. They are not procreative, not truly unitive, and not truly marital.

Notice the wording in the two quotes above: “each and every sexual act in a marriage” and “each act of intercourse”. It simply is not possible to claim that this wording refers to a set of deliberate choices to use the sexual faculty (even to completion on the wife!), as long as the natural marital act is included in the set. Each sexual act in a marriage must be unitive and procreative, for both the man and the woman.

This point is also clear from Pope Pius XII Address to Midwives, where the Pontiff rejects the idea that: “in matrimonial relations the whole moral law were reduced to the normal performance of the act itself, and as if all the rest, in whatever way it is done, were justified….” [n. 68] The mere fact that one act of natural marital relations is performed does not justify all the rest. Therefore, we cannot say that all the deliberate knowing choices in the marital bedroom are “one act”, and all these things are somehow justified by one “normal performance of the act itself”.

Again, in the Address of Pope Pius XII to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility, the same teaching is explained: “the human person does not possess the right and power to the full exercise of the sexual faculty, directly intended, except when he performs the conjugal act according to the norms defined and imposed by nature itself. Outside of this natural act, it is not even given within the matrimonial right itself to enjoy this sexual faculty fully.” [n. 22] The Pontiff does not justify unnatural sexual acts in marriage by their association with one act of natural marital relations. He rejects that idea, clearly and explicitly. Other acts in the marital bedroom are “outside of this natural act”. They are not a part of one comprehensive act. Each deliberate knowing choice is a distinct act, and each act is subject to the eternal moral law of God.

6. Unnatural sexual acts are specifically condemned by the Magisterium within marriage.

Pope Pius XII

As discussed above, Pope Pius XII clearly condemned any completed sexual act outside of the natural marital act, for the husband or the wife, or for both acting together. What type of sexual acts are these? They are sexual acts which are, as the Pontiff explains, “intrinsically evil” and “contrary to nature”. The holy Pontiff is condemning unnatural sexual acts in marriage. And though the particular speech in question considered complete sexual acts, we know from other magisterial documents that unnatural sexual acts do not become moral and do not cease to be sexual acts by lacking climax (as already discussed).

Pope Pius XII, in Address to Midwives, stated that procreation is the primary end of sexual acts, and that any secondary ends are only permissible, along with that primary end, “inasmuch as they are intended by nature.” [n. 51] This implies that unnatural sexual acts are not permissible, as they lack the primary end of the procreative finality and they are contrary to nature.

In Address to Midwives, Pope Pius XII makes this point clear. He discusses the situation in which a married couple cannot perform the natural marital act due to some medical problem (e.g. pregnancy will endanger the mother’s life). Can the couple use unnatural sexual acts, instead of the natural marital act, in this grave circumstance? Can they use unnatural sexual acts with or without climax? The answer is a clear “No”. The Pontiff requires nothing other than complete abstinence:

“If, in your sure and experienced judgment, the circumstances require an absolute “No”, that is to say, the exclusion of motherhood, it would be a mistake and a wrong to impose or advise a “Yes”. Here, it is a question of basic facts, and therefore not a theological but a medical question; and thus it is within your competence. However, in such cases, the married couple does not desire a medical answer, of necessity a negative one, but seeks an approval of a ‘technique’ of conjugal activity which will not give rise to maternity. And so you are again called to exercise your apostolate, inasmuch as you should leave no doubt whatsoever that, even in these extreme cases, every preventive practice and every direct attack upon the life and the development of the new life is, in conscience, forbidden and excluded, and that there is only one way open, namely, that of complete abstinence from every performance of the natural faculty. Your apostolate in this matter requires that you have a clear and certain judgment, with a calm firmness.” [Address to Midwives 41]

What technique of conjugal activity “will not give rise to maternity”? The Pontiff speaks of sexual acts which are inherently non-procreative, i.e. unnatural sexual acts. And what does he conclude? He says that such acts are, in essence, a “preventative practice” and even a “direct attack” upon new life, as they are inherently deprived of the procreative finality. He is not speaking solely about contraception. And he certainly is not speaking, in October of 1951, about the birth control pill, which was invented later that decade. The “technique of conjugal activity” in question is unnatural sexual acts. These cannot be used, “even in these extreme cases”, because they are non-procreative sexual acts. And he does not permit these acts to be used, as long as climax is lacking. (Recall that even the natural marital act, when deliberately incomplete, is condemned as intrinsically evil under the term ‘amplexus reservatus’.)

To approve of unnatural sexual acts, even in the extreme case of a medical disorder which makes the natural act out of the question, is “contrary to the law of God” and contrary “to your Christian conscience”. It is possible for Christian spouses to refrain from all “conjugal activity” other than the natural marital act. And it is possible to refrain from all sexual activity, outside of marriage or within marriage, if the situation makes the natural marital act impossible.

But there is more. Later in the Address, Pope Pius XII rejected the idea that “the moral law enjoined nothing more than that the act itself be accomplished normally”, and that everything else “in whatever manner done”, including “in the preparation” (i.e. foreplay) is justified as an expression of love within marriage. [n. 68] Pius XII teaches:

“This anti-Christian hedonism too often is not ashamed to elevate itself to a doctrine, inculcating the ardent desire to make always more intense the pleasure, in the preparation and in the performance of the conjugal union, as if in matrimonial relations the whole moral law were reduced to the normal performance of the act itself, and as if all the rest, in whatever way it is done, were justified by the expression of mutual affection, were sanctified by the Sacrament of Matrimony, and made worthy of praise and reward before God and conscience. There is no thought at all of the dignity of man and of the Christian — a dignity which restrains the excess of sensuality.” [n. 68]

So we see from the quote above that Pope Pius XII, as an act of the Magisterium, rejected the idea that “the normal performance of the act itself” (the husband completing the act in the natural manner) would justify “all the rest, in whatever way it is done,” including acts of foreplay (“in the preparation”). This is a specific magisterial rejection of a common claim used to approve of unnatural sexual acts, a claim called the “One Rule”. The Magisterium has rejected this idea as contrary to “the dignity of man and of the Christian”. Sexual acts are not justified, merely because they are foreplay, or merely because the natural marital act occurs, at some time. Pope Pius XII continues on this point:

“No; the gravity and the sanctity of the Christian moral law do not allow for an unchecked satisfaction of the sexual instinct, tending only to pleasure and enjoyment. They do not permit rational man to let himself be mastered to such an extent, neither as regards the substance, nor the circumstances of the act.” [n. 69]

Unnatural sexual acts are not ordered toward the marital, unitive, or procreative meanings. Thus, they are ordered “only to pleasure and enjoyment”; they are “an unchecked satisfaction of the sexual instinct”. So when the Pontiff refers to “the substance…of the act”, he specifically means whether the act is inherently natural or unnatural. Here again is a clear condemnation of unnatural sexual acts in marriage, in a document of the Magisterium. The spouses must not sin against the substance of the sexual act, by the deliberate knowing choice of sexual acts which are inherently non-procreative and non-unitive.

Pope Pius XI

Pope Pius XI also condemns unnatural sexual acts in marriage, in his encyclical Casti Connubii. First, the subject is mentioned as he discusses natural family planning (NFP).

“For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.” [Casti Connubii 59]

The phrase “intrinsic nature of the act” is a reference to the use of unnatural sexual acts in marriage. Such acts offend the nature of marital relations because those acts are inherently non-procreative and non-unitive. NFP does not offend against the nature of the act, if the husband and wife refrain from all unnatural sexual acts, and then have natural relations during the infertile portion of the cycle.

In the same encyclical, Pope Pius XI again mentions inherently non-procreative sexual acts in marriage.

“And now, Venerable Brethren, we shall explain in detail the evils opposed to each of the benefits of matrimony. First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony and which they say is to be carefully avoided by married people not through virtuous continence (which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent) but by frustrating the marriage act. Some justify this criminal abuse on the ground that they are weary of children and wish to gratify their desires without their consequent burden. Others say that they cannot on the one hand remain continent nor on the other can they have children because of the difficulties whether on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstances.” [n. 53]

Now the Pontiff speaks of married persons who are “frustrating the marriage act”. Certainly, this includes the use of contraception. And such a use is intrinsically evil and gravely immoral, as it makes the marriage act non-procreative. The deprivation of the procreative meaning from sexual intercourse is an evil moral object. But the same can be said of unnatural sexual acts. They are even more thoroughly non-procreative, as contracepted sex sometimes results in conception, but unnatural sexual acts do not. So the same expressions apply: it is “criminal abuse” (a crime against nature), which is not justified “to gratify their desires”.

“Casti Connubii: Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” [n. 56]

Again, the wording is too broad to be restricted solely to contraception. The Church must “preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain”. And so She proclaims that “any use whatsoever” — not merely the use of contraception — but any use “of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life” is contrary to “the law of God and of nature”.

The Sacred Penitentiary

In 1916, the Sacred Penitentiary, also called the Apostolic Penitentiary, under the leadership of Cardinal Willem Marinus van Rossum, during the Pontificate of Benedict XV, answered some questions on unnatural sexual acts in marriage. The questions revolved around whether the wife would be guilty of a grave sin, if the husband committed certain unnatural sexual acts, and also whether she sins, if she chooses to participate.

The first part of the April 3, 1916, decision condemns any act by the husband which culminates in his climax outside of the natural act. That point is not a matter of controversy today. All agree that unnatural sexual acts which end with climax for the husband outside of the natural act are gravely immoral.

The second part of that decision refers to sodomy under a broad definition, encompassing unnatural sexual acts for the husband or the wife, whether anal, oral, or manual.

“If, however, the husband wishes to commit the crime of the Sodomites with her, since sodomitic intercourse is against nature on the part of both spouses who are united in this way and, in the judgment of all the learned teachers, is gravely evil, there is clearly no motive, not even to avoid death, that would permit the wife legitimately to carry out such a shameless act with her husband.” [Denz. 3634]

Sodomy does not refer only to completed anal sex. The term is also used more broadly to encompass a wide range of unnatural sexual acts, even in marriage. The Penitentiary considers any sodomitic act “on the part of both spouses” to be “against nature”. The Latin phrase is “ex parte utriusque coniugis”, and the word “utriusque” means: “whichsoever of two” or “either of the two”. Therefore, this phrasing includes a range of unnatural sexual acts, whether done to the wife, or to the husband, or both. This is yet another magisterial condemnation of completed unnatural sexual acts, even on the wife. Climax outside the natural marital act is condemned as intrinsically evil and gravely immoral for the wife, just as for the husband. There is not a different rule for the wife. Even though there is no “spilling of seed” for the wife, the fact that she obtains sexual climax outside the natural act makes this deliberate sexual act immoral for her, also.

In this question, the behavior at issue is any type of unnatural sexual act, on the wife or the husband. The answer of the Penitentiary is that even the threat of death does not excuse the wife from her choice to participate in these types of acts. Therefore, a lesser circumstance, such as that the wife would be unable to reach climax, unless one or the other spouse performs an unnatural act, certainly would not justify this behavior. Thus, unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, whether they are done on the husband or on the wife.

In a related decision, two months later (3 June 1916), the Sacred Penitentiary also condemned the use of an artificial instrument to commit the sin of Onan.

“Questions: 1. Is a wife, when her husband wishes to practice onanism by means of an (artificial) instrument, required to exercise positive resistance?” [Denz. 3638]

The answer of the Sacred Penitentiary is “Yes,” the wife must resist, as the act in question is a grave sin. Now the terms natural onanism and artificial onanism refer to contraception. Natural onanism is the type of contraception called “withdrawal”. Artificial onanism is any form of contraception using a device (a condom, other barrier devices) or even chemical contraception. But the sin of Onan has traditionally been considered to include two types of acts, contraception, and then also masturbation. And under the second type of sin, onanism can also refer to other unnatural sexual acts.

The other consideration is by way of theological argument. Even if one insists that the above decision of the Holy See is limited to contraception, and does not extend to unnatural sexual acts, an argument can be made that the same reasoning applies. The sin of Onan is worse when it is done with an artificial instrument — for the Holy See permits the wife to cooperate, in some cases, with natural onanism, but never with artificial onanism [Denz. 2795, 3634]. Similarly, if masturbation or an unnatural sexual act is committed with an artificial instrument, the act is more gravely disordered, and therefore all the more sinful. And since masturbation and any unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, committing the same acts with an instrument must also be intrinsically evil, as well as more gravely immoral.

Masturbation and all unnatural sexual acts are forbidden to each spouse and both spouses, the husband and the wife, at any time. And these types of acts remain intrinsically evil and gravely immoral when performed by one spouse on the other. And the act is all the more gravely disordered when it is performed with a sexual device. These considerations leave us with no other possible conclusion than a complete rejection of the claim that the wife may climax by any means, as long as the natural act occurs about the same time.

7. Masturbation is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

This teaching also applies to sexual acts in marriage, since the married couple are not exempt from the teachings of the moral law. The marital right permits the full use of the sexual faculty only within the natural marital act. The holy Sacrament of Matrimony is not a permission slip to commit all manner of perverse and shameful sexual acts. Jesus did not raise natural marriage to the dignity of a supernatural Sacrament so that married Christians could use and abuse their own bodies or their spouse’s body for the sake of sexual pleasure which is detached from the unitive and procreative meanings intended by God for sex and marriage.

The CCC defines masturbation as: “the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure.” [n. 2352] This sexual act is non-marital, non-unitive, and non-procreative. It has three grave deprivations in its moral object, making the act intrinsically evil and certainly always a grave sin.

CDF, Persona Humana: “masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act. The main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.” [n. IX]

Here we find some important points, which will affect the assessment as to which sexual acts are moral in marriage. First, “the motive for acting this way” does not justify any intrinsically evil sexual act. The motive is also termed the intention, intended end, or the purpose of the act. No matter what the reason may be for choosing to commit any particular sexual act, if it is intrinsically evil due to an evil moral object, then the act remains a grave sin. This point implies that a married couple may not justify masturbation for the motive (the purpose or intended end) of preparing for natural marital relations. The purpose of “foreplay” does not justify any intrinsically evil acts. Nor is masturbation on the wife justified after the natural marital act, for the purpose of brining her to climax. The complete use of the sexual faculty is moral only within natural marital relations, as Pope Pius XII taught.

Second, a sexual act, in this example a grave sexual sin, is defined as “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty”. One cannot claim that some deliberate sexual acts are not subject to morality, or do not need to be marital, unitive, and procreative. In morality, each knowing deliberate choice is an act subject to the moral law, and in sexual morality, each deliberate knowing use of the sexual faculty is a sexual act.

Masturbation is intrinsically evil, and like all intrinsically evil acts, it is not justified by any intention or purpose, nor by any circumstance or context. [n. 1756] Thus, the CCC states the usual intended end of masturbation, “sexual pleasure”, but any other intention or purpose does not justify the act. It remains an intrinsically evil sexual act as it is “the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs” (CCC wording) or “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty” (Persona Humana wording) which is non-marital, non-unitive, and non-procreative.

The Church condemns masturbation as “intrinsically and seriously disordered”, and this sexual act is gravely immoral because it is “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations.” Therefore, masturbation is not justified within marriage. For it is not the sexual act termed “normal conjugal relations” or “the natural marital act”. Neither the husband nor the wife may commit this act on himself or herself, nor on the other spouse. The purpose of preparing for the natural marital act does not justify an act of masturbation, since intrinsically evil acts are not justified by any purpose or intention. And the circumstance that a natural marital act has occurred in the recent past, or is intended for the near future, does not change an act of masturbation into a moral sexual act. It is a non-procreative and non-unitive sexual act, which is “outside normal conjugal relations”.

Is an act of masturbation justified if the husband performs the act on his wife (or she on herself) to completion? No, it is not. The wife is under the same moral law as the husband, just as Pope Pius XII taught (#3 above). And in all the teachings of the Church against this sin of masturbation, did you ever read such an exception, allowing this sexual act for the wife, if the natural marital act occurs a certain number of minutes or hours or days before or after? Certainly not. Intrinsically evil acts are not justified by the commission of another good act at about the same time.

Does an act of masturbation, on either the husband or the wife, become moral, if sexual climax is lacking? No, the lack of climax (orgasm) does not justify an act of masturbation. The USCCB defines masturbation as “deliberate, erotic stimulation often to the point of orgasm…. masturbation is always gravely contrary to chastity and the dignity of one’s body.” [Create in Me a Clean Heart] The USCCB says “often to the point of orgasm” because climax is not essential to the definition of masturbation, nor to the definition of a sexual act.

The Church’s condemnation of masturbation, which is based on Sacred Scripture, does not allow for any exception, neither in marriage, nor if climax is lacking, nor if the person so stimulated is the wife. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of the purpose of the act or the circumstances.

“both the Magisterium of the Church — in the course of a constant tradition — and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act…. Even if it cannot be proved that Scripture condemns this sin by name, the tradition of the Church has rightly understood it to be condemned in the New Testament when the latter speaks of ‘impurity,’ ‘unchasteness’ and other vices contrary to chastity and continence.” [Persona Humana IX]

I also must point out, forgive the explicitness here, that an act of masturbation, within marriage, on the wife, whether to climax or not, remains intrinsically evil and gravely immoral whether it is done by manual touches from the husband or the wife, or by some type of sex toy (a vibrator or phallic device). The approval of this type of act and device, found in the writings of some present-day commentators, is exceedingly wicked and deserves unreserved severe condemnation.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian

Categories: Church teaching