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The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II

by Charles E. Curran, Georgetown University Press. Washington D.C.2005

Chapter 5. Marriage, Sexuality, Gender and Family

Pope John Paul II devoted a series of sixteen audience talks in the second half of 1984 to reflections on Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, which staunchly defends the condemnation of artificial contraception for spouses. This section very briefly summarizes the arguments proposed by the pope.

In keeping with his general approach to marriage and sexuality, John Paul II, in condemning artificial contraception, gives primary significance to truth and to the plan of God. In discussing the meaning of the marital act, “we are dealing with nothing other than reading the language of the body in truth as has been said many times in our previous biblical analyses” (TB 388). The pope insists “that the principle of conjugal morality, taught by the Church (Second Vatican Council, Paul VI), is the criterion of faithfulness to the divine plan” (TB 395). The pope directly appeals to the teaching of the hierarchical magisterium, especially the encyclical Humanae vitae. He sees his own exposition of Humanae vitae in terms of trying “to elaborate more completely the biblical and personalistic aspects of the doctrine contained in Humanae vitae.” The questions raised by Humanae vitae “belong to that sphere of anthropology and theology that we have called the theology of the body” (TB 421).

Pope John Paul II insists with Pope Paul VI on the “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (TB 386). John Paul II accepts the criterion proposed in Vatican II that sexual morality is “based on the nature of the human person and his or her acts.” But here he develops especially his language of the body. The marriage act, in light of the theology of the body, shows the “value of total’ self-giving. Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through conception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads… to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love which is called upon to give itself in personal totality” (FC 32.4). The papal talks also insist that the church’s teaching on the transmission of life calls for the development of discipline, continence, and self-control that ennoble human marital love (TB 399-415).

The many debates within Catholicism on the subject of divorce and artificial contraception lie beyond the boundaries of this volume. This section has merely tried to briefly describe John Paul II’s approach to these issues in light of his understanding of marriage and sexuality discussed above. But two comments are in order.

With regard to the indissolubility of marriage, John Paul II stresses the total, radical, and irrevocable self-gift of the spouses to each other. But as pointed out above, he fails to give enough importance to love as communion or the mutuality and reciprocity aspects of love. Likewise, he does not develop the proper love of self. An understanding of love that recognizes the three aspects of self-gift, communion and mutuality, and a proper self-love can come to the conclusion that unfortunately, at times, marriages may break down.

With regard to artificial contraception, John Paul II takes a two-fold approach. The first and less-developed approach defends the natural law arguments condemning artificial contraception. The audience talks allude to these arguments, especially in citing Humanae vitae—without, however, developing the arguments in a systematic way. ‘“The Church teaches as absolutely required that in any use whatever of marriage there must be no impairment of its natural capacity to procreate human life’ (HV11)” (TB 386). In accord with Humanae vitae and previous hierarchical teaching, John Paul II accepts natural family planning and again cites Humanae vitae to differentiate natural family planning from artificial contraception. “The encyclical emphasizes especially that ‘between the two cases there is an essential difference’ (HV 16), and therefore a difference of an ethical nature: ‘In the first case married couples rightly use a facility provided them by nature; in the other case, they obstruct the natural development of the generative process’ (HV16)” (TB 395). In chapter 3, there is a lengthy discussion and criticism of the natural law understanding behind the condemnation of artificial contraception.

In keeping with his anthropology, John Paul II sees the natural law arguments against artificial contraception as the ontological and objective aspects of truth. The reasonable character of the condemnation of artificial contraception “does not only concern the truth of the ontological dimension, namely, that which corresponds to the fundamental structure of the marital act. It also concerns the same truth in the subjective and psychological dimension, that is to say, it concerns the correct understanding of the intimate structure of the marital act. It concerns the adequate rereading of the significances corresponding to this structure and of their inseparable connection” (TB 588-89). The subjective and psychological aspect of truth, which the pope stresses in his audience talks, develops the argument based on the language of the body as the total giving of the spouses to each other. But this approach puts too much emphasis on the meaning of each and every single sexual act.

No one act can ever perfectly express the total commitment of the spouses to each other. The pope’s analysis demands too much meaning and symbolism from each and every single act. In addition, there are many sexual acts, such as embraces and kisses, that by the pope’s understanding do not express total self-giving. The totality of the acts of the spouses in all their different dimensions shows their commitment to each other. But no one single act can always be said to require showing forth the symbolism of total gift. Notice here again the understanding of love as total self-giving.

Further Methodological Assessment

From a positive perspective, the moral teaching of John Paul II on marriage and sexuality avoids the danger often found in past hierarchical moral teaching and also in much of academic moral theology of dealing simply with specific issues, norms, and quandaries. The pope here is primarily interested in the meaning and understanding of marriage and sexuality. These talks also bring together moral theology and spiritual theology. Too often, in the past, even in the moral theology of the academy, the disciplinary boundaries of moral and spiritual theology have kept the two aspects separated in practice. The heavy emphasis on scripture brings in this important dimension, which in the past has often not been sufficiently used in Catholic moral teaching. In using scripture, the pope shows an awareness of some contemporary critical biblical scholarship. He distinguishes the two different creation accounts in Genesis in accord with the multiple-source theory of the first five books of the Bible. He begins his long discussion of the sacramentality of marriage based on Ephesians 5:21—32 with a recognition of the problems scholars discuss about the letter’s authorship, date of composition, and intended audience (TB 306). But critical questions of method arise in a number of areas.

Scripture and Other Sources

First, with regard to scripture. Like all interpreters of scripture, the writings of John Paul II show the presuppositions that the person brings to an interpretation of scripture. I pointed out in chapter 2 that there is no such thing as the neutral, value-free interpreter of scripture. Without doubt, the pope is always going to see and interpret scripture as supporting existing Catholic teachings. Thus, for example, he uses many scriptural quotes to argue for the unity and indissolubility of marriage. In addition, as an academic he taught philosophical ethics and metaphysics. He obviously interprets scripture in the light of his own academic interest. He sees in the first account of creation “a powerful metaphysical content.” The human being is defined here in a metaphysical way in terms of being and existence. He sees the good or value in light of this metaphysical approach. The first chapter of Genesis provides “a solid basis for a metaphysic and also for an anthropology and an ethic, according to which ens et bonurn convertuntur [being and the good are convertible]” (TB 28-9). Most biblical commentators would not see such a metaphysic in the first chapter of Genesis. We all must be careful about the presuppositions we bring to our understanding of scripture, but it is evident how the pope’s background influences his approach to scriptural interpretation.

The pope’s discussion of two texts from scripture—Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7—is curious. He gives a long and detailed analysis of Matthew 19 at the very beginning of these talks but never once refers to the famous exception clause (except for the case of porneia) with regard to divorce and the indissolubility of marriage. Especially because he is defending the condemnation of divorce in all circumstances, one would have expected him to deal with this issue. He does not refer as much to 1 Corinthians 7 as he does to Matthew 19, but here too he never mentions what later Catholic teaching calls the Pauline privilege. A person who becomes a baptized Christian is free to remarry if the previous non-Christian spouse refuses to peacefully live together.

The papal teaching on marriage and sexuality explicitly gives great attention to scripture and also to hierarchical teaching but fails to employ other sources of moral wisdom and knowledge that have consistently characterized the Catholic theological tradition. Tradition itself in the strict sense of the term has played a significant role in Catholic theology. Roman Catholic theology has insisted on the need for both scripture and tradition. In fact, in the past, Catholic theology gave the impression of seeing them as two totally separate realities. But the insistence on scripture and tradition today recognizes that scripture itself is historically and culturally conditioned and thus differs somewhat from present-day circumstances. The task of tradition is to understand, appropriate, and live the word and work of Jesus in the light of the present conditions of time and place.(10) One coming out of the Catholic tradition is also surprised by the lack of explicit development of natural law that continues to be the basis even for John Paul II’s position on norms governing sexuality. Likewise, the talks give no role to contemporary experience. Contemporary Catholic moral theology recognizes a significant role for experience in moral theology, but such experience needs to be evaluated and cannot be reduced to what the majority of people think or do. The emphasis on the discernment of experience in Catholic tradition is not something that has arisen only recently. The sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful) has consistently been recognized as a possible source of truth and wisdom.(11) Especially in the area of marriage and sexuality, the sensus fidelium has played a significant role.

The heavy and almost exclusive emphasis on scripture in these talks by the pope thus goes against the traditionally accepted Catholic understanding of the sources for moral wisdom and knowledge. But the somewhat homiletical nature of the talks might furnish a partial explanation of the emphasis on scripture and the failure to develop other traditional Catholic sources of moral wisdom and knowledge.

The Lack of Historical Consciousness

Another methodological shortcoming is the lack of historical development and historical consciousness in these papal talks, which was mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. In chapter 3, I criticized the static and classicist methodology emphasized by John Paul II. The meaning of Christian marriage is the same at all times and all places. At the very beginning of his talks, the pope sees in the two accounts of creation a metaphysical and a psychological definition of the human being. These definitions are true for all human beings. The “Elohist” or first account of creation, which comes from a later period than the second account of creation in Genesis, gives a metaphysical definition of the “human being in terms of being and existence” (TB 27-29). The “Yahwist” or second account of creation gives “the subjective definition of man.” This psychological and subjective understanding of the human being stresses “man’s self- knowledge.” But this subjectivity corresponds to the objective reality of man created “in the image of God” (TB 29-31). The papal talks frequently refer to the divine plan of God for sexuality and marriage that was first revealed in the creation stories of Genesis—in the beginning. Again, the subtitle of the book containing these talks on the theology of the body is Human Love in the Divine Plan.

The pope somewhat frequently refers to historical human beings in these talks, but his historical perspective is theological—human beings before the fall, after the fall, and fallen and redeemed. He even explicitly recognizes his use of the historical in this theological sense (TB 131-32; see also 106, 119). He very occasionally recognizes historical and cultural conditioning but insists that the words of Christ, “in their essential content, refer to the man of every time and place” (TB 212). He does recognize changes that occurred in the Old Testament with regard to divorce and polygamy, but these changes are due to the theological reason of the fall. Redemption in Jesus has now restored the original meaning of marriage in its fullness and holds for all Christians down through the ages (TB 133-38). Thus, there is no recognition of historical development with regard to the meaning of marriage, nor is the subjectivity of persons different in different historical and cultural circumstances.

But historical studies have indicated very great changes and developments in the church’s understanding of marriage. For example, for more than half its existence, the Catholic Church did not officially accept marriage as one of the seven sacraments. The problem arose because sacraments are to give grace to the recipients. But, with a negative view of sexuality even in marriage, many early theologians and canonists held that marital intercourse necessarily involves some sin. The early scholastics in the second millennium offered an ingenious solution to the problem. The grace given in marriage is not the positive grace of holiness but the medicinal grace that enables the spouses to temper lust within marriage. Implicitly, the Catholic Church only accepted marriage as the seventh sacrament at the Second Lateran Council in 1139, and the acceptance became explicit only with the Council of Verona in 1184.12

Marriage has been seen as an institution arranged by parents, a contract freely entered into by the couple, and as a covenant relationship. Some in the early church refused remarriage to widows. The roles of love, procreation, and sexual pleasure have changed greatly in the course of the unfolding Catholic understanding of marriage.13

In defense of the pope, one could point out that there are some constants in the understanding of marriage, such as the marital commitment of the spouses. Yes, there obviously is continuity with regard to our understanding of marriage over the centuries, but there is also great discontinuity that is not recognized in John Paul II s approach.

Historical studies have shown the development and even discontinuity that have occurred in the two norms strenuously defended by John Paul II with regard to marriage and sexuality—artificial contraception and the indissolubility of marriage. In discussing both cases, I rely on the historical work of John T. Noonan, a highly respected historian and jurist.

The condemnation of artificial contraception for spouses developed within a complex historical context.(14) Many factors influenced this teaching. General biblical values, especially the sanctity of marriage and the condemnation of unnatural sexual acts, were prominent. In the development of the church, it was necessary to find rational purpose and limits to sexuality. Societal factors, many of which have changed dramatically—such as the role of women, underpopulation or overpopulation, shorter or longer life spans, agrarian or industrial society—also had a role to play. The teaching itself was formulated and defended against various opponents. Thus, in the beginning, the teaching was aimed at Gnostics, Manichees, and later the Cathars, who were hostile to all procreation. Then, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the teaching was defended against those who advocated artificial contraception, especially the Anglican Church in 1930. Within this context, the teaching on marriage itself changed and developed radically, with a much greater emphasis today on the role of love in marriage.

History shows that great development and change have occurred within Catholic teaching about marital intercourse. Catholic theologians once held as common positions that intercourse during menstruation is a mortal sin, intercourse during pregnancy is forbidden, and that there exists a natural position for intercourse. Great changes occurred with regard to the role of procreation in marriage. In the early church, the intention of procreation was necessary to justify marital intercourse. Later, the couple did not have to intend procreation. Sterile spouses could have marital intercourse. In the twentieth century, with the acceptance of rhythm and natural family planning, not only did the couple not have to intend procreation but they also could intentionally use the infertile periods in a woman’s cycle to consciously avoid procreation.(15)

Noonan’s book, Power to Dissolve, points out historically expanding types of marriages that, according to Catholic teaching and canon law, could be dissolved.(16) By the end of the twentieth century five types of marriages were dissoluble in the eyes of the Catholic Church. The only indissoluble marriage is the consummated marriage between two baptized persons that is properly entered into. The five other types of marriages that are dissoluble are as follows- (1) A marriage that is virginal by vow, agreement, or intent, and is contracted by two baptized persons, is dissoluble by religious profession or papal dispensation. (2) A marriage that is sexual in intent, contracted by two baptized persons, and unconsummated by sexual intercourse is dissoluble by religious profession or papal dispensation. (3) A consummated marriage of two baptized persons, but with limited or negative procreative intent, can be declared invalid at the option of the courts. (4) A marriage impermanent by intention, custom, or assumption, even though contracted by two baptized persons, and consummated by sexual intercourse, can be declared invalid at the option of the courts. (5) A marriage that is sexual in intent, contracted by at least one baptized person, and consummated by sexual intercourse can be dissolved by the conversion and remarriage of the unbaptized partner in certain cases or by papal dispensation in all cases.(17)

Noonan succinctly tries to give some explanation for this change. St. Paul made an exception in absolute indissolubility with what is today called the Pauline privilege—if one of two married unbelievers converts and the other party does not but deserts the convert, the convert is free to remarry (1 Cor 7:10-16). This rule was then expanded under the extreme conditions of African slavery in South America. And the change that occurred then was further developed in modern religiously mixed societies when it became common for nonbaptized persons and Catholics to fall in love and want to be married. Noonan sees historical experience, canonical ingenuity, and the exaltation of papal power as playing a dominant part in these changes.(18) On the basis of this historical evidence, one cannot say that from the very beginning of creation God intended all marriages to be indissoluble.

Noonan has studied and pointed out the changes that have occurred in a number of different moral norms proposed by the church. He summarizes the changes on the issues of usury, the indissolubility of marriage, slavery, and the persecution of heretics in this fashion: “What was forbidden became lawful (the cases of usury and marriage); what was permissible became unlawful (the case of slavery); and what was required became forbidden (the persecution of heretics).”(19)

From a theological perspective, historical consciousness gives a significant role to experience. Noonan points out that experience obviously played a great role in these changes, but raw experience in and of itself does not suffice because it can be wrong. An experience suffered or perceived in light of human nature or in light of the Gospel can be judged good or bad. It is just such experience that Noonan sees behind the changes that have occurred in the issues mentioned above.(20)

John Paul II seldom appeals to the sensus fidelium because of his insistence on the plan of God from the very beginning. Noonan points out in the area of usury “that the experience and judgment of the laity had a value for moral teaching.” In this context, he quotes the sixteenth-century theologian Navarrus (Martin Aspilcueta, d. 1586) pointing out the infinite number of decent Christians taking interest on loans. Navarrus could not accept an analysis that would damn the whole world.(21) All should recognize that the sensus fidelium is a complex reality that cannot be reduced to majority vote or public opinion polls. But it has been an important factor in developing Catholic moral teaching.

In his analysis of the change in the teaching on usury, Noonan points out that in a short space of time—thirty years at most—the papal bulls condemning usury were deprived of force to influence the behavior of people in the church. He concludes that such acts of Papal authority—-when isolated from theological support and contrary to the conviction of Christians familiar with the practices condemned—cannot prevail. They might have accurately reflected the assumptions and traditions of an earlier age, but they no longer correspond to present reality. Noonan sees the theologians in this case as having the last word because acts of papal authority are inert unless taught by theologians, because those who cared about the issue consulted them, because they taught the next generation, and because the older papal teaching itself was shaped by Christian experience and theological analysis.(22)

John Noonan, like any good Catholic scholar, is not a historical relativist. He insists, for example, that the Catholic condemnation of abortion has been an almost absolute value throughout history.(23) Noonan likewise does not accept raw experience and opinion polls as a basis for sound development within church teaching. He is working on a theory of moral development in the Catholic Church as a criterion for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate change.(24)

Noonan’s historical work also shows how laws themselves come into existence. He frequently points out that laws exist to protect and promote human values. But as other values enter into the picture or as the priority of values shifts, then new laws develop. Thus, he sees the condemnation of artificial contraception for spouses as defending and promoting five significant values. The condemnation serves as a wall to protect these values, but “the wall could be removed when it became a prison rather than a bulwark.”(25) Such a historically conscious understanding recognizes that specific norms have a lesser certitude than values because they exist to promote and protect the different values involved. With a classicist and somewhat deductive approach, John Paul II gives too great a certitude to specific moral norms.


10. Harold C. Skillrud, J. Francis Stafford, and Daniel F. Martensen, eds., Scrip¬ture and Tradition: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue IX (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995)-

11. Richard R. Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1997), pp. 230-35.

12. Theodore Mackin, The Marital Sacrament (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 274-324.

13. Mackin, Marital Sacrament.

14. John T. Noonan Jr., Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, enlarged ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986).

15. Noonan, Contraception, p. 532.

16. John T. Noonan Jr., Power to Dissolve: Lawyers and Marriages in the Courts of the Roman Curia (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972).

17. Noonan, Power to Dissolve, p. 403.

18. John T. Noonan Jr., “Development in Moral Doctrine,” Theological Studies 54 (1993): p. 675.

19. Noonan, “Development in Moral Doctrine,” p. 669.

20. Noonan, “Development in Moral Doctrine,” p. 674.

21. John T. Noonan Jr., “The Amendment of Papal Teaching by Theologians,” in Contraception: Authority and Dissent, ed. Charles E. Curran (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), p.74. For his original historical work on usury, see John T. Noonan Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957).

22. Noonan, “Amendment of Papal Teaching,” p. 75.

23. John T. Noonan Jr., “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” in The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives, ed. John T. Noonan Jr. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970),  p. 1-59.

24. Noonan, “Development in Moral Doctrine,” 662-67. For Noonan’s brief de-scription of the theory of development implicitly found in Vatican Council II, see John T. Noonan Jr., The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience ofReligious Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p.352-53.

25. Noonan, Contraception, p.533.