Tag Archives: moral theology

The Evolution of Catholic Teaching on Sex and Marriage.

In “The Sexual Person“, the Catholic lay theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler give a useful historical review of the substantial shifts in the orthodox doctrine on sex and marriage – while also illustrating how much of that teaching is stuck in the fourth century thought of Augustine, and that of Aquinas from the thirteenth century. (Is there any other field of human thought that is so rooted in those two distant periods?) This is an important book that I will be discussing regularly in small bites. For now, I simply want to point to the briefest summary of the main argument, in preparation for a specific extract referring to Pope Paul VI and Humane Vitae.

Two things strike me in this account. As I have frequently noted before, it is completely untrue that the Catholic Church has a “constant and unchanging tradition” on sexual ethics.  Rather, the tradition has been constantly evolving. Just consider the complete transformation of the view on sexual pleasure – from one that it is to be avoided at all costs, even while begetting children or in nocturnal involuntary emissions, to one where it can contribute to the sacramental value of marriage. What has evolved in the past, will surely continue to evolve. That evolution will surely be aided by the capacity of theologians and popes to retrieve, when required, obscure and forgotten pieces from history – and proclaim them of fundamental importance. In two thousand years of theological writing, there will surely be a plethora of documents now obscure, which contradict some current thinking. Some of these will no doubt be retrieved by scholars – and being rehabilitated, will influence further adjustments in the changing tradition of the Church.

St Augustine – 6th cent fresco, Lateran

Here follows my summary of the outline in “The Sexual Person”

For the early fathers of the Church, sex within marriage was seen as good, for the purpose of procreation only. However, virginity was praised as better – even within marriage. Where sex was undertaken for the purpose of procreation, it was acceptable, but undertaken for pleasure, it was sinful. From Augustine onward, there was some grudging recognition that there was more to it than just procreation, with some value also recognised for conjugal love, which would later be described as the “unitive” value.  Nevertheless, sexual activity for pleasure, even in marriage, was for centuries considered sinful.

The Catholic aversion to sexual pleasure reached its high point when Pope Gregory the Great banned from access to church anyone who had just had pleasurable sexual intercourse. We accept as accurate Brandage’s judgement of the effect of that patristic history: “The Christian horror of sex has for centuries placed enormous strain on individual consciences and self-esteem in the Western world.”

The medieval penitentials went even further, condemning as sinful even involuntary emissions during sleep, and placing tight restrictions on when intercourse with one’s spouse was legitimate – even without taking that dreaded pleasure in the act. One such prescribed continence during three forty day periods: during Lent, preceding Christmas, and following Pentecost. Excluding these one hundred and twenty days, that left a maximum of two hundred and forty five remaining.  But four days in every week were also proscribed – Saturday and Sunday (night and day), and Wednesday and Friday (daytime). This effectively leaves a maximum of one hundred and forty days available for legitimate relations with one’s spouse – but excluding further the entire menstrual period, and the period after conception.

The impact of these penitentials and their harsh judgements on sex was profound. They helped shape a moral focus on individual acts, turning moral reflection into an analysis of sin. They also shaped a focus on genitalia.




That focus and the act-centred morality it generated were perpetuated in the numerous manuals published in the wake of the Council of Trent. These manuals controlled seminary education well into the twentieth century and continued to propagate both an act-centred morality and Catholic ambivalence toward both sexuality and marriage.

Aquinas later expanded the “purpose” of marriage by recognizing both a primary purpose (which remained procreation) and a secondary purpose – not pleasure itself, but mutual support and faithfulness between the spouses. For believers, there is also a third end – a sacramental one. Aquinas also begins to modify the total aversion to pleasure, recognizing that “within the ends of marriage”, sexual desire and pleasure are not sinful.

By the twentieth century, the 1917 Code of Canon Law codified three notions of marriage: as a contract between spouses, in which the partners exchanged rights to their sexual acts, and whose primary purpose is procreation. That renewed emphasis on procreation was substantially revised later in the century, especially by the Second Vatican Council, but also before it.

In 1936, in response to the Anglican church’s approval of artificial contraception, Pope Pius XI publishedCasta Connubii“. This firmly rejected contraception and emphasized procreation – but it did more.

He retrieved and gave a prominent place to a long-ignored item from the Catechism of the Council of Trent: marriage as a union of conjugal love and intimacy.  If we consider only the juridical definition of marriage, we could reasonably conclude that marriage has nothing to do with mutual love, that a man and a woman who hated each other could could be married as long as each gave to the other the right over her or his body for procreation.  By emphasising the essential place of mutual love in a marriage, Pius firmly rejected such nonsense and placed the Catholic view of marriage on the track to a more personal definition.

In this document, Pius XI quite explicitly describes the “chief reason and purpose” of marriage as the mutual love and interior formation of the spouses. This renewed emphasis on conjugal love was reaffirmed by Vatican II. The council clearly stated that marriage is “ordered” to the procreation and education of children, but also stressed that this does not imply any hierarchy of ends. The importance of the generation and education of children

“does not make the other ends of marriage of less account”, and marriage “is not instituted solely for procreation”.




Catholic Moral Theologian, on How Existing Teaching Could Support Same – Sex Couples.

What is particularly interesting about Professor Alain Thomasett’s recent paper on narrative theology, in that he shows how existing teaching could accommodate support for same – sex couples, without any change in core sexual doctrines. It is also important that he made his argument to an important gathering of German, French and Swiss bishops, as part of a study day to prepare for the forthcoming Rome synod on marriage and family.

Thomasett

Calling for a change in sexual doctrine, or for respect for same – sex couples, are no longer particularly new in the Catholic Church, at least not in Europe. It’s been claimed that probably a majority of moral theologians now agree that fundamental change in needed, and in recent years, many of them have gone on the record with formal calls for just such a change. Also, there are now many senior bishops and cardinals who have said publicly that the Church should be able to recognize the value of civil unions.

The problem is that the synod has not been called to consider any change in teaching, which would be fiercely resisted by a solid block of more conservative bishops. The key to seeing the significance of Thomasett’s argument, is that he is not calling for any change in teaching, but simply the application of all the teaching in appropriate context, and not a reflex reaction to abstract sexual acts.

He notes, for example, that while homicide is clearly regarded as unacceptable in formal Catholic doctrine, the context makes all the difference: killing in self – defence is not the same as premeditated murder. He also draws attention to the overriding importance of personal conscience, and of attention to the sensus fidelium (or “sense of the faithful”). And so, while doctrine continues to assert the teaching in Humanae Vitae that artificial contraception is not acceptable, in practice, pastoral tolerance for contraception by particular couples is widely accepted. In the same way, an extension in pastoral practice to recognition and acceptance of particular same – sex couples, including civil unions or possibly even church blessings, is not all that far – fetched.

There is certainly no prospect of any change in Church teaching at the October synod. However, the bishops of Germany, France and Switzerland in attendance will be well – briefed on how the interpretation and application of existing teaching could well be accommodated. We can expect that these ideas will also be well received by many of their colleagues, especially those from elsewhere in Europe – and also by Pope Francis himself, who will ultimately sign the final assessment of the synod’s conclusions.

After the synod, we should expect that some bishops at least, again especially in some European countries, will return to their dioceses with an enhanced understanding of how acceptance of same – sex couples in pastoral practice, is not after all, necessarily in conflict with Church teaching.

From the start of his papacy, Pope Francis has frequently noted that Catholic teaching not only can change, but must constantly evolve. This idea of the need for evolution in teaching has been widely taken up also by others, and was a common thread running through all the papers presented to the Rome study day. Francis has also expressed a desire for many decisions in Church governance to be taken lower down the hierarchical chain, for example by national bishops, without referring everything to the Curia. Such decisions at national level would certainly include the application of pastoral practice.

Could this include blessing same – sex unions? Possibly, yes. When Germany’s association of lay Catholics recently called several changes in the Church, including the blessing of these unions, the response of Cardinal Marx was that these could not be accepted “unreservedly”.  The implication is that they could be acceptable, with some reservations. He did not specify quite what these reservations would be.

Already, there are individual priests in many countries who are willing, under the radar, to conduct blessing ceremonies for particular same – sex couples, especially where these and the quality of their relationships are personally known to them. It is likely that after the synod, an improved tone in pastoral practice would encourage more to do so – and encourage some bishops to turn a blind eye to the practice. As the number of same – sex couples in legally recognized unions continues to increase, and as the Protestant churches increasing accept both gay clergy and gay marriage, in church, we should expect that in practice, Catholic blessings of same – sex couples will likewise increase – both in number, and in visibility, just as the use of contraception, and cohabitation before marriage, are now widely accepted in practice.

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  • Moral Judgements and “Intrinsically Evil”: The Subjective Perspective

    Professor Alain Thomasett SJ of Paris University began his paper to the German French and Swiss bishops’ study day for the 2015 family synod, with a reflection on the concept of “intrinsically disordered” acts, and  the difficulties which it raises for many Catholics in making moral judgements.

    This is the section on the importance of taking into account the subjective context of the person and her/his story, in my own translation from the original French text

    The issue of intrinsically evil acts

    The interpretation of the doctrine of acts known as “intrinsically evil” seems to be one of the fundamental sources of the current difficulties in the pastoral care of families, as it largely determines the condemnation of artificial contraception, the sexual acts of remarried divorcees and of couples in stable same-sex relationships. It appears to many to be incomprehensible and seems pastorally counter productive. If it rightly insists on objective benchmarks necessary for moral life, it neglects precisely the biographical dimension of existence, and the specific conditions of each personal journey, elements to which our contemporaries are very sensitive and which contribute to the current conditions for the reception of Church doctrine. Several arguments point in the direction of greater integration of the history of the people.

    The subjective side, the need for discernment of the situation and the place of conscience

    a) The final report of the Extraordinary Synod itself acknowledges this difficulty (no. 52), because it poses a “distinction between the objective situation of sin and mitigating circumstances, as ‘the accountability and responsibility for an action can be reduced or even eliminated’ by various ‘psychological or social factors’ (Catholic Catechism No. 1735).” According to this doctrine, although the objective evil remains, it can be mitigated (Veritatis Splendor, No. 81.2), subjective responsibility can be reduced or even eliminated. An objective disorder does not necessarily produce subjective guilt. To state it more clearly, the intent and the circumstances can influence the objective qualification of the act, and secondly, they are necessary to determine the moral responsibility of the subject who must decide and act according to conscience.  All Catholic moral tradition calls for discernment that takes into account these different elements for a moral judgement that is  left in the last resort to the conscience of the people. Vatican II recalled the primacy of conscience which must be the judge of last resort (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n ° 16.50). (Note 1)

    b) Individuals and couples often face conflicts of obligations which force them, when it is impossible to satisfy all values ​​at once, to choose after deliberation to prioritize the most important duty.

    In practical situations, discernment is needed: for example if openness to life and the preservation of marital and familial equilibrium conflict with each other. The pastoral notes of nine episcopates after Humanae Vitae (including those of the French , German and Swiss  Bishops for 1968), also go in this direction; in cases of conflicts they refer to the judgment of conscience and responsible parenthood, repeating the arguments of the Council. Must this not restore to its place the conscience of the people? This in no way removes the need to form the conscience,  but demands that conscience not be replaced.

    c) A biographical perspective and narrative forces us to think that moral evaluation is not about isolated acts, but about human actions inserted into a history.

    A single act, isolated from its context and the history of the subject who may be responsible (which the term intrinsically means) is not yet a human act but an element of assessment which must be completed to be judged. A homicide is a gesture, a physical act. To make a human action involves determining who is the author and to understand the reasons and circumstances that led to this action. Is it self-defence, an accident, a crime of passion, a murder, premeditated or otherwise. Likewise, do not be too quick to call a sexual act of contraception ‘intrinsically evil! Paul Ricoeur and the contemporary philosophy of action remind us that an act can be assigned to an author who can be held accountable solely through the medium of narrative.

    This is the set of elements of the story that can give meaning to action, and therefore qualify to evaluate it (Note.2). This is the judgement of conscience that ultimately can carry it. Moral standards describe acts. Conscience must judge an action. The objectives ethical guidelines given by the Church are only one element (admittedly essential but not unique) of moral discernment which must take place in conscience. We must give a fair place to moral standards and conscience to avoid giving the impression that conscience is reduced to blind obedience to rules that are imposed on it from outside. To omit this would reduce Christian ethics to a pure moralism, which Christians moreover reject overwhelmingly and justifiably. (Note 3) 

    Notes:

    1 “Only the conscience of the subject can provide the immediate norm for  action (…) Natural law can not be presented as an already established set of rules imposed a priori on the moral subject, but it is an objective source of inspiration for his eminently personal, approach to decision making.” International Theological Commission, “In search of a universal. ethic A New Look at Natural Law, Rome, 2008, No. 59. See also GS 50.2: “This judgement  is ultimately that of the couple themselves who must decide it before God

    2 See, among others, Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as another, Seuil, 1990, especially Chapter 5 and 6.

    3 For further details, see Alain Thomasset, “In fidelity to the Second Vatican Council: the hermeneutic dimension of moral theology”, Journal of Ethics and Moral Theology, No. 263, March 2011, p. 31-61 and No. 264, June 2011, p. 9-27

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  • WHY Our Stories Matter

    I wrote yesterday about the new attention some theologians are paying to “narrative theology”, which draws on people’s life experience in their real world situations as a source for theological reflection. The importance of this was highlighted in the Rome study day for selected bishops from Germany, France and Switzerland in preparation for the 2015 Family Synod, when a third of the programme (and two of the six papers) were devoted to it.

    One of these papers, by Prof Dr Alain Thomasett SJ of the University of Paris, had the title Taking into account of the history and biographical developments of the moral life and the pastoral care of the family”.  In this paper, Thomasett tackles head on the challenge presented by what Catholic doctrine  describe as “intrinsically evil” sexual acts, and the difficulties this doctrine presents for many Catholics in real life situation. This difficulty certainly troubles gay and lesbian Catholics, but not only them. (Thomasett also refers directly to those who have divorced and remarried, who will be a central focus of the Synod, and to married couples practicing contraception). The key to resolving the problem, he argues, lies in making a firm distinction between objective judgement of the acts, and the moral culpability of the people, which can only be assessed in the context of their particular situations and purpose. Continue reading WHY Our Stories Matter

    “What’s Morally Wrong With Homosexuality?” (VIDEO – John Corvino)

    Dr. John Corvino is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, specialising in ethics and the philosophy of religion. He is the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage and the author of What’s Wrong with Homosexuality?    

    John Corvino Responds to “New Natural Law” (Book, and Video)

    Central to the orthodox Catholic rejection of homoerotic relationships, and all sexual intercourse not open to procreation, is the natural law theory of the medieval theologian and great doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas. However, there’s a great deal that needs to be said about the distortions of Aquinas’ understanding of natural law to support “traditional” marriage, while suppressing what he wrote about the naturalness of same – sex relationships for those whom modern terminology would describe as having a same – sex orientation.

    Aquinas and the Middle Ages were an awfully long time ago, and it’s not surprising that it is now generally acknowledged, by traditional and revisionist moral theologians alike, that there are some problems with his conclusions (for example, that masturbation, which is not open to procreation, is more offensive to God than rape, which is). So some modern day conservative theologians who respect the core of Aquinas’ Natural Law theory have developed what is known as “New Natural Law Theory”.

    I’m delighted to have found, via a short post at “Letters to the Catholic Right”, a link to a video series by John Corvino dealing with his book, “What’s Wrong with Homosexuality”.

    As a professor of philosophy specialising in ethics and the philosophy of religion, Corvino is well equipped to tackle the problems with natural law theory, and of New Natural Law Theory, as they are regularly applied to debates about marriage equality.

    In the Youtube video above, Corvino, introduces his argument.

    This is what Amazon has to say about his book:

    For the last twenty years, John Corvino–widely known as the author of the weekly column “The Gay Moralist”–has traversed the country responding to moral and religious arguments against same-sex relationships. In this timely book, he shares that experience–addressing the standard objections to homosexuality and offering insight into the culture wars more generally.

    Is homosexuality unnatural? Does the Bible condemn it? Are people born gay (and should it matter either way)? Corvino approaches such questions with precision, sensitivity, and good humor. In the process, he makes a fresh case for moral engagement, forcefully rejecting the idea that morality is a “private matter.” This book appears at a time when same-sex marriage is being hotly debated across the U.S. Many people object to such marriage on the grounds that same-sex relationships are immoral, or at least, that they do not deserve the same social recognition as heterosexual relationships. Unfortunately, the traditional rhetoric of gay-rights advocates–which emphasizes privacy and tolerance–fails to meet this objection. Legally speaking, when it comes to marriage, “tolerance” might be enough, Corvino concedes, but socially speaking, marriage requires more. Marriage is more than just a relationship between two individuals, recognized by the state. It is also a relationship between those individuals and a larger community. The fight for same-sex marriage, ultimately, is a fight for full inclusion in the moral fabric. What is needed is a positive case for moral approval–which is what Corvino unabashedly offers here.

    Corvino blends a philosopher’s precision with a light touch that is full of humanity and wit. This volume captures the voice of one of the most rational participants in a national debate noted for generating more heat than light.

    Books by John Corvino:

    What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? 
    Debating Same-Sex Marriage  (with Maggie Gallagher)

     

    Also related and recommended:

    Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay 

    Alison, James: On Being Liked 

    Alison, James:  Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In

    Alison, James: Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal

    Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century  (University of Chicago Press, 1980) 424 pages

    Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

    Glaser, Chris: As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage 

    Glaser, Chris: Coming Out as Sacrament

    Jordan, Mark:  Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage

    McNeill, John: The Church and the Homosexual

    McNeill, John: Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else 

    McNeill, John: Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families,  and Friends 

    McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended