Translations of Some Church Documents, #1

I am Catholic, and I care a lot about the intricacies of Catholic teaching, so, from time to time, I am forced to look up very old, not very prominent Church documents, from papal allocutions to Decrees of the Holy Office. These documents are almost always found somewhere in the great compilation Enchiridion Symbolorum, by Denzinger, but, as the Vatican Printing Office continues its near-criminal profit-mongering with the Deposit of Faith, large chunks of Denzinger’s great work are not actually online — at least, not in English.  (If you are a wealthy person, feel free to send Ignatius Press $65 for their up-to-date translation of Denzinger.)

So, not infrequently, I find myself reading a Vatican document, encountering a citation that records nothing but a Denzinger number, and then spending an hour searching the internet for an English translation of that number.  When that fails (and it usually does), I have to go to the Latin text (which is online, albeit illegally) and translate it for myself.  This can take hours.

From now on, as my contribution to the Internet, whenever I translate one of these obscure documents, I am going to post the Latin text and the translation to this blog.  Those of you who are regular readers will find these posts disjointed and deadly dull.  But those of you who are finding this blog because you’ve been wandering around Google for an hour trying to find a reliable translation of Denzinger 2795… you’ve come to the right place!  The translations are not literal, and I can make no guarantee that my Latin is accurate; I only studied it for five years, and never became fluent.  (I would welcome corrections.)

Today, I translated Denzinger-Schönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 2795 and 3634, which are cited in Footnote 47 of the Pontifical Council for the Family’s document, Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life, Section 3.13.  (For context, the Vademecum is here posing a question about whether a person can have sex with a spouse who is contracepting against the will of the other spouse.) Here they are.

Denzinger 2795: “The Onanistic Act in Marriage,” Decree of the Holy Office, 6 April 1853:

Qu. l) An usus imperfectus matrimonii, sive onanistice sive condomistice (seu adhibito nefario instrumento vulgo ‘condom’) fiat, prout in casu, sit licitus? 2) An uxor sciens in congressu condomistico possit passive se praebere ? Resp. (decr. 6., publ. 19 avril): Ad 1) Negative; est enim intrinsece malus. Ad 2) Negative; daret enim operam rei intrinsece illicitae.

Q1) Can it be that, in a given case, an imperfect marital act (whether it be so by onanism or by the aid of the vile instrument vulgarly known as the “condom”) could ever be licit?

Q2) Can a wife consciously but passively make herself available to marital congress involving a condom?

A1) No, for it is an intrinsic evil.

A2) No, for she would give aid to an intrinsically illicit act.

Commentary: I, for one, thought Q1’s invective against the condom was hilariously over the top.  Q2 gives me pause for a moment: the very Vademecum which cites this passage says that a spouse can participate in a contraceptive act with their spouse, for serious reasons, so long as the spouse takes no part in the contraceptive part of the act.

But, on second thought, there’s a material difference between a condom (which disrupts the nature of the sexual act immediately) and a hormonal contraception pill (which disrupts it invisibly and much more remotely).  It’s not really possible to use a condom without the active participation of both partners, while something like The Pill really only involves the participation of one partner.

My third thought was,”Wait, so holy men can have sex with their contracepting wives, but holy wives can’t have sex with their contracepting men?  That sure doesn’t play into any stereotypes about the Holy Office.”

Denzinger 3634: Reply of the Sacred Penitentiary, 3 April 1916:

Qu.: Utrum mulier alicui actioni mariti, qui, ut voluptati indulgeat, crimen Onan aut Sodomitarum committere vult, illique sub mortis poena aut gravium molestiarum minatur, nisi obtemperet, cooperari licite possit? Resp.: a) Si maritus in usu coniugii committere vult crimen Onan effundendo scilicet semen extra vas post inceptam copulam idemque minetur uxori aut mortem aut graves molestias, nisi perversae eius voluntati sese accommodet, uxor ex probatorum theologorum sententia licite potest hoc in casu sic cum marito suo coire, quippe cum ipsa ex parte sua det operam rei et actioni licitae, peccatum autem mariti permittat ex gravi causa, quae eam excusat, quoniam caritas, qua illud impedire teneretur, cum tanto incommodo non obligat. b) At si maritus committere cum ea velit Sodomitarum crimen, cum hic sodomiticus coitus actus sit contra naturam ex parte utriusque coniugis sic coeuntis isque doctorum omnium iudicio graviter malus, hinc nulla plane de causa ne mortis quidem vitandae licite potest uxor hac in re impudico suo marito morem gerere.

Q: May a woman licitly cooperate in the action of her husband, who, wishing to commit the crime of Onan or the Sodomites (so that he may indulge in voluptuous pleasure), threatens her with death or grave harm, unless she cooperates?

a) According to the opinions of esteemed theologians, if a husband wishes to commit the crime of Onan in conjugal union (that is, he wishes to knowingly discharge semen outside the vagina after the beginning of copulation), and he threatens his wife with either death or grave injury unless she accomodates him in his perverse desires, his wife is lawfully able to have sexual intercourse with her husband in this way: she, for her own part, works toward the licit act of marital intercourse [i.e. she does all the things she normally ought to do when having sex, doing nothing onanistic herself -Ed.], but, on the other hand, she permits her husband to commit sin, because of the grave reason, which excuses her, since love, which her husband has been understood to obstruct, does not bind her to such grave harm.

(b) But if the husband should wish to commit with her the sin of the Sodomites, when sodomy is against nature on the part of either participant [“utriusque coniugis coeuntis”, lit. “either of the spouses fucking” -Ed.], thus the wickedness shifts decisively, in the judgement of all learned theologians: from here it is clear that from no cause, not even the avoidance of death, can the wife licitly comply in the shameless act of her husband.

Commentary: An interesting distinction is drawn here between “Onanism” (deliberately spilling semen outside the vagina) and the special case of “Sodomy” (deliberately spilling semen in a different orifice), but it’s not a moral difference, just a mechanical one.  In onanism, the sexual act is, for the most part, carried out normally.  The penis goes repeatedly into the vagina, and it feels good, and it is all perfectly natural, up to a point.  Up to that point, a wife can actively participate, aid, and even revel in the act of intercourse, because there’s nothing wrong with it.  At the very end, her husband pulls out and sprays his seed somewhere else (the bed, his hand, whatever).  This is unnatural and sinful and wrong, and the wife cannot participate, aid, or even will that it happen — but can allow it.

The term “sodomy”, in this context, encompasses anal sex, fellatio, or any other method of extra-vaginal penile stimulation carried through to ejaculation.  The Holy Office here argues that the mechanics are quite different.  While onanism is a natural act leading up to an unnatural one, “sodomic” acts are unnatural and unholy acts from their commission. Therefore there is nothing good about the act that the wife can actively participate in Holy Office.  Everything about it is intrinsically evil.  Since no person can actively do anything which is intrinsically evil under any circumstances, the wife cannot licitly cooperate in sodomy.  (Of course, if she cooperates anyway, it is under duress, which largely — but not entirely — excuses the sin.)

This opinion of the Holy Office (authoritative but not infallible) seems to conflict with the opinion of some faithful Catholic moralists today (such as Christopher West, or yours truly), which states that any sort of genital stimulation is permissible in an act of marital intercourse, so long as it is intended to culminate with some semen in the vagina.  If answered this question, today, I would answer that the answer given for onanism applies to sodomy as well; the wife, under duress, can actively cooperate in all genital stimulation while foreseeing (but not willing or in any way facilitating) that her husband will ejaculate in a manner that is against nature.

It should be noted that “cooperate” and “comply” here imply active participation.  A spouse could simply offer no resistance to a spouse who tries to force anal sex through violence and threats of violence, without falling afoul of the Holy Office’s decree here.  (A spouse also, of course, has the right to resist vigorously, if practical.)  A spouse afraid for his or her life need is not required to resist an act of sodomy forced on him or her; he or she is simply forbidden from actively participating in the evil action.

Once again, my disclaimer: these translations are my own, and I cannot guarantee their accuracy, nor the accuracy of the commentaries which follow them.  You want a guaranteed-accurate translation, buy Ignatius Press’s Denzinger.

Latin Denzinger Online

UPDATE 16 Feb 2015: A priest-friend hooked me up with a copy of Ignatius’ Denzinger.  I can now confirm that I totally nailed these translations.

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