Marriage and Procreation

This post continues the response to the question, what has changed regarding christians' and the Church's view of marriage and marital relations, a question raised in a comment on the post Married Saints and Continence.

Traditional View (Systematized by St. Augustine)

St. Augustine understands sexual intercourse to be so ordered to children, the "one honorable fruit" of intercourse, that even a spouse who desires sexual intercourse more than necessary for procreation, unless they do so for the sake of their spouse and their relationship with their spouse who desires such intercourse, is guilty of a venial sin, inasmuch as they are unduly attached to the pleasure of sexual intercourse or something similar, as manifested by their use of sex apart from the end for which it is given.

This continence is more meritorious; it is no sin to render the marital debt, while to demand it beyond what is necessary for begetting children is a venial sin." (St. Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, n. 6)

These goods that are necessary for the sake of something else, if someone uses them for some other purpose than that for which they were instituted, he sins, in some cases venially, in other cases mortally (ibid, n. 9).

St. Thomas basically takes the same position, though he notes that one spouse ought to have marital intercourse not only when the other spouse explicitly expresses a desire for it, but implicitly shows that he or she wants it. (In IV Sent., dist. 32, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 1) Moreover, he says that intercourse which happens to be sterile (as opposed to intercourse intentionally sterile) is not a sin, and this includes not only cases where the spouses do not know that the intercourse is sterile, but also the cases where they know it (Summa Contra Gentiles 3, 122). This may possibly show that the procreative intention for St. Thomas need only be a fundamental and habitual intention, not an actual intention in the sense of actually expecting, with at least some small probability, a child from the particular act of intercourse. (It is not certain, as it is also possible that when he describes this act as not a sin, he means that one can consent to the act [as when one's spouse desires intercourse]).

Changes definitively made through recent Church teaching

The position systematized by St. Augustine can be, with variations, roughly described as the majority view in the West until some time after St. Alphonsus Liguori. Nonetheless it was not a universal position.

In magisterial documents in the 20th century, the Catholic Church has, in an authoritative way, somewhat qualified the manner in which the principal end of the marital act has to be in the intention of the spouses. The marital act must remain intrinsically directed towards procreation, and this intrinsic order of the act to procreation must be respected by those who choose to engage in martial intercourse, but the marital act need not lead concretely lead (even in terms of probability) to the procreation of children. Having marital intercourse for the sake of the relationship between the spouses can be morally good, even if children are impossible, and neither of the spouses expects or intends to have children through that act of marital intercourse.

Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. (Humanae Vitae, n. 11)

If there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained…. When the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love. (Ibid., n. 16)

Common Change of Viewpoint

The common view, in contrast to the position of the Church, is now that sexual or marital intercourse, or at least individual acts, need not be ordered in any significant way to procreation. This is the complete opposite of the traditional position systematized by St. Augustine. This view has a number of consequences. One of these is that it leads quite naturally to the abandonment of any general moral objection to homosexual unions, even if it still allows for various sound political and religious reasons to not recognize them as marriages.

39 thoughts on “Marriage and Procreation”

  1. Do you know when the rigorist Augustinian view was finally replaced? Obviously, Pope John Paul II wasn't introducing any *new* teaching, nor was Vatican II. One can more or less see the current doctrinal view in existence in the early 20th century.

    When did theologians begin to change, and can we be doctrinally certain that the Augustinian view is, in fact wrong? It seems so, as such a view directly contradicts magisterial and papal teaching at the highest level.

    Where are the significant theologians in the tradition who do not reflect Augustine?

    So, in effect, it was believed for a long time that married couples who routinely had sexual relations were, in fact, sinning by doing so. This would explain the disgusting positions of Saints like Bernardine of Sienna and Bridget of Sweden on such issues. Granted, these people were a thousand times holier than I, but I literally shudder when I read their views on marriage.

    1. Not to mention that such a view contradicts Scripture, as well as common sense and experience (that obviously a man's sexual desire for the wife he loves is in no way sinful).

      What bothers me is that it seems that throughout history, the Church has subscribed to almost the most rigorous view possible. It seems only one Church Father (Chrysostom) believed differently.How is it then that the Church has arrived where it is on this, and is there any likelihood of returning to the rigorism of the past?

      And by the way such a high estimation of marriage and marital relations actually makes virginity even more powerful, since a virgin / celibate sacrifices a great good.

    2. "In effect, it was believed for a long time that married couples who routinely had sexual relations were, in fact, sinning by doing so."

      That doesn't exactly follow. Perhaps I should have said more about the phrase "necessary for procreation" as understood by St. Augustine. When he says that sexual intercourse between spouses ideally should not exceed that necessary for procreation, he basically means the same thing as when he says that they should have intercourse for the sake of having children, and that having intercourse without this end is a venial sin.

      Augustine did not understand having intercourse on a given day insofar as it is "necessary for procreation" in the sense that only by having intercourse precisely on that day can they have children, but in the sense that (1) in the natural course of things intercourse is necessary in order to have children, and (2) (potentially) having children from this intercourse is the principal purpose why the spouses are having it.

      Since full clarity regarding the infertile periods of women was not available at that time, the only periods in which St. Augustine would generally assert venial fault in continuing sexual relations are while the woman is pregnant and after she is clearly seen to be infertile.

      The same is true throughout the tradition. It was never widely believed that it was sinful to have intercourse regularly, as long as they do so principally out of the right desire to have children.

      1. Incorrect. Augustine himself while a fornicator used what that period regarded as the monthly cycle system which the Manichaeans like himself used to avoid all children since they believed that when you procreated, you imprisoned the divine light in flesh. His comments on the natural method are found in a letter of his to a Manichaean leader and may have been a strong factor in certain clergy resisting the natural methods…e.g. the local Council of Malines that warned that if the natural methods failed, the couple would be tempted to abort. Arthur Vermeesch as the natural methods improved became negative and saw them as a lesser evil for onanists. The Popes had to move strongly against such currents that were rooted in Augustine.
        Aquinas parroted Augustine on the venial sin nature of asking for the marriage debt without willing children ….neither man had a problem with the other spouse agreeing to rendering the debt free od even venial sin. Here is Aquinas actually parroting Augustine:

        Aquinas. Summa T.  Supplement question 49 art.5  Reply to Objection 2. 
            “If a man intends by the marriage act to prevent fornication in his wife, it is no sin, because this is a kind of payment of the debt that comes under the good of “faith.” But if he intends to avoid fornication in himself, then there is a certain superfluity, and accordingly there is a venial sin, nor was the sacrament instituted for that purpose, except by indulgence, which regards venial sins.”

        Aquinas. Supplement question 49, art.6, on the contrary…
        “If, however, he seek pleasure within the bounds of marriage, so that it would not be sought in another than his wife, it is a venial sin.”

        Supplement…question 49 art 5 “I answer that”: 
          “Consequently there are only two ways in which married persons can come together without any sin at all, namely in order to have offspring, and in order to pay the debt, otherwise it is always at least a venial sin.”

        Those periods and men had almost no interest in the unitive aspect of sex because they focused on the urge as concupiscence…..a concupiscence that received it's justification in procreation. Unitive can be found with a microscope in some saints of that time…strangely enough….a Carthusian whose name escapes me.

        1. I quite deliberately said "full clarity regarding the infertile periods of women" was not available, as a certain degree of knowledge was possessed.

          Scholars generally regard it as a guess that Augustine himself used some method to avoid conception. It may be a good guess that he used some method, and more specifically the rhythm method (though some think that coitus interruptus was actually the preferred method of the Manichaeans), but if you assert it as a fact, please provide textual proof of it.

          I don't exactly which text you are thinking of, since you didn't give an exact reference. In his writing On the Morals of the Manichaeans, he points out: "Is it not you who hold that begetting children, by which souls are confined in flesh, is a greater sin than cohabitation? Is it not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul should be entangled in flesh?" (Ch. 18, n. 65) This presupposes a certain knowledge of the fertility cycle of woman. It does not, however, imply a conviction that there are certain days when conception is simply impossible, so that it would be impossible to have intercourse on those days with the hope of having offspring.

          If a married couple wanted a child as soon as possible, I am aware of no texts from St. Augustine implying that it would be wrong for them to have marital intercourse every day until the woman becomes pregnant on the grounds that on some of those days there is no chance of conception at all.

          1. A guess?  He fornicated with one woman for ten years and had only one child….and it's a guess that he used the cycles when he was in fact a manichaean heretic…not a Father yet….a manichaean heretic who believed in contraception.  So your scholars dream that he was always open to life as a manichaean heretic while believing as a manichaean that to produce a child was to ensnare the divine light….but he took no precautions because he was a furtive Catholic while a manichaean.  This is just more of what Leo XIII warned against in Catholic coverup bs-ing:  " The historian of the Church has the duty to dissimulate none of the trials that the Church has had to suffer from the faults of her children, and even at times from those of her own ministers"…Letter of 8 September, 1889, to Cardinals De Luca, Pitra, and Hergenröther on the study of Church History.
               We don't have " full clarity" now with NFP for some couples which means in China, an observant Catholic couple have constant anxiety that a second child will be forcibly aborted by the government as happened in October…..if they have a third child in some provinces, that will be killed….if they have a 4th child,5th,6th,7th…they will be killed.  Let's hope the Church is telling them this before they convert….not after.
                That Augustine passage is the passage I was referring to.  I called it a letter because I remember him addressing "Is it not you" from the passage.  We do not have full clarity right now with NFP for many women and from the first explicit permission to use the infertile periods from the Vatican in the 19th century until the 1960's, we had even less clarity under the rhythm method whose failures led the theologian Bernard Haring away from being the constant spokesman for the Vatican position when he encountered a woman having a nervous breakdown after a 7th ( I believe) birth.  So much so that polled members of the Family Life Movement at the time of the birth control commission who used rhythm and who averaged 4.9 children per couple were among those who expressed the desire for change in this area from the Church.  Let's look at a bigger version of the passage:

                 "Is it not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul should be entangled in flesh? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage, and makes the woman not a wife, but a mistress, who for some gifts presented to her is joined to the man to gratify his passion. Where there is a wife there must be marriage. But there is no marriage where motherhood is not in view; therefore neither is there a wife. In this way you forbid marriage. Nor can you defend yourselves successfully from this charge, long ago brought against you prophetically by the Holy Spirit."

                 Let's look at this phrase:  " There is no marriage where motherhood is not in view"….. does the Church accept that?  No.  If a diagnosed infertile man of 35 years old loses to death his 34 year old wife, the Church allows him to marry again.  Obviously Mary and Joseph were marrying with no motherhood in view.  As do the elderly who have never had since biblical times post menopausal births as happened within the Bible to Abraham's Sarah and Samson's mother for the purpose of getting the Jews ready to accept the greater miracle of a virgin birth. When that purpose was accomplished….post menopausal births happened no more.

                 Here's the problem for honest theologians:  if the Church knew that since the early centuries including Augustine's time, there were natural cycles….how can it claim the hermeneutic of continuity in this area when it took them til the 19th century to explicitly encourage the still non clarified scientific version of those theories.

          2. (1) The circumstantial evidence you mention would never be considered proof in a court of law. As I said, it may be a good guess, but it is a guess.

            (2) Even this circumstantial evidence only suggest the use of some kind of contraception. You affirmed more than that, asserting as though it were a fact that Augustine used a specific method: "Augustine himself while a fornicator used what that period regarded as the monthly cycle system."

            (3) I quote from two works, one an edition of St. Augustine, the other a work on population, which is not a Catholic work and is obviously not inclined to be favorable towards Augustine. Both of them regard it as possible that Augustine employed contraception; neither regard it as a fact:
            "He may have had personal experience of techniques of contraception, since from fifteen years of his association with his first concubine (Conf. 4. 2. 2,6.15.25) he had only one surviving child; see B. Shaw, Past and Present 115 (1987), 45. He reveals acquaintance with the rhythm method (and rejects it) in De moribus ecclesiae catholicae et de moribus Manichaeorum 2. 18. 65 (AD 388). Coitus interruptus, favoured by the Manichees, is also condemned (Contra Faustum 22. 38, AD 397-8). Augustine, De bono coniugali, (De sancta uirginitate, edited and translated by P.G. Walsh, p. 11, emphasis added).

            The early fathers of the Church became increasingly conservative in their interpretation of human sexuality. Saint Augustine (died 430) had the same mistress for many years, with whom he had one child, and he may have practiced coitus interruptus. He taught that original sin had been passed down the generations in the semen, much like some precursor to the HIV virus, and therefore the unbaptized were condemned to eternal damnation. He argued that nocturnal erections were evidence of human sin because they were not under the control of the human will. Given such interpretations, Saint Augustine was led to conclude that the only justification for sexual intercourse was to perpetuate the human race. In his words, "that which is done for lust must be done in such a way that it is not for lust's sake" (Contra Julianum, 5, 9). Other western theologians constructed even more contrived restraints on human sexuality. By the later Middle Ages, intercourse was forbidden on Sundays, Fridays (the day when Christ died), feast days (which were numerous), and throughout the 40 days of Lent. In effect, intercourse was forbidden for approximately half the year. Women were told that if they had a congenitally abnormal baby it was because they had sex during menstruation or during some forbidden time. ("Birth Control, History Of", in Encyclopedia of Population, Macmillan Reference, 2003. Emphasis added; I quote at length to show that the editors are not trying in the least to cover for Augustine, but are aiming for objectivity, and not asserting something as a fact which is merely probable.)

            There are two scholarly works that affirm it to be possible that Augustine used contraception himself. Your turn. Cite a single scholarly work by any author, Catholic or not, that affirms it be to not merely probable, but a fact that Augustine himself contraception.

            I do not have an agenda for or against Augustine, but try to give an objective and balanced account of the facts.

          3. I don't need an author. I have Augustine's words: " Is it not you who used to counsel US to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely…etc.". Add that to his low procreation rate that covers even more years than I thought and how could you think he ignored his superior's advice. I don't rule out that he may have used several techniques but the one he mentions at all as having once been advised to him is the cycles. He doesn't mention any other method during an adversary context where it would be opportune to mention the worst advice in retrospect.

          4. Father, bless. Forgive me, but every Church Father I know of that addressed the subject agreed. For example…

            ‘To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature,’ and ‘For as the husbandman throwing the seed into the ground awaits the harvest, not sowing more upon it, so to us the procreation of children is the measure of our indulgence in appetite,’ and ‘[T]he law intended husbands to cohabit with their wives with self-control and only for the purpose of begetting children…[Y]ou could not point to any place in Scripture where one of the ancients approached a pregnant woman.…[I]ncontinence and fornication are diabolical passions, but the agreement of a controlled marriage occupies a middle position. If the married couple agree to be continent, it helps them to pray; if they agree with reverence to have sexual relations it leads them to beget children.’ —St. Clement of Alexandria

            ‘God gave us eyes not to see and desire pleasure, but to see acts to be performed for the needs of life; so too, the genital [i.e. ‘generating’] part of the body, as the name itself teaches, has been received by us for no other purpose than the generation of offspring.’ —Lactantius

            ‘But let those also be of good cheer, who being married use marriage lawfully; who make a marriage according to God’s ordinance, and not of wantonness for the sake of unbounded license; who recognise seasons of abstinence, that they may give themselves unto prayer; who in our assemblies bring clean bodies as well as clean garments into the Church; who have entered upon matrimony for the procreation of children, but not for indulgence.’ —St. Cyril of Jerusalem

            ‘Husbands and wives are to be admonished to remember that they are joined together for the sake of producing offspring; and, when, giving themselves to immoderate intercourse, they transfer the occasion of procreation to the service of pleasure, to consider that, though they go not outside wedlock yet in wedlock itself they exceed the just dues of wedlock.…But, since there are many who relinquish indeed the sins of the flesh, and yet, when placed in the state of wedlock, do not observe solely the claims of due intercourse, Lot went indeed out of Sodom, but yet did not at once reach the mountain heights; because a damnable life is already relinquished, but still the loftiness of conjugal continence is not thoroughly attained. But there is midway the city of Zoar, to save the weak fugitive; because, to wit, when the married have intercourse with each other even incontinently, they still avoid lapse into sin, and are still saved through mercy. For they find as it were a little city, wherein to be protected from the fire; since this married life is not indeed marvellous for virtue, but yet is secure from punishment.’ —St. Gregory the Great

            I came to Catholic communion from an Orthodox church. If you read the article on line ‘On Sexual Relations’, by Fr Josiah Trenham, you can see the details. It is the same as the Church Fathers taught, same as the priest at the Orthodox church taught and everyone I knew there believed and I still believe. You said, ‘By the later Middle Ages, intercourse was forbidden on Sundays, Fridays (the day when Christ died), feast days (which were numerous), and throughout the 40 days of Lent. In effect, intercourse was forbidden for approximately half the year.’ Well, this is much like how it still is. Not forbidden on any feast days or other non-fasting days, but… Practically every Wednesday and Friday is a fast day, Lent starts on Monday for us, with no Sundays off, and Holy Week is counted separately. From Pentecost to Sts Peter and Paul, 6 weeks before Christmas, and St John the Baptist, are more fasts. Absolute fast (i.e. no water) from midnight (Saturday night) until Eucharist. But no fasting Christmas Eve to Epiphany and no fasting Easter Week. In effect, intercourse is still forbidden for approximately half the year.

            One Roman Catholic priest tried to catechize me and my husband into Roman Catholics—I was totally confused and it was impossible—and tried to explain ‘Natural Family Planning’. (Even I, terrible at Latin, know ‘natura’ means ‘birth’! And ‘family planning’ is a term Margaret Sanger or the like came up with, and the aim of such ‘family planners’ is really no family. Fewer babies is fewer people in the Church.) But then another told us, ‘You’re already Byzantines. You already have the Catholic Faith.’ So I didn’t have to be catechized or turned into Roman. Was kept Byzantine Catholic, with all the same beliefs and practices. Was put in the Russian Catholic Church.

            Before becoming Christian (I was brought up agnostic, but actually am descended from Byzantine Catholics anyway), I didn’t know contraception was wrong, so I’m sad to have to admit to having used it. And we had had 1 baby. But then I became a Christian, figured out it was wrong, stopped, but then we were told we couldn’t have any more children. We had taken fertility for granted. But if we had been doing ‘NFP’, with its 99% success-rate (which is higher), we STILL would have had only 1 baby, but it would have been supposedly not sinful. Even with the same purpose: sex but no more babies, & same result: pleasure but no more babies. We repented, no more contraception, and prayed for FIVE years for another baby. Finally a miracle. Now we might be too old for a 3rd baby. But I know now we were supposed to have more. Our 2 girls were meant to have more siblings (they do have a half-brother), and selfishness prevented it. But ‘NFP’ could have left us with no children. A couple could do it, then end up infertile like we almost did, and throw away their only chance to have any children.

  2. "It was never widely believed that it was sinful to have intercourse regularly, as long as they do so ***principally out of the right desire to have children.***"

    In other words, it was sinful for spouses to have relations regularly. A husband and wife who love one another will be more naturally drawn by the fact that they love and desire on another than thinking "oh, it's time to have another child, let's go get this done". If it really were the case that the principle INTENTION had to be procreation, then it would be better to marry someone unattractive and to sleep in separate rooms.

    What concerns me (and again, this is because of a scrupulous fearfulness) is that it seems to me that the vast majority of Catholics who ever lived were under this set of morals. No, perhaps it was "just" a venial sin to have sex with one's spouse when procreation was not possible, but what pious Christian in their right mind would not be struggling to avoid ALL sin? Under such a system, this effectively means that total abstinence was *required* of spouses who could not bear children, since that would have been the only moral course.

    So how do we go from centuries of "you sin any time your specific intention for engaging in intercourse is not procreation, and you have a positive obligation to strive for total continence" to what the Church actually teaches: "as long as the marital act is intrinsically open to life, and as long as the spouses truly love one another, then there is no sin whatsoever in their desire to engage in intercourse, and they need not worry over the exact reasons why they are doing it" – the Church's current view acknowledges that most married people are not thinking "hmm, I desire to engage in this act for the sake of offspring or for the sake of rendering the debt", but are simply drawn to their spouse in that way, which is not sinful provided none of the ends of marriage and intercourse are deliberately excluded.

    How can the moral teachings of the Church be SO different from one age to another? Was the Augustinian view really so prevalent everywhere? Is it not a comeplete about-face to say that postmenopausal and pregnant couples commit sins of lust when they engage in intercourse (Bernardine of Siena thought mortally), to saying that such couples, if they observe the moral law, are actually performing virtuous acts?

    1. Do some people in today's public forum now want us to look back on our years (37 in my case, before my husband died six years ago) of marriage as constantly fraught with sin either mortal or venial and we never knew it? And this, despite the fact that we prayed and laboured daily to do God's holy Will and bring up our children in the fear and love of God? I, for my part, as the Catholic, listening to and studying the teachings of Holy Mother Church? My husband, for his part, living with fidelity what he was told was Catholic practice in marriage, then asking for Baptism three weeks before his death? What about the words of Sacred Scripture "…a man shall…cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh"? (Genesis 2:24) This sounds like husband and wife are meant to love each other in all fullness and chastity and fidelity. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself developed this even further when he said "Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh." (St Matthew 19:6) This does not sound like He thinks they should go and sleep in separate rooms or agonise over when to join together in love! I am now asking Our Lady, the most pure Virgin, and my incomparable Mother, to save me from retrospective scrupulosity that would perhaps ruin my peace in Christ and lead me to despair. I have a great love and respect for the Fathers and for the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas in particular. But I'm sure the Church has too, and, after all, Our Lord has divinely appointed the Apostles, the Magisterium, to teach his flock, promising "He that heareth you, heareth me…" (St Luke 10:16) He also told us, "Fear not, little flock, for it hath pleased your Father to give you a kingdom." (St Luke 12:32)

  3. More importantly, how do we know that what the Church now teaches, and what the orthodox moral theologians teach (Fr. John C. Ford, Fr. John Hardon, Fr. George Kelly, William May, Germain Grisez, etc.) teach is true, and that what the Saints taught for several centuries is false and even spiritually dangerous? Make no mistake: if what the papal documents and the orthodox theologians say is true, then it follows that the teachings of Jerome or Augustine on such matters would be harmful to marriage, since they would cause tremendous guilt to spouses who are in fact, not sinning.

    Most authors, like St. Paul, would encourage spouses to continue to engage in marital relations for the sake of their marriage, except in cases of very special virtue granted to certain people. Here's the 1910 Catholic encyclopedia on this issue:

    "The parties to the marriage fully consent to transfer to each other the conjugal rights, but, by agreement or vow, oblige themselves to abstain from the actual use of those right … Such a condition, though possible, is not frequent nor even permissible except in cases of rare virtue."

    So, when did things change? When did the Church do this about-face? Because the idea that the Church has always taught the goodness of marital relations between spouses similar to the way they do now is simply not true. I am not trying to be insulting, I am just completely distraught and ridden with guilt and fear. How could so many saints be so wrong for so long?

    1. Augustine was wrong and he was not only a fornicator for ten years but he was an oversexed one at that. Jerome also sinned that way but it seems to have been brief. Tellingly when both men arrived at the Onan story, Augustine saw sex as the sin and Jerome saw the levirate obligation as Onan's sin. With the modern translation, it seems that both men could have been wrong. Onan did this repeatedly not the one time that some old translations appeared to give. The deeper aspect of Onan was that Christ Was supposed to come from the house of Judah which at that time in history was only 4 men…Judah and his 3 sons..Er Onan and Shelah. Tamar could not produce the ancestor of Christ unless one of those 4 men impregnated her. God then had to kill the sons in order….Er…Onan….in order for Tamar to have the right to move to the next son…..but Shelah cowered after Er and Onan died perhaps thinking a demon had killed them as in the book of Tobias and the demon Asmodeus who kills the husbands of young Sarah. Anyway Tamar poses as a whore and Judah himself sins with her and the descendant of Christ is produced through two sexual sins but God kills neither person….because He was not killing for sexual sins…but for the sacrilege of risking that Christ not come from the predestined house. Had Onan used NFP to avoid all children, God would still have killed him so that Tamar could next move to Shelah.
      Bottom line….Augustine's sexual past made him wrong on this passage….wrong on it being venial sin to ask for the debt without willing children….and wrong on the immaculate conception wherein he held that since Mary's parents enjoyed the sex that lead to Mary's birth, therefore she contracted original sin but was cleansed of it prior to birth. The Popes in effect kept only one of those three things from Augustine…..Pius XI kept the Onan interpretation in Casti Conubii, 1930.
      The Church rejected his IC error in mid 19th century and rejected his venial sin in asking for the debt when they accepted the natural methods. Don't put him and Aquinas above the Popes. See my piece way above, Aquinas parroted Augustine on sexual matters because Aquinas was a virgin and deferred to Augustine in this area…and thus was wrong whenever Augustine was wrong.

  4. Mr. Bolin, responding to what bill bannon said, would it be fair to assume that for the vast majority of Church history, if spouses came together in the marital embrace simply because they loved one another, yet neither positively willed nor acted against procreation, then this was considered at least venially sinful, if not mortally so?

    Whereas today most orthodox theologians / commentators would say that spouse do not sin at all by engaging in the marital embrace unless they render it unfruitful or intend to merely use the other as a means to pleasure. There is no real moral difference as to whether or not their bodies can, in fact, conceive. Nor must procreation be on their minds at all (since the focus of the act is loving the other spouse).

    This means one of two things:
    A) That the vast majority of married Catholics in the history of the Church were not sinning, even though it was taught that they were, and that "I engaged in intercourse with my own wife to celebrate our anniversary" would have been accepted as a sin in the confessional.
    B) The vast majority of Catholics today are sinning, when in fact it is taught that they are not.

    Both are sad. A would mean that any pious couple would have seen their mutual attraction as an enemy to be beaten. Today they are told it is a gift from God and should in fact be cultivated. How can the Church and people's faith be so radically different from age to age?

    1. "Would it be fair to assume that for the vast majority of Church history, if spouses came together in the marital embrace simply because they loved one another, yet neither positively willed nor acted against procreation, then this was considered at least venially sinful, if not mortally so?"

      No, for reasons already explained. Given that they married with some general idea of having a family, even according to the teaching of St. Augustine, they would not sin unless they positively excluded procreation, or unless they knew that this particular act could not result in a child.

      Regardless of the implications of St. Augustine's position, and without questioning the questionable assumption that his position was universal, there is a third possibility: the vast majority of married Catholics in the history of the Church put St. Augustine's position into practice.

      Now, in fact, I doubt that this is true of majority of married Catholics in the history of the Church. But it may well have been true of the majority of married Catholics in his time, and this is actually suggested by his text (i.e he does not appear to think that such sins are extremely common.)

      1. Some of St. Augustine's other writings do give the impression that average married couples in his parish were "sinning venially" quite often in this way. He has one sermon talking about venial sin in which he mentions daily sins that are forgiven easily since they come from our weak nature. Included are eating a bit too much, laughing too hard, getting distracted in prayer, and having intercourse more than was necessary to procreate. He didn't consider it a terrible sin, and he seemed aware that a lot of his parishioners often fell into this "sin".

        And perhaps many married Christians in his time did live like that. But if one were constantly told by teachers and confessors that having sex more than is absolutely necessary for procreation is a sin, even a minor one, that means it's something you should struggle against doing, something a religious person would want to avoid. As far as I can tell, since at least the 19th century, couples have been encouraged to foster marital relations for the sake of the marriage. Couples who forego those relations are exceptional, and usually only do so under careful spiritual direction. The idea that married couples should, as a general rule, refrain at all times procreation is not possible seems to belong to the distant past. It certainly does not belong to scriptural or magisterial teaching.

        1. One remark. It would be foolish to try to avoid a venial sin, something that is only a sin in an extended sense, involving a too great attachment to created goods, by a method that involves grave risk of mortal sin, something that separates us from God.

          In particular–and I'm sure St. Augustine would agree fully with this–one should not try to avoid the venial sin of excessive attachment to marital intercourse by a method (giving up all marital sexual intercourse quickly, without much reflection, and without spiritual guidance) that risks seriously damaging the marital relationship (this is, after all, part of the reason why such continence can lead to adultery) and risks mortal sin for oneself or one's spouse.

          1. Aquinas says that venial sins lead to mortal and he cites the Old Testament passage…" He that contemneth little things will fall little by little."

            Ist pt of the 2 nd part, Question 88

            " On the contrary, It is written (Sirach 19:1): "He that contemneth small things shall fall by little and little." Now he that sins venially seems to contemn small things. Therefore by little and little he is disposed to fall away together into mortal sin."

            Your hermeneutic of continuity is going to continually get you in these jams.

      2. Fr. Thomas, when you say that "according to the teaching of St. Augustine, they would not sin unless they positively excluded procreation, or unless they knew that this particular act could not result in a child", this is true speaking about the act objectively; however, in many cases the spouses or one of them would be excessively intending pleasure, and thus be guilty of venial fault–just as I may be quite aware of being excessively attached to the pleasure of food without necessarily eating more food than contributes to my health.

        Regarding venial sin in marriage, even before considering the case in particular, it would be very strange to expect that many spouses would be exempt of venial sin in their marital relations, since few (or no) people are exempt of venial sin in any area of their lives. Concretely, St. Augustine says, in the context of praising the fathers for their chastity, says "many today observe lifelong abstinence from all sexual intercourse more readily than restrict themselves to sexual intercourse solely for begetting children, should they be joined in marriage. Indeed, we have many brethren and associates of both sexes sharing our inheritance of heaven who observe continence…. Yet in friendly conversation with people now or previously married, have we heard any one of them telling us that they have never had intercourse with their partner except in the hope of conceiving a child? So what the apostles… allow as pardonable, or what hinders their prayers, is not enforced but tolerated by the married state." (On the Good of Marriage, n. 15, Oxford Translation, 2001).

        1. Mr. Bolin, I hope I do not sound like an idiot, but just to be sure, you are not necessarily agreeing with St. Augustine here that sin is always involved in marital intercourse (aside from normal human sinfulness that taints everything we do), are you? Augustine seemed to think that the choice to engage in intercourse was per se sinful if not chosen with procreative intent, whereas more recent theologians would say there may be some venial sin in how it is done (too much focus on self or on pleasure). Does that make sense?

          Also, it seems that he and several other saints saw marriage as only fit for the woefully incontinent. That is, someone who was not struggling with sins of impurity should not get married. But as we know, there are people who go years and years waiting for marriage and yet remain chaste. One sometimes gets the impression that continence and virginity were so exalted that marriage was seen as a holding pen for people with moral problems. Obviously, the church does not teach this.

          Seeing marriage that way actually makes virginity seem less than special because if it were really so, then the virgin is avoiding evil rather than giving up good. Would you agree?

          1. I was principally talking about St. Augustine's view, and giving a reason why it would be a priori improbable that Augustine saw the majority of marriages as free of venial sin in the area of marital relations, since he in general saw no area of life to be free of venial sin.

            However, I did not explicitly mention St. Augustine in the second paragraph because the statement is true in some way even apart from St. Augustine's views: given that "in many things we all sin" (James 3:2), that all areas of human life are infected with the "normal human sinfulness" you mention above, there is no reason to think that marital relations will be an exception to that.

            That does not mean that St. Augustine's analysis and description of where that venial sin lies is correct. Inasmuch as he seems to require both a positive procreative intent, and that there either be a real possibility of having children, or, if it is impossible, that this impossibility not be unknown, his analysis and description is incorrect.

          2. "Seeing marriage that way [as only fit for the woefully incontinent] actually makes virginity seem less than special because if it were really so, then the virgin is avoiding evil rather than giving up good."

            I don't precisely agree with this. I grant that if, and to the degree that overall we get a somewhat negative impression of marriage from Augustine or others, this hinders us from a true appreciation of virginity.

            St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, however, both acknowledge marriage as good, and John Chrysostom in particular clearly sees marriage as actually offering a path to holiness. Considering marriage just in itself, marriage could be chosen for the sake of the good it offers, and as a path to holiness. But when they compare the two choices–choosing marriage, or choosing virginity–and ask, under what circumstances is the choice of the lesser good (marriage) rather than the better good (virginity), a reasonable choice, their answer is: when, due to weakness, a person is incapable of living continently (or perhaps when living continently nonetheless will not give the interior peace and space for contemplation due to conflicting inner desires), the choice of marriage, which the person will rightly live, is better than the choice of virginity, which the person will not rightly live.

            Thus, they really do see marriage as a good, not merely as a tolerable evil. But they also see virginity as a better good. Thus, they see virginity as something to be chosen–the lesser good to be given up for the greater good–whenever possible, and the lesser good to be chosen only when the greater good is not possible.

            Basically, granting that virginity or the celibate state dedicated to God is better than the married state, this analysis must in some way be right. The main question for us to ask in regard to the patristic view is: is the "greater good" of virginity in comparison with marriage really only then not possible when a person is incapable of living chastely outside of marriage? Or are there other circumstances that hinder the realization of the fullness of the good of the life of virginity, so that it is better to choose marriage, the good of which can be fully realized, than to seek the good of virginity and be unable to fully realize it? Is, for example, a strong and persistent interior desire to raise a family an obstacle to devoting oneself to the life of virginity and thereby fruitfully living such a life, even if one is capable of living chastely in the single state?

          3. Based on the general experience of a confessor (naturally without particulars) I can say that people "who go years and years waiting for marriage and yet remain chaste" may exist, but are not particularly common. Given that fact, I see nothing ridiculous about the position that all or nearly all such persons would do better by choosing the religious state.

            Nonetheless, it is not impossible that there could be other impediments to choosing the better state, apart from an inability to be continent.

          4. So, you're saying that the correct view of choosing a state would not just have to do with whether one is capable of continence, but whether one is capable of continence for the sake of the Kingdom, which is more than just abstinence from intercourse.

            So while a person may be able to avoid impurity outside of marriage, it doesn't mean that that person is able to overcome all desire for having a family, or for having the human companionship that marriage offers, or even for marital love, among other reasons. It might even simply be that they do not possess the courage necessary to take that step. If this is the case, that person's affect is not aligned with what true virginity / continence is (which is more than just absence of sex). So if a person, after much prayer, counsel, and deliberation simply decides that he does not want to enter religious life (can't do it with his whole heart), but would rather marry – that may truly be what God wants him to do.

            What strikes me as odd are the statements by some saints (you've posted some by St. Alphonsus) to the effect that even if one doesn't want to or cannot enter religious life, one still should not marry. THAT seems to be an under-appreciation for the sacrament, seeing it as something bad.

            Personal background: I am married, but that marriage only lasted a bit longer than a year before we separated partially due to my desire to live in accord with the Church's teachings, and we're going to have to start annulment proceedings soon. I pray every day for my marriage to be saved, and for my wife to come around, but I feel like that's not good enough for God. And if the marriage is annulled, I feel like I have no freedom at all to choose a state of life. I feel like unless I enter religious life, I'm slighting God and serving myself. I am in no condition to make a free choice, because I feel like the choice is rigged.

          5. Fr. Thomas, I would venture to say that it is probably true that most seminarians and most novice monks have struggles with impurity as well.

            But it's also true that the practice of chastity before marriage is essential to have a good marriage, is it not?

            The question really is whether marriage is a vocation or not. Some Saints have believed that all persons are called to religious life, yet only weaklings wouldn't accept it (St. Bernard thought 1 in 3!).

            I personally no longer struggle as much with unchastity as I did. Does that mean I do not have a choice?

          6. I get the impression that it is somehow sinful to marry when one could theoretically enter religious life. I'm assuming this is not the case, but it does sometimes seem like one is giving God a very crappy offering, like giving the $5 gift at a party when everyone else is giving $50.

            Or is it better to enter into marriage with the intent of making it the best it can be, rather than enter religious life with a heavy heart?

        2. Also, is Augustine's interpretation of Paul correct here? Does sexual relations actually per se "hinder one's prayers", or is it simply that the life of a virgin lends itself more to being attentive to God?

          It's interesting how in that passage he mentions those who choose the celibate state find it more easy to be totally continent than to have relations only for intercourse. That is, it's hard to "resist the temptation" to have sex with one's spouse. That makes sense – if it is so easy to sin in marriage, why even get married? Why enter into a situation that would have you sinning all the time?

          The obvious answer is that there is no sin in having relations with one's spouse simply out of love, that this should in fact positively happen. Didn't Aquinas speak of "mutually rendering the debt" as being totally without sin (in intent and act itself, though perhaps performance may be deficient)? Would it be fair to say that such a view is not far from the idea of engaging in the marital embrace out of love? Perfect continence is a special grace, not an obligation on all, and it is a supererogation – it wasn't intended for every marriage, or even most.

        3. I certainly agree that in fact, people will normally be excessively attached to the pleasure involved, and therefore venial sins of this kind will be frequent, just as venial sins with respect to food are frequent.

          But I was saying that according to the general practice at the time, the choice to have intercourse without the hope of having a child may have been relatively infrequent. Even in the passage quoted, St. Augustine indicates that most married people have done this at some time or other, but nothing indicates that he thinks that they are doing it all the time, as Mercury suggests.

          1. Fr., it seems obvious that Augustine is saying something like "come on, people, do you *really* think married people have intercourse only to conceive a child? Let's not kid ourselves". And in his view, sin was present in all such situations, so it would make sense never to marry and not have that "temptation" – choosing virginity to avoid an evil as opposed to embracing a good.

            And I think the case can be made from his other writings that most married people did not, in fact, have sex for the SOLE purpose of producing children. This article, for example (

            "For example, in sermon 9 (which may come from the later years of his life), Augustine spoke of "daily sins" that were virtually unavoidable because of human weakness. Among these "daily sins" Augustine listed things such as speaking an unkind word or indulging in excessive laughter. He also mentioned eating more food than was needed to sustain life and engaging in sex more than was necessary to produce children."

            Here he is describing the laity in his parish (Against the Two Letters of the Pelagians 3.5.14):

            "who indulge their sexual appetites, although within the decorous bonds of marriage, and not only for the sake of offspring, but, even, because they enjoy it. Who put up with injuries with less than complete patience … Who may even burn, at times, for revenge … Who hold to what they possess. Who give alms, but not very lavishly. Who do not take other people’s property, but defend their own: but do it in the bishop’s court, rather than before a worldly judge … But who, through all this, see themselves as small and God as glorious."

            And as far as venial sin in the marital act is concerned: how much pleasure is "allowed?" How does one know when the attachment to pleasure is inordinate, especially with something that is meant to be so pleasurable? Augustine's answer was *any* time the act was engaged without the primary intention of procreation, but that within the bounds of marriage, even this "evil" could be tolerated, though not commended.

            I do not doubt that selfishness can creep in, that one may tend to use one's spouse at times, and that's where venial sin lies – but should married couples start worrying about sin now when they find the act satisfying and enjoyable? Should they make sure all the lights are off? Should they finish as quickly as possible? Should they keep most of their clothes on? Should they do only what is necessary to "get the job done"? How does one keep from becoming ridiculous, like these suggestions are?

  5. It also seems like traditional moralists imagined situations where one spouse would say "let us procreate a child tonight" or "I desire that you render the debt to me, for I am nigh on fornicating" I think it's safe to say that for most married people, there is no asking at all – often they find themselves in an opportune situation free from distractions, or they both "know" where things will go. Under the old system that means a couple at home alone who start kissing and decide to have intercourse were sinning. Or that a spouse who initiates such affection in the hopes that it would end in the marital embrace was in fact sinning.

    Bottom line is that under that view it seems marriage was a bed of sin, temptation, and lust. It would have been detrimental on one's soul to marry someone you were passionately attracted to.

    1. Mercury
      The problem is that ordinary magisterium can err in morals and you have to be very well read to know where to find that truism of the Church. Ludwig Ott for decades was the source book for quick dogmatic answers for graduate students and priests. The Introduction to his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma is online. Go to section 8 and the last paragraph:

      "        With regard to the doctrinal teaching of the Church it must be well noted that not all the assertions of the Teaching Authority of the Church on questions of Faith and morals are infallible and consequently irrevocable. Only those are infallible which emanate from General Councils representing the whole episcopate, and the Papal Decisions Ex Cathedra (cf. D 1839). The ordinary and usual form of the Papal teaching activity is not infallible. Further, the decisions of the Roman Congregations (Holy Office, Bible Commission) are not infallible. Nevertheless normally they are to be accepted with an inner assent which is based on the high supernatural authority of the Holy See (assensus internus supernaturalis, assensus religiosus). The so-called "silentium obsequiosum." that is "reverent silence," does not generally suffice. By way of exception, the obligation of inner agreement may cease if a competent expert, after a renewed scientific investigation of all grounds, arrives at the positive conviction that the decision rests on an error."

      Read that and save it to your computer. You will hear priests and lay both contradict that on the internet and say the Church never errs on morals because of the Holy Spirit……yes…..but only when accessing infallibility or the inerrancy of Scripture which has most morals….not as to every papal belief. We just had two Popes in a row call the death penalty " cruel" and that is impossible since God gave it over 35 times within Scripture per Cardinal Dulles…(hat tip to him…lol…who wants to count them).
      But knowing it you will understand how a Pope Leo X could be incorrect in supporting burning heretics at the stake in Ex Surge Domine in 1520; how Pope Nicholas V could be incorrect giving Portugal the right to perpetually enslave in Romanus Pontifex 1454; how 29 Popes from Sixtus V til Leo XIII could proximately cooperate in the castrati system which fed the papal choirs with boys who had been castrated at 9 and 12 years old with hopes of singing in the papal churches which were many at one time (Leo ended it with one bull in 1878).
      Fathers, Saints, Popes, and laity have been wrong on various moral questions…..but not at the infallible level of the Magisterium….but many things are not at that level.

  6. It is fundamental to the Jewish Christian teaching to teach good marriage.
    It also seems fundamental to all of God's created living nature to emulate for sex, many more times than may actually be normally needed for offspring.
    To facilitate a good marriage requires genuine prayers, communication, as even sex itself.
    Some Jewish groups name a particular Demon for marriage problems to pray to God about.
    May Jesus facilitate God's blessings.

  7. It is maybe high time to apply the sign of time teaching. In a very poor country where a lot of children is not a good choice, maybe the church will consider family planning without sinning a venial fault. I mean that even a poor man will celebrate love with his wife without the intention of procreation will not be found guilty. He will be more guilty if he have more children but have no capability of giving them decent lives. I think, it is more practical to produce few but quality Christians than bands of unruly children because parents can not just send them to school. We need modifications from theologians that will translate scriptures in modern time.

    1. RonBurs, the Church already teaches what you say: reread the section "Changes definitively made through recent Church teaching".

      If you mean, however, not merely "celebrate love with his wife without the intention of procreation" but using artificial means to actively prevent procreation, that is another matter.

  8. As long as one have enough children as he could afford to give faith and quality life, I don't understand how using condom become such a grave sin?

    1. It’s taking pleasure while trying to avoid responsibility, and trying to reject a gift (i.e. a baby) from God. It’s abuse like sodomy and masturbation are. Spilling seed. People have the choice to be abstinent.

      Even so, condoms work only 87% of the time over the course of a year, or so say the CDC. But as time passes, there are even more pregnancies overall. To calculate a total failure-rate, you have to multiply the success-rate times itself for the number of years and subtract from 100%. After 2 years of condom-use, almost a quarter of the women have gotten pregnant. To calculate the failure-rate of 2 methods together you can’t add success-rates together, like the 87% success-rate of condoms plus the 83% success-rate of diaphragms, to get 170% success. (It would mean, absurdly, negative babies result.) You have to multiply the respective failure rates. In this case, the product is a failure-rate of 2.21%. Even sterilization has failure-rates (and it’s doubly a sin, because it destroys the healthy function of the body; also the hormonal methods, triply a sin, being carcinogenic and contragestive). The people using contraceptives don’t consider the possibility of failure. When it eventually fails, the people are still poor—actually even a little poorer, because they spent some of their money on contraception! And if they were given it from some ‘charitable’ social program, they could instead have been given actual charity which does not tend to fail, e.g. baby supplies for the mother and job training for the father for a higher income. (And it would help if governments got rid of their wage-controls. Fathers could be paid higher wages, others lower wages. It would be disadvantageous for mothers to work for wages, and a family could be supported on one income again.)

      And in industrialized, and to some degree, semi-industrialized countries, most of the poor aren’t so poor in an absolute sense. Like here in the U.S., nobody starves from famine, and the so-called asylum-seekers from Central America have been photographed walking toward our border in designer sportswear, and in defiance of the international law on asylum, have turned down Mexico’s offers of welfare. In past centuries people in general WERE poorer than they are now, and they generally didn’t have bands of unruly children. But today there are many very well-off unruly children.

  9. what happened to self control its all a question of how you relate is it sexually or do you appreciate and respect human beings for the whole person that they are,this takes intelligence sensitivity self discipline and independence of mind and the desire has to be for a person to reach their full potential in every way .Sex if for the procreation of children not a liscence to be sleazy

  10. Dear father Joseph,
    Thank you for this article and your responses.

    What stroke me was: "granting that virginity or the celibate state dedicated to God is better than the married state." Was that intended as a quote from the past that doesn't apply anymore, or am I missing any context?

    Contrary to that, and > 2349 says:
    "There are three forms of the virtue of chastity: the first is that of spouses, the second that of widows, and the third that of virgins. We do not praise any one of them to the exclusion of the others."

    Is there any current and higher authority on this than the quote from Catechism?

    1. I did not intend, with the phrase "granting that virginity or the celibate state dedicated to God is better than the married state" to call this teaching into question, but to underline the logic of the patristic position.

      While the language used may vary somewhat, and the language of "superiority" is often specified by reference to some specific respect, the Church has consistently upheld the same position.

      For example, Pope John Paul II writes in Vita consecrata, some years after than publication of the Catechism: "18… [Christ's] way of living in chastity, poverty and obedience appears as the most radical way of living the Gospel on this earth, a way which may be called divine, for it was embraced by him, God and man, as the expression of his relationship as the Only-Begotten Son with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. This is why Christian tradition has always spoken of the objective superiority of the consecrated life.

      32. As a way of showing forth the Church's holiness, it is to be recognized that the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ's own way of life, has an objective superiority…. The Church has always taught the pre-eminence of perfect chastity for the sake of the Kingdom,and rightly considers it the "door" of the whole consecrated life."

      Pope Francis in Amoris laetitia has suggested that one need not emphasis much or at all the objective superiority of virginity or celibacy, (See my comments here: ) but does not deny such a superiority.

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