Tag Archives: Sexual Ethics

Why the Catholic Church needs Margaret Farley

The Vatican has once again sharply criticized a nun, this time for writing on sexual ethics.

The Vatican has accused Sister Margaret Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order and professor emerita of Yale Divinity School, of publishing a book that posed “grave harm” to the faithful.

The book title? “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.”

View Photo Gallery: In light of the Vatican’s action, a list of nuns who have become known in the broader world. Two of the Americans listed have been canonized.

“Just Love” is a work that sets out to find “ethical guidelines and moral wisdom for our sexual lives” taking on the task of discerning issues of “character and virtue” in relationship not just to behaviors but also to the “large questions” of what human embodiment and sexual desire mean in a moral sense. (p. 15) Our sexual relations, Margaret Farley ultimately concludes, after a cross-cultural and historical exploration, must be founded on both love and justice in an integral sense. “I propose, finally, a framework that is not justice and love, but justice in loving and in the actions that flow from that love.” She seeks to help us all define a sexual ethics that is not abstract, but “morally good and just” in reality, in actual relationships. (p. 207)

If ever there were a method of moral reasoning on sexual ethics that is desperately needed in the Catholic Church today, it is the one proposed by Margaret Farley.

-full reflection by  at Washington Post

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Bishops’ Hypocrisy on Religious Freedom and Contraception.

A headline at the National Catholic Reporter, to an article on thecurrent contraception controversy, states unambiguously,  “Catholics unite in opposition to contraception mandate“. This is patently untrue. The bishops may have united, and may have the backing of several Catholic agencies and health providers – but the evidence once again, is that ordinary Catholics disagree. The findings of two separate surveys this week show clearly that Catholics back Obama’s proposals, and are more likely (not less) to vote for him as a result.

I have no intention of getting into the details of US health care, but the principles of religious freedom and freedom of conscience are important to us all, so I do want to share two pertinent observations by others, both Americans. The first is a short snippet, placed as a comment to a later NCR editorial on the subject:

Here in the San Antonio Archdiocese, insurance to cover contraceptives is available for an additional fee. This allows those who are not Catholic or for whatever reason need to obtain those services, to pay the additional coverage on their own. It is not denied, but neither is it supplied.

To me, the matter is simple: if in conscience you are opposed to contraception – don’t use it. But that does not give you the right to impose your will on others whose conscience differs from yours. This archdiocese clearly recognizes that, making provision for such persons to obtain contraception coverage – for a fee. How does that differ, in moral terms, from providing coverage directly, for those who are not bound by the bishops’ sense of conscience? What provision do bishops and Catholic health authorities make for the “religious freedom” of those in their employ? What, in particular, of those who believe that they are duty – bound to practice contraception for the sake of the planet? On what grounds can the bishops deny them the right to practice their own freedom of conscience?

More extensive is am analysis, also posted in response to the editorial  at NCR, which points to the repeated hypocrisy of Catholic bishops in their arguments from “religious freedom”.

Now, the main analysis, posted by Richard C. Placone, which he has already sent to Archbishop Timothy Dolan, as head of the USCCB, and to his own bishop. It deserves to be widely disseminated:

Richard C. Placone
Palo Alto, California
February 8. 2012

This pertains to the campaign being conduct by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) re the current controversy about the application of the government’s Affordable Patient Care Act (Act). Policy implementing the Act requires all employers to provide health insurance for their employees, said insurance to offer, at no additional cost to the employee, access to contraceptives, voluntary sterilization and the so called “morning after pill”. The bishops oppose this part of the policy on grounds that it denies religious freedom of conscience, violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, and is contrary to the Catholic Church’s teaching which considers birth control an immoral and therefore sinful act.

The objection by the USCCB to the government policy is seriously flawed, is misleading in its interpretation of the policy and seems to be designed to create hysteria, not just in the minds of Catholics, but in the minds of the body politic in general. This essay addresses the objections of the USCCB and offers alternative consideration on three grounds:

1) The incredible hypocrisy of the RCC in adopting this position as regards “religious freedom”;
2) The continued insistence on the part of the hierarchy regarding the sinfulness of birth control and related matters, without any proven scriptural support and in spite of the near universal rejection of the “teaching” by the people of the church;
3) The inaccurate, slanted and incomplete analysis of the heath care policy designed to force the narrow view of the bishops on the entire country.

The following amplifies these three positions.

1) Hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church

During the last 1500 years at a minimum, one of the strongest organizations that has opposed universal religious freedom and freedom to follow one’s conscience has been the Roman Catholic Church. For a period of several centuries the official church not just encouraged but in some cases sponsored and supplied the armies, to carry out crusades against what the church defined as non-believers, the infidel, enemies of the faith and so on. Under the guise of “defending the one true faith”, popes declared that crusades against these people rendered those who died in the crusade armies martyrs who would be welcomed into heaven as such. Thus rape, pillage and destruction of entire towns if not countries, whose inhabitants were the infidel Muslims or unbelieving Jews, was sanctioned. Then there was the inquisition (which continues to this day as The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) which over the centuries caused the state to capture, charge and try individuals whom the church identified as heretics, because they denied one or more of the teachings of the church at that time. Poor Galileo came under this program but was spared the stake, but was under house arrest and not permitted to publish his beliefs (based on science), which were not even related to church doctrine. On the other hand, Joan de Arc., posthumously canonized, was not so lucky; she was burned at the stake. Burning at the stake, alive if one did not recant before the match was struck, or toward the end, being dunked in a kettle of boiling oil, was the worst of the punishments for not believing as the hierarchy wished. Perhaps the most egregious example of church denial of religious freedom was carried out by the late Pope Pius IX, recently canonized, in spite of the fact that he required the Inquisition to kidnap an eleven year old Jewish boy, isolating him from his parents for the remainder of his childhood, under the assumption that a housemaid had secretly baptized the boy a Catholic when he was baby. This child grew up under the wing of the pope and was ordained as a priest. His father spent his life fighting the Vatican to regain his child to no avail. The boy’s last act toward his parents, when he was in his early 20s, and by then an ordained priest, was to denounce them for trying to keep him in a false faith, and praising the pope for having rescued him from such a fate.

In spite of this sordid history, and in spite of the fact that to this very day the Vatican routinely silences theologians and others for speaking their minds, for postulating more advanced interpretations of scripture based on rigid academic study, denying them the freedom of thought and conscience, the USCCB dares to proclaim that the application of the health care policy is a denial of religious freedom, is a frontal attack on Catholicism, is a plan of the Obama administration to discredit the Catholic Church, and as one observer stated, and example of President Obama’s crass attempt to appeal to his liberal sectarian base in attempt to win them over in November, thereby turning his back on the Catholics who supported him in 2008.

These claims border on idiocy and a denial of the basic right of every human being to be allowed to think and act freely according to his/her conscience as long as this brings no harm to other members of the society.

2) Birth Control and related matters

One of the strong points made in the USCCB’s position is that the policy of the government requires most employers to offer health insurance to their employees, and that these insurance programs must offer uniform coverage to those covered under the insurance plan which includes availability of contraceptives and related prescription medications, voluntary sterilization and so on. The bishops further claim that these features of the policy violate the First Amendment of the Constitution, individual conscience and religious freedom itself, for which the first immigrants to this land fought and died in the formation of what has become the United States. The Act is designed to provide insurance coverage for most Americans and included, where needed, are government subsidies for employers who need such help. But what the bishops are doing is insisting that the rather narrow and absolute position the Church takes on these matters be forced on the entire country, if not the world. Therefore, in an attempt to preserve what they see as a denial of the Church’s right to freedom of conscience, they would force others to abide by their version of that freedom. The bishops cannot have it both ways. The Obama administration makes a somewhat oblique point which is this: If the Catholic Church cannot convince the majority of its own followers of the necessity of avoiding birth control, not using contraceptives for any reason, then why should the government make exceptions for the church. He has a point: study after study, in country after county, show that 80 to 95% of practicing Catholics use or have used birth control at some point in their lives, and do not accept the Church’s teaching on this subject. Even the papal commission appointed by Pope John XXIII and continued by Pope Paul VI, with all but one or two of the members, declared there was no basis for the Church’s teaching on the subject. Paul VI, in consultation with one or two of his close Curia advisors, was asked if he intended to negate the position of all his predecessors. In response, he issued Humanae Vitae thereby retaining unchanged the church’s view on the subject of birth control, a view that was rejected by most theologians and even bishops at the time, and certainly by the Catholic people of the church.

3) The USCCB are giving an inaccurate and deliberately slanted analysis of the policy

I have given some study to the Act and to the policy implications currently under attack by the Bishops. I have shown in 1 and 2 above that it is hypocritical of the Church to insist on its own religions freedom as it pertains to these issues, when in the face of history it hasn’t a leg to stand on, and that in the matter of the sinfulness or not of birth control and related matters, the world jury is out on these subjects. The Catholic majority is definitely rejecting the Church’s teaching when it comes to birth control. The Church is fighting an uphill battle in forming the argument as it is doing.

We live in a pluralistic society, where individuals are guaranteed the right to think and believe what they wish about every matter under the sun, including denying such scientifically proven matters as evolution and climate change. One is only not allowed to force others to their beliefs, or to force the government to support one set of beliefs that are contrary to another set of beliefs. In the present situation, the Act and the policy are attempting, however imperfectly, to provide as many people as the present political climate will allow, full health care coverage. If the government is using tax dollars to support these programs, and it is, then the programs must be designed such that no individuals are denied the opportunity to avail themselves of these benefits. Even so, the government recognizes special circumstances where individual conscience may become group conscience, and so has provided exceptions for these cases. Examples are, churches, church offices, church liturgies and such , that employ only believers, and whose appeal is strictly to believers, need not follow the government’s plan. If they provide insurance coverage at all, these organizations may exclude any benefit they wish (assuming they can find or design a plan to fit their individual preferences.) So the Diocese of San Jose, for example, no doubt comes under this exception, as does the Catholic Schools and parishes it operates. But an organization that serves the broad public and takes all comers regardless of race, religion etc., and whose employees also come from the broad spectrum of the public mix, then that organization must provided the insurance, and the insurance must include the full range of benefits. O’Conner Hospital and Santa Clara University come to mind as such Catholic organizations in the San Jose diocese.

Moreover, adding contraceptives to the menu of benefits is not likely to cause the insurance premium to be any more expensive for the employer. In fact, a customized plan that must be written to exclude what are otherwise universal benefits may in fact cost more to write. Employees of conscience working at such an organization are not required to take advantage of these “forbidden” benefits.

Catholic hospitals, Catholic universities and similar organizations that serve the broad public and employ from the same broad public, fall under the new government plans. Most, if not all of these organizations receive government and therefore tax payer money. Hospitals accept Medicare and Medicaid patients, universities accept government grants and student loans under government programs, and so on. All of these are government/taxpayer funded programs, and so must be open to all comers who qualify for admission. The Catholic Church and all of its subsidiaries are beneficiaries of one of the biggest government taxpayer giveaways there is: it is called tax exemption – from income, property and other taxes at the state and national levels. This has always seemed strange to me, when I see the multimillion dollar churches and rectories and such, and bishops and priests more and more preaching politics and supporting or not supporting candidates from the pulpit. These are direct violations of the tax exemption regulations, yet the IRS, due to the undue influence the Church has on the government, more often than not refuses to pursue what are clear violations.

What I see happening now, is once again the USCCB using undue influence to formulate government policy to support its own often narrow point of view on matters it claims to be strictly spiritual and moral, when in fact they may be scientific and medical in nature. I see the USCCB taking on the mantle of the far right and mimicking Fox News by generating an atmosphere of fear and hysteria amongst the Catholic as well as the non-Catholic population of this country. My advice to the bishops is this: See to the log in your own eyes before you tend to the splinter in the eye of the body politic.

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Theologians’ Revolt Deepening, Widening

When the German theologians last week released their declaration calling for far-reaching reform of the Catholic Church culture, structures and teaching on sexual morality, it had been signed by 143 leading theologians from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The publication of the declaration on Friday coincided with the resignation of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, in the culmination of sustained popular protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Since then, Arab street protests have spread to other countries of the Middle East, notably including Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Jordan and Algeria.
The theologians’ revolt has similarly been spreading beyond the original 143 German signatories.


A note by Bill Lindsey in the Open Tabernacle comments thread drew my attention to the current list of signatories, which as of yesterday (February 18th) had grown to 245 German theologians. Simple calculations demonstrate that if the original 143 represented about a third of the total, then 245 are more than half – an absolute majority. (There will still be others who agree with all or most of the points, but have withheld their signatures). Even more interesting to me, was an observation at the bottom of the German list, confirming what I suspected when I first wrote about this; theologians in other parts of the world are now adding their names.

Das internationale Interesse am Memorandum ist groß. Immer mehr Theologieprofessorinnen und -professoren aus den nicht-deutschsprachigen Ländern bekunden uns ihre Unterstützung.

(International interest in the Memorandum is huge. An increasing number of theology professors in the non-German countries are telling us of their support).

The site lists 22 foreign names – not yet many, but this will surely grow, once the word spreads that this is no longer an exclusively German development. Academics thrive on extensive personal international connections (several of the theologians are listed as associated with two distinct institutions, in different countries) International attention will spread rapidly.
Several conservative commentators have attempted to dismiss this declaration as no more than the dying gasp of older liberal, well past their sell-by date – or paradoxically, of young and junior people of no real clout.  The reality is that these are a diverse group of varied backgrounds, working in  institutions ranging from the most prestigious universities (Catholic and secular) through technical universities and specialist vocational schools. With over half of all the academic theologians now aligning themselves with this Memorandum, we must conclude that is reasonably representative of all German theologians. For completeness’ sake, I am compiling a statistical summary of the signatories and the institutions they come from, which I will add to this post as an update later today.
Meanwhile. I would like to share with you the rest of Bill Lindsey’s comment to my earlier post at The Open Tabernacle. (As an academic theologian himself, Bill has good personal knowledge of the politics of academia, and is also well-placed to evaluate the credentials of the people involved – far more so than an outsider like myself.)

As of today, the count of theologians in German-speaking areas signing the reform petition to Rome stands at 254.

In my view, one of the most significant aspects of this document is its opening statement, which notes that, as theologians, those drafting and signing the document recognize their important pastoral responsibility to address a moment of serious crisis in the Catholic church in Germany. In the past year, the numbers of Catholics officially resigning from the Catholic church in Germany and Austria were at record levels. As the theologians note, if this situation is not addressed pastorally–and by dialogue between church pastoral leaders, theologians, and the laity–the church will in all likelihood not recover from its present crisis.

It is fascinating to me to watch the ill-informed and twisted reaction to this eminently pastoral document in the circles of the American religious and political right. Increasingly, right-wing American Catholics are taking their talking points from websites of the political and religious right, which are without any knowledge at all of the role theologians play in the Catholic church–and, in this case, of the demanding requirements for receiving a degree in theology in Germany.

The silly ad hominem attacks among those of the American political and religious right, which try to question the expertise or credentials of these German theologians are astonishingly ill-informed. German theologians are among the most rigorously trained in the world, and as with all professions in Germany, they go through a credentialing process that puts the credentialing of theologians in many other countries to shame.

There is also obviously little awareness among members of the American political and religious right that theologians play a significant function in the Catholic church as teachers called by the Spirit to assist the body of Christ in understanding scripture and tradition. The rather conservative Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles, who was made a cardinal, in fact wrote a classic article describing the teaching role of theologians as a second magisterium that works in tandem with that of the bishops of the church.

Most of all, it is difficult to understand the lack of any sense of pastoral responsibility among American Catholics who take their talking points from the religious and political right, and who seem oblivious of (or even gleeful about?) the serious crisis through which the Catholic church is passing right now, due to the pastoral malfeasance of its leaders. In nation after nation (Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, Austria, the U.S., e.g.) people are walking away in droves. By February 2008, the figures in the U.S. were appalling: one in three adults raised Catholic in our country had left the church. One in ten American adults is a former Catholic. If all those who have left the Catholic church in the U.S. were grouped into a church, that church would be the second largest denomination in the country.

The German theologians are to be highly commended for showing the pastoral responsibility one would expect of any faithful Catholic concerned about the future of the church, and, in particular, from theologians.

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Catholic Revolution Gaining Momentum: Germany, Ireland

German Theologians Call For Radical Reforms.

Within hours of my post earlier today on the Catholic silent revolution, came news of a dramatic corroboration, with a solid band of German academic theologians in open revolt. 
In September this year, Pope Benedict will make his first papal visit to Berlin. This will be worth watching: there have been numerous indications that the German Church has been transformed by public anger and disillusionment following the abuse scandals. Well in advance of the visit, prominent German Catholics are preparing for the visit by making public calls for reforms in the Church.
Reuters has a call by 143  German Catholic theologians, said to represent fully one third of all the theologians in Germany, and others from Austria and Switzerland, for far-reaching, radical reforms of the Catholic Church.
English language reports have concentrated on the call to ordain “older” married men, which intriguingly appears to mirror a similar call made right back in 1970 by – Fr Joseph Ratzinger.
Supporters of a married priesthood caused a stir late last month when they unearthed a 1970 appeal to ordain older married men signed by nine German theologians including the then Father Joseph Ratzinger, the present pope.
An end to celibacy though is not the only reform that is needed, nor the only one demanded by the German theologians.  They have also asked for the ordination of women, lay participation in the election of bishops, and greater inclusion for those who have remarried or are in homosexual partnerships.

The English language reports do not carry a great deal of detail, so I am currently attempting to wrestle with the German language originals. I will have more later, once I have done with my labours, but already I have gleaned enough from the German to add two encouraging snippets to the brief English reports. The team of eight who initiated the move say they would have been content to get 50 signatories – but ended with 144.

“It looks like we struck a nerve,” said Judith Könemann a professor from Münster and one of 144 signatories of the declaration.
The professors said that they no longer wanted to stay quiet in the face of child sex abuse scandals that came to light last year and plunged the Catholic Church into an unprecedented crisis.
– from Deutsche Welle:
I also have confirmation of a guess I made earlier, that there were many others who made clear their agreement with the text, but were unwilling to sign.
Signatories include theologians from a diverse set of backgrounds, including veterans of previous calls for reform, but also younger people and even some usually regarded as “conservatives”. Part of the appeal included a call for the bishops to begin a process of “dialogue”. It is encouraging that the bishops have agreed to discuss this appeal at a meeting in mid-March. They will need to: Germans have been leaving the Church in droves, while estimates are that by 2020, in less than ten years, as many as two-thirds of German parishes will not have their own priest.
These are all fundamental reforms, for which the need seems to be obvious and urgent. The demands, however, will not be met – not yet. Patience is required, but the simple fact that such a high proportion of theologians can be saying these things publicly is highly significant. With so many speaking up publicly, there are many more who may agree privately, but are wary of rocking the boat publicly, for fear of endangering their careers. We can be sure that the total number desiring reform is much higher than those who have gone public, and that these sentiments are also shared in other parts of the world, even if not in quite the same numbers. We can also be sure that the demand for reform will grow in the years ahead, and surely cannot be resisted indefinitely.

Over 140 Roman Catholic theologians in Germany have urged the church to embrace far-reaching reforms to end priestly celibacy, ordain women, welcome same-sex couples and let lay people help pick their bishops.
The proposals reflect liberal positions in deep disfavour at the Vatican. While they have no hope of being adopted, the fact that 144 theologians backed them meant Benedict’s third trip to Germany since his 2005 election could be his most difficult.
The latest appeal said the scandal-hit church needed a new start to win back Catholics who had left in protest last year.
“The church needs married priests and women in church ministry,” it said. Catholicism should also not “shut out people who live in love, loyalty and mutual support as same-sex couples or remarried divorced people.”
It criticised Benedict’s stress on bringing back older practices in Catholic worship, saying “the liturgy must not be frozen in traditionalism.”
This is the second such German appeal for reform in two weeks. A group of prominent Catholic politicians urged the bishops last month to ordain older married men in response to the worsening shortage of priests.
Meanwhile, in another encouraging development, the Church in Ireland has embarked on a “listening process” to hear the views of Catholics, as part of the extended response to the crisis in that country precipitated by the Ryan and Murphy reports. This listening process is thus triggered by the abuse problems, but it is to be hoped that those participating do not restrict their contributions to that topic alone. The abuse problems did not arise in isolation, independently of wider problems of Church governance and leadership arrogance. Discussion of one must also include discussion of all the others.

On Wednesday night, Bishop Noel Treanor visited the Good Shepherd Church, Belfast, to begin the project and choose the group of facilitators who will document the views of Church members.
In an earlier letter to parishoners, Bishop Treanor extended an invite to “all whose experience has caused them to become angry or disaffected with the Church” to take part in the two month project.
“The purpose of this Listening Process is to give a voice to the People of God – parishioners, clergy, religious and those who live the monastic life – in regard to the ways in which we celebrate, pray and live the Christian faith,” the Bishop explained.
“As we address the need to renew our response to the Word of God in the life of the Church and in society, it is vital that parishioners have an opportunity to express their views and be heard.”
What I particularly like about this, is the news that the process will culminate in a diocesan synod, which will be convened in 2013. We need many more of these diocesan synods, with participation from all strata of the church, in every diocese, every country. Where the bishops fail to convene them, the rest of us should consider doing so ourselves – as the people of the Twin Cities did last year, in the Synod of the Baptized.
See also:
Pope Questions Celibacy? (ncregister.com)

Sexual Ethics, Social Statistics, and the Sensus Fideii

Formal Catholic teaching is clear: in developing moral norms, it is right that we consider  the findings from social science and social statistics. On moral norms around sexuality, however, the Vatican simply ignores its own guidelines.
Whenever I refer to the evidence from social statistics on real – world Catholic belief, and the challenge they present to the sensus fideii on Vatican doctrine,  I know that someone will immediately object, either in a comment to my post, or in an outraged blog post of their own at one of the rule-book Catholic sites. (No, I never have claimed that these polls disprove the SF – just that the present a challenge, a prima facie case that the SF might not exist).

Aphrodite, Goddess of Love
Salzmann and Lawler (“The Sexual Person“) put it like this:


The simple social fact that 89% of Catholics in the communion-Church believe that they can practice methods of contraception prohibited by the Church and still be good Catholics proves nothing theologically. It does, however, raise questions that theologians cannot ignore without fulfilling contemporary prophecies that theologians and their theologies have nothing to do with the real questions of the real world in which men and women live. Another moral question presses the Church we have considered in this book presses the Church in our day, perhaps even more than contraception, namely cohabitation prior to  marriage.  If the first union for some 75 to 80 percent of Western women is cohabitation and not marriage, again  social fact raises questions for theologians about what the communion-Church believes.
The argument for simply dismissing the evidence from social science in considering the SF is two-fold: the Catholic church includes all its members, it is said, and not simply those still living. As Catholics, we must also consider the views of those who have gone before, those now in the communion of saints. The chief difficulty of this argument is, we have no way of knowing what people who lived a thousand years ago would believe today, in the circumstances of the modern world, and equipped with modern knowledge about human biology and sexuality 
.
The second argument is superficially more persuasive: simple head counts in social surveys are just that – head counts. They make no allowance for varying degrees of commitment to the Catholic church. Some respondents to a survey question on “religion” will identify themselves as Catholics for want of any more accurate descriptor, even though they may never come near a church or open any book on religion.  It is possible (even likely) that their views introduce a measure of distortion to poll findings. This is an objection that I fully accept as valid. It is not appropriate, in assessing the state of the SF, that the views of lapsed or merely nominal Catholics should be taken as equally valid as those of  those who take their faith far more seriously. But this raises another problem. If we are to take some views more seriously than others – which will hey be? Whose views should be considered the most influential: those of the professional moral theologians, perhaps?
Now, here there are even more ominous alarm bells for the sensus fideii, if the lay theologian Charles Curran is to be believed. Writing in his introduction to The Sexual Person, he claims that a majority of moral theologians no longer agree with the full Vatican teaching on sexual ethics, while no more than a minority (although a strong one) defend the Magisterium. Is he right? I don’t know, but his claim is certainly consistent with others that I have heard anecdotally from several priests and theologians I have spoken to. More importantly, the simple fact that such claims can be made calls into serious question any pretence that the officially approved doctrines have the support of the church as a whole – or of its body of theologians as a whole.
Within the Catholic theological community, all recognize that the great majority of Catholic moral theologians writing today support revisionist positions in general, but a strong minority defends the position of the hierarchical Magisterium.
(“Revisionist” theologians are those calling for a change in the hierarchical teaching)
John Paul explicitly wrote Veritatis Splendor in light of the genuine crisis that seriously endangers the moral life of the faithful and the communion of the Church. Today it is no longer a matter of limited and occasional theological dissent but an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral teachings, which is occurring even in seminaries and in faculties of theology. This is a genuine crisis.
And so, I ask again:
Where is the evidence that on Vatican teaching on sexual morality, the sensus fideii exists?
Recommended Books:

Salzmann, Todd A & Lawler, Michael GThe Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology

Let’s Talk About The Church’s Dirty Little Secret: Masturbation

The Catechism is clear:

2352 Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.

2396 Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.

If masturbation, like “homosexual acts”, contraception and cohabitation is indeed “gravely disordered”, why is the Church not talking about it? (It’s not as though nobody does it.)

Masturbation by Klimt, drawing 1913
“Masturbation” by Klimt, drawing 1913

As always, let’s begin by considering some simple facts, the reality behind the theology.

It is widely known that to some degree or other, masturbation is widely practised by both men and women, of all ages, partnered or single, alone or with others, in all humans societies. It is also common in all animal species that have hands – and even some that do not (dolphins use their flippers).
The clear hostility of orthodox doctrine is not based directly on scripture, or on the teachings of the early Church Fathers.

A study by Giovanni Cappelli of the church’s stance on masturbation during the first millennium CE shows that:

  • The Bible is silent on the topic.
  • None of the Apostolic Fathers wrote about masturbation.
  • The first mention of masturbation within the Catholic Church is found in sixth century CE penitentials.
Later, Church opposition for many centuries was unequivocal, largely based on the writing of St Thomas Aquinas, who named it as one of the three classes of “sodomy”.
Yet other religions have a range of views. Some conservative Christians agree with Catholic doctrine that the practice is sinful.  Other Protestants, both liberal and evangelical, see it as morally neutral, or even as a suitable release to avoid more serious sin.
James Dobson, chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, a nonprofit Christian organization, considers it part of normal adolescent exploration and strongly urges parents not to shame their children over the act lest they have marital difficulties later because of shame over their sexuality….Dobson says fathers should urge their sons, if they masturbate, to imagine their future wife, and never some girl they may know.
Other faiths are also divided, with some branches of Islam merely restricting the practice during times of fasting, some reformist Jews recommending it in some circumstances, and the Hindu Kama Sutra advising on the best technique to follow.
In spite of Church claims that the “moral sense of the faithful” has no doubt on the matter, the overwhelming evidence from research is that ordinary Catholics simply do not agree with Church teaching on this.
Medical views long ago abandoned any claims that masturbation is harmful, unless practiced in excess.
The Catholic church has been curiously silent on the subject for years. All the references I have come across in Church documents seem to be based on quotes from the relevant section of the CDF document on human sexuality “Persona Humana“, which was released in 1975.
Now, let’s move on to some reflection. Why has the church been become so silent? Even when the US bishops released their document on sexual ethics earlier this year, reminding American Catholics once again of the moral gravity of contraception and cohabitation, there was no mention of masturbation. Informally, there has been some clear movement. I recall sitting in a parish “faith enquiry” evening, when the subject came up in question time. The parish priest replied unequivocally that modern theologians would see this as a “weakness”, and no longer as a sin. On another occasion, when I spoke of some sexual frustrations with my spiritual director (a senior man in his order, and with a doctorate in spirituality), he asked whether I had considered masturbation as a solution. (My reply? It’s not a very satisfactory substitute for a human interaction with another person).
This was the reply of another priest, to an on-line query at Catholic and and A:
Can masturbation be sinful?  I think the only time masturbation could be considered seriously sinful is if someone is using this activity to avoid one’s obligations to one’s spouse.  Modern moral theologians tell us that masturbation is a normal part of one’s psychosexual development.   Most people go through phases of masturbation, during adolescence, for example, individuals separated from their spouses in war time, the elderly, and others in unique situations of life.  It’s hoped that individuals not become fixed or stuck in only this form of sexual expression, but rather develop a relationship with another person with whom one can express one’s own sexuality in an appropriate loving and intimate way.
– Father John Ruffo, posted at Catholic Q and A
What of the clergy themselves? We known that a significant proportion of them, priests, bishops and cardinals alike, do not keep strictly to their vows of celibacy, and conduct sexual relationships with others, either furtively, or sometimes even more openly. What of the rest, who avoid sex with others. How many also avoid solitary pleasures? Or do they fall back on the advice of so many Protestant theologians, and accept self-stimulation as a way to avoid more serious temptation?

I suspect that there can be only two possible reasons for the continued institutional silence on the matter. The first is simple embarrassment: they know that they cannot defend a prohibition that they ignore themselves.
The second is far more intriguing. This is that my former parish priest and Fr Ruffo, quoted above, are right. Modern theologians have agreed that the old prohibition is unsound, and can no longer be defended. To say so though, would create untold difficulties. For the basis of the argument is that no genital activity outside marriage and ordered to procreation is acceptable, “Every sperm is sacred”. To accept some circumstances where masturbation is not sinful, also calls into question the implacable arguments against contraception, premarital sex, and homoerotic relationships.
When I was still teaching, the headteacher at one of one my schools regularly advised the staff to “Choose our battles”, to avoid taking a stand on issues we could not win. This, I think, is the key to understanding the present Church position on masturbation. They know that the traditional stance is a battle they can not win.
If that is so, perhaps that is all the more reason for us to take up the challenge instead. Perhaps progressive Catholics should be forcing a reasoned, public discussion. This is one battle where indeed, we can win.

"The Sexual Person"

I have just completed a first reading of “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)
“, by the Catholic theologians Todd A. Salzmann and Michael G. Lawler.  I stress here, “a first reading”, as I have no doubt that this will be for me one of those foundational texts that I return to again and again.  After just an introductory acquaintance, I have no intention of attempting here any kind of formal assessment or review, but I do want to share some preliminary thoughts, some of which I propose to expand into full posts a little later.
The constantly evolving, ever-changing  Catholic tradition.
Whatever it is that Vatican spokesmen mean when they refer to the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition”, it cannot be what the plain English words appear to mean. Across the full range  of sexual ethics, Catholic tradition has changed constantly. This is not only an historical fact, it is also inevitable and in fact demanded by the Magisterium itself. I particularly like the words of a certain Joseph Ratzinger, which highlight the importance of identifying and correcting the “distorting tradition” in the Church:

“Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition…. There is a distorting tradition as well as a legitimate tradition, ….[and] …consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.”


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The Distorted Modern Teaching on Marriage and Procreation

The often repeated claim that marriage and sexual intercourse exist primarily for the purposes of procreation, is simply fallacious. It is clear from the Magisterium itself that there are several purposes to both. The additional claim by Pope Paul VI in “Humanae Vitae” that every sexual act must be open to the production of new life, is in fact a distortion of clear earlier statements that the requirement is for the marriage to be open to procreation – not every single sexual act.

The bizarre parallel claim in Humanae Vitae that marriages which are sterile, or which deliberately avoid pregnancy by “Natural” Family Planning, raise serious doubts about the validity of the simultaneous insistence that homosexual activities are necessarily prohibited as not open to procreation.

The Distortions of Natural Law

“Natural law” is widely used as a pretext for the condemnation of homosexual acts, but the concept itself is poorly understood.  Salzmann and Lawler present extensive evidence that a more accurate reading of the concept is in fact supportive of sexual activities between men or between women, in specific circumstances, for people who have a homosexual orientation.

The Distortions of Scripture

It is by now well established that numerous scholars have shown that the traditional use of a half dozen verses from the Bible as clobber texts to condemn all homoerotic acts is based on distortion, relying on misinterpretation, mistranslation, or plain misrepresentation. “The Sexual Person” summarizes these familiar critiques, concluding that the most important feature of the very limited Biblical references to homoerotic acts is that they simply do not take account of the existence of a homosexual orientation as we know it to exist. Recognizing such an attraction, the authors submit, leads to the conclusion that the references to “unnatural acts” in Romans must imply that for people with a natural homosexual orientation, sexual activities with others of the same sex are entirely natural, and so not condemned by Paul.
On the other hand, attempts to force us into heterosexual marriage are indeed attempts to enforce what for us are “unnatural acts” – and so condemned by Paul.

(I would go further, and add that by extension, even enforced celibacy is unnatural, and so condemned by Paul, and also a contravention of natural law, properly understood).

The Distorted Teaching on Cohabitation

Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter of the book for me, was that on cohabitation.  I grew up with the clear understanding from my Catholic education, which I often heard repeated, that all sexual activity before our outside of marriage was expressly forbidden – and that marriage in effect commenced with the marriage ceremony, as solemnized in a Catholic Church, by a Catholic priest, in front of witnesses.  More recently, I have recognized that this idea of marriage as an obligatory sacrament, required before legitimate sexual intercourse, was a relatively modern one.
Until reading “The Sexual Person”, I did not realize quite how modern an idea it is, or how far it is flatly contradicted by the practice of the church for at least three quarters of Christian history, right up to the Council of Trent and even beyond.  Previously, the church wedding (if it took place at all) was not an event that began the process of marriage and legitimized husband and wife living together in a sexual relationship, but merely a public acknowledgement of a partnership that may have begun long before, with mutual consent consummated by immediate sexual intercourse. What today we would call “cohabitation” did not precede the marriage – it initiated it. It did precede the public wedding – but that was of no importance to the sacramentality of the marriage itself, or to the legality of the sexual relationshipthat accompanied it.
For most of Catholic tradition, it is then clear that any conception of sin in cohabitation before marriage was impossible – as soon as cohabitation began, the marriage commenced. Applying this reasoning to the modern situation, where (for good reasons) we accept the importance of a public commitment in a wedding ceremony, we should also recognize that marriage is a process, not a one-day event. The process begins with the private commitment to each other. As long as the cohabitation is part of a nuptial process leading up to marriage, and not a simple shacking up, Catholic tradition suggests that we should recognize and accept cohabitation prior to the wedding as part of the marriage, and so fully valid.
Gay marriage and Catholic Tradition.
Here I move on to more treacherous ground, but as I read in this book so many extracts from Church documents on our sexual lives and on marriage and family, I was struck by how little amendment is needed to extend church endorsement of the value of marriage, as sacrament and as an institution furthering both private and public good, to include same sex couples alongside all others.
The Theological Ferment Under Way.
“The Sexual Person” has made waves in the press, largely as a result of the US Bishops’ criticism of it. However, it is far from unique in highlighting the contradictions and failings of current orthodoxy on sexual ethics. It now becomes clearer than ever to me that there is a fundamental rethink under way. This has not yet broken through into major papal pronouncements or Vatican documents – but I am certain that they will soon start to do so. When they do, they will no doubt be accompanied once again by the comforting assurances that these new, more human and sympathetic understandings of human sexuality have been around for decades (as they have), and so form part of the “constant and unchanging Catholic tradition”.

La plus ça change…..

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