Monday, October 09, 2006

Do Catholics Believe Sexual Pleasure is Bad?

While perusing the Preacher's Files (what can I say, I'm a glutton for punishment!), I came across this thread discussing family size. One member raised the point that sex and marriage are ordered towards children, and that he felt to get married and outright refuse to ever have children was being selfish. Not surprisingly, someone accused him of sounding very "Catholic." He went on to give a good explanation of how our society has distorted sex, and how contrary to modern thought, pleasure is not the primary purpose of sex.

Another poster, wanting to clarify (and most certainly wanting to put immeasurable distance between a fellow CoC member and any remote possibility of sounding Catholic) said this:
Certainly you are not advocating the catholic position wherein sex should ONLY be for the purpose of having children and one should feel guilty if they seek pleasure from their spouse during a time they are not trying to have children??
Now...when I see such misinformation branded about, I feel absolutely compelled to say something. It's my downfall! And so I did. After a bit of banter about whether or not the Catholic Church had "changed their rules yet again," I was asked to prove that the Church has never taught it is wrong to enjoy the pleasure that comes from sex. That's right....I was asked to prove that something never happened. I tried to explain that the burden of proof was on the person making the claim. (It should be simple enough, right? Provide one official document showing this teaching.) Fortunately, the poster who had made the original statement came along and provided what he believed was proof.

I believe I made the comment that Stephanie quoted and said was a lie, [actually, I didn't say it was a lie, "lie" implies ill intent...I just said it wasn't accurate] so I'd like to back up my position.

Pope John Paul II made a comment in a public speech that a husband is committing adultery with his wife if his purpose is for pleasure. He was the "head" of the catholic church when he was the pope, was he not?

Here are some references to that.


First one must understand that not everything the pope says is infallible. Infallibility is only very rarely envoked. What a pope says personally while talking or writing is not automatically infallible, and is not automatically considered Church teaching.

With that said, the very article you provided explains the misunderstanding well:

In one sense the whole episode was a tempest in a cappuccino cup stirred by an example taken out of context. But the fuss reflected secular fears that the Pope might be returning to a view once held by many Catholic theologians that sexual pleasure even in marriage is deeply suspect. That is far from the case. In sermons and writings John Paul has dealt extensively with marriage, and often places a remarkably unpontifical emphasis on matters of the flesh. The book of Genesis, the Pontiff once declared, shows "the pure value of the body and of sex" in God's eyes.

John Paul has been talking about sex at most of his Wednesday audiences for more than a year. The troublesome phrase, in fact, was part of a discourse about the dignity of women and the need to distinguish, even in marriage, between sexual love and mere lust that makes sex objects of men and women alike.

In context, the Pope's ill-fated discourse only repeated a point of Christian teaching that has lately become a routine feminist complaint: a husband has no right to approach his wife simply to "use" her and make her "the object of the satisfaction of his own sexual 'need.'"


So, to more accurately descibe what the problem was, I would add the words "sole" and "primary" to your statement:

"Pope John Paul II made a comment in a public speech that a husband is committing adultery with his wife if his [sole and primary] purpose is for pleasure."

This is quite different than saying that the gift of marital pleasure, in and of itself, is something to be avoided or ashamed of.

The article below state: "Thus the Catholic Church does not condemn the presence of pleasure in marital sexual intercourse, but she does condemn the use of sexual intercourse exclusively for the sake of pleasure."

Yes! Exactly! Thank you for that....this is precisely the point. What I am saying is, the Church does not teach that pleasure is bad. The Church teaches that the pursuit of pleasure, above all else, selfishly, without regard to the other aspects of the marital embrace is bad. In other words, when sex becomes all about one's own pleasure, and not about showing your spouse love, something that is supposed to be selfless and loving turns into something selfish.

It's like...the primary purpose of eating is nourishment, right? This is the most important reason we eat. However, eating is also pleasurable! (Thanks be to God for such a gift!) It is not wrong at all to enjoy the pleasures of eating, it is good! It is natural! However, if we make the pleasure of eating the primary purpose of eating instead of nourishment, we can become gluttons. When we decide we only want to eat cake and cheetos because we like how they taste, and ignore our duty to be good stewards of our body, then we are abusing that pleasure. The pleasure itself is not wrong, it is the abuse of it that is wrong. Another example would be someone who purges themselves...they want to have the pleasure of eating, without accepting the consequences - the calories, the nourishment, etc. When we try to separate eating from its primary function, and elevate the by-product (pleasure) as the primary goal, then we have distorted the natural function of eating. So it is with intercourse.

Now I have a question regarding this catholic doctrine.....when a woman reaches the age of menopause, must she and her husband discontinue having sexual relations with one another???

Absolutely not. Again, the point is not "You must have babies with every sexual encounter, and you can't enjoy it." The point is, "You must use the gift that God gave you naturally without perverting it." When infertile couples (young or old) participate in the marital embrace, it is natural and good.

Here's a catholic source "free from doctrinal error" (see notation at the bottom of the pamphlet Nihil obstat and Imprimatur) that regarding foreplay (including oral sex) "The spouse is not the focus of the sexual foreplay; rather, sexual stimulation is the focus. It could almost be said that one spouse is having sex with sex rather than with the other spouse. This focus on sex rather than on the spouse is a poison to love and marriage."

In other words, the above "infalliable" opinion seems to imply that pleasure can not go hand in hand with "love and marriage." In fact, it is a "poison."


FIRST, a Nihil Obstat does not mean something is infallible. Here's an explanation of that:

Imprimaturs (and nihil obstats) are not infallible; it is possible for an imprimatur to be granted in error. There are cases where a book has been granted an imprimatur, only to have the imprimatur be revoked later when doctrinal problems in the book have come to light.

Also, an imprimatur doesn't meet that what the book says is correct; it only means that believing what it says does not conflict with the faith. Thus, a book that supports evolution could have an imprimatur, because this belief does not conflict with the faith. But a book supporting creationism could also have an imprimatur, because this alternative belief also does not conflict with the faith.

In short, an imprimatur means that you are allowed to believe what a book says, not that you are required to believe what it says.


SECOND, there is debate about this among Catholic theologians. The specifics have not been infallibly declared anywhere (and aren't likely to be considering the nature of the topic)...but we have some good guidelines.

The most famous writings on this subject are JPII's "Theology of the Body," and there is a book written to explain the TOTB in easier to understand ways called "The Good News About Sex and Marriage," by Christopher West. I know for a fact in this book, oral sex as foreplay is seen as perfectly fine, as long as the act is completed in the...proper place, if you know what I mean, so that it is not distorted. So again, there is debate among Catholic theologians about this...nothing is yet set in stone. The link you provided with the Nihil Obstat says only that it is not CONTRARY to the faith to believe oral sex is a distortion of the marital act. It doesn't say this is positively Church teaching. In other words, there are other places that also have the Nihil Obstat that say it is ok to use oral sex during foreplay, as long as there is proper completion. When there is not yet official teaching on something, Catholics are free to decide for themselves...a Catholic can believe either side and not contradict his faith, that is what the Nihil Obstat tells us in this case, not that this is infallible Church teaching.

THIRD, your statement, "...pleasure can not go hand in hand with 'love and marriage.' In fact, it is a 'poison,'" is not true. Even IF it were infallible teaching that oral sex, even in foreplay, is wrong (and it's not), this does not mean that pleasure itself is poison, as you said. It said, to focus on the pleasure alone to the detriment of the spouse is poison! You are confusing the idea of making pleasure the primary and sole purpose of sex, with the idea that pleasure accompanies sex. The pleasure itself is not bad and not something to be ashamed of. It is when pleasure becomes the sole purpose for sex that there is a problem. Do you see the difference?

I could go on and on. A simple google search finds many catholic resources that declare that physical pleasure within a marriage is sinful according to them.

Again, putting self-pleasure above the needs of one's spouse, making self-gratification top priority rather than wanting to give pleasure to one's spouse, only looking to receive instead of to give is the problem, not the pleasure itself. There's a big difference there!

On the other hand, the bible states that we are to pleasure our spouse so that they/we are not tempted to find it elsewhere.

And if you read the Theology of the Body, you would see just how firmly we Catholics hold to this belief as well.
So, as we can see, Catholics do NOT believe it is wrong to enjoy the pleasure that comes from the marital embrace, God created this and it is good. The Church simply teaches it is wrong to separate sex from its purpose, to elevate pleasure as the end goal, and to abuse sex as simply a means to achieve that goal.

6 comments:

Tiber Jumper said...

Very nice discussion of the true view of Catholics and sexuality!
Freud himself said that at the root of every perversion is the separation of sex from the procreative act, so clearly even secularists know that things go sour quickly if sex is viewed as a pleasure sport and the spouse is simply the object of sexual gratification. JP 2 so clearly explained the necessity of the procreative act remaining tied to the unitive act that I am ashamed that I never saw it as an evangelical. I hope your post is read and gets passed around by a lot of folks!

Stephanie said...

Thanks TJ! It's amazing how much society has blinded us to such obvious truths.

Anonymous said...

I thought of your post when I read St. Francis' Testamony today. Specifically:


And I definitely want all the other brothers to work at some honest job. Those who don't know how should learn, not because they want to receive wages but as an example and to avoid idleness.


I think this points the way toward JPII's statement on sex and pleasure.

Just as St. Francis says that his brothers (he addressed this to the Franciscan brothers) are not to work for wages, similarly one is not to have sex for pleasure. Nothing is said about not enjoying the fruits of our labors, wages, just as nothing would be wrong with enjoying the pleasure of sex, but that's not the purpose behind our work or the reason for having sex.

I remember reading somewhere that a study showed that women who never experience orgasm are no less satisfied with or enjoy sex less than those who do experience them. This is suggestive. I think we would have sex even if it weren't pleasurable.

Acts are sanctified by the spirit we bring to them. There are many reasons we have sex, procreation, unity and sharing with our life partner, a need that is written on our hearts and other reasons that we may not understand, but pleasure should not be one of the motivators, just a gift from God for those who can enjoy this gift.

chris stewart said...

The traditional argument against seeking pleasure exclusively in sex is the concern that one spouse might commit idolatry with the other, namely that the pleasure itself, or the pleasure-giver, would come to be idolized as a god. There’s no doubt that such idolatry infects secular culture; what is particularly troubling is that it seems to infect some realms of Protestant culture as well.

It is worth observing, furthermore, that the traditional view accepted that the third end of sex (after procreation and spousal unity, if I am not mistaken) is remedium concupiscentiae. In other words, just as food not only nourishes you and fosters fond feelings towards the cook (particularly if he or she shares a sacrament with you), it also fills you up, leading you, perhaps, to refrain from eating again until you are once again hungry. In the meantime, you might actually entertain alternate pursuits, for a time, until you’re hungry again. The Kippley’s speak in exactly the same language when they talk of sexual satiation in The Art of Natural Family Planning: it might be good to abstain from sexual expression for a while here and there (whether or not one is specifically choosing to postpone pregnancy) because doing so draws the married couple together more powerfully in the interim. Not only does the couple find that sex isn’t the only thing that ties them together (diminishing the propensity for idolatry, by the way), they also learn that they are naturally drawn to develop the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual elements of their personal communion. Here, personal refers to the four elements of the human person – mind, body, soul, and heart – that Jesus identifies when he says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, NAB, usccb.org). There is no option but to love He who is Love with every element of one’s person – and so also in love for neighbor when the neighbor in question is one’s husband or wife. To reserve anything is to unrequite the love (if you’ll permit me to convert the past participle into the unused infinitive), negating it, and negating God in the process.

It is here that the Church takes on the means (as opposed to the ends). From apostolic times, the Church has taught that sex is good but that like many carnal goods in this valley of tears, it can be corrupted if the means are dishonest. If one really believes that sex and procreation must always go together, one can find two evils that the apostles warn against in the Didache when they condemn abortion: 1) Failing to respect the personhood of the unborn child is wrong; and 2) Failing to respect the integrity of the procreative act of the child’s parents is also wrong. If this integrity is present, and if the spouses both respect it, then idolatry in married sexual expression is nigh on to impossible, though the pleasure is real and (ahem) enjoyed.

But if that integrity and its accompaniment of respect are missing, you really fall back onto sex as nothing more than remedium concupiscentiae, where one spouse or the other is in real danger of slipping from love to lust by using the other. This, of course, is what all of the warnings are about. To use another human person exclusively for one’s own benefit is wrong. This says nothing about pleasure, but it says a lot about context of the matter at hand when pleasure is the only characteristic pondered in its respect.

Stephanie said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I've enjoyed reading them!

God Bless!

iamonetruth said...

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