Sex, Marriage, and the Church, Part 2

January 15, 2012

Yesterday, I posted a lengthy piece about Commonweal’s print colloquium entitled “Sex, Marriage, and the Church.”  In that post, I commented on the responses with which I tend to agree.  Today, I will examine the responses with which I tend to disagree. For the context of this discussion, please refer to yesterday’s post.

William Portier, who teaches theology at the University of Dayton, is to be commended for his insightful remark that church leaders need to be more pastorally sensitive to people when it comes to sexuality and marriage.  The most notable of his examples is:

“Face to face with an actual gay person, the phrase ‘objectively disordered’ whatever theoretical sense it might make, is pastoral nonsense. “

Portier, however, is not a supporter of same-sex marriage, noting, “The church can’t change the norm of heterosexual monogamy.”  Porter’s critique of  marriage equality is based on his belief that marriage is primarily a social institution, but that in the eyes of society, it has become focused on individualism:

“For complex historical reasons such as industrialization and the changing roles of women, we have increasingly come to see marriage as a personal matter in which children are optional, a category into which same-sex marriage fits quite ‘naturally.’ “

I disagree.  Portier’s assumption that same-sex marriage is only concerned with the interests of the individuals involved ignores the fact that by creating more stable family units for households headed by same-sex couples, the entire society benefits.

Christopher C. Roberts has probably the  dimmest view both of the general marriage crisis that the church faces:

“The situation is arguably as bad as the brutally pagan world of antiquity. Today’s collapse might continue no matter what we do.”

But my greater disagreement with him comes from his solution:  better education.  He states:

” Simply learning the reasons our church teaches what it does would be a significant first step. Better catechesis would go a long way toward creating the possibility of resisting the collapse. “

The argument that people disagree with the hierarchy’s teachings on sexuality and marriage because they don’t understand it does not ring true to my experience as an educator in this area.  I have met many, many people who understand the teaching very, very well,  and still disagree with it.  While it is true that education on sexuality and marriage from an adult perspective would be of help to our church, I do not believe that it will result in greater fidelity to teachings that people do not see as relevant to their lives.

R.R. Reno, editor of the journal, First Things, also takes a dim view of the current situation, but for him the enemy is not ignorance, but secular culture.  Reno believes that Catholics are influenced too heavily by forces outside the church:

“Today, bourgeois American culture has incorporated into itself the countercultural belief that traditional morality involves a cruel and unnecessary limitation on the sexual lives of men and women. This conviction—now a bourgeois conviction—reassures many Catholics that their dissent couldn’t possibly reflect a moral outlook deformed by popular culture. Instead, it emboldens them to ignore the church when she suggests that our sexual behavior is sinful and our moral vision clouded.”

I tend not to agree with thinkers who view “the world” as the enemy of the church.  There is much in “the world” that is good (and conversely, there is much in the church which needs improving).  This “black-and-white” thinking is too simplistic and is often used to forestall any possible change.  It is a “fortress” mentality that eschews any dialogue with people and institutions that are deemed “other.”

Reno’s suspicion of  “the world” forces him into a position of also being suspicious of the laity of the church:

“. . .the animating ethos of the Catholic Church does not come from the laity, or even the diocesan clergy, but instead from religious orders that are constituted to cast out the bourgeois hearth gods of health, wealth, and hedonism.”

While I disagree that the only source of the church’s animating ethos is from the religious orders (again, this is an example of  his penchant for “either/or” thinking),  interestingly, I agree that religious orders do play an important role in concert with the rest of the church.    However, my experience with religious orders tells me that many of them are pushing for renewal in the church’s sexual theology, not for preserving it.

The one participant in this print colloquium on whom I did not comment was Nancy Dallavalle, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University.  The reason is that I wasn’t sure where she stood on the issues that concern me.  She closes her contribution with the following:

“Yes, the traditional moral patterns matter—let’s teach them. But they are not the entire point, and should not be presented as such. Sacramental marriage should not be reduced to a prize awarded to couples who meet all items on a checklist of approved behaviors; it should be an invitation, reserved for couples who genuinely recognize their need for grace, and have the humility to hunger for a tradition that will sustain it.”

While I am inclined to agree with her that sacraments should not be treated as rewards or prizes, I did not get a good enough sense from her of what she includes in the “traditional moral patterns” that she thinks should be taught.

As I mentioned in the previous posting on these contributions, I encourage you to read the full accounts for yourselves to get a clearer understanding of the varied positions.

The wide diversity of opinions just among these nine thinkers should be enough evidence that indeed a more wide-ranging examination of sexuality and marriage is desperately needed in the church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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