The Sexual Morality of the Roman Catholic Church

December 29, 2011

In looking for a sexual morality that follows God’s will, another place we could look is to Roman Catholic teachings.  Over many centuries, Roman Catholics have developed a rich and deep body of theology.

As Quakers, we do not often turn to Roman Catholic teachings (in our beginnings, we turned our back on these), but theirs is a rich and two millennia-deep tradition of Christian thinking.  And on matters of sexual morality, the Roman Catholic Church has not been reticent.  Roman Catholics have had a great deal to say.

William E. May, long-time Professor of Moral Theology at Catholic University and then Professor of Moral Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, provides a useful summary of what Roman Catholicism has to say on sexuality is this manner:

 Her basic teaching is this: one can rightly choose to exercise one’s genital sexual powers only when one, as a spouse, freely chooses to engage in the conjugal act and, in that act, chooses to respect fully the goods of mutual self-giving and of human procreation. From this it follows that it is never morally right to unite sexually outside of marriage, i.e., to fornicate or commit adultery, or to masturbate or commit sodomy, i.e., have oral or anal intercourse, whether with a person of the opposite or of the same sex, nor ought one intentionally to bring about or maintain sexual arousal unless in preparation for the conjugal act (William E. May, “Catholic Sexual Ethics,“ Knights of Columbus Veritas Series, 2001).

Even if a little dry and turgid, May’s exposition is well worth reading.  The argument has a Biblical grounding, especially in the Ten Commandments and Jesus’s two great commandments “to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.”  But these, in turn, are read through the lens of St. Thomas Aquinas.  May turns to Aquinas because, consistent with their teaching on many other matters, Roman Catholics do not look to build their teachings exclusively on passages from the Bible, but also draw on Natural Law known through reason, which they recognize as a God-given gift.  As May says, “Human beings come to know this highest norm of human life because God has made them so they can, through the mediation of conscience, recognize his wise and loving plan, his divine and eternal law.”

Following Aquinas, May follows a chain of reason about what is good: “The ‘good’ has the meaning of what is perfective of a being, constitutive of its flourishing or well-being.”  So what are the “goods” in sexual activity: what most promotes flourishing?

“Respect fully the goods of mutual self-giving and of human procreation:” this phrase from May’s summary is the key to Roman Catholic teaching about human sexuality.  Both must be present in order for sexual activity to be moral.  We have to be fully giving of ourselves to another AND also trying to generate new life.  Any sexual activity that does not fully intend both is morally wrong.

To give ourselves fully to one another requires a life commitment, a marriage.  And so by this teaching sexual congress before marriage and sex outside the bonds of marriage (adultery) are both wrong.

The required intention of human procreation makes masturbation wrong.  It also makes contraception in any form wrong.  And contraception is defined quite broadly.  Says May, “Pope Paul VI provided a clear description of it.  He identified it as any act intended, either as end or as means, to impede procreation, whether done in anticipation of intercourse, during it, or while it is having its natural consequences.”  On the Roman Catholic sexual teaching, any such contraception is wrong.

And it is the required intention of human procreation that makes homosexual sexual activity wrong in the view of Roman Catholic teaching.  May even acknowledges that homosexual relationships can involve mutual self-giving.  “We can grant that homosexual partners can share a committed relationship with sincere mutual affection.”  But, he adds, “their bodily coupling does not in truth unite them so that they form, as do husbands and wives, one complete reproductive couple.”

With Roman Catholic sexual teaching we encounter again a “pronatalist” view, that sexual activity is right only if we are trying to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Here, the source of the teaching is not the Old Testament texts but a reasoned argument that because only men and women can generate new human life, that only sex between men and women is acceptable.

For me that is a tortured argument.  For me, mutual self-giving is the essential quality of moral sexual activity: two persons giving themselves wholly to one another for the whole of their lives.  It is mutual self-giving that makes sexual activity contribute to human flourishing, and also makes it acceptable to God.  I accept the argument that adultery is therefore wrong.  I believe (as May does) that such mutual self-giving is possible between homosexual couples.  To make homosexuality wrong we have to add the requirement that any sexual activity intend to generate new life.  I don’t believe that requirement is necessary or even reasonable.

Notice that to accept the view that we must intend to generate new life for sexual activity to be morally right means that we also have to reject contraception in every conceivable form, not just abortion but all forms of birth control.  I believe wise stewardship of the earth today requires that we be thoughtful about how many children we have.  In Roman Catholic sexual morality, the same argument that castigates homosexuality also castigates birth control.  The two are inextricably bound together.

And yet I find a great deal to admire about the Roman Catholic teaching on sexual morality.  We can (and I think should) remove the pronatalist “intention to procreate” injunction and focus fully on the “mutual self-giving” requirement.  And that makes both thoughtful contraception and homosexuality within the bonds of committed partnerships, even marriages, morally right.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Bible, Homosexuality, Sexuality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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