The Catholic Church Needs a Sex Talk

By Lisa Fullam
Washington Post
March 11, 2013

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley (R) gives communion under Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 17th century sculpture "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa", while leading mass at the Santa Maria Della Vittoria church in Rome March 10, 2013. Roman Catholic Cardinals prayed on Sunday for spiritual guidance ahead of a closed door conclave to choose a new pope to lead the church at one of the most difficult periods in its history.

Here in the papal interregnum, rumors fly about a shady cabal of Vatican officials who may—or may not—be subject to blackmail for sexual misbehavior. UK Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigns and admits to sexual misconduct. The church is reeling from a clergy sex abuse scandal that continues to unfold worldwide. America’s Catholic bishops continue to raise objection to HHS’ policy that requires employers to cover birth control.

It seems like every media mention of the Catholic Church involves sex, sexual abuse, or cover-ups of sexual abusers.

Yet most Catholics seem underwhelmed by church teaching on sex: the vast majority of Catholics reject or simply ignore church teaching against contraception. In vitro fertilization, even fertilization of a woman’s ova with her husband’s sperm, is forbidden by church teaching, yet Catholics pursue those procedures nonetheless. Catholic leaders fiercely oppose gay marriage and talk of homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered,” but now most Catholics now support marriage equality and say same-sex relationships are not always sinful. Catholics cohabitate before marriage, and far fewer Catholics are getting married in the church: there were 8.6 marriages per 1,000 U.S. Catholics in 1972 to 2.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics in 2010 And it’s not just a lay issue: a 2002 LA Times poll found that only one-third of priests “’do not waver’ from their vow of celibacy, while 47 percent described celibacy as ‘an ongoing journey’ and 14 percent said they ‘do not always succeed in following’ it.” The report also found that two percent of priests admit they are not celibate.

Is it time for a new Catholic conversation about sex?

Current Church teaching on sex is clear: sexuality is a gift, but sex acts are only allowable between (heterosexually) married partners, and each act must be both loving and open to procreation. Any other sex act is seriously wrong. Whatever the merits of current church teaching, it simply seems not to resonate with most Catholics who often make their own decisions on sexual matters. And they have come to different conclusions than their bishops about sexual morality.

Why is that? One factor may be a shift in how we understand sexual issues generally. More than ever, sexuality is thought to be a matter of personal preference rather than morality. “As long as no one is hurt, who am I to say what’s right for somebody else?” seems to be the contemporary mantra regarding sex. To its credit, this view does draw a clear line between the horrific acts of sex abusers and people who simply choose to live according to sexual mores of which Catholic leaders disapprove.

But this “personal preference” model doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of guidance toward good—or even great—sexual relationships. And in contrast to the traditional views of the hierarchy, many contemporary Catholic theologians are moving toward a positive expression of values, virtues, goals and ideals that resonate with the complexities and delights of our sexual experiences. A critical appreciation for experience, cross-checked by fundamental Christian values like love of God, neighbor and self, and informed by the insights of contemporary biology, psychology, sociology and the arts, create a more resonant vision for sexual ethics. Still, church leadership seems far from poised to evolve its understanding of sexuality.

Could the church have gone down another path?

By 1963, according to priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley, fully half of American Catholics had decided that contraception was not always wrong. A commission to study the question, created by Pope John XXIII and expanded by Pope Paul VI, comprised married lay people, various experts and bishops, and concluded overwhelmingly that the church should allow contraception in some circumstances. A minority (which included the future Pope John Paul II,) contended that the church leadership must not change its teaching, in part that to do so would make church teaching an unreliable guide. (It is significant that a large part—but not all—of the minority’s concerns were not about contraception itself, but about teaching authority.) In the wake of the sweeping aggiornamento (updating) of Vatican II, and the leaking of the majority report, a change in church teaching was widely anticipated. Instead, in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, Paul VI insisted that contraception was a serious violation of God’s natural order, not even justifiable in light of the good of the relationship overall.

The reaction was immediate. Theologians objected to its reasoning, carefully parsing the teaching and finding it wanting on ecclesiological and methodological grounds. But by and large, the Catholic faithful simply shrugged. The teaching simply did not fit what they had come to believe about the matter. Catholics continued to practice contraception—but largely they discontinued confessing it as sin.

For church leaders, it’s a different story. One de facto criterion for their professional advancement is willingness to teach—or at least not to dissent from—sexual teachings that many priests and ministers and some bishops realize are irrelevant or even harmful to their parishioners’—and sometimes their own--lives.

The gulf between theory and experience, hierarchy and the laity, must be bridged for the Catholic Church to sustain itself. And for those of us in the pews, this is our moment: On sexuality, Catholics have to talk back to their leadership, and invite—then demand--response. There’s no lack of theological support. In fact, there is a robust literature of Catholic sexual ethics that engages ordinary experience as a primary (but not sole) source for moral reflection, stretching back decades.

But until ordinary Catholics—laypeople, priests and any bishops who dare—speak up, nothing will change in the church. We don’t have a vote in who gets to be the next pope. We don’t elect our bishops. But we can talk to them. We can invite priests to reflect on their own experience and on their pastoral experience. We can support public speakers on relevant topics, and we can start parish discussions that speak openly. We do have a “vote” with our presence in particular parishes and with how we allocate funds given to the church.

Ordinary Catholics need to finally have that adult conversation about sex. And even though sexual ethics is not the most important issue facing the church, it is emblematic of a more insidious silence on many issues, including women’s roles, how theologians who tread the boundaries of theological exploration are treated by leaders, how to respond to the flood of Catholics leaving and the high rate of clergy burnout.

Let’s start with sex. The gulf between teaching and practice is wide, the teachings themselves are in dispute or ignored by Catholics, the questions cut deep, and Catholic laity have a great deal to offer from our own experience of life and love.


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