Catholic Sexual Ethics, Social Ethics, and Reality-Based Theology

One of the key points in Salzmann & Lawler’s exposition of Catholic sexual ethics (“The Sexual Person”) is the importance of considering theology in the context of history. Explaining this idea, they describe two approaches to theology,a “classical” view, which sees all moral standards as static and fixed for all time, and an “empirical” view, in which we recognize that circumstances and human understanding (for example,of science), is constantly changing, and which implies that we must be constantly ready to refine our expression of those standards.

In its classicist mode, theology is a static, permanent achievement… In its empirical mode, it is a dynamic, ongoing process……. The classical understanding sees the human person as a series of created, static and definitively ordered temporal facts. The empirical understanding sees the person as a subject in the process of “self-realization in accordance with a project that develops in God-given autonomy, carried out in the present with a view to the future”. Classical theology sees moral norms coming from the Magisterium as once and for all definitive; sexual norms enunciated in the fifth or sixteenth century continue to apply absolutely in the twenty-first. Empirical theology sees the moral norms of the past not as facts for uncritical and passive acceptance but as partial insights that are the bases for critical attention, understanding, evaluation, judgement and decisions in the present sociohistorical situation. What Augustine and his medieval sources knew about sexuality cannot be the exclusive basis for a moral judgement about sexuality today.

The empirical approach, they say, was endorsed by by Vatican II. Later, this view was clearly articulated by Pope John Paul II, in Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987).

Yes, JP II, that arch- nemesis of gay and other progressive Catholics hoping for a rational basis for Catholic sexual ethics. How can this be? Well, the problem is that there is a double standard applied here. In practice, the Church applies the empirical approach to theology (which strikes me as similar in its import to what I call “reality-based” theology) only to social ethics – and a generally good job it does, too.




This introduces a model of personal responsibility. JP II accentuates this by teaching that in its social doctrine, the Church seeks to “guide people to respond, with the help of rational reflection and of the human sciences”, to their vocation as responsible builders of earthly society.” The relationship of Magisterium and individual believer in this teaching merits close attention. The Church guides; responsible persons, drawing on the Church’s guidance, their own intellectual abilities, and the findings of the human sciences, respond accordingly.

– Salman & Lawler

When it comes to sexual ethics, the Vatican simply falls back on the static, “classical” model of theology. Why then, does the double standard exist? Salzman and Lawler do not go into this, but I would suggest two possible, related reasons: the insistence on compulsory clerical celibacy, and an entirely unjustified assumption that unlike social conditions, human sexuality is fixed.

The problem with compulsory celibacy is that it had its origins in ideas of the early Church that assumed virginity somehow had a higher moral value than sexual lives, even within marriage. When the ideal was later imposed as a fixed rule on all (Western) clergy, mostly for financial reasons, it created a two-tier power moral caste system within the church which reinforced the negative view of all sexuality. The horror of sex meant that until forced to adapt very recently by the sexual abuse scandals, priests in training were denied even the most basic sexual education, along with all practical experience. Is it any wonder that the senior theologians within the Church, who received their own theological grounding in seminaries several decades ago, are woefully ignorant of the now abundant research-based evidence?

It is true that at the level of simple plumbing, the biology of human sex is fixed. However, human understanding and expression of the basic biology, just like the rest of human social conditions, has varied enormously across cultures and through the centuries. We now know, for instance, that the basic biology does not fit the simple binary model assumed by the early theologians (“God created male and female” – but also intersex). We also know that while it is undoubtedly true that procreation is a major purpose of sexual intercourse, it is most certainly not the only purpose. We know too that when seen from the perspective of all human cultures and historical periods, the traditional Judaic / Christian insistence on exclusively heterosexual intercourse within marriage is a decidedly minority perspective. Most societies have accepted, even celebrated, a place for same – sex intercourse as well, and for heterosexual relations that are not solely for making babies.

I welcome the insistence of Salzman and Lawler, and of other theologians, that the study of sexual ethics must take seriously the contributions from research in secular science and history. Sexual ethics, just as much as social ethics, needs to be grounded in an empirically based theology.

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