To my sorrow, I must also point out that a similar position on foreplay and unnatural sexual acts as that of Gregory Popcak is taken by the highly-regarded moral theologian, Germain Grisez, in his large work The Way of The Lord Jesus Christ. He seems to indicate that any kind of foreplay between the spouses is allowed as long as they both find it pleasurable and affirming and that the act ends in a way open to procreation. I would like, in fact, to quote him at length here, and, with gentleness and love, to point out not only the inherent fallacies in his logic, but also how he radically loses sight of the very essence of marriage and the sexual embrace and subtly, and I assume unintentionally, redefines the very language of the Church to mean the opposite of the Church’s actual intentions. I would humbly ask you to bear with me if you find yourself getting impatient or frustrated, for there are moments of great beauty that have broken forth in this very reflection, insights into the authentic beauty of sexuality and love, born precisely by pushing through the subtle distortions into a yet deeper and more joyful contact with the fullness of light and beauty.

First, let me quote Grisez’s own words. In chapter 9 of the volume Living a Christian Life of the above mentioned work, Grisez speaks about sexual ethics. The chapter is entitled “Marriage, Sexual Acts, and Family Life.” It is a very long and detailed treatment of sexual morality, and yet one very soon gets the impression that, essentially, it is hardly more than a very long explanation of “what is allowed” in the realm of sex without breaking the one rule: that both spouses feel loved by one another in enjoying the sexual act, and that this act does not lead to a climax outside of natural intercourse. He begins his treatment by defining the term “sexual acts.” He writes:

Sexual act refers to any act whatsoever—whether thought, word, or deed—in which someone intends, either as an end in itself or as a means to some other end, to bring about or maintain sexual arousal and/or to cause incomplete or complete sexual satisfaction [i.e. orgasm], whether in himself or herself, in another, or both.

Since sexual capacity enables human persons to participate in the good of marital communion, Christian married couples should engage in sexual acts which are conducive to that good and are otherwise reasonable, but should avoid all other sexual activity. If a sexual act is not marital, it violates the good of marriage, and so is not appropriate for any Christian. (Question E)

This is a very subtly veiled “one rule.” Let me try to show how these terms, “sexual act,” and “sexual satisfaction,” and above all “the good of marital communion” are subtly twisted in the text that follows. Before diving into his explicit explanation of sexual acts, let me give one more example of his “one rule” definition:

A married couple’s sexual act can fail in either of two ways to be a marital act: (I) if at least one partner performs the act unwillingly or unlovingly (for example, if a third party compels a married couple to engage in intercourse, if a drunken husband forces his reluctant wife to submit, or if a wife has intercourse with her husband while deliberately wishing she were having intercourse with another man);i or (ii) if either or both spouses do anything inconsistent with their act’s being of itself suited to procreating (for example, if spouses unable to engage in intercourse due to the husband’s impotence masturbate each other to orgasm, if a couple trying to prevent the transmission of disease use a condom, or if either or both spouses do something in order to impede conception).

Provided the couple willingly and lovingly do what is suited to cause conception when the other necessary causal factors are given, their human act is marital even if they know that those factors will not be given—that they are infertile, temporarily or permanently—due to causes extrinsic to their action. Moreover, provided the husband and wife do what is of itself suited to procreating, their will to engage in true marital intercourse is the only intention they must have to make what they do a marital act. They may also intend to procreate, but, even if conception is possible, they need not; it is sufficient if they simply intend to actualize their one-flesh unity so that they can experience and enjoy it. (E.1.a. Italics mine.)

Here we begin to see, very clearly, the distortion of the “two principles” that make up the one rule given by Grisez. He says that there are two ways in which a sexual act can fail to be an authentically “marital act,” by which he means that it fosters, expresses, or deepens “marital communion” (by which, as we will see, he more or less means mutual gratification in the experience of sexual pleasure). There is, already here, a profound twist that occurs of the Church’s authentic teaching. The Church says that, for an act of husband and wife to truly be a “marital” act, it must express, simultaneously and in their indissoluble interrelationship, the two meanings of sexuality: unitive and pro-creative. Grisez, however, reduces the term “unitive” down to “not forced or unwilled” by either of the spouses. There is here a radical reduction of the understanding of true union, to the lowest common denominator (as if anything that is not forced is loving, and anything forced is unloving, for example the cruel and unusual act of forcing a toddler to eat off of the “airplane spoon.”)

The same is indeed true for the understanding of the pro-creative meaning, which by Grisez (and by many if not most contemporary thinkers on this topic) means that the act must climax with the man’s orgasm occurring within the body of the woman. (Ronald L. Conte Jr. is an exception, whose argument is similar to the one I am about to give.) But the true spirit and intent of the Church’s teaching is not to draw a “lowest common denominator” to avoid sin (as if these things, after all, were not sins). The Church’s intent is rather to express the path towards the deepest possible transparency with which husband and wife can express and seal their wedded intimacy in the sight of God, and as a true sharing in the intimacy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Let me return to the above text, and continue the analysis of its implications. In particular, the implications of the italicized sentence, which is his “one rule,” are quite clear. Basically, he says that husband and wife, as long as they will their acts to be marital, and don’t impede conception, then the acts are marital. This is a form of moral relativism, in which acts derive their meaning, not from what they actually are or from their intrinsic significance, but merely from one’s “wish” that they be what one desires them to be.

Now let me quote some (though not all) of the most explicit sections. Forgive me for the explicit, irreverent, and even disgusting treatment of the sexual realm, in which the person and the true nature of intimacy disappear. I wish it was not necessary to share his words, but I think that it is important precisely so that you, too, may see the subtlety with which such acts can be justified. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I will add my critiques in between the paragraphs of his own text. Grisez writes:

Marital sexual acts short of intercourse can be chaste. Ejaculation by the male in the female’s vagina is necessary for sexual intercourse insofar as it is a reproductive function, and so such ejaculation is necessary for a complete act of marital intercourse. However, within marriage various sexual acts short of complete intercourse can be chaste. Of course, like intercourse itself, such acts are chaste only insofar as spouses seek in them, not pleasure alone, but the wider good of marital communion in which pleasure is a subordinate element. Therefore, what is said here about acts short of intercourse should be understood, not as advising the married how they can maximize sexual gratification without committing mortal sins, but as clarifying some of the requirements of marital chastity. (E.1.h for all of the following)

Grisez will immediately proceed, after saying this, to disprove precisely his point; in other words, he will being advising the married on how they can maximize sexual gratification without (supposedly) committing mortal sins.

Marital sexual acts short of intercourse are good in themselves if they (i) are necessary or helpful to marital intercourse and/or (ii) express and foster marital affection. Still, even if good in itself, an act short of intercourse can be bad due to a wrong intention or some circumstance.* Thus, such acts become bad if they either (iii) are intended to bring about complete sexual satisfaction apart from marital intercourse or (iv) are in some other way at odds with the good of marital communion.

If you read this paragraph carefully, I imagine that you will see what I saw. He says very little, almost nothing, of substance. What, after all, does it means for an act to be necessary or helpful to marital intercourse? What does it mean to express and foster marital affection? In what way is something at odds with the good of marital communion, and what, after all, is marital communion? The only statement here that actually has an objective, identifiable content, is number iii: that one should not deliberately intend to bring about a complete sexual climax outside of natural intercourse. This subtle emptiness of content becomes immediately apparent when he applies it to concrete acts below.

i) Mutually agreeable erotic words, looks, gestures, and bodily contact of various sorts, including manual and oral stimulation of the genitals, can prepare psychologically and/or physiologically for marital intercourse, and can intensify the experience of communion and make it more gratifying. Self-stimulating acts also can prepare oneself for intercourse.

This is perhaps one of the ugliest things ever written in the history of the world. It is hard for me to respond to this… Essentially, this is where the subtle shift happens in which the term “communion” loses all of its meaning. It no longer means anything close to the true attunement of persons to one another in affirming love and their true mutual self-donation of every level of their being. Instead, it comes to mean, for all practical purposes: mutual enjoyment of one another’s bodies (and of one’s own if this is “helpful”). How, after all, would “erotic words” or oral sex or self-stimulation “intensify the experience of communion” between husband and wife? The first would, rather, be simply a form of “verbal masturbation” which inherently obscures the focus from the personal realm to the sexual and the orgasmic, and is just a way of stimulating sexual excitement. But of course he goes much further. He says that masturbation—either of oneself or of one’s spouse—and oral stimulation, and various forms of bodily contact (just give it a try and see what it feels like!) can “prepare,” either psychologically or physically, for the act of intercourse, and make it more gratifying.

Gratifying… What, after all, is being sought here? Intimate and loving affirmation of persons for one another in the sight of God? The tender embrace of mutual self-donation open to life, in the awareness of both that they are entering a sacred space calling for great reverence and awe, and only by the express sanction of God? No, for all practical purposes, God has been totally forgotten. And, because of this, the beauty and dignity of the person has also been lost. The beauty and dignity of a singular man and a singular woman—in their rich complementarity ordained to manifest the inner life of the Trinity and, through their intimacy and love, to accompany and draw one another ever deeper into the divine embrace—has been totally submerged in an addiction to sexual pleasure and the experience of sensual excitement and orgasm.

ii) In the intervals between marital intercourse, interaction leading to moderate sexual arousal can both bring about a continuing experience of one-flesh communion and prepare indirectly and remotely for eventual marital intercourse. Thus, when abstinence from intercourse is appropriate, married couples sometimes rightly express and foster their affection by sexually stimulating interaction.ii*

There are two fallacies in this paragraph. The first: Sexually stimulating interaction between the spouses, which only “moderately” arouses (what does that mean?), but which does not, for reasons of abstinence, lead to intercourse, is a so-called “continuing experience of one-flesh communion.” Now, the definition of one-flesh communion is that husband and wife are joined in such a way that the beautiful symbolism and rich meaning of the sexual embrace is fulfilled in the interpenetration of their bodies, and in the total surrender of each through complete gift of self, sealed in the gift of the man’s seed to the woman. This alone, in fact, constitutes the consummation of a marriage in the eyes of the Church, and anything less is not considered an authentic marital act. Now, in these circumstance, none of these things actually occur. Rather, the two persons are simply sexually arousing one another, to a so-called “moderate” degree, as if this were the same thing as the true consummation of their marriage, expecting this to somehow perpetuate, when the full sexual act is not proper, the same experience of true closeness in affirming love.

There is also a fallacy in saying that such moderate sexual stimulation can “prepare indirectly and remotely for eventual marital intercourse.” This is not only morally, ethically, and theologically wrong, but it is also medically, psychologically, and physiologically wrong. Essentially, what husband and wife who act this way are doing is training their minds and their bodies to “play” with each other for the sake of experiencing the pleasure of sexual stimulation, but to avoid, at all costs, the things that lead to a full orgasm. What happens, then, whenever the sexual act in fact does occur? The body is trained precisely to avoid the inherent meaning that God wrote into the sexual embrace, and rather to do nothing but respond to pleasure-evoking touch and stimulation. It is things such as this that lead to sexual impotence, in which, essentially, a man can no longer have an erection in the normal way that God intended: that is, by a deep affective response to the global beauty of his wife as a person, by the inner attraction of his heart which also harnesses his body as a gift to her. In a truly healthy and integrated sexuality, in fact, no physical touch of the stimulating kind is necessary for the man and woman to attain adequate arousal for penetrative intercourse. It is enough for both of them to be aware that this is what they are about to do, and perhaps for them to prepare for the act by reverently undressing and unveiling themselves before one another and holding one another gently in this place. In other words, the depth of their love is adequate.


* This itself is a profound fallacy, for something that is “good in itself” is always good, intrinsically good, for it has been designed as good by God. It can only be corrupted if a bad intention or differing circumstance, or a corruption of the very act, alters its meaning (for example, the sexual embrace is good in itself, but if it occurs between unmarried persons, its basic meaning is altered). But he says that incomplete sexual acts are good “in themselves,” precisely not in themselves, but because of their insertion into another act, outside of themselves, which they supposedly serve. This is false. They are not good in themselves, but by being inserted into the act that is intrinsically good, namely, natural intercourse, they supposedly become good too.

* Here Grisez even further expands his justification of the “inclusion” of incomplete sexual acts within a complete sexual act, which, so to speak, makes them good sexual acts themselves. Not only are they supposedly good because they accompany the natural sexual act, helping and preparing for it immediately (which in itself is false), but he claims that they are good even as remote forms of preparation. Now how are forms of foreplay meant to help prepare, to be “fore-play” for an act of complete intercourse which won’t occur for a few more days, or weeks, or months? Clearly, this foreplay is not a matter of true affirmation and authentic union, but of mutual use in the name of love.

i. Essentially, the arguments against foreplay and other unnatural and incomplete sexual acts—even by those who strongly disapprove of them—are actually based on the same reductive fallacy as are the arguments of those who approve of them. Namely, they argue that such acts are not pro-creative, not open to life, but they usually don’t explain adequately, with the necessary clarity, how exactly this is so. For after all, even if a husband and wife do “act however they want” in and around the sexual act, as long as the seed is truly given, then the act is open to pro-creation. Thus, to argue against foreplay on the basis of the Church’s position against contraception is inadequate, and in the end is not convincing. Another step needs to be made so that it really unveils the subtle distortion of foreplay and any and all other unnatural sexual acts (by which I mean anything that is not natural penetrative intercourse from beginning to end).

It is necessary, therefore, to look more deeply at the inseparable connection between the unitive and pro-creative meanings of the sexual sphere. If we reflect on this for a moment, it becomes immediately apparent that the two, indeed, intersect and in a certain way become identical. What I mean by this is that the act of sexual intercourse is pro-creative precisely because it is unitive; the openness to fruitfulness and new life springs from the very union of husband and wife in the authentic intimacy of their one-flesh union, which expresses and seals the total gift of themselves to one another in the presence of God. Every form of closedness to pro-creation is in some way identical with a pulling-back from the fullness of union, from a truly unitive act in which everything is given and husband and wife become fully one. What happens in the arguments of those who propagate for the goodness, or at least permissibility, of incomplete sexual acts (directly or remotely) related to a complete sexual act, is that they view the sexual experience only “as a whole.” In other words, as long as the act, in its entirety, contains an element of natural intercourse that climaxes as it ought, the whole in some way becomes an authentic sexual and marital act, even if incomplete and disordered acts accompany it.

But this is simply not true. All unnatural sexual acts, by which either of the genital organs of either person are deliberately aroused either through direct stimulation or through other forms of touch, are not truly unitive. They are rather a diversion from the innate unitive tendency of the body of man and woman to come together in an authentically one-flesh union—in which the man’s body truly penetrates the woman’s body in the precise place where she was created to receive him, and the two remain in this embrace until the total sexual surrender is given. To say that unnatural and incomplete sexual acts occur as preparations for or enhancements to the one-flesh union is to say that an act that is inherently disordered somehow becomes legitimate by occurring in or around an act that is ordered. Acts of foreplay, therefore, are inherently disordered, not only because they are not in themselves open to pro-creation (though this is also true and obvious), but also because they are not in any way an act of authentic intimacy between man and woman according to the word that God himself designed sexuality and the body to speak. In other words, they are not unitive; their word, instead, is simply a word of use. There is, in fact, only one way to speak the word of authentic unitive love in the sexual sphere, and it is a breathtakingly beautiful way in which both man and woman, to the degree that they live it according to his intentions, will experience the intimacy that God wrote into human existence incarnate in their very bodies.

ii. I want to clarify here that, to all appearances, Grisez is recommending deliberate sexual arousal, a kind of “approaching” of or “approximation” to the sexual sphere whenever the full entrance into the sexual sphere is not proper for reasons of abstinence—in other words, when the total word of mutual self-donation in the sexual embrace is not proper. It is clear that this is intrinsically wrong, for it is a kind of “playing around” with faculties that were intended only for one purpose, and innately changes their meaning from donation to pleasure, which thus is a form of taking. (This is masturbation, even if it does not lead to climax, and even if the deliberate stimulation is indirect.) Therefore it is never proper to seek sexual arousal outside of the sexual act itself, and, even in the sexual act, sexual arousal is but the natural physiological expression of the choice and desire of the heart to seal and consummate anew the marital love between husband and wife, and ought not to be focused on in and for itself.

But what about a spontaneous and unintended arousal that occurs in the normal expressions of inherently chaste tenderness? For, after all, different persons have different levels of sensitivity to this, and certain people may experience arousal, not only by the awareness of entering the sexual sphere, but even by the experience of tender touch or by deep affective movements of the heart. Often such sensitivity is the result of a kind of “repression,” in which the physiological movements are intensified beyond their natural balance precisely by a person bearing a particular shame or fear concerning them. But this is not always the case. It is also true simply that man and woman’s bodies, united to their hearts, can be “awakened” by the deep love that they have for one another, without there in fact being a “sexual” theme at all to such arousal.

Is it necessary, though, to renounce innately chaste and “virginal” expressions of tenderness if, as an unintended consequence, a certain degree of sexual arousal may arise? The answer seems to be a clear no, as such arousal is in no way being sought, nor is it made an explicit or deliberate theme of such expressions of love. If one were always to try to avoid any unintended arousal, this may in fact be more distracting, and make of arousal more of a theme, than simply allowing the body to be what it is, and neither fleeing always from any unintended arousal nor seeking arousal itself, either inside of or outside of the properly sexual sphere. The fracture of arousal from the choice of the heart is simply a consequence of the “autonomy” of the body from the spirit due to original sin, and will only be fully overcome in the new creation. What matters, in other words, is simply that the body’s arousal, and the experience of such arousal, is never made an explicit theme, either in or outside of the sexual sphere. If it occurs in an unintended or undesired circumstance, it is not necessary to violently cut it off by pulling away from such tenderness, but neither should it be fostered. It can simply be tolerated as part of the “spontaneity” of the body in this life, and lifted up into the chaste desires of the person to live in an inherently virginal love that surpasses the sexual realm, even if the body itself retains its natural inclination towards the sexual expression.