The Whys and Wherefores of Catholic Sexual Ethics (4)

4. Concluding thoughts

Here I want to show how our dignity as God's very own children, members of the divine family, brothers and sisters of Christ and members of his body, requires us to honor the goods of human sexuality and human persons. Through baptism we have become one body with Christ. St. Paul spells out the meaning of this for sexual ethics when he writes:

Do you not see that your bodies are members of Christ? Would you have me take Christ's members and make them members of a prostitute? God forbid! Can you not see that the man who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? Scripture says: 'The two shall become one flesh.' But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun lewd conduct. Every other sin a man commits is outside his body, but the fornicator sins against his own body. You must know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within-the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased, and at a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:15-20).[1]

" dishonors the goods at stake in sexual choices not only by outwardly observable acts, but also by inwardly hankering for them in their desires and aspirations."

Marriage is good-it is a gift from God (cf. Gn 1-2)--and marital union is good. Moreover, the marriages of baptized persons, of those who are already indissolubly united to Jesus Christ, are sacraments of his life-giving, love-giving, grace-giving bridal union with his spouse the Church, not only pointing to this great reality but efficaciously making it present in the world here and now so long as the spouses put no obstacles in the way. But any kind of nonmarital sex is for the Christian a sacrilege. In the text from 1 Corinthians St. Paul specifies the sacrilegious character of sex with a prostitute - porneia in that sense. But in that letter and elsewhere he and other New Testament writers used the Greek term porneia, translated above as "lewd conduct," broadly, to include not only prostitution and fornication but other non-marital genital acts.[2]

Those who have become one body with Christ realize that they can give glory to God in their bodies, as St. Paul admonishes them, only by respecting the good of marriage, the nuptial meaning of the body, their own personal integrity, and the great gift of human life which God himself wills to come into being through the love-giving union of husband and wife in the marital act. They realize, too, that they cannot be faithful to Christ, who said to his disciples, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them" (Matt 19:14) if they deliberately set out to impede the beginning of these children's lives by contracepting. They know, too, that one dishonors the goods at stake in sexual choices not only by outwardly observable acts, but also by inwardly hankering for them in their desires and aspirations. Their prayer is that God may create in them a pure and loving heart.
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  1. The Council of Trent appealed to this text of St. Paul, when, in opposing Luther, it solemnly defined that unbelief is not the only mortal sin (see DS 1577/837). Trent showed this by pointing out that, according to Paul, divine law also excludes from the kingdom "those with faith who are fornicators, adulterers, effeminate (molles), sodomites, thieves, covetous, drunkards, evil-tongued, greedy (see 1 Cor 6:9-10) and all others who commit mortal sins" (DS 1544/808).
  2. On this see the excellent studies by Silverio Zedda, S.J., Relativo e assoluto nella morale di San Paolo (Brescia: Paideia, 1984), chap. 5, pp. 63-85 and O. Larry Yarborough, Not Like the Gentiles: Marriage Rules in the Letters of St. Paul (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1985).

Copyright 2006. Posted with permission from Dr. William E. May

William E. May is an adviser for Catholics for the Common Good and the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.


For further reading on Catholic marriage, sexual ethics and family see: 
The Way of Jesus, VOLUME 2: LIVING A CHRISTIAN LIFE by Germaine Grisez

Chapter 9: Marriage, Sexual Acts, and Family Life 

A: Why is every marriage a permanent and exclusive union?

B: Is this theology of marriage consistent with the Church’s practice?

C: What difference does the sacrament make to marriage?

D: What are the responsibilities of spouses toward each other?

E: What sexual acts are appropriate for Christians?

F: What are the responsibilities of spouses in regard to children?

G: What are the other responsibilities of family life?

H: What should spouses do if their marriage is troubled?

I: What are the responsibilities of those preparing for marriage?

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