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The Liberating Truth of Catholic Teaching on Sexual Morality

by Dr. William E. May


Dr. William May argues in this issue that the Church attributes the highest dignity to each human person as a child of God and heir of eternal happiness. Rather than being repressive, the true teaching of the Chruch is actually liberating for both men and women.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review



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Ignatius Press, July 1983

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"No unwanted child ought ever to be born" is the slogan of proponents of contraception and abortion. "No human being ought ever to be unwanted" is the truth proclaimed by the Catholic Church in the name of Jesus Christ. The only way to shape human choices and human actions — and through them human persons and human societies—so that human beings will be wanted as they ought to be wanted is by ordering them in accordance with true and objective norms. It is within this context that the Church's teaching on sexual morality and marriage is presented, and this context must first be understood if the truth of that teaching is to be grasped.

I propose, therefore, to do the following: (1) to provide the reasons why it is true to say that no human being ought ever to be unwanted; (2) to describe the dignity to which human beings, as intelligent entities capable of determining their own lives through their own free choices, are called; (3) to propose a normative framework for making true judgments and good choices about what one is to do if one is to be fully the being human beings are called to be; and (4) to examine, within this framework, the free choice to exercise one's genital sexuality.

The Church, in proclaiming the Gospel and bringing to humankind the saving truth of God's revealing and redemptive word, teaches that each human being is an irreplaceable, priceless person, a being of moral worth. Of each of us it has been written, "Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if they forget, I will never forget you. See, I have branded your name on the palms of my hands" (Isa. 49:15-16). Every human being is a living image of God himself, an icon or living representative of the all-holy and all-loving God. Every one of us is, as it were, a "word" uttered by God himself; in fact, each one of us is the "created word" of God that his Uncreated Word became (John 1:1, 14) precisely to show us how deeply God loves us and cherishes us as irreplaceable and precious persons: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Trial, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword? … For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord" (Rom. 8:35, 37-39).

Each Person Is An Icon Of God

Every human person, moreover, is called to a life of friendship with God himself. God made us to be the kind of beings capable of sharing his own inner life, and to enable us actually to receive this life God himself became, in the person of his only begotten Son, one with us and for us. He came to share in our humanity—a humanity that had, because of original sin, been wounded and rendered impotent even of receiving the gift for which it had been, by God's grace, originally created—precisely so that we might be actually capable of participating in his own divine life. In and through baptism we actually become children of God himself, members of his family, with the right to call him, in union with his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, "Abba," "Father." Thus we are to be his children, intimate members of his divine family, alive with his own life. This life begins in us in baptism, and it is to be fulfilled in the resurrection, when we become fully the persons we are meant to be. Thus it is that the Risen Lord Jesus is now the human being we are called to be. He is the "firstfruits of the dead," living now the life to which we are called and for which we are now capacitated because of him who is "our best and wisest friend.1

To be a human being, therefore, is to be a being of incalculable worth, of irreplaceable value, of precious dignity. To be a human being, moreover, is to be a bodily being, living flesh. This means that to be a human being is to be a sexed being, 2 for in the beginning "God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). Every living human body is a person, and every living human body is inescapably a male or a female person, a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, a boy-baby or a girl-baby (born or unborn; cf. Ps. 139:13-14; Luke 1:41-42). And every living human body, every human person, whatever its age or sex or race or condition, is a being of precious worth, irreplaceable and non-substitutable, a being that ought to be wanted. Every human person ought to be wanted precisely because we ought to want what is truly good and valuable, and every human being is, by virtue of being a "word" or icon of God himself, truly good and valuable.3

This is the point emphasized by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) in proposing what he calls the "personalistic norm": "This norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love."4

Choosing Life Is The Challenge

There is, in brief, an inherent, inalienable, inviolable dignity or sanctity in every human life. But in addition to this inherent dignity of the human person, there is another human dignity of which the Church speaks, and this is the dignity to which we are called as intelligent beings capable of determining our own lives by our own choices. This is the dignity we give to ourselves when, with the help of God's grace, we inwardly shape our choices and actions by conforming them to the requirements of what Vatican Council II called the "highest norm of human life." This norm is the "divine law itself—eternal, objective, and universal, by which God orders, directs and governs the whole world and the ways of the human community according to a plan conceived in his wisdom and love" (Dignitatis Humanae, 2). God has so created us that we are able, through the mediation of our conscience, to "recognize the demands of this divine law" (Dignitatis Humanae, 2). Indeed, as the Council put the matter elsewhere,

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment, do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged (Gaudium et Spes, 16; emphasis added).

"Conscience," continued the Council, quoting Pope Pius XII, "is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man, where he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths" (Gaudium et Spes, 16). Fidelity to conscience means a "search for truth" and for true solutions to moral problems; conscience can indeed err "through invincible ignorance without losing its dignity" (so long as there is sufficient "care for the search for the true and the good"); but "to the extent that a correct conscience holds sway, persons and groups turn away from blind choice and seek to conform to the objective norms of morality" (Gaudium et Spes, 16).

In short, as John M. Finnis, professor of jurisprudence at Oxford University, has so well said:

It was the Council's unwavering teaching that the dignity of conscience consists in its capacity to disclose the objective truth about what is to be done, both in particular assessments and in general norms, and that that truth has its truth as an intention of God whose voice is our law. This law is knowable by us because we "participate in the light of the divine mind" (Gaudium et Spes, 15).5

Thus human persons, who are, by virtue of being humans to begin with, beings of incalculable dignity, are summoned to give to themselves, with the help of God's grace, the added dignity of persons who choose in accordance with the truth, who in effect say "yes" to God's offer of divine life, who choose life, not death.

Life Is A Real Good Of The Person

Yet how are we to make true judgments about what we are to do and, in the light of these judgments, good moral choices? Every intelligent person can assent to the truth of the practical proposal that good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided,6 and thus everyone would agree with Karol Wojtyla (who here merely echoes an age-old wisdom) that the purpose of our education as moral agents is at heart a "matter of seeking true ends, i.e., real goods as the ends of our actions, and of finding and showing to others the ways to realize them."7

But what are the real goods of human existence, goods that serve as purposeful ends of human choices and actions and make intelligent human activity possible? St. Thomas Aquinas suggested a triple-tiered set of human goods, which, when grasped by practical reason, function as first principles of intelligent human activity. The first set includes being itself, a good that human persons share with all other entities, and since the being (esse) of living things is life itself (vivere), the key good at issue here is human life itself, which human persons seek to protect and nourish and defend. The second set includes the union of male and female in order to transmit the good of life to progeny, who need education and care if they are to flourish, and this is a set of goods that human persons share with other animals, but, of course, in their own unique way. The third set includes those goods that are unique to human persons, for instance the goods of truth and knowledge and of living in harmony with others in society, (goods that we could term the goods of justice and peace and friendship).8 Modern commentators on St. Thomas, among them Germain G. Grisez9 and John M. Finnis,10 seek to specify more precisely and exhaustively the basic goods of human persons, goods that contribute to the flourishing of human persons and communities. But the point is that there are indeed real goods of human existence, and among them must surely be included the good of life itself (including health, bodily integrity, and the handing on of life to new human persons), of truth, and of human friendship. Such goods are real goods of persons; they are goods that human persons prize and do not price. They serve, when intelligently grasped, as principles or starting points for deliberating about what one is to do and they make purposeful human activity possible. No matter what we choose to do, whether what we choose to do is morally good or morally bad, we choose to do it ultimately for the sake of goods of this sort.

But where does morality enter in, and how can we make true moral judgments and good moral choices? In short, what is the basic normative principle in morality (as distinguished from the set of first premoral principles such as good is to be done and pursued, life is a good to be protected and its opposite is to be avoided, etc.)? Vatican Council II suggested a basic normative principle for human choices and actions. After noting that human activity is important not only for its results but also and even more importantly because it develops human persons and gives to them, because it is self-determining and free, their identity as moral beings, the Council declared:

Hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it (Gaudium et Spes, 35; emphasis added).

This basic normative proposal suggested by Vatican Council II is, I think, another way of articulating the "personalistic norm" proposed by Karol Wojtyla and noted previously. It can perhaps be clarified if it is put in this way (as suggested by Germain G. Grisez): "In freely acting for human goods, that is, those goods of human persons that contribute to their fullness of being and their flourishing, and avoiding what is opposed to them, one ought to choose and otherwise will those and only those possible actions whose willing is compatible with a willing affirmation of every real good of human persons."11

If we are to choose in accordance with this basic normative truth, certain specific requirements in making true practical judgments and good moral choices are, upon reflection, clearly demanded. First of all, we are required to take into account the real goods of human persons in judging and choosing what we are to do; simply to disregard them or to put them out of mind is to manifest a will that is not seriously concerned with them and with the persons in whom they are to be. Second, every one of these goods demands of us that, when we can do so as easily as not, we avoid acting in ways that inhibit its realization and prefer ways of acting, which contribute to its realization. Third, every one of the goods demands of us that we make an effort on its behalf when its significant realization in some person is in peril. Other requirements necessary if we are to shape our choices and actions according to this basic norm can be spelled out; but one that is surely necessary, if we are to have an upright will and a heart open to the goods of human existence, to the goodness of human persons, and to the Summum Bonum, God, from whom persons and the goods of persons derive, is the following: we ought not to choose, with deliberate and direct intent, to set these goods aside, to destroy, damage, or impede them either in ourselves or in others.12

It is within the context of the foregoing understanding of the human person as irreplaceably precious and as a being that ought always to be wanted and of our summons to choose in such a way that we give ourselves the added dignity of persons whose hearts are open to the goods of human existence and of persons that the Church's teaching on sexual morality is presented.

Intercourse Leads To Procreation

This teaching is well known. Its major claim is that the choice to engage in genital coition can rightly be made only by a man and a woman who have made themselves to be husband and wife by the covenant of marriage, and that it can be made rightly by them only when they respect, in their choices to unite coitally, the goods of life and marital friendship.13 When coition is not marital, or when it violates the marital goods of life-giving love or of love-giving union, it is, as Pope John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio, "a lie."14

This specific teaching of the Church is today widely regarded as repressive and inhibiting, an unwarranted infringement upon human liberty. My claim is that it is a liberating truth, one that needs to be recognized if "no human being ought ever to be unwanted," and that it will be recognized as true if examined within the perspective set forth in the previous sections of this essay.

What are the goods that come into focus when one considers the possibility of engaging in sexual coition? The goods in question are those of life itself and of human friendship. They are inescapably brought into focus when one considers this possible way of acting, and hence one simply cannot intelligently and freely choose this deed without taking a stance toward these basic human goods.

As far as the good of life itself being at stake when one considers the possibility of sexual coition, the observations of John M. Finnis seem pertinent. He observed:

an intelligent choice to engage in sexual intercourse has to take into account a plain fact . . . viz. that intercourse may bring about procreation; that a child may be conceived; that intercourse is procreative (cause and effect, nothing more). One can accept this fact and seek to capitalize on it, or one can ignore this fact and proceed regardless, or one can by simple means prevent the effect from following the cause. But in any case, one is willy nilly engaged, in sexual intercourse, with the basic human value of procreation.15

With respect to the good of friendship and its stake in this possible course of action, I think it sufficient to note that a human being simply cannot have sexual intercourse with himself or herself. Another human person—an irreplaceable being of incalculable worth— is inescapably included in this possible way of acting.

Thus the goods that come into focus when one considers the possibility of having sexual relations are inescapably the goods of life itself (the life that can be transmitted in and through the act) and of friendship with the person with whom one can choose to have sexual relations. Since both of these goods are goods of the persons involved (including the child that can possibly be begotten), it seems to me that one's acceptance of the truth that no human being ought ever to be unwanted is also at stake in considering the possibility of having sexual relations.

No Partner Should Ever Be Unwanted

The sex act unites. But if the individuals it unites are not joined to one another already by the consent that makes them spouses and hence irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable in each other's life, then the choice to engage in it can hardly respect authentic human friendship and the irreplaceable and non-substitutable value of the human person. It is rather the choice to join two beings who are in principle replaceable and substitutable, disposable. It is the choice to use the other as a means, and not a choice to respect the other as an end. It is thus a choice that fails to take seriously into account the irreplaceable value of the human person and the good of human friendship that values the person and wills for the person only what is good.16 There may be some sentimental affection between those who choose to have sexual intercourse while unmarried, but sentimental affection is by no means the same as human love and friendship.17

The sex act is, whether one wants it to be so or not, a life-giving sort of act. It is precisely because it is this sort of act that some people today choose to contracept, for the precise point of contraception is to make the act one chooses to do, i.e., the sort of act open to the transmission of human life, to be a different sort of act, namely, one closed deliberately to the transmission of human life. Yet as we know, all contraceptives have their "failure rates," due both to the methods, none of which is foolproof, and to their users.

It seems to me that a proper respect for the good of human life itself would require that no one freely choose to have sexual relations unless one is willing to be a mother or father,18 to care for the life that can be begotten and to care, too, for the person with whom one chooses to engage in the act that is life-giving. One can ask oneself, do I regard the life that this act can bring into being as a human being that ought to be wanted or not? If one is not disposed to accept this human being and to contribute to its bene esse as well as its esse, then one ought not to choose to engage in this act. To do so is to be heedless of and disrespectful to the life that can be begotten.

It also seems to me that a proper respect for the irreplaceable value of human persons requires that one not choose to have sexual relations with a person whom one has not already made, by virtue of the choice that constitutes marriage, irreplaceable in one's own life. The person with whom one chooses to have sexual relations is, as a person, a being that ought to be wanted and never unwanted. In and through sexual relations one comes to "know" this other in a unique and unforgettable way, and one reveals oneself to this other in a unique and unforgettable way. Our "private parts" are not called such for nothing. As Dietrich von Hildebrand once said, "sex occupies a central position in the personality. It represents a factor in human nature, which essentially seeks to play a decisive part in man's life. Sex can indeed keep silence, but when it speaks it is no mere obiter dictum, but a voice from the depths, the utterance of something central and of utmost significance. In and with sex, man, in a special sense, gives himself."19

From this it should be evident why the specific teaching of the Church on the morality of sexual coition is a teaching that is rooted in a profound grasp of the goodness of human persons and of the human goods of life itself and friendship. If one freely chooses inwardly to shape his/her choices and actions in accordance with the truth that no human being ought ever to be unwanted, one will choose to engage in sexual relations only with that person who is irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable and with whom one is willing and able to welcome new life and give to it the home where it can take root and grow.


1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1-2, 108, 4: "Christus maxime eEndst sapiens et amicus."

2 Cf. Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n. 11: "sexuality . . . is by no means merely biological but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such."

3 Here I have expressed in religious language and in the light of divine revelation the priceless dignity and sanctity of human life. Yet even from the perspective of philosophical inquiry one can come to know that human beings are radically different in kind from other kinds of material creatures and that they possess a dignity that surpasses the whole of the material universe. On this see, for instance, Mortimer Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (New York: Meridian, 1968).

4 Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Love and Responsibility (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981), p. 41.

5 John M. Finnis, "The Natural Law, Objective Morality, and Vatican II," in Principles of Catholic Moral Life, ed. William E. May (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), p. 119. Finnis's entire essay (pp. 113-149) is most important for understanding the normative ethical position set forth in the Documents of the Second Vatican Council.

6 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1-2, 94, 2.

7 Love and Responsibility, p. 27; emphasis added.

8 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1-2, 94, 2.

9 Germain G. Grisez has set forth his developments of St. Thomas's natural law theory in many works. See in particular his Contraception and the Natural Law (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1964), in particular ch. 2; Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus, 1970), chapter 6; "Toward a Consistent Natural Law Ethics of Killing," American Journal of Jurisprudence 15 (1970) 64-96; (with Russell Shaw), Beyond the New Morality (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, second edition).

10 John M. Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), chapters 3 and 4.

11 This way of formulating the basic normative principle is adumbrated in some of Grisez's earlier works (see note 9) and in the way provided here is most thoroughly presented in a new work that is in progress, A Summary of Christian Moral Theology. Vol. I, Christian Moral Principles.

12 On the requirements of "practical reasonableness" or "modes of responsibility" see Grisez, Contraception and the Natural Law, chapter 4, Abortion…, pp. 318-319; Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, chapter 5.

13 On this see Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, in particular nn. 13 and 14; Persona Humana (Vatican Declaration on Certain Questions of Sexual Ethics, December 29, 1975), the section on premarital sex; Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n. II.

14 Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n. II.

15 John M. Finnis, "Natural Law and Unnatural Acts," Heythrop Journal II (1970), 383.

16 On this see Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, pp. 73-84.

17 On this it is important to read what Wojtyla has to say on the subject of sentiment and love in Love and Responsibility, pp. 109-114.

18 Cf. Ibid., pp. 224-237; see also Familiaris Consortio, nn. 11, 28-32.

19 Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935), pp. 12-14 (reprinted by Franciscan Herald Press, 1968).

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