A Question About Marital Intimacy and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body uniquely elaborates the positive foundations of marital love

Pope St. John Paul II visits the Fairbanks Airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 2, 1984.
Pope St. John Paul II visits the Fairbanks Airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 2, 1984. (photo: White House Photographic Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

EDITOR’S ADVISORY: This article discusses the subject of human sexuality from the perspective of Catholic moral theology. It is presented with care and reverence for the teachings of the Church and is intended for thoughtful reflection by married couples and those providing spiritual guidance to them. Readers are advised that the discussion aims to explore this difficult moral question with pastoral sensitivity but may still constitute a near occasion of sin for some.

Q. With the advent of the theology of the body by St. John Paul II, there has been increasing debate in the Catholic Church over what constitutes conjugal chastity and what does not. Why do so many people refer to his writings as justification for stimulation of the wife by the husband as foreplay? For any response, please cite any documents used. — Gabriel, Kentucky

A. Your question suggests you doubt the moral legitimacy of such practices, and you say you’d like ecclesial documents to guide you straight on the question. I cannot name a single document of the Catholic Church, from sacred Scripture, to the writings of the greatest Church Fathers, to Aquinas, to the ecumenical councils, all the way to Vatican II, or any other sound argument from natural law or divine Revelation that says husbands should not pleasure their wives during marital intercourse or that exclude particular forms of sexual stimulation in anticipation of the same. 

Catholic moral teaching is a jealous defender of sexual purity, but most ecclesiastical treatments of married chastity are dedicated to condemnations of sins against the virtue. Theology of the body uniquely elaborates the positive foundations of marital love enjoining spouses to offer themselves sexually for the well-being of one another. 

Scripture’s overwhelming message is to avoid every form of nonmarital sexual behavior, especially adultery and fornication: “Take heed to keep thyself, my son, from all fornication” (Tobit 4:12); “Be ashamed of fornication” (Sirach 41:17); “From the heart come forth adulteries and fornications, which defile a man” (Matthew 15:19); “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you should abstain from fornication” (1 Thessalonians 4:3); “Flee from fornication” (1 Corinthians 6:18); “Keep not company with fornicators” (5:9); “Neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor sodomites shall possess the kingdom of God” (6:9); “Fornication, and all uncleanness and covetousness, let it not so much as be named among you” (Ephesians 5:3). Even the “lust” condemned by Jesus in his “appeal to the heart” in Matthew 5 — “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ But I say to you …” — concerns seeking sexual pleasure outside the context of marital intercourse. None of these teaches or implies that a husband may not pleasure his wife or engage in foreplay in the context of marital intercourse.

Consider too Aquinas: “Venereal acts can be without sin, provided they be performed in due manner and order, in keeping with the end of human procreation” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 153, a. 2)

The “due manner and order” of which he speaks is that intercourse be rightly oriented towards the ends of procreation and marital fidelity. Since Vatican II, marital fidelity has been articulated as the “good of the spouses” themselves (the “mutual help of husband and wife,” sometimes included broadly under the term the “unitive good”): procreation and spousal unity, the ancient Catholic teaching on the right ordering of sexual intercourse. See also St. Pius V in Catechism of the Council of Trent (eds. McHugh & Callan, 1956, pp. 343-44, see also 350-51), Pope Leo XIII in Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae (26, see also 10), Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii (23-24, see also 11-12), Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes (48, 50, 51), St. Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (12, 14), and St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (32, also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2363), and theology of the body, General Audience, Nov. 14, 1979

Let me repeat, the minimum condition for spousal chastity in matters of sexual intimacy is that the complementary sexual union of husband and wife remain oriented towards — open to, respectful of — the goods of unity and procreation. Another way to say this is that all sexual acts should be properly marital. Acts other than marital intercourse and those properly oriented to marital intercourse are illicit.

It follows that acts of foreplay oriented towards — i.e., that facilitate — marital intercourse are licit. What types of foreplay spouses choose is a matter of aesthetic preference. This does not mean that all forms of foreplay are licit. Rather, only those that facilitate marital intercourse. This means acts of foreplay too must be respectful of the goods of the spouses and procreation. If foreplay is a near occasion of sin; if it risks ejaculation outside of the specifically procreative act; if spouses denigrate each other or cause physical or psychological harm to one another in anticipation of sexual intercourse, then, because such are inconsistent with the good of spouses, they are illicit. But regarding acts of foreplay that don’t meet someone’s aesthetic preferences, these ought not to be condemned, even if someone is disinclined to choose them for himself. 

As for pleasuring one’s wife, presuming it is proximate to — i.e., before, during or after — a complete act of marital intercourse, such an act is not only licit but — as a matter of justice — could be a regular part of spousal sexual relations. Many wives do not climax during intercourse, which is otherwise ecstatically pleasurable to the husbands. In such cases, husbands should always be open to stimulating their wives. The reason need hardly be stated: sexual pleasure is not only for husbands but is for the good of the spouses. To exclude one’s wife from the pleasure of marital intercourse because of selfishness, over-scrupulosity or harmful rigorism is at least venially sinful; and to do so over a long period of time is in my judgment gravely sinful. 

Husbands need not fear that this is tantamount to masturbation, since masturbation, whether of oneself or another, is stimulation to orgasm outside the context of intercourse. Since the timing of a woman’s climax frequently does not correspond to the husband’s ejaculation, a husband who gently assists his wife to climax is treating her as he would want to be treated.