Guilty Pleasure

“You shall not commit adultery” is the Sixth Commandment found in the Book of Exodus within the Old Testament.[1] According to Catholicism, God created human beings with the purpose of multiplication. Humans are sexual beings whose identity should be accepted in the unity of body and soul. Thus, sexual sins such as adultery, which is often interpreted as pre-marital sex within the Catholic Church, violates not just the body but the person’s whole being. As Pope John Paul II said, “sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.”[2] Every intentional genital act outside of marriage is regarded as sinful; this is the central issue of sexuality in relation to Catholicism. When questioning this religious belief, acquired during my sixteen years in Catholic school, I had to radically change my idea of sexuality. I needed to rework sixteen years of believing that sexual intercourse was an expression of perfect conjugal love. I had to rediscover the meaning of aphrodisiai, pleasure, as something that was contrary to harmful.

The feminist critique of the Catholic definition of sexuality can help us understand this religious belief more fully by exploring its five dimensions: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual and relational.[3] Focusing on the physical dimension, according to Catholicism, the union of the bodies in marriage is replicated in the union of bodies during intercourse. The unmarried person is not regarded as a whole person and is forced to look for someone that will complete them. This imposes a dependency of one person on another, but what we need to understand is that one person can feel complete by themselves. The presence of another person can make us feel better, but the moment in which we describe this relation as dependency, it prevents us from thinking about ourselves as one complete being.

According to Catholicism, the “pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit” can be achieved only when sex is performed for a procreative function and within the institution of marriage.[4] However, disassociating the sexual act from the generative function is unacceptable to the Catholic Church. Masturbation, for example, is regarded as a sin because it goes against the very purpose of sexuality, which is to procreate. Additionally, as the soul is thought to be immortal, the punishment of this sin becomes immortal too. This constant fear of punishment and the sense of guilt for doing something supposedly wrong has a psychological influence not only on ourselves but also on our sexual experiences. We should not feel guilty for seeking pleasure. The Catholic Church has always seen aphrodisiai with a suspicious eye because they were against hedonism, a life without morality and exclusively dependent upon the satisfaction of pleasure. Historically, religion functioned by imposing a moral code on the population; this included designating sexual pleasure as immoral. The divide between aphrodisiai and sexual intercourse is one of the many points of origin of Catholic guilt, which is different from all other types of guilt as it is characterized by an overbearing feeling that only a person of faith can experience. The concept that seeking pleasure is an egocentric act enhances this sense of guilt.

“You shall love your neighbour as yourself’’ is one of the most important Catholic teachings in the Gospel. This phrase encourages a believer to be altruistic, to be able to love someone else outside of yourself.[5] On one hand, this teaches us to treat others in a respectful way and not to be individualistic. On the other hand, it does not mention self-love. Why shouldn’t we start valuing ourselves and our bodies? How can we actually love someone else if we can’t understand how to love ourselves first? As Thomas Aquinas argues, nemo dat quod non habet, which means no one gives what they do not have.[6] Our inability to see ourselves as a whole or to completely accept our independence means that we are unable to fully accept another person too. Furthermore, Catholicism interprets sexual intercourse as an experience to enhance one’s spirituality; it cannot be seen as a source of pleasure of and for itself because this would be egocentric. Recalibrating our understanding of both sexual intercourse and masturbation, redirecting it towards an act of self-love instead of egocentrism, helps us to accept these actions guilt-free. A new understanding of ourselves and our bodies would permit us to really enjoy sex with freedom and a bit more lightness.

I still identify as Catholic but I always need to specify that believing in my religion does not mean accepting everything that the Catholic institution says. The strong morality imposed by Catholicism, together with its inextricable sense of guilt, prevents many from enjoying sex. Furthermore, constantly overthinking if what you are doing is wrong, instead of being aware of the importance of pleasure and the entitlement of a body to really relish that moment, is detrimental to mental health. It all comes down to the fact that according to the Catholic religion, the body is not yours but a gift of God. Therefore, in order to respect your body, you have to respect the teachings of the Church. Regaining control over our sexuality and liberating ourselves from any sense of guilt, that’s what we should all focus on now.


[1] Exodus 20:14.

[2] Pope John Paul II. 1992. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2351.

[3] Salzman, Todd A., and Michael G. Lawler. 2008. Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Georgetown University Press), p127.

[http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/gla/detail.action?docID=547771]

[4] Pope John Paul II. 1992. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2362.

[5] Mark 12:28– 34; Matt 22:34– 40,46b and Luke 10:25– 28.

[6] Salzman, Todd A., and Michael G. Lawler. 2008. Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Georgetown University Press), p132 [http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/gla/detail.action?docID=547771].

[Belen De Bacco – she/her – Instagram @belenartchaser, Twitter: @BaccoBelen]

[Photo credits: Lisa Fotios]

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