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1 For French Catholicism, 1820 was a point in time when the Church’s reorganization needed to be completed after the large, controversial urban missions and the impossibility of renegotiating the Concordat of 1801. This was achieved by placing the 84 dioceses that had been retained into a departmental framework [i.e. related to the French administrative départements], and by making it easier to recruit seminarians to swell the ranks of aging priests, who had been deeply affected by the political events of the previous decades. Practicing clergy quickly realized that birth control through coitus interruptus or the “withdrawal” method, already in use shortly prior to the French Revolution, was now a reality. New confession manuals were required. When taking confession from women, the fledgling priests, who had been hastily recruited by the thousands, needed to understand the new realities of the “marriage bed”, and to adapt their discourse to the fact that the number of births was being limited thereby. [1]

2 That teaching was promoted essentially by Jean-Baptiste Bouvier (1783-1854), a theologian from Le Mans. Self-taught and trained after the Revolution, he was ordained as a priest in 1808 and appointed immediately to a teaching position in a seminary. By producing theology textbooks in Latin, he responded to the needs of French seminaries, which were admitting ever larger numbers of students. In 1827, he innovated by publishing a treatise, also in Latin, about sexual misconduct, which was written for future confessors. [2] What made the text so unusual was that it brought together in a single volume all of the sins that used to be addressed in treatises about God’s commandments (the sixth and the ninth) and the sacraments (marriage). But Bouvier’s book also stood out for the number of pages it allotted (more and more over the course of new editions) to practices for limiting births.

3 Bouvier did in fact bring a new gaze to bear on what the Church called conjugal Onanism, according to the formulation that identifies the culpable contraceptive act as a behavior that is condemned in Genesis. [3] Forced to wed the wife of his late brother, Onan spilled his seed upon the ground so as not to provide offspring who would be considered his brother’s, for which he was slain by God: a biblical scene in which the original violence is all divine, as with Sodom. [4] The traditional interpretation, shared by a predominantly rigorist clergy, was that blame should be shared by both spouses:


The sin is mortal if the spouses prevent generation: for example, if the man spills his seed outside of the vase [5] […], if he does not spill it completely, if the woman rejects it.

5 Culpability could therefore also be the wife’s. And yet, Bouvier winds up proposing an entirely different scenario for conjugal Onanism, describing the husband’s contraceptive behavior as tantamount to rape. [6]

6 What was the reason for that change of interpretation, and what was the nature of the violence described therein? Why were contraceptive behaviors that may well have been agreed upon by both spouses described as violence? My re-reading of Bouvier has benefitted both from my own research when writing a history of clerical pedophilia, [7] and from recent historical investigations, particularly into intra-family violence, [8] that show the relative proximity between legal and theological categories in their shared determination to identify and fight against offending practices. [9]

Conjugal Onanism and violent sexuality

7 At the roots of the stance that Bouvier would espouse in his confession guide is a theological construction involving a dialogue with Rome that can be reconstituted based on his published work. Four separate times – once in 1816, twice more in 1822, and again in 1823 – Jean-Baptiste Bouvier and three other priests posed more or less the same question about the culpability of an Onanist man’s wife. Insofar as there was no Faculty of Theology in France, their mandatory interlocutor was the [Sacred] Apostolic Penitentiary, in Rome. From 1827 on, the replies they received were known and commented on in the manual concerning sexuality that Bouvier had just published. While the request was posed as an ordinary moral dilemma, in point of fact, the goal was to legislate for a new practice that flew in the face of the procreative purpose of marriage.

8 Here is the moral dilemma Bouvier presented to the Holy Penitentiary in 1822, as well as the reply received. A subtle role play, insofar as the reply depends in part on the manner in which the question is asked:


Can a pious [10] woman allow her husband to have [sexual] intercourse with her, knowing from experience that he will behave in the odious manner of Onan […], especially if the woman, by her refusal, exposes herself to the risk of mistreatment or if she fears that her husband might seek out prostitutes?

10 The Penitentiary avoided weighing in on the second risk, but expressed itself firmly on the first. “As for the woman, she is not acting unnaturally in the least,” because “she is cooperating with a licit action” – sexual intercourse – through no personal fault of her own. The evil is blamed on the malice of the marital contraceptive act. And the Penitentiary concludes:


That is why, if the wife achieves nothing despite making the appropriate admonishments, if, on the contrary, her husband insists, and threatens her with blows, death, or other serious mistreatment, she can […] shelter herself from sin through passivity: indeed, in those circumstances, she is simply allowing her husband’s sin, and does so, for a serious reason that absolves her, because mercy, which should prevent her from going along with such an act, cannot obligate her in such a difficult context. [11]

12 In order to comprehend the response provided, the stance that had been dominant in the Church of France since the eighteenth century, and which had the merit of simplicity, should be brought to mind. A woman, in a case like that, was guilty because she was participating in an evil action, like the thief’s accomplice who holds the bag with the spoils. The only way to spare herself from mortal sin was to oppose such intercourse by any means possible. This theoretical maximalism might not actually stand up to lived reality, yet Bouvier had to take it into account nonetheless. Hence the reply suggested: the woman is guilty, unless… And that is where the husband’s eventual violence in the contraceptive act comes in. Expressing their stance in that way made it clear that constraint, by eradicating the woman’s freedom, eliminated her culpability. And the scenario was all the more plausible in that it was based on a context in which the male generally imposed his law regarding sexual intercourse.

13 However, having requested a reply from Rome, Bouvier did not simply settle for making it known. He interpreted it by way of some paradoxical musings about the consequences of a theoretical sex strike by a woman coping with her husband’s violent actions. He starts by putting forward the need to maintain sexual relations with an Onanist husband, for the sake of not weakening the conjugal bonds. So the wife should yield to “the fear of divorce, [12] separation, shame or serious scandal.” [13] She should also take into account the husband’s possible retaliatory measures. First of all, resorting to prostitutes. Despite the fact that the Apostolic Penitentiary did not offer an opinion on the subject, the eventuality strikes Bouvier as “sufficient reason to excuse the woman: such misconduct would indeed be extremely detrimental to the marriage, due to the arguments, disagreements, dissipation of the household goods, the scandal.” Even worse would be a “concubine [moving into] the marital home.” In a case like that, “There is no sensible woman who would not prefer to put up with torture and blows rather than seeing a commerce so injurious to herself taking place in her own home.” Violence is also referred to in less extreme reactions; one must prevent the husband from complaining publicly about his lot with “comments that would scandalize servants and children.” [14]

14 Bouvier imagines yet other disturbances caused in public rather than in conjugal privacy: the husband lashing out at the confessor who advises his wife, for example, and through him, at the Church. So the woman should also yield if her refusal would lead her husband “to anger, blasphemy against God and religion, or to insulting confessors and the clergy in general.” He then observes that, “By attempting to prevent a single sin, she would cause [her husband] to commit equally or even more serious ones.” By resisting her husband’s will, the wife “would not profit in the least […] and she would attract serious prejudice to herself for no reason.” The strictly casuistic perspective has been taken in two different directions. The first, and relatively unusual one, brings into play obvious social distinctions, cloaked in the guise of psychology: “The seriousness of the unpleasantness must be evaluated by taking the particular persons involved into account. What may seem inconsequential to one woman could be perceived as extremely serious to another.” In fact, these differing temperaments mirror a class distinction:


Thus passing spats, bickering and even blows hardly matter to those from the lower classes; but it is all unbearable for a shy, educated woman of good manners.

16 In reference to the latter woman, he then concludes “The fear of ceaseless quarreling would, in those conditions, be sufficient cause” to consent to sexual relations.

17 The other casuistic approach is more typical. It consists in broadening the range of serious causes that excuse the behavior. “It is unnecessary to reach the worst extremities,” i.e. the violence, insults and other unpleasantness mentioned above; a woman’s “having some reason to fear them” can suffice. By the same token, a woman is not obliged to remind her husband that his action is blameworthy every time, but “at least from time to time,” to “show that she does not consent to his criminal deed.” Bouvier also takes pains to emphasize key principles. “Women must indeed be wary of consenting to their husband’s sinful deeds, or even taking pleasure in it.” In a word, she “must be in a state of mind where she would rather die than prevent life, insofar as it depends on her.” Tricky mental gymnastics indeed!

18 It’s easy to see how the scenario plays out and where it’s headed. Bouvier is writing from an awareness of the sensibility of public opinion. In the 1820s, an explosive mix of ultra-royalism, combined with the effects of a political liberalism under strict control, found an immediate outlet in intense anticlericalism. Bouvier understood women’s specific allegiance to religion, from their willingness to come to confession and attend Mass; in some bourgeois social circles, they were the only bond left between many families and the Church. On that score, he received support from Pierre-Jean-Corneille Debreyne – a Trappist monk in Soligny (Orne) [15] and former doctor, still practicing, who published various writings about sexuality:


Woman can still save the day, and may well be the only tie that still binds us to religion, faith and morality. If that tie is broken, things may well be over for religion, faith and morality. If woman slips between our fingers, everything – belief, morality and our entire civilization – might disappear with her and sink into the abyss of atheism. [16]

20 Consequently, this new ethical model was quickly accepted by the other theologians, even if the most perspicacious of them saw its limitations. Thus for Jean-Baptiste-Thadée Vernier, a close observer of marital life, the man normally takes the initiative, the woman acquiesces; the man is active; the woman, passive. But can she stick to her usual passivity without reacting to her husband’s Onanist behavior? [17]

21 This new debate would, incidentally, shed unexpected light on female pleasure. Bouvier insisted on its legitimacy during Onanist practices, as in any normal sex act. Debreyne gave a more considered reply, insofar as the woman’s need to remain passive could be interpreted as a need to remain physically impassive, whereas what was at stake was her non-acquiescence of will:


We want to know if women […] are obliged to make every effort to put themselves into a state of erotic impassiveness, in order […] not to give rise to the sensations that are peculiar to intercourse, and to the results they can lead to. [18]

23 Being a doctor as well as a moralist, Debreyne knew that some women might not take any pleasure in marital relations, often for physiological reasons, but that “in most cases, the sensation that is peculiar to and inherent in the marital act escapes entirely from the scope of human will, like the sensation of pleasure that a man feels when his hunger is sated.” He goes on to wonder whether:


[…] a woman […] in the midst of an erotic orgasm, is truly able to observe and analyze her sensations and decide what is happening in her soul, in order to regulate her affections and her will? A great many worries and confused consciences will necessarily crop up here. It is pointless to upset them with such inquisitions. [19]

25 Considerations regarding the wives of Onanist husbands took a different turn in the 1840s, years of Catholic revival that had no intention of leaving men on the the sidelines. By 1842, Bouvier had completely changed his point of view. The theologian, who had been appointed bishop of Le Mans in the meantime, had become a respected authority in the Church of France. Addressing the Apostolic Penitentiary once more, he painted a portrait of a modern couple who wished to have access to marital sexuality while at the same time retaining some control over the size of their family. Vouching for such couples’ morality, the theologian requested permission to entrust this thorny question to couples’ good faith, i.e. to the judgment of their own conscience. [20] The Penitentiary ratified this new stance by suggesting that confessors not question couples on the subject of the marital bed. But the victory was short-lived, because by 1852, the Holy Office once again drew attention to the reality of Onan’s crime. Forty years later, in 1886, the Apostolic Penitentiary closed the parentheses of a pastoral approach that trusted couple’s own conscience and entered a long stretch of neo-rigorism, which ultimately culminated in Pope Paul VI’s condemnation of the Pill in 1968 (Humanae vitae encyclical).

At the roots of sexual violence

26 At this point, one must return to Bouvier’s absolutely classic analysis of culpable sexuality of all kinds, and thus, to the violence that so often accompanies it. But first, the singularity of sexuality from the moralist’s point of view should be remembered. Unlike other fields of human action, in which there is a gradation of evil, any and all deviant sexual practice is, he states, serious in and of itself. This is because:


[…] in the Creator’s intention, venereal pleasures are meant to be strictly reserved for the purpose of propagating the human race; in and of itself, anything that stands in the way of that purpose constitutes a serious disorder and a mortal sin. [21]

28 Consequently,


[…] reason tells us that, because our true nature has been led astray, we are so attracted to the vice of lust that the slightest cause can often produce quite serious effects. [22]

30 Nevertheless, sexual transgressions are not all the same. They are divided into two main categories: according to nature or contrary to it. Natural practices are heterosexual ones relating to sexual activity – which can only be legitimized within the sanctity of marriage. Practices that are contrary to nature include any non-heterosexual (and therefore not fertile) practice, especially masturbation, particularly juvenile; homosexuality, especially male; and bestiality.

31 That being said, to seek violence as we now define it, we must start from the most common scene of the culpable sexual act (simplex fornicatio): a man and a woman, each of them free of all ties, who have sexual relations by mutual consent. Violence is however a transgressive act, which can be social or religious, depending on the status of those involved. For laypersons, it comes from the challenge to marriage (adultery); for priests, monks, and nuns, from breaking their vows of celibacy (sacrilege). Other sexual crimes directly illustrate modalities that are specific to male violence: le stupre (“debauchery”) and le rapt (a term at the time applied to abduction, but corresponding to what would now be called rape: for both terms, see below).

32 Violence is not, however, entirely absent from the two practices that are annexed to fornication: concubinage [common-law marriage, or “living in sin”] and prostitution. For the latter, matters were straightforward: “courtesans have always been seen as the dregs and disgrace of the human race.” So there could be social violence, without respect to the physical violence to which they were subjected, but with reference to the penal code, through a reminder of the crime of “inciting debauchery.” [23] The situation was entirely different for concubinage, a more common practice that could even implicate members of the clergy. [24] The issue for confessors was how to respond to those more borderline cases, insofar as in theory, absolution could only be given if the concubines stopped living together.

33 Bouvier was attentive to the violence that could be caused by the Church’s own rule. When dealing with an elderly couple, for example, if after having sent his concubine away, the man was in such a forlorn state that he could find no one to care for him, the (unmarried) couple would be allowed to live together once again. The same logic went for a woman who could not leave her concubine’s home without considerably increasing her suffering or even risking her life, due to being unable to find decent shelter elsewhere. [25]

34 Debauchery in this context refers to a primal scene, the “first time”. It is identified with physical violence used by a male: “the illicit deflowering of a virgin.” Illicit falls between forbidden and illegitimate, or, more precisely, “the violent deflowering of a virgin”. [26] Meaning a woman who suddenly finds herself deprived of the “integrity of her flesh,” who suddenly loses “the seal or mark of virginity.” Loss or rather theft, if we note this off-hand comment: “Indeed, what honest young maiden would not choose to lose a large sum of money rather than to be deflowered in such a way?” [27] The following somewhat cynical comment comes from Labrunie – a Sulpician who wrote a treatise on sexuality (in French) in the late eighteenth century that was still in use, in manuscript format, in the early nineteenth – and is more explicit about the absence of sentiments:


Girls set a high price on their status as virgins, because if they marry later, their spouses will know, due to how difficult it is to penetrate them, that they have never dallied with another man, which will endear them to their husbands even more. [28]

36 We can see the extent to which confessors shared with magistrates a materialist approach to prohibited acts. In the most common cases, other kinds of pressure must be taken into account,


[…] such as fear, fraud, unwelcome pleading, inflated promises, caresses, petting, and everything which, in the judgment of a prudent man, can lead an inexperienced girl to commit the irreparable. [29]

38 This enumeration of seductive techniques, is, from a more up-to-date perspective (i.e. today’s), an enumeration of methods for grooming and gaining ascendancy, whose denunciation is currently leading to calls for the criminalization of practices that have gone unpunished for many years.

39 Abduction (le rapt in the French of the time) refers to any sexual violence perpetrated against a woman, except for the “first time”, but the term was still used to designate a different behavior, one that used to be punished by canon law (kidnapping), which confuses the image of what we would more commonly refer to as rape. [30] Here, another consequence appears of the theological formalism consisting in classifying sins by the virtues violated. It leads to making disconcerting distinctions: so the rape of a girl who is asleep or drunk “is not an abduction – therefore rape – but fraud,” just like “corruption without violence of a person who is not mentally competent”, [31] a category that we would identify nowadays as “abuse of vulnerable persons”. [32]

40 Most importantly, here is where the crucial question is posed: what must a woman taken by force do in order not to be guilty in the eyes of God? Here is the essence of Bouvier’s answer to that question:


1. She must internally refuse any participation in the pleasure, no matter what external violence she is subjected to, otherwise she would commit mortal sin.
2. She must defend herself with all her strength, with her hands, her feet, her nails and any other instrument, but without going so far as to kill or seriously mutilate him, because life, with all of one’s members, takes precedence over honor, which here is only materially harmed.
3. If she has the slightest hope of being heard, she must shout and cry out for help; for indeed, if she does not display as much resistance as possible, she seems to consent. Better to die a thousand deaths than to yield to such peril.
Consequently, a young woman who finds herself in such an extremity – fearing rightfully to consent to the pleasures of the flesh – is obliged to shout, even at obvious risk of her life, making her a martyr to chastity [I]. Even if the immediate risk of consent is eliminated, it is generally admitted that the young woman is not obliged to shout at the risk of both her life and her reputation, because life and reputation are goods of a higher order. Yet it is well-nigh impossible that such a risk does not exist [II]. [33]

42 In this central text, translated from the sometimes obscure Latin, Bouvier’s apparently firm assertion appears twice: in one [I], it is based on the opinion of the vast majority of theologians, and in two [II], it appeals to a recognized authority from the preceding century. Bouvier summarizes the dominant opinion of theologians about rape, [34] while at the same time discreetly making his own point of view clear. At the time, women’s resistance was a topic of interest in courts of law. [35] Let’s set aside the automatic accusation of chauvinistic victim-blaming in which, when discussing rape, the raped women’s behavior is the only subject of discussion. In this case, condemnation of the rapist is a given. [36] Here, the question focuses on the degree of the woman’s guilt, a schema that Bouvier would reprise, as we saw, in order to disculpate the wives of Onanist men. If we understand our theologian, who is deliberately being obscure here, the problem seems to be that through rape, the woman would be brutally introduced to a sexuality that is so disturbing to the senses that she might allow her free will to comply, which would be a serious sin. To avoid that consent, at the risk of the flesh, the woman should sacrifice herself, at the risk of her life.

43 Nevertheless, that first interpretation is not very satisfactory, because the text’s contradictions have historical roots. To grasp the context, one must make reference to the significant condemnation of 127 propositions made in 1700 by the Assembly of French Clergy and approved by the famous Bishop Bossuet. [37] Historians see this body of condemnations, which would establish long-standing legal precedent in the Gallican Church, as a charter for rigorism – the dominant position from the eighteenth century onwards. [38] The condemnation was the outcome of a long battle against the Jesuits’ looser approach to morality. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, their probabilism was also condemned by Rome. Yet among the propositions censured in France in 1700, we can find this one:


Susanna [39] could, when in serious peril of infamy and death, remain passive at the time of the rape, settling for simply not assenting deep within herself, and hating what was being imposed upon her, because life and reputation are goods of greater value than the virtue of modesty. [40]

45 This laxity is condemned more precisely by referring to Deuteronomy, [41] where it is written that, in town, a young betrothed woman who has sexual relations with another man is sentenced to being stoned to death along with her rapist, whereas her life is spared out in the countryside. The reason for the difference in treatment: in town, she cannot have cried for help or someone would have heard her; in the countryside, she might have cried in in vain.

46 This evocation of both the condemnation of 1700 and the avowed or latent Biblical references makes Bouvier’s contradictions easier to understand. He can’t simply be rid of the statue of the commander – i.e. Bossuet’s approval of the 1700 condemnation – but nor does he settle for the rigorism to which Bossuet leads. In theory, he implies, women should prefer a thousand deaths to consenting to rape; but in practice, a woman who defends herself during a rape should take pains not to kill or even seriously mutilate her aggressor because his life is more important than preserving her own physical integrity. But by the same token, this holds true for the woman being raped: she is not obliged to put her life or even her reputation at risk by screaming, because those are goods of a higher order than her virtue, which is being mistreated in a material way only. By arguing the need to safeguard both the physical and social integrity (the life and the reputation) of the raped person, Bouvier explicitly rejects the rigorist position of 1700, while also approving a discreet secularization of how to view rape.

Putting violence and sexuality into historical perspective

47 It remains to be understood how it is that in 1827, future confessors were offered a scenario whose purpose was to provide impunity to the wives of Onanist men. This scenario emphasized the everyday sexual violence within many couples, in order to apply it specifically to those who practiced a form of birth control. One must first bear in mind the contractualist model that ruled conjugal sexuality at the time. That model was based on the principle that each spouse was available to the other, but according to a fundamental dissymmetry: although each spouse was indeed entitled to the body of the other, each could also choose not to use that right. This leads to a fundamental distinction between petere debitum – requesting sexual relations, a right that one is not obliged to put into effect, and reddere debitum – paying one’s debt, or doing one’s duty, an obligation that stems directly from the contract. [42] This is the basis of a theoretical equality between spouses, one which, due to the lack of equality between the sexes, actually establishes men’s domination over women. Thus, to a modern mind, this egalitarian principle of reciprocity legitimizes marital rape.

48 Theologians were not, however, entirely ignorant of the consequences of everyday conflictuality within couples, and did their best to encourage spouses to remain close. The request was aimed equally toward married women, who, “due to a whim, a mood, or a desire for revenge if their husbands have caused them some displeasure or sorrow” might refuse to do their marital duty, as well as to husbands,


[…] who, acting for the same reasons, or who, knowing or predicting the intentions of their spouses – who are prevented from speaking openly due to the modesty of their sex – refuse [intercourse] in an unfair, scornful or contemptuous way, exposing [their wives] to the risk of sinning or of failing to be faithful to their wedding vows. [43]

50 In essence, while husbands’ sexual desire is expressed noisily, women’s is more discreet, and husbands should pay attention.

51 Bouvier’s careful study of couples’ behavior shows sincere, albeit unequal, attention to concrete situations. [44] Theoretically, the solicited spouse is allowed to refuse if their partner is in a state of inebriation or insanity. But in actual practice:


[…] if a man in that condition is capable of having sexual relations, his wife can yield to his request; she is even obliged to do so if she has reason to believe that rejecting him would lead him toward incontinence or looking elsewhere, or blaspheming and speaking obscenities in front of children or servants. [45]

53 Bouvier transposes that same logic to lend credence to the scenario of violence on the part of an Onanist husband that would allow confessors to exonerate wives of any sin.

54 Granted, even for married couples, there are circumstances in which it is preferable to abstain from all relations, particularly in the case of infectious disease: Bouvier refers to both leprosy and syphilis; Debreyne emphasizes a new plague, consumption, or tuberculosis as we now say. Another, more typical question: in daily life, at what point can a husband’s demands be considered unreasonable? Awkward reply, as multiple relations in a single night are considered excessive on principle, but out of kindness, wives must still satisfy “the requests of a husband suddenly stricken with violent sexual needs.” [46] Adultery is another classic issue: in theory, a spouse who has broken their wedding vows loses the right to the other’s body, but must still do their marital duty if the wronged spouse requests it. Nevertheless, women and men are not equal: an adulterous woman commits a greater sin than an adulterous man, since she runs the risk of introducing illegitimate children [47] into the line of descent, which justifies the husband’s later refusal to enter into sexual relations with his wife. [48]

55 After this brief overview of the complexity of a discourse that takes everyday marital sexuality into account and tries to adapt it to demographic modernity, it is time to go back to the relationship between violence and sexuality. The first model that Bouvier advocates, the non-culpability of wives who are subjected to violence by their Onanist husbands, can be seen as a blend of referring to the multi-faceted violence women are subjected to in everyday sexual practices, and deconstructing the rigorist model concerning rape, which is the underlying reference in the discourse on culpable sexuality. Indeed, unlike the 1700 condemnation, in its essence, the assessment Bouvier arrives at consists in stating that the wife is not guilty of the violence to which she is subjected. Therefore, this unequally adjusted scenario can also be retained as one of the first attempts to challenge a model that has displayed a long-lived adverse effect beyond the Catholic Church, to wit, imputing to women subjected to sexual aggression some share of responsibility for that very aggression. [49] In this respect, Bouvier is the first French theologian of the contemporary era to take women into account as victims. Granted, he did it while seeking to disculpate women only in terms of the husband’s contraceptive act, and he himself later dropped that perspective in order to promote the utopia, in the Catholic world view, of married couples’ moral autonomy.

56 In conclusion, is it reasonable to speak of Bouvier’s topicality? The current crisis of clerical pedophilia, and today’s revelations about the sexual abuse of vulnerable women lead us to realize that what is taking place now was known in the past, but that these two contemporary crimes were seen differently then. In Bouvier, pedophilia is condemned right from the first paragraph of the Stuprum article, via a long note in French in which he quotes Article 331 of the French penal code, which establishes a prison sentence for any rape or “indecent assault, whether perpetrated or attempted with violence against an individual of either sex.” The following two paragraphs go on to establish aggravating circumstances if the crime is committed against a child under the age of 15 (art. 332). If the guilty party is someone in a position of authority, such as a “member of the clergy” (art. 333) [50] that is yet another aggravating circumstance. It was a prudent reminder to confessors that they needed to be aware of the penal code, too, which severely punished criminal behaviors, including those committed by clerics. But Bouvier settles for a sort of concordism between legality and morality in an already secularized society that had decriminalized former sex crimes, including both homosexuality and bestiality, [51] and that no longer condemned adultery except at the husband’s request.

57 Things were different for a cleric who used the power acquired through the confessional to victimize members of his flock, essentially women. That eventuality had been widely addressed since the Catholic Reformation, after the Council of Trent, exalted the role of the priest and emphasized the importance of confession. So Bouvier refers extensively to the infamous “crime of solicitation” (Crimen sollicitationis). [52] Although he condemned such practices vigorously, he knew that dealing with them posed serious problems, starting with the secret of the confessional. Unable to report a guilty party, confessors needed to at least urge the victim – or the accomplice – to do so herself, to the ecclesiastic hierarchy. Another issue concerned the guilty party: the confessor had to walk a tightrope between saving the cleric’s reputation and reporting unacceptable behavior. Bouvier advocated graduated sanctions: absolving the cleric who, having once strayed, repents; but the repeat offender should be reported and punished by a transfer, or even exclusion from the clergy. Precisely the matrix of bishops’ more recent behavior in dealing with… pedophile priests.

58 Bouvier, it should be remembered, was an eyewitness to a period of transition, one in which, as French Catholicism was reconstituting itself, theologians disposed of a certain autonomy and could reflect upon how best to respond to certain forms of modernity. That was no longer true once the intransigent tendency carried the day, after the 1880s. The liberal French State would no longer be viewed by the Catholic church (now adopting its role as counter-society) except through the prism of the evils it caused, while the papacy would constantly claim its ability to define universal ethical norms entirely by itself. The current crisis also stems from that hegemonic goal and its consequences. Looking back to Bouvier is useful insofar as his considerations on ethical norms took several facets into account: the weight of tradition, new realities, the multi-faceted violence of sexual relations, and ways to extract women from the inherent culpability of the primal rape scene. Those reflections remain regrettably relevant today.


  • [1]
    Langlois 2005.
  • [2]
    Dissertatio in sextum Decalogi praeceptum and Supplementum ad tractatum de Matrimonio, Le Mans, C. Monnoyer 1827. Thirteen editions through 1855. Depending on the context, I will quote Bouvier either via Langlois (2005) or according to the ninth edition, which was published in 1839 (Paris, Méquignon jeune, 1839, which is available on line [abridged Dissertatio]).
  • [3]
    Genesis, 38, 8-10.
  • [4]
    Genesis, 19, 1-29.
  • [5]
    In French, the term “sexe” is often used to translate the female receptacle or “vase”, thus, for the sake of convenience, sidestepping the mechanical perspective.
  • [6]
    Langlois 2005: 105-109.
  • [7]
    Langlois 2020.
  • [8]
    Vanneau 2016.
  • [9]
    Concerning the overall context, Pelletier 2019: 43-74.
  • [10]
    The other questions did not use this adjective.
  • [11]
    Out of altruism (mercy), the wife should, according to the rigorist point of view, deprive herself of sexual relations to keep her husband from sinning. Langlois 2005: 119.
  • [12]
    Divorce, legalized by the Revolution, was abolished once again in France in 1816, and not reinstated until 1884.
  • [13]
    Langlois 2005: 120 and comments: 139-141.
  • [14]
    Idem. Same references for all of the following citations.
  • [15]
    Langlois 2005: 158-159.
  • [16]
    Debreyne 1843: 191; Langlois 2005: 164.
  • [17]
    Langlois 2005: 150-151.
  • [18]
    Debreyne 1843:198.
  • [19]
    Idem: 201.
  • [20]
    Langlois 2005: 177-219. This gives the text of the long letter from Bouvier to the Penitentiary, dated 8 June 1842: 178-179.
  • [21]
    Dissertatio: 8.
  • [22]
    Ibid.: 11. So the debate between rigor and accommodation shifted to how to take the socialization of sexuality into account through novels, plays, dancing, clothing and conversation.
  • [23]
    French Penal Code, Art. 334-335, Dissertatio: 16-17.
  • [24]
    Ibid.: 19.
  • [25]
  • [26]
    Ibid.: 23.
  • [27]
  • [28]
    Langlois 2005: 68. Comments that can be found widely in nineteenth-century novels (Dottin-Orsini 2013).
  • [29]
    Dissertatio: 23.
  • [30]
    All the more so in that there is a term known as “abduction without violence,” which was a way of putting pressure on a family to force them to consent to (both) partners’ desire.
  • [31]
    Dissertatio: 28.
  • [32]
    Some outdated definitions can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). Rape – formerly debauchery (le stupre) – is still defined as “violently forcing entry into a person’s intimacy,” although there is the acknowledgement that rape “causes serious damage that can affect the victim throughout her life.” (§ 2356).
  • [33]
    Dissertatio: 29-30.
  • [34]
    Further on, Bouvier refers to that scenario, not in case of rape but of sexual aggression: in coping with her aggressor, the woman should “push him away, take him to task, shove away the hand that is assaulting her, run away, or scream if she has any hope of being heard” (Dissertatio: 90-91).
  • [35]
    For example, Regnard 2011.
  • [36]
    This assertion may seem surprising in light of what was at the time attributed to culpable clemency on the part of both civil and ecclesiastical justice. Let’s take just one example, the condemnation of debauchery: “If someone,” Bouvier says, “accomplishes the carnal act using violence,” that someone – who can only be a man (vir) – “has committed a particularly heinous act, which, in some dioceses, such as Angers, is considered a reserved case, i.e. one that falls on principle under Rome’s jurisdiction.” And, Bouvier adds, in France, “civil justice will pronounce a sentence of imprisonment against him.” (Dissertatio: 22).
  • [37]
    Debreyne 1846: 102-103.
  • [38]
    Quantin 2001: 83-85; Gay 2011.
  • [39]
    The name of the young woman referred to in the 1700 condemnation, Susanna, is clearly a reference to the Susanna in the Book of Daniel (in the version used by the Catholic church: Ch 13). In the well-known scene, which has often been painted, beautiful Susanna is accused by two lecherous elders of a sexual encounter. She denies their accusations, but is condemned, based on their eyewitness accounts. Daniel proves those accounts are false by interrogating the elders separately.
  • [40]
    Assembly of the Clergy of France [1700], Proposition 44.
  • [41]
    Deuteronomy, 22, 23-27.
  • [42]
    Langlois 2005: 77-82.
  • [43]
    Debreyne 1846: 295-296.
  • [44]
    While refusing sexual relations on principle is in and of itself a mortal sin, husbands should also take into account their wives’ momentary indisposition; wives should not, however, use that as an excuse to avoid doing their marital duty (Dissertatio: 169).
  • [45]
    Ibid.: 170-171.
  • [46]
    Ibid.: 172.
  • [47]
    Bouvier’s turn of phrase is, “introducing false heirs”.
  • [48]
    Ibid.: 172.
  • [49]
    Regnard 2011: “For a very long time, the crucial question of the victim’s ‘resistance’ hung like a cloud of suspicion, determining the verdict in the eyes of jurors for whom the vice inherent to women’s nature remained an impactful notion.” (§ 17).
  • [50]
    Dissertatio: 22-23.
  • [51]
    Those acts were decriminalized during the French Revolution, but zoophilia has once again become an offense in an article of the 2004 animal-protection law.
  • [52]
    That is sexual advances by a priest to a penitent in the context of confession. The expression cropped up again in 1962, when the Holy Office, in a letter called Crimen sollicitationis, re-stated the contents of an earlier (1922) pontifical text explaining the contents of the new canon law of 1917, on what to do about priests who are guilty of that crime. The 1962 text was made public in 2003, in the United States, during the controversy about pedophile priests.

This article seeks to shed light on the complex modes of thought in Catholic moral theology which associated sexual practices and violence. It takes as an example a specific moment (the 1820s) and a particular location (France with its low birth rate). The theologian Jean-Baptiste Bouvier is the chief witness in this study: recognizing that the number of pregnancies was in reality limited by the practice of coitus interruptus, he proposed the fictional construct that a wife was not a sinner, since her husband was imposing the practice on her by force. This scenario, devised to remove any feeling of guilt from married women who were faithful to the Church, goes much further than its circumstantial aspect. In fact, it deconstructs a rigorous doctrinal principle, applied officially in France since 1700, according to which in a case of rape, some share of responsibility – and thus of guilt – attached to the woman, if she had not displayed visible, audible or tangible opposition to the violence she was undergoing.

  • moral theology
  • France
  • nineteenth century
  • modernity
  • birth control
  • Malthusianism
  • sexuality
  • violence
  • Bible
  • prohibitions
  • rigorism

Le coitus interruptus comme fiction de viol ? Le point de vue d’un théologien catholique au début du xixe siècle

Cet article cherche à mettre en lumière les modalités complexes qui, dans la théologie morale catholique, unissent pratique sexuelle et violence. Il le fait en prenant comme référence un moment spécifique (les années 1820) dans un espace singulier (la France malthusienne). Le théologien Jean-Baptiste Bouvier, acteur principal de cette réflexion, prenant acte de la réalité de la limitation des naissances par coitus interruptus, propose la fiction vraie de la non-culpabilité de la femme à laquelle son mari impose sa pratique par la force. Or ce scénario, élaboré pour déculpabiliser les femmes mariées fidèles à l’Église, va beaucoup plus loin que son aspect circonstanciel. En effet il déconstruit un rigorisme doctrinal, officiel en France depuis 1700, selon lequel, en cas de viol, une part de responsabilité – et donc de culpabilité – est imputée à la femme si elle ne s’oppose pas de manière visible, audible et tangible à la violence qu’elle subit.

  • théologie morale
  • France
  • xixe siècle
  • modernité
  • limitation des naissances
  • sexualités
  • violences
  • Bible
  • rigorisme


  • Debreyne, Pierre-Jean-Corneille. 1843 (3rd ed.). Essai sur la théologie morale considérée dans ses rapports avec la théologie et la médecine. Paris: Poussielgue Rusand.
  • Debreyne, Pierre-Jean-Corneille. 1846. Mœchialogie. Traité des péchés contre les sixième et neuvième commandements du décalogue et de toutes les questions matrimoniales. Paris: Poussielgue-Rusand: 102-103, 295-296.
  • Dottin-Orsini, Mireille. 2013. Chérie, femme ou jeune fille. Cahiers Edmond et Jules de Goncourt 20 (« Le Roman de la jeune fille »): 63-77.
  • Gay, Jean-Pascal. 2011. Morales en conflit. Théologie et polémique au Grand Siècle (1640-1700). Paris: Cerf.
  • Langlois, Claude. 2005. Le Crime d’Onan. Le discours catholique sur la limitation des naissances. Paris: Belles Lettres.
  • Langlois, Claude. 2014. Catholicisme. Dictionnaire des sexualités, ed. Janine Mossuz-Lavau, 152-157. Paris: Robert Laffont, Coll. Bouquins.
  • Langlois, Claude. 2020. “On savait, mais quoi ?”. La pédophilie dans l’Église de la Révolution à nos jours. Paris: Le Seuil.
  • Pelletier, Denis. 2019. Les Catholiques en France de 1789 à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel.
  • Ratzinger, Joseph, Cardinal (ed.). 1992. Catéchisme de l’Église catholique. Paris: Plon.
  • Regnard, Céline. 2011. La fabrique du crime, Les attentats aux mœurs devant la justice (France-Var, xixe siècle). Rives méditerranéennes 40: 87-106.
  • Quantin, Jean-Louis. 2001. Le Rigorisme chrétien. Paris: Éditions du Cerf.
  • Vanneau, Victoria. 2016. La Paix des ménages. Histoire des violences conjugales (xixe-xxie siècle). Paris: Anamosa.
Claude Langlois
Claude Langlois is Emeritus Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. His doctorat d’État on female religious orders in the nineteenth century, Le catholicisme au féminin (1985), was a landmark study, and since then he has specialized in the history of sexual morals and writings by women mystics. He chaired the Section des Sciences religieuses and, with Régis Debray, founded the IESR (Institut européen en sciences des religions). His most recent publications include: On savait mais quoi ? La pédophilie dans l’Église de la Révolution à nos jours (Seuil, 2020) and « La femme du Seigneur », Madeleine Delbrêl en ses œuvres (Cerf, 2022).
Translated by
Regan Kramer
Uploaded on on 14/04/2022
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