Marital Sexual Ethics – An Analogy with Baking

Eamonn Clark, STL

Continuing on in articulating my developing thoughts in what increasingly seems to me to be a deeply neglected field, I would like to propose an analogy for understanding some of the basics about chastity within marriage.

There are some well-known Catholic authors, especially contemporary ones, who promote a sort of “anything goes as long as it ends the right way” approach, and they sometimes don’t even get that minimalist principle quite right. Instead, pulling from figures including the Salmanticenses and St. Alphonsus, let me offer the following example by which to understand some of the honest boundaries of the marital embrace.

The idea is to bake some bread with an oven and some dough. What is sure is that the oven should be pre-heated, which could take a while and may involve some adjustments. The dough might require some kneading as well, but probably not very much. Once the dough is ready, the kneading should stop, as it is now excessive and unproductive – and it is not really part of baking. The dough should certainly not be put in the sink or in the garbage, even if that might seem interesting and fun, as that would not really be baking, even if the plan is to put it in the oven later – just as it is really not baking in one’s own kitchen to use someone else’s oven for a few minutes with the plan to finish the bread in one’s own oven, so too it is not baking to put the dough in places not ordered toward making bread. Nor would keeping the oven at the right temperature without putting the dough in be baking; rather, it’s playing with the oven. And once the dough is baked, it is time to turn the oven off – to keep it running after the bread has been made is also not baking, it is also playing with the oven.

I hope this analogy can be especially useful for pastors and confessors in helping couples to understand appropriate and honest boundaries in the marriage bed. It is not easy to do so – but an image like this is probably one of the best ways. 99% of couples will get the message, at least. Certainly, the laxist doctrines ought to be condemned.

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Slope Slipped: the Normalization of Polyamory

Eamonn Clark, STL

People sometimes make the defensive claim that “what happens in my bedroom is none of your business.” In one sense that’s correct. However, it turns out that how the next generation comes into existence is of massive public interest, because that generation constitutes the make-up of the future society. Bracketing the question-begging argument that they will likely be taught bad marriage/sexual behavior, one wonders what the psychological effects are of certain innovations are. For example, IVF and surrogacy constitute a sort of commodification of children – as if a child is a product, something to buy. While this is not how most would explain their behavior or their lived experience of being such a child, it stands to reason that the desperation which drives one to such a procedure is not the well ordered procreative generosity and trust in God’s providence proper to marriage but rather a kind of spirit of self-determination which is bold enough to presume to rip human life out of God’s hands. How does such an attitude spill over into other facets of life, and of child-rearing? I leave that question aside today. My main focus is something which still, thankfully, is a taboo in Western society – polyamory.

The first time most people heard the word “throuple” was on HGTV a few years ago.

There you go. HGTV is not exactly deep in the world of on-demand cable. It is pretty mainstream. (Watch the video on YouTube, and scroll through the comments. It is enlightening.)

Some readers (as one commenter pointed out) might be asking themselves about certain polyamorous Biblical marriage arrangements, among the patriarchs and some of the kings. There are a few points to make about this.

1 – The arrangements frequently lead to trouble of some sort. Pick up your Bible!

2 – The point of the concession/dispensation, or rather restraint from the development to a more refined application of the natural law (on its social level), was to allow for the propagation of the human race and especially God’s own people, the Jews. There is no longer such a need, so the concession ends and the developed state of society requires the full development or application of natural law. (More can be said on how this works – but it suffices to leave it at this for now. You can read St. Thomas on the question here… but I have summarized it for you.)

3 – The arrangements are always one male with many women – NEVER anything else. This follows from point 2… women are less fertile than men. Just as well, the payment of the marriage debt could be significantly impeded by pregnancy, whereas a man can be ready at almost any time. Furthermore, we always know who the mother is in any arrangement (leaving aside IVF etc.), but it does not follow that we (easily) know who the father is. That creates problems for the inclination towards caring for one’s children, one of the fundamental precepts of the natural law.

Now, just today I have seen this short reaction clip, which inspired the present post:

The way the pair explains themselves so calmly and confidently, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, is, to me, bone-chilling. They happened to have social misfortune of being picked up by a major political and cultural commentator, but otherwise they would have almost certainly been faced with nothing but well-wishes and heart emojis.

There’s a whole lot of this stuff online, some videos getting hundreds of thousands of hits. In one playlist on a channel (“Truly”) with almost 10 million subscribers, there are over 100 videos wherein one can peruse the various forms of polyamory and other odd arrangements – including a poor woman who says she is in love with a chandelier. (I didn’t link to it, as the lead video features a woman who seems to fear wearing clothing that properly covers her.)

These ideas are now being offered to your children as they browse the internet. Do you know what your kids are up to online?

I wrote a post a while ago critiquing a certain cardinal on his poor argumentation against one of the other last remaining sexual taboos, incest. (I can think of only 6 real, visceral sexual taboos that remain in the Western world at large – in no particular order, they are: incest, polyamory, zoophilia, necrophilia, pedophilia, and rape.) If we don’t really know how to talk about marriage to our kids, our students, our friends, our congregations, then HGTV will inform them that they have nothing to fear from throwing one more person into the relationship. After all, more love is better than less love, right? Who could deny that!?

These days, since aristocracy and monarchies are not so common, incest seems to be a problem primarily for the lower class. Polyamory, however, seems to be primarily for rich people. It is real decadence – a kind of “sex club” that one might get to join if they are just right.

As we careen toward the end of the line of sexual perversion, (and thankfully we are likely getting close to reaching it,) we can notice the effect it is having on children. Such behavior as polyamory is deeply narcissistic – that narcissistic tendency fits together with other behaviors and trends which destroy the authentic meaning of human sexuality, which is life-giving and self-demanding. The more one turns in on oneself sexually, the more will one be blinded and weakened in other parts of the moral and spiritual life, especially in prudence and in spiritual perceptiveness. The daughters of lust are split evenly between afflicting the intellect and afflicting the will. They are: blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred of God, love of this world, and abhorrence or despair of a future world. These anti-values exhibited by parents will deform their children (if they have any), either through the kids imitating their parents or by the kids simply being left to themselves to figure things out. And so sin multiplies upon the earth. Thankfully, many such people don’t have children to corrupt, and if they do, their children might become so corrupted that the chain of sin ends with their own sterility, whether by self-mutilation, homosexuality, or a general inability to find someone willing to have children with them. In itself, it is tragic, but insofar as it is a case of evil slowly destroying itself, it is something to rejoice about.

In his second best known work, the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas lays out the full argument for monogamy in marriage. In surrounding chapters, he goes into other dimensions of why marriage is what it is as well. Study up, my friends. The Devil knows the arguments – we need to as well.

St. Mary of Egypt, pray for us.

Adventures in Casuistry: Episode 1 – Sanchez on the Marital Debt, Part 1

Eamonn Clark, STL

May I draw your attention to my newly expanded “research” tab, above on the top right. (Email readers, you have to go to the website itself to see). I have added many links to old manuals of moral theology. The authors are listed in no particular order, and they are mostly files accessible through Google Books. The first volume of what I think is the most relevant moral theology text is what I link to, but other volumes and works are searchable below in the “related” section. It is incredible what is available to all, for free.

Almost all of them are in Latin. And they are generally enormous books, meticulously organized, quite searchable, and, for someone whose mind is “wound tight,” they are extremely satisfying to read.

I have known of the manuals for a while, but only in the past few weeks have I really become seriously interested in working through them – in part because I discovered many of them are available for free online, but also because I have been working on some questions related to sexual ethics… I am astonished to find the wisdom on this topic in the older authors being so rich, so vast, and so entirely forgotten. It is a tragedy. (The blame mostly falls on the myriad of things going on in the 19th century, including, we must admit, the rise of neoscholasticism. The manuals in general started to fall out of favor around this time.)

Therefore, in order to make a small contribution to the recovery of the manualist tradition, which ought to be revived to some extent, and to help expose new students like myself to these treasure troves of theological acumen, I will be posting some texts from them once in a while, with a translation, maybe even a few comments.

Today, flowing from my studies on marriage and sexuality, we dive into Thomas Sanchez, SJ’s immense work on marriage, De Matrimonio, which is one of the most important texts on the topic in the history of theology. It is a HUGE work, divided into 10 books over 3 volumes, with hundreds of questions addressed. Today, we are looking at the introduction to Disputation VIII, in Book 9 (On the Marital Debt), which we find on page 193 of Volume 3.

I am working on my Latin… I start, I admit, with Google Translate, and I go from there. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all my translations, so be aware of that. If you are a Latinist and want to help, please reach out! (NB: I also might skip over some of the citations which authors make, for simplicity’s sake. You can always just look at the text yourself if you want to know references.)

Sanchez, De Matrimonio, Liber IX, Disputatio VIII (Tomus III, 193) [“Introduction”]

Disputatio VIII: An actus conjugalis vitietur ratione finis ad quem referetur? Et specialiter si solum exerceatur propter bonum sacramenti: nempe, ad significandam conjunctionem Verbi cum carne aut Ecclesia?

Disputation VIII: Is the conjugal act corrupted by reason of the end to which it is referred? And especially if it is exercised only for the good of the sacrament, namely, to signify the conjunction of the Word with the flesh or the church?

Hactenus in genere disputavimus, qualiter sit licitus, et obliget conjugalis actus. Jam de circumstantiis, quibus vitiari solet, agendum est. Et primo de finis circumstantia, quae in actibus humanis primum locum obtinet. Et potest esse multiplex finis illius actus, nempe, prolis, reddere debitum, significatio unius Christi cum Ecclesia, aut cum carne, sanitas corporis, vitatio fornicationis, voluptas, aut alius finis extraneos. In praesentiarum disserimus conjugalis licitus est, relatus in bonum prolis, aut in fidei bonum: nempe, dum exercetur gratia prolis habendae, aut servandae fidei alteri conjugi reddendi ei debitum. Conclusio tanquam certissima statuitur a Magistro 4. d. 11 et D. Th. ili q. 2 . a. 2 et universis Theologis: et ab omnibus utriusque juris professoribus cum Gloss. e. Quidquid 31 q. 2. verb. Ab adulterio. Et constat de bono prolis. Quia cum Deus ad multiplicationem generis humani matrimonium instituerit, illo utens ad hunc finem peccare nequit: alias Deus aliquid illicitum instituisset. De bono etiam fidei constat. Quia tenentur conjuges ex justitia ad debitum sibi mutuo reddendum. Quia ergo, ut huic satisfaciat obligationi, ad conjugem accedit, tantum abest, ut peccet, ut potius opus virtutis et obligatorium faciat.

So far we have discussed in general how the conjugal act is lawful and how it binds. We shall now treat of the circumstances under which it is wont to be vitiated. First, the circumstance of the end, which takes place first in human acts. And there may be a manifold end of that act, namely, children, paying the debt, signifying Christ’s oneness with the Church, or with the flesh, the health of the body, the avoidance of fornication, the pleasure, or other external ends. In the present discussion, a married person is allowed to join in the good of the child, or in the good of faith, namely, when he exercises the influence of having a child, or of keeping the faith in return to the other spouse due to him. The conclusion is established as the most reliable by the Master 4. d. 11 and St. Thomas in q. 2 a. 2 and by all theologians. And it is clear about the good of the child. Because when God instituted marriage for the multiplication of the human race, one cannot sin by using it for this purpose: otherwise God would have instituted something unlawful. It is also evident of the good of faith. Because married couples are bound by justice to pay the debt to one another. And because, in order to satisfy this obligation, the man goes to his wife, so far from being a sinner, he rather does an obligatory work of virtue.

Observare tamen oportet minime sufficere, quod actus conjugalis culpae venialis immunis sit ex finis circumstantia, ipsum referre ad bonum prolis. Nam si in prole sistatur, desiderioque habendi successorem ea intendatur, culpa venialis erit: sed proles intendi debet ad cultum Dei amplificandum. Ratio est, quia alias staretur in creatura, nec bonum esset faeramenti. Natura enim bonum prolis intendit, ut in ipsa species conservetur: bonum autem sacramenti exposcit, ut referatur in Deum. Nec inde inferre licet motum naturae malum esse, sed esse imperfectum; nisi ad aliquod sacramenti bonum referatur. Sic D.Th. 4. d. 31 qu. 2 a. 2 ad. 1 Gerson. p.1 in compenio Theologiae tract. de sacramento conjugii, alphabeto 27 litera O. Tabiena Matrimonium 3 q. 2 s. 3

However, it is far from sufficient to observe that the act of a conjugal act is immune from venial guilt, from the circumstance of the end, that it relates to having a child. For if it is ordered towards having offspring, and it is motivated by an intense desire simply to have a successor, it will be a venial sin; but having offspring should be directed to enlarging the number of those worship of God. The reason is, that otherwise it would be only about creatures, and thus would not be well done. For while it is true that nature intends the good of the offspring to be preserved in the species itself, the good of the sacrament demands that it be referred to God. Nor is it lawful to infer from this that the motion of nature is evil, but only that it is imperfect unless it is referred to some sacramental good. Thus St. Thomas 4. d. 31 qu. 2 a. 2 ad. 1.

Nec tamen reminisci opus est in actu ipso conjugali alicujus ex finisbus licitis, sed satis est, si habitu referatur ad illos. Sicut juxta communem. Theologorum senten. id satis est ad meritum. Atque ita D.Th. et Tabien. num. praeced. allegati dicunt erigi, ut proles actu vel habitu referatur in Deum. Ita docent Veracruz 3 p. Speculi, art. 16. concl. 5. Matienz. lib. 5 recop.t.I.rubr.glos.I. n. 105. Led. 2 p.4.q.5 1. ad fi. Quare satis est, si a principio conjuges matrimonium inierint propter hos fines, nec intentionem ipso actu contrariam habeant, ut actus conjugalis in ipsos relatus censeatur. Ut bene docent Led. et Veracr. ibidem, qua de causa dicit Led. excusari conjuges a multis venialibus. Quod optime etiam explicuit Sylvest. verb. Debitum, quaest. 12. vers. 2 ubi dicens ut actus conjugalis meritorius si, referendam esse prolem ad Dei obsequium: subdit id esse verum, licet de obsequio divino nil cogitetur, sed solum de successore. Quia ex quo conjux est in gratia, nec malum finem intendit, virtute refert in Deum.

However, there is no need to remember anything from the lawful ends of the conjugal act itself, but it is enough if it refers to them in habit. It is approximately the general opinion of the theologians this is enough for merit. And St. Thomas and Tabien. say the same. Surely the preceding say that the procuring of offspring may be referred to God in act or habit. Therefore, it is sufficient that if couples from the beginning had entered into marriage on account of these ends, and they did not have an intention contrary to the act itself, then it would be considered related to their conjugal acts. See Veracruz, (ibid.). And it is for this reason which reason Led. says couples are excused from many venial sins. Sylvest. also explains this very well, where he says, that if the conjugal act were meritorious, that the offspring should be referred to the service of God, he adds, that it is true, even if nothing is thought of divine obedience, but only of a successor. Because since he is a partner in grace and does not intend an evil end, he refers the act virtually to God.

Next time, we will continue on with Sanchez and see what conclusions he draws from the foregoing.

Happy Easter, dear readers!

Incest – The Surprising Thomistic Objections

Eamonn Clark

*WARNING: Put on your Charity Goggles*

A disappointing article appeared recently in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled, “Archbishop not backing gay marriage – yet.” (See Phil Lawler’s commentary here.)

While one might argue there are several problems in the article, I want to focus on His Eminence’s explanation of consanguinity in marriage. I think he is off-base and risks coming across as a consequentialist.

The Angelic Doctor lists four reasons why consanguine marriage is illicit – and guess what? The risk of birth defects is not one of them. To me, it seems unlikely that Thomas was altogether ignorant of the likelihood of sickly kids coming from kissing cousins, but suppose he was… He is still against it, and with today’s rapid advances in genetic manipulation, the “problem” of incestuous birth defects could eventually be overcome. We should see the causal link between incest and sickness as a sign that something is wrong with the act, not as a random feature of an otherwise virtuous behavior. Thomas gives us a more principled account of why consanguinity (and affinity) is such a big deal.

With that, the four reasons are:

  1. Shame (in its proper sense) before one’s parents – and those closely united with them by blood and law – is good on account of the special respect owed to them on account of one’s special relationship with them.
  2. Families often live together, and this would provide an untold number of occasions to lust if there were not a clear, strong, and constant prohibition against incest.
  3. Inter-family marriage increases the social good of individual human beings, and in so doing it also builds up the community.
  4. We already have a natural inclination to love family members, and if this had the possibility of intercourse added to it then there would be an occasion for too great a sexual desire for that person.

So, for St. Thomas, it is about filial piety, intemperance in itself, and the good of the commonwealth, not scoliosis or clubfoot.

Again, it is not that birth defects are irrelevant to the discussion, but it is a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself – and it is a symptom which theoretically could be eliminated. If we are to win the battle of the minds against secular culture, then we need to do better. Going back to Thomas is almost always a good idea, and I suggest that this is one of those moments. Incest is one of the last sins against chastity that Western society actually considers immoral… Let’s be sure not to lose that ground.

St. John the Baptist – pray for us.