Proposing a Renewed Catholic Understanding of the Sexual Person, pt 2

August 3, 2012

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

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Sister Farrell’s comment and questions cited in Part One of this series highlight the need for a renewed definition of the sexual person that adequately considers the sexual person in light of “the signs of the times.” Drawing insights from scripture, tradition, the sciences, and experience, Catholic theologians are proposing a renewed understanding of the sexual person that challenges the historical suspicion surrounding human sexuality in the Catholic Church. This renewed understanding builds on many of the Catholic Church’s positive messages about human sexuality, especially about the unitive end of marriage or meaning of the sexual act, and can provide sound principles to educate the faithful about the God-given gift of sexuality.

In The Sexual Person (2008) and Sexual Ethics (2012) we propose six fundamental dimensions of a renewed understanding of the sexual person. These include:

  1. Move from the sexual person considered as a procreative person to the sexual person considered as a relational person, one who focuses, not simply on sexual acts, but on the interpersonal meaning of sexual acts for interpersonal relationships and asks whether or not these sexual acts facilitate growth in just and loving relationship with one’s intimate partner, oneself, and one’s God.
  2. Move from  viewing heterosexual orientation as normative and homosexual and bisexual orientation as “objectively disordered” to viewing sexual orientation, heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, as an intrinsic dimension of the sexual person and, therefore, “objectively ordered” for persons with such orientations.
  3. Move to a more holistic and integrated understanding of the sexual person, physiologically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually considered.
  4. Acknowledge the fundamental desire in persons to be in relationship, including sexual relationship, with another person. This desire is realized in a complex of relationships that the magisterium refers to as complementarity, which intends that certain realities belong together and produce a whole that neither produces alone. The magisterium prioritizes physical complementarity and argues that it demands heterosexual marriage as the exclusive stable sexual relationship between a man and a woman.
  5. Move from the magisterium’s description of sexual complementarity, limited to physical complementarity and heterosexual marriage, to a holistic complementarity which integrates sexual orientation as an intrinsic dimension of the sexual person.
  6. Move from an understanding of “truly human sexual acts” (Gaudium et spes, n. 49) limited to reproductive-type sexual acts within a heterosexual marital relationship as fulfilling of sexual persons to an understanding of “truly human sexual acts” as either reproductive-type or non-reproductive-type sexual acts in accord with a person’s sexual orientation that facilitate the sharing of a person’s embodied self with another embodied self in just love that fulfill sexual persons.

This renewed understanding focuses on persons rather than their acts, interpersonal relationships rather than biology, real and experienced rather than abstract and ideal sexuality, principles and virtues (such as justice and love) rather than absolute norms. The normative conclusion that follows from these six renewed dimensions of the sexual person changes the approach to sexual morality: some heterosexual and some homosexual acts, those that meet the requirements for holistic complementarity and just love, are truly human and therefore moral; some heterosexual and some homosexual acts, those that do not meet the requirements for holistic complementarity and just love, are not truly human and therefore immoral.


Proposing a Renewed Catholic Understanding of the Sexual Person

August 2, 2012

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.]


Book Talk with William F. May, author of Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics

February 27, 2012

William F. May’s new book, Testing the National Covenant, published by Georgetown University Press, draws on America’s religious and political history and examines two concepts at play in the founding of the country—contractual and covenantal. He contends that the biblical idea of a covenant offers a more promising way than the language of contract, grounded in self-interest alone, to contain our runaway anxieties and appetites. A covenantal sensibility affirms, “We the people (not simply, We the individuals, or We the interest groups) of the United States.” It presupposes a history of mutual giving and receiving and of bearing with one another that undergirds all the traffic in buying and selling, arguing and negotiating, that obtain in the rough terrain of politics. May closes with an account of the covenantal agenda ahead, and concludes with the vexing issue of immigrants and undocumented workers that has singularly tested the covenant of this immigrant nation.


Revelation, Translation, and Interpretation in Christianity and Islam

January 18, 2012

“Islam and Christianity alike give a high valuation to the conviction that God speaks to us. Grasping what that does and does not mean . . . is challenging theological work.” So concludes Archbishop Rowan Williams at the end of Communicating the Word, a new work on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Featuring the insights of internationally known scholars from both faiths, the essays collected in the book focus attention on key scriptural texts while also engaging with both classical and contemporary Islamic and Christian thought.

Communicating the Word  explores themes crucial to these religions, like the different ways in which Christians and Muslims think of their scriptures as the “Word of God,” the possibilities and challenges of translating scripture, and the methods—and conflicts—involved in interpreting scripture in the past and today. Caner K. Dagli, of the College of the Holy Cross, recommends the book, saying, “There are very few people, specialist or otherwise, who will not learn much from this rich and varied volume. It is rare for interreligious exchange to take place at such a sustained level of quality, and much of the authors’ contributions manage to feel both erudite and direct.”

This volume is a record of the seventh Building Bridges seminar, held in 2008 at Villa Palazzola, near Rome. The seminar is an annual forum for theological dialogue between leading Christian and Muslim scholars. The 2008 conference was convened by Archbishop Rowan Williams, one of the world’s most prominent Christian leaders and theologians.

About the Editor: The Reverend Dr. David Marshall is the academic director of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Building Bridges seminar and a research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.


The Acting Person and Christian Moral Life

January 16, 2012

What may we say about the significance of particular moral actions for one’s relationship with God? In this provocative analysis of contemporary Catholic moral theology Darlene Fozard Weaver shows the person as a moral agent acting in relation to God. Using an overarching theological context of sinful estrangement from and gracious reconciliation in God, Weaver’s book The Acting Person and Christian Moral Life shows how individuals negotiate their relationships with God in and through their involvement with others and the world.

Much of current Christian ethics focuses more on persons and their virtues and vices exemplified by the work of virtue ethicists or on sinful social structures illustrated in the work of liberation theologians. These judgments fail to appreciate the reflexive character of human action and neglect the way our actions negotiate our response to God. Weaver develops a theologically robust moral anthropology that advances Christian understanding of persons and moral actions and contends we can better understand the theological import of moral actions by seeing ourselves as creatures who live, move, and have our being in God.

Kenneth R. Himes, of Boston College, recommends the book, asserting that The Acting Person in Christian Moral Life “will help reset the agenda for moral theology. In a nonpolemical manner the author points out the need to return to a style of moral analysis that is more attentive to individual acts and more explicitly theological in our way of understanding the significance of moral action. With wisdom and literary style Weaver has called us to focus again on topics—freedom, accountability, sin, reconciliation, and grace—that are central to Catholic moral theology.”

About the Author: Darlene Fozard Weaver is an associate professor of theology and director of the Theology Institute at Villanova University. She is the author of Self Love and Christian Ethics and coeditor of The Ethics of Embryo Adoption and the Catholic Tradition.


Religious Leaders: Peacemakers or Warmongers?

January 13, 2012

Civil war and conflict within countries is the most prevalent threat to peace and security in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. A pivotal factor in the escalation of tensions to open conflict is the role of religious elites in exacerbating tensions along identity lines by giving the ideological justification, moral reasoning, and call to violence. Between Terror and Tolerance examines the varied roles of religious leaders in societies deeply divided by ethnic, racial, or religious conflict. The chapters in this book explore cases where religious leaders have justified or catalyzed violence along identity lines, and other instances where they have played a critical role in easing tensions or even laying the foundation for peace and reconciliation.

This volume features thematic chapters on the linkages between religion, nationalism, and intolerance, transnational intra-faith conflict in the Shi’a-Sunni divide, and country case studies of societal divisions or conflicts in Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, Lebanon, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Tajikistan. These cases explore how religious leaders in divided societies interpret the relationships among religious doctrines and human rights; define exclusive and inclusive national identities; articulate the connections among religion, state control, and state policy; rhetorically justify and/or mobilize for war; and ameliorate or mediate conflict.

Between Terror and Tolerance concludes by exploring the book’s findings and their implications for policies and programs of international non-governmental organizations that seek to encourage and enhance the capacity of religious leaders to play a constructive role in conflict resolution. Between Terror and Tolerance strives to find the path to a less violent world and answers some crucial questions: Under what conditions do religious leaders justify or catalyze violence along identity lines? And under what conditions do religious leaders lay the foundation, advocate, and sometimes directly mediate for peace?

About the Editor: Timothy D. Sisk is professor of international and comparative politics and director of the Center for Sustainable Development and International Peace at the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. He is the author or editor of several books including International Mediation in Civil Wars: Bargaining with Bullets.


Becoming Whole: Personal Journeys of Faith in Academic Life

November 11, 2011

For the past several years Catholic theologian John C. Haughey, SJ, has worked with a team of Catholic scholars from around the United States, conducting workshops with faculty at a dozen Catholic colleges and universities to learn firsthand about their research and teaching aspirations. His groundbreaking study Where is Knowing Going? The Horizons of the Knowing Subject carefully examined what constitutes the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions of higher learning.

But Haughey’s work did not stop there. He continued to ask individual faculty and administrators to reflect upon a challenge that everyone faces: that of becoming a whole person in both their personal and professional lives.

In his new book, In Search of the Whole: Twelve Essays on Faith and Academic Life, Haughey has gathered twelve professionals in higher education from a variety of disciplines—philosophy, theology, health care, business, and administration. What they have in common reflects the creative understanding of the meaning of “catholic” as Haughey has found it to operate in Catholic higher education.

Each contributor to this inspiring anthology offers an autobiographical narrative on his or her intellectual and spiritual conversion and growth inside and outside the classroom. All twelve are “anticipating an entirety” with each contributing a coherence that is as surprising as it is delightful.

This collection of thoughtful and pastoral essays is an invaluable resource for Catholic colleges and universities as they attempt to promote dialogue among their faculties on the relationship between the Catholic intellectual tradition and the work of often largely secular scholars and students. Paul Lakeland of Fairfield University agrees, “In Search of the Whole provides hope for the future and food for thought in equal measure. It will be of great help to those faculty and administrators who are comfortable with or questioning the Catholic tradition, but who see the future in terms of dialogue, not silos.”

John C. Haughey, SJ, is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He is the author of Where Is Knowing Going? The Horizons of the Knowing Subject, which was named the 2010 Best Book in Education by the Catholic Press Association.


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