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.