Formal Catholic teaching is clear: in developing moral norms, it is right that we consider the findings from social science and social statistics. On moral norms around sexuality, however, the Vatican simply ignores its own guidelines.
Whenever I refer to the evidence from social statistics on real – world Catholic belief, and the challenge they present to the sensus fideii on Vatican doctrine, I know that someone will immediately object, either in a comment to my post, or in an outraged blog post of their own at one of the rule-book Catholic sites. (No, I never have claimed that these polls disprove the SF – just that the present a challenge, a prima facie case that the SF might not exist).
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.
In 2008 two Catholic academic theologians at a reputable Jesuit university published a book, “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)“, on the Church’s sexual theology which represented a fundamental critique of its entire foundations. The United States Catholic Bishops have now launched a strong counter-attack, concentrating their fire especially on the authors’ section on homosexuality.
I am grateful to the Bishops for this attack: it has brought to my close attention a book that I was previously aware of, but had not considered too seriously. After reading some reviews and the extracts available at Google Books, I will now most certainly read it in full – and will later discuss its conclusions with my readers. As I have not yet had this opportunity to read the book for myself, I will not attempt in this post to evaluate the content or conclusions. However, I have read the authors’ intent and methods as presented in the prologue, and can contrast these with the bishops’ disappointing response, which I have read and re-read in full.
Todd A Salzman and Michael G Lawler are both married, faithful Catholics who are careful in this book to work strictly within the Catholic tradition. However, as married Catholics living in the real world, they are compelled to recognize the well-known fact that most Catholics simply do not believe or follow the orthodox Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. In response, they have considered the teaching in its historical development, considered the Scriptural foundations, and examined also the findings of modern science and anthropology.
The bishops reject their book primarily because they disagree with its findings.
As married men with real-life experience of sexual love in marriage, the authors are able to bring some personal insight to their discussion.
The bishops reject the value of personal experience.
Salman & Lawler recognize that sexual theological ethics are a complex web affecting many different aspects, including marital morality, cohabitation and the “process” of marrying, homosexuality and reproductive technology.
The bishops train their fire specifically on the easy target of “the gays”.
The authors discuss the many disconnects and contradictions in the Vatican’s own abstract pronouncements, such as those of “Gaudium et Spes” on the unitive value of conjugal love and the failure of the Magisterium to give this formal expression, or between the guidelines on scriptural interpretation, and the complete failure of the Magisterium to follow these guidelines when pronouncing on homosexuality.
Even in the prologue to “The Sexual Person”, the authors point to the dependence of the Catechism on the Genesis story of Sodom to condemn homosexuality, whereas most Biblical scholars no longer believe that this was remotely the point of the passage.
The bishops respond,
In the final analysis, all interpretation of Scripture is subject to the authoritative judgment by those responsible for the Church’s deposit of faith.
In other words, scripture means what the Church decrees that it means.
The medieval scholar Mark Jordan has shown from an analysis of its rhetorical style, that the Vatican is incapable of rational debate, instead depending primarily on techniques such as simple repetition of its own mantras. So it is here: in the 24 page document constituting their response to what is clearly a thoughtful, reasoned and thoroughly researched piece of academic writing which draws on a wide range of sources and approaches, the US bishops can refer only to the writings of the Church itself.
The book was prompted by the recognition that most Catholics simply do not accept the orthodox sexual ethics of the Catholic Church. There is nothing in the bishops’ response to suggest that it will change anybody’s mind (or sexual behaviour).
The bishops’ full statement is here.
This is what some others have said about “The Sexual Person”:
“This superb volume courageously explores Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. The authors’ exploration of the biological, relational and spiritual dimensions of human sexuality engages Catholic teaching respectfully, critically, and creatively. The book is a significant contribution to both sexual ethics and moral theology generally.”
–Paul Lauritzen, Director, Program in Applied Ethics, John Carroll University.
“This book is a much-needed contribution to the contemporary Catholic discussion of sexual ethics. The authors utilize the most recent sociological and psychological data to supplement their careful parsing of the Catholic theology of sex, gender, and embodiment. It is a work that manages to be highly theoretical while addressing everyday concerns about premarital sex, contraception, homosexuality, divorce and reproductive technology.
Salzman and Lawler embrace the model of theology as dialogue, and as a result, their treatment of both traditionalist and revisionist views about human sexuality is constructive and helpful. They succeed in moving a seemingly stalled conversation forward”.
–Aline Kalbian, associate professor, Department of Religion, Florida StateUniversity.
“A bold and brave book! Tightly argued and well documented, this book lays out an understanding of human sexuality that expresses the profound work that theologians do on behalf of the Church in order to find ever better understandings of what the Church teaches in light of the witness of scripture, the tradition, and our understanding of human experience.”
–Richard M Gula, SS, The Franciscan School of Theology. Graduate Theological Union
This is from the publishers’ blurb posted at Google Books:
In this comprehensive overview of Catholicism and sexuality, theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler examine and challenge the principles that any human genital act must occur within the framework of heterosexual marriage, and must remain open to the transmission of life. Remaining firmly within the Catholic tradition, they contend that the church is being inconsistent in its teaching by adopting a dynamic, historically conscious anthropology and worldview on social ethics and the interpretation of scripture while adopting a static, classicist anthropology and worldview on sexual ethics. “The Sexual Person” draws from Catholic tradition and provides a context for current theological debates between traditionalists and revisionists regarding marriage, cohabitation, homosexuality, and reproductive technologies.. This daring and potentially revolutionary book will be sure to provoke constructive dialogue among theologians, and between theologians and the Magisterium.
The bishops may disapprove, but this will not prevent this important book attracting careful attention from the growing band of Catholic theologians not tied to their apron strings, and from ordinary Catholics who place a search for truth above simplistic rule-book Catholicism.
I will have more on this once I have been able to source and read a complete copy. For a taster meanwhile, I list here the table of contents:
One: Sexual Morality in the Catholic Tradition: A Brief History
Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome
Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in the Catholic Tradition
Reading Sacred Scripture
The Fathers of the Church
The Modern Period
Two: Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Traditionalists
The Revision of Catholic Moral Theology
Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology
Traditionalists and Sexual Anthropology
Three: Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Revisionists
Revisionist Critiques of Traditionalist Anthropologies
Karl Rahner: Transcendental Freedoms
Revisionists and Sexual Anthropology
Four: Unitive Sexual Morality: A Revised Foundational Principle and Anthropology.
Gaudium et spes and a foundational Sexual Principle
The Relationship between Conjugal Love and Sexual Intercourse
Multiple Dimensions of Human Sexuality
Truly Human and Complementary
Five: Marital Morality
Marital Intercourse and Morality
NNLT and Marital Morality
Modern Catholic Thought and Marital Morality
Marital Morality and Contraception
A Renewed Principle of Human Sexuality and Contraception
Six: Cohabitation and the Process of Marrying
Cohabitation in the Contemporary West
Betrothal and the Christian Tradition
Complementarity and Nuptial Cohabitation
The Bible and Homosexuality
Magisterial Teaching on Homosexual Acts and Relationships
The Moral Sense of the Christian People and Homosexual Acts
The Morality of Homosexual Acts Reconsidered
Eight : Artificial Reproductive Technologies
Defining Artificial Reproductive Technologies
The CDF instruction and Reproductive Technologies
Parental Complementarity, Relational Considerations, and Social Ethics
- Overturning Catholic Moral Teaching on Homosexuality: Are Salzman And Lawler Right? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Ongoing Catholic Conversation about Sexual Morality: Two Recent National Catholic Reporter Pieces (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- Catholic Bishops Rebuke Theologians’ Book Over Views On Homosexuality(huffingtonpost.com)
- Bishops “Protecting Marriage” and the ‘had it’ Catholics (queering-the-church.com)
- Truly Human Sexual Acts: A Response to Patrick Lee and Robert George By Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler in Theological Studies, September 2008
The decisions of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) this week have rightly received a lot of attention, and are clearly significant to Lutherans, and to the rest of us: but not only for the obvious reasons.
First, it is hugely important to the openly gay & lesbian partnered pastors already serving the church, and to their congregations. In spite of the previous prohibition, there are many of these across the country, but because of the ban, they may not be officially recognised. The result is that there are listed “vacancies” where good people, who could not be recognised as legitimate simply because they were openly gay and partnered.
“To be able to be a full member of the church is really a lifelong dream,” said the Rev. Megan Rohrer of San Francisco, who is in a committed same-sex relationship and serves in three Lutheran congregations but is not officially on the church’s roster of clergy members. “I don’t have to have an asterisk next to my name anymore.” (NY Times)
Secondly, it is important for other recognised gay clergy who could not be open, or could not enter partnerships, for fear of losing their recognition. These people can now choose celibacy or marriage, as they prefer, without fear – provided they are serving, or can find, a supportive congregation (local approval remains important.) Note however, that the emphasis is on “committed”, as in legally recognised, permanent partnerships comparable to conventional marriage.
In essence, the vote puts gays under the same set of rules that have govern heterosexual clergy. They are required to be monogamous if married and to abstain from sexual relations if they are single. Individual congregations would not be compelled to take on pastors who are in same-sex relationships. (Washington Post)
The assembly also signed off on finding ways for willing congregations to “recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships.” The church fell short of calling that gay marriage, but conservatives see that as the next step.(AP)
It will also pressure the Lutherans themselves to take further decisions on consecrating gay marriages in church. Else, how can they explain a requirement that gay clergy be married, but not allow them to be married in church?
Thirdly, it is important symbolically, encouraging gay and lesbian Christians, and lending momentum to similar pressures in other denominations and elsewhere. Over the past two years, American Presbyterians and United Methodists have declined to pass similar resolutions – but those votes will return in future years, and will be passed (sooner, rather than later, I would think).
“Those who have been actively campaigning for a change of this sort in the other mainline denominations will see this as a sign that they should intensify their efforts,” Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said in an e-mail. (LA Times)
But the most important aspect of all, in my view, with the furthest reaching implications for all of us, has largely slipped under the radar. The biggest headlines have been on the clergy decision, and on the procedural vote before it, as these are the most clearly dramatic – but in effect, simply regularise an existing de facto situation. In this, the decision resembles the abolition in South Africa of the abhorrent Group Areas Act, which enforced residential separation, and other laws of so-called “petty apartheid”. By the time of the final repeal, these laws had fallen into such disrepute, that they were being widely ignored. Many of the people who could afford to move into the “White” areas had already done so. The law was not so much ground-braking change, as a simple attempt to come to terms with the plain reality. To some extent, so it is here.
No, the really important part for all of us as lesbigaytrans Christians came buried in just a few paragraphs in an earlier decision, approving a revised statement on sexual morality. This statement, after eight years of study and preparation, sets new parameters for the interpretation of Scripture in defining sexual morality.
“Barbara Wheeler, a former president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York who is now director of the school’s Center for the Study of Theological Education, praised the ELCA for laying a theological foundation for Friday’s vote by first approving a broad social statement on sexuality.
“It’s a completely theological argument toward openness to the possibility of faithful, committed same-sex relationships,” said Wheeler, who has played a central role in gay clergy deliberations inside the Presbyterian Church (USA). “What you’re seeing is two things: The society is in the process of changing its collective mind about the moral status of same-sex relationships, and there’s a parallel theological movement.” (AP)
For far too long, the struggle for gay rights has been seen as one that pits civil rights against Scripture. By taking these decisions after long deliberation, including careful consideration of Scripture in the light of modern scholarship, the ECLA has shown that he two are not inherently in conflict. This will lead other open-minded church people of good will to take a further look at Scripture for themselves, and some of hem too will find that the typical resort to Scripture as a basis for opposition is misguided. on the other hand, the bigots who continue to fall back on knee jerk calls to Scripture as a cover for their prejudice or hatred, will find that they no longer receive he automatic support they once did.
The Scriptural argument against same sex relationships is being defanged.
(See also The Wild Reed on the same topic;
and for exensive coverage of events from the inside, see Goodsoil)
Catholic Church Consecrates Gay Bishop ( Gay Marriage & Gay Bishops in History)