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Consent is not Enough

Updated: May 17, 2023

In contemporary culture the focus of morality tends to be on whether an act is agreed upon. This is especially true in the realm of sexual relationships. The general thinking is that as long as two people consent to an act then it must be permissible. However, this does not safeguard the dignity of those involved in these activities. The standard of consent does not affirm that each of us is made in the image of God with inherent value that must be respected at all times.

It is impossible to discern whether an action is good or not if we do not have a reasonable understanding of what a human is and how they should be treated (Cessario 22). To that end we must consider human nature, as created by God. Christian tradition bears witness that the human nature is made in the image of likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). However, it is not always immediately clear what is meant by “likeness”. Aquinas wrote that an “Image, properly speaking, means whatever proceeds forth in likeness to another” (ST I, Q. 35, A.1, ad1). Further, creation can only image God in an imperfect way, otherwise created things would have the same nature as God. Things that are created by another reflect certain aspects of their creator and in the case of God, who is being itself, they image Him in their existence, their life, and most perfectly in their intellect and will (ST I, Q. 93, A. 2, co.). It is in the last way that human beings image God uniquely compared to the rest of material creation.

The human person images the Trinity because the relationship of truth to love in the Trinity occurs also in the human creature (Cessario 27). Loving and knowing are intimately connected and inseparable. One cannot love what is not known and the most perfect kind of knowledge is found by loving that which is known. Thus, creatures most perfectly image God when action is actualized to know and love. This knowing and loving has God as its object, but also each person because they are a reflection of the God who created them. Every person has inherent worth and dignity because they are made in God’s image. They exist to be known and loved, and are made to express that love for each other. This in turn enables happiness and human flourishing, as it directs us toward our ultimate happiness and union with God who is both our beginning and end.

The most perfect human image of the Father is the Son, who took on flesh to redeem us. The mutual love between Father and Son is “so rooted in the Divine essence as to be personal. For that reason, the Holy Spirit is called a Person” (Sheen 59). The conjugal love between husband and wife is a beautiful sign of the divine love. Through participation in the creating action of God human love is personified in a child. This is a picture of God who is love. The persons of the Trinity love each other perfectly and love is best understood in its perfection.

The most perfect love is the giving of the self to the beloved and the self-gift of husband and wife reflects the love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Marriage is a love that seeks to both give and receive. In a sense, the union of spouses is at first dual, then triune. It blossoms with something outside, given by God to unite their love, which is the child whose soul comes from God. Mother, father, and child unite in the human nature as a faint image of the Triune law of Love (Sheen 66).

Love is the mystery which lies at the center of the Christian life. Not because love cannot be known, but because its depths can never be exhausted. In all the manners of lived experiences this fact cannot be forgotten or left behind. Christian revelation is resplendent with metaphors of God’s love for his people. He creates out of love and continues to draw us back to relationship with Him. We are created for love and we exist to be in relationship. Jesus gave us the key when He told us the two things that were necessary for the moral life: love God and love neighbor. All other things are temporary, because only love extends beyond the limits of this world.

This kind of love encompasses our being, but we express it uniquely in our sexuality. Human love images the Trinity in a special way through the sexual embrace. Man and woman come together and their love participates with the creative powers of God. Our sexuality is intimately connected to our vocation to love, hence, “sexuality, like the person, should not be trivialized or misused” (Grabowski 111).

Modern culture champions sexual liberation freed from commitment. This very notion is greatly at odds with the meaning of our sexuality which flows from complementarity of persons as male and female, united and life giving. Understanding what the sexual act is for is crucial to understanding why this liberation isn’t freedom at all, but a kind of slavery to passion. This kind of freedom which posits an indifference between choices is not sufficient to uphold the dignity of the human person.

Our bodies communicate the fundamental gift of creative self-donation (A Theology of the Body 14:4). The sexual difference between men and women “reveal the nuptial foundation of reality” (Cahall 28). This same difference is inscribed in the fabric of their being and essential for existing persons who share a common humanity (Grabowski 110). Scripture gives witness to the conjugal unity between man and woman which is expressed in a life-giving way (Genesis 2:23-24). Our first parents were endowed with masculinity and femininity which they could freely offer to one another and this freedom is “the basis of the spousal meaning of the body” which is the power to express love (A Theology of the Body 15:1). This gift enables them to know each other more perfectly and each wills the good of the other. This communion of persons is the giving of self and the welcoming of the other.

Human sexual activity is deeper than transactional consent because it requires a permanent and irrevocable union (Pacholczyk). In order to fully and completely give of oneself, it is necessary for that gift to be enduring. “The indissolubility of marriage flows in the first place from that very essence of that gift: the gift of one person to another person” (Gratissimam Sane 11). A person cannot totally give themselves over to another for a limited period of time. The gift of self can only be truly realized by committing totally until death, otherwise, it will not be a total giving of self (Familiaris Consortio). Sacramental Marriage provides for the “unconditional fidelity and self-donation" required for such a union (Grabowski 198).

On the other hand, without the complete and total gift we are living a performative deception whereby the body communicates a union that does not exist. The sexual act goes far beyond any other form of communication, creating a unique bond (Pacholczyk). When used in a casual way “the words or deeds of sexual expression are not adequate to the truth of the relationship between the two persons” (Grabowski 116). Even if both partners consent, they are not able to fully give of themselves but violate the dignity of their partner by undermining their ability to give themselves in love and truth. They each hold back a critical part of their expression, they hold back their commitment, their fruitfulness and in exchange they offer their lust. This is a grave injustice to each of them, but also to any children who may be conceived as the fruit of their union. Such a union violates justice, truth, and chastity (Grabowski 117).

The loss of the importance of the need for a permanent union to safeguard the dignity of the family and the devaluation of the sexual act begins in the Protestant reformation with several prominent leaders teaching that the traditional Catholic teaching on marriage was simply too difficult to follow (Anders 66). When Luther and other reformers like Calvin rejected the Church, they also jettisoned the sacraments because they did not believe that justification involved any kind of real change or renewal, but only a kind of legal covering of sins. Thus, the entire sacramental worldview was rejected (Cahall 237). One of the pertinent results of this was the naturalization of Christian marriage (Anders 66). This is quite evident in the writings of two of the most prominent Protestant theologians, John Calvin and Martin Luther.

John Calvin wrote that “[marriage] is a good and holy ordinance of God. And agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, and shaving, are lawful ordinances of God; but they are not sacraments” (Calvin 4.19.34). Once the sexual union was robbed of its sacred purpose it was removed from the purview of the Church and handed over to the state (Cahall 241). Once marriage is relegated to the control of the state, it becomes a personal matter between people rather than a social reality. It is reduced to a way to satisfy sexual desires instead of a way to unite two people to each other and to God (Anders 65). Such reduction robs marriage of its significance and degrades it to fleeting attempts to justify the use of another person as a thing to sate a biological urge rather than as a person to be loved.

Martin Luther similarly reasoned that the Sacrament of Marriage was invented by the Church. He maintained it was a natural institution that should be regulated by the state (Cahall 239). Luther taught that men should always satisfy their sexual impulses, comparing it to the need to eat and drink. He even suggested that adultery was permissible if the wife was not willing (Reston 222). Based on this reasoning, Luther eventually approved of the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse (Anders 65).

The Protestant desacralization of marriage has had devastating results. Martin Luther nearly immediately jettisoned the marital goods of fidelity and indissolubility. Luther and Calvin denied that there could be such a thing as a sacramental marriage, that marriage could provide grace, or enable spouses to help each other toward salvation. The fruits of this continue with the Puritans who began to compel married sexual activity, like a chore or a duty rather than as an act of love (Anders 65). This view of sexuality deprives it of its true value and reduces it to the prerogative of consent between a couple no matter how demeaning it may be (Anders 66). The entire purpose of marriage and marital sexuality becomes confused.

Once marriage is secularized it becomes primarily a “means of attaining personal fulfillment and satisfaction” (Cahall 241). The Protestant view maintains that the only limitation to sexual activity is consent within marriage, while the modern secular view is roughly the same but with no need for marriage (Anders 58). The secular world, following figures such as Margaret Sanger, change the meaning of sex to mutual pleasure (Grabowski 6). Thus, the couple seeks a kind of utopian illusion by trying to find personal fulfillment through the experience of sexual pleasure for its own sake. The secular worldview is then free to compromise on permanence, fidelity, and the procreation of children (Cahall 241). Further, since marriage is the fundamental building block of society "a very torrent of evil has flowed from this source, not only into private families, but also into States” (Arcanam Divinae 27).

There is something very hollow about this conception of human sexuality because the sexual union is more than merely a joining of bodies, but it ought to be “preeminently a joining of human hearts” (Pacholczyk). The approach of consent as the definitive aspect of sexual morality is deeply flawed. It leaves out the deep human longing for the beloved and the offering of the self that enables participation in the life-giving embrace of a couple. Consent is necessary, of course, and the Sacrament of Marriage is based on the permanent, faithful, and fruitful consent of spouses offering themselves to each other. Yet, it is when we lack these goods that the sexual act becomes devoid of its true meaning. When these are lacking, we have little more than an agreement to use one another out of convenience or for the sake of pleasure separated from a greater purpose.

The fruits that flow from this quite are evident in the modern world. Divorce, unfaithfulness, harm to children, the destruction of homes, and harm to every level of society (Arcanam Divinae 29). When divorced from its divine purpose, married love will be found wanting, unable to satisfy the human longing for love (Cahall 242). Even worse, the entire conception of “relationships are left to the changing winds of personal desire and circumstances” (Amoris Laetitia 34). The self-giving love of husband and wife is the model for relationships between brothers and sisters, and all family life (Familiaris Consortio 37). If the model is broken, then people do not learn what authentic love looks like and they descend into loneliness and despair. When the Protestant reformers and the secular world after them denied the Sacrament of Marriage they lost what so many desperately seek: “a love that never dies because it truly participates in the love of Christ” (Cahall 242).

All human activity should be ordered to happiness and human flourishing. The sexual union of two persons is fundamentally aimed toward these, allowing a man and woman to communicate their love in a uniquely bonding and creative way. However, this kind of relationship requires the total gift of one spouse to the other, each safeguarding the other in the most intimate and vulnerable of human relationships. Modern culture has completely divorced sex from this gift of self and only a hollow shell remains which cannot be filled by consent for mutual use because pleasure cannot replace love.


Anders, David. The Catholic Church Saved My Marriage: Discovering Hidden Grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony. Sophia Press Institute, 2018.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, Kevin Knight, 2017, Accessed 19 August 2021.

Cahall, Perry. The Mystery of Marriage: A Theology of the Body and the Sacrament. Hillenbrand Books, 2016.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveride. Accessed 21 August 2021.

Cessario, Romano. Introduction to Moral Theology. The Catholic University of America Press, 2001.

Francis. AMORIS LÆTITIA. Vatican. 19 March 2016. Accessed 21 August 2021.

Grabowski, John S. Sex and Virtue: An Introduction to Sexual Ethics. The Catholic University of America Press, 2004.

The Holy Bible. Rev. Standard Version, Meridian, 1962.

John Paul II. FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO. Vatican. 22 November 1981. Accessed 19 August 2021.

---. GRATISSIMAM SANE. Vatican. 2 February 1994. Accessed 19 August 2021.

---. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Translation and Introduction by Michael Waldstein. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006.

Leo XIII. Arcanam Divinae. The Holy See, 1880. 29 Mar. 2020, Accessed 19 August 2021.

Pacholczyk, Tadeusz. "Consenting to sex." Making Sense Out of Bioethics. 25 May 2018. Accessed 21 August 2021.

Reston, James. Luther’s Fortress: Martin Luther and His Reformation under Siege. Basic Books, 2015.

Sheen, Fulton J. Three to Get Married. Scepter Publishers, 2004.


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