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Theologiae Moralis III: De Usu Conjugii
Some Translations #3
I am a strong believer in the rule that you should never translate a document into English without sharing your translation online. If everyone did this, then everything would already be translated.
A few months ago, Twitter directed me to a book called Theologiae Moralis, Volume III, by Bishop Francis Kenrick, the Catholic bishop of Philadelphia in 1843. This book, I gathered, contained a chapter which extensively discussed some very specific sexual dos-and-dont’s, based on Kenrick’s knowledge of the consensus of Catholic theologians of his day.
“The history of sex acts” is a matter of general interest to me, as is “Catholic sexual morality.” Plus, I’ve always suspected that 19th-century Catholic sexual teaching was a lot more complicated (for better and for worse) than pop culture believes, but it’s harder than you might think to find English-language primary sources. (In fact, this was almost exactly the topic of my first-ever De Civitate translation!) So this book went on my endless to-do list. I never had a chance to look at it… until, in a surge of curiosity and irresponsibility, I just skipped a bunch of things on my to-do list and started translating one Saturday night.
(You now have enough information to decide whether you want to keep reading this article. Translations are kinda boring and not my usual fare. I won’t be hurt if you close the tab and wait for the next blogletter. Really, I won’t. But, holy cow, De Civ has been nothing but law & abortion for months, and there’s lots more to come, so we needed a little breather, right?)
Theologiae Moralis is not an authoritative, binding teaching of the Catholic Church. It is not only not infallible; it is not even an official document issued by the Pope or a council of bishops. Its inherent magisterial value is tiny. Instead, Theologiae Moralis is valuable because it is a theological manual, coming out of the “manualist” tradition of the Early Modern period.
The manualists—who were part Scholastics, part Enlightenment rationalists—came into disrepute in the 20th Century, because the Catholic education system often used these manuals in place of primary sources. Thus, a priest-in-training might learn about Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God (for example) not from Aquinas’s actual text, but from Fr. Bob’s 19th-century summary of Fr. Fogey’s 18th-century summary of Suarez’s explanation of Aquinas’s text, all of them written centuries after the fact, each corrupting Aquinas’s actual argument in a long game of telephone.
I am not a historian of philosophy, so I won’t say too much more about this, but one immediately notices upon opening a manualist manual that—in contrast to the medieval Scholastics, who carefully worked through every step of every dispute—the manualists were far more focused on pedagogical clarity. They tell you the answers, and, if you’re lucky, a short summary of the argument leading up to that answer. They do not faff about like those Scholastics, who didn’t just give you the argument, but also a host of potential objections to the argument!
It has been argued that this conclusory attitude leaked into the Catholic priests who were trained under this method, leading to a high-handed and overconfident clergy that was too sure it had all the answers. The manuals were discarded en masse after the Second Vatican Council (for some good reasons and some bad ones), and have largely dropped out of general awareness, except among Twitter radtrads. But if you want to know what 19th-century Catholic priests were telling their congregations, a good place to check is the manuals from which those priests were trained.
The sexy chapter of Thelogiae Moralis, Volume III is entitled “De Usu Conjugii” (a somewhat euphemistic way of saying “On Married Sex”). In this chapter, I found some things that fit with the stereotype of 19th-century Catholics (#74, for instance). On the other hand, I found some other things that defied that stereotype quite decisively (#72, for one, and #70 does both).
Bishop Kenrick, for the most part, is not expressing his own opinions. He is instead trying to accurately describe the theological consensus of his time. He is given to using long quotations from other sources. Unfortunately, I found his footnotes utterly inscrutable (my man, my bish, Your Excellency Frank: “L. vi. n. 199.” is not a citation! It’s a cipher!), so I don’t know where most of those quotations came from, but they are all from sources Bp. Kenrick considered weighty.
One thing that is critically important to remember while reading this is that, although this is a theology manual, any theology of sex depends on biological knowledge, and the biological cutting edge in 1848 was… not as well-informed as we are today. There are some ideas that modern readers will find peculiar. You know about, say, the germ theory of disease. People in 1848 did not, and that includes Catholic bishops.1 I’ll discuss these discontinuities as we approach them. Most of the moral principles expressed in this text are still held by the Catholic Church today, but some of the biological understandings were wrong, so the applications of the moral principles were wrong, and have since been updated.
Also, just to confuse you, some of the moral principles actually have been modified or re-emphasized in the 20th and 21st-century Catholic Church. Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” (which was itself a response to the sexual revolution) had a significant impact on how Catholicism understands its own sexual morality. While the basic conclusions and arguments remained the same (“sex must be open to and compatible with life if it is to honor human nature”), many of the details were reshaped in the wake of ToB.
Without further preface, here is my translation of Theologiae Moralis, Vol III.: De Usu Conjugii, paragraphs 66-81, with my comments liberally interspersed.
(The chapter De Usu Conjugii actually goes on all the way to paragraph 109, but it will take me months, if not years, to find time to polish up translations of the remaining paragraphs, so I’m posting what I’ve got. Also, #100-107 or so are virtually unreadable because of a bad scan in the Internet Archive.)
Credit where it’s due:
The Latin original of Theologiae Moralis is available at the Internet Archive, the greatest gift to bloggers and readers since Gutenberg.
Google Translate’s Latin translation engine has greatly improved since the last time I used it (in 2015, it was worthless), and made it possible for me to translate paragraphs in minutes that would have taken me hours working alone. Thank you to Google! However, I checked its work, word by word. Any errors that remain are therefore mine, not Google’s. I took five years of Latin, but was never fluent.
If you’re a professional theology person / cleric and don’t agree with my comments (I’m a layperson), leave a comment of your own in the comboxes! I always read ‘em. I wrote enough comments here that I feel confident there’s room for people to start arguments with them from several different directions.
If you’re a Latinist and don’t agree with my translations, ditto!
“De Usu Conjugii”
#66 - Introduction
Ignoscat lector mihi vestigia S. Alphonsi in re lubrica prementi; intellexit scilicet peritissimus hic animarum medicus impudicitiae prae caeteris animae plagis remedia adhibenda, et larvam alioquin et speciem inanem virtutis haberi. Pleraque ipsius verbis describemus, ne quid nostrum offensioni sit.
Forgive me, reader, for closely following in the footsteps of Saint Alfonso in this slippery matter; this most skilled physician of souls certainly understood that the remedies of sexual impurity must be placed ahead of other wounds of the soul, else be regarded as a mask and an inane form of virtue. We will describe most things using the very words for them, lest there be any scandal among us.
Bp. Kenrick refers here to St. Alphonsus Ligouri, who wrote another famous Catholic work on sexual morality. This paragraph is essentially an apology / trigger warning for the very frank language Bp. Kenrick is going to use in this chapter. I doubt Bp. Kenrick would relish the idea of this most delicate chapter being posted on the public Internet (had he known what the Internet was) in English, where just anyone could read it, but there’s a lot that’s valuable in this document to English speakers.
#67 - Sexual Positions
Conjugii usus, modo rationi convenienti, licitus est, nam ex ipso Conditoris instituto fit ut maris et feminse conjunctione genus propagetur humanum. 'Situs naturalis est, ut mulier sit succuba, et vir incubus; hic enim modus aptior est effusioni seminis virilis, et receptioni in vas femineum ad prolem procreandam.
Marital sexual intercourse [lit. "the use of marriage"], in a manner suitable to reason, is licit, for it results from the very plan of the Creator Himself, so that the human race might be propagated by the union of male and female.
Good to get this out of the way to start.
The Catholic position has always been that sex is good, that bodies are good, and that anti-sex, anti-body ideologies (like gnosticism) are heretical. The Catholic Church has, over the centuries, excommunicated a lot of people who’ve argued that sex is bad.
However, for Catholics, human faculties must be used “in a manner suitable to reason,” not solely for pure pleasure. For example, the purpose of eating is nutrition. If a Catholic eats a delicious feast, then uses ipecac to vomit it all up, so that he can have the pleasure of yet another feast without the natural consequence of nutrition, that is a sin. He has closed his body to the possibility of nutrition, which is the purpose of eating, so he is not eating "in a manner suitable to reason.” (This does not apply to people with a mental illness like bulimia. This applies only to people who freely choose to vomit up their meals.) Likewise, if a Catholic deliberately ingests a poisonous substance merely for pleasure, this, too, is a sin.2
On the other hand, Catholics are allowed to have Hershey bars (in moderation), even though Hershey bars have little to no nutritional value. We eat Hershey bars for the same reason anyone else does: mainly for pleasure. The difference is that the Catholic who has eaten a Hershey bar takes no action to prevent or pervert the nutritional purpose of eating, and the Hershey bar itself, while not obviously nutritious, is also not poisonous. If the Hershey bar happens to nourish the Catholic (if only a tiny bit), great! But it is enough for the Catholic to be open to nutrition without actively pursuing nutrition.3
The Catholic approach to sex is similar. The purpose of sex is procreation.4 All sex, therefore, must be open to procreation. However, Catholic sex does not have to be always actively pursuing procreation. Catholics can (and do) have sex the same way we have Hershey bars: mainly for pleasure. With eating, we do this by having pleasurable food that we anticipate won’t bring about nutrition (but we don’t do anything to thwart nutrition). With sex, we do this by having pleasurable sex that we anticipate won’t bring about conception (for example, during the days just after ovulation, when the couple is almost certainly infertile)—but we must not do anything to actively thwart conception.
It is in this light that the remainder of Bp. Kenrick’s writing about sex positions must be understood.
“Situs autem innaturalis est si coitus aliter fiat, nempe sedendo, stando, de latere, vel praepostere more pecudum, vel si vir sit succubus, et mulier incuba. Coitum hunc, praeter situra naturalera, alii apud Sanchez 1. ix. D. XVI. n. 2, generice damnant de mortali; alii vero dicunt esse mortale ultimos duos modos, dicentes ab his ipsam naturam abhorrere.
Sed communiter dicunt alii, omnes istos modos non excedere culpam venialem. Ratio, quia ex una parte, licet adsit aliqua inordinatio, ipsa tamen non est tanta, ut pertingat ad mortale, cum solum versetur circa accidentalia copulae, ex alia parte, mutatio situs generationem non impedit, cum semen viri non recipiatur in matricem mulieris per infusionem, seu descensura, sed per attractionem, dum matrix ex se naturaliter virile semen attrahit." Attamen "potest esse signum mortalis concupiscentiae," uti animadvertit S. Thomas, nempe si ex bestiae affectu, vel sodomiae proveniat.
"The natural position is that the woman should be beneath and the man atop; for this method is more suited to the effusion of the male seed and to reception in the vagina [lit. "feminine vase"] for procreating offspring. However, the position is unnatural if intercourse takes place differently, namely by sitting, by standing, from the side, or doggy-style [lit. "topsy-turvy in the manner of a domesticated animal"], or if the man is below and the woman above. This [type of] coitus, contrary to nature, some (like Sanchez, at 1. ix. D. XVI. n.2), condemn generally ["generice," which is not actually a Latin word] as mortal sin; while others say that the last two are mortal sins, saying that from these acts nature itself shrinks back in horror.
“But still others say, with one voice, that all these same positions ["modos"] do not exceed venial sin. The reason: because, on the one hand, granting that some inordinance is present, nevertheless, it is not so great that it gets as far as mortal sin, seeing as it concerns only the accidents of copulation, and on the other hand, a change of position does not impede procreation, because the man's seed is not received into the woman's womb by infusion [lit. "pouring-in"], or descent, but by contraction, provided that the womb from itself naturally inhales the virile semen. However, "it can be a sign of mortal concupiscence," as St. Thomas judges, namely if it comes from bestial or sodomitic affections.
This passage expresses the diversity of opinion at the time about whether non-missionary sex positions (namely: sitting, standing, spooning, doggy, and cowgirl) were sins. Some theologians condemned all of them as mortal sins. Others condemned only the doggy and cowgirl positions as mortal sins, and the rest as venial. Still others considered all of them only venial sins. There is some suggestion here that at least some theologians thought that at least some of these were not sins at all: that’s what the odd phrasing “do not exceed venial sin” suggests, but it’s unclear to me that’s really what he meant.
Bp. Kenrick’s extended quote offers two reasons to consider these positions sinful. First, getting into these positions is an act which hinders procreation. As we discussed, Catholics don’t have to pursue procreation, but they can’t take positive action to thwart it. Second, they are “against [human] nature” because they spring from “bestial or sodomitic affections.”
The text then offers a rebuttal to the first reason. It was not clear at the time how, exactly, fertilization occurred. Was it because of gravity (“descent”), which pulled the semen down into the womb? If that were true, then, yes, cowgirl would indeed seem to act against procreation. Or was fertilization because of the depth of penetration (which is what I think he means by “infusion”) and the penis’s proximity to the uterus at ejaculation? If so, then missionary does have much to recommend it.
But the text counters that the womb seems to actively “pull in” the semen (“by contraction”), and none of these positions generally impede procreation, as long as ejaculation occurs inside the vagina. In modern times, of course, we know from biology that none of these theories are quite right, but “by contraction” is closest to the truth, and the now-established fact is that sex positions have, at most, a negligible impact on fertilization.
Besides, the text adds, even if position does lower the odds of fertilization, the question of position isn’t decisive to conception. At worst, a change of position is one of the “accidents of copulation” that can only marginally increase or decrease the chance of conception, and isn’t comparable to an active attempt to prevent conception altogether (which would thwart the substance of copulation). Whatever violation of reason there might be in lowering the odds of fertilization, mere odds-lowering can’t rise to the level of a mortal sin.
On the other hand, the text seems to accept the argument that the only reason a healthy couple would try a non-missionary position is because of “bestial or sodomitic affection.” Or wait, does it? Let’s read the next bit.
Ob causam justam absque peccato situs mutatur, nempe si vir sit obesus, gravisque annis, vel infirmus; si sit periculum abortus, vel si adstent in cubiculo alii quos vix nisi mutato situ latere possint concumbentes.
For a just cause, the position can be changed without sin, namely: if the man is fat, great in years, or infirm; if there is danger of miscarriage; or if others are present in the room while they are copulating, whom they can scarcely escape notice without changing positions.
“Danger of miscarriage” refers, I believe, to the belief that missionary-position sex during pregnancy could cause a miscarriage. More on this in #81.
The “others present in the room” clause makes sense, but is jaw-dropping nevertheless. I imagine that the context here is the one-room homes still common in the 18th and 19th centuries, where privacy was hard to come by, and kids and potentially extended family members slept in the same room (if not the same bed). Still, if there’s others in the room, it’s hard to imagine that using the spoons position is going to keep them from noticing that you’re making whoopee… but apparently the Catholic Church was willing to let spouses do what they needed to do to get their groove on, even if it meant less chance of making a baby.
It is, from my 21st-century perspective, a little disappointing that these five are the only “just causes” that occur to Bp. Kenrick. We will see later on that Bp. Kenrick also believes that the orgasm of both partners is quite important, so any change in position that tends to enhance the probability of mutual orgasm would seem to be a just cause as well. It just doesn’t seem to occur to him that some positions might be more likely than others to induce orgasm in both partners.
Furthermore, given that sex positions have negligible impact on procreation, and would only be among the “accidents of intercourse” anyway, it seems clear to me that comfort, preference, and simple experimentation are perfectly just causes for changing positions as well, as long as they are not motivated by “bestial or sodomitic affections.” In other words, having sex on all fours does not mean you are roleplaying a desire to have sex with a farm animal. You might just find that position more comfortable.
That being said, if you are roleplaying a desire to have sex with a farm animal, that is a problem, as St. Thomas warns. Indeed, if a change in position ever expresses or excites a desire to treat your spouse as something sub-human—as an object for your pleasure rather than a beloved person to gift yourself to—that would still seem to be a “bestial affection,” and must be avoided. The 19th-century Catholic Church would not have been cool with a lot of BDSM stuff. (Neither, for that matter, would today’s Catholic Church.)
Incidentally, having any exceptions to the “rule” on the “natural” sex position points against the possibility of considering any of these positions mortally sinful. If an act is, in itself, mortally sinful, Catholics believe it is never moral to directly intend that act, no matter the circumstances. Since there are circumstances where Catholics can morally use non-missionary sex positions, those sex positions, logically, cannot be mortally sinful in themselves. This seems fatal for the opinion Kenrick attributes to Sanchez.
"E converso conveniunt omnes .... quod si experientia constaret, quod mutato naturali situ nihil seminis femina retineret ob nimiam vasis laxitatem, vel humiditatem, vel propter aliquam infirmitatem naturalem, ut ait Palaus, tunc esset mortale: secus vero dicit Sanchez, si non ex situ sed ex aliquo morbo mulieris talis efiusio provenit. Si pars seminis decidat, retento quod generationi sufficiat, plures cum Sanchez dicunt non esse mortale: quia per accidens contingit ut veluti superfluum a matrice expellatur, praecipuo iine obtento. Non tenetur confessarius interrogare poenitentem situs mutati se accusantem, utrum semen fuerit effusum, quum id raro evenire dicatur. Eos vero qui coeunt stando, vel sedendo, vel muliere incuba, puto esse in majori periculo semen effundendi."
"From the other direction, all agree... that if experience has established that, after changing the natural position, the woman retains none of the semen because of the excessive looseness of her vagina, or [because of] humidity [UPDATE: might be “shortness”], or some other natural infirmity, so says Palaus: then it would be mortal. Sanchez, however, says otherwise: if such effusion arises not from the position, but from some disease of the woman. If some of the semen falls out, while retaining what suffices for generation, many with Sanchez say that it is not mortal, because it happens by accident that just as the excess is expelled from the womb, the principal goal still being obtained. When a penitent confesses to a changed [i.e. non-missionary] position, the confessor is not bound to ask him whether the semen was discharged, since it is said that this rarely happens. However, I think that those who fuck5 standing, or sitting, or with the woman on top, are in greater danger of discharging the semen."
This contends that you can’t have sex in a manner where you know in advance that the the vagina is not going to retain any semen. Since Catholic sex does have to be open to life, that seems fair enough, but…
I… look, I don’t want to be too hard on these celibate, continent men who presumably never had sex. Some of them may have had more first-hand experience with sex than they you’d expect (perhaps from seeing farm animals, growing up in those one-room houses discussed above, etc.), and all of them no doubt heard endless details from a wide variety of couples in the confessional. Priests knew a lot about sex, more than we often give them credit for. You’re going to see some of that later in this document! These are smart guys who understand the male and female bodies at a level that modern movies like Hysteria treat as being literally impossible for this time period.6
But I’m really not sure what to make of the idea that vaginas might be incapable of retaining semen because of “excessive looseness or humidity.” The “looseness” idea is an old wives’ tale that survives today, which has a certain common sense to it even though it’s totally wrong, but humidity? Humidity? Perhaps there’s some 19th-century scientific theory here that I’m missing. Was humidity believed to make the semen so runny it all just flowed out?
UPDATE 26 AUGUST: It was suggested to me by a friendly redditor that “humidity” might refer to vaginal or penile lubrication, which is a pretty good idea. However, looking at this again, I see that one Latin dictionary (Whitaker’s Words via the Oxford Latin Dictionary) gives an alternate definition of “humiditas -tatis” as “humility,” “lowness (of status),” or just “shortness.” That would make sense, too. Intuitively, a short vaginal canal might be less inclined to retain semen. I have no idea whether this is true, but that may have been what Bishop Kenrick meant. END UPDATE
I’m also startled by Kenrick’s apparent belief that a vagina will ordinarily retain all the ejaculate after sex. He wisely concedes that there is no mortal sin when “the excess” “falls out,” but seems unaware that, for most couples, it is physically impossible to not have a very substantial amount spill out.7
Kenrick’s quote closes with a practical point that reminds us of the practical purpose for this manual: it’s mostly been written to help priests help penitents in confession, by teaching priests what’s a sin and what isn’t (with bite-sized explanations they can give to penitents in the booth). Confessors are supposed to ask for clarification when it’s unclear whether something’s a sin, but the text cautions here that, no, you don’t have to probe this question of seminal discharge unless the penitent brings it up.
#68 - Incomplete Sex
Si conjuges incoepta copula, ex mutuo consensu cohibeant seminationem absque effusionis periculo, per se non est peccatum mortale: "illa enim penetratio vasis foeminei tunc reputatur instar tactos verendorum, qui inter conjuges permittitur, vel saltem non est mortalis, secluso periculo pollutionis : ita communiter. . . .
Dixi I. Si ambo consentiant ; nam si alter se retrahat sine alterius consensu, certe graviter peccat, ut dicunt omnes auctores praefati.
Dixi II. Per se loquendo, nam sapienter advertit Sanchez . . . id ordinarie esse mortale, quia ordinarie adest periculum ex tali retractione effundendi semen, nisi conjuges experti sint oppositum : quo casu tamen puto nullo modo posse eos excusari saltem a veniali, quicquid dicat Sanchez cum aliis."
If married couples, by mutual consent, repress orgasm without danger of ejaculation [lit. "effusion"], it is not per se a mortal sin: "For that penetration of vaginas is then considered to be like the touch of the sexual organs, which is permitted among spouses, or at least is not mortal, so long as the danger of pollution is closed off: so I said harmoniously [i.e. with other authorities]…
FIRST, if both agree; on the other hand, if one withdraws himself [or herself] without the consent of the other, certainly he sins gravely, as all the aforesaid authors say. …
SECOND, per se it must be said, for instance Sanchez wisely notes... that it would ordinarily be mortal, because ordinarily there is a danger from such a retraction of an effusion of semen [ejaculate or possibly precum], except for certain couples for whom the opposite has been well-proved to be the case; in which case, nevertheless, I think they can by no means be excused from at least venial sins, whatever Sanchez (and others) might say."
This discusses whether, and under what circumstances, a married couple can stop having sex after they’ve started penetration but before either spouse has had an orgasm. Answer: only if they agree and if they have a proven track record of withdrawing, mid-coitus, without causing an orgasm. (It is unclear how you can establish this proven track record, given these rules, but perhaps great self-knowledge and self-confidence are enough.)
If those conditions are met, then the incomplete sex act is no longer considered sexual intercourse, but rather it is treated like affectionate, pleasurable touches of one another’s sexual organs, “which is permitted among spouses, or at least is not mortal, so long as the danger of pollution is closed off.”
This is an interesting statement in itself. Apparently, a large part of the 19th-century Church believed that heavy petting (even if not done as foreplay) was okay between spouses, as long as there was no orgasm, and the remainder believed it was only a venial sin. I don’t know about you, but that much openness to sexual touching outside intercourse surprised me.
#69 (nice) - No Withdrawal After Wife’s Orgasm
"Si vero foemina jam seminaverit, vel sit in probabili periculo seminandi, non potest quidem vir data opera a seminatione se retrahere, sine gravi culpa, quia tunc ipse est causa, ut semen uxoris prodigatur: uti communiter dicunt S. Antoninus . . . et alii passim. Hoc tamen non erit ita intrinsece malum, ut aliquo casu permitti non possit, puta si vir desisteret a copula ob periculum mortis, vel scandali aliorum ; tunc enim licite potest se retrahere etiam cum periculo pollutionis, quia haec per accidens, et praeter intentionem eveniret, et contra non tenetur cum periculo tanti damni generationem procurare; ita communiter. . . Haec sunt certa apud omnes."
"But if a woman has already orgasmed, or is in a probable danger of orgasming, the husband cannot withdraw from orgasming himself without grave fault, because then the very same thing is the case, as the seed of the wife is proffered: so St. Anthony and many others (passim) say in common. Nevertheless, this will not be so intrinsically evil that it cannot be permitted for any cause: for instance, if a man should desist from intercourse on account of the danger of death, or of the scandal of others; for then he can licitly withdraw himself even with the danger of pollution, because this would happen by accident and contrary to intention, and he is not bound otherwise in the face of the risk of so great an injury to bring about procreation; so is commonly said.... These things are certain among all of them [St. Anthony and the other commentators].
The verb used here for “to orgasm” literally means “to sow; to plant.” This is, firstly, very funny, and, secondly, it illustrates something important about how Bp. Kenrick and his contemporaries understood the biology of sex.
At this time, it was believed that, just as the contractions of the male orgasm released the male seed, so to the contractions of the female orgasm had to have something to do with the release of the female seed. Honestly, I sympathize. This makes so much intuitive sense that it’s still mind-blowing to me that it isn’t true. (The current biological consensus is that the female orgasm plays no direct role in conception, although further evidence could change that.8) And this was written in 1843! The human egg was first observed in 1827! Actual fertilization was not observed, even in animals, until decades later! They were doing their best with what little they had.9
This belief that the female orgasm either directly triggered or somehow encouraged ovulation meant that, if the wife climaxed during an intimate interaction (or seemed to be on the brink of climax), then the interaction was no longer simple heavy petting. It was now an official Procreative Act (“the seed of the wife is proffered”), which therefore needed to be open to life. In order to be open to life, the husband needed to do his part of procreation as well. His refusal to do so would deliberately thwart the reproductive purpose of their bedroom romp, as surely as if he’d practiced coitus interruptus. Therefore, he had to orgasm—although sufficiently serious risks (like “the scandal of others,” i.e. you hear your kids running down the hall toward your room) removed the obligation.
Given what we know today about reproduction, I think this entire paragraph must be read in a different light. Even if female orgasm does something to encourage conception (which is controversial), conception clearly does not depend on female orgasm the way it depends on male orgasm, and the effects of the female orgasm amount to a mere “accident of intercourse” like that described in #67.
Still, I like that the female orgasm was taken so seriously at the time, and that it was respected as the equal or near-equal of the male orgasm.
#70 - No Withdrawal After Husband’s Orgasm
Si vir jam seminaverit, femina retrahendo se a seminando plerisque videtur peccare lethaliter, quia juxta plures utrumque semen ad generationem requiritur: et quamvis verosimile sit semen viri sufficere, tamen non licet opinionem sequi probabilem de rei veritate, cum periculo damni alieni. "Hinc neque practice probabile puto id quod dicunt Sanchez et Sporer: nimirum posse mulierem in actu coitus animum ad alia divertere, ne concitetur ad seminationem."
And if the man has already orgasmed [lit. "sowed"], the woman withdrawing herself from [her own oncoming] orgasm is seen by many to sin lethally, because adjoining seed of both types is required for generation [not sure of this translation]: and although it is probable ["verosimile", not a Latin word] that the seed of the man suffices, nevertheless it is not permissible to follow a [merely] plausible opinion regarding the truth of the matter, when there is risk of harming another. [“another” = the wife's soul, presumably.] "Hence I do not think it practically probable what Sanchez and Sporer say: that a wife in the act of intercourse can turn her spirit toward other things, lest she be aroused to orgasm."
In other words: if, after her husband has climaxed, the wife is approaching her own orgasm, it would be a mortal sin for her to prevent the orgasm by trying to think about, say, groceries, or the tragedy of world hunger (“turning her spirit toward other things”).
The text mentions the theory (growing strong at the time) that the female orgasm was not essential to procreation but, at most, useful to procreation. (If that theory were true, it would greatly weaken both #69 and #70.) (Spoilers: It was true.) However, the text quickly dismisses this theory by saying that we must err on the side of caution and avoid acting on theories that aren’t proven. We must therefore (the text argues) continue to assume that the wife’s orgasm is essential to ovulation and therefore to procreation.
The most interesting thing about this passage to me, however, is that it exists. Wives were apparently deliberately suppressing their own orgasms, and this was widespread enough that the Bishop of Philadelphia saw a need to step in and say, “Hey, hold on, ladies: no, you actually have to have that orgasm. It’s your Christian duty.”
Also, that’s a pretty wild thing for a bishop to say, even today, even in euphemistic Latin.
Like #69, our modern understanding that female orgasm is not decisive in childbearing places this entire paragraph into question. However, I think the orgasm-positive message remains. Your bishop today would not call female orgasm suppression a mortal sin, but he would probably still question why you’re preventing your body from achieving the fullest fulfillment of marital intercourse, and whether that’s spiritually healthy.
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#71 - Sex Is Not Over After Husband’s Orgasm
Vir, juxta plures, postquam seminavit, tenetur uxorem, si ipsa non seminaverit, expectare, ut actus generandi sit integer: alii negant eum teneri: ''concedunt tamen ei posse continuare copulam, usque dum seminet femina, quia hoc pertinet ad complementum copulae uxoris."
The husband, according to many, is bound to wait for the wife after he has orgasmed [lit. "sowed"], if she has not yet orgasmed, so that the act of procreation might be wholly completed; others deny that he is bound: "They agree, however, that he can continue the sex act until the woman orgasms, because this pertains to the fulfillment of the marital sex act for the wife."
The basic principle described here seems to hold regardless of developments in our understanding of female orgasm, because, whether functional in procreation or not, female orgasm does “pertain to the fulfillment of the marital act.” There is, therefore, good reason to believe that the husband has a certain degree of duty to bring about his wife’s orgasm, even after he himself has already climaxed.
#72 - Wife May Masturbate During/Just Before Sex
Si vir se retrahat post seminationem suam, sed ante seminationem uxoris, poterit haec, juxta plerosque, tactibus se excitare ad seminandum, quia utriusque seminatio pertinet ad eundem actum conjugii. "Omnes autem concedunt uxoribus, qus frigidioris sunt naturae, posse tactibus se excitare ante copulam, ut seminent in congressu maritali statim habendo."
If the husband withdraws himself after his orgasm [lit. "his sowing"], but before the wife’s orgasm, she will be able, according to many, to raise herself to orgasm by touch, because the orgasm of both belongs to the same marital act. "All, however, agree that wives, who are of a colder nature, are able to arouse themselves by touches before intercourse, so that she may be able to orgasm in the marital congress she is imminently going to have."
In modern language, what is described here would be called “masturbation.” The wife touches herself to induce an orgasm. That’s masturbation. Jilling. Schlicking.
However, the text avoids the M-word. This is presumably because, in a theological sense, “masturbation” is a form of sexual self-stimulation that does not fulfill the procreative or unitive ends of sex. The self-stimulation contemplated in this passage is done in the context of a lifegiving, unitive act of marital sexual intercourse, and its purpose is to help make that lifegiving act of intercourse more completely fulfill its natural ends. That makes it not masturbation (except in a strictly mechanical sense).
Anyway, wives—who, according to the text, are generally “of a colder nature”—are permitted to do this both before the start of penetration and after the husband’s orgasm. I think it’s interesting that, even in 1843, even celibate bishops were well aware that (unlike men) many women could not climax from intercourse alone, and that their special circumstances needed some express accommodation that didn’t need to be made for the men.
Since we now know that people “of a colder nature” exist in both sexes, I imagine that it would be permissible for a husband to “arouse himself by touches” immediately before intercourse, if that is necessary to bring about his own timely orgasm. (He couldn’t do the “raise himself to orgasm by touch” part, though, due to the moral need for male climax to occur in the vagina in order for the act to be open to life.)
#73 - No Anal, Not Even As Foreplay
Peccat mortaliter vir copulam inchoando in vase praepostero, ut postea in vase debito eam consummet. Ita communius et verius sentiunt theologi. "Ratio quia ipse hujus modi coitus (etsi absque seminatione) est vera sodomia, quamvis non consummata, sicut ipsa copula in vase naturali mulieris alienae est vera fornicatio, licet non adsit seminatio." Virilia perfricare circa vas praeposterum uxoris est etiam mortale: "ratio est quia saltem talis tactus non potest moraliter fieri sine affectu sodomitico."
A man commits a mortal sin by beginning a copulation in the anus [lit. "inverted vessel"], so that he may afterwards finish the copulation in the vagina [lit. "due vessel"]. Thus think the wiser and more numerous theologians. "The reason is because this kind of coitus (even without orgasm) is truly sodomy, although incomplete, just as having such coitus in the vagina of some other woman is truly fornication, even if there is no orgasm." To rub the penis around the wife's anus is also mortal: "the reason is because such touching cannot be morally done without at least a sodomitic affection."
“Sodomy” has two meanings. It can mean, narrowly, “anal sex.” It can also mean, more broadly, “oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation, bestiality, and everything else that isn’t penis-in-vagina intercourse between humans.” Many American state sodomy laws forbade not only homosexual sodomy, but heterosexual sodomy. Bp. Kenrick’s home state of Pennsylvania explicitly outlawed oral sex, even between married couples, in 1879.
From context, I glean that “sodomy” in this paragraph is meant in the narrow sense. In other words, this paragraph is about anal.
There are two interesting things to note here. First, Bishop Kenrick seems to acknowledge that at least some theologians think it is morally acceptable to begin intercourse anally and then switch to vaginal intercourse, even as he brushes them aside by saying that they are a foolish minority.
Second, one of the American Catholic Church’s most recent public rows about sexual morality dealt with just this question. In 2000, theologian and Theology of the Body popularizer Christopher West published Good News About Sex & Marriage. He suggested in a footnote precisely what Bp. Kenrick dismisses here: he argued that it is not “absolutely and in every case immoral” to use anal sex as foreplay. (West clearly found the idea distasteful, unhealthy, and confusing, as do I—but not inherently immoral, as long as it culminated in a sex act that was open to life.) After West made a controversial appearance on Nightline in 2009, this footnote blew up.
Speaking solely for myself, it still seems to me that West is right: anal-as-foreplay seems like a real bad idea in every circumstance I can imagine, but it isn’t sodomy per se and therefore isn’t a mortal sin per se. I don’t see how Bp. Kenrick can maintain here that sodomy in the context of an overall procreative sex act is “truly sodomy,” while maintaining simultaneously in the previous paragraph that masturbation to orgasm in the context of an overall procreative sex act is not “truly masturbation.”
On the other hand, one point to Kenrick: since this seems like a terrible idea under all circumstances, the only reason someone would ever want to do it, it seems to me, is “a sodomitic affection,” which (as we saw in #67) is a bad and potentially sinful motive even if there’s technically nothing wrong with the act itself.
#74 - Dangerous Sex Forbidden (With Exceptions)
I had a tough time translating bits of this one, and even consulted a Latinist. Having done so, my best guess is that Bp. Kenrick’s Latin is stilted in places here simply because Bp. Kenrick was not fluent in Latin. The phrase “sex is had” seems to be trying to be permissive, even though, grammatically, it is only descriptive. What “veluti” is doing in the second paragraph is downright vexing:
Non licet plerumque copulam habere, cum vitae vel morbi gravioris periculo, sibi, vel conjugi. Equidem quando de conjugis periculo agitur, si gravis sit causa petendi debiti, periculum manifestandum est ne conjux invitus damnum patiatur.
Si quis morbo venereo laboret, debet abstinere a copula, vel uxorem monere, ne injuria ei fiat invitae. Si autem periculum remotum sit, quod scilicet in partu periclitetur, vel quod valetudo jam infirma frequenti congressu frangenda prorsus sit, videtur licere, quia hoc veluti conjugio inhaeret, et grave foret a copula perpetuo abstinere.
Conjugi morem gerit uxor absque culpa, ut eum a consuetudine prava avertat, et servet. In morbo diuturno, qui vires non tollit, copula habetur, licet haud absque valetudinis detrimento: "si morbus esset diuturnus, et non proxime tendens ad mortem, nempe quod non soleat de brevi et facili mortem inferre, ut esset pestis, aut lepra leonina, (qua frustatim membra decidunt,) tunc non erit illicitum sano petere, si aderit justa causa, nimirum [typo in original: "minirum"] fovendi amorem conjugalem, aut vitandi continentiam in se, vel in altero, quia alias esset valde onerosum tamdiu abstinere ab usu conjugii, quod vix poterit esse sine periculo incontinentiae."
It is not permitted (for the most part) to have marital intercourse when there is danger to life or of very serious illness, either to oneself or to one's spouse. Indeed, when there is a danger to the partner, in order for there to be a serious cause for demanding sex [lit. "suing the debt"], there must be a manifest danger, lest the spouse suffer harm against his/her will.
If one suffers from venereal disease, he should abstain from intercourse, or warn his wife, lest she be injured against her will. If, however, the danger is remote, such as the ordinary known danger of childbirth ["scilicet in partu periclitetur"], or the danger of intercourse when a spouse is constitutionally infirm and his health could be altogether shattered by frequent sexual congress, it seems intercourse is permitted, because this inheres in marriage [or?: “because it inheres in this just as in the marriage”], and it would be oppressive to abstain from intercourse perpetually.
A wife has regular sex [lit. "carries on the habits of a spouse"] without sin, so that she might avert him from corrupt habits, and save him. In a long illness, which does not drain strength, sex is had, although not without detriment to health: "If a disease should be long-lasting, and not proceeding near to death, namely which are not in the habit of bringing about death quickly and easily (like a pest or lepromatous leprosy, in which the limbs fall off piecemeal), then, without a doubt, it will not be illicit for a healthy person to ask, if there is a just cause, for fostering conjugal love, lest he commit masturbation or adultery [lit. "lose continence through himself or through another"], because otherwise it would be very onerous to abstain from the marital bed for such a long time, which can scarcely be done without danger of losing sexual self-restraint [lit. "danger of incontinence"]."
There is reference here to a “debt” which “inheres” in marriage. The manualists’ understanding of marriage was that marriage was a contract which granted each spouse substantial claims on the labor, property, time, and body of their spouse. I think almost everyone agrees with the first three, even today, but the fourth one has become controversial. Catholics have believed for a long time that married people, generally speaking, have a right to sexual intercourse with their spouse, and that spouses have a corresponding duty to ensure their spouses’ sexual well-being—just as we have also right and duty to take responsibility for our shares of cleaning the house, raising the kids, and generally taking care of one another.
This sexual “debt,” like most rights, is limited. It does not mean anytime, anywhere. It does not mean that every time hubby asks, wifey must say “yes,” even though she’s exhausted from a long day taking care of the kids. It does not authorize marital rape. And, as we see here, it does not authorize endangering your spouse’s life or health… or your own!
On the other hand, particularly with long illnesses that lead to extended periods of abstinence, the text advises a balancing of interests, and goes into some detail on how that works.
Note that, while the ordinary and general dangers of childbirth are considered “remote” dangers here, extraordinary and particular dangers of childbirth would not be considered remote and do authorize the husband and wife to abstain. A woman with a history of, say, eclampsia faces a very particular and dangerous threat if she gets pregnant again, which would justify abstention. This is discussed in paragraph #103 (which I have not translated here).
Also, the text mentions that the wife can have lots of sex with her husband “in order to avert him from corrupt habits.” But this is certainly not the only circumstance in which the wife can have regular sex with her husband, as the rest of the document makes quite clear! Having habitual sex because she likes it and wants to have lots of his babies (and/or delights in him) is just fine.
Finally, I’m not really clear on why the wife is singled out here. It seems like it would apply equally to both sexes. Most of this document has avoided Victorian stereotypes, but that line seems to smack of it.
#75 - More Dangers
Non licet petere statim a balneis, vel sectione venae, quia coitus tunc habet grave periculum. Sic etiam cum ea quae febri laborat, coire periculosum est. Cum muliere quae gonorrhaeam patitur, coire non decet; sed quum haec diuturna sit, vix prohiberi potest: periculum autem afferre non videtur.
It is not permitted to ask [for sex] immediately after [visiting] the baths or a bloodletting, because intercourse then has serious danger. Thus also it is very dangerous to have sex with those who suffer from fever. It is not becoming to mate with a woman who endures gonorrhea; but, since this is long lasting, it can scarcely be prevented; it does not, at any rate, seem to bring any danger.
A lot of this is based on beliefs about biology that don’t really hold anymore. “Baths” seems to refer to the public bathhouse, and a nice hot bath was understood at the time to be unhealthy, even dangerous.
#76 - Advisories
Post prandium coenamve coire nulla lege vetatur, nec grave fert damnum. Antequam ablactetur infans, coire non decet: juxta illud Gregorii M.: "Ad ejus vero concubitum vir accedere non debet quousque qui gignitur ablactetur": sed res consilii est, non praecepti.
To fuck10 after lunch or dinner is not forbidden by any law, nor does it cause serious harm. Before the child is weaned, it is not fitting to fuck: according to the saying of Gregory M.: "A man ought not to come to bed with her until the child who has been born is weaned": but that is a matter of counsel, not of precept.
#77 - Sex for Pleasure Alone
Copula ob solam voluptatem culpa veniali non vacat: damnata enim est propositio: "Opus conjugii ob solam voluptatem exercitum, omni penitus caret culpa ac defectu veniali." Equidem venialem esse culpam liquet, dum quis veluti finem copulae proponit, quod natura tamquam medium adsignavit quo ad finem, nempe prolis procreationem, alliceremur: sed quum gravis non sit ordinis perversio, non excedit culpam venialem. Quod si quis utatur voluptate ut se excitet ad copulam, nulla erit culpa, quum generationem praecipue sibi proponat.
A copulation is not free from venial guilt when pursued for [lit. "on account of"] pleasure alone; for the sentence is condemned: "The work of marriage, pursued for [lit. "on account of"] pleasure alone being cultivated, is entirely free from all venial sin and defect." Indeed, it is clear that there is a venial sin, when one proposes just this as the goal of intercourse, because nature assigned this medium by means of which we should be drawn toward the goal, namely, the procreation of offspring: but since the perversion of order is not grievous, it does not exceed a venial sin. But if one uses pleasure to arouse himself [or herself] toward copulation, there will be no fault, when he chiefly proposes procreation to himself.
Reading this paragraph too strictly would tend toward a rigid morality where even eating a candy bar is a venial sin. See my initial notes on paragraph #67 (“Sexual Positions”).
But Kenrick is fundamentally right: pleasure alone cannot be the object of sex. Human nature rewards us with pleasure for doing things that are good for us, but to reap the pleasure without doing something good for us is perverse. (If you don’t find such isolated pleasure perverse, read this comic.) Eating a Hershey bar may be done mainly for pleasure, but there is that rational good of nutrition that is still being actively (if weakly) pursued.11
So does a Catholic really have to be, at some level, actively (if weakly) pursuing a baby each time she has sex with her husband, above and beyond mere openness to a baby? If so, how can Catholic birth control methods (periodic abstinence during fertile periods12) be justified within Catholic sexual morality?
See footnote 4 for why I think Bp. Kenrick missed a trick here. He presents procreation and pleasure as the sole possible objects of sex, but there’s a third object, intimately intertwined with both: the unity of the spouses in mutually self-giving love. Once this third object is recognized, it can be proposed as the principal goal of a given sex act (alongside procreation, of course). I think this is the signal insight of the Theology of the Body—not a new teaching, but a new way of describing a teaching that has been with us from ancient days, like seeing something in parallax for the first time.
So, while we should avoid reading this paragraph too strictly, reading this paragraph too laxly instead (or dismissing it altogether as anachronistic) would tend toward a selfish dissipation, in which pursuit of one’s own pleasure overshadows the fruitful delight in one’s spouse that is at the heart of holy sex.
#78 - No Thinking About Zendaya
Peccatum est mortale copulam habere mente adultera, affectu scilicet ad aliam directo. Quod si quis de alterius pulchritudine cogitet, ut se excitet, absque tamen afiectu turpi, excusatur a nonnemine: sed in periculo manifesto consensus in copulam cogitatam cum aliena versatur. Si quis de aliena copula cogitet, in magno etiam est periculo, licet ea uti tantum velit ad se excitandum ad copulam cum propria conjuge : "haec tamen cogitatio, si esset de copula inter personas determinatas non excusarem a mortali, ob facile periculam consentiendi in delectationein de copula cum conjuge aliena."
It is a mortal sin to have intercourse with an adulterous mind, that is, with an affection directed toward another. If anyone thinks of the beauty of another, that he [or she; the language throughout this paragraph is gender-neutral] may arouse himself [/herself], even without indecent affection, he is excused by nobody, but is turned toward manifest sin [lit. “danger”] in having assented to thoughts of intercourse with another. If anyone thinks about another's intercourse, he also is in great danger, even though he only wills it as a means toward arousing himself for intercourse with his own spouse: This thought, if it were about intercourse among certain persons, I still would not excuse from mortal [sinfulness], because of the willing consent in the pleasure of intercourse with another's partner.
Fantasizing about other people during sex, or about other people having sex, is an abuse of the sexual faculties, and is a mortal sin. Kenrick uses words like “think” instead of “fantasize,” but I think it’s clear in context that he is talking about fantasizing. Clearly, Kenrick doesn’t think it’s always wrong to think about people having intercourse, because, if he did, this chapter of the book would be blank and he wouldn’t be able to hear the confessions of married people! But, if justified rational thought slips into indulging an arousing fantasy, that crosses a line.
Bp. Kenrick (lacking the Theology of the Body) seems not quite able to articulate why these idle fantasies are so terrible. Indeed, Kenrick acknowledges that these fantasies can help facilitate procreation (by making sexual climax easier), and Kenrick very much favors procreation. Yet he rejects these thoughts as a form of consent to intercourse with others, which seems like a bit of a stretch.
It seems easier to explain this rule in terms of the mutual love between the spouses that sex is supposed to cultivate: when you stop delighting in your wife and instead delighting in, say, your own fantasy of Zendaya,13 you have decisively and objectively abandoned the aim of mutual self-gift. You are, at that point, using your wife as a living, breathing fleshlight… not giving yourself over to your wife with the tender love of a husband. You are also using Zendaya, who is a real person and not a psychological fleshlight.
But, without Theology of the Body around to talk about mutual self-gift,14 we get more stilted explanations for the teaching, as here.
#79 - No Sex in Church (Ordinarily)
In loco sacro copula habenda non est, extra necessitatem, quae contingit exercitu in ecclesia diversante.
Sexual intercourse must not be had in a sacred place, outside of necessity, which is connected with administration in a diversifying church.
“Outside of necessity, which is connected with administration in a diversifying church,” seems to be a bit of a Kenrickism. He uses this phrase in a couple other places as well, and I couldn’t find anyone else using it. UPDATE 26 AUGUST: I really thought I saw him use this phrase in another volume of Theologia Moralis, but, if he did, I can’t find it now!
I take him to mean that the “necessity” of having sex in a church is determined by local canon law (as opposed to some universal precept). I am genuinely not sure what would necessitate this, and I half-suspect that Bp. Kenrick doesn’t, either. The fact that he leaves the details to local ordinance indicates that he sees this as a matter of discipline and appropriateness (rather than doctrine, faith, or morals).
UPDATE 26 AUGUST: Several contemporary critics of Catholicism translated portions of this manual. Well, actually, it seems that one critic translated it, and then others reprinted Kenrick’s work, the critical translation, or both, in their own works. (My favorite one is called The Engineer Corps of Hell: Rome’s Sappers and Miners, by a 32nd-Degree Freemason who found it so obscene he refused to include the English translation.) ANYWAY… the popular translation had this as:
Copulation is not to be performed in a sacred place, except through necessity, which may happen when an army is lodging in the church.
This is a grammatically sound translation (moreso, in fact, than mine), but struck me as so bizarre that I rejected it when I was working on this. Yes, armies may lodge in churches… but, no, soldiers lodging in churches are very unlikely to have their spouses around (in 1843), and obviously aren’t able to “perform copulation” with any women they aren’t married to. Even the minimal privacy requirements of the mid-19th century seem difficult to meet in this setting. But, hey, maybe I should trust the contemporary Protestant critics, who have a clearer idea of 1840s army life than I do.
#80 - Sex on Feasts and Fasts Discouraged
In diebus festivis, et jejunii, abstinentia ab opere conjngii commendatur; sed nullam violat legem qui eo fruitur.
On days of feast or fast, abstinence from the work of a married couple is recommended; but no one who enjoys it violates the law.
On days of fast (Lent, Fridays, traditionally Wednesdays, and a few other occasions), Catholics are generally asked to try and make sacrifices and prayers for our sins and sorrows and for the sorrows of the whole world. Thus, no meat on Fridays.15 Sex, as you may have heard, is really fun, which sort of cuts against the spirit of the day.
On days of feast (Sundays, the octave of Christmas, the octave of Easter, and many other occasions), Catholics are generally expected to be exalted with Christ with the angels and glorying in humanity’s special relationship with him. Even very holy sexual intercourse on such days would likely be a distraction—and many individuals in the clerical hierarchy have a long history of suspicion that quite a lot of the sex people are having is not especially holy.
As a practical matter, however, the human heart does not always pulsate to the beat of the liturgical calendar, and the liturgical calendar is so full of days of both feast and fast that following this advice strictly (especially when using natural family planning as birth control!) would make it difficult, and perhaps impossible, to actually ever have sex with your spouse.
Moreover, as a theological matter, the realization that holy sex, in the spirit of mutual self-gift between the spouses, can itself be a celebration of humanity’s unique relationship with the Trinity, in my view substantially weakens the argument against sex on feast days. But you’re here for Bishop Kenrick’s views, not my own.
#81 - Sex During Pregnancy
Graviter nonnunquam arguebant patres maritos uxoribus praegnantibus haud parcentes : sed gravem culpam in consuetudine hac non agnoscunt theologi plerique: nam abortus quod objicitur periculum negatur esse, quum semine recepto claudatur matrix arctissime, haud facile coitu iterato aperienda. Quo magis accedit tempus pariendi, eo minus est periculum, nam foetus ita secundinis involvitur, ut eum non possit semen contingere. Coire tamen cum praegnante S. Alphonso videtur culpa venialis, "nisi adsit periculum incontinentise, vel alia honesta causa."
Theologians have sometimes severely accused married fathers for not sparing their pregnant wives, but the better part of theologians do not discern a grave fault in this practice: because the danger of a miscarriage (which is raised in objection) is negated, since the womb is closed most tightly once the semen is received, and is by no means easily reopened by more intercourse. The more the time of childbirth approaches, the less the danger, for the fetus is so involved in the uterine appratus [lit. "afterbirth"] that it is impossible for semen to touch him. Nevertheless, St. Alphonsus saw sexually uniting when pregnant as a venial sin, "unless there is a danger of sexual sin [lit. "incontinence"], or some other honorable cause."
Here, one last time (because I stopped translating after this), we see the mysteries of human biology circa 1843 sowing confusion. It appears to be the case that, at some point prior to 1843, there was a widespread belief that sex during pregnancy risked miscarriage. Since the developing fetus is a living human being, both his parents should avoid taking actions that put him in danger of death. Just as it is forbidden to have sex with your spouse if it would endanger your spouse’s life (see #74), it is likewise forbidden to have sex with your spouse if it would endanger your child’s life.
However, Bishop Kenrick responds that, while this was at some point the prevailing medical consensus, it was no longer the medical consensus in 1843. At this time, it was believed that sex during pregnancy had little or no risk to the child, and that the risk diminished as pregnancy advanced. Thus, sex during pregnancy was not a problem for reason of miscarriage.
To be fair to 1843, medical opinion on sex and miscarriage has fluctuated in the centuries since. As late as 1980—after the sexual revolution, the moon landing, and Star Wars—the 13th edition of the respected OB-GYN textbook, Gynaecology by Ten Teachers still listed “coitus” as a cause of first-trimester miscarriage. Current medical consensus is that Bishop Kenrick’s contemporaries were correct: in normal pregnancies, there is no risk of miscarriage from intercourse and/or orgasm, although there are high-risk women who should take special care. The question appears to still be understudied.
Now, risk of miscarriage aside, is there anything wrong with sex during pregnancy in itself? After all, if one of the purposes of sex is procreation, if all sex must be open to life, “the seed is frustrated in its end of generation,” since there is, guaranteed, no egg for the seed to fertilize. Bishop Kenrick notes that St. Alphonsus Ligouri considered sex during pregnancy a venial sin for this reason, although actually he somewhat understates Ligouri’s vehemence on the point [note: very hasty translation, mostly Google]:
[Some theologians] deny it, both because it is nowhere held to be forbidden per se; and also because it would be a very heavy burden, and a burden exposed to innumerable dangers of sinning venially, if the spouses were obliged to abstain for so long from the conjugal deed while remaining in the same bed. Moreover, they answer against reason, that in order for intercourse to be lawful in marriage, it is sufficient that the act in itself be suitable for generation, but the fact that it does not happen is an accident. Even now, I laugh at that lot and their opinion. …intercourse with a pregnant woman cannot be excused from venial guilt, unless there is a danger of sexual sin, or some other honorable cause, according to what has been said.
Clearly there was substantial division, even among theologians, on this question, such that Ligouri had someone to laugh at.
It seems to me that the disputed question has now been settled, and the theologians St. Ligouri scorned have emerged victorious. Many questions in Catholicism, from the human nature of Christ to the Immaculate Conception of Mary to this question of foreseeably infertile sex, go through periods of dispute, where theologians argue about which answer was the true teaching of the Apostles and which is a later parasitic innovation. It is now solidly established Catholic teaching that infertile sex is lawful within marriage (and always has been), so long as “the act in itself be suitable for generation,” and “the fact that it does not happen” (due to the infertility) “is an accident.” A Catholic woman who has gone through menopause and a Catholic man who became permanently infertile during cancer treatment can both continue to have sexual relations with their respective spouses, so long as the act is in principle open to life. Should God choose to miraculously send a child as He sent a child to Sarah and to Mary, so much the better, but it is not a precondition. (This is a bedrock of a lot of Catholic thinking about how secular marriage law ought to work, although I have somewhat parted ways with the mainstream on that question.) These conditions clearly obtain during pregnancy.
This is another way in which a richer understanding of the purpose of sex (procreation through the deepening self-gift of the spouses accompanied by physical pleasure) casts a clearer light on something that, in recent centuries, was seen only dimly.
That is not where Bishop Kenrick stops writing about sexual morality, but it is where I stopped translating! Perhaps I will someday finish De usu coniugii. But probably not. For those interested in reading some Latin, though, here’s an outline of the remainder:
#82: Sex During Menstruation
#83: Sex After Giving Birth
#84: Coitus Interruptus and the Impoverished
#85: The Marital Debt
#86: Husbands’ Duty To Satisfy Perceived Sexual Needs of Wives; Substantial Gender Stereotyping
#87: Whether Sex is Permitted in Unlawful Marriages (Consanguinity) or Where One’s Spouse Has Taken a Vow of Chastity
#88: Whether Sex May Be Sought When One Has Taken a Vow of Chastity for Oneself
#89: Whether Sex is Owed to (or from) an Excommunicated Spouse
#90: When Sex May Be Justly Refused to a Desirous Spouse
#91: Sex in Poverty
#92: Don’t Fast So Much It Ruins Sex
#93: Right to Refuse Disordered Sex
#94: Response to a Spouse who Improperly Requests Sex
#95: I think this is the same topic, but honestly not certain
#96 — Coitus Interruptus Against Wife’s Will
[Translated and added on 20 January 2023]
Si homo extra vas seminaturus noscatur, utrum uxor possit eum excipere inquiritur. Equidem constat eam non posse id consilii, quum detestandum sit, probare: sed excusant eam plures eum excipientem, quia copula inchoata per se licet, et quod seminatio extra fiat, culpa aliena contingit. Caeterum quotiescumque possit precibus et monitis eum inducere ut coitum integrum habeat, videtur teneri nec facile excusatur si ipsa absque gravi causa petat debitum, quando novit eum ita rem habiturum, nam ex charitate tenetur impedire peccatum viri: "justam autem causam habet petendi, si ipsa esset in periculo incontinentise, vel si deberet alias privari suo jure petendi plusquam semel, vel bis, cum perpetuo scrupulo an ei sit satis grave incommodum, vel ne, nunc se continere."
If it is known that a man will sow his seed outside of the vagina, the question arises as to whether his wife can receive him. Indeed, it is agreed that she cannot approve of such a detestable plan, but many excuse her for receiving him because the union begun is licit in itself, and the fact that the seed is sown outside is due to another's fault [i.e. the husband's, not her own]. However, whenever she can induce him by prayers and advice to have complete coitus, she seems to be bound and is not easily excused if she herself requests the marital debt [i.e. initiates sex] without a serious cause, when she knows that he would handle the matter in this way, for she is obliged from love to prevent her husband's sin: "But she has a just cause for requesting it, if she herself were in danger of incontinence, or if she were to be deprived of her right to request it more than once or twice, with a constant scruple as to whether the the harm is serious enough, or not, [because?] she can for now contain herself."
I don’t have a lot to say about this, except that it makes an interesting companion to the first Church document I ever translated for De Civ. In that document, issued several decades after this one, the Vatican ruled that a wife cannot willingly cooperate with an act involving a condom or sodomy. As I discussed there, this ruling was later affirmed by the Vademecum for Confessors on Conjugal Life (but simultaneously rather undermined; I didn’t draw enough attention to that at the time, but it’s pretty clear now).
I also have to give kudos to ChatGPT, which did 95% of the translation work on this passage. I did not check every individual word, like I did with Google, because it seemed to be doing just fine with some pretty complicated bits.16
[#97-#102: All but illegible in online scan]
#103: Sex when there is an established high risk of miscarriage or stillbirth
#104: Women’s rights and responsibilities viz. semen
#105: Sex among the elderly (as accidental premature ejaculation threatens)
#106: “Touches, glances, and indecent words between spouses,” whether or not directed toward copulation.
#107: Touches, glances, and indecent acts when there is danger of accidental improper orgasm. Fellatio / irrumatio.
#108: Masturbation (“touching one’s own impolite parts in the absence of a spouse”).
#109 — Fantasizing about absent spouse
[Translated—rather hastily, I admit—and added July 2023]
Conjuge absente, delectatio de copula cogitata non caret gravi periculo. Si delectatio habeatur non solum cum commotione spirituum, sed etiam cum titillatione seu voluptate venerea, sentio cum Concina... contra Sporer, eam non posse excusari a mortali, quia talis delectatio est proxime conjuncta cum periculo pollutionis. Secus vero puto dicendum, si absit illa voluptuosa titillatio, quia tunc non est delectationi proxime adnexum periculum pollutionis, etiamsi adsit commotio spirtuum, et sic revera sentit Sanchez, cum ibi non excuset delectationem cum voluptate venerea sed tantum (ut ait) cum commotione et alteratione partium absque pollutionis periculo. At quia talis commotio propinqua est illi titillationi voluptuosae, ideo maxime hortandi sunt conjuges, ut abstineant ab hujusmodi delectatione morosa." Venia sit dictis.
While a spouse is absent, deriving delight by thinking about copulation is not without grave danger. If the delight is obtained not only with the excitement of the spirit, but also with arousing touches [lit. "tickling"] or venereal stimulation, I feel with Concina... contrary to Sporer, that it cannot be excused from [being a] mortal [sin], because such delight is closely connected with the danger of orgasm [lit. "pollution"]. On the other hand, I think it should be said otherwise, if that sensual touch is absent, because then then the delight is not closely connected to the danger of orgasm, even if there is an excitement of the spirit, and thus in fact Sanchez thinks—that the delight [of thinking about copulation] is not excused if accompanied by venereal stimulation, but only (as he says) when excitement and physical arousal [lit. "alteration of the parts"] is without the danger of orgasm. However, since such excitement is a next-door neighbor to those arousing touches, for this reason, spouses should be most strongly encouraged to remain abstinent from this kind of persnickety delight.
By “excitement of the spirit,” I think Bp. Kenrick means “horniness,” or something quite close to it. By “arousing touches,” I think we can take him to mean masturbation, and probably all the preliminary arousing touches that sometimes lead into masturbation.
Kenrick's view, then, seems to have been that fantasizing about your spouse was obviously a mortal sin if accompanied by masturbation. However, if there was no actual physical stimulation, but mere delight in the idea of having sex (with your spouse), without danger of orgasm, it's not a mortal sin, at least in Kenrick's view (also in Sanchez's view, according to Kenrick). Kenrick goes so far as to allow that the “delightful” fantasy may be accompanied by horniness and physical arousal without crossing the line into mortal sin. (He offers little insight on whether it is a venial sin.) On the third hand, though, Kenrick still thinks doing this is a very bad idea, because it's a very short road from vivid fantasy about your spouse to masturbating over your spouse.
Interestingly, the reason I finally decided to translate this passage was because of a reddit question about the morality of spouses texting nudes to one another during business trips. Kenrick lived before photographs were a regular thing, much less sexting, but still sheds some interesting light on those very modern questions.
Lest you come away from this document thinking that the 19th-century Catholic was “obsessed” with “policing” sex (a common charge today), remember that this entire chapter is 11 pages long. Volume III of Theologia Moralis is 369 pages long, and the overall work is over 1000 pages long. More than 99.9% is not sex stuff.
The 19th-century Catholic Church wasn’t obsessed with sex. We are obsessed with sex (me very much included), and we project that obsession onto a Catholic Church that had a few things to say about sex because, today, those things are very counter-cultural.
The idea of microorganisms causing disease had been proposed and even demonstrated in a couple of cases, but the paradigm-changing moments you read about in textbooks—the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak, and Louis Pasteur’s swan-neck bottle experiments—were still decades in the future when Kenrick wrote his book, and would take even longer to trickle out from the scientific establishment to the rest of the educated class. Catholic physician Ignaz Semmelweis, in an infamous tragedy, would soon discover that handwashing in hospitals saved lives… but nobody believed him, doctors kept refusing to wash their hands, and sepsis continued so he eventually had a mental breakdown that led to his commitment to an asylum in 1865 (he died shortly thereafter, ironically enough of sepsis). This is just one minor way in which our understanding of human biology is totally different from the prevailing understanding in 1843, and you have to consider the limits of science in Bp. Kenrick’s time in order to understand Kenrick’s conclusions.
You may ask, “But who would ever deliberately ingest poison, simply for pleasure?” I reply: have you ever met a smoker?
Because tobacco use is highly poisonous after even only moderate exposure, and provides no nutritional value in the meantime, it is my view that “moderate use” of tobacco is an oxymoron, and so smoking is, generally speaking, a sin. I agree with my friend Janet Smith that there may be exceptions to this, but (possibly unlike Dr. Smith), I think those exceptions are vanishingly rare, since it seems to me that tobacco is poison from the first puff. (I do agree with the consensus that nicotine addiction greatly attenuates or even extinguishes culpability for any nicotine-related sin.)
However, my view of smoking is not mainstream among Catholics, who generally view it more as an unhealthy food than a straight-up poison. That is why I put this example in a footnote. The main point here is not “tobacco is poison,” which is largely an empirical question. The main point is the moral principle, “deliberately ingesting poison for pure pleasure is a sin”.
I understand that the New Natural Law school and probably some other schools of thought would dispute some of this. However, I basically fall foursquare in line behind Feser’s “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument,” and I think he’s right that all natural-law arguments, whether they realize it or not, eventually converge back on something quite close to this argument.
The other purpose of sex is the unity, in mutually self-giving love, of the spouses. However, this is not particularly relevant to our discussion, because this purpose is intrinsically intertwined with the purpose of procreation. Just as the unity in love of the Father and the Son produces the Holy Spirit, so too do does the unity in love of the man and woman produce marriage and the baby carriage. These purposes are two sides of the same coin. So Catholics can’t pervert or actively prevent either purpose of sex when they’re having sex. You can’t get away with, say, mutual masturbation by saying “that’s okay because this sex act was for unity, not procreation!” All sex acts conducted in a manner “suitable to reason” are open to both.
Also, at the time Bp. Kenrick was writing this work, “unity of the spouses” was not widely recognized as a separate purpose of sex at all. This idea emerged more out of the Theology of the Body in the 1970s, so Kenrick doesn’t pay any attention to it, sometimes to his loss. (See #77, for example.)
In the English language, all transitive verbs that mean “have sex with” in common usage are considered vulgarities. “Fuck” isn’t a perfect translation for “coeunt” here, but I think it’s the best available word: coeunt is transitive and unambiguous, devoid of euphemism or indirectness.
Hysteria (2011) is based on the most insanely stupid historical myth I’ve ever heard. According to the myth, Victorian men and women were so unbelievably ignorant of their own bodies that they not only did not value female orgasm, but they could not even recognize a female orgasm when confronted with it. This led them—according to the myth—to accidentally invent vibrators as a medical tool for treating “female hysteria” because they did not know what they were doing.
No one in human history, going back to the cavemen, has ever been that stupid.
The “vibrators were invented to treat hysteria” myth comes from Rachel Maines’ 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm, and is such a crazy story that it was reproduced roughly everywhere, somehow everyone fell for it, and Hollywood turned it into a movie called Hysteria. The problem is that Maines made the whole thing up. There is no evidence that any of this ever happened, and of course there’s gobs of evidence that, yes, the nineteenth century knew what a female orgasm was, thanks very much. It makes me angry to think about how so many advocates for “science-based, sex-positive, educational” approaches to sex fell for this outrageous myth harder than a Michigan Seventh-Day Adventist reading Onania for the first time, and taught it to an entire generation of Americans.
But, for the record: vibrators were not invented as a treatment for female hysteria by doctors who didn’t recognize the female orgasm.
The “upsuck hypothesis” of the 1970s holds that the vaginal contractions during female orgasm help to pull sperm into the uterus, increasing the chances of fertilization, but the evidence for this hypothesis is very fragile—fragile enough that quite a few biologists have dismissed it in the 21st century. If there is a reproductive function of the female orgasm, it’s almost certainly upsuck, but upsuck is far from proven. On the other hand, orgasm does release oxytocin, which would seem to promote the other purpose of sex: unity in love between the spouses.
Sidebar: the intuitive (but apparently wrong) belief that female orgasm encouraged ovulation lived alongside the intuitive (but definitely wrong) belief that men and women can’t physically achieve orgasm unless they’re enjoying sex and want orgasm. The interplay between these two intuitive-but-wrong beliefs likely played a significant role in the myth that a woman cannot become pregnant from a genuine rape—a belief that persists, in some quarters, to this day. Modern studies find little to no evidence that rape is less fertile than consensual sex.
See footnote 5.
For Catholics, it will be of interest that a decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Innocent XI, condemned the following proposition as definitely false:
The act of marriage exercised for pleasure only is entirely free of all fault and venial defect. —Various Errors on Moral Subjects (II), 4 March 1679, Denzinger number 1159.9.
This document is not infallible, but decrees of the Holy Office are generally written by very smart people who know their religion inside and out, then are promulgated under the authority of the Pope, so they are taken very seriously.
…if there is a serious reason for avoiding pregnancy, such as financial exigency, medical or psychological danger, or parental incapacity. The default Catholic view is that every married couple ought to share their love as generously as God has shared His love, specifically by having (and loving) as many babies as they reasonably can. Consumer culture struggles to understand the pain of infertility, seeing it only as one more pleasure desired but denied, while the Catholic view can make better sense of that deep, yawning pain.
For the elder generations, I am reliably informed by Dave Barry columns that the appropriate reference here is Scarlett Johansson, or, for the most annuated among us, Marilyn Monroe. For those in the audience who are more tempted to fantasize about men, it’s Cary Grant, George Clooney, and, uh… I dunno, probably one of the Hollywood Chrises?
I’m really starting to get nervous that, by throwing ToB around so much, I’m going to attract severe criticism from both the radtrads who think ToB is deviant and the people who actually know a little something about ToB and are gonna get me for oversimplifying it!
It is widely believed today, even among Catholics, that the only remaining penitential days are Fridays in Lent. This is not true. All Fridays throughout the year are penitential days (unless a major feast happens to fall on a Friday). Catholics are forbidden from eating meat on Fridays.
What seems to have happened is that, in the 1960s or 1970s (I don’t care enough to find the date), the bishops decided that it would be okay for Catholics to choose an alternate form of penance (instead of giving up meat), such as saying a decade of the Rosary or volunteering at a soup kitchen. It was hoped that this would make the Catholic faith less rigid and rule-bound and help each of the flock develop their own individual relationships with Christ through a penance that fit his or her individual orientations. Only on Fridays in Lent would the entire Church join together in giving up meat specifically.
Instead, Catholics en masse (and this part is really inexplicable to me) decided that this new option meant no Friday penance was required at all, and the practice collapsed. It is, nevertheless, still the law of the Church. I am told that Catholic England (or at least portions of it) have recently revoked the “alternate form of penance” concept altogether, attempting to revive the traditional no-meat Fridays so that at least there’s some kind of penance going on. The Catholic Church has a long way to go before it catches back up with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is significantly more austere (and more in tune with the ancient tradition of the Church) than the contemporary Latin Rite.
ChatGPT then showed me what a jerk it is when it comes to even conceptualizing human rights for the unborn — it insisted that human rights to sexual autonomy are essentially absolute and that any attempt to constrain them is baseless and discriminatory, but insisted with equal force that the question of fetal personhood is controversial and inconclusive, constantly sliding to questions of abortion access that I didn’t raise — so I will probably go back to dumb old Google Translate for the next one. But it was nevertheless an impressive translation from GPT!