Tag Archives: The Sexual Person

The Evolution of Catholic Teaching on Sex and Marriage.

In “The Sexual Person“, the Catholic lay theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler give a useful historical review of the substantial shifts in the orthodox doctrine on sex and marriage – while also illustrating how much of that teaching is stuck in the fourth century thought of Augustine, and that of Aquinas from the thirteenth century. (Is there any other field of human thought that is so rooted in those two distant periods?) This is an important book that I will be discussing regularly in small bites. For now, I simply want to point to the briefest summary of the main argument, in preparation for a specific extract referring to Pope Paul VI and Humane Vitae.

Two things strike me in this account. As I have frequently noted before, it is completely untrue that the Catholic Church has a “constant and unchanging tradition” on sexual ethics.  Rather, the tradition has been constantly evolving. Just consider the complete transformation of the view on sexual pleasure – from one that it is to be avoided at all costs, even while begetting children or in nocturnal involuntary emissions, to one where it can contribute to the sacramental value of marriage. What has evolved in the past, will surely continue to evolve. That evolution will surely be aided by the capacity of theologians and popes to retrieve, when required, obscure and forgotten pieces from history – and proclaim them of fundamental importance. In two thousand years of theological writing, there will surely be a plethora of documents now obscure, which contradict some current thinking. Some of these will no doubt be retrieved by scholars – and being rehabilitated, will influence further adjustments in the changing tradition of the Church.

St Augustine – 6th cent fresco, Lateran

Here follows my summary of the outline in “The Sexual Person”

For the early fathers of the Church, sex within marriage was seen as good, for the purpose of procreation only. However, virginity was praised as better – even within marriage. Where sex was undertaken for the purpose of procreation, it was acceptable, but undertaken for pleasure, it was sinful. From Augustine onward, there was some grudging recognition that there was more to it than just procreation, with some value also recognised for conjugal love, which would later be described as the “unitive” value.  Nevertheless, sexual activity for pleasure, even in marriage, was for centuries considered sinful.

The Catholic aversion to sexual pleasure reached its high point when Pope Gregory the Great banned from access to church anyone who had just had pleasurable sexual intercourse. We accept as accurate Brandage’s judgement of the effect of that patristic history: “The Christian horror of sex has for centuries placed enormous strain on individual consciences and self-esteem in the Western world.”

The medieval penitentials went even further, condemning as sinful even involuntary emissions during sleep, and placing tight restrictions on when intercourse with one’s spouse was legitimate – even without taking that dreaded pleasure in the act. One such prescribed continence during three forty day periods: during Lent, preceding Christmas, and following Pentecost. Excluding these one hundred and twenty days, that left a maximum of two hundred and forty five remaining.  But four days in every week were also proscribed – Saturday and Sunday (night and day), and Wednesday and Friday (daytime). This effectively leaves a maximum of one hundred and forty days available for legitimate relations with one’s spouse – but excluding further the entire menstrual period, and the period after conception.

The impact of these penitentials and their harsh judgements on sex was profound. They helped shape a moral focus on individual acts, turning moral reflection into an analysis of sin. They also shaped a focus on genitalia.




That focus and the act-centred morality it generated were perpetuated in the numerous manuals published in the wake of the Council of Trent. These manuals controlled seminary education well into the twentieth century and continued to propagate both an act-centred morality and Catholic ambivalence toward both sexuality and marriage.

Aquinas later expanded the “purpose” of marriage by recognizing both a primary purpose (which remained procreation) and a secondary purpose – not pleasure itself, but mutual support and faithfulness between the spouses. For believers, there is also a third end – a sacramental one. Aquinas also begins to modify the total aversion to pleasure, recognizing that “within the ends of marriage”, sexual desire and pleasure are not sinful.

By the twentieth century, the 1917 Code of Canon Law codified three notions of marriage: as a contract between spouses, in which the partners exchanged rights to their sexual acts, and whose primary purpose is procreation. That renewed emphasis on procreation was substantially revised later in the century, especially by the Second Vatican Council, but also before it.

In 1936, in response to the Anglican church’s approval of artificial contraception, Pope Pius XI publishedCasta Connubii“. This firmly rejected contraception and emphasized procreation – but it did more.

He retrieved and gave a prominent place to a long-ignored item from the Catechism of the Council of Trent: marriage as a union of conjugal love and intimacy.  If we consider only the juridical definition of marriage, we could reasonably conclude that marriage has nothing to do with mutual love, that a man and a woman who hated each other could could be married as long as each gave to the other the right over her or his body for procreation.  By emphasising the essential place of mutual love in a marriage, Pius firmly rejected such nonsense and placed the Catholic view of marriage on the track to a more personal definition.

In this document, Pius XI quite explicitly describes the “chief reason and purpose” of marriage as the mutual love and interior formation of the spouses. This renewed emphasis on conjugal love was reaffirmed by Vatican II. The council clearly stated that marriage is “ordered” to the procreation and education of children, but also stressed that this does not imply any hierarchy of ends. The importance of the generation and education of children

“does not make the other ends of marriage of less account”, and marriage “is not instituted solely for procreation”.