In the Catholic version of the Decalogue, the Sixth and
Ninth Commandments are coupled together. They both prescribe the practice of
The biblical text for the Sixth Commandment is simply You
shall not commit adultery in both Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18. But the
Ninth Commandment is part of a longer prohibition of covetousness.
You shall not covet your neighbors
house. You shall not covet your neighbors wife or his servant, man or woman,
or his ox or his donkey, or anything that is his (Exodus 20:17).
You shall not covet your neighbors
wife, you shall not set your heart on his house, his field, his servant man
or woman or his ox or his donkey, or anything that is his (Deuteronomy 5:21).
There is a basic similarity in these two prohibitions, but
Deuteronomy places the command You shall not covet your neighbors wife first
among the forms of greed which include property, cattle, and servants.
In pre-Christian Jewish morality, adultery rested on the idea
that a wife was the property of the husband. Strictly speaking, therefore, only
the husbands rights could be violated. Illicit intercourse was not really
adultery if the woman was not married. Thus a wife and her partner could
violate the rights of her husband, but the husband could not violate the rights
of his wife. She had no marital rights to violate.
Old Testament morality forbade adultery both in act and in
desire. But in both cases it was essentially a sin of injustice, along with
stealing or coveting other possessions that a man might own.
New Testament Teaching
Jesus repeated the Sixth and Ninth Commandments but He
elevated them in a way that has been the single most demanding precept of the
New Law. His teaching is found in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and
Luke. St. Paul adds a great deal to the gospel narratives, so that the New
Testament revelation on chastity is extraordinarily complete.
Unity and Indissolubility of Marriage. The
heart of the Saviors doctrine on marital unity and indissolubility occurs in a
dialogue He had with the Pharisees. They asked him if a man could put away his
wife for any reason. This was meant to trap Jesus into taking sides with either
the strict rabbis, who allowed divorce and remarriage only for adultery, or the
liberal rabbis, who allowed it on any pretext whatever.
Instead of taking sides Jesus reminded the Pharisees that at
the beginning of the human race, there was no divorce with the right to
remarry. So then, He concluded, what God has united, man must not divide.
To which the Pharisees objected that Moses permitted divorce and remarriage.
Christ answered, It was because you were so unteachable. He then concluded,
The man who divorces his wife I am not speaking of fornication and marries
another, is guilty of adultery
What Christ meant by the phrase, I am not speaking of
fornication, was that infidelity would justify a divorce, but not remarriage. This is plain from the parallel
texts in St. Mark (10:2 12), St. Luke (16:18), and St. Paul (I Corinthians
7:10-39); Romans 7:2-3). St. Mark, a disciple of St. Peter, writing for
converts from paganism, further mentions Christs saying that if a woman
divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery too (Mark
Jesus here elevated the Old Law by completely abrogating the
practice of remarriage after divorce, which had been merely tolerated in the
Internal Chastity. Only St.
Matthew records the Masters further raising the morality of the Decalogue. The
Old Testament condemned the act of adultery and the sin of coveting another
mans wife. But it considered internal adultery a sin of injustice. It did not
precisely identify it as a sin against the virtue of temperance.
The difference between the two is important. To desire what
belongs to someone else is wrong because it denies another persons rights to
what he or she possesses. But to desire what God forbids me to enjoy is wrong
because it denies His right to tell me how I am to use my faculties of body and
soul. The full text in St. Matthew should be quoted.
You have heard it was said You
must not commit adultery. But I say this to you: If a man looks at a woman
lustfully, He has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your
right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will
do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown
into hell (Matthew 5:27-29).
Words could not be plainer. What the Catholic Church calls
the Ninth Commandment forbids all lustful thoughts and desires. Pope John Paul
II observed that this precept of Christ applies equally to men and women: Both
genders must control their sexual desires. To control these desires requires
practicing custody of all the senses, but especially of the eyes and touch.
Consecrated Chastity. The capstone
of Jesus teaching on chastity occurs
in the context of His restoring marriage to its original form of monogamy. He
had just told the Pharisees that a man commits adultery if he puts away his
wife and remarries.
The disciples said to Him, If that
is how things are between husband and wife, it is not advisable to marry. But
He replied, It is not everyone who can accept what I have said, but only to
those to whom it is granted. There are eunuchs born that way from their
mothers womb, there are eunuchs made so by men, and there are eunuchs who have
made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let those
accept this who can (Matthew 19:10-12)
Since apostolic times there have been men and women who did
accept this teaching and who believed they had the necessary grace to sacrifice
marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
The Church distinguishes two levels of Gods will in our regard.
There are precepts binding on everyone under pain of sin; and there are
counsels, inviting those who have the grace to do more for God.
Holiness is available to all followers of Christ in every
state of life. And holiness, says the Second Vatican Council, is fostered in a
special way by the manifold counsels which the Lord proposes to His disciples
in the gospel for them to observe. This is where the counsel of dedicated
chastity is part of Gods mysterious Providence.
Towering among these counsels is
that precious gift of divine grace given to some by the Father to devote
themselves to God alone more easily with an undivided heart in virginity or
celibacy. This perfect continence for love of the kingdom of heaven has always
been held in high esteem by the Church as a sign and stimulus of love, and as a
singular source of spiritual fertility in the world (Constitution on the Church, V, 42).
The adverb always in the foregoing statement is proved by
the Churchs history. Sacrifice of the experience of marriage has been part of
Catholic Christianity since Christ set the pattern for His disciples.
Observance of Chastity
We see that there are three forms of chastity recognized by
the Catholic Church. They may be called marital chastity, unmarried chastity,
and consecrated chastity. Each has its own responsibilities and corresponding
legislation by Church authority.
Marital chastity requires that husband and wife remain
faithful to each other. It further requires that they do not deliberately
interfere with the divinely ordained purpose of marital intercourse, which is
the conception of a new human being.
Unmarried chastity requires that a person never deliberately
arouses sexual pleasure, or willfully consents to the pleasure once it is
By assuming a life of perfect continence followers of Christ
make the sacrifice of seeking marriage. They voluntarily give up what other
unmarried persons may lawfully and laudably desire.
On all three levels the faithful practice of chastity is
more than unaided human nature can accomplish. It calls for not only prayer but
the spirit of prayer, which seeks to live in the presence of God. It requires
the grace available through the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist.
It demands watchful control of the senses. It exacts constant vigilance over
the emotions and the imagination. And it must be built on a sincere humility,
which has no illusions about ones own strength but relies on the power of God.
Sins of Unchastity
Chastity, it is said, takes its name from the fact that
reason enlightened by faith, chastises concupiscence. Since concupiscence is
the irrational desire of our fallen human nature, it needs to be curbed.
Among our irrational desires is the urge for sexual pleasure
outside of marriage. And even in marriage, the sex drive needs to be constantly
Failure to control sexual desires goes by the general name
of unchastity. But immediately we should distinguish two different kinds of
unchastity. They are given different names depending on whether in sinning,
natures purpose of sex can be attained, or whether this purpose is frustrated.
If the purpose is attainable, they are called natural sins against chastity.
Otherwise the sins are said to be unnatural.
Fornication and Adultery.There are
two principal so-called natural sins against chastity, namely fornication and
adultery. In both cases conception can take place and a child can be born. In
that sense the sins are natural. But they are grave sins.
In fornication there is voluntary sexual intercourse between
unmarried persons who are not bound by celibacy or a vow of consecrated
chastity. If the persons are closely related to one another by blood, there is
the further sin of incest. If either is under dedicated celibacy or chastity,
they also commit a sacrilege.
The sinfulness of fornication lies in several facts. Those
who indulge in sexual intercourse outside of marriage sin by injustice against
each other. Neither partner has the loving and lifetime commitment that only marriage
can provide. If they are baptized, neither has the divine blessing and
supernatural grace assured by the sacrament of Matrimony. If a child is
conceived and born, it does not have the security, stability, and selfless care
that only a married father and mother can give. And society is destabilized by
the bad example that fornication gives to others, especially the young. The
basis of civilized society is shaken because the foundation of a sound society
is a dedicated family, whereas by definition those indulging in fornication are
not dedicated to each other by a permanent marriage bond.
Adultery is sexual intercourse with the husband or wife of a
third person. Its sinfulness includes all the evils we have just seen in
fornication, and others besides. Those who commit adultery, sin gravely against
the rights of the husband or wife to whom they are married. The literature of
all nations is filled with accounts of what adultery does to once happily
married spouses. Murders and suicides have been provoked, even wars have been
fought to avenge the crime of adultery. Not a small degree of emotional
disturbance and mental breakdown can be traced to the crushing impact on the
human personality caused by the adulterous behavior of a once devoted spouse.
Masturbation, Contraception and Homosexuality. The
unnatural sins of unchastity are against the divinely ordained nature of sexual
intercourse, which is to reproduce the human race.
Masturbation is the deliberate arousal of sexual pleasure
caused by some form of self-stimulation. It is also called self-abuse, and is
gravely sinful when fully conscious and indulged with full consent of the will.
Contraception is any action deliberately taken before,
during, or after intercourse to prevent conception or fetal development.
Contraception is gravely sinful because it contradicts the divinely intended
purpose of marital intercourse, which is to foster procreative love.
As with abortion, so contraception has been consistently
condemned by the Catholic Church from her earliest history. When Pope Paul VI
published Humanae vitae (July 25, 1968),
he stated that the teaching of the Church on the regulation of birth simply
promulgates the divine law. This law is first of all the law of nature which
can be recognized by the light of reason. One of the most compelling reasons
against contraception is the record of history. Humanae
vitae gives some of the known and predictable results of
- The road is opened to conjugal infidelity
and to the general lowering of morality.
- Men tend to lose respect for their wives, no longer caring for their physical and
- Men tend to look on their wives as mere
instruments of selfish enjoyment.
- Men tend no longer to look on their wives
as beloved companions.
Given the widespread practice of contraception, some have
questioned whether the Churchs teaching on this grave moral issue is open to
change. Pope Pius XI took issue with these dissenters in the clearest possible
Openly departing from the
uninterrupted Christian tradition, some recently have judged it possible
solemnly to declare another doctrine on this question
The Catholic Church, to whom God
has entrusted the defense and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of
the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity
of the marital union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in
token of divine Ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: Any use
whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately
frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law
of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt
of a grave sin (Casti Connubii, December 31, 1930).
Such will therefore always be the teaching of the Catholic
Church. Her doctrine on contraception is irreversible.
One form of contraception that is becoming widespread is
direct sterilization. This means that the body is deliberately deprived, either
temporarily or permanently, of its power to beget or to bear children. The
morality of contraceptive sterilization is to be judged in the same way as
artificial birth control or contraception.
Homosexuality is any form of sexual relationship among
persons of the same sex. A homosexual tendency is within the normal range of
any human being. Given our fallen human nature, such a tendency is not unusual
but must be recognized for what it is, contrary to divine law.
Homosexual attraction may be due to an individuals
personality. More often it is the result of indiscretion or seduction. Not
sinful by itself, the sexual attraction must be resisted.
Homosexual activity is the result of voluntarily giving in
to the tendency or attraction. It is gravely sinful and has been explicitly
condemned in Sacred Scripture. St. Paul describes the pagans of his day as
having refused to honor God:
That is why God has abandoned them
to degrading passions: why their women have turned from natural intercourse to
unnatural practices and why their menfolk have given up natural intercourse to
be consumed with passion for each other, men doing shameless things with men
and getting an appropriate reward for their perversion (Romans 1:26-27).
Historians of the Roman Empire in St. Pauls day testify to
the fact that homosexual vice had sunk into a state of extreme laxity. In the
apostles words, since they refused to see it as rational to acknowledge God,
God has left them to their own irrational ideas and to their monstrous
behavior (Romans 1:28).
There is a tragic logic in the relation between indifference
to God and sexual immorality. Those who refuse to bend their minds in the
humble worship of God do not receive the grace to keep their passions under
Natural Family Planning
Already in apostolic times, husbands and wives would abstain
from marital relations only for an agreed time, to leave yourselves free for
prayer (I Corinthians 7:1, 4-5).
With the rise of a contraceptive mentality in modern times,
the Church has more than once returned to the subject of periodic continence
or, as it is popularly called, natural family planning. On Catholic moral
principles, a couple may for a good reason abstain from intercourse during the
wifes fertile periods. Married people, the Church tells them, may renounce
the use of marriage when for just motives, procreation is not desirable. They
make use of it during the sterile periods to manifest their affection and to
safeguard their mutual fidelity. By so doing, they give proof of a truly and
fully praiseworthy love (Paul VI, Humanae vitae,
This is morally permissible, and oftentimes commendable
because there is no interference with the purpose of marital intercourse. It is
rather, in the Churchs language, making legitimate use of a disposition
provided by the Author of nature.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism