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Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction

Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler
Published by Georgetown University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Christopher Tollefsen, Philosophy, University of South Carolina

Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler’s new book is a follow-up to their earlier, more academic, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology. It is written with a view to the “people in the pews” (xiii), but they argue for the same essential positions with many of the same arguments.

In their prologue, the authors identify a number of contrasts and specify with which side of the contrasting positions they will identify. There is, for example, the contrast between nature and reason as the theoretical underpinning for moral judgment; the authors side with the latter, and rarely refer to “nature” without scare quotes. This is because they say, quoting Alfred Schutz, “It is the meaning of our experiences and not the ontological structure of the objects that constitutes reality” (xxi). A second contrast is between a classicist and a historicist worldview. The former “asserts that reality is static, necessary, fixed, and universal” (xvi), while the latter sees reality as “dynamic, evolving, changing, and particular” (Ibid). Their approach will be historicist. Finally, their approach will be perspectivist, which the authors distinguish from relativism: they have not, they say, abandoned truth, but they have embraced the idea that all truth is merely partial.

The historical and classical approaches are discussed again in chapter 1 where the former is described as “empirical” and sensitive to experience. The authors see Catholic ethics as divided between these two approaches. Traditionally, sexual ethics was a matter for the classical approach, delivering “laws and absolute norms to be universally and uncritically obeyed” (4). The Church’s social ethics, by contrast, has been more sympathetic to the historical, empirical approach, and has yielded only “principles for reflection … criteria for judgment … [and] guidelines for action” (3). One might wonder at the accuracy of this; surely Evangelium Vitae counts as in some important sense a contribution to the Church’s social ethics, despite its uncompromising position on the various life issues. And a full sexual ethics might very well contain both absolute norms, never to be violated, and matters for prudent determination; indeed, this seems to be the Church’s view of any number of different domains of ethics.

The authors seek to change their perceived dichotomy by providing a sexual ethics more sensitive to experience, to historicity, and to personal prudence and judgment. Accordingly, in the rest of the book, after a chapter-long survey of the history of Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, and a chapter proposing a foundational principle for sexual ethics, the authors provide four subsequent and revisionary chapters addressing matters of sexual ethics on which the Catholic Church has hitherto spoken in a rather uncompromising way: the morality of contraception, the morality of premarital sex, the morality of same-sex sexual acts, and the morality of artificial reproductive technologies. In each case the authors seek to show that the acts in question are not, in fact, always and everywhere wrong, but that they can be morally appropriate if performed justly and lovingly.

The foundational principle governing their revisions of Catholic sexual ethics is adapted both from the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, and from more recent statements of the magisterium. From the Council, the authors take the idea that sexual acts must be expressed “in a manner which is truly human.” From more recent writings, and with some reservations, they take the idea of “complementarity.” Their interpretation of each is revisionary, since official Church documents have held that a “truly human” sexual act must be both unitive and procreative in nature, something possible only in the context of a marital relationship founded on gender complementarity. Salzman and Lawler assert that the core kind of complementarity of interest to the Vatican in its formulation of sexual norms is “heterogenital” complementarity, which is necessary but not sufficient for “reproductive” complementarity. There are also various kinds of personal complementarity, including communion, affective, and parental complementarity.

It is in the distinction between heterogenital and reproductive complementarity that Salzman and Lawler find their wedge. Not all sexual acts in which there is the former kind of complementarity will in fact be reproductive, and in many, there is definitive reason to believe that there will be no reproduction as in the sexual acts of infertile couples. Salzman and Lawler claim that these “permanently or temporarily nonreproductive heterosexual acts” are “essentially different kinds of acts” from those in which reproduction can occur. But then, if such acts are nevertheless permissible, it is either only because of bare heterogenital complementarity or because such acts can in fact be complementary at a personal level. But if this second option is the case, then personal complementarity – hetero or homosexual – may well suffice for rendering a sexual act – even one of an obviously non-reproductive sort – permissible, and this is what Salzman and Lawler argue. A definition of “truly human” then follows: “The needed complementarity for a truly human sexual act is holistic complementarity that unites people bodily, affectively, spiritually, and personally under the umbrella of a person’s sexual orientation” (74).

Is this personal complementarity possible between contracepting spouses? In chapter 3, Salzman and Lawler argue in the affirmative, and suggest as well that it is only marriage itself, and not each and every marital act, that must be open to life, contrary to the words of Pius VI in Humanae Vitae. Marital morality must thus be situated in the context not of marital acts but of the overall relationship. This move is familiar in defenses of contraception, but fails to reckon adequately with the reality that single acts can be definitive for (mis)-shaping an agent’s character; and the authors do not address defenders of Church teachings who argue that the conta-life and contra-marital-unity character of contraceptive acts do indeed so mis-shape the contraceptors’ character.

In chapter 4, Salzman and Lawler argue for a form of pre-marital cohabitation and sexual intimacy, as couples grow toward a more perfect condition of marriage. Salzman and Lawler dispute the claims of social scientists who argue that cohabitation leads to higher divorce rates, arguing that this is only the case where there is no commitment to get married eventually. Marriage should, accordingly, be understood as a process, and not an act with an all-or-nothing character. Salzman and Lawler do not consider, however, whether encouraging cohabitation among those committed to marriage would result in more cohabitation among those not so committed, nor do they say what number of cohabitating but committed couples break up before marriage. Beyond the moral deficiencies this proposal suffers by the standards of traditional Catholic sexual ethics, it strikes me also as radically unrealistic about its likely bad effects.

In chapter 5, they extend the obvious implications of their foundational principle to the morality of homosexual sex acts. Their argument there also strives to show that biblical prohibitions on such acts are misunderstood if they are read as blanket prohibitions rather than, say, prohibitions on effeminate behavior. And they draw on social science research to argue that same-sex couples are as stable, and their children as well adapted, as the relationships and children of heterosexual couples. But the plausibility of their biblical interpretations is questionable, and it is similarly questionable whether social science research of any kind is dispositive for the moral questions surrounding the nature of marriage and sexual ethics.

In chapter 6, they turn to artificial reproductive technologies, such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. With their focus on the context of the overall relationship, they argue that it can be mutually respectful of the spouses to separate that which Humanae Vitae said was not to be separated, the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act, here in a direction opposite to that of contraception. They conclude that a number of technologies condemned by the magisterium in Donum Vitae should be considered permissible. They do not, unfortunately, consider what I take to be the strongest argument found in DV, that the act of making children places them in a position of relative subordination which is insufficiently respectful of their full personhood.

There is not space in a review of this length to do justice to the great number of additional objections that will surely be raised to this book by more traditional Catholics, so I will confine myself to a few very brief points. First, despite the best efforts of Salzman and Lawler to present their thought as a Catholic sexual ethic, it is unclear how they can be said to be “thinking with the Church,” when they reject so consistently, on the basis of experience, those teachings which the Church has held to most strongly and for the length of its days. More traditional Catholics take seriously the invitation to shape and reshape their “experience” of the world and their sexuality in that world, in light of Scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium, whereas Salzman and Lawler place, it seems, an overwhelming emphasis on experience. But they ignore the fact that the experience of those who follow the Church is often described by those “traditionalists” as confirming the wisdom of what the Church teaches.

Moreover, contrary to Salzman and Lawler’s claim that traditional sexual ethics is associated with a classical obey-and-ask-no-questions approach, it should be clear that, since the overthrowing of the traditional paradigm of sexual ethics in the 1960s and earlier, “classical” thinkers in the Catholic Church have articulated with great depth and sophistication not only the rationale for the traditional norms of the Church (should the work of GEM Anscombe on this front really be thought of as insufficiently attentive to experience?), but also, and with great sympathy, the phenomenology of married love; many of the best parts of Salzman and Lawler’s book, in which they discuss the nature of just and self-giving love, sound like the words of John Paul II.

Perhaps because it is an effort to reach out to the people in the pews, Sexual Ethics also fails to give adequate attention to the best arguments of traditionalists. To take but one example: the claim that sexual acts between married couples who are right now fertile, and those who are temporarily or permanently infertile, are different kinds of acts is one that has been discussed at great length by thinkers such as Robert P. George, Patrick Lee, and Mary Geach. In fact, such acts seem precisely to be of the same type in a way that a sexual, or any other kind of act that can, by its nature, never bring about new life, is not. Even in infertile sex acts between a man and a woman, there is a biological orientation and striving toward reproduction. It is this mutual striving that, as Alex Pruss argues in his new book One Body,1 gives sense to the claim that spouses are one flesh in their sexual union: their bodies act as one organism in their intercourse, even if not every biological possibility of that union is realized in any given act. But, for that couple to contracept is surely for them to prevent deliberately a form of biological union that was otherwise a real possibility, a possibility that underwrote their mutual commitment to make a total gift of themselves to one another. And so the Catholic teaching that contraception is a violation of the good of marriage does not seem as hopeless as Salzman and Lawler suggest it is; nor does the Church’s focus on complementarity as essential to the possibility of a one-flesh union, seem grounded in bare heterogenitality. Salzman and Lawler praise the idea of dialogue with those with whom they disagree in Sexual Ethics, but perhaps more charity is needed in considering the arguments, the experience, and the lives, of those who strive to live by the teachings of a Church they believe is genuinely inspired by the Spirit of Truth.

Cite this article
Christopher Tollefsen, “Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:4 , 446-449


  1. Alex Pruss, One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013).

Christopher Tollefsen

University of South Carolina
Christopher Tollefsen is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor and Philosophy Department Chair at the University of South Carolina.