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.]


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