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Sexual Pleasure Outside of Marriage

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our title for this evening's conference is "Sexual Pleasure Outside of Marriage." A good subtitle would be, "Sexual Suicide."

In a widely publicized book on this subject, the author makes this observation:

"In the most elemental sense, the sex drive is a survival instinct - the primal tie to the future.

When people lose faith in themselves and their prospects, they also lose their procreative energy. They commit sexual suicide. They just cannot bear the idea of bringing children into the world. Such people may indulge a lot in what they call sex. But it is a kind of aimless copulation having little to do with the deeper currents of sexuality and love that carry a community into the future."

There are several ways in which we can approach this subject. We could look at sexual pleasure outside of marriage as a root cause of the disintegration of once civilized nations who are literally committing sexual suicide. We could analyze the reasons behind this suicidal mania, which our Holy Father identifies as the culture of death which pervades so much of modern society.

My plan here is to meditate on the divinely instituted purpose of marriage which the Author of Life has associated with the pleasures of what should be only marital intercourse.

The Meaning of Marriage

We commonly understand marriage as a lasting union of a man and a woman who agree to give and receive rights over each other for the performance of the act of generation and for the fostering of their mutual love.

For an authentic marriage there must be:

  • A union of opposite sexes. It is therefore opposed to all forms of unnatural, homosexual behavior.

  • A permanent union until the death of either spouse.

  • An exclusive union, so that extramarital acts are a violation of justice.

  • A union whose permanence and exclusiveness are guaranteed by contract; merely living together, without mutually binding themselves to do so, is concubinage and not marriage.

Jesus Christ elevated marriage to a sacrament of the New Law. Christian spouses therefore signify or partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church. The spouses’ help each other attain to holiness in the married life and in their rearing and education of their children.

As we reflect on these qualities of marriage we should amplify our title for this conference to read, "Sexual Pleasure Outside of Monogamous and Truly Loving Marriage." Why these additional words in the title? To make sure we are talking about marriage as a reality and not as a romantic fantasy.

In the designs of God, those who raise families experience a deep emotional and psychological satisfaction for cooperating in the extension of the human race. This is part of divine providence and consistent with divine justice.

At the heart of sexual pleasure, as intended by the Creator, is the experience of this pleasure as an essential part of marriage. Separate marriage from sexual pleasure and you remove the divinely ordained purpose of human sexuality.

Catholic Christianity identifies the experience of sexual pleasure within the precincts of marriage as the virtue of marital chastity. To combine these two words, "marital" and "chastity," is already to declare that chastity does not mean abstention from marital pleasure. Absolutely not! The pleasure that husband and wife experience in their marital relations is holy, pleasing to God, and a reflection of His goodness to those who do His will.

We are now ready to examine the truly Christian evaluation of sexual pleasure outside of marriage. On this premise, we can identify seven forms of sexual pleasure "outside" of marriage as we had previously defined.


We may be surprised at the prominence of fornication in Sacred Scripture. Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul could not have been more clear, "Keep away from fornication. Your body, you know, is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you since you received Him from God. You are not your own property. You have been bought and paid for. That is why you should use your body for the glory of God." (I Corinthians 6:18-20). Christians are to be chaste because their bodies do not belong to them twice over. On the natural level, their bodies were created by God. On the supernatural level, their bodies have been elevated by grace to be the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit who abides in them as in His home.

Apart from revelation, we know that fornication is a grave sin. It is the voluntary sexual intercourse between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. The basic reasons for the sinfulness of fornication are:

  • It causes grave injury to the welfare of the child.

  • It does great harm to those who engage in fornication.

  • It injures the welfare of society by giving scandal both to the partners in the fornication and to others who are thus tempted to follow the bad example.

How is fornication an offense against God? Those who fornicate steal the pleasure that God has reserved for the married. They take from Him what belongs only to those who have made a lifetime covenant of fidelity to each other in the name of God.

Is it any wonder that a fornicating people become an idolatrous people. They assume authority over their bodies which belong only to God.


There are at least fifty references to adultery in Sacred Scripture. The most prominent Old Testament passage is, of course, in the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue, "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). The same word assumes a variety of meanings. But in the Catholic vocabulary it means sexual intercourse between two persons, at least one of whom is married.

Before we go on, it should be noted that adultery is forbidden already by the natural law. Yet God has seen fit to make this law part of His revelation to the people of Israel, and through them to all of mankind. Why did He do this? Because He knows that we have a fallen human nature which has been darkened by sin. The evil of adultery can be known by reason alone. But our reason is damaged by original sin. That is why God in His mercy gave us the Sixth Commandment, to make sure that no one could say, "I never knew that adultery was against the will of God."

We must immediately make clear that when God became man, in the person of Jesus Christ, He restored the human race to its condition before the fall. That is why His dialogue with the Pharisees on divorce and remarriage is at the heart of Catholic morality.

As described by St. Matthew, a group of Pharisees came to Jesus, tempting Him and asking, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" In his answer, Christ told them that married people "shall be two in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two but one flesh; what therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder."

The Pharisees objected, "Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorce and to put away?" To which Jesus replied, "Because of the hardness of your heart, Moses permitted you to put away your wives; but in the beginning it was not so"(Matthew 19:3-9).

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this teaching of Christ. It has been the principal reason why, over the centuries, whole nations have broken their union with the Catholic Church. In the thirteenth century those who are now called Eastern Orthodox separated from Rome because they wanted to divorce and remarry. In the sixteenth century, six countries separated from the Holy See for the same reason.

Today the same phenomenon may be seen in countries like the United States.

  • What does our Catholic faith teach us? It tells us that a valid, sacramental, consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power. Those who believe this are truly Catholic. No one else is.

  • What did Jesus mean when He said, "From the beginning it was not so"? He meant that He was restoring mankind to its condition before the fall. He is making available to married people the graces they will need to remain faithful to one another and thus resist temptations to adultery through all their lives.

Those who have broken with the Catholic Church over this issue regularly appeal to Christ's statement, "whoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery, and he that marries her that is put away, commits adultery"(Ibid.). The Council of Trent has made an infallible interpretation of this passage in the Gospels. Even in the case of adultery, the innocent party may not remarry without also committing adultery.


In general, homosexuality is some form of sexual relationship among members of the same sex. From a moral perspective three levels are to be distinguished: tendency, attraction, and activity.

Homosexual tendencies in many persons are within the normal range of human nature, whose fallen condition includes every kind of impulse that with sincere effort and the help of divine grace can be controlled.

Sexual attraction for members of the same sex may be partly due to the particular make-up of certain individuals or seduction. This presents a graver problem. Yet here, too, the strong attraction is not by itself sinful and may in fact be an occasion for great supernatural merit. When the condition is pathological, it may require therapy.

Active homosexuality is morally indefensible and has been many times forbidden in revelation and the teaching of the Church. The most extensive declaration on the subject was made by the Holy See and approved by Pope Paul VI in 1975.

The Catechism of Catholic Church devotes an extraordinary amount of space to the subject of homosexuality. This is not surprising given its almost epidemic spread in some countries. As the catechism teaches, Sacred Scripture identifies homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity. Moreover, "tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved" (2357).

So widespread is homosexuality in the United States that gays and lesbians, as they call themselves, exert great power in politics, business and education. The temptation for believing Christians is to lose courage for being charged with homophobia, or the fear of homosexuals.

What needs to be emphasized is that homosexual persons are called to chastity. Their practice of self-mastery will give them inner freedom. Through the support of selfless friendship, prayer and the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, they can grow in holiness and Christian perfection.


As understood in Christian morality masturbation is the direct stimulation of the sex organs outside of sexual intercourse. It is a grave misuse of the procreative faculty and when done with full consent and deliberation is a serious sin. The sinfulness consists in setting in motion the procreative powers while preventing them from achieving their natural, divinely intended purpose.

According to the Catechism of Catholic Church, "Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action. The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose. For here, sexual pleasure is sought outside of the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved"(2352).

Of course the degree of subjective guilt for performing masturbation depends on the person's awareness of its grave sinfulness and degree of willful consent.

Centuries of the Church's experience have shown how important is a correct understanding of why masturbation is sinful. In essence, masturbation is sexual pleasure without the exchange of mutual, selfless marital love. On closer analysis, we can see why these three qualities of love must be present for sexual pleasure to be pleasing to God:

  • Sexual pleasure must be between husband and wife. It must be marital pleasure.

  • Sexual pleasure must be mutual. Both husband and wife are granted deep satisfaction in their marital embrace, where the pleasure is mutually exchanged.

  • Sexual pleasure must be occasioned by the expression of selfless love, twice over: selfless love between the spouses, and selfless love from the spouses for the children with whom God may wish to bless them as parents.


As defined in Catholic theology, contraception is the deliberate interference with marital intercourse in order to prevent conception. It is the performance of the marriage act with the positive frustration of conception. Also called conjugal onanism, from the sin of Onan as narrated in the Bible (Genesis 38:8-10). It is popularly termed birth control, where those concerned with high birth rates equate contraception with population control.

It must seem strange to identify contraception with sexual pleasure outside of marriage. We have just defined contraception as interference with marital intercourse. How is contraception sexual pleasure outside of marriage? It is outside of marriage because it is contrary to; it is alien to the very essence of a truly loving marriage. Although we do talk about love of oneself, the word "love" in this case is not the true love of Christian charity. We do not need faith to believe that people love themselves. Self-love is an assumed datum of human experience.

We return to our question: How is contraception outside of marriage? Contraception is a contradiction of the very essence of marriage, whose divinely ordained purpose is to express the unitive love between spouses, and the procreative love of husband and wife for the children whom they wish to bring into the world.

So common is contraception in the modern world the dictionaries do not even include the term "marriage" in their definition. They define contraception as "voluntary prevention of conception or impregnation."

We may go further. Not only is contraception the indulgence of sexual pleasure outside of marriage. Contraception is at the basis of all sinful sexual pleasure. In every case that sexual pleasure is aroused or indulged contrary to the will of God, the conception of children as the fruit of a loving marriage is excluded. Thus if children are conceived through fornication, in the language of all nations they are "illegitimate." They are deprived of all the blessings that only a selfless husband and wife can provide for the offspring of their marital love. The same with adultery. and masturbation, by its very nature is the selfish indulgence of sexual pleasure. In fact, the popular description of contraception as mutual masturbation is absolutely correct.

When Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae in 1968, he literally split the professedly Christian world into two. Those who have accepted Humanae Vitae are authentically Catholic Christians. Those who reject Humanae Vitae are alien to what the Catholic Church has always held is one of the marks of a true follower of Christ.

Already in the first century, the document Didache forbade the followers of Christ the practice of contraception and the practice of abortion. The pre-Christian society of the Roman empire was both contraceptive and abortive. The post-Christian society in our day is likewise contraceptive and abortive. The selfishness which inspires contraception inevitably leads to the crime of abortion.


Incontinence is obviously the opposite of continence. As a general term, continence is the practice of internal chastity. The revealed foundation for the virtue of continence is the Sermon on the Mount. Christ was contrasting the morality of the New Testament with that of the Old Law. He told the people, "You have heard that it was said to them of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart"(Matthew 5:27-28).

Nor was that all. The Savior then went on to tell His followers they should be ready to lose their eyes, or their hands or any part of their body "rather than have your whole body go into hell"(Matthew 5:30).

What are we being told? That sexual pleasure may not be deliberately enjoyed outside of marriage, even in the depths of one's mind or will or imagination. Then to bring home the gravity of such interior indulgence, Christ tells us it is better to lose any part of the body, and even life itself, rather than suffer estrangement from God in eternity.

As we are speaking on sexual pleasure outside of marriage, we must remind ourselves of what is not immediately obvious. Every one of the sins against chastity that we have reviewed can be committed inside the human soul without directly involving the body.

The implications of this fact are stupendous. Certainly chastity involves the human body. But chastity must first, and mainly, be practiced in the depths of the human soul. We have to master our thoughts and desires, our emotions and imagination. We must bring these powers of the spirit to conform to the teachings of Christ, or chastity is only a pious word and has no meaning in reality.


An ordinary dictionary definition of molestation is "to make annoying sexual advances."

In the language of Catholic morality, however, molestation covers two sins against chastity which have become almost standard in today's society. They are pornography and prostitution.

It is worth quoting what the Catholic Catechism says:

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials (2354).

To be noted is that pornography is every form of molestation whose purpose is to arouse sexual stimulation in others. Consequently there is pornography in picture and sculpture, in writing and literature, in sound and music and, in fact, in every kind of venereal arousal of the senses.

As commonly understood prostitution is the act or practice of indulging in promiscuous sexual relations, especially for money.

Until recent years prostitution was considered so base that it received only token attention even in the standard sources of Christian morality. But times have changed. The Church now does not hesitate to label prostitution as a social scourge.

How is prostitution a social scourge? It degrades the person who engages in prostitution and reduces other persons to instruments of sexual pleasure. The payment need not be in money. It can be in a variety of compensations that have penetrated every aspect of today's society. Those who pay, sin gravely against themselves. They defile their bodies which are meant to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. Prostitution more commonly involves women. But not only; it includes men and women, children and adolescents. Prostitution of the young involves the added sin of scandal. When committed by those who are called to a life of consecrated chastity, the scandal becomes the occasion for countless defections from the Catholic faith.

Spiritual Implications

It may seem strange that we should devote a whole conference to sexual pleasure outside of marriage. Strange or not, sexual indulgence outside of marriage is somewhere near the root of the disintegration of what for centuries had been a Christian culture.

That is why Christ elevated marriage to a sacrament of the New Law. Only the supernatural illumination and superhuman inspiration of His grace can preserve the stability of family life among His followers. The Christian family depends on Christian marriage, and Christian marriage has such a claim on happiness in this world that, in the words of the Savior, it is a symbol and prelude of the everlasting joys of heaven.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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