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.
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.