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Sex Questions

John Kelleher

Apparently it only takes 16 essays 'towards' a covenantal moral theology to enable us to say something remotely practical. But we can now say confidently that an intellectual or theological demise of the 'natural law' of the manuals in no way implies that Natural Law does not exist, or that there is no moral ordo by which ordinary Catholic people, or even, in extremis, Catholic theologians, may judge what sexual acts are dis-ordered, or that the specificity of Natural Law -- for example, in the sexual sphere -- is in doubt.

Let us begin by admiring the lucidity of the traditional 'natural law' treatment of sexual acts. Discounting opinion by an extreme minority of moral theologians, over the centuries, from at least St. Augustine, through St. Thomas Aquinas, and continuing to St. Alphonsus Liguori and beyond, Catholic moral theologians not only could tell you what specific sexual acts were 'unnatural' and therefore intrinsically disordered, they could tell you why.

The 'natural law' tradition of sexual acts taught by the Church and by legions of saints and esteemed moral theologians over centuries gradually achieved a clarity that makes the gist of it readily summarized. The purpose of a person's pudendum (shameful bits) is reproduction; that is what they are 'ordered' to, by nature itself.

Hence, any sexually stimulating physical contact with anyone's pudendum, whatever the means of stimulation, was 'against nature', thus intrinsically disordered, unless it was a (male) husband's potentially generative penetration of and eventual ejaculation into the vagina of his one-and-only (female) wife.

The Church's growing realization, from at least the time of Sts. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas and continuing with St. Alphonsus, that the sexual intercourse between a married couple had both a procreative and a unitive purpose, is irrelevant to the question of which sexual acts are intrinsically disordered because contrary to nature.

For an intrinsically disordered act can never be done, even if good is intended to come from it. The logic is impeccable, unassailable: even if an unnatural act is done by a married couple, and even if they intend to do the act in order to lead towards procreation, or unity, or both, it can never be done, because the act is evil in itself, intrinsically evil, evil in the very nature of the act -- no matter who did it, whatever the context, whatever the intent.

Thus, even when a sacramentally-married couple is alone together, all direct manual, oral, anal, or mechanical stimulation of their pudenda, by either or both of them, was unnatural, intrinsically disordered.

For example, a husband using his hand to stimulate his wife's pudendum is masturbation; obviously, it is not solitary masturbation, but it is masturbation -- manual, thus intrinsically non-generative, sexual stimulation of the pudendum -- and hence intrinsically disordered. Even for a married couple, there existed one natural sexual act, and all else was unnatural.

Of course various faithful moralists felt the need to hedge or decorate this bare grandeur with certain exceptions. For example, St. Alphonsus, on the grounds that the wife's orgasm facilitated procreation, taught that a husband could bring his wife to orgasm after he ejaculated into her vagina. (Since nobody thought that a wife's orgasm was essential to procreation, this was a rather unsystematic answer, and one which certainly did not further influence St. Alphonsus's teachings on sexual acts).

Hedging about notwithstanding, Catholic moralists remained generally consistent in their teachings on which sexual acts were permissible, and why, for many centuries. As late as the (2011) 3rd edition of Catholic Sexual Ethics [p. 245], the authors: William E. May, emeritus professor of moral theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, Father Ronald Lawler, former director of adult and family religious education for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Joseph Boyle, Jr., professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, found it possible to state that "the goods of marriage cannot be properly pursued in masturbatory, oral, and anal sexual activity on the part of married couples."

It was easy to tell if you had committed a sin. And you knew why.

Nowadays, however, the magisterum's teaching is not so clear. Because a husband's masturbation of his wife is non-generative stimulation of her pudendum, is it 'unnatural', intrinsically disordered? Or is such touching by a husband of his wife not a mortal sin, or even a venial sin? Or is it in fact a good thing? We quote CCC 2352.

2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. "Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."138 "The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose." For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."139

138 CDF, Persona humana 9.
139 CDF, Persona humana 9.

CCC 2352 states unexceptionably that "masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action." But then it innovates when it tells us why: it neither directly repudiates, nor directly affirms, the basis by which the moral and theological tradition long found masturbation (and many other sexual acts) 'unnatural' and thus intrinsically disordered, but rather says that outside of marriage, sexual stimulation "is essentially contrary to its purpose."

Is CCC 2352 informing us, that at least in this instance, the Church no longer favors the 'natural law' framework of the manuals, in which an intrinsically disordered act is intrinsically disordered because contrary to 'nature', evil by the very nature of the act, whatever the context or intent, whoever does it and for whatever reason; and in which masturbation is specifically unnatural in all instances because it involves non-generative sexual stimulation of the pudendum?

Does CCC 2352 thus tell us, via winks and nods, that manual stimulation of the pudendum is not intrinsically disordered, or may even be a natural good, as long as it is performed by the spouses within marriage for unitive, and ultimately procreative, purposes?

CCC 2352 is not exactly clear on the point, but it is certainly possible to find numerous discussions, even within episcopally-approved venues, which take for granted that, so long as a sacramentally-married male's ejaculation into his sacramentally-married wife's vagina is not deliberately omitted and is "open to life", masturbation between the spouses is not even a venial sin, and can even be a positive good.

It is possible to see this as a scandal, or as the first throes of a development of doctrine: a firm and constant teaching of the Church, but now based on, and thus clarified by, a more Catholic, less pagan, apperception of what is natural and unnatural regarding sexual acts. Sexual activity is natural when it is marital and open to life, and it is unnatural, intrinsically disordered, when it is not.

In other words, and to emphasize how this could be a development of doctrine: the basis of the 'naturalness' of sexual acts is now taken to be the marriage itself, is the sacrament of Matrimony itself. The natural is covenantal, sacramental, reality; the unnatural is that which either denies by word or deed covenantal, sacramental, reality, or by word or deed, takes no note of it.

The theological tradition did not hold that a sexual act can be holy, only that it can be less shameful; for example, at S.T. iiia, q. 65, art. 3, ad 1a, St. Thomas Aquinas said that the sacrament of Matrimony was the least of the sacraments, because the most 'physical':

[In reply to the first objection I answer that} Matrimony, as ordained to natural life, is a function of nature. But in so far as it has something spiritual, it is a sacrament. And because it has the least amount of spirituality, it is placed last.

Covenantal moral theologies agree that a sexual act cannot be holy because it is procreative, any more than bread and wine can be holy because they are nutritious; these goods belong solely to the fallen world, which is the world of sarx, of death, of fundamental irresponsibility, the world in which acts are devoured by time, not redeemed and made free and consequential radically within time by the Lord of History, One Flesh with His bride in the One Sacrifice. Only the act of sacramental marriage makes the act of sex holy.

Acts of sex become holy only because Matrimony is a sacrament, and only because of this. Fallen man needs the sacraments in his bones, not as the icing on a fundamentally sound 'natural' cake.

That is a long way from a 'natural law' of sexual acts not at all founded on the sacraments. But this is no surprise, since as Covenantal Theology shows in professional theological detail, and as we ourselves have pointed out many times, the entire 'natural law' theological tradition not only posits a 'pure nature' that can tick along quite nicely apart from the sacraments, but also can find nothing to put in its place that would not be irrational, flatly absurd.

In fact, the 'natural law' tradition regarding sexual acts was never directly about marriage at all. Any deliberate stimulation of the shameful bits is unnatural if it is not directly related to procreation, and only then to marriage, because Reason teaches that procreation of the human species demands marriage.

It must be said, also, that what we suspect is the beginnings of a genuine doctrinal development is also a long way from the understanding of many moralists and Doctors of the Church, including St. Alphonsus, about marriage. St. Alphonsus, for example, firmly taught, and lived in his own choices in life, that marriage is a possible way of salvation, though not the most certain, and this because marriage, even at its best, just barely allows time or even energy for a direct and immediate relationship of the soul with God.

We have elsewhere considered the conundrums that seem to arise immediately from the theological treatment of the sacrament of Matrimony as spiritually inferior, for instance, is it true:

... that a believer who validly participates in a sacrament of the Catholic Church (matrimony), by that act and participation, consigns himself to an objectively inferior and less blessed state than the state the believer previously existed in (virginity or celibacy)....

But here we treat of a judgment of the inferiority of the sacrament of Matrimony, because in practice it makes less likely a direct and immediate relationship of the soul with God.

We have found to the contrary that our communion with God is never, can never be, direct, immediate and 'lonely', but is ever mediated and multi-personal, and only profound defects in theological priors explain why it has not constantly been obvious that we are not His bride.

Nor is there any 'level' of contemplation that exceeds -- that even comes near -- our participation in the sacraments.

St. Alphonsus spent many, many hours in the confessional, and he thought that he had learned from the confessions of the many humble Catholic wives and husbands who confessed to him, that their worship of the Most High was severely limited by the troubles and cares of their married lives. But in fact he had been taught to think this by his theological framework, not by them. For even their breaths were a worship, all along.

And what gives the meaning of extra ecclesiam, nulla salus is the fact that our communion with God in this life is never direct and 'lonely', but far rather is an entirely mediated and multi-personal -- sacramental -- communion with the Bridegroom and His Bride, One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, and with all who eat the One Bread and drink the One Cup, and with all both living and dead who are freely enfolded in the death of the Lord, and even in the next life our communion with God continues to be an entirely mediated and multi-personal communion with the Bridegroom and His Bride, and with all in Heaven, on earth, and in Purgatory, who are in similar communion with them.

We make a brief excursus on the topic of 'natural' marriage. Since the world as fallen needs Christ in its bones, canon law's assumption of the prima facie validity and permanence of secular marriage is to be seen as a defense of Catholic sacramental marriage, and not, as is traditional, as a judgment on any 'natural' marriage's 'real' character, let alone on its sanctity, both of which are unknown to the Church.

For covenantal moral theologies, the Church's knowledge and wisdom comes solely from her sacramental, thus radically historical, relationship with her Lord; she has no particular knowledge or wisdom apart from her participation in the One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, because the Prime Analogate is the radically historical Eucharistic Event itself.

Covenantal Theology not merely objects to, it refutes, the theological contention that the Church has some access to a time-less 'God' apart from her radically historical relationship with her Bridegroom, for example:

The supreme historical freedom of the Lord of the Covenant, the Lord of history, is not grounded in some necessity yet more profound than freedom. Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever, is the full revelation of the Father, the full gift of the Spirit: to seek beyond Christ's revelation of the Father is to deny him.

[ CT Vol. II, Appendix, p. 657 ]


Volumes III and IV of CovenantalTheology continue to develop the radical criticism, proposed in volumes I and II, of Catholic systematic theology as it has existed since the Council of Chalcedon.  The criticism is focused upon that theology’s methodological dehistoricization of the Catholic tradition, an effect rendered inevitable by the dehistoricization of the Mission of the Son to give the Holy Spirit.  This basic error arises out of the uncritical supposition, effectively universal in Catholic theology since the twelfth century, that the Son sent by the Father is not Jesus the Lord but the eternal Son, sensu negante, understood as immanent in the Trinity, thus as nonhistorical.  The historicity of the Father’s mission of the Son is consequently precluded.

The Church possesses no more than, and perhaps less than, everyday fallen wisdom on the idea of 'marriage', since the only marriages known to her are the specific, particular, personal, sacramental, and therefore radically historical marriages of actual Catholic couples.

To repeat what we have said elsewhere, the Catholic Church is flat unable to judge -- bind and loose -- the actions of those whom she does not yet know as her sons. Not only the Church's authority, but also her wisdom, extends only as far as her radically historical Eucharistic worship of her Lord, and not any further, at least directly.

To the contrary, canon's law's assumption of the prima facie validity and permanence of secular marriage is not founded on some generalized fallen wisdom about 'natural' marriages, but instead, the issue only arises liturgically, in some manner related to her known and named children.

The Church, knowing the sacramental marriages of her sons and daughters, in her charity, "thinks the best" of the particular natural marriage in view, and defends the responsibility and sanctity of that marriage as well.

This extension of the Church's protective charity beyond the sacramental marriages of her own children that she knows, has effects in civil society: it leavens it. This is exactly the kind of leavening of covenantal responsibility, and of the sanctity of sacramental marriage, into civil society that Fr. Keefe thought is an irrefragable, ex opere operato effect of the sacrament of Matrimony. For instance, he writes:

The human community has been and continually is being converted to a new covenantal understanding of authority by this sacrament [of Matrimony], and the change is an irreversible liberation; that dynamism is in the world by the deed of the risen Christ, and cannot be undone.

["Liturgy and Law: The Marital Order of Free Community," Church and State in America: Catholic Questions; Msgr. George A. Kelly, Ed.; ser. Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Proceedings, Fourteenth Convention, Denver, Co., 1991 (Jamaica, NY: St. John's University Press, 1992): p. 1.]

Covenantal moral theologies do not find it necessary to trivialize the death of the Lord, in order to save the assumption that the Fall only 'weakened' Man and Creation. Absent the continuing work in history of the Bridegroom with His bride, One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, the solidarity of the human race, let alone its ability to make efficacious covenants, hangs by the merest thread.

This is the long and short of what the Church actually knows about 'natural' marriages. It is the Church's overwhelming impulse to protect the sacraments -- to protect her ongoing work with her Lord -- and her charity, not her knowledge, that prompts her to defend 'natural' marriages, on occasions when these may impinge on her children, or on the marital covenants made by her sons and daughters with each other.

And again, this protective activity and charity of Mother Church beyond fallen wisdom may, or may not, divide a particular civil society with a sword; but it always leavens that society.

Anybody can see that the magisterium is speaking differently these days about sexual acts than it used to do. In this essay, we have shown that covenantal moral theologies can explain the why of developments in moral theologizing and Church teaching about sexual acts.

We can use what we have learned in our previous essays 'towards' a covenantal moral theology to briefly, though fairly, summarize the previous paradigm, show that its theological foundations cannot be adequate, and characterize the studied ambiguities of CCC 2352 as an effort to move the apperception of the morality of sex acts towards a covenantal, hence explicitly sacramental foundation, and away from the previous, finally pagan, foundation in 'pure nature.'

And more than this, we have implicitly shown why bizarre, even increasingly bizarre, statements about sexual acts from members of the episcopacy or even the papacy, are bizarre, and how a covenantal -- sacramental -- theological framework provides an ordinary Catholic with the ability to sort it out rather easily, without needing to rely on the previous 'natural law' framework.

We also note that the episcopate and their minions are not necessarily dumb, and may in fact be highly trained; hence bizarre statements about sex from them may take rhetorical advantage of actual insufficiencies in the previous 'natural law' framework, and present their own atrocities as the sole remedy for these insufficiencies.

In other words, since the 'natural law' framework on sexual acts was itself not founded on the sacraments, honest Catholics may find themselves at a loss when the discussion of the good or bad of sexual acts becomes further unmoored from the sacraments.

Let us put this even more plainly. The previous 'natural law' framework on sexual acts not only saw no need to found itself on the sacraments, it could only regard any move to found its intellectual and theological categories on the actual liturgical worship of the Church, on the sacraments themselves, as a quizzical 'move' at best, or more likely, as simply absurd. 'Nature' provides the answers; anyone can see that.

Moral theology's discussion of sexual acts has been formally; which is to say, systematically, intellectually, moored in 'nature' for centuries. More than this, for both the manuals and theology itself, the very notion of a free responsibility -- a covenantal, sacramental, responsibility -- was a thought that could not even be thought; our sole alternatives are to submit our wills to the dehistoricized ordo of 'nature', or chaos, irresponsibility, absurdity.

If there be scandal felt, let it be for that; for now it leaves honest Catholics with little intellectual defense against those who wish to unmoor sexual acts even farther from the sacraments.

Finally, we observe that if it's true that the previous 'natural law' framework for the judging of sexual acts really is inadequate, not so much because it is inadequate philosophically or intellectually, but because it's just not Catholic enough, then no amount of repeating that 'natural law' framework is actually going to solve any of our real problems.

Covenantal Theology wants us to rely, more fundamentally than we have been able to in the past, on the sacraments, on the radically historical liturgical worship of the Catholic Church, even for our intellectual categories, even for our most basic and deepest ideas of what is 'natural', what is holy, what is ordered, and what is thus dis-ordered.

And there, at least for now, we let the matter rest.

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