Is Premarital Sex Morally Wrong? Why? (A Dialogue)

Is Premarital Sex Morally Wrong? Why? (A Dialogue) September 16, 2019

(vs. C. Jack Elliott)

Jack’s words will be in blue.

A question about sexuality for you.

All sin is, in essence, a refusal to love. God is love. We are created in God’s image – we are to be love as well. When we fail to love (sin), we are separated from Him. Sin is a refusal to love. This is why God hates sin. Not because it’s an infringement upon some arbitrary legal code of His, but because it separates us from Him, from each other, from ourselves, our true created nature. All morality must be based, accordingly, on love.

So far so good. It’s certain conclusions you draw from these premises which I would vigorously dispute.

I refuse to accept any Christian moral teaching that is not founded upon the Law of Love.

Me, too. I believe all Christian moral teaching does have this foundation, because God is love, and has communicated true and good morality and ethics to us in His revelation, with only our best interests “at heart.”

How, then, do the Church’s teachings on sexual morality fit with this idea? How does premarital sex constitute a refusal to love? If God gives wine to gladden the heart of man (Ps. 104:15), then sensual pleasure is not sinful, not to be avoided. Sensual pleasure is not a refusal to love – to the contrary, it can be a loving, joyful acceptance and affirmation of God’s creation. Most of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, then, seems absurd – how is making love with a girl any different than enjoying a meal at a fine restaurant or going to hear an opera with her? Are not each of these three, as sensual experiences, fully an affirmation of God’s great gift to us, life of the senses? Why then is one forbidden but not the others? I fail to see the sense behind what seems a very legalistic teaching. I fail to see that it is based upon Christ’s Law of Love.

The difference lies in the deepest purpose of sexuality – indeed one of God’s greatest gifts, as you rightly note. Sex is not merely a physical pleasure like all the rest (wine, roller coasters, hot tubs, listening to the Beatles or Beethoven, etc.) – though moral sex does include that as part of its essence; what we call the “unitive” purpose (and thank God it does!).

God likes physical pleasure and the senses! He, after all, gave us taste buds (biologically unnecessary) and nerve endings (which make sex enjoyable in the purely physical sense). Our eyes appreciate aesthetic beauty and our ears beautiful, harmonious music and things like children’s laughter and the sound of the mourning dove or waves crashing on the beach. Our noses give us the pleasure of the aroma of fresh-baked bread or a Scotch pine Christmas tree, etc. It is not simply an anti-pleasure motive which causes Christianity to regard extra-marital sex as a sin, and therefore to prohibit it (though some truncated brands of Christianity have distorted this concept and wrongly frowned upon pleasure qua pleasure).

Sex is a deeply mystical, metaphysical thing, and designed by God to be so. To have sex with a person is to literally become “one flesh” with them (Matt 19:5-6, 1 Cor 6:12-20) – not just physically, but “mystically” and spiritually as well. So sex profoundly unifies people. Wine and opera don’t do that, except in a superficial sense! There is an ontological transformation which takes place when intercourse occurs. People know this. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand it. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to comprehend this, because we are all human beings made in God’s image, and He designed sexuality. And we know how it feels (again, not just sensually, but on the inside, in our soul and spirit) and how it affects people after it happens.

It is a very strong emotional bond – as all know who have experienced it. For this reason, orthodox Christianity has always held that sex outside the marital commitment is sinful and wrong, because it is (when all is said and done, and in essence, if not always in deliberate intent) an exploitation of the other for the sake of pleasure. It assumes a physical oneness before the appropriate complete spiritual oneness of life that occurs in marriage has been committed to. It’s (literally) putting the cart before the horse. The denial of this has led to a host of problems, whether divorce or child or spousal abuse or one-parent families, or AIDS, or all the mental and emotional agonies resulting from broken relationships.

The sexual revolution has been an abysmal failure, as all honest observers (pro or con) must agree. Free sex without restraint or commitment only hurts people and destroys lives – especially those of women and children. We are not just animals. We were made to love each other as whole, entire people, as far more than just bodies (or, penises and vaginas, if you will). How could anyone fail to note this, after all that has gone on in the last 40 years? Does anyone seriously contend anymore that we are a happier society because we threw off our “Puritanical” restrictions on sexual expression? If you know of any such treatment, I would love to read it and see what sort of “proof” is set forth.

Therefore, it is not “love” which urges one to proceed to sex before commitment to the whole person for life. Even our natural instincts tell us that the two ought to go together. Christianity has it exactly right. C. S. Lewis, in his marvelous book The Four Loves, wrote about how people in love instinctively start talking about being together forever, loving only each other, how the desired is the greatest, most fabulous person in the world, etc. They know instinctively – apart from any necessary Christian moral theology — that commitment goes hand-in-hand with erotic desires and fulfillments.

Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. Not to be overly-blunt, but apart from this commitment the woman is reduced to (conservative Jewish talk-show host and psychologist Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s term) an “unpaid prostitute.” The man likewise becomes a mere object for pleasure. The feminists of all people should immediately see how premarital sex – far from being “liberating” for the woman – promotes and positively encourages all the age-old unmarried male exploitations, manipulative sexual/romantic games, and perceptions of women as primarily sexual objects.

The truly “strong woman” whose self-image is properly grounded in God and Christian (even natural law) morality, resists all that, knowing that her sexual allure and feminine appeal to a man is the greatest power she has to “pressure” the man into committing himself to her for a lifetime (by resisting his advances before such commitment). That’s just the way it is. And if you can’t trust a future mate (particularly a man) to be strong and to resist sexual temptation before marriage (proven by chastity in the dating relationship), how can you trust them after the wedding — when even greater temptations present themselves, and where it takes a great deal of effort to keep the “flame” going?

The non-Christian notion of marriage and co-habitation, therefore, is a ticking time-bomb, and offers little emotional security or stability, especially for women. The free-sex “ethos” inevitably punishes women, whereas unscrupulous playboys and philandering Clinton-types can engage in their abuses with the least consequence (though assuredly not without none – they are not happy in the long run, either).

George Gilder writes very perceptively about the societal disaster of sexual liberalism in his book Men and Marriage. He notes that the “losers” in the sexual revolution are young men and old women. Young men have less money and older women have less sexual allure. So, e.g., unscrupulous older men can attract younger women with their “power and money,” and divorce their wives. But eventually, all are losers who engage in what Christian theology calls “fornication” and “adultery.” The traditional Christian view detests all these sins as abominations – precisely because they destroy lives and do not (in the long run) lead to any sort of self-fulfillment or happiness. This is why we have marital vows. Marriage is much more than just sex and physical gratification. And sex is far more than just physical pleasure, too.

The other thing that should be prominently noted is that procreation is ultimately the primary purpose of sex. This is how we get new people in the world! This was always a “given” until recently, when new philosophies sought to disconnect sex from producing children, and to make it an end in itself. And what flows from that? Well, contraceptive devices and pills led in fact to free sex without responsibility (exemplified at Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury and seemingly one and all TV sitcoms today), leading to further exploitation and misery on a massive scale.

Sex was regarded as an end in itself; therefore people became mere objects, used to fulfill the first end and desire. If a child was created inadvertently (thus regarded as truly an “accident” – God help us), then society created the “right” to barbarically kill it and dispose of the consequences. This “right” now extends even to full-term babies, who have their necks pierced and brains sucked out upon partial emergence from the birth canal so as to not interfere with any “born” persons’ “freedoms.” Recently, 41 U.S. Senators (including the great “hero” John Glenn) and the President thought this was okay. And we condemn the Nazis and American slaveholders? We passed them long ago, both in numbers of murders and in moral hypocrisy and outrageousness.

So free sex has been placed on a higher level even than the precious, sacred life of a new human being. This is diabolical and wicked. Free sex inexorably leads to millions of dead, broken preborn children’s bodies lying in a heap – victims of hedonism, materialism, feminism, and expedience. We willingly sacrifice our children to our idol-gods. Child-killing is well-nigh the sacrament of radical feminism. So we see that what may appear a simple, harmless thing at first (physical intimacy) leads to massive negative societal consequences, up to and including assembly-line, profiteering murder of innocent “by-products” of such “innocent, loving” activities. And it is not very loving to kill another (tiny) human being, is it?

How does marrying a divorced woman, or even homosexuality constitute a refusal to love?

Because it refuses to recognizes that the divorced woman is “one” with her “former” husband, unless there never existed a true marriage to begin with (which is what a Catholic annulment determines). Homosexual acts are against the natural order of things, and anal sex is very unhealthy (for many reasons beyond just AIDS). See the massive documentation for this [one / two / three / four / five / six / seven / eight / nine / ten].

It’s easy to see some sense in the argument that it is in fact the attitude of Christians, the teaching of the Church, that is what constitutes a refusal to love by rejecting and condemning the divorcee or the homosexual.

We condemn homosexual acts, not homosexual persons. To love does not equate with being reduced to an animal. Following this logic, I should try to make love to every good-looking woman I see, on the grounds that refusing to do so would be a lack of love. This wouldn’t necessarily result from your premises, but it is not inconsistent with them. Yours is ultimately (again logically, not because it is your intention) an argument for hedonism and unbridled lust, which is not Christianity. Let’s call things what they truly are! It just isn’t that simple.

If indeed we were just animals, then sex would be solely a matter of biology and barnyard antics. Rape wouldn’t even be able to be condemned (after all, male animals often force sex upon the females). Marriage would be a purely optional convention, disconnected entirely from any necessary connection to sex. But few even of the self-proclaimed playboys would take it that far. Try as they may, they can’t cast off entirely natural law and God’s image in themselves. They are not animals (though they may be much more like them in certain behaviors than a practicing Christian would be).

Clearly, sex means much more between a man and a woman than it does between two hogs or rhinos. 

We feel a beautiful oneness, we feel like we have opened up the most intimate aspects of ourselves to another human being – and are therefore made quite vulnerable (the stakes are very high: it’s either “heaven” or “hell” at that point). For precisely that reason, God designed sex to be appropriate and entirely good and positive and safe only within the context of a lifelong marital bond and commitment. All recent sociological experience bears this out. The Christian has far more to appeal to for his case than the Bible or papal proclamations. False moralities always refute themselves in their disastrous historical results. We are living through one such period.

Even secular surveys of married couples and their enjoyment of sex consistently show that Christian couples (especially those who were virgins until they were married) experience a significantly higher level of pleasure in sex than those who are non-Christians, or who have “experimented” before marrying. The truth is exactly the opposite of the cultural myths promulgated by those who have a stake in the promulgation of the sexual revolution. Traditional, orthodox Christians — pilloried as being supposedly against sex — are in fact enjoying it qualitatively and quantitatively much more than their “liberated, free” counterparts. The irony of that is delicious, but it saddens me that so many fall for these secularist, feminist, post-Christian lies, thus dooming themselves to almost certain misery. Sometimes it takes a lot for people to wake up to moral sanity — even the collapse of an entire civilization.

I hope that helps to explain the Catholic position on this. I look forward to your reply.

Thanks for taking the time to respond thoughtfully, but I think you’ve failed to get to the heart of the matter. Obviously rape is a refusal to love. Anyone can see that. Likewise with abortion, a guy who refuses to marry a girl after he’s gotten her pregnant, a guy who cheats on his wife, a culture that makes girls to feel as though it’s their duty to pleasure men – in these and like cases, it’s quite clear that there’s a refusal to love involved, but in none of these cases is this refusal inherent in the lovemaking.

But it is not so clear to millions in our culture (e.g., abortion or the low, chauvinist view of women), who have a sliding scale of values, or who adopt situation ethics, or relativism, or who just do what feels good. This is the point. These things are clear to you, but not to them. Likewise, some things seem clear to me which are not clear to you.

The refusal to love is apart from the sex, in all of these cases. Consider the following examples. In each case the Church teaches that those involved are sexually immoral, that they are sinful, that they are refusing to love. I just don’t see that she’s right in any of these situations.

1. After their senior prom, a high school couple go out to a park on the outskirts of town. It’s a beautiful, warm spring night – they’re equally excited about consummating this, the climactic social and emotional event of their childhood. They make love until early in the morning; they each look back on that night as one of the most lovingly romantic of their lives.

So what? Why can’t the wedding night contain all this glorious romance and excitement, as it used to? Why does this have to be before marriage to somehow be so exciting and the “climax” of youth? Sex before marriage is wrong because it unites bodies without the appropriate uniting of souls (i.e., lifelong commitment made before God and human witnesses). You continue to neglect to see all the negative consequences of this because you have obviously been influenced (at least in part) by the free love ethic of our post-Christian world today. Morality is not solely determined by good intentions and the absence of force or malice, etc. There are also absolute moral rules which have been time-tested and which are clearly taught in Scripture.

Sin has consequences. They may not be immediately evident (in the case of sexual sin), but in the long run and in society they will be. That was the whole point of my social analysis in my last letter. I think you accept — knowingly or not — the libertarian or utilitarian myth that we all live to ourselves, and if we don’t mean harm to someone, then it is okay to have sex with them. But – again – that reduces us to animals and assumes falsely that sex is no different than drinking wine, etc. I wrote many words trying to show that this idea itself is a myth. It is simply untrue – and I think clearly so. But you have discounted all that.

2. A married couple who don’t earn much money and already have four kids decide to get a tubal legation, so that they can continue to have an active sex life and raise their kids in relative comfort and security.

This is a contraceptive act and self-mutilation, and gravely sinful. The Church permits the limiting or spacing of children, however, as long as there is no contraceptive will. But the proper way would be through Natural Family Planning and abstention when necessary to avoid conception, not self-mutilation or resort to devices which in effect “tie the hands of God.”

3. You say you like movies; maybe you’ve seen Steven King’s The Dead Zone. At the start the main character and his fiancee are out on a date. He walks her home and she invites him to stay over, to sleep with her. He tells her, “It’s worth waiting for.” That’s a beautiful thing, but what if he’d accepted her invitation? They were engaged, committed to each other for life. I admire his self-control, but I see no reason to believe he was avoiding any sexual sin.

It’s less subjectively sinful in a limited sense, because there is that much more commitment, but it is still objectively gravely sinful, for the reasons I outlined above. This is a difficult teaching (I never denied that) but it works best for us sexual beings. It worked for me. I know many other couples who have no regrets about waiting until marriage, whereas one could find thousands of stories about the negative impact of not waiting. But most people couldn’t care less about things like that. They have the urge and act upon it, based on almost universal cultural norms and not giving a moment’s thought to the rationale for traditional Christian morality. So I commend you for asking about it.

In none of these cases do I see a refusal to love involved.

But you’re limiting your definition of love to the immediate moment and the absence of intent to harm or exploit. It is much broader than that.

Even so the Church condemns the people in the first and third case for sinful fornication,

Technically, it condemns the action, not the people.

the second for God-knows-what reason.

Well, then you need to read about contraception and its close causal relationship to abortion. Desiring to learn is the first step to true knowledge.

None of these people are refusing to love each other, or God, or even order and decency in society.

I disagree, for the reasons stated. They are refusing to love God if they ignore the moral commands that He has revealed through His Sacred Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition of His Church. They are refusing to love others if in fact they are objectively exploiting them and causing them emotional harm (or worse) in the long run.

So you think you can deduce from my letters what has influenced my thinking,

Partially, yes (in very broad terms). We are all influenced by our culture, and none of us develops our thought in a vacuum. Many seem to foolishly think that they are somehow immune to all influences, however. I’m not saying you think that; just making a general observation. My major was sociology . . . .

why I am asking these questions,

I never speculated as to that. But obviously there is a strong motivation for most of us to take a more liberal view on sex. I used to believe precisely as you do.

how much I understand of the theology of the Catholic Church,

I have no idea. But whether you are willing to submit to its teaching (if you are a Catholic) is another issue altogether. I came to my views about premarital sex before I was particularly committed to any Christian view (it was shortly before I became an evangelical). And it was not due to any lack of sexual desire on my part, believe me.

whether or not I’ve read the pages on your website relevant to our discussion, and so forth?

Most people appreciate being directed to links related to the topic at hand. They can explain this better than I can. So I recommended them.

You assume far too much, Dave.

I haven’t assumed anything; I have speculated some, sure, but don’t we all?

What you presume to know about me,

What is it that you think I presume to know about you, other than that you have been influenced by our culture’s view of sex (as we all have)?

is reflective of similar flaws in your arguments about sex – but I don’t want to get into that now, we’d only lose focus.

Indeed, as you are unduly speculating, not making a rational argument, just as you claim I have been doing! The fact is that you don’t know what I am thinking about you any more than I know all the particulars and motivations concerning you. All I know is that viewpoints don’t develop in a cultural vacuum. We are fish in a sea. We can do our best to reflect and arrive at informed decisions (and obviously you do that, as I try to do also), but we are still in the sea, and it is what it is. That’s the point I was making. Someone said that the most dangerous philosophy was the unacknowledged one (in other words, we all have one, conscious or not).

To this point you have entirely failed to demonstrate how sex outside of marriage is, categorically and without exception, a refusal to love in and of itself. You have, instead, said much that is true concerning the effects of sinful, lustful sex on society and on our relationships with each other, and I agree with you on that count.

This is a false characterization if you are attempting to claim that non-marital sex is not sinful if it is loving in intent. My argument was that all non-marital sex (loving in intent or not) will lead to harmful consequences, because all sin eventually does that. There are degrees of sinfulness, of course, having to do with intent, etc. That is the subjective component of sin.

Your arguments rest upon the assumption that extramarital sex is, without exception, lustful and sinful,

I never said it was always necessary lustful. That’s just you putting words in my mouth. But the act itself is objectively sinful, which means that its wrongness is not dependent on the attitudes of the ones committing it. I believe it is wrong, on biblical and natural law philosophical grounds, but technically, all the examples I gave did not constitute merely a circular argument. Rather, it was a form of argument in which one states that:

1) we will assume that x is a sin for the sake of argument.2) then we will examine the consequences of x in the individual and on society, to see if they are harmful or good.
3) we found many harmful consequences.
4) Ergo: though this doesn’t prove that x is a sin in and of itself, yet it is consistent with the notion that it is a sin, since we start with the assumption that sins have harmful effects.

while sex within marriage is inherently wholesome and good.

That’s not true, either, because there is such a thing as marital rape, or exploitation (e.g., demanding sex ten times a day, or consistently refusing the spouse’s desires). Again, the subjective elements . . .

Why should that be? Sex outside of marriage is not necessarily any more sinful or lustful than within marriage:

It’s not necessarily more lustful, I agree. But it is sinful because it perverts the deepest meaning of sex and objectively exploits the other.

if a couple manages to hold off until their wedding night and then finally go wild, they are engaging in lust every bit as much as they would have been the night before.

That is not necessarily lust because it is sexuality expressed in its proper context. Passion, excitement, sure, but not necessarily lust (it may be if the other person is regarded solely as an object and not as whole person). It’s true that one can lust in marriage, but on the other hand, non-sinful sex must always reside in marriage as well. Catholic moral theology gets extremely complex. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on it, but I am doing the best that I can, without launching into a huge study on the subject myself.

The refusal to love comes, in the examples you use to support your arguments, after the lovemaking, apart from it or as a complication of it.

Yes, the consequences flow from the sinful acts. That’s why they must be morally examined not just in the aspect of intent, but in overall consequence. Ideas have consequences; so do sins.

You have failed to demonstrate that the sex itself constitutes a refusal to love.

All these examples, as well as the willingness to attain total intimacy of body without the accompanying intimacy of soul and spirit (as exemplified and “proven” by a lifelong commitment) constitutes the refusal to truly love (as opposed to the touchy-feely, superficial sort of love promoted by our culture).

I see the problem in your logic as an essential failure to distinguish ends from means.

Do you deny that there are moral absolutes? Or do you deny that the proposition “all extramarital sex is wrong” is an absolute, or that it could be an absolute?

I am asking how sex as an end unto itself is sinful; you respond by arguing that it often becomes a means by which people arrive at sin. Do you see the difference?

I sure do, because I myself made this distinction in my original answer. My contention (in a roundabout way) is that the negative consequences flow from the inherent wrongness of the act. Objective evil inexorably leads to further evils (in this case, e.g., abortion and millions of broken lives and homes and a host of other evils). But I wasn’t arguing that premarital sex was wrong because of these consequences. Why it is wrong was stated in the following terms in my first reply (edited for the purpose of conciseness):

Sex is a deeply mystical, metaphysical thing, and designed by God to be so. To have sex with a person is to literally become “one flesh” with them (Matt 19:5-6, 1 Cor 6:12-20) — not just physically, but “mystically” and spiritually as well. So sex profoundly unifies people. Wine and opera don’t do that, except in a superficial sense! There is an ontological transformation which takes place when intercourse occurs . . .
It is a very strong emotional bond – as all know who have experienced it. For this reason, orthodox Christianity has always held that sex outside the marital commitment is sinful and wrong, because it is (when all is said and done, and in essence, if not always in deliberate intent) an exploitation of the other for the sake of pleasure. It assumes a physical oneness before the appropriate complete spiritual oneness of life that occurs in marriage has been committed to. It’s (literally) putting the cart before the horse . . .

We are talking about two separate things, two separate ends.

Not in light of the citation above. I made a very distinct separation. But you seem to have somehow overlooked that.

Your claim is that because the ends are sinful (abortion in girl’s case, or a refusal to marry the girl and raise the kid with her in the guy’s case), the means by which they eventually arrived at that end (sex) must therefore also be sinful. This is simply non sequitur.

I agree. And it also was not my argument, rightly understood, as explained above.

Sex is an act of love.

Not outside of marriage, no matter how “good” it feels, no matter how pure and noble the intent is. This is Christian ethics. I know it is a tough pill to swallow, but life is tough. If we were only animals, it wouldn’t be an issue. We could copulate to our hearts’ content, with utter disregard for spirituality or consequences or a universal moral code.

When the guy and gal in question made love, they were not refusing to love each other – to the contrary, of course. The refusal to love came later, at the point of the decision to abort the child, or to refuse raise the kid together, or whatever it was.

No, because you are disregarding the deepest purpose of sex, which is procreation and spiritual unity, not merely physical pleasure for its own sake (even if it is “in the name of” romantic love).

So, with this cause-and-effect distinction between means and ends clarified, I pose my original question again: how is sex, as an end, a refusal to love?

I answered that in my first letter, in the excerpt above.

Or better yet, how does the Church justify its teaching that sex outside of marriage is categorically and without exception a refusal to love?

I believe it does so on the same general grounds I used – though I’m sure there are many more complexities I have overlooked. By all means, if you truly are interested in the Catholic answer, don’t restrict yourself to my reply! That would be selling yourself very short.

You’ve brought up some fascinating topics, Dave, but I have no interest in discussing them until you have answered my question – for now why don’t we concentrate on a concise-as-possible answer to my original question. So far you haven’t even aimed an argument in that direction.

I have indeed, as shown. So now the ball’s in your court. This is traditional Christian teaching, and it is the clear biblical teaching. There is no doubt about that. If you call yourself a Christian you must decide what you will do with that reality.

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(originally compiled and slightly edited from private correspondence, with permission: 18 March 2000)

Photo credit: Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, in  the film, Notorious (1946) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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