Sunday, 5 June 2011

Traditional Catholic theology on sex in marriage

See also here and here

This is the latest post in a series on traditional (pre-Vatican II) Catholic teaching on marriage, sexuality and gender.

As usual, I will start by summarising my conclusion from the sources:

- Marital sex is lawful when it is undertaken for one of the three purposes of marriage.  These are procreation, mutual affection and the restraining of lust.  Sexual pleasure alone is not a legitimate reason for having sex.

- Sex must be carried on in such a way as to be open to procreation.

- The marriage debt exists as a serious mutual obligation, though it can be refused on some occasions.

- Marital sex is not compulsory, and a couple can agree not to engage in it.


Slater and Martin, A manual of moral theology for English-speaking countries (1908)

The marital rights, or the debt as St. Paul calls it, is the matter of the matrimonial contract.... However, marriage does not necessarily imply the exercise of the right which it gives, any more than the ownership of a house implies the use of it....

[What follows is translated from the Latin]

Marital intercourse is not only lawful, but it constitutes an obligation that must be rendered out of justice on pain of mortal sin where the other spouse seriously and reasonably requests it....

However, it may certainly be admitted that there are reasons which excuse a spouse from this obligation.  There is hence no obligation of rendering the marriage debt when it cannot be rendered without danger to life or of serious illness, or when it is not requested reasonably - for example, where it is requested by a person who is insane or drunk, or it is requested too frequently, e.g. several times in the same night....

What is and is not lawful for spouses is generally determined by the following rule: it is licit to do what is of assistance to intercourse; what prevents or tends to impede the begetting of children is gravely illicit; and what does not prevent the begetting of children, even if it does not assist it, is at least not gravely sinful.

Hence we may conclude: a spouse may arose himself to intercourse by means of impure touches and looks, and after the husband has withdrawn the wife may arouse herself by touching herself in order to complete her sexual pleasure.  It is gravely sinful to engage in sodomitical intercourse and intercourse which is commenced and then broken off, with the semen being ejaculated outside the woman's orifice.  If, however, it is apparent from experience that the spouses can break off intercourse after they have begun without proximate danger of ejaculation, it would seem that this is not a mortal sin if both spouses consent.  A fortiori, other shameful touches and looks between spouses seem not to be mortal sins in the absence of proximate danger of ejaculation, and they are free from all sin if they are carried on for a just cause, such as the nurturing of conjugal affection....

A husband commits a grave sin against nature and the purpose of marriage if, before intercourse has finished, he voluntarily withdraws from his wife and ejaculates outside her orifice....

A capricious pleasue in having had intercourse, or being about to have it, does not seem to be forbidden to spouses under pain of mortal sin, if there is no proximate danger of ejaculation.  Indeed, a purely rational pleasure arising from a legitimate object, like marital intercourse, does not even seem to be a venial sin.  In practice, however, pleasure at conjugal intercourse will scarcely be purely rational, insofar as it naturally arouses the senses and the organs.  Therefore, capricious pleasure in having had intercourse or being about to have it is forbidden even to spouses on pain of venial sin, at least if it is habitual.


J.Selinger, "Moral and Canonical Aspect of Marriage", Catholic Encyclopedia (1910)

The agreement to abstain from the use of conjugal rights... does not nullify the marriage contract. The parties to the marriage fully consent to transfer to each other the conjugal rights, but, by agreement or vow, oblige themselves to abstain from the actual use of those rights.... Such a condition, though possible, is not frequent nor even permissible except in cases of rare virtue.


T.J.Gerrard, Marriage and parenthood, the Catholic ideal (1911)

[R]estrained and controlled, the sexual appetite can be directed to the three great ends for which it was made, and thus can it be prevented from abuse, for which it was not made....

There are three ends for which marriage was instituted, and consequently three reasons which make the marriage act lawful and holy. The first and chief is the begetting of children. The second is the calming of concupiscence, and consequent avoiding of incontinence. The third is the fostering of conjugal love and affection....

Sensual pleasure for its own sake is not amongst the recognized reasons for the exercise of the marriage act. It passes away with its own satisfaction, and if indulged merely for that purpose has neither use nor dignity. As a matter of fact it was made to minister to higher ends. It is a mere adjunct to the marriage act, intended to make it attractive for the benefit of the race. If, therefore, it is perverted and made an end in itself, and if its higher ends are excluded, then it defeats the aim of matrimony, it kills the love between husband and wife, it shirks the burden of children.

For the sake of home and family... each one is bound to render the debt as often as reasonably asked.

For such a sacred purpose either partner should be willing to undergo serious inconvenience.... The cares of child-bearing are no excuse for the wife refusing consent, nor yet is the expense of the child's education an excuse for the husband refusing consent. Not even a difficult childbirth is a sufficient reason for refusing. The only justification for refusing is something so serious as to involve danger of death, or long painful illness. Complete debauchery will come within this category. Such excessive indulgence may so weaken a man's will as to render him liable to incontinence. In the interests of conjugal fidelity the wife would in such a case be justified in refusing....

Then comes the question of times of illness. For one partner there is danger of grave illness, whilst for the other there is danger of incontinency. Rather than expose a partner to the danger of sin the other partner is bound to suffer grave inconvenience, but is not bound to go so far as to incur dangerous illness. It is difficult sometimes to draw the line, and wherever the line is drawn it means dissatisfaction for one or other of the parties concerned....