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The Church has changed (as opposed to developed) non definitive teaching on a number of occasions. The most famous are the issues of Usury, the Geocentric Cosmos, Antisemitism, Religious Liberty and Slavery. While it is generally thought that She has resisted doing so in the field of sexual morality in general and contraception in particular, in fact the opposite is the case. In the aftermath of Paul VI's attack on artificial birth control, the novelty of allowing any form of birth control was overlooked.

What is sex?

Sexual activity has always been analysed by the Magisterium from the male perspective. "The Marriage Act" is necessarily something that a husband does to his wife: a man to a woman over whom he has conjugal rights, with or without her desire or consent. Sex is sex because it involves a penis and the emission of semen. Any activity that does not involve a penis can't possibly be sex and its moral value for good or ill cannot be deduced in terms of procreative finality. Of course, any pleasurable physical activity is liable to be wrong just because it is pleasurable (see the teaching of St Gregory, below).

Prior to Pius XII, it was taught that "The Marriage Act" was licit only when specifically directed towards procreation. Officials went so far as  to define what constituted "The Marriage Act". In order to exclude anal and oral sex as well as the use of condoms, the husband must leave some semen within the wife's vagina. Other "sexual activity" (leading to male orgasm?) was ruled out as entirely illicit and gravely sinful.

The Only Purpose of Sexual Intercourse is Procreation.

I am not sure whether non-vaginal intercourse was considered wrong per se or only wrong in as far as it resulted in the "waste" of semen. For example, I do not know if oral or manual stimulation of the penis as foreplay; preceding vaginal intercourse would have been condemned. I doubt the issue even occurred to Vatican officials. The very idea of foreplay would have been unthinkable. It would have implied that "the sexual faculty" could be used for "fun" as long as it this was within the context of a procreative intent.

Pope St Gregory taught that:

The married must be admonished to bear in mind that they are united in wedlock for the purpose of procreation, and when they abandon themselves to immoderate intercourse, they transfer the occasion of procreation to the service of pleasure. Let them realize that though they do not then pass beyond the bonds of wedlock, yet in wedlock they exceed its rights. Wherefore, it  is necessary that they should efface by frequent prayer what they befoul in the fair form of intercourse by the admixture of pleasure.
[Regula Pastoralis, Part III, Caput xxvii]
In other words:
  1. This suggests that the singular purpose of wedlock (not just sexual intercourse!) is procreation.
  2. This is contradicted by the teaching of:
    • St Paul, who allowed wedlock as a sexual outlet so as to avoid porneia,
    • the Catechism of the Council of Trent and
    • the encyclical Casti Connubii.
  3. In "immoderate intercourse" procreation is overtaken by "the service of pleasure".
  4. While this is not strictly speaking wrong, it is still not exactly right.
  5. It is a befouling of the "fair form of intercourse".
  6. Those that engage in "immoderate intercourse" befoul intercourse "by the admixture of pleasure".

Every emission of semen should be intentionally procreative.

In the Summa Contra Gentiles Thomas Aquinas wrote:
Now though the semen is superfluous for the preservation of the individual, yet it is necessary to him for the propagation of the species ....  the object in the emission of the semen, is .... the profit of generation, to which the union of the sexes is directed ..... The emission of the semen then ought to be so directed as that both the proper generation may ensue and the education of the offspring be secured.

Hence it is clear that every emission of the semen is contrary to the good of man, which takes place in a way whereby generation is impossible; and if this is done on purpose, it must be a sin. I mean a way in which generation is impossible in itself as is the case in every emission of the semen without the natural union of male and female: wherefore such sins are called "sins against nature." But if it is by accident that generation cannot follow from the emission of the semen, the act is not against nature on that account, nor is it sinful; the case of the woman being barren would be a case in point.

This would seem to amount to special pleading. For Aquinas, as an Aristotelian, it was accidental for a woman to be infertile, because infertility was not essential to womanhood! On the one hand he claims that every emission of semen that is frustrated from engendering a child is objectively wrong, and if purposed: subjectively sinful. He then excludes one case on the grounds that the husband neither intends his wife to be barren nor knows for certain that she is so, but just puts up with the reasonable expectation.

In any simple interpretation of Aquinas, the intentional use of "the safe period" is sinful, because it is directly purposed to discharge semen in a way that generation is known to be impossible in itself: "The emission of the semen then ought to be so directed as that both the proper generation may ensue and the education of the offspring be secured."

Sexual Intercourse During Menstruation

Under the so-called "Alexandrine" rule, in accordance with the teachings of Sts Gregory and Thomas, the only sexual activity permissible for married Catholic couples was that directed at procreation. Use of "the safe period" was condemned, following the explicit teaching of St Augustine. It should be noted that "the safe period" is related closely to menstruation. I shall next elucidate that a long and clear tradition rules that sexual intercourse during menstruation is gravely sinful.

Scriptural teaching

The three Passages from the Old Testament which condemn sex during menstruation are
Also thou shalt not approach unto a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness. Moreover thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbour's wife, to defile thyself with her. And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD. Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion. Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you
.... For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore shall ye keep mine ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these abominable customs, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the LORD your God.
[Lev 18: 19-24, 29-30]

And if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall  uncover her nakedness; he hath discovered her fountain, and she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people. [Lev 20:18]

But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right, And hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, neither hath defiled his neighbour's wife, neither hath come near to a menstruous woman, And hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge, hath spoiled none by violence, hath given his bread  to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment; He that hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase, that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed  true judgement between man and man, Hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgements, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord GOD. [Ezek 18:5-9]

The Ezekiel passage is interesting as it characterizes sexual intercourse with a menstrual woman as a moral violation comparable to idolatry, adultery, oppression, physical assault and usury. In other words, it is not classed as a matter of ritual purity, but of justice.

The New Testament does not explicitly repeat the prohibition. The Apostolic Council of Jerusalem laid down various rules for gentile converts [Acts 15]. They are told to abstain from "porneia" (a term which originally meant consorting with prostitutes, but which most commentators believe came to mean sexual indiscipline in general), "strangled meat, and from blood". The last most plausibly means from ingesting blood, but it might just mean maintaining all the prohibitions of the Mosaic Law concerning blood. This would then including abstaining from menstrual sex. Of course, nowadays, the disciplinary canons of the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem are ignored: as sanctioned by the Oecumenical Council of Florence.

The tradition of the Church

Some Fathers of the Church, such as Jerome and Clement of Alexandria, condemned sexual intercourse with a menstrual women as a major sin. Others, such as Augustine as a venial violation. St John Chrysostom repeatedly condemned it without explanation or commentary. None explicitly allowed it. The early medieval penitentials generally treated it as a venial sin.

Medieval scholars, such as Aquinas and Duns Scotus, universally disapproved of menstrual intercourse, though their condemnations varied in gravity. The more common opinion was that sex during menstruation was a mortal sin. This view was justified on the misconceived basis that children conceived during this period were liable to be malformed. The only exception, made by St Thomas, was where menstruation was prolonged. In this case, he held that sexual intercourse was justified because the women could be presumed sterile, and the slight risk of misconceiving a child was outweighed by the husband's conjugal rights. Note that the right here must be a right to take pleasure or to obtain sexual relief rather than a right to procreate! This itself is in contradiction to the teaching of St Gregory. It would be more rational to allow a husband to put aside a barren wife and take another in addition!

Reversal of this teaching

The history of the reversal of the traditional teaching is as follows:
  • 1774 De Lignoir refuted the idea that sexual intercourse during menstruation risked misconception.
  • 1853 and 1867 The Holy Office indicated that those exploiting "safe periods"

  • should not be disturbed, pending further study.
  • 1873 August Joseph Lacomte (citing De Lignoir) propounded the use of "the safe period" to avoid conception.
  • 1880 Rome allowed that such a method could be used as an alternative to "onanism" but it was not recommended.
  • 1930 Pope Pius XI referred to avoiding births by natural means [Casti Connubii],

  • but did not elucidate what might count as natural.
    Contrary to the teaching of Pope Gregory the Great,
    this encyclical also taught that the mutual society of the spouses
    was the chief reason and purpose of marriage,
    developing teaching explicit in the Catechism of the Council of Trent.
    It also suggested that:
    ".... in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends,
    such as .... the cultivating of mutual love"
  • c1928 reliable methods of identifying the woman's "safe period" were developed.
  • 1932 and 1933  Books representing such "rhythm methods" as "natural birth control" were given imprimaturs.
  • 1951 Pope Pius XII publicly referred to "the rhythm method" as licit within marriage.
  • 1965, the Second Vatican Council taught [Gaudiem et Spes] that:
    • It was wrong for one spouse to force themselves sexually on the other.
      • This reversed the idea that for a husband to force his wife

      • to have sexual intercourse was not rape because the only
        fault was hers for resisting him, when she had no right to do so.
    • Marriage is not just for procreation but also has a distinct role of being a
      • "whole manner and communion of life", of value even when sterile.

      • This, wisely, contradicted the narrow-minded teaching of Pope St Gregory.
    • Performance of "Marriage Acts"
      • "fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude".

      • Again contradicting the puritanical teaching of Pope St Gregory.
In July 1968, Pope Paul VI taught in his Encyclical "Humanae Vitae", that
  • The Marriage Act has a "natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife".
    • This seems to be the first clear reference to the "uniative" purpose

    • of sexual intercourse, no previous authority is cited by the Pope.
  • "In any use whatever of marriage there must be no impairment of its natural capacity to procreate human life."
    • This is a change from Pope St Gregory's teaching that marriage is

    • positively about procreation, not negatively contrary to it.
and implicitly ruled that hormonal contraception was artificial and therefore illicit.
".... an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life .... contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman .... 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."
[Paul VI: "Humanae Vitae" #14]
This again is a change. The issue was previously not whether some practice was natural or un-natural, but whether it was intentional; not whether some situation was artificial but whether it was accidental (in an Aristotelian sense).

Right or Wrong, this teaching would seem to outlaw use of "hormonal family planning", yet Paul VI goes on to say:

" .... the Church .... considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period .... the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature .... It cannot be denied that .... the married couple ....  are .... perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result."
[Paul VI: "Humanae Vitae" #16]
It is pretty clear that an "intention to avoid children" is identical with an intention "to prevent procreation". It is equally clear that the procedures undergone in order to accurately determine the timing of a woman's infertile period constitute an "action .... before .... sexual intercourse intended to prevent procreation". Hence, while the choice to not copulate while the woman is infertile is not sinful, according to this teaching, any procedures undertaken in order to determine when this might be are "excluded".  Now, as Paul VI explicitly admits of one derogation [HV#16] from his formally global statement [HV#14], the general character of this statement is manifestly undermined. It may be subject to any number of other exceptions, for any number of reasons.

The crucial factor that is taken to make "hormonal family planning" illicit is the supposed "un-natural" nature of the contraceptive pill: which consists of natural hormones. Pope Paul VI supposedly made this clear when he contrasted "the rhythm method" with "those means which directly exclude conception" using the following words: "In the former, married couples rightly use a facility provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process" [HV#16].  It is difficult to see how "hormonal family planning" can be said to "obstruct the natural development of the generative process". The only process that is "obstructed" (and even then, this word is not accurate) is the menstrual cycle, and Paul VI does not teach that to do this is sinful. In fact, the proximate end of hormonal contraception is not the prevention of procreation but rather the extension of the natural period of infertility. It is amusing to note that Humanae Vitae never explicitly states that hormonal contraception is "artificial" and so belongs to the category that is condemned. It is just that everyone took it for granted, that:

  • because it was well known that this is what the Pope intended,
  • then this is the significance that should be assigned to his decree.
Such an assumption is imprudent.

Equally, the use of a condom as a means to avoid passing on AIDS or some other genito-urinary infection would seem to escape the ruling of Humanae Vitae. In any case, there is not the slightest indication in the text of the encyclical that its teaching is any more infallible than that of Pope St Gregory.

The Church has changed its official teaching regarding sexual activity within marriage. First when Pius XII allowed fertile couples to have sexual intercourse with the intention of avoiding conception, so long as they did nothing specifically to frustrate it, and second when the laity failed to "commonly adhere" to the conventional interpretation of the teaching of Humanae Vitae, which attempted to distinguish specific artificial contraceptive intervention from specific contraceptive intention: as in the use of the rhythm method.

"Though the Vatican will not now admit it, Paul the Sixth in his Encyclical 'Humane Vitae' - which is full of contradictions and unjust conclusions and never should have been written - did admit that penetrative sexual interccourse between two married persons is good in itself even when reproduction is not its primary end, indeed, even when the possiblity of reproduction is deliberately frustrated, providing the means of this frustration be ''natural''.
How else can one explain the fact that Humanae Vitae allows married couples to have sex and at the same time postpone or definitely avoid the making of children by taking the woman's temperature, marking it down upon a calender, and only having sex on those days when the woman is supposedly incapable of becoming pregnant?
Most people I have talked to find this method to be neither natural nor the most effective. However, it is the only method - besides total abstinence - officially alllowed, and it is definitely a means of deliberate anti-conception.
Some defenders of Humanae Vitae claim that this method is morally acceptable because it allows for God to intervene and make the woman pregant anyway, if He so wills. Therefore this method does not truly frustrate the supposed primary end of marriage and sexual intercourse, namely, reproduction. This is silly. For if God truly wishes to make a woman miraculously pregnant, He can do it even if she is taking the anti-conception pill or if her husband is wearing a condom. And taking a pill or wearing a condom does not seem to most people to be less natural than the complicated rhythm method! Besides, in traditional catholic moral theology it is the intention that makes an action morally good or bad in God's eyes: and if the intention to have sex without making children is in itself evil, then how can the Rhythm method - which allows a couple to have sex without making children - not be evil? Thus, either the Vatican is already officialy sanctioning an evil deed, or the deed is simply not evil at all."
[A Catholic Priest (May 2006)]


This document was inspired by an earlier study by Paul Halsall to be found in his "Compedium of Errors" on the Gay Catholic Handbook website.

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