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Sexual Intimacy and Pleasure

Chapter 12 of Rome has Spoken
A Guide to Forgotten Papal Statements
and How They Have Changed Through the Centuries
edited by Maureen Fiedler and Linda Rabben
Published by The Crossroad Publishing Company
New York 1998

Changes in church teaching on sexual intimacy have been slow, but they have become more apparent in the last half of the twentieth century. Early teaching drew from a philosophical tradition that equated the body with evil and the spirit with good, treated sex as an evil, and sexual pleasure as justifiable only if procreation were intended. In the twentieth century, especially with the Second Vatican Council, the church has begun to reclaim the biblical tradition that celebrates the goodness of sexuality in itself But even now, church officials find it hard to break from older, negative attitudes.


Canticle of Canticles 7:7-13:
“How beautiful you are, how pleasing, my love, my delight! Your very figure is like a palm tree; your breasts are like clusters. I said: I will climb the palm tree, I will take hold of its branches. Now let your breasts be like clusters of the vine and the fragrance of
your breath like apples. And your mouth like an excellent wine — that flows smoothly for my
lover, spreading over the lips and the teeth. I belong to my love and my beloved desires only me. Come, my lover, let us go forth to the fields and spend the night among the villages.
Let us go early to the vineyard, and see if the vines are in bloom, If the buds have opened, if the pomegranates have blossomed; There I will give you my love.”
Context: This celebration of sexual love is from the Hebrew Scriptures The Second Vatican Council cited it as part of the biblical tradition on sexuality in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 49.

Ephesians 5:25-32:
“Love one another as Christ loved the church….Love one another as you
love your own bodies. Those who love their partners love themselves.
No one ever hates one’s own flesh; one nourishes it and takes care of it as Christ
cares for the church — for we are members of Christ’s body.
This is why one person leaves home and clings to another, and the two become one flesh.”


Augustine, fourth century:
“Love your wives then, but love them chastely. In your intercourse with them keep yourselves within the bounds necessary for the procreation of children. And inasmuch as you cannot otherwise have them, descend to it with regret. For this necessity is the punishment of that Adam from whom we are sprung.”
Context: Though never a pope, Augustine was a theologian and philosopher who influenced church attitudes toward sexuality for centuries.

Leo I, Sermon 22, c 450:
“In all mothers conception does not take place without sin.”

Gregory I, Letter to the English Bishop Augustine,
Tenth Answer, c 600:

  • “As for sleeping with his wife, the husband must not do this until the baby is weaned. For the depraved custom has grown up among couples: the mothers disdain to nurse the babies that they brought into the world and pass them to other women to nurse. And this seems to come from one cause only: incontinence. Not wanting to be continent, they disdain to nurse their infants.”

Context: This was probably a letter in response to the bishop’s inquiry. Here, “incontinence” means uncontrolled sexual behavior for the sake of physical self-gratification. “Continence” means abstinence from sexual intercourse. Apparently it was believed that women should abstain from intercourse in order to guarantee the production of breast milk.

  • “When they have their menstrual period, it is forbidden for them to have intercourse with their husband; so that the sacred law punishes with death he who approaches a menstruating woman.”

Gregory I, Pastoral Rule, c. 600:
“Husbands and wives are to be admonished to remember that they are joined together for the sake of producing offspring, and, when giving themselves to immoderate intercourse, they transfer the occasion of procreation to the service of pleasure …Though they go not outside wedlock yet in wedlock they exceed the just dues of wedlock. Whence it is needful that, by frequent supplications, they do away [sic] their having fouled with the admixture of pleasure, the fair form of conjugal union.”

Nicholas I, Letter to the Bulgarians, c. 860:
“If we must abstain from worldly labor on Sunday, how much the more must we be on our guard against fleshly lust and every bodily defilement [on Sunday].”
Context: This was later incorporated into canon law, in which sexual activity was banned on about 150 days of the year.; including Sundays, feast days, and holy days

Leo IX, 1054:
“Masturbators should not be admitted to sacred orders.”


Innocent II, Synod of Clermont, 1130:
“Since priests are supposed to be God’s temples, vessels of the Lord and sanctuaries of the Holy Spirit… it offends their dignity to lie in the conjugal bed and live in impurity.”
Context: This is part of the church’s crusade to enforce clerical celibacy, which gained intensity from the mid-eleventh century onward (see chapter 11, “Married Clergy”).

Decretum, 1140:
“At the time of prayer it is not lawful for anyone to engage in conjugal activity.”
“As often as the birthday of the Lord or the other feasts occur, we should abstain not only from the fellowship of infidel concubines but also from our own wives.”
“It is necessary on fast days to abstain even from our wives.”
[Quoting Gregory I] “A man sleeping with his wife ought to refrain from entering church.”
“It is not lawful to celebrate marriage on the days of Lent.”

Innocent III, De Miseria Humane Conditionis, 1195
(as Cardinal Segni, before he became pope):

  • “Everyone knows that intercourse, even between married persons, is never performed without the itch of the flesh, the heat of passion, and the stench of lust. Whence the seed conceived is fouled, smirched, corrupted, and the soul infused into it inherits the guilt of sin, the stain of evil-doing, that primeval taint. Just as drink is polluted by a soiled vessel, anything that touches something polluted becomes polluted.”
  • • “Hear now on what food the child is fed in the womb: actually on menstrual blood which ceases in the female after conception so that the child in her womb will be nourished by it. And this blood is reckoned so detestable and impure that on contact with it fruits will fail to sprout, orchards go dry, herbs wither, the very trees let go their fruit; if a dog eats it, he goes mad. When a child is conceived, he contracts the defect of the seed, so that lepers and monsters are born of this corruption. Wherefore according to the Mosaic law, a woman during her monthly period is considered unclean, and if anyone approach a menstruating woman it is commanded that he be put to death. Because of this uncleanness it is further commanded that a woman keep away from the entrance to the temple for forty days if she bear a male child but for eighty days if she bear a female.”

Context: This book was a medieval bestseller.; and is thought to have influenced Geoffrey Chaucer in writing The Canterbury Tales. It is typically medieval in its deep pessimism, condemnation of anything new, and horror of sexuality.

Innocent IV, Apparatus super Libros Decretalium, c. 1250:
“We do not believe that for the sodomitic vice there can be a separation of beds” [but divorce is allowed if] “the husband wants to draw [the wife] into that sin.”
Context: It was taboo even to name “unnatural” sexual practices such as anal intercourse, intercourse not in the “missionary” position, or intercourse at times forbidden by the church; therefore, euphemisms were often used in church documents.

Eugene IV, Exultate Deo, 1439:
“Through order the church is indeed governed and multiplied spiritually; through matrimony it is corporally increased.”
Context: The population of Europe was decimated in the mid-fourteenth century by the Black Death. “The church suffered a heavy, though uneven, mortality among the clergy— The mortality of bishops from 1347 to 1350 seems to have been around 35 percent, and careful study of some English dioceses suggests a loss of clergy approaching 40 per cent in those years. The effort to replace the deceased in both the secular and the regular clergy led inevitably to less rigid standards of ordination and profession, with unhappy results”(New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 598).

Council of Trent, 1563:
“If anyone says that the married state excels the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is better and happier to be united in matrimony than to remain in virginity or celibacy, let him be anathema.”


Pius XI, Casti Connubii, 1930:
•[Quoting canon law] “The primary end of marriage is the procreation and the education of children.”
“This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.”
“Since… the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”
[Permission to use “rhythm” method of birth control] “Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.”
Editors’ Note: The successive paragraphs above seem to contradict one another.

Pius XII, Address to Italian Catholic Midwives, 1951:
• “To save the life of the mother is a most noble end, but the direct killing of the child as a means to this end is not licit.”
•”The Creator who in His goodness and wisdom has willed to conserve and propagate the human race through the instrumentality of man and woman by uniting them in marriage has ordained also that, in performing this function, husband and wife should experience pleasure and happiness in body and spirit. In seeking and enjoying this pleasure, therefore, couples do nothing wrong.”
• “And the very labor which, after original sin, the mother must suffer to bring her child into the world is nothing but another bond drawing mother and child even closer. The more pain it cost her, the more a mother loves her child.”
• “To embrace the married state, continuously to make use of the faculty proper to it and lawful in it alone, and, on the other hand, to withdraw always and deliberately with no serious reason from its primary obligation [procreation], would be a sin against the very meaning of conjugal life— Observing the nonfertile periods alone can be lawful only under a moral aspect… The determination to avoid habitually the fecundity
of the union, while at the same time to continue fully satisfying their sensuality, can be derived only from a false appreciation of life and from
reasons having nothing to do with proper ethical laws… God obliges
married people to abstain, if their union cannot be fulfilled according to the laws of nature. Therefore, in this case abstinence is possible.”
• “The truth is that matrimony as a natural institution, by virtue of the will of the Creator, does not have as its primary, intimate end the personal improvement of the couples concerned but the procreation and the education of new life. The other ends, though also connected with nature, are not in the same rank as the first, still less are they superior to it—Enjoyment is subordinated to the law of action from which it derives and not the other way about, the action to the law of enjoyment.”

Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1965:
• “[Marital] love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions signify and promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a thankful will.”
Context: “Here, as elsewhere, when the question arises, the council sedulously avoids the terminology of primary and secondary ends of marriage. It insists on the natural ordering of marriage and conjugal love to procreation but without recourse to such formulations” (Flannery [1992], footnote, p. 252). Also see CDF 1979, below.
• “The biblical Word of God several times urges the betrothed and the married to nourish and develop their wedlock by pure conjugal love
and undivided affection… This love is an eminently human one…. It involves the good of the whole person. Therefore it can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity… This love our God has judged worthy of special gifts, healing, perfecting, and exalting gifts of grace and charity … This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act.”

Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 1968:
• “The church… teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”
• “We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally condemned… is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means… It is a serious error to
think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.”

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, 1975:
“Both the magisterium of the church — in the course of a constant tradition — and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act… For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely, the relationship which realizes the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of mutual love. All deliberate exercise of sexuality must be reserved to this regular relationship.”

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ruling on Sterilization, Impotence, and Valid Marriage, 1977:
“Decreed the following responses to the questions posed to them:
1.Whether the impotence which prohibits marriage consists in the prior and permanent inability — either absolute or relative — of accomplishing conjugal intercourse.

2.If so, whether there is necessarily required for conjugal intercourse the ejaculation of semen produced in the testicles.

To the first question: Yes.
To the second question: No.”
“Both the magisterium of the church — in the course of a constant tradition — and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act—For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely, the re­lationship which realizes the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of mutual love. All deliberate exercise of sexuality must be reserved to this regular relationship.”

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Statement on Human Sexuality,
New Directions in American Catholic Thought, 1979:
“Admitting that procreation is only one possible form of creativity, but not essential to sexuality, with a gratuitous change in the accepted terms… [is] a change which contradicts the formulation used in Vatican II.”
Context: According to Flannery, on the contrary, Vatican II carefully avoided the idea that the primary end of sexual intercourse is procreation and its secondary end is expression of love and commitment. See Second Vatican Council, above.

John Paul II, Audience, 1980:
“Man can commit this adultery ‘in the heart’ also with regard to his own wife, if he treats her only as an object to satisfy instinct.”

John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 1981:
•”When marriage is not esteemed, neither can consecrated virginity or celibate existence; when human sexuality is not regarded as a great value given by the creator, the renunciation of it for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven loses its meaning.”
•”A very valuable witness can and should be given by those husbands and wives who through the joint exercise of periodic continence have reached a more mature personal responsibility with regard to love and life.”

John Paul II, Love and Responsibility, 1981:
“The union of persons in love does not necessarily have to be realized by way of sexual relations. But when it does take this form the personalistic value of the sexual relationship cannot be assured without willingness for parenthood.”

Code of Canon Law, 1983:
“Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or of the woman, which is either absolute or relative in its very nature, invalidates marriage.”
Context: Sixtus V first made this pronouncement in 1587, in order to keep castrated choirboys (castrati) from marrying. Pius XII reaffirmed the policy in 1941, and the Vatican revoked it in 1977, only to reintroduce it in 1983.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Artificial Insemination, 1986:
“After natural sexual intercourse, the husband’s sperm could be collected by a syringe and aspirated toward the egg. Church officials let it be known that a particular method was approvable for expediting this procedure: use of a perforated condom that would allow some sperm to escape, in keeping with the requirements of the ‘natural’ act, while retaining by far the greater measure” (Briggs, p. 225).
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops and the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986:
“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil… an objective disorder____ Homosexual activity is not a complementary union able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living.”
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Some Considerations Concerning the Catholic Response to Legislative Proposals on the Nondiscrimination of Homosexual Persons, 1992:
“Homosexual persons, as human persons, have the same rights as all persons Among other rights, all persons have the right to work, to housing,
etc. Nevertheless, these rights are not absolute. They can be legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct—There is no right to homosexuality, which therefore should not form the basis for judicial claims.”