The sixth commandment, according to the USCCB, "summons spouses" to an emotional and sexual fidelity they call "essential" to marriage and is reflective of God's "fidelity to us".[1]

Sex and gender roles in the Roman Catholic Church have been the subject of both intrigue and controversy throughout the Church's almost 2000 year history. The cultural influence of the Catholic Church has been vast, particularly upon western society.[2] Christian concepts, introduced into evangelized societies worldwide by the Church, had a significant impact on established cultural views of sex and gender roles. Human sacrifice, slavery, infanticide and polygamy practiced by cultures such as those of the Roman Empire, Europe, Latin America and parts of Africa[3][4][5][6][7] came to an end through Church evangelization efforts. Historians note that Catholic missionaries, popes and religious were among the leaders in campaigns against slavery, an institution that has existed in almost every culture[8][9][10] and often included sexual slavery of women. Christianity affected the status of women in evangelized cultures like the Roman Empire by condemning infanticide (female infanticide was more common), divorce, incest, polygamy and marital infidelity of both men and women.[3][4][11] Some critics say the Church and teachings by St. Paul, the Fathers of the Church and Scholastic theologians perpetuated a notion that female inferiority was divinely ordained,[12] even though official Church teaching[13] considers women and men to be equal, different, and complementary.

Sexual practices of these cultures were affected by the Christian concept of male, female equality. The sexual act, according to the Church, is sacred within the context of the marital relationship that reflects a "complete" and "life-long" "mutual" "gift" "of a man and a woman",[14] one that precludes the polygamy and concubinage common to cultures before the arrival of Christianity. The equality of men and women reflected in the Church teaching that the sexes are meant by divine design to be different and complementary, each having equal dignity and made in the image of God,[15] was also a countercultural concept. The Church is criticized for its policies regarding women priests and birth control which are viewed by some as discriminatory towards women.

Historical overview

Roman Empire

Social structures at the dawn of Christianity in the Roman Empire held that women were inferior to men intellectually and physically and were "naturally dependent".[4] Athenian women were legally classified as children regardless of age and were the "legal property of some man at all stages in her life."[11] Women in the Roman Empire had limited legal rights and could not enter professions. Female infanticide and abortion were practiced by all classes.[11] In family life, men, not women, could have "lovers, prostitutes and concubines" and it was not rare for pagan women to be married before the age of puberty and then forced to consummate the marriage with her often much older husband. Husbands, not wives, could divorce at any time simply by telling the wife to leave. The spread of Christianity changed women's lives in many ways by requiring a man to have only one wife and keep her for life, condemning the infidelity of men as well as women and doing away with marriage of prepubescent girls.[4] Because Christianity outlawed infanticide and because women were more likely than men to convert, there were soon more Christian women than men whereas the opposite was true among pagans.[11]


Latin America

It was women, primarily Amerindian Christian converts who became the primary supporters of the Church.[6] Slavery and human sacrifice were both part of Latin American culture before the Europeans arrived.[16] Spanish conquerers enslaved and sexually abused Indian women on a regular basis.[17] Indian slavery was first abolished by Pope Paul III in the 1537 bull Sublimis Deus which confirmed that "their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans" and they should neither be robbed nor turned into slaves.[16][18][19] While the Spanish military was known for its ill-treatment of Amerindian men and women, Catholic missionaries are credited with championing all efforts to initiate protective laws for the Indians and fought against their enslavement.[20][21]

The missionaries in Latin America felt that the Indians tolerated too much nudity and required them to wear clothes if they lived at the missions. Common Indian sexual practices such as premarital sex, adultery, polygamy, and incest were quickly deemed immoral by the missionaries and prohibited with mixed results. Indians who did not agree to these new rules either left the missions or actively rebelled. Women's roles were sometimes reduced to exclude positions previously enjoyed by women in religious ceremonies or society.[17]



By and large the largest obstacle to evangelization of African people was the rampant practice of polygamy among the various populations. Africa was initially evangelized by Catholic monks of medieval Europe, and then by both Protestants and Catholics from the seventeenth century onward. Each of these evangelizing groups complained "incessantly" about African marriage customs.[22]

Official Church teaching on marital love and sexual issues

According to the Church, humans are sexual beings whose sexual identity extends beyond the body to the mind and soul. The sexes are meant by divine design to be different and complementary, each having equal dignity and made in the image of God.[23] The sexual act is sacred within the context of the marital relationship that reflects a "complete" and "life-long" "mutual" "gift" "of a man and a woman".[14] Sexual sins thus violate not just the body but the person's whole being.[14] In his 1995 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II reflected on this concept by stating,

"After all, young people are always searching for the beauty in love. They want their love to be beautiful. If they give in to weakness, following the models of behavior that can rightly be considered a 'scandal in the contemporary world' (and these are, unfortunately, widely diffused models), in the depths of their hearts they still desire a beautiful and pure love. This is as true of boys as it is of girls. Ultimately, they know that only God can give them this love. As a result, they are willing to follow Christ, without caring about the sacrifices this may entail.[24]

Like orthodox Judaism and Islam, the Catholic Church considers all sexual acts outside of marriage to be grave sins. The gravity of the sin "'excludes one from sacramental communion' until repented of and forgiven in sacramental confession".[14]

Vocation to chastity

Church teaching on the sixth commandment includes a discussion on chastity. The Catechism calls it a "moral virtue ... a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort."[25] Because the Church sees sex as more than just a physical act but rather one that affects both body and soul, it teaches that chastity is a virtue all people are called to acquire.[25] It is defined as the inner unity of a person's "bodily and spiritual being" that successfully integrates a person's sexuality with his or her "entire human nature".[25] To acquire this virtue one is encouraged to enter into the "long and exacting work" of self-mastery that is helped by friendships, God's grace, maturity and education "that respects the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life."[25] The Catechism categorizes violations of the sixth commandment into two categories: "offenses against chastity" and "offenses against the dignity of marriage".[26]

Offenses against chastity

The Catechism lists the following "offenses against chastity"[26] in increasing order of gravity according to Kreeft:[27]

  1. Lust: the Church teaches that sexual pleasure is good and created by God who meant for spouses to "experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit." "Lust does not mean sexual pleasure as such, nor the delight in it, nor the desire for it in its right context.[28] Lust is the desire for sex that seeks the pleasure of it apart from its intended purpose of procreation and the uniting of man and woman, body and soul, in mutual self-donation.[27]
  2. Masturbation is considered sinful for the same reasons as lust but is a step above lust in that it now involves a physical act instead of just a mental one.[27]
  3. Fornication is the sexual union of an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. This is considered contrary to "the dignity of persons and of human sexuality" because it is not ordered to the "good of spouses" or the "generation and education of children".[27]
  4. Pornography ranks yet higher on the scale in gravity of sinfulness because it is considered a perversion of the sexual act which is intended for distribution to third parties for viewing.[27]
  5. Prostitution is sinful for both the prostitute and the customer; it reduces a person to an instrument of sexual pleasure, violating human dignity and harming society as well. The gravity of the sinfulness is less for prostitutes who are forced into the act by destitution, blackmail or social pressure.[27]
  6. Rape is an intrinsically evil act that can cause grave damage to the victim for life.
  7. Incest, or "rape of children by parents or other adult relatives" or "those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them" is considered the most heinous of sexual sins.[26][27]


The Catechism devotes a separate section to homosexuality within its explanation of the sixth commandment. The Church distinguishes between homosexual attractions, which are not considered sinful, and homosexual acts, which are considered sinful. Like all heterosexual acts outside of marriage, homosexual acts are considered sins against this commandment. The Catechism states that they "violate natural law, cannot bring forth life, and do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved."[29][30] The Church teaches that a homosexual inclination is "objectively disordered" and can be a great trial for the person for whom the Church teaches must be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity ... unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."[29][31]

The homosexual person is, according to the Church, "called to chastity". They are instructed to practice the virtues of "self-mastery" that teaches "inner freedom" using the support of friends, prayer and grace found in the sacraments of the Church.[29] These tools are meant to help the homosexually inclined person to "gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection", which is a state to which all Christians are called.[29]

Within the Church community, two different lay movements exist that represent opposing philosophies. The first group called DignityUSA, seeks to change the Church's teachings to justify homosexual acts. The second, Courage International, is an organization of homosexuals who "support each other in the sincere effort to live in chastity and in fidelity to Christ and his Church."[31]

Love of husband and wife


The sixth commandment, according to the USCCB, "summons spouses" to an emotional and sexual fidelity they call "essential" to marriage and is reflective of God's "fidelity to us".[32]

Spousal love, according to Church teaching, is meant to achieve an unbroken, twofold end: union of husband and wife as well as transmission of life.[33] The unitive aspect includes a person's whole being that calls spouses to grow in love and fidelity "so that they are no longer two but one flesh".[33] The sacrament of matrimony is viewed as God's sealing of spousal consent to the gift of themselves to each other. Church teaching on the marital state requires spousal acceptance of each other's failures and faults and the recognition that the "call to holiness in marriage" is one that requires a process of spiritual growth and conversion that can last throughout life.[33]

Fecundity of marriage, sexual pleasure, birth control

Throughout Church history, various Catholic thinkers have offered differing opinions on sexual pleasure. Some saw it as sinful, while others disagreed.[34] There was no formal Church position in the matter until the 1546 Council of Trent decided that "concupiscence" invited sin but was "not formally sinful in itself".[34] In 1679, Pope Innocent XI also weighed in by condemning "marital sex exercised for pleasure alone".[34] The Church position on sexual activity can be summarized as: "sexual activity belongs only in marriage as an expression of total self–giving and union, and always open to the possibility of new life." Sexual acts in marriage are considered "noble and honorable" and are meant to be enjoyed with "joy and gratitude".[33]

The existence of artificial methods of birth control predates Christianity; the Catholic Church as well as all Christian denominations condemned artificial methods of birth control throughout their respective histories. This began to change in the 20th century when the Church of England became the first to accept the practice in 1930.[35] The Catholic Church responded to this new development by issuing the papal encyclical Casti Connubii on 31 December 1930. The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae is a reaffirmation of the Catholic Church's traditional view of marriage and marital relations and a continued condemnation of artificial birth control.[35]

The Church encourages large families and sees this as a blessing. It also recognizes that responsible parenthood sometimes calls for reasonable spacing or limiting of births and thus considers natural family planning as morally acceptable but rejects all methods of artificial contraception.[36] The Church rejects all forms of artificial insemination and fertilization because such techniques divorce the sexual act from the creation of a child. The Catechism states, "A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift ...'the supreme gift of marriageTemplate:'".[36]

Rejecting Church support for natural family planning as a viable form of birth control, some Church members and non-members criticize Church teachings that oppose artificial birth control as contributing to overpopulation, and poverty.[37] The Church's rejection of the use of condoms is especially criticized with respect to countries where the incidence of AIDS and HIV has reached epidemic proportions. The Church maintains that in countries like Kenya and Uganda, where behavioral changes are encouraged alongside condom use, greater progress in controlling the disease has been made than in those countries solely promoting condoms.[38][39]

Priesthood, religious life, celibacy

In the Catholic Church, only men may become ordained clergy through the sacrament of Holy Orders, as bishops, priests or deacons. (see Catholic Church hierarchy) All clergy who are bishops form the College of Bishops and are considered the successors of the apostles.[40][41][note 1]

The Church practice of celibacy is based on Jesus' example and his teaching as given in Matthew 19:11–12 as well as the writings of St. Paul, who spoke of the advantages celibacy allowed a man in serving the Lord.[51] Celibacy was "held in high esteem" from the Church's beginnings. It is considered a kind of spiritual marriage with Christ, a concept further popularized by the early Christian theologian Origen. Clerical celibacy began to be demanded in the 4th century, including papal decretals beginning with Pope Siricius.[52] In the 11th century, mandatory celibacy was enforced as part of efforts to reform the medieval church.[53]

The Catholic view is that since the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus were all male, only men may be ordained in the Catholic Church.[54] While some consider this to be evidence of a discriminatory attitude toward women,[55] the Church believes that Jesus called women to different yet equally important vocations in Church ministry.[56] Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter Christifideles Laici, states that women have specific vocations reserved only for the female sex, and are equally called to be disciples of Jesus.[57] This belief in different and complementary roles between men and women is exemplified in Pope Paul VI's statement "If the witness of the Apostles founds the Church, the witness of women contributes greatly towards nourishing the faith of Christian communities".[57]

Theology of the Body

Spiritual affection

Estasi di Santa Teresa

The Ecstasy of St Teresa in the basilica Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. By an Italian baroque artist, Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Spiritual affection has long been documented in various lives of the saints. Biographies of Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Martin de Porres, Joseph of Cupertino and many others include episodes of spiritual affection witnessed both by others who knew the saint or confessed by the saints themselves in their own writings. In Saint Teresa's Life for instance, she describes what has become known as the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa:

"It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. During the days that this lasted, I went about as if beside myself. I wished to see, or speak with, no one, but only to cherish my pain, which was to me a greater bliss than all created things could give me. I was in this state from time to time, whenever it was our Lord's pleasure to throw me into those deep trances, which I could not prevent even when I was in the company of others, and which, to my deep vexation, came to be publicly known."[58]


  1. Only bishops can administer the sacrament of Holy Orders; and, in the Latin Rite, Confirmation is ordinarily reserved to them.[42] Bishops are responsible for teaching and governing the faithful of their diocese, sharing these duties with the priests and deacons who serve under them. Only priests and bishops may celebrate the Eucharist and administer the sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick. They and deacons may preach, teach, baptize, witness marriages and conduct funeral services.[43] Baptism is normally performed by clergy but is the only sacrament that may be administered in emergencies by any Catholic or even a non-Christian "who has the intention of baptizing according to the belief of the Catholic Church".[44] Married men may become deacons, but only celibate men can ordinarily be ordained as priests in the Latin Rite.[45][46] Married clergymen who have converted to the Church from other denominations are sometimes exempted from this rule.[47] The Eastern Catholic Churches ordain both celibate and married men.[48][49] All rites of the Catholic Church maintain the ancient tradition that marriage is not allowed after ordination. Men with transitory homosexual leanings may be ordained deacons following three years of prayer and chastity, but homosexual men who are sexually active, or those who have deeply rooted homosexual tendencies cannot be ordained.[50]


  1. USCCB, p. 405, quote: "The sixth commandment summons spouses to practice permanent and exclusive fidelity to one another. Emotional and sexual fidelity are essential to the commitment made in the marriage covenant. God established marriage as a reflection of his fidelity to us."
  2. Orlandis, preface
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bokenkotter, p. 56.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Noble, p. 230.
  5. Noble, p. 445.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Stearns, p. 65-66.
  7. Hastings, p. 309.
  8. Chadwick, Owen p. 242.
  9. Noll, p. 137–140.
  10. Duffy, p. 221
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Stark, p. 104.
  12. Bokenkotter, p. 465
  13. Kreeft, p. 61.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Kreeft, p. 245
  15. Kreeft, p. 244
  16. 16.0 16.1 Chadwick, Owen, The Reformation, p. 190
  17. 17.0 17.1 Stearns, p.64–6
  18. Johansen, p. 110, quote: "In the Papal bull Sublimis deus (1537), Pope Paul III declared that Indians were to be regarded as fully human, and that their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans. This edict also outlawed slavery of Indians in any form ..."
  19. Koschorke, p. 290
  20. Woods, p. 135.
  21. Koschorke, p. 287.
  22. Hastings, p. 317
  23. Kreeft, p. 244
  24. John Paul II, p. 123
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 USCCB, pp. 405–406
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Paragraph number 2331–2400 (1994). "Catechism of the Catholic Church". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 27 December 2008. 
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 27.4 27.5 27.6 Kreeft, pp. 247–248
  28. Kreeft, p. 246
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Paragraph number 2357–2359 (1994). "Catechism of the Catholic Church". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 27 December 2008. 
  30. Schreck, p. 314
  31. 31.0 31.1 Kreeft, p. 249
  32. USCCB, p. 405, quote: "The sixth commandment summons spouses to practice permanent and exclusive fidelity to one another. Emotional and sexual fidelity are essential to the commitment made in the marriage covenant. God established marriage as a reflection of his fidelity to us."
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 33.3 USCCB, p. 408
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 Gardella, pp. 10–13
  35. 35.0 35.1 Saunders, William (04 September 2008). "Teachings about contraception found in Scripture". The Catholic Herald. Retrieved 13 May 2009. 
  36. 36.0 36.1 Schreck, p. 315
  37. "Is the Vatican wrong on population control?". BBC News. 1999. Retrieved 8 April 2009. 
  38. Dugger, Carol (18 May 2006). "Why is Kenya's AIDS rate plummeting?". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 21 February 2008. 
  39. Wilson, Brenda (2004). "Study: Verbal Warnings Helped Curb AIDS in Uganda". National Public Radio. Retrieved 15 August 2008. 
  40. "Canon 42". 1983 Code of Canon Law. Vatican. Retrieved 9 March 2008. 
  41. "Canon 375". 1983 Code of Canon Law. Vatican. Retrieved 9 March 2008. 
  42. Barry, p. 114.
  43. Committee on the Diaconate. "Frequently Asked Questions About Deacons". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved 9 March 2008. 
  44. Schreck, p. 227.
  45. "Canon 1037". 1983 Code of Canon Law. Vatican. Retrieved 9 March 2008. 
  46. "Canon 1031". 1983 Code of Canon Law. Vatican. Retrieved 9 March 2008. 
  47. Cholij, Roman (1993). "Priestly Celibacy in Patristics and in the History of the Church". Vatican. Retrieved 6 April 2008. 
  48. Niebuhur, Gustav (16 February 1997). "Bishop's Quiet Action Allows Priest Both Flock And Family". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 April 2008. 
  49. "1990 Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium, Canons 285, 373, 374, 758". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 1990. Retrieved 12 September 2008. 
  50. Pope Benedict XVI (4 November 2005). "Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders". Vatican. Retrieved 9 March 2008. 
  51. Schreck, p. 255.
  52. Bokenkotter, p. 54.
  53. Bokenkotter, p. 145.
  54. Paragraph number 1577 (1994). "Catechism of the Catholic Church". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 8 February 2008. 
  55. Bokenkotter, p. 496.
  56. Pope Benedict XVI, pp. 180–181, quote: "The difference between the discipleship of the Twelve and the discipleship of the women is obvious; the tasks assigned to each group are quite different. Yet Luke makes clear—and the other Gospels also show this in all sorts of ways—that 'many' women belonged to the more intimate community of believers and that their faith-filled following of Jesus was an essential element of that community, as would be vividly illustrated at the foot of the Cross and the Resurrection."
  57. 57.0 57.1 John Paul II, Pope (1988). "Christifideles Laici". Vatican. Retrieved 17 March 2008. 
  58. Teresa of Avila. "Life". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 29 May 2009. 


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