Catholic theology of sexuality

Catholic theology of sexuality, like Catholic theology in general, is drawn from natural law, canonical scripture, divine revelation, and sacred tradition, as interpreted authoritatively by the magisterium of the Catholic Church.[1][2] Sexual morality evaluates sexual behavior according to standards laid out by Catholic moral theology, 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".[3] At the same time, the Bishops at Vatican II decreed that the essential procreative end of marriage does not make "the other purposes of matrimony of less account."[4]

The Catholic Church teaches that human life and human sexuality are inseparable.[5] Because Catholics believe God created human beings in his own image and likeness and that he found everything he created to be "very good,"[6] 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 husband and wife in complete, mutual self-giving, and opening their relationship to new life. As Pope Paul VI wrote in Humanae vitae, “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.’”[7] 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 (e.g., the use of artificial contraception), 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 of the Catholic Church, "conjugal love ... aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul",[8] since the marriage bond is to be a sign of the love between God and humanity.[9]

Among what are considered sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, homosexual practices,[10] and artificial contraception.[11] Procurement of abortion, in addition to being considered grave matter, carries, under the conditions envisaged by canon law, the penalty of excommunication, "by the very commission of the offense".[12]


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.[13] Despite pagan associations with natural law theory, a number (though not all) of the early Church Fathers sought to incorporate it into Christian theology.

In an influential passage of the Summa Theologica, 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.[14]

Natural law is a basic source for Catholic theology of sexuality.


The Genesis creation narratives provide insights into anthropology that inform Catholic theology of sexuality. The following verses are frequently cited in Catholic studies of sexual morality:

  • 1:27: "And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them."[15]
  • 2:21–25: "Then the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon Adam: and when he was fast asleep, he took one of his ribs, and filled up flesh for it. And the Lord God built the rib which he took from Adam into a woman: and brought her to Adam. And Adam said: This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man. Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh. And they were both naked: to wit, Adam and his wife: and were not ashamed."[16]
  • 3:16: "To the woman also he said: I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband's power, and he shall have dominion over thee."[17]

Two of the Ten Commandments directly address sexual morality, forbidding adultery[18][19] and covetousness of the wife of one's neighbor.[20][21]

Jesus comments on these commandments in the Gospel of Matthew:

You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.[22]

Jesus also makes reference to the passages from Genesis in his teachings on marriage in Matthew:

Have ye not read, that he who made man from the beginning, Made them male and female? And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. They [the Pharisees] say to him: Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorce, and to put away? He [Jesus] saith to them: Because Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.[23]

Patristic theology

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...[24]

Medieval theology

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.[25]

In her Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, Uta Ranke-Heinemann says that three discussions of marriage in the New Testament (Matthew 19, I Corinthians 7, and Ephesians 5:22-32) do not refer to generating children, which later became consistently emphasized in Catholic moral doctrine as the primary purpose of sexual relations, although, according to her, those texts does not indicate that conceiving children is excluded in marriage.[26]:43 The view that marriage is primarily intended for the purpose of procreation dominated early Christianity,[27] and held by many Church Fathers.[28][29] During the entire Middle Ages, the question of when intercourse was allowed and when it was not, was very important. Intercourse was prohibited 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.[26]:138 Some church leaders warned believers that children conceived on holy days would be born leprous, epileptic, diabolically possessed, or crippled. Penalties of 20 to 40 days of strict fasting on bread and water were imposed on transgressors.[26]:139–140 Intercourse was forbidden during the menstrual period and after childbirth, since "physicians mistakenly believed that the blood of a menstruating woman or one who has just given birth was poisonous".[26]:138 It was also forbidden during pregnancy, with concern for protecting the fetus as the main reason.[26]:151–152 "Christian theologians", including Pope Gregory I, held that abstinence should continue until a baby was weaned.[26]:143

Scholastic theologians from the 11th to 13th centuries shifted the time scheme to motives; the desire to procreate with "joy in a new servant of God" was considered the best motive for intercourse.[26]:143 Bertold of Regensburg considered a woman innocent if she was forced to do it on the prohibited times by her husband and she did not will it.[26]:144 Because intercourse was only allowed for procreative reasons, various penitentials (rule books) also forbade intercourse between sterile or older partners, although never assigning a penalty.[26]:151 Heinemann says that oral and anal intercourse were often punished by more years of penance than for premeditated murder, as they prevented conception from occurring.[26]:149 Although practice varied, menstruating women were often forbidden to attend Mass or receive Communion, in which the Latin Church took a more moderate stance than the Eastern Churches.[26]:24 Since the blood from childbirth was believed more harmful than menstrual blood, the Synod of Trier (1227) ruled that women who had just given birth had to be "reconciled with the Church" before they allowed to enter church. They often could not buried in the cemetery if they died in childbirth before had undergone a purifying ritual, a policy which was rejected by several synods.[26]:25 The Council of Trent (1566), and several synods after that, did not impose abstinence from intercourse on certain times as an "obligation", but as an "admonition".[26]:145

Early modern theology

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.

Magisterium 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."
  • Humanae vitae (1968) by Pope Paul VI
  • Persona humana (1975) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II
  • Evangelium vitae (1995) by Pope John Paul II
  • Donum Vitae (1987) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Veritatis splendor (1993) by Pope John Paul II
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992)
  • Deus caritas est (2005)


A study published in 1977,[30] titled Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, after being commissioned in 1972 by the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), 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 and brought about controversies inside the CTSA itself.[31][32]:73 In 1979, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith publicised an advisory that deplored the books's "erroneous conclusions", identified "numerous misreadings of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council" in it, and said that the book diminished "the morality of sexual love to a matter of 'personal sentiments, feelings, [and] customs ... .'"[32]:74[33] George Weigel restates that "these theological errors led to practical guidelines that 'either dissociate themselves from or directly contradict Catholic teaching' as taught by the Church's highest teaching authority."[32]:74