Proposing a Renewed Catholic Understanding of the Sexual Person

By Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, authors of Sexual Ethics

Part One of a Two-Part Series

In a recent interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Sister Pat Farrell, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), commented on one aspect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “doctrinal assessment” of the group:  “We have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the Church’s teaching on sexuality…the problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought in light of the world we live in….” Regarding whether or not these concerns are open for discussion in the Church, Farrell asks: “Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?…Is freedom of conscience within the church genuinely honored?”  Her comment and questions invite reflection on a historical reason for concerns about some Catholic sexual teachings, the need for Church teaching that respects the consciences of the faithful, and the need for a renewed definition of the sexual person that adequately considers the sexual person in light of “the signs of the times.”

Suspicion of human sexuality and the pleasure associated with its use has a long history in the Catholic tradition. Stoic suspicions of sexual pleasure and its emphasis that all moral sexual acts must be acts open to procreation within marriage were incorporated into Christian views on human sexuality and both “conjugalized” and “procreationalized” the approach to sexual activity. Augustine affirmed that sexuality and sexual activity in marriage are good because they were created good by the good God, but he also affirmed that their goodness is threatened by the powerful pleasure associated with sexual intercourse. Pope Gregory the Great even banned from access to the church anyone who had just had pleasurable intercourse. Despite some developments in Catholic sexual teaching, this suspicion of sex has for centuries placed enormous strain on Catholic consciences and self-esteem. This strain continues in the present and is highlighted by different perceptions of the role and function of conscience in relation to Catholic sexual ethics and Catholic social ethics.

There is a paradoxical difference in method between Catholic social and sexual ethics that has implications for exercising one’s conscience on these issues. In Sollicitudo rei socialis, Blessed John Paul II articulates the Catholic Church’s approach to social ethics. The Church seeks “to guide people to respond, with the support of rational reflection and of the human sciences, to their vocation as responsible builders of earthly society” (Sollicitudo rei socialis, paragraph n. 1). In social ethics, the Church guides, and believers, drawing on that guidance, their own experience, the findings of the sciences, and their informed consciences, responsibly respond. If the Church’s way in social ethics is the way of principles that enable believers to responsibly respond, not the way of absolute norms to be unquestioningly obeyed, then surely it can be the way also in sexual ethics. That opens the way to the long-standing Catholic teaching on the moral ultimacy of conscience articulated, for instance, by the young Joseph Ratzinger in his commentary on Gaudium et spes’ teaching on conscience. “Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.” Catholics rightly accord theological respect to the conscience of the magisterium when it teaches on sexual issues. Today they ask only that the magisterium reciprocate respect for their consciences.

[Part two will be posted tomorrow. It will discuss what a renewed understanding of sexual ethics might look like.]

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