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Catholic teachings on sexual morality

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Catholic teachings on sexual morality

Catholic teachings on sexual morality draw from what the Church considers to be natural law, sacred scripture and sacred tradition and are promulgated authoritatively by the Magisterium. Sexual morality evaluates sexual behavior according to Catholic standards of morality, and often provides general principles by which Catholics are able to evaluate whether specific actions meet these standards. Much of the Church's detailed doctrines derive from the principle that "sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive [between spouses] purposes".[1]

The Catholic Church teaches that human life and human sexuality are inseparable.[2] Because Catholics believe God created human beings in his own image and likeness and that he found everything he created to be "very good,"[3] the Catholic Church teaches that human body and sex must likewise be good. The Church considers the expression of love between husband and wife to be an elevated form of human activity, joining as it does, husband and wife in complete mutual self-giving, and opening their relationship to new life. “The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, ‘noble and worthy.’”[4] In cases in which sexual expression is sought outside sacramental marriage, or in which the procreative function of sexual expression within marriage is deliberately frustrated (i.e., artificial contraception is used), the Catholic Church expresses grave moral concern.

The Church teaches that sexual intercourse has a purpose; and that outside marriage it is contrary to its purpose. According to the catechism, "conjugal love ... aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul"[5] since the marriage bond is to be a sign of the love between God and humanity.[6]

Among what are considered sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, homosexual practices[7] and artificial contraception.[8] Procurement of abortion, in addition to being considered a grave sin, carries, under the conditions envisaged by canon law, the penalty of excommunication, "by the very commission of the offense".[9]

Sources of Catholic sexual morality

Natural law

Natural law (Latin: lex naturalis) is an ethical theory that posits the existence of a law whose content is set by nature and that therefore has validity everywhere.[10] Despite pagan associations with natural law theory, a number (though not all) of the early Church Fathers sought to incorporate it into Christianity.

In an influential passage of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote,

the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.[11]

Natural law is a basic source for Catholic teachings on sexual morality.

Sacred scripture

The creation stories in Genesis 1-3 provide insights into anthropology that inform Catholic sexual morality. The following verses are frequently cited in Catholic studies of sexual morality:

  • "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.'" (Gen 1:27)
  • "The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.' Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed." (Gen 2:21-25)
  • "To the woman he said, 'I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.'" (Gen 3:16)

Two of the Ten Commandments directly address sexual morality, forbidding adultery and coveting a neighbor's wife. See Exodus 20:14, 17; Deuteronomy 5:18, 21.

Jesus comments on these commandments in Matthew 5:27-28: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

Jesus makes reference to the passages from Genesis in his teachings on marriage in Matthew 19: "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

Fathers of the church

Augustine of Hippo, considered a saint and church father by the Catholic Church, having lived a hedonistic lifestyle in his early youth, later followed the strictly dualistic religion of Manicheanism, which was deeply hostile to the material world, despising sexual activity. Eventually, under the influence of his Catholic Christian mother Monica, Augustine converted to Christianity, and later wrote movingly of this conversion in his Confessions, including details of the sexually-related aspects. The following passage from his autobiography describes a critical turning point in his change of sexual morality:

So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof." [Romans 13:13-14] No further would I read, nor did I need...[12]

Medieval theologians

Saint Thomas Aquinas dealt with sexual morality as an aspect of the virtue of temperance, and incorporates Scripture throughout his account. In his Summa Theologiae he writes about chastity:

The word "chastity" is employed in two ways. First, properly; and thus it is a special virtue having a special matter, namely the concupiscences relating to venereal pleasures. Secondly, the word "chastity" is employed metaphorically: for just as a mingling of bodies conduces to venereal pleasure which is the proper matter of chastity and of lust its contrary vice, so too the spiritual union of the mind with certain things conduces to a pleasure which is the matter of a spiritual chastity metaphorically speaking, as well as of a spiritual fornication likewise metaphorically so called. For if the human mind delight in the spiritual union with that to which it behooves it to be united, namely God, and refrains from delighting in union with other things against the requirements of the order established by God, this may be called a spiritual chastity, according to 2 Cor. 11:2, "I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." If, on the other hand, the mind be united to any other things whatsoever, against the prescription of the Divine order, it will be called spiritual fornication, according to Jer. 3:1, "But thou hast prostituted thyself to many lovers." Taking chastity in this sense, it is a general virtue, because every virtue withdraws the human mind from delighting in a union with unlawful things. Nevertheless, the essence of this chastity consists principally in charity and the other theological virtues, whereby the human mind is united to God.[13]

Although all three principal discussions of marriage in the New Testament (Matthew 19, I Corinthians 7, and Ephesians 5) omit any reference to generating children, later Catholic moral doctrine consistently emphasized that the only proper purpose of sexual relations was to conceive children.[14] During the entire Middle Ages, the question of when intercourse was allowed and when it was not, was very important. Intercourse was banned on all Sundays and all the many feast days, as well as the 20 days before Christmas, the 40 days before Easter, and often the 20 days before Pentecost, as well as three or more days before receiving Communion (which at that time was offered only a few times a year). These forbidden days altogether totaled about 40% of each year.[15] Penalties of 20 to 40 days of strict fasting on bread and water were imposed on transgressors. Clergy routinely warned believers that children conceived on holy days would be born leprous, epileptic, diabolically possessed, blind, or crippled. Intercourse was also forbidden during the menstrual period and pregnancy, partly out of concern for protecting the fetus. [17] Canon law until 1917 labeled contraception as murder.[18]

Early modern theologians

In the Counter-Reformation and early modern periods, theologians continued to write on issues relating to sexual morality and marriage, one example being Giovanni Maria Chiericato (Joannes Clericati) in his Decisiones de Matrimonio.

Magisterial documents since 1930

  • Casti Connubii (1930) by Pope Pius XI
    • Casti Connubii was written in part as a response to the decision of the Anglican Lambeth Conference in 1930 that taught the legitimacy of the use of contraception in some circumstances.
    • "Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin."

Other recent views

A revolutionary study published in 1977[19] after being commissioned in 1972 by the Catholic Theological Society of America, which however did not approve the study, showed that dissent from the Holy See's teachings on sexuality was common among United States theologians. Reaction to the study showed that the dissent was not unanimous.[20][21]

The Catholic teaching on specific subjects


One of the ten commandments. Thou shalt not commit Adultery.[22]


Catholicism defines chastity as the virtue that moderates the sexual appetite.[23] Unmarried Catholics express chastity through sexual abstinence. Sexual intercourse within marriage is considered chaste when it retains the twofold significance of union and procreation.[24] Pope John Paul II wrote,

At the center of the spirituality of marriage, therefore, there lies chastity not only as a moral virtue (formed by love), but likewise as a virtue connected with the gifts of the Holy Spirit—above all, the gift of respect for what comes from God (donum pietatis). This gift is in the mind of the author of the Ephesians when he exhorts married couples to "defer to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21). So the interior order of married life, which enables the manifestations of affection to develop according to their right proportion and meaning, is a fruit not only of the virtue which the couple practice, but also of the gifts of the Holy Spirit with which they cooperate.[25]

Because sex is considered chaste only within context of marriage it has come to be called the nuptial act in Catholic passages. Among Catholics, the nuptial act is considered to be the conjoining of a man and a woman through sexual intercourse, considered an act of love between two married persons, and is considered in this way, a gift from God. While discussing chastity, the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists several transgressions and sins against it.[26]


The Church has been opposed to contraception for as far back as one can historically trace.[27][28] Many early Catholic Church Fathers made statements condemning the use of contraception including John Chrysostom, Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, Augustine of Hippo and various others.[29][30][31] Among the condemnations is one by Jerome which refers to an apparent oral form of contraception: "Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception."[32] The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies that all sex acts must be both unitive and procreative.[33] In addition to condemning use of artificial birth control as intrinsically evil,[34] non-procreative sex acts such as mutual masturbation and anal sex are ruled out as ways to avoid pregnancy.[35]

Pope Paul VI, rejecting the majority report of the 1963-66 Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, confirmed the Catholic Church's traditional teaching on contraception, defined as "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible",[36] declaring it evil, and excluded. Prohibited acts with contraceptive effect include sterilization, condoms and other barrier methods, spermicides, coitus interruptus (withdrawal method), the Pill, and all other such methods.[37] Restricting sexual activity to times when conception is unlikely (the "rhythm method" and similar practices) is not deemed sinful,[38]but only when it is pursued by the spouses without external pressure, and when it is practiced not out of selfishness, but for serious reasons.[39]

Pope John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio,

Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality.... the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.[40]
Health uses of contraceptives

The Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result therefrom, so long as the contraceptive effect is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.[41] For example, the use of hormonal contraception as treatment for endometriosis rather than with contraceptive intent is not considered to conflict in any way with Catholic teaching.[42]

The use of condoms to prevent disease is a more controversial and more complex issue, with theologians arguing both sides.[43][44][45] Unlike drugs and surgical procedures, the Church's position as of 2013 was that using condoms during sex, for any purpose, is morally contraceptive and thus a sin.

Issues surrounding the Roman Catholic Church and AIDS became highly controversial since 1990, primarily because many prominent Catholic leaders publicly declared their opposition to the use of condoms as a disease preventative. Other issues involve religious participation in global health care services and collaboration with secular organizations such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization.

In November 2010 Pope Benedict said that it was a responsible act, though still not a truly moral solution, to use condoms in some very special cases as a device for the prevention of disease. He gave male prostitutes (for whom contraception is not an issue) as an example, where the purpose is to "reduce the risk of infection" from HIV.[46] While still believing that contraceptive devices interfere with the creation of life, the Pope stated that in that particular case, it can be a responsible act to raise awareness of the nature of such an act, and as a benefit, to avoid death and save life, though only as a first step, not a truly moral solution, before convincing the male prostitute of a truly moral solution, which means ceasing prostitution and sexual activity outside of marriage. There was some confusion at first whether the statement applied only to homosexual prostitutes and thus not to heterosexual intercourse at all. However, Federico Lombardi, spokesman of the Vatican, clarified that it applied to heterosexual and transsexual prostitutes, both male and female, as well.[47] He also clarified that, in the interview, the Pope did not reverse the Church's centuries-old prohibition on contraceptive use in the context of heterosexual sexual acts, which the Church states must normally be open to the transmission of life,[46] and that he did not reverse his positions on homosexual acts and prostitution either.


The Roman Catholic Church disapproves of fornication (sexual intercourse between two people not married to each other), calling it "gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality".[48]


The Catechism devotes a separate section to homosexuality within its explanation of the sixth commandment. The Church distinguishes between "homosexual attractions", which are not considered sinful, and "homosexual acts", which are considered sinful. Like all heterosexual acts outside of marriage, homosexual acts are considered sins against this commandment. The Catechism states that they "violate natural law, cannot bring forth life, and do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved."[49][50] The Church teaches that a homosexual inclination is "objectively disordered" and can be a great trial for the person for whom the Church teaches must be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity ... unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."[49][51]

The homosexual person is, according to the Church, "called to chastity". They are instructed to practice the virtues of "self-mastery" that teaches "inner freedom" using the support of friends, prayer and grace found in the sacraments of the Church.[49] These tools are meant to help the homosexually inclined person to "gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection", which is a state to which all Christians are called.[49]


The Roman Catholic Church disapproves of lust: "Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes".[1]

But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.


The Roman Catholic Church disapproves of masturbation.[52] St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most prominent Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote that masturbation was an "unnatural vice" which is a species of lust", but that it is a less serious form than bestiality, which is "the most serious", and than sodomy, which is the next most serious:[53] "By procuring pollution [i.e., ejaculation apart from intercourse], without any copulation, for the sake of venereal pleasure [...] pertains to the sin of 'uncleanness' which some call 'effeminacy' [Latin: mollitiem, lit. 'softness, unmanliness']."[54]

More recently, from the Youcat:

409 Masturbation is an offense against love, because it makes the excitement of sexual pleasure an end in itself and uncouples it from the holistic unfolding of love between a man and a woman. That is why “sex with yourself” is a contradiction in terms.
The Church does not demonize masturbation, but she warns against trivializing it. In fact many young people and adults are in danger of becoming isolated in their consumption of lewd pictures, films, and Internet services instead of finding love in a personal relationship. Loneliness can lead to a blind alley in which masturbation becomes an addiction. Living by the motto "For sex I do not need anyone; I will have it myself, however and whenever I need it" makes nobody happy.[55]

According to Catholic Church teaching, "to form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety, or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability."[52]


The Catholic Church disapproves of pornography and says that civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.[56]


The Catholic Church condemns prostitution as a societal vice.[57]


The Roman Catholic Church condemns rape.[58]

See also


Catholic Church (1997). Catechism of the Catholic Church: with modifications from the editio typica (Second ed.). Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.  


  1. ^ a b Catechism of the Catholic Church 2351
  2. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] 2331–2400
  3. ^ Genesis 1:31
  4. ^ "Humanae Vitae, no. 11"
  5. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1643
  6. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1617
  7. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2351–2357
  8. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370
  9. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2272
  10. ^ "Natural Law," International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.
  11. ^ ST I-II Q91 a2 corp
  12. ^ St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 8, Chapter 12
  13. ^ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Question 151, Article 2, corp.
  14. ^ Uta Ranke-Heinemann, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven", Doubleday Publishing, 1990, p. 43.
  15. ^ Uta Ranke-Heinemann, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven", Doubleday Publishing, 1990, pp. 138-140.
  16. ^ Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, Doubleday Publishing, 1990, pp. 149-151.
  17. ^ Uta Ranke-Heinemann, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven", Doubleday Publishing, 1990, p. 24.
  18. ^ Uta Ranke-Heinemann, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven", Doubleday Publishing, 1990, p. 148.
  19. ^ A.Kosnik and others, Human Sexuality. New Directions in Catholic Thought, Search Press, London 1977, pp. 219-229
  20. ^ The Historical Development of Fundamental Moral Theology in the United States, Curran
  21. ^ Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, Weigel
  22. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church
  23. ^ Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia I-II q. 60 a. 5; Catholic Encyclopedia, "Chastity"
  24. ^ Humanae vitae 12
  25. ^ Pope John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday, November 14, 1984.
  26. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 2337–2350
  27. ^ "Fathers Know Best Contraception". EWTN. Retrieved 2009-03-20. 
  28. ^ "Contraception/Birth Control". Archived from the original on 2009-11-08. Retrieved 2009-03-20. 
  29. ^ Church Fathers on Contraception
  30. ^ The Catholic Tradition on the Morality of Contraception by Fr Hardon, S.J.
  31. ^ Contraception: Early Church Teaching (William Klimon)
  32. ^ Jerome Letters 22:3 to Eustochium
  33. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church 2nd Edition Paragraph 2366". Vatican. Retrieved 2009-03-20. 
  34. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church 2nd Edition Paragraph 2370". Vatican. Retrieved 2009-03-20. 
  35. ^ Christopher West (2000). Good News about Sex and Marriage: Answers to Your Honest Questions about Catholic Teaching. Servant Publications. pp. 88–91.  
  36. ^ Humanae vitae 14
  37. ^ tract on birth control, based on Humanae Vitae
  38. ^ Humanae vitae: section 16
  39. ^ Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, question 497.
  40. ^ Familiaris Consortio 32
  41. ^ "Humanae Vitae, section 17"
  42. ^ Hardon, John (2000). "Endometriosis". Modern Catholic Dictionary. Eternal Life.  
  43. ^ James T. Bretzke, S.J. (26 March,). "The Lesser Evil". America Magazine. Retrieved 2008-05-16. 
  44. ^ Guevin, Benedict; Martin Rhonheimer (Spring 2005). "Debate: On the Use of Condoms to Prevent Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome". The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly: 35–48. 
  45. ^ May, William E. (Summer–Fall 2007). "The Theological Significance of Consummation of Marriage, Contraception, Using Condoms to Prevent HIV, and Same-Sex Unions". Josephinum Journal of Theology (Pittsfield, Massachusetts: Catholic Library Association) 14 (2): 207–217. 
  46. ^ a b Jonathan Wynne-Jones (20 November 2010). "The Pope drops Catholic ban on condoms in historic shift". London: The Tepegraph. Retrieved 20 November 2010. 
  47. ^ Donadio, Rachel; Goodstein, Laurie (23 November 2010). "Vatican Confirms Shift on Condoms as AIDS Prevention". The New York Times. 
  48. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 2353
  49. ^ a b c d Paragraph number 2357–2359 (1994). "Catechism of the Catholic Church". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 27 December 2008. 
  50. ^ Schreck, p. 314
  51. ^ Kreeft, p. 249
  52. ^ a b Catechism of the Catholic Church 2352
  53. ^ Summa Theologica IIª-IIae, q. 154 a. 12 ad 4 (in Latin)
  54. ^ Summa Theologica IIª-IIae, q. 154 a. 11 co. (in Latin)
  55. ^ Frequently asked questions about Youcat
  56. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 2354
  57. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 2355
  58. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 2356

External links

  • "Sex & the Early Church" by Sam Torode
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