SYNOD: Bishop Geoffrey Robinson: Sexual Ethics Should Be Based on Jesus’ Teaching

October 5, 2014

Here in Rome, where church officials are preparing for the opening of the extraordinary synod on marriage and family today, the mood is high, and many people here are saying, that it’s really difficult to say what the outcome of the meeting will be.  There is much hope for change in many of the issues concerning marriage, family, sexuality, but many people are saying that the composition of the synod participants, the fact that the process of this synod–including the request for input from the laity–and how influential in which direction Pope Francis will be all make it difficult to predict outcomes.

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Bishop Geoffrey Robinson at the “Ways of Love” conference in Rome.

One bishop’s voice was heard loudly and clearly in Rome in the last few days, not by church leaders, but by Catholic LGBT people and ally advocates.  Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary of Sydney, Australia, spoke at the Ways Of Love conference on pastoral care with LGBT people, about which we posted yesterday.  The gathering in Rome was to discuss new possible approaches to LGBT people that the synod could take.  Bishop Robinson, who many readers may remember spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in 2012, outlined a new approach to sexual ethics for the Church that would recognize the goodness and holiness of same-sex committed relationships.  His talk was a highlight of the conference, and I will try to outline some of the main points below.

Bishop Robinson began by dismantling some of the crippling assumptions that underline current church teaching, most particularly the idea that sexual sins are among the most grievous that humans might commit:

“Striking a king or president has always been considered a more serious offence than striking an ordinary citizen. In line with this, it was said, the greatest king by far is God, so an offence against God is far more serious than an offence against a mere human being.

“Because all sexual sins were seen as direct offences against God, they were, therefore, all seen as most serious sins. Sexual sins were seen as on the same level as the other sin that is directly against God, blasphemy, and this helps to explain why, in the Catholic Church, sexual morality has long been given a quite exaggerated importance.

“For centuries the Church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin. In this field, it was held, there are no venial sins. . . .

“This teaching fostered belief in an incredibly angry God, for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. This idea of God is totally contrary to the entire idea of God that Jesus presented to us, and I cannot accept it.

“My first rebellion against Church teaching on sex came, therefore, not directly from a rejection of what the Church said about sex, but a rejection of the false god that this teaching presented.”

Robinson also objected to the presumption that the Church’s sexual ethics should be based on judging the solely of sexual acts:

“. . . [T]he teaching of the Church is based on a consideration of what is seen as the God-given nature of the physical acts in themselves, rather than on these acts as actions of human beings. And it continues to do this at a time when the whole trend in moral theology is in the opposite direction.

“As a result it gets into impossible difficulties in analysing physical acts without a context of human relations. For example, some married couples find that there is a blockage preventing the sperm from reaching the ovum, but that in a simple procedure a doctor can take the husband’s sperm and insert it into the wife in such a way that is passes the blockage and enables conception. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned this action because the physical act was not considered “integral”, even though the entire reason for this intervention was precisely that the couple wanted their marriage to be both unitive and procreative.

“The Church’s arguments concerning sex are based solely on the physical act in itself rather than on the physical act as an action affecting persons and relationships.”

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New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo and Sister Jeannine Gramick at the “Ways of Love” conference in Rome.

Focusing in on lesbian and gay sexuality in particular, Robinson challenged the presumption of “natural law theory” opposing same-gender relationships:

“It was God who created a world in which there are both heterosexuals and homosexuals. This was not a mistake on God’s part that human beings are meant to repair; it is simply an undeniable part of God’s creation.

“The only sexual acts that are natural to homosexuals are homosexual acts. This is not a free choice they have made between two things that are equally attractive to them, but something that is deeply embedded in their nature, something they cannot simply cast aside. Homosexual acts come naturally to them, heterosexual acts do not. They cannot perform what the Church would call ‘natural’ acts in a way that is natural to them.

“Why should we turn to some abstraction in determining what is natural rather than to the actual lived experience of human beings? Why should we say that homosexuals are acting against nature when they are acting in accordance with the only nature they have ever experienced?

“The Church claims that it is basing itself on ‘natural law,’ but a natural law based on abstractions is a false natural law. Indeed, it brings the whole concept of natural law into disrepute.”

The bishop began an outline of a new basis for sexual ethics, based more on the teachings of Jesus than on any other outside philosophical theory.  He began this section of his talk by quoting Scripture:

“ ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea’ (Mk.9:42).

“ ‘Then they will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”(Mt.25:44-45)

“In these two quotations Jesus identifies with the weakest persons in the community, and tells us that any harm done to them is a harm done to himself.

“I suggest that this harm done to people is the real sin in matters of sex, the only sin that angers God.

“I suggest, therefore, that we should look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct offence against God.

“Following from this, may we say that sexual pleasure, like all other pleasure, is in itself morally neutral, neither good nor bad? Is it rather the circumstances affecting persons and relationships that make this pleasure good or bad, e.g. a good pleasure for a married couple seeking reconciliation after a disagreement, a bad pleasure for a man committing rape?”

After critiquing a reigning ethic of sex in the contemporary world that only cautions people to “do no harm,”  Bishop Robinson supplies an ethic based more on the commandment to love our neighbor:

“I suggest that the central questions concerning sexual morality are: Are we moving towards a genuinely Christian ethic if we base our sexual actions on a profound respect for the relationships that give meaning, purpose and direction to human life, and on loving our neighbour as we would want our neighbour to love us?

“Within this context, may we ask whether a sexual act is morally right when, positively, it is based on a genuine love of neighbour, that is, a genuine desire for what is good for the other person, rather than solely on self-interest, and, negatively, contains no damaging elements such as harm to a third person, any form of coercion or deceit, or any harm to the ability of sex to express love? . . . .

“Many would object that what I have proposed would not give a clear and simple rule to people. But God never promised us that everything in the moral life would be clear and simple. Morality is not just about doing right things; it is also about struggling to know what is the right thing to do. It is not just about doing what everyone else around us is doing; it is about taking a genuine personal responsibility for everything we do. And it is about being profoundly sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of the people with whom we interact.”

To catch all of Bishop Robinson’s nuances, examples, and explanations, I urge all who are interested in this topic to read his entire text which can be found on the conference’s website.  You will be enriched by reading all of Bishop Robinson’s nuances, examples, and explanations, as well as additional arguments.

As the synod opens today, I pray that other bishops will listen to voices like Bishop Robinson’s, whose approach to all sexuality is so rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


British Cardinal Offers New Perspective on Context of Sexuality

June 17, 2014

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

When Britain’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols addressed the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict last week, the standard news coverage of the event highlighted his description of  war-time rape and sexual degradation as “a most fundamental denial of human dignity and a most gross breach of a person’s human rights.”

But another passage from his talk at the London meeting did not get as much exposure, though I think it is much more significant and newsworthy. In his speech,  Nichols offered a different definition of sexuality than is usually promoted by Catholic bishops.  During his talk he stated (emphasis added):

“Human sexuality is a strong and vital component of our humanity and of each person’s nature. The exercise of that sexuality, in sexual relations, is something that touches the deepest aspect of our identity and personhood. A fundamental aspect of the Church’s teaching about sex is that sexual acts must always take place within the context of authentic freedom. This is because, properly understood, human sexuality has the capacity to unite two people, body and spirit, at the deepest level, in a completeness of self-giving that has within it the call to a permanent commitment between them and which, of its nature is open towards the creation of new human life. What is most relevant in this teaching for us today is that there is no place in sexual relations for brutality, aggression or any kind of de-humanisation of a person.”

(The entire text of his talk can be read or listened to on the Vatican Radio website. A hat-tip to Martin Pendergast, longtime Catholic LGBT advocate in London, for alerting me to this section of the speech.)

What I find significant here is that Nichols substitutes “authentic freedom” for “Christian marriage,” which is the usual way that bishops describe the required moral context of sexual acts.

And while he includes procreation as one of the capacities of sexuality, it is not among the primary ones that he listed.  Instead, the primary capacities are the uniting of persons, the deep intimate bond, the act of self-giving, and the quality of permanent commitment.

His description is significant because it echoes what many contemporary Catholic theologians have been saying about sexuality for many years now: that the traditional emphases on marriage and procreation are not sufficient to ethically describe sexual activity and sexual relationships.

Sister Margaret Farley, RSM

Specifically, many of the concepts he mentions can be found in the work of Sister Margaret Farley, RSM, a Catholic theologian, whose book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, lays out a number of criteria for ethical sexual relationships.  Among the concepts she describes are: do no unjust harm, free consent, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, social justice.  (For a fuller description of these concepts, click here.)

Though Sister Farley’s sexual ethics were censured by the Vatican two years ago, it seems that her ideas are filtering up into hierarchical discourse

It is not surprising that we would find these more contemporary theological views about sexuality in discourse from Cardinal Nichols.  Just last week, we reported on how the British bishops’ conference which he leads has made some enlightened remarks concerning transgender people and civil unions.

Almost three years ago, Cardinal Nichols was the first Catholic prelate to call for civil unions for same-gender couples. His  call for such recognition set off a number of other bishops and church leaders following suit.  You can find a comprehensive list of such statements here.

Since his statement differs so greatly than what is usually said or expected from a member of the Catholic hierarchy, I can’t help but assume that it was indeed deliberate on his part to make this distinct point.  His statement may signal a growing awareness on the part of some hierarchical leaders that a new Catholic vision for sexuality is badly needed.

–Francis DeBernardo

 


Australian Priest Publicly Endorses the Goodness of Same-Gender Relationships

May 7, 2013

Fr. Michael Fallon

A priest in Australia is calling for public recognition of same-gender relationship and says they should be celebrated joyfully.  While not extending this recognition to marriage, he advances the Catholic position by speaking to the goodness of these couples’ relationships.

Fr. Michael Fallon’s comments were reported in The Canberra Times:

“In a notable departure from the public teachings of some church authorities, Dickson-based priest Michael Fallon called for a ‘public celebration of committed love for homosexual couples’, saying he feared ordinary people were being driven away from the Catholic faith by views they saw as hardline and irrelevant.’…

“‘[The public should offer] not just recognition, but joy, public joy in their communion with each other, that’s the least we can offer people,’ he said.”

He credits time as university chaplain, including ministry with LGBT students, as a key step in overcoming personal homophobia. He also appeals to his academic work as a scripture scholar for his position:

“…there were church authorities who saw homosexual behaviour and partnerships as immoral, but many priests he spoke to supported recognition of committed same-sex relationships.

“He said biblical references to homosexuality should be seen within the context of the time, rather than taken literally. ‘When Paul spoke about homosexual behaviour, the key is what was he actually speaking about? Did he know about two adults lovingly committing themselves to each other? We haven’t the faintest idea, and it’s quite unlikely,’ he said.”

This Australian priest is the latest among clergy calling for legal protections of LGBT people, with several bishops supporting civil unions in recent months and other priests speaking strongly for a rethinking of the Church’s sexual ethics.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholic Bishops Oppose Violence Against Women Act Because of LGBT Protections

March 8, 2013

After a lengthy political battle centered around specific LGBT, American Indian and migrant protection, President Barack Obama finally signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act yesterday, but not before five Catholic bishops announced their opposition to the legislation in a statement released Wednesday.

Lauren Markoe writes in The Washington Post about the bishops’ rejection of this legislation that strengthens and funds federal initiatives to further protect domestic violence and human trafficking victims. The 2013 re-authorization added explicit protections for victims regardless of their “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” which is the source of Republican legislators, as well as the bishops’, concerns. Markoe writes:

“[The bishops] are opposing the newly authorized Violence Against Women Act for fear it will subvert traditional views of marriage and gender, and compromise the religious freedom of groups that aid victims of human trafficking…

“That language disturbs several bishops who head key committees within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that deal with, among other issues, marriage, the laity, youth and religious liberty.”

The bishops signing the statement include Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles. Several of these bishops previously opposed marriage equality and LGBT civil rights in prominent ways, making this letter only the latest in the narrative against full equality.

In 2010, during the last re-authorization vote in the Violence Against Women Act, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops supported the legislation as an effective measure to reduce gender-based violence. At that time,  emphasis on Catholic teachings around human dignity, justice, and non-violence played a central role in the decision to support the legislation. The recent action of these five bishops re-orients episcopal judgement on the bill to sexual ethics exclusively.

Will the bishops continue to make their view on sexual ethics the only litmus test for all social policy?  Such a position would be socially disastrous.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Cardinal O’Brien’s Resignation Highlights Increasing Problems for Anti-LGBT Hierarchy

February 26, 2013

Cardinal O’Brien greeting Pope Benedict XVI

Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leading Catholic prelate in the United Kingdom, announced on Monday that he was resigning as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh and that he will not attend the upcoming papal conclave as an elector. The cardinal, one of the UK’s most visible opponents of LGBT equality, is accused of improper conduct by four priests dating back nearly three decades.

While O’Brien denies claims published in a British newspaper on Sunday that he initiated inappropriate contact, this controversial Catholic has quickly removed himself from the public eye. Andrew Brown writing at The Guardian sees the accelerated pace of Cardinal’s resignation as progress in handling sexual abuse claims, but mulls deeper over the issues of homosexuality and forced celibacy in this scandal:

“.  . . [T]he story illustrates the grotesque and humiliating difficulties that the Roman Catholic church has knotted itself into where sex and gay people are concerned…

“Of course, the real problem is that the Roman Catholic church expects an entirely unrealistic standard of continence from its priesthood. Some priests can manage celibacy. The evidence from all around the world is that most can’t…In countries where that isn’t an available alternative, the priesthood becomes a refuge for gay men – especially in societies where homophobia is the public norm.

“This fact adds irony to O’Brien’s denunciations of gay marriage. You can’t really expect better from a church that still hasn’t come to terms properly with heterosexual marriage…And a church that can’t treat women as equals is certainly not going to be realistic about marriage between two men.”

Cardinal O’Brien’s legacy will be multi-faceted, but decidedly anti-LGBT given his repeated assaults on both legal rights and pastoral concerns. Bondings 2.0 reported stories throughout last year about O’Brien, including being named ‘Bigot of the Year’ by UK-charity Stonewall.

In 2012 alone, he referred to same-gender marriage a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right,” claimed legalizing it would be similar to instituting slavery anew, and expressed concerns that school libraries might circulate “homosexual fairy stories” as a result. O’Brien has lead Catholic efforts to block legislation granting equal marriage, through sizeable financial commitments and a failed attempt to hold a referendum on the issue in Scotland.

The realities of gay priests were further elucidated by Peter Stanford at The Telegraph in an article titled, “Too many priests preach truth, but live a lie”:

“…I’ve met many clerics. Many are openly gay. Or so open when not saying Mass that it is easy to forget I’m not meant to remember it when they are.

“In general, such double standards don’t overly concern me. Like the rest of us, priests, monks, bishops and even cardinals are as God made them. Whatever inner tension they struggle with as leaders in a Church that teaches that to be gay is – and I am quoting a document sent out by the soon-to-retire Pope when he was Cardinal Ratzinger – ‘a strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil,’ that is a matter for their own conscience.

“Tolerance wears a bit thin, however, when they start attacking gay marriage in such strident terms from the pulpit, and even signing letters en masse in protest at the Government’s proposals. It is getting dangerously close to hypocrisy.”

Not all critics focus on the visceral efforts that Cardinal O’Brien led as one of many outwardly anti-LGBT clergymen who secretly struggle with their sexuality. Instead, LGBT advocates in some quarters express hope for change in this transitory period. Pink News reports on reactions from pro-LGBT organizations, including that of Tom French of Scotland’s Equality Network:

“‘It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the allegations made against Cardinal O’Brien. Of course we hope that the Catholic Church in Scotland will use the opportunity new leadership brings to reassess its opposition to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.’

“‘The Catholic Church does a huge amount of good work on issues like poverty, and it’s a shame that this important work is so often overshadowed by its position on issues of sexuality.’”

Sexual abuse claims laid against homophobic leadership detracts from the Church’s truest work of justice, and undermines the more progressive policies of those like Cardinal O’Brien, who just recently proposed a renewed discussion around married Catholic clergy. In this period of episcopal transitions worldwide, perhaps the hierarchy will critically address the sexual ethics it promotes instead of doubling-down on its anti-LGBT policies.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related articles: BBC.co.uk:  “Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigns as Archbishop”

                                      The Guardian:  “What lies behind religious homophobia”


A Profound Examination of Orthodoxy & Dissent

February 3, 2013

Sometimes, it is helpful to step back from the discussion of Catholic LGBT issues and look at some of the broader issues in the church which affect how LGBT issues are treated.

dissentJerry Ryan provides some profound perspectives on church governance in an article in Commonweal magazine entitled “Orthodoxy & Dissent:  Truth & the Need for Humility.” (This link to the full article may only be available to Commonweal subscribers.)

Though Ryan takes the raging debates in the church about sexuality as his starting point, he is not focused on studying these questions, but instead examines the larger questions of orthodoxy, authority, dissent, and the development of doctrine.  His article provides an insightful analysis of the tensions between the Catholic episcopacy and Catholic lay people when it comes to retaining the status quo and proposing new paradigms.   He states:

“To understand dissent, you first have to understand authority. Authority in the church must be based on truth. Episcopal authority is not the source of truth, as some would have us believe. ‘What is truth?’ The question posed by Pilate was left unanswered by Truth Himself who stood before him, humiliated, in the praetorium. We too humiliate Truth when we abase it to our level and pretend to have power over it. Truth is a divine name and to pretend to possess it, individually or collectively, is to manufacture an idol. We can no more claim to possess truth than we can claim to possess justice. And this holds for the church’s pastors, as well as for their flock. For Christians, truth is Someone who possesses us, Someone who reveals as much of Himself to us as we can bear. It is this self-revealing Truth who founds authority in the church. The role of the magisterium is to maintain the purity of revelation by warning against aberrations without denying or minimizing the elements of truth behind them. The magisterium might be infallible in what it affirms, yet what it affirms is often just one aspect of a complex reality whose components are still not fully understood.”

There is enough material for reflection in that paragraph to last for a week-long retreat! And even longer!

Ryan doesn’t mince words when he makes the case for continued discussion of topics of controversy, and yet he has an obvious deep respect for Catholic tradition:

“The church, individually and collectively, is forever docens et discens, teaching and learning. To deny the possibility of further elucidation of doctrine is blasphemous. It is tantamount to pronouncing the church dead, no longer vivified by the Spirit nor tending toward an ultimate manifestation still to come, when all that has been hidden will be revealed. The reception and assimilation of God’s word by the pilgrim church will forever be partial and variable. It will depend partly on psychological, social, and historical circumstances. Every cultural cycle, every scientific advance, can serve to deepen our understanding of revelation, to illuminate one or another of its aspects. There is, however, an objective deposit of faith, constantly elucidated through the ages, to which the blood of martyrs has borne witness. Any development in the church is made possible only by what has preceded it, yet the intoxication of a novelty often leads to a rejection of what went before.”

For Ryan, dissent is not a sin or a crime, but can be a sign of the Spirit:

“Dissent can be a sign of vitality; it can draw out the latent riches of revelation. The scribe versed in the affairs of the Kingdom will continually bring forth old things and new. Rather than automatically suppressing it, therefore, the magisterium should treat it with cautious respect, remembering that the Spirit is still at work, and the church still a work in progress. Rigidity and narrowness of vision can lead to the sin against the Spirit—and this sin can be a collective one.”

Though sexual teachings are not his focus in this article, Ryan uses them as an example, revealing a compassionate, intelligent heart:

“Traditional Catholic moral theology generally abstracts from concrete historical and social contexts and considers not particular men and women, but ‘human nature’ faced with hypothetically clear-cut options. Human nature, however, does not exist apart from real human beings, who must act in situations full of ambiguity. Very often we find ourselves in ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations, where even the best option may not seem to be a good one. Pastoral common sense usually (but not always!) takes this complexity into consideration, but the official teachings of the church continue to define good and evil in terms of black and white, with little nuance or compassion, thus alienating many from the sacramental sources of grace.”

The previous excerpt reminded me of something which the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, said when he addressed New Ways Ministry’s Third National Symposium in 1992.  The quotation is from the printed text of his talk in the book Voices of Hope:  A Collection of Positive Writings on Gay and Lesbian Issues, edited by New Ways Ministry’s co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent:

“We need to take seriously the evaluation that homosexuality is a complex question, yet I do not believe we always do. We have to be careful not to make life too simple.  The Pharisees made that mistake.  They made religion complex, but treated life as though it were simple. . . . .

“Jesus did exactly the opposite.  His religious teachings were very simple. He said that all the commandments of the law came down to two:  love of God and love of neighbor.  When they asked Him enormously complex questions, he would say, “Let me tell you a story. . . “

“On the other hand, Jesus treated life as very complex, as His parables show. . . .

“We need to be careful that we do not say on the one hand that homosexuality is a complex question, and then treat it as though there were simple solutions.”

Ryan concludes his essay with reminders of the communal nature of the church, and the need for humility to reign in our debates:

The safekeeping of the deposit of faith and the upholding of the Christian moral code are confided to the church’s hierarchy. The bishops are not, however, the exclusive owners of the spirit of discernment. Historically, this gift has often been manifest in the little ones of God, in the “sensus fidelium.” It is precisely this charisma that stimulates the church’s growth in wisdom and in grace. There is a necessary tension between the function of the hierarchy and the prophetic instinct of the people of God. That tension could and should be fruitful, but in reality it is often bitter and sterile. It might well be that the prophetic élan in the church is especially at work in the poor and the unrecognized, in the little ones to whom is revealed what is hidden from the wise and mighty. One of the great contributions of liberation theology has been to remind the church of the privileged place of the poor in the Kingdom of God. . . .

“It is not enough for the church’s hierarchy to praise the fidelity of lay Catholics; it must also be willing to learn from them. And that requires bishops to acknowledge humbly that they don’t yet know everything about the will of God—that it is still revealing itself to us, and sometimes surprising us. The bishops, like their flocks, are still pilgrims on the way. Like the rest of us, they should be looking for signs ahead.”

I found so much wisdom in this article.  I encourage you to read the entire piece.  Even if you have to subscribe to Commonweal online to do so, it will be worth it!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Sex Is Never Simple

April 25, 2012

New Ways Ministry and many Catholic theologians, leaders, organizations, and individuals have long called on the church’s hierarchy to listen to the experiences of LGBT people as a way to develop doctrine and positions.  The importance of consulting the scripture of experience–how God speaks through people’s lives–is nowhere more needed than in the development of doctrine about sexual relationships and expression.

The necessity of such consultation was brought home to me again when I read Jo McGowan’s article, “Simplifying Sex: What Some Priests Don’t Understand About Contraception,”  in Commonweal magazine.  Though writing specifically about the recent debate about insurance funding for contraception, McGowan’s piece rings true for hierarchical statements about sexuality generally.The thesis of her argument should be a mantra repeated by church leaders everywhere:

“Sex is never simple.”

McGowan’s article responds primarily to a New York Times article which contained an interview with a priest.  She writes:

“. . .it is unsettling when men who may never have experienced sex feel qualified not just to speak about it but to pronounce on it with certainty. In an article in the New York Times (February 18), Fr. Roger Landry, a priest in my old diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, is quoted as saying, ‘What happens in the use of contraception, rather than embracing us totally as God made the other, with the masculine capacity to become a dad, or the feminine capacity to become a mom, we reject that paternal and maternal leaning.’ ”

“Well, no, Fr. Landry, we don’t. We don’t reject it. We make a decision about it. We recognize that pregnancy is a possibility, and we decide whether this is the right time for us to have a baby. We acknowledge that we are more than just potential (or actual) parents. One of the surest signs of youth—in any profession—is an unswerving adherence to literal interpretations. New teachers cling to the curriculum, whether or not the class is getting it. Young doctors focus on the clear x-ray, unable to see the patient in front of them writhing in pain. Parish priests preach the letter of the law, while their parishioners refuse to follow rules created without reference to the reality they know. But the rules aren’t just unrealistic. They are often irrelevant, based on incorrect or incomplete information.”

McGowan’s analogy to the penchant that young doctors and young priests have for relying on outside, abstract information makes the point vividly.   Sexuality is not something that can be described or discussed from an outsider’s perspective in abstract terms.  Accurate information and perspectives on it must come from people’s lived experiences. I would like to add another analogy to her already excellent one:  Not consulting people’s experience of sexuality in order to develop doctrine is like an atheist trying to describe and define spirituality and religion without consulting the people who practice faith.   Both spirituality and sexuality are intensely personal experiences that can only be understood fully from the inside out.

McGowan illustrates this idea best when she refutes Fr. Landry’s ideas about pleasure in sex:

“Fr. Landry goes on to say, ‘Contraception…make[s] pleasure the point of the act, and any time pleasure becomes the point rather than the fruit of the act, the other person becomes the means to that end. And we’re actually going to hurt the people we love.’ At one level, this is insightful and nuanced. When he laments how frequently such objectification happens to women in sexual relationships, Fr. Landry sounds almost feminist. And he is right that a relationship that’s only about the pursuit of pleasure is demeaning and ultimately hurtful.

“He is wrong, though, to assume that using contraception automatically makes ‘pleasure the point of the act.’ This is how adolescents think. Teenagers dream of constantly available sex, uninhibited by any possibility of pregnancy. That priests would talk the same way about sex between a husband and wife who have chosen to use contraception reflects inexperience and adolescent projection.

“Adults understand that good sex, with or without contraception, goes deeper than pleasure. It is complex and demanding. And pleasure isn’t necessarily a part of it. Any human encounter requiring honesty and surrender has the potential for both revelation and pain. The communication, healing, and strengthening that good sex ensures is foundational to a marriage. Pure pleasure the point of the act? What is Fr. Landry talking about?”

McGowan shows here that an outsider’s perspective is actually a distorted perspective which focuses on one potential aspect of the sexual situation.  Since sexuality is so much more than physical acts, an outsider can not understand the deeply emotional dimension that is involved in the physical activity of sex.  To theorize about sexuality based only on physical acts is to look only at the evidence that is able to be seen, and not to take the perspective of faith, which St. Paul tells us involves the “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Sexual license is not McGowan’s goal; responsible sexuality is.  She makes the important observation that strict adherence to abstract rules about sexuality can actually lead to irresponsible sex:

“But every human activity has the potential to become unbalanced. Having children mindlessly, year after year, as former generations of Catholics did, is just as harmful to the social good as the refusal to connect sex with pregnancy. Visit India, Fr. Landry. Talk with the women here who are treated purely as producers of sons.

“To defend contraception within marriage is not to defend sexual license. Married couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other and their families have the right and the duty to make their own decisions about contraception. The church’s role is to help them arrive at the decision that is right for their lives. It is not to dictate one-size-fits-all rules that have no foundation in practical experience.”

I don’t think that I’ve ever read a defense of consulting sexual practitioners for their experience which was as honestly and matter-of-factly stated as McGowan’s is. Clearly, the principles that she states here can be equally and easily applied to the experience of lesbian and gay people, as they are to heterosexual people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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