Never Before: an alleged tradition in marital sexual ethics

Christopher West claims that there is a tradition among moral theologians of approval for the use of unnatural sexual acts in marriage. Janet E. Smith and Ed Peters agree with West, and both have argued publicly that such a tradition exists. There are several reasons that this claim is false.

1. Never before has such a broad set of approvals been proposed by any theologian or priest.

In the past, occasionally, one author or another would approve of the use of an unnatural sexual act, in marriage, under certain limited conditions. And then another author might state, as his theological opinion, that another type of act may perhaps be used, in certain cases. But no one has ever proposed, altogether, such a broad set of approvals for every type of unnatural sexual act within marriage, with only one limitation.

The current proposal is that the wife may reach climax by any means at all, not only by the natural marital act, but also by any and all unnatural sexual acts, as long as the natural act occurs at some time before or after, and that the husband, as well, may make use of any and all unnatural sexual acts, as long as he does not intentionally climax outside of natural relations. This approval has been extended even to the use of artificial instruments (sex toys). So few limitations are now asserted for marital sexual ethics, that only one limitation is left, that the husband not climax outside of the natural marital act; this is called the “One Rule” because all other rules under the moral law have been swept away.

Never before was marital sexual ethics reduced to “One Rule”, with stated approval for every type of unnatural sexual act, including marital sodomy, and sex toys, and everything else.

In early Christianity, the Greeks and Romans approved of all these unnatural sexual acts. But there is no record of Christians giving the same broad approval, as long as it is done in marriage. Rather, the Christian Faith has always been known for its chastity and modesty, even within marriage. Now the present day Nicolaitans have discarded every magisterial teaching on ethics and sexual ethics, and replaced it all with the “One Rule”. And they have thus turned Christianity into a pagan religion, where grave sexual sins are claimed to be holy.

The alleged tradition of approval among moral theologians was not a unanimous majority view, but occasional dissent from the majority — who followed the Saints on this subject (especially Aquinas and Liguori). Thus, the Holy See, in condemning marital sodomy [Denz. 3634] states that “in the judgment of all the learned teachers” the use of sodomy by spouses is gravely immoral.

2. Never before have opinions on what is moral in the marital bed been presented as if they were certain.

The faithful are now told that everything is permissible in the marriage bed, under the “One Rule,” as if it were fact. Often, in Catholic discussion groups, this theological opinion is presented with the claim that it is Church teaching. Often, when theology of the body teachers answer questions on this topic, they speak as if their position were absolutely certain, and as if there were no other reasonable or faithful opinion on the subject.

This is new. The supposed tradition of approval for certain sexual acts was always presented as opinion, never as Church teaching, never as an opinion that were certain. For all the moral theologians writing on this subject knew that Saints Augustine, Aquinas, and especially Saint Alphonsus Liguori had condemned all these unnatural sexual acts in marriage.

So the claimed tradition was always presented as an opinion, with more weight for the condemnation, than the approval, for these acts.

3. Never before have these minority opinions on what is moral in the marriage bed been trumpeted directly to the laity, rather than being discussed quietly among moral theologians.

I have a book by Henry Davis, S.G., Moral and Pastoral Theology, Vol. IV (1958) which is written in English. But when Davis reaches these questions on what is moral in the marital bed, he switches to Latin, so as to make his works less accessible to the laity.

But now, when these questions arise, they are not discussed at all: the answers to the questions are brought directly to the laity, worldwide, via the internet, with a new broad approval for all manner of unnatural sexual acts, presented as if no other answer were possible.

Podcasts, YouTube videos, popular books in print and electronic format, websites, discussion groups, and talks given directly to parishioners by popular speakers are now being used to convince husband and wives to commit sodomy, oral sex, and mutual masturbation, as well as the use of sex toys — as if all this were certainly moral, as if no opinion or teaching to the contrary existed.

Never before have the answers to these questions on marital sexual ethics been brought directly to the laity, and made accessible even to teenagers online.

4. Never before has the claim been made that a Saint and Pope approved of these types of acts.

Yes, this claim is made again and again, mostly by anonymous online commentators: that Pope Saint John Paul II supposedly approved of the use of unnatural sexual acts in marriage in his theology of the body teachings. So when I challenge claimants to support this implied accusation against a Pope-Saint, they can only find one assertion, the Pontiff saying that the spouses should try to climax together within the natural act. That’s all. Nothing else. They say this implies that, when the spouses are unable, they can reach climax in any other way, outside the natural act. But the Pontiff said no such thing. For such acts are intrinsically evil, and Pope Saint John Paul II taught that intrinsically evil acts are never justified by intention or circumstances [Veritatis Splendor]. So he would not approve of the use of intrinsically evil sexual acts, in any circumstance (such as the circumstance where climax does not occur during the natural act).

And, as a matter of fact, the book Love and Responsibility contains repeated assertions by John Paul II that sex within marriage must always include the unitive and procreative meanings. The lack of these meanings is what makes certain sexual acts unnatural and intrinsically evil. And he requires, in particular even for elderly couples, that their sexual acts be open to life (procreative). Does he say this so that elderly couples won’t use contraception? No, they are not fertile, so they are not likely to use contraception. He says this because he knows that some couples use unnatural sexual acts in their marriages. Unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil because they are not inherently procreative nor inherently unitive. And using these acts about the same time as the natural marital act does not change the nature of those non-unitive and non-procreative acts.

5. Never before have moral theologians approving of some of these acts, under some limited conditions, as a minority opinion, had so many recent magisterial teachings weighing against said approval.

Pope Pius XII explicitly condemned the use of unnatural sexual acts on the wife to completion outside of the natural marital act, even when the unnatural act occurs just after the natural act is interrupted, even when the act in question is manual touches before or after natural relations [Address to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Sterility, n. 25]. And yet theology of the body teachers continue to claim that the Magisterium has no teachings on this point. They are either liars or ignorant.

Recent magisterial teachings have followed the teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae in asserting that each and every marital sexual act must be unitive and procreative. Paul VI was quite clear (Humanae Vitae 3, 14) that one cannot group a set of sexual acts together and consider them to be one entity, such that only some of the acts need be unitive and procreative. This implies a condemnation of every type of unnatural sexual act used in marriage, even when used alongside the natural marital act. Each act stands on its own as to its morality.

Pope Saint John Paul II, in his theology of the body texts, repeatedly states the same, that each sexual act in a marriage must be unitive and procreative.

The moral theologians of the past did not have these fairly recent teachings from the Papal Magisterium.


Approval for unnatural sexual acts in marriage is not a tradition because past opinions on what is moral in marriage were never so broad, approving of almost every unnatural sexual act. It is not a tradition because it was formerly presented as opinion, and now it is presented as fact or as doctrine. It is not a tradition because it was never taught directly to the laity, but only discussed among theologians. It is not a tradition because it never before included the claim that a Pope agrees. It is not a tradition because it never before was presented in opposition to recent magisterial teachings.

So there is your tradition: occasional mentions by moral theologians of the past, with only limited approval for some acts, discussed only among other theologians, disagreeing with the majority view, disagreeing with the Saints, and contradicting recent magisterial teachings.

How does that establish the morality of these acts? It does not. It functions as a theological rationalization. The sinner mentions the names of a few moral theologians, and then ignores the teachings of Saints, Popes, the Magisterium, and modern-day priests and theologians who have condemned these acts.

For more on the subject of marital sexual ethics, see my book:
The Catholic Marriage Bed

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian

Categories: TOB

3 replies »

    • No. The licit sexual positions are the ones open to life. Saint Thomas thought that missionary position was the most in accord with nature (with the husband in the superior position, and the woman more passive). However, he permitted any natural position, as long as it is not done out of lust, and instead due to some reason such as bodily limitations.


  1. And these theologians get all the recent major Catholic media attention. Just this past week or so I have seen Janet Smith on both Relevant Radio and EWTN. So its no wonder why we have prominent sexual immorality by Church members. One can even say that the promotion of unnatural sex acts and sodomy in marriage is leading to the promotion of homosexuality, which may be a factor in the priest scandal. How important it is to have good Catholic theologians!