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‘Sexual relations’ and ‘conjugal relations’ differ categorically

February 16, 2017

Among the fault lines revealed by the ecclesiastical earthquakes erupting after Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia, we can see, I suggest, how some high-ranking ecclesiastics seem inadequately to understand the differences between “sexual relations” and “conjugal relations”.

Most any man and any woman can have sexual relations, of course, but only spouses can have conjugal relations. While physically the actions are the same, the differences between a non-married couple engaging in sexual relations and a married couple engaging in conjugal relations are numerous in the natural order (emotionally, psychologically, even legally); if engaged in between Christians, those differences become categorical (sacramentally, spiritually, and even canonically).

I flagged this confusing of “sexual relations” with “conjugal relations” in my comments on the Maltese Disaster noting that Bps. Scicluna & Grech had carelessly spoken of non-married couples exercising a conjugal virtue (Criteria, # 9). But they were not the first, nor are they the only, prelates to disregard the crucial distinctions applicable here.

Amoris itself confuses “sexual relations” and “conjugal relations” by invoking, in its controversial footnote 329, the Second Vatican Council’s reminder to married persons not to “separate” for too long a time (see Gaudium et spes 51, which speaks exclusively in terms of spouses and conjugal relations) as if it were a warning against non-married couples discontinuing their sexual relations!  From a purely scholarly point of view, Amoris’ invocation of advice to married couples about safeguarding their rights as if it were a disincentive to non-married couples to cease usurping rights that are not theirs, is inexcusable, but—and this is crucial—footnote 329 is, as far I have seen, the only time that Amoris makes this fundamental error in categories. As such, and notwithstanding that footnote 329 should be repudiated, it could be excused as a one-time misstatement in an otherwise very lengthy document.

That is, until others, the Maltese in a document published in L’Ossevatore Romano as above, and now Cdl. Coccopalmerio in a book published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana consciously repeat that confusion by saying about Amoris fn 329 that it presents “a suggestion given by the Council for matrimonial situations, in other words for legitimate unions, but was applied by [Amoris] to the case of unions that are, at least objectively, not legitimate. I believe, however, that such a difference is not relevant for the correctness of the aforesaid application” (Coccopalmerio, p. 24, my trans.).

Dare I say “obviously”—the categorical confusion between mere “sexual relations” and spousal “conjugal relations”  made in Amoris fn 329 when it misapplied Conciliar advice for married persons to non-married persons, by taking advantage of a wider disinterest in and/or ineptitude for theo-canonical precision among many ecclesiastical figures, is now spreading from the debate over admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion, as important as that is, to questions of the moral liceity of sexual acts between married vs. non-married persons, the basic ability of all the faithful to resist sinful temptations, and one’s eligibility for valid reception of Penance, among various other things.

Dare I say “obviously”—this confusion must cease.


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