Thursday, 14 April 2011

A traditional Catholic theologian on marriage, part 1 - Sex

This is the first of what will be a series of posts in which I translate, in abridged form, the writings of a traditional Catholic theologian on matrimony.  This first post deals with the subject of sex (see also here and here on the same subject).  The remaining posts will go on to deal with other aspects of Catholic doctrine on marriage.


The text is taken from Tractatus dogmaticus, moralis et canonicus de matrimonio christiano by Pietro Pacati, published in 1906

As usual, I will preface the translation by drawing out a few of its salient themes. 

1.  The primary purpose of marital sex is procreation.  As I have noted in previous posts, Catholic sexual morality is premised on the notion that human acts have natural purposes which are ordained by God and which must be respected by human beings.  In the case of sex, the primary natural purpose is procreation.  It follows that forms of sexual behaviour which cannot result in conception, such as intercourse using contraceptives and anal intercourse, are deemed to be immoral.  Nonetheless, conception does not actually have to be a real possibility in every case, as long as it would be possible in principle: hence couples who are in fact infertile can still have sex.

2.  The secondary purpose of marital sex is to control the spouses' sexual desires.  This is therefore a valid reason in itself for having sex with one's spouse.

3.  Other acceptable and "honourable" reasons exist for having sex.  These include the nurturing of love between the couple.  They do not, however, include sexual pleasure alone - this is not a proper purpose since it amounts to using sex for something other than the end intended by God. 

4.  Sex constitutes an obligation which spouses owe to each other.  This notion is termed the 'marital debt' and derives from the New Testament writings of St Paul.


Here is the translation: 

S. 1 — On the marital debt, or marital intercourse

The debt is to be demanded rarely, solely out of necessity and with a humble and pure intention — One must speak about this matter only very rarely; outside of confession, it should be spoken of only with priests and only in relation to the obligation entailed by the duty. — Outside of confession, the Latin language should be used when speaking or writing to men — One should have frequent recourse to Mary, the mother of chastity....

The chaste reader must forgive me if I speak at length here of shameful matters.  If what I say is shameful, it is more shameful to rot in sin.

The conjugal act, which is inherently aimed at begetting offspring, is called by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 7.3) a "debt", for the husband has the right to make use of his wife's body, and similarly the wife has the right to make use of her husband's body.  The right of the one party gives rise to a debt on the part of the other....


I.  On the lawfulness of the marital act

Question 1.  On the lawfulness of the marital act in itself

The marital act is the term used for the act in which the man and the woman are, by intercourse, made as one body and one flesh.

It is generally agreed that the marital act is lawful and honourable in itself, and indeed, in certain circumstances, it is even meritorious....

It must be added, however, that, for an act of this kind to be lawful, it must be inherently capable of resulting in procreation - or, to put it better and more precisely, all the conditions which nature itself seems to require for its essence and perfection should be fulfilled.  If one or another of these are lacking, the act will be more or less illicit.

The substance of the act consists of three elements, as follows: penetration of the correct orifice (i.e. the vagina); the ejaculation of semen within the vagina; and the retention of the semen by the woman, so that it can be drawn into her uterus and, if the time is right, it can fertilise one of her eggs which come down from her ovaries.  Other factors make procreation easier and more certain, and are called "accidental".  These include using the natural position for intercourse, the ejaculation of the woman, etc.

On this basis: 1. It is a serious sin knowingly and voluntarily not to observe those things which are required for the substance of the act.  Although the marital act is not ordained solely for procreation, but is also directed in the second place to diminishing lust, it must nevertheless be a true conjugal act, which it is not if its primary purpose, procreation, is actively impeded....

Corollaries — a) It is legitimate for spouses to have intercourse where, due to old age or some other indisposition, a lot of the semen leaks out of the orifice, as long as there is a probable expectation of ejaculating the semen inside the orifice....

b) Infertile individuals can lawfully have intercourse even though there is no hope of them begetting children.

c) A wife who prevents herself from ejaculating while having marital intercourse does not objectively sin, since the woman's semen (as it is called) is not necessary for procreation....

d) Every act by which the semen is voluntarily killed or removed from the woman or impeded from travelling into the uterus is a grave sin....

Question 3.  On the lawfulness of the marital act in relation to its purpose

1.  It is certain that the marital act can lawfully be engaged in for reason of the purposes proper to marriage: that is, for the procreation of children — to provide a remedy for lust — to satisfy one's spouse when he lawfully requests it.  The reason is obvious: it is obviously lawful to carry out an act conforming to nature for reason of the ends which the author of nature intended when he instituted it.

2.  It is also certain that the marital act can lawfully be engaged in for reason of some other honourable end, e.g. to nurture marital love, for reasons of physical health, etc....

3.  Conversely, it appears to be certain that it is unlawful to look for pleasure alone in the marital act, to the extent that all honourable purposes are positively excluded.  This is because it is a perversion of the order of nature to make use of something as an end in itself if the author of nature willed that it should be only a means to an end.  An abuse of this nature, however, is no more than a minor sin, for taking pleasure in carrying out a good act is not wrong in itself, but only by virtue of the deficiency in relation to its legitimate purpose.... 

Question 4.  On the lawfulness of the marital act in relation to its circumstances

On the position — The natural position for intercourse is for the man to lie on top and the woman to lie underneath him.  This is generally the method which tends to be more suited for the insemination of the woman.  However, no position, even if it departs from the natural one, impedes procreation in itself.  Using a different position is therefore no more than a venial sin, provided that the danger is excluded of all the semen being ejaculated outside the orifice.  Indeed, it does not even amount to a minor sin if there is a legitimate reason for it....

On the location — a) Modesty and charity, by which we are obliged to avoid giving scandal, demand that marital intercourse is only to be carried on in a private place.  Spouses should therefore take care that other people do not sleep in the same bedroom, or at any rate that by exercising their rights they do not bring about the others' ruin.....

II.  On the marital act as an obligation

....Spouses are inherently bound by justice to pay the debt to each other as often as one of them seriously and lawfully requests it either expressly or tacitly...

If one spouse has lost the right to demand the debt, the obligation of paying it necessarily ceases.  Each spouse loses the right to demand the debt:

a) through adultery, if it was definitely committed, consummated, and not permitted or condoned by the other spouse....

b) through the loss of reason, e.g. if one of the spouses is insane or drunk....

d) if the spouse demands the debt immoderately and in a manner repugnant to right reason, and places an intolerable burden on the other spouse.  It is always immoderate to demand the debt more than once a night....

f) if there is a culpable absence of concern for his offspring on the part of the husband and he leaves to the wife the burden of providing for herself and their children....

III.  On lawful and unlawful acts between spouses

There are acts which are connected to a greater or lesser extent with intercourse.  The question at hand which is to be enquired into is whether and how far they are lawful for spouses....

I.  Whatever is beneficial for the marital act is entirely lawful — it is clear that any act that favours procreation is lawful for spouses....  Hence... spouses who are intending to have full intercourse are permitted to engage in lesser erotic acts, either between themselves or alone, such as looks, touches, embraces, kisses, words, etc, insofar as these contribute to the conjugal act.  This is the case whether the acts are carried out before intercourse or during intercourse itself.  Spouses should not, however, linger too long in engaging in these acts, in case ejaculation results before they have had intercourse....

II.  Acts which are unrelated to procreation but are not contrary to it are no more than venial sins.  Certainly, sexual pleasure is lawful for spouses, as long as it is related to some honourable purpose....  Sexual pleasure among spouses, on whom lies the duty of preserving and propagating the human race, is comparable to pleasure in food and drink among human beings generally, on whom lies the duty of preserving themselves as individuals.  So, just as excessive pleasure in eating is a venial sin because it lacks an honourable purpose, so excessive use of sexual pleasure is a minor sin because it lacks an honourable purpose.  Hence... acts between spouses that fall short of intercourse (touches, kisses, embraces, etc) are lawful even if they are not oriented towards intercourse, if they are rendered honourable by some honourable purpose, e.g. to nurture a deeper love, provided that there is no proximate danger of ejaculation.  They amount to venial sins if they are indulged in purely for pleasure.

III.  Anything that is against the procreation of offspring is gravely illicit, on the grounds that it is repugnant to the primary purpose that the author of nature intends in marriage.  Hence:

a) Voluntary ejaculation outside of marital intercourse is no less illicit among married persons than among single persons.  Indeed, masturbation among spouses is even to be categorised together with adultery, since it is injurious to the rights of the other spouse.

b)  Sodomitical intercourse among spouses is also a serious sin, i.e. penetration of the rear orifice with the ejaculation of semen within it, because it is a grave perversion of nature, it makes conception impossible, and it is adverse to marital faith, which demands that spouses should not employ their bodies for any purpose other than that of procreation....

c) Contraceptive intercourse is also forbidden under pain of mortal sin....


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