Roman Catholic Church · Sex

Roman Catholic Church


Fig. 1. Saint Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, with the rectory in the foreground, in Mount Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The electronic sign says, “Chastity: The way to human flourishing,” suggesting the website The text on this side of the sign isn’t much more legible in person (it’s a little better on the other side). Photograph by author, August 27, 2023.

Fig. 2. “Lust, from the ‘Seven Deadly Sins.’” Etching by Léon Davent, circa 1550-1555, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Yet both sides in the debate [over contraception] agree that what is at stake isn’t merely a particular prohibition but the [Roman Catholic] church’s wider approach to sexual and medical ethics. One side stresses the objective morality or immorality of specific acts; the other seeks to give greater emphasis to a person’s intentions and the particular circumstances in which he or she acts.

Conservatives warn that lifting the categorical ban on artificial birth control would open a Pandora’s box by contradicting the reasoning behind other prohibitions. Janet Smith, a retired professor of ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told the conference in Rome that contraception leads to the acceptance of promiscuity, gay relationships, assisted reproductive technology and transgenderism.[1]

What remains here is an adamance that all sex must be for, among other things, procreation against a nuance of moral discernment.[2] Which is probably more words than you need for, don’t hold your breath for Roman Catholic hierarchy sanity anytime soon.

On the “strict father” (conservative, in opposition to socially liberal “nurturant parent”) side of his moral political binary, George Lakoff observed an essentialization of women as childbearers.[3] What I see in the Roman Catholic arguments against any form of birth control, and therefore any non-procreative sexuality or gender identification,[4] is an assumed essentialization, generally embraced by social and traditionalist conservatives,[5] who are now united with nearly all conservatives as white Christian nationalists,[6] of sex as procreative. This essentialization of sex at least parallels and likely undergirds the essentialization of women.

Yes, babies may result from sex. But they don’t always, and not merely because of birth control. The essentialization of sex as procreative ignores instances where fertilization does not occur, miscarriages, and sex when any partners, for any of numerous reasons, are not fertile, just as it arbitrarily excludes people of non-procreative sexualities and gender identities. Yet the traditionalist and social conservative arguments against any form of birth control and against against any non-procreative sexuality or gender identification all ultimately and in various guises assume this essentialization.

I hesitate to categorize this essentialization of sex as procreative as foundational, but, among white Christian nationalists and among many of their illiberal compatriots around the world, it certainly appears beyond challenge.

If the god of Abraham indeed created sex for procreation, he also created the persuasions among some people that they are not heterosexual and that their genders do not conform to their body parts. Whatever we think of these persuasions, the conservative essentialization assigns a reality to the physical that it does not extend to the psychological.[7] And yet, if we exclude the psychological from our ontology, how can we possibly include the spiritual?

See also:

Matthai Kuruvila, “New S.F. archbishop appointed by pope,” SFGate, July 27, 2012,

Dan Brekke, “High-Profile S.F. Catholics Ask Pope to Remove Archbishop Cordileone,” KQED, April 16, 2015,

Michelle Boorstein, “Catholic bishops vote on controversial Communion document,” Washington Post, June 18, 2021,

Matt Viser, “Biden, deeply Catholic president, finds himself at odds with many U.S. bishops,” Washington Post, June 18, 2021,

Elisabetta Povoledo, Richard Pérez-Peña, and Ruth Graham, “Pope Weighs In on Calls to Deny Communion to Biden Over Abortion,” New York Times, September 15, 2021,

Donna Cassata, “Top Vatican cardinal says Biden should not be denied Communion,” Washington Post, October 4, 2021,

Philip Pullella, “Pope meets Pelosi as abortion debate rages back home,” Reuters, October 9, 2021,

Amy B. Wang and Chico Harlan, “Biden to meet with Pope Francis to discuss coronavirus, climate change, caring for poor,” Washington Post, October 14, 2021,

Matt Viser, “Biden’s meeting with the pope carries resonance as disputes divide U.S. Catholics,” Washington Post, October 24, 2021,

Chico Harlan and Seung Min Kim, “Biden says Pope Francis called him a good Catholic and said he should keep receiving Communion,” Washington Post, October 29, 2021,

Anugrah Kumar, “Biden takes communion in Rome after saying Pope Francis called him a ‘good Catholic,’” Christian Post, November 1, 2021,

Michelle Boorstein, “Pope’s emissary urges U.S. bishops to listen and unite as they ready to vote on Communion document,” Washington Post, November 16, 2021,

Michelle Boorstein, “U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approves Communion document without singling out politicians who back abortion rights,” Washington Post, November 17, 2021,

Seema Mehta, Christian Martinez, and David Lauter, “San Francisco archbishop says Rep. Nancy Pelosi is not entitled to receive Communion,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2022,

Donna Cassata and John Wagner, “Pelosi challenges archbishop’s denial of Communion over abortion rights,” Washington Post, May 24, 2022,

Michael Coren, “Spare us the pseudo-Christian virtue signalling over Nancy Pelosi’s soul,” New Statesman, May 25, 2022,

Ed Kilgore, “Denied Communion at Home, Pelosi Receives It at the Vatican,” New York, June 29, 2022,

Shannon Mullen and Joe Bukuras, “Vatican dismisses Father Frank Pavone from priesthood,” Catholic News Agency, December 17, 2022,

Francis X. Rocca, “Is the Catholic Church Rethinking Contraception?” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2022,

George Kelly, “San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese Files for Bankruptcy Amid Sex Abuse Lawsuits,” San Francisco Standard, August 21, 2023,

Michelle Boorstein, “Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, facing possible slew of abuse lawsuits, files for bankruptcy,” Washington Post, September 29, 2023,

Anthony Faiola, Michelle Boorstein, and Kate Brady, “Amid liberal revolt, pope signals openness to blessings for gay couples,” Washington Post, October 2, 2023,

  1. [1]Francis X. Rocca, “Is the Catholic Church Rethinking Contraception?” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2022,
  2. [2]Francis X. Rocca, “Is the Catholic Church Rethinking Contraception?” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2022,
  3. [3]George Lakoff, Moral Politics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  4. [4]Francis X. Rocca, “Is the Catholic Church Rethinking Contraception?” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2022,
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  6. [6]David Benfell, “My 2024 forecast,” Not Housebroken, November 13, 2022,
  7. [7]The scientific consensus seems now to be that the origins of non-procreative sexualities and gender identities are not psychological but rather that people are indeed “born this way.” I have not yet seen a satisfactory psychological or biological explanation and suspect that the correct answer here is that these sexualities and gender identities are emergent properties. That makes them no less “real.”