Sexual Morality: The "Perverted Faculty" Argument

Dylan James FAITH Magazine March-April 2006

A Single Positive Account of the Meaning of Sex

This article will outline a modern re-working of the "perverted faculty" argument against sexual immorality, drawing on Janet Smith’s Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, but adding some use of St. Thomas Aquinas, John Paul II and Edward Holloway, and making a particular reference to the theory of evolution.

The perverted faculty argument says that the only moral use of the sexual faculty is in its non-contracepted heterosexual use between married spouses. Any other use of the faculty is contrary to its purpose and is thus ‘perverted’. The strength of this argument is that it is one single argument against all forms of sexual immorality: contraception, sodomy, masturbation,[1] promiscuity etc. Furthermore, by approaching sexual morality from this perspective, sexual immorality is shown in the light of the positive purpose that sexuality is intended for.

The central core of the perverted faculty argument can be expressed in Janet Smith’s repeated refrain that “organs and their related acts have purposes”.[2] Smith holds that the perverted faculty argument, in at least some form, is a part of any coherent argument against contraception,[3] but claims that her argument is more than the classical version of the perverted faculty argument because it dwells on more than the physical end of the faculty.

Before considering the argument in detail, a brief summary of it can be seen in the following three propositions:

(1) The sexual organs and their related act have a purpose; (2) Acts that directly oppose the primary purpose of the sexual act are immoral; (3) Acts that satisfy ancillary purposes of the sexual act without directly opposing the primary purpose of the sexual act are moral.

Beyond The Physical

The third proposition is significant in that it allows for Natural Family Planning to use the sexual act without intending the procreative purpose of the act. However, it is the coherence of the second proposition that has been subjected to the most criticism. Older versions of the argument have often been accused of overly focusing on the physical object of the sexual act and the physical workings of the sexual organs, without considering how they relate to the whole person. This article will attempt to indicate how the use of the argument proposed by Smith (and John Paul II) applies it to more than just the physical processes. The contrast between the new and the old versions of this argument can be seen by considering the following two older examples of the perverted facultyargument.

To cite two texts: In a 1929 article, “Birth Control: The Perverted Faculty Argument”, Henry Davis says, “…the contraceptive act between a husband and wife is mortally sinful, chiefly, it would seem because it is a grave abuse of a faculty, a gross perversion of a means –the act of marital intercourse- which is given by Nature, that is, God, to man for the immediate purpose of generation”.[4]

In a 1971 article, “A Defense of Humanae Vitae”, Richard Connell says:

“The immediate goal toward which coitus—as part of the generative process- is oriented is the depositing of sperm in some proximity to the ovum… The evidence which shows that this is the term for which the act exists is the same as for any natural operation: the activity of coitus terminates once the sperm is deposited. Therefore, the use of devices or chemicals to prevent the achievement of the end-state toward which the natural power is directed before it ever exercises its activity is to interfere with a relation of a function to the goal that is determinative of it.”[5]

Distinguishing The Faculty and The Act

In considering the use of the faculty and how it can be perverted, it is important to note a distinction that Davis makes between the ‘faculty’ and ‘the use of the faculty’ i.e. the ‘act’. What then is the ‘faculty’? As Connell indicates, termination of the activity of the faculty shows us what its purpose is, its end goal is: the faculty is a reproductive faculty.[6] Davis notes that the faculty has other natural purposes and so it may be used in a way that achieves these other purposes, such as the “expression of love and allaying of concupiscence”,[7] but this does not alter the basic fact that the faculty is a reproductive faculty. The ‘sexual act’ is the act that relates to this reproductivefaculty. The act has a natural purpose that can be seen from the primary purpose of the faculty it relates to.

In contraception the faculty is used but the purpose of the act is directly frustrated. Contraception, therefore, is judged to be wrong not primarily because it is a ‘misuse of the faculty’, as such, but because in it “the act itself is misused”[8] by the intention of eliminating from the act its natural purpose, its finis operis proximus. This distinction between the act and the faculty is important because ‘acts’ are what humans perform as moral agents, whereas ‘faculties’ in themselves lack the same direct moral significance. Hence it is ‘acts’ that are morally evaluated, and it is ‘acts’ that the tradition claims can be judged to be ‘intrinsically evil’.

As is immediately apparent, this approach does not attempt to move beyond the physical, or even argue that the physical is important because of its relevance to the whole person. Neither is love considered significant in the definition of the sexual act. This is significantly different to the approach adopted by Smith and John Paul II.

A Morality of Happiness

If the above argument focuses exclusively on the physical, for what reason does it do so? In order to find there the design established by God and thus the moral law that will fulfil man. Hence Davis refers to what “Nature, i.e. God, intended”[9] as the reason why contraception is evil. The pre-Vatican II manuals often took the reference to what God’s intellect established in his design and added a reference to God’s will as being determinative of the Natural Law. Thus Suarez says that, “The natural law not only points to good and evil but also contains its own prohibition of evil and command of the good”.[10] It is the decree by God’s will that attaches an obligation to what his intellect hasdesigned. Modern critics of the perverted faculty argument thus complain that it is an argument based on a ‘morality of obligation’, however, this is very far from the truth.

As the following paragraphs indicate, Thomas and Smith can both be clearly seen to follow a ‘morality of happiness’ and make almost no connection between obligation and morality. In a modern world that is largely deaf to the language of obligation a morality of happiness is an important thing to articulate. In this context, the end goal of happiness or fulfilment can be defined as the reason why the ethicist seeks to examine the processes and inclinations of the human body.

Teleology: A Morality of Happiness and Fulfilment

Thomas starts his moral analysis not with an explanation of law or obligation,[11] but with an explanation of what it is that all men seek when they act. All men act to achieve happiness as their last end,[12] and men cannot help but act for this end. Morality is thus concerned with the achievement of this end, ultimately in God. Similarly, Smith’s approach can best be described as ‘teleological’ i.e. aimed at fulfilling man’s nature by achieving his end. She repeatedly refers to the natural law as not being the ‘laws of nature’ but as referring to the nature of a thing, so that “what is ‘natural’ is in accord with the very being of a thing, and tends to promote what is good for that thing”[emphasis added].[13] Two examples can help illustrate the way that her approach focuses on achieving happiness and not on the ‘law’.

First, in keeping with the line of argument that she develops in her popular catechesis on contraception, she argues that contraception fosters divorce.[14] Couples that use Natural Family Planning have a divorce rate of between two and four per cent. whereas the average divorce rate in America is about 50\%. Smith attributes this remarkable difference to two things:

(i) NFP’s ability to foster mutual self-giving and the virtue of self-mastery SEXUAL MORALITY

(ii) The damage caused to marriage by contraception, because an act that is “not open to procreation is not truly unitive”,[15] in fact, it is dis-unitive.

Design and Purpose, An Evolutionary Perspective

Second, we might also note the way that she refers to evolution (citing Leon Kass[16]) in support of her notion that organs have purposes. The argument might be summarised in this way: Even if there was no divine act of creation, secular evolution can conclude that contraception harms man. The process of evolution adapts an animal to its environment, so that all the body parts of an animal have a purpose that relates to the animal’s survival in that environment. A rabbit has big ears to enable it to detect predators, big back legs to enable it to run fast, big teeth to eat the food that it finds in its environment, and a small brain because a large brain would be superfluous to its needs and pointlessly use up energy. The size and structureof any animal organ relates to the use that the particular species has for that organ.

An organ that is inappropriately large for the needs of a species in a particular environment will waste energy and thus put the animal at an evolutionary disadvantage. Hence, the process of evolution leads to animals having body parts that are appropriate for a pattern of life in a particular environment. It follows that an animal can be seen to be ‘fulfilled’ or ‘happy’ when it acts in a way that is in accordance with the purposes evolution has established in its body. An animal that acts in another manner is dysfunctional. Hence, contraception in an animal would be contrary to its fulfilment, and would be inappropriate.

The Human Dimension of Sexuality

The above, at a mere physical level, is the ‘physiological argument’ against contraception. Smith, however, notes that “the physiological argument is not sufficient in itself to warrant an absolute condemnation of contraception”,[17] it can only argue that contraception is usually wrong, not that it is always so. In this light we can observe that the Church does not prohibit contraception for animals (even though it works against an animal’s fulfilment) and in fact widely permits it when some other cause calls for it.

This is because the perverted faculty argument against sexual immorality (at least as Smith develops it) is more than just a ‘physicalist’ argument. The perverted faculty argument is based on the fact that the sexual organs have a more-than-physical significance for man. But the more- than-physical significance that the organs have cannot be separated from the purposes of the body, the purposes of the related acts, and the way that the physical processes help show us what the purposes of certain human acts are.

Hence, man, while he has a rational ‘spiritual’ dimension, cannot be fulfilled if he directly opposes the purposes that he can see manifested in his body. His bodily organs have purposes and his acts must respect those purposes. Contraception violates the clearly reproductive purpose of man’s sexual organs, and in doing this violates not merely the organs but man himself.

It was earlier noted that in the perverted faculty argument the ethicist examines the inclinations and processes of the body in order to know how to lead man to his end of happiness. But we might also define the reason for the ethicist’s enquiry as his desire to know the Natural Law.

The Natural Law

Both men and animals act seeking fulfilment. However, in Thomas’s thought, the fundamental difference between the way that men and animals act is that man acts as a rational being, and this is what connects the pursuit of happiness with the law (and thus the natural law). Law is something that pertains to reason since both law and reason function as “a rule and measure of acts”[18] directing man to his last end of happiness.[19] Law is thus defined in relationship to happiness not in relationship to obligation. But how is man to know this law? The Eternal Law of God governs and directs all things, and the natural law is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law. This naturallaw is in man in two ways: in precepts and in man’s inclinations.[20] Strictly speaking, the natural law is ‘in’ man when he grasps the eternal law as law by knowing it as precepts. In a derivative sense, the natural law is ‘in’ man by the fact that the eternal law imprints ‘inclinations’ to acts and ends in man’s nature.[21] It is in this latter sense that we can speak of the “laws being written into the actual nature of man” (Paul VI Humanae Vitae n.12).

As a consequence, man can come to know the natural law that directs him to his last end by first knowing his inclinations and recognising these inclinations as having the imprint of the Creator’s eternal law in them. Man is not inclined to things in an arbitrary manner but in a manner that accords with the nature God has designed him with. Thomas refers to man having inclinations to the goods of life, reproduction, and to know the truth about God and how to live in society, and he says that “whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law”.[22]

Some natural law arguments are based on man’s inclinations to these three goods, while other arguments like the perverted faculty argument are based on man’s inclination to certain acts. The purpose of the sexual act in man can be discerned by considering man’s inclination to the sexual act, an inclination that can be perceived

by observing the biological laws of reproduction and how they relate to him not just at an animal biological level but at the level of a person in relationship. In Thomas and Smith the natural law is thus something that pertains to reason, but also something that is ‘in’ his inclinations. Because the law is ‘in’ man in this sense his observance of it leads to his happiness.

How Contraception De-Humanises Sex

Dissenting theologians like Charles Curran often attack the Church’s teaching (and the theologians who defend it) by defining it as ‘physicalism’,[23] as possessing “a definite tendency to identify the demands of the natural law with physical and biological processes”[24] in such a way that man may not interfere in the animal processes and finalities of the body. Smith replies to this attack by noting that the Church fully permits sterilisation, abortion, contraception, and in vitro fertilisation for animals, and yet does not permit them for humans. This is because it is not mere physical and biological finalities that need to be respected. Rather, “it is because the generative biologicalprocesses of Man mean something greater for Man than they do for animals that the biological processes are evaluated differently”.[25]

Deep dimensions of the human person enter into the generative acts. Smith counters that far from it being her argument that reduces sex to something merely physical, it is the defenders of contraception that make sex merely physical, something whose finalities can be altered without affecting the persons involved: “allowing the use of contraception seems to suggest that only the organs or processes are violated; that the deeper dimensions of the human person do not enter into these generative acts and thus are not harmed by contraception”.[26] Thus Smith argues that her position does not merit the accusation of being called ‘physicalism’. Her position is not based on the offence against the physical faculty but on the offence against thehuman person’s faculty (which involves the physical processes).

The Argument

Having made the preceding general comments, the following paragraphs will offer a summary of her presentation of the perverted faculty argument.[27] As noted previously, Smith says that ‘organs and their related acts have purposes’, and that this notion is both in Humanae Vitae and is the key to defending HV. In keeping with her approach (i.e. of seeking man’s good) she quotes HV as saying, “what is immoral is by its very nature always opposed to the true good of Man” (HV 18).[28]

Man’s nature, as a bodily and spiritual whole, is designed by God and manifests his plan and reason, thus “to act in accord with nature is to act in accord with reason and to act in accord with reason is to act in accord with nature”.[29]

Smith quotes a speech from Pius XII to physicians (footnoted in HV n.4) which says that, “ ‘God, the Creator, has given its proper function to each of the body’s organs’ and that [physicians] must respect those functions in all their work”.[30] She argues that HV itself refers to “the importance of acknowledging and respecting the physiological end of the sexual organs and acts”.[31] For example, it says, “human reason has discovered that there are biological laws in the power of procreation that pertain to the human person” (HV 10), calls for the “reverence owed to the whole human body and its natural operations” (HV 17), and says that “the marriage act, because of its fundamental structure,while it unites husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also brings into operation laws written into the actual nature of man and woman for the generation of new life” (HV 12).

In an approach similar to Connell, she says, “The tradition has argued that the primary way of discerning the purpose of organs is to observe what purpose in fact it accomplishes when healthy and functioning properly”,[32] and thus the sexual organs are defined as having ‘procreation’[33] as their purpose, and always remain inherently ordered to this even when their ability to achieve their end is frustrated by contraception. Thus, in “the case of those who are infertile, the inability to achieve the ordered end is independent of the will of the spouses; [while] in the case of the fertile but contracepting couple, they are deliberately tampering with their fertility; they do not allow it toremain capable of achieving the end to which it is ordered”.[34]

From An Organic To A Personalist Vision

In the above paragraph, Smith referred to organs but not to the related acts.[35] Thus, making an important distinction, Smith says, “Contraception is intrinsically immoral not because it violates the purpose of the reproductive organs but because it violates the procreative meaning of the sexual acts; because it violates the nature of the conjugal act… [The] procreative meaning of sexual intercourse transcends the mere physiological ordination of the organs”[36]. In a series of five different arguments[37] (from different theologians) she moves from the purpose of the sex organs to conclude that it is wrong to violate the purpose of the sexualact.

As she summarises them, the different arguments (except Grisez’s) all argue that the nature of man is violated in the violation of the purpose of his acts, so that “contraception is wrong not simply because an act of sexual intercourse has a natural physiological end violated but because it is a human act of sexual intercourse and thus a violation of Man not only in his physiological dimension but in his psychological and spiritual dimension”.[38] Human sexual acts mean more than animal sexual acts, they affect man in his deepest being and violating these acts violates man in his deepest being.

How then does Smith define the act related to the sexual organ? This is done by examining the physical processes of the related organ, seeing its purpose/end, seeing how this relates to the whole person, and thus giving a definition that is not merely physical. Hence, sexual intercourse is both “an act destined by nature for procreation… [and thus] an act destined by nature to the fostering of conjugal love”.[39] Or, as HV puts it, the marital act has both a procreative and unitive meaning inherent in it, with these two meanings having an “inseparable connection, established by God” (HV 12). The force of the argument in HV n.12 is that this inseparability comes from being ‘established by God’, and HV n.13 thus refers to two offencesinvolved in contraception: it both frustrates the design of the Creator and contradicts his holy will. Smith’s argument clearly draws its force from the violation done to the nature of man, a complementary but different emphasis. The above definition of the act has described it as ‘procreative and thus unitive’, or, ‘unitive because it is procreative’, and the teaching that procreation is the primary purpose of the act (and that the union of the spouses is a secondary purpose) is one that Smith argues at length, examining various Church documents.[40]

"Open To Life", What Does It Really Mean?

How then must the act be used to be used properly? A frequently used translation of HV says that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life” (n.11).[41] However, Smith argues that the translation ‘open’ is inadequate because it might imply that the act must be fertile. She offers as a translation, “it is necessary that each and every conjugal act [matrimonii usus] remain ordered in itself [per se destinatus] to the procreation of human life”,[42] so that ‘ordered in itself’ means ‘retain its natural potential’, or, ‘with no impairment to its natural capacity’.

Such a translation more closely accords with the notion of the proper and improper use of a faculty. However, what is much more significant is the fact that Smith’s translation (‘remain ordered in itself’ rather than ‘open’) more clearly acknowledges the difference between Natural Family Planning and contraception, and counters the opinion sometimes offered that NFP is only permissible because ‘it does not work’ and thus that ‘open’ means that you still might conceive. Her translation might be less technically phrased as noting the difference between something being ‘open’ and something being ‘not closed by the couple’.

Davis makes a similar point when he says, “Married persons who use the intramenstrual period in the hope that they will not generate do not, in the act, attempt to defeat the primary purpose of the act, for they do nothing at all to defeat it… Whereas those who use contraceptive intercourse really do something to the act itself which others do not, they are doing something positive indeed. They are defeating the primary purpose of the act itself. They are frustrating the act, though exercising the faculty”[43]. In NFP a couple either engages in a normal sexual act or they abstain from sex, they do not change the nature of the acts they actually engage in. In contrast, contraception changes the structure of the act engaged in. Thus Smithexplains how HV condemns contraception but not NFP, because HV teaches that “couples must not tamper with the natural ordination of their marital acts. It does not mean that couples must be desiring children with each and every act of intercourse”.[44]

The Spiritual Dimension of Procreation

The above indicates Smith’s own attempt to offer a version of the perverted faculty argument that seeks to look deeper than the merely physical processes, to value the physical only because of its significance to the whole person, but also to value the physical precisely because it does have significance for the whole person.

It was noted above that Smith outlines five different types of arguments that are offered to argue from the statement that the sex organs have a purpose to conclude that it is wrong to violate the purpose of the sexual act. As noted, each of these arguments indicates that ‘the nature of man’ is violated when ‘the purpose of his acts’ is directly opposed. The remainder of this article will outline two examples of these arguments. First, it will briefly outline the thought of John Paul II as the most influential proponent of the ‘Contraception Violates the Unitive Meaning of the Conjugal Act’ Argument. Then, it will outline Holloway’s thought as an example of what Smith calls The ‘Special Act of Creation’ Argument, i.e. that procreation is a sharing in God’s work of creation. Smith herselfdefines the marital act’s purpose as ‘procreation’ rather than mere ‘reproduction’, noting that animals biologically reproduce their species but humans share in God’s work of creation by their procreative act (share in the act because God directly infuses the soul, while the couple provide the physical elements).

John Paul II

Smith comments extensively on the thought of John Paul II and sees his thought as complementary to hers, though starting from a different methodology. John Paul II is a phenomenologist and a personalist and thus bases his argument not on nature (or law) but on a method of examining human experience to seek toexplain the nature of reality and of the human person. Human sexuality can be understood in the light of the original human experience of solitude, of longing for another to complete us, and of love between the sexes being experienced as the giving of self to the other. The body is the “expression of the human person”[45] and the meaning of its expression is far from arbitrary. Rather, the “language of the bodies”[46] expresses our desire to give ourselves to another in bodily actions that “have an inherent meaning”.[47]

When the marital act is closed to procreation there is not a full gift of self to the spouse, there is no full union. What language does the body then speak? In contraceptive sex the body ‘lies’ because it speaks of full self-gift while being closed to it because it is closed to procreation, and “acts that destroy the power of human sexual intercourse to represent objectively the mutual, total self-giving of spouses are wrong”.[48] Smith thus sees a ready parallel between the late Pope’s language of the body expressing the purpose of bodily acts and her insistence that ‘organs and their related acts have purposes’. The purpose of the sexual act and the sexual organ is that a married couple use it to fully give themselves to each other, andthe notion of ‘gift’ features as the primary motif for understanding sex.

In summary, ‘Contraception Violates the Unitive Meaning of the Conjugal Act’ because it holds back something of the gift of self to your spouse, namely, it holds back your fertility. ‘I give you everything, but not my fertility’. Such a statement is self-contradictory. Such an act is a violation of marriage and a violation of the nature of man and woman. By violating the unitive meaning of the conjugal act it will naturally increase the likelihood of divorce.


In Catholicism: A New Synthesis Edward Holloway, the founder of the Faith Movement, does not refer to the perverted faculty argument by name, but his teaching strongly echoes what has been outlined above, and his perspective on evolution provides a more convincing context for the argument. (As this article has already indicated how the theory of evolution can show that the body, its organs, and its related acts have purposes it will not now repeat this line of argumentation.)

Holloway’s Unity-Law of Control and Direction functions in a manner similar to the Eternal Law of Thomas in that it refers to the Plan of God which governs all of creation and directs everything within it. It thus follows that the product of evolution, i.e. man’s body and its sexual structure, is not a random result but something that is planned by God. Evolution implies direction, which gives a purpose to the bodily organs and their related acts. The creation of man at the apex of creation with a spiritual soul and material body gives a significance to the structure and purpose of the bodily functions that, while it goes beyond that which physical evolution alone could give them, is nonetheless based in and indicated by the physical structures.

The Unitive Derived From The Procreative

Unlike those authors who reject the ‘physicalism’ that Veritatis Splendor defends, Holloway repeatedly speaks of the sexual organs as not only having a function but of having a ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’.[49] When man looks at ‘physical nature’ he can see that it gives ‘evidence’ of God’s design in such a way that “the intention of God is embodied in the properties of the organs”.[50] The ‘sexual faculty’ thus has procreation as its primary end. The manner in which Holloway deduces the end of the sexual organ from its physical structure clearly indicates that he is working within the framework of a perverted faculty argument.

In considering the purpose of the sexual act itself, the primary purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation, and Holloway is keen to stress that the secondary purposes of the act always have reference to the primary end and cannot be seen as independent or parallel ends of the act. Holloway explains this by distinguishing between the sexual act’s purpose before the Fall and its purpose now. The original intention of God, before the Fall, intended sexual intercourse “only for the procreation of men, and was an expression of married love in that sense and in that context only”.[51] Couples engaging in the sexual act would have only done so with the purpose of sharing in God’s creative work to procreate, though in doing so the act would havecarried with it other important meanings, uniting the couple, so that the act would have always been “an act of religion [by its reference to God] as well as an act of love [that would follow as a consequence of this act of sharing in God’s creative work]”.[52]

An Act Clothed In Love, Not An Act of Love Per Se

The act of procreation would thus, at the same time as procreating, have brought with it the consequences of: uniting the couple, “spiritual and sacramental love, joy of possession, and the fulfilment of human, complimentary vocation in one flesh, all taken up to God”,[53] as well as a natural organic pleasure (such as accompanies the proper functioning of other human acts (e.g. eating and drinking)[54]. These secondary ends are intrinsically subordinated to the primary end that is their cause (according to the structuring of the act).

Holloway thus emphasises that “sex is not for loving, sex is for children, in a state of loving”[55], and he goes so far as to say that sex is not even “the expression of human love”[56] as such. It is only if the secondary purposes of the act are mistakenly seen to be purposes in their own right that the act can be held to be ‘an expression of love’. By saying this Holloway is arguing against many contemporary authors who focus on a supposed primary orientation to love inherent in the structure of the sexual act. Holloway sees an important reference to love in the act, but as a consequence of the act’s procreative structure. The loving unitive aspect is an aspect that is subsidiary to andderivative of the act’s procreative nature. It is not the procreative nature that is subsequent to the act’s nature as an act of love, but vice versa.

Before the Fall man would not have desired sexual intercourse except to achieve its primary end of procreation. However, as man exists in his Fallen state, he experiences concupiscence in an overdeveloped craving of sense, especially for sexual pleasure. While this desire is overdeveloped it is not (necessarily) immoral. The primary end of the sexual act remains the same, even after the Fall, but the secondary purposes that are brought with the act can also be sought, though never in a way that directly opposes the primary end of the act.

The Difference With Natural Family Planning

Contraception is wrong because “of its nature and physically, not just morally in the will of the doer, [it] subordinates the primary end potential of the sexual function to the secondary ends, or gives the secondary ends an independent and parallel existence on their own divorced now by human agency from the primary end potential of the function in act”.[57] Therefore a couple (improperly) seek sexual pleasure, or even loving union, as an end in itself, without reference to the act’s inherent ordering to procreation. This contrasts with the use of Natural Family Planning in “which a couple may take advantage of the secondary ends of intercourse, hoping in their personal minds that they will not conceive, but doing nothing to obstruct theprimary potential of their sexual act”.[58]

Future developments in science will no doubt make Natural Family Planning increasingly accurate, and a couple will be able to engage in sexual intercourse fully knowing that they will not conceive, but they will still not be tampering with the procreative structure of the act, and so the act is moral. Natural Family Planning is ‘open to life’ because the inherently procreative structure of the act is not frustrated, not because its methods are (or are not) inaccurate.

Holloway distinguishes between the perfect and imperfect use of the sexual act. The use of Natural Family Planning is, as argued above, certainly is not sinful. But by seeking to avoid pregnancy it thereby does not seek the full procreative purpose of the sexual act (though it

does not thwart the procreative purpose of the act). It follows that such a use of the sexual act is not an act of perfection, and as a couple grow in holiness and as “time [and deep spirituality] sedates sexual concupiscence”[59] they will seek to use the act only for its full perfection. Holloway does not give a detailed explanation of what he means when he speaks of the ‘imperfection’ in the act, but it might possibly be compared to the classical classification of acts in the ascent of holiness: mortal sin, deliberate venial sin, inadvertent venial sin, imperfection, perfection.

From Precept To Perfection, Via the Imperfect

Another possible comparison might be made with the traditional distinction between the precepts (commands) and the counsels. Everyone is required to keep the precepts (by definition). Everyone is called to keep the Evangelical Counsels (poverty, chastity, obedience) in some form, but they do not sin if they do not observe them in the ‘State of Perfection’ constituted by vowing these three counsels in Religious Life, [60] i.e. everyone is called to observe poverty by living a Christian simplicity of life, but we are not all required to live this in the perfection of vowed Franciscan poverty. The comparison might be: by precept a couple are forbidden to directly oppose the procreative meaning of the marital act; by counsel they are called touse the act only for its perfect and fullest meaning, namely, to seek procreation.

Holloway’s reference to a sinful, imperfect, and perfect use of the sexual act might be seen as a fuller development of the weakest stage in the perverted faculty argument: why the act can be used even without the primary purpose. Such a use is not sinful, but it is imperfect. Sinful use of the act directly frustrates its primary purpose of procreation. Imperfect use seeks a secondary purpose without opposing the primary purpose, but also not intending the primary purpose. Perfect use seeks the primary purpose of the act, with the secondary purposes that comes with it.


In summary, while Holloway does not structure his argument as a perverted faculty argument as such, his approach is very much in keeping with it. Holloway claims that the purpose of the sexual organ and the sexual act can be deduced from the physical structure of the organ and act, and that the moral use of the act must observe the act’s primary purpose.

This article has examined some examples of the perverted faculty argument, illustrating the way in which it can provide a defence of the Church’s teaching. But what of Janet Smith’s claim that the argument is implicit in any coherent defence of the Church’s sexual teaching, that the Church’s teaching is founded on the notion that ‘organs and their related acts have purposes’? If the sexual organs have a purpose then it would be expected that there would be only one moral use of them, and this is in fact what the Church teaches.

The Church teaches that there are many different sexual sins, but only one appropriate use of human sexuality, namely in the mutual self-giving of married sexual intercourse that must always be exercised in a way that it does not pervert the act’s inherent ordering to its primary end of the procreation of life. Any argument supporting this conclusion, as illustrated above, must be based not only on the notion that human sexuality has a purpose, but that the sexual organs have purposes that must be respected.

Clearly, the ability to argue this is dependent on an adequate anthropology that sees man and woman as a body/soul unity, so that the body is not just an instrument of the soul but is an integral part of the very person constituted by his body and soul, and thus the purposes that can be seen in the body must be respected in the actions of the person.

[1] The Catechism’s teaching on masturbation offers a clear example of the perverted faculty argument, citing the 1975 Persona humana declaration from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “ ‘The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose’. For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of ‘the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved (Persona humana, 9).’ ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2352)
Here we find an explicit reference to the ‘sexual faculty’ being used ‘contrary to its purpose’.
[2] Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 1991), 68. Note: This article will use the terms ‘purpose’ and ‘end’ interchangeably, in keeping with Smith’s usage.
[3] Ibid., 88. As an exception, she notes Grisez’s ‘contralife will’ argument against contraception which does not depend on the perverted faculty argument, however she rejects his thinking (Ibid., 105-7; 340-70).
[4] Henry Davis, “Birth Control: The Perverted Faculty Argument”, American Ecclesiastical Review 81 (1929), in Charles E. Curran and A. Richard McCormick S.J., The Historical Development of Fundamental Moral Theology in the United States Readings in Moral Theology No. 11 (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 124. Curran, McCormick and Smith (Smith, 384 n.30) all seem to think that this is a significant article.
[5] Richard Connell, ‘A Defense of Humanae Vitae’, 77, cited in Smith, 87-8.
[6] As will be noted later, this contrasts with Smith’s definition of ‘procreation’ (sharing in God’s creative work) rather than mere biological ‘reproduction’. Holloway also defines the purpose of the act as procreation.
[7] Davis, 130.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 128, c.f. 129, 131.
[10] Suarez De Legibus ad de Deo Legislator, I, 4.2. Cited in Robert Fastiggi, “Natural Law in the Service of Faith”, in St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition. Contemporary Perspectives, ed. John Goyette, Mark S. Latkovic and Richard S. Myers (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 2004), 99. In defending the position of Suarez, Robert Fastiggi argues that in order for natural law to be perceived as law it needs to be seen as more than just indicating right and wrong (or in the above articulation: indicating what is beneficial to the agent/harmful to the agent) but as actually forbidding it. God does not merely point and observe, ‘It is wrong to steal’, rather, he commands, ‘Thou shalt not steal’.
[11] In the Summa Theologica, Thomas’s treatment of law comes at the end of (I-II) his introduction to morality not at the beginning. It thus appears as the means to the goal of the moral life, not the purpose of the moral life.
[12] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947), I-II, q.1, a.7.
[13] Smith, 76-7.
[14] Ibid.,127-8.
[15] Ibid., 112. c.f. “Contraception violates the unitive as well as the procreative meaning of conjugal intercourse” (109, c.f. 107ff). Or, in summary: when the procreative and unitive meanings are directly separated in the act this separation will tend towards a separating and weakening of the whole man-woman relationship.
[16] Ibid., 75-6.
[17] Ibid., 88.
[18] Aquinas, I-II, q.90, a.1, c.
[19] Ibid., I-II, q.90, a.2, c.
[20] In contrast with what has been outlined in this article, Grisez et al reject the notion that the Natural Law is ‘in’ the inclinations or body, and that one cannot argue from the ‘is’ of the body to the ‘ought’ of the precepts that direct its proper use.
[21] Ibid., I-II, q.91, a.2. Thomas twice refers to “inclinations to their proper acts and ends”.
[22] Ibid., I-II, q.94, a.2, c.
[23] Veritatis Splendor explicitly defends a morality that bases itself on the physical processes and functions against “the accusation of physicalism or biologism” (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (London: CTS, 1993), 48). It notes the mistaken tendency to treat “the human body as raw data… materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act. Their functions would not be able to constitute reference points for moral decisions, because these inclinations would be merely ‘physical’ goods, called by some ‘pre-moral’.” It notes that the rational soul is the form of the body and that “it is in the unity of the body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts”.
[24] Charles E. Curran, Directions in Fundamental Moral Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), cited in Smith, 176.
[25] Smith, 177.
[26] Ibid.
[27] The following paragraphs are a summary of chapters three and four of her book.
[28] Smith, 69.
[29] Ibid., 71.
[30] Ibid., 73-4.
[31] Ibid., 74.
[32] Ibid., 75.
[33] Smith distinguishes between ‘procreation’ by which a human couple share in God’s bringing of a new immortal being into existence, and ‘reproduction’ by which animals reproduce their species. (Ibid., 45, 76.)
[34] Ibid., 81.
[35] As was noted earlier, Davis was keen to stress the difference between the faculty and the act related to it.
[36] Smith, 84-5.
[37] The five arguments are: ‘The Physiological Argument’ (Ibid., 87); The ‘Intrinsic Worth of Human Life’ Argument (p.99); The ‘Special Act of Creation’ Argument (p.102); The ‘Contraception is Contralife’ Argument(p.105); The ‘Violation of the Unitive Meaning of the Conjugal Act’ Argument (p.107). This article will not examine all of these arguments, but will limit itself to outlining JPII and Holloway as examples of two of them.
[38] Ibid., 100.
[39] Ibid., 107. She makes this definition while considering one of the five arguments.
[40] Ibid., 46ff. In the face of the Anglican Church accepting the morality of contraception (1930), Pius XI in Casti Connubii reaffirmed that, “The primary end of marriage is the procreation and the education of children” (n.17). Similarly, Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes reiterated that, “Marriage and married love are by nature ordered to the procreation and education of children” (n.50). A fuller treatment of the relationship between the ends of marriage and its articulation by the Magisterium can be found in Smith’s book, as cited.
[41] Ibid., 281, n.12r.
[42] Ibid., 78.
[43] Davis, 126-7
[44] Smith, 82.
[45] Ibid., “John Paul II and Humanae Vitae” in Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 239.
[46] Ibid., 235.
[47] Ibid., 239.
[48] Ibid., Humanae Vitae, 110.
[49] Edward Holloway, Catholicism: A New Synthesis (Wallington, Surrey: Faith Keyway, 1970), 435-6.
[50] Ibid., 420-1.
[51] Ibid., 430.
[52] Ibid., 424.
[53] Ibid., 425.
[54] Ibid., 428.
[55] Ibid., 422.
[56] Ibid., 420.
[57] Ibid., 435-6.
[58] Ibid., 435, c.f., 434.
[59] Ibid., 445.
[60] C.f. “Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple” (CCC n.915); Summa Theologica, I-II, q.108, a.4; Vowing the counsels is referred to as ‘total’ consecration (Lumen Gentium n.44, Code of Canon Law, 573.1, Summa Theologica II-II, q.186, a.1) and places a person in the ‘State of Perfection’.

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