Tag Archives: Sexual Ethics

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”



Continue reading The Evolution of Catholic Teaching on Sex and Marriage.

Does Pope Francis Support Civil Unions?

At Bondings 2.0, Frank DeBenardo makes an intriguing claim about Pope Francis – that he has made ” a declarative endorsement of civil unions for same-sex couples”. He bases this on an extract from a conversation between the pope and a French sociologist, one of a series of 12 which will soon be published in book form.

Extracts from these conversations, including the one referring to civil unions, have been published at Crux:

“Marriage between people of the same sex? ‘Marriage’ is a historical word. Always in humanity, and not only within the Church, it’s between a man and a woman… we cannot change that. This is the nature of things. This is how they are. Let’s call them ‘civil unions.’ Lets not play with the truth. It’s true that behind it there is a gender ideology. In books also, children are learning that they can choose their own sex. Why is sex, being a woman or a man, a choice and not a fact of nature? This favors this mistake. But let’s say things as they are: Marriage is between a man and a woman. This is the precise term. Lets call unions between the same sex ‘civil unions’.”

DeBenardo’s response at Bondings 2.0 is to read this as an endorsement of civil unions:

For the most part, this section is not surprising.  On many occasions, Pope Francis has stated his opposition to marriage for lesbian and gay people.   And he is also on the record for being negative towards new understandings of gender identity, though positive about welcoming transgender people.

What’s new here, however, is his declarative endorsement of civil unions for same-sex couples. Although many church leaders have suggested supporting such an arrangement in recent years, Pope Francis has never, as pontiff, stated his endorsement of civil unions so flatly.

Is this really a ” declarative endorsement of civil unions for same-sex couples”? I’d love to think so, but I’m not convinced. As I read the passage quoted in Crux, all he has done is make a statement about language. As a simple statement of fact, he obviously recognises that that these same-sex legal partnerships exist. He does not want them to be described as marriage, and would prefer them to be called civil unions. That does not imply that he supports them.

It is of course possible that he does support civil unions. DeBenardo notes that “He did support civil unions as a compromise to his opposition towards marriage equality when he was an archbishop in Argentina.”  This is true. As pontiff, there have also been numerous hints  that he supports greater acceptance of same-sex unions, possibly including legal recognition and fuller participation for same-sex couples in the life of the church. It is quite possible that he does indeed support civil unions – but this is not spelled out in the text quoted. Sadly, all that is clear in the passage directly concerning the pope’s attitude to same-sex unions, is once again clear opposition to same-sex marriage.

And yet, it’s not all bad news. As in “Amoris Laetitia”, there are encouraging thoughts which are relevant for LGBT Catholics, while not referring to us exclusively or by name. First, there is an admission of value in the lay state.

“The lay state is a healthy thing. There is a healthy laicism. Jesus said: We must render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. We are the same before God.

This could well imply at least, respect for civil unions as a matter of law.  Then there’s also an important observation about the place of the laity, in the church:

“But the Church is not bishops, popes, and priests. The Church is the people. And Vatican II said: ‘The people of God, as a whole, do not err.’ If you want to know the Church go to a village where the life of the Church is lived. Go to a hospital where there are many Christians that come to help, laymen, sisters… Go to Africa, where there are many missionaries. They burn their life there. And they make real revolutions. Not to convert, it was another time when we spoke of conversion, but to serve.”

All the available evidence is that ‘The people of God, as a whole” t do not agree with the Vatican teaching on sexual ethics, taken as a package.  The absolute prohibitions on contraception, on sex before marriage, and on masturbation are widely rejected and ignored, not only in the West, but world-wide. Support for same-sex relationships is now widespread in many regions, and growing elsewhere. Many theologians and an increasing number of bishops understand the implication: the traditional doctrines on sex have not been “received” by the faithful. They must be refined – and surely will be, in time.

Krzysztof Charamsa, on masturbation

According to Dr Dick’s Sex Advice, May is “Masturbation Month”. (Who decides these things?). With that in mind, I was intrigued by the brief interchange below, in the Berliner Zeitung interview with Msgt Krzysztof Charamsa.

To put it into context, recall that the official position of the Catholic Church remains steadfastly opposed to the practice, even though there is no clear biblical or medical evidence against it, and the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of people do so, at least occasionally. For Catholic priests attempting to live within their promise of celibacy, masturbation may be their only possible form of sexual release – yet, in theory at least, this too is forbidden.

Yet, when the interviewer raised the question, it is not in terms of “Do you masturbate?”, or “Would you masturbate?”, but an automatic assumption that, yes – he does: “When you did….” In response, Charamsa does not attempt to avoid or deflect the question, but in his simple reply of “yes”, he is in effect acknowledging that yes, he did  masturbate.

Would that other priests would be  so frank and honest, about a subject that is too often simply avoided.

When masturbating did you have homosexual fantasies?

Yes.

That was not nice?

I was anxious. I spent my puberty in communist Poland, in the Catholic Church. Both hyper-homophobic facilities! With whom could I have spoken? How? I had no words for it. I had feelings of guilt. I would have had them, even if I had been heterosexual. But my gay fantasies increased my insecurity.

The Trouble with “Courage”

In his response to Martin Pendergast on the “Courage” apostolate, Fr Philip Bochanski of Courage USA grievously confuses celibacy and chastity, referring to both in the same sentence as if they were the same thing, which they are not. He is correct that “The demand of the Gospel is chastity for everyone”. That is also the instruction of the Catholic Catechism:

2337 Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another…..”

That sexual integration in a relationship cannot be equated with celibacy, which is sexual abstinence.

I am surprised (but delighted) that Fr states that “Courage does not demand or impose “mandatory celibacy” on persons who experience same-sex attractions”. That is not a demand of the Gospel – although it is one made by the Catholic Catechism. The question is, is this Catechism teaching true? Does it lead one to God?

There’s a problem here, because the Catechism also tells us that

2333 Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.

In Amoris Laetitiae, has written extensively and movingly about the joy and value of love, including carnal, physical love in a committed, self-giving relationship. How are gay men and lesbians are keep to both parts of the Catholic teaching, on accepting their sexual identity, and experiencing chastity “integrated into the relationship of one person to another” – while simultaneously keeping to the Catechism demand of sexual abstinence.

This is why, based on their real-world experience, so many gay and lesbian Catholics have found that it is impossible  to resolve this contradiction, and based on the core principle of the primacy of conscience, have concluded that in the area of sexual doctrines, the Catechism is simply wrong. It is also why the experience of the full range of apostolates to lgbt Catholics, those who respect this conclusion in conscience, like Quest nationally, and the lgbt group meeting at Farm Street parish in London, have a track record of attracting people and helping them to find God – and Courage , which has a long-established group in London, notably does not.

What is the “Formation of Conscience?”

Papal theologian: “Conscience is the act of practical reason”

Gay and lesbian Catholics who disagree with Church teaching on sexuality know that the  best defence against our critics is the primacy of conscience, which is well established in Catholic doctrine. It’s also a theme which had renewed attention during the recent Synod of Bishops’ assembly on marriage and family, where the “inviolability of conscience” and the closely related “interior forum” received much attention.

Against this, orthotoxic rule book Catholics often retort that conscience is not simply giving way to personal feelings, but must be properly “formed”, implying that a well-formed conscience must be in accordance with the Catechism. The truth, however, is that accordance with conscience is neither a simple matter of licence, nor one of blind adherence to external rules.

So what is it? How are we to find a sound balance between these two extremes? Pope Francis’ personal theologian, Father Wojciech Giertych, put some important guidelines in a recent interview with Lifesite News.


Continue reading What is the “Formation of Conscience?”

US Bishop Calls for Vatican III !

The Californian Bishop Francis Quinn has used the occasion of Pope Francis’ US visit, and the World Meeting of Families, to call in an op-ed opinion piece for the New York Times, for extensive reform of the Catholic Church on three core issues bitterly dividing the Church:   communion for the divorced and remarried, an end to compulsory celibacy for Catholic priests, and the ordination of women.

Bishop Francis Quinn

To achieve this, he proposes a third Vatican Council:

Pope Francis prefers the simple title “bishop of Rome.” So I ask my brother bishop: Should we not convene a third Vatican Council just as ethical and paradigm-shifting as Vatican Council II of the 1960s?

In addition to the three issues dividing the church, this council and future councils would explore the morality of world economies, spiritual life, human sexuality, peace and war, and the poor and suffering.

He does not specifically call for any change in teaching on same – sex relationships, but he has done in the past: he was one of the first to follow Cardinal Schonborn a few years ago, when he said that it was high time that the Church considered the quality of gay relationships, putting aside the obsession with genital acts. Besides, this is implicit in his reference to “human sexuality” as a topic for discussion.

It is of course, significant that Bishop Quin is retired. On the one hand, this means that his opinions will carry little weight among the rest of the hierarchy. On the other, we should remember that it is precisely because he is no retired, that like Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and several others, he is able to speak freely without fear of losing his job – he has none, to lose.  What these men are saying publicly now that they are able to do so safely, many others will be thinking privately, holding their tongues – for now.

But Cardinal Schoborn’s off – the – cuff remarks back then about respect for gay couples, and a rethink on those divorced and remarried, have since achieved much wider currency, and were widely discussed at the last family synod, in the intervening year since, and will be again in October.

Change will not come without extensive exploratory debate. What is now clear, is that under Pope Francis, there is now far wider, freer debate about reform to Church practice, disciplines and even doctrines, than at any time under the previous three pontiffs – perhaps even since Vatican II.

Let’s Talk About – Contraception!

…no papal teaching document has ever caused such an earthquake in the Church as the encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae.’  – Catholic theologian, Fr Bernard Haring

The feature of the 2014 Family Synod that most surprised me, was the near absence of any discussion about contraception – except for repeated confirmation of support for “Humanae Vitae”. As Peter Steinfels puts it at the Washington Post,

At last October’sExtraordinary Synod on the Family, bishops grabbed headlines by debating controversial topics such as admitting remarried Catholics to Communion and acknowledging the upsides of same-sex relationships. But the discussion of contraception was perfunctory. The bishops simply called on the church to do a better job of propagating “the message of the encyclical Humanae Vitae.” In other words, the widespread rejection of the birth-control ban is simply a messaging problem.

That’s not true. The church’s unwillingness to grapple with a deep and highly visible gap between official teaching and actual practice undermines Catholic vigor and unity at every level. It encourages Catholics to disregard all manner of other teachings, including those on marriage and abortion. If the church wants to restore its moral authority, it must address this gnawing question.

Continue reading Let’s Talk About – Contraception!

Human Sexuality:What Catholics Believe

A formal research investigation by a Münster University research group in 42 countries worldwide, has shown that an overwhelming majority of German Catholics disagree fundamentally with Vatican doctrines on sexuality. This will not surprise anyone: the German bishops are far ahead of their international colleagues on many of these issues, professional German theologians have taken the lead in calling for a fundamental rethink on all issues of sexual teaching, and the culture of clericalism in the Church, and the largest lay organisation recently called for the Church to begin offering formal church blessings for same – sex couples in committed, permanent relationships (such as civil unions). Continue reading Human Sexuality:What Catholics Believe

Irony of Ironies: Vatican Doctrine Confused With “The Lord’s Teaching”

A conservative Catholic blogger is gleefully reporting that “This cardinal sees no reason to expect the Family Synod to be outside Church teaching”.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. There’s never been any serious suggestion, from any side, that changing teaching was even up for discussion. (Change in teaching must and will come, later – but not yet). For now, a change in teaching is just not what the Synod is about. What it is about, is a more sensitive pastoral application of that teaching, a different matter entirely.

But there’s a more serious problem with this report, and Cardinal    Raúl Vela Chiriboga’s words. I quote:

“The Church is the depository of the faith, and that faith is the teaching of Jesus: we can’t go against his commandment,” the emeritus Archbishop of Quito explained Aug. 14 to CNA in Piura, where he was participating in Peru’s Tenth National Eucharistic and Marian Congress as an envoy of the Holy Father.

“There are fundamental truths” that will not change, Cardinal Vela said, even “by more news outlets stirring things up by saying things contrary to, or wanting to misinterpret, what the Lord commands.”

Do you see the problem? He’s assuming that because “the Church” is the depository of the faith, then it’s teaching is the teaching of Jesus. However – the “Church” is much, much more than the Vatican bureaucrats who define Church doctrine. It should be patently obvious to anybody who cares to look, that what the Vatican pronounces, on masturbation, on sex before marriage, on remarriage after divorce, or on loving and committed same – sex relationships, is simply NOT what ordinary, faithful and practicing Catholics believe. To claim Vatican doctrine on sexual ethics as what “the Church” teaches, is an unjustified leap.

He is right, though, in his insistence that we cannot change fundamental truths, as taught by Jesus. The problem for him and his ilk, is that what they are fighting so hard to protect at the Synod, have nothing at all to do with what Jesus taught.

The most contentious matter before the synod, is that of communion for people who have remarried after divorce. The conservative argument is that marriage is forever, that Jesus was against divorce, and so on. Agreed.

However – even the Vatican accepts that there are circumstances in which marriages may end – which it terms “annullment”, not  divorce. That’s a matter of semantics. But the argument is not whether divorce / annulment is legitimate or acceptable. All sides agree on that. The dispute is about communion after divorce and remarriage – and on that, Jesus said nothing whatever. The Catholic rule preventing communion for those who have remarried after divorce, is a matter of pastoral practice, which can be changed – not one of doctrine, and still less the teaching of Jesus Christ. When he said at the Last Supper, “Do this, in commemoration of me”, he did NOT add the rider, “as long as you’ve not divorced and remarried”.

The second controversial matter before the synod, is the one that most concerns us – a welcome for LGBT Catholics. Again, nobody is yet suggesting that the Synod is about to change it’s own doctrines on same – sex relationships – even though it is now abundantly evident that it should. That will happen, but later. All that is being asked, is that the leaders of the Church take seriously the message of Jesus Christ (and indeed, of Pope Francis), that  “all are welcome”, and that the Church should be a “field hospital for the wounded”. On lesbian and gay people, Jesus had not a single word in opposition, and quite a lot that could be read as supportive.

The cardinal is absolutely correct that we cannot change the teaching of Jesus. The problem for him, is that it is he and his sympathisers, not those seeking more sensitive pastoral care, who are trying to do that.

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The Distorted Tradition of Natural Law

Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law are often trotted out by the rule-book Catholics alongside the half-dozen clobber texts as a supposed justification for denying respect and equality to sexual minorities. I have absolutely no expertise in Thomist theology, but was intrigued by this observation, in a longer article (“The Other Side of the Catholic Tradition”), at the Washington Post.
Thomas Aquinas, who followed a century after Hildegard, wrote commentaries on 10 works by the greatest scientist of his day, Aristotle, even though the pope had forbidden Christians to study Aristotle. So controversial was Aquinas in his day that the king of France had to call out his troops to surround the convent where Aquinas lived to protect him from Christians aroused by fundamentalist clergy. For Aquinas, “revelation comes in two books—the Bible and Nature” and “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God.” Aquinas insisted that one is always responsible to one’s conscience, more than to any other authority (emphasis added).

There are clear echoes of this in the modern world, where so many religious reactionaries insist on ignoring the clear findings of science, inserting instead their own established prejudice. If we accept Aquinas’  thesis that “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God”, the implications for Catholic sexual ethics are profound. The first of these would have to be a recognition that same-sex attraction is tu entirely natural and non-pathological dominant sexuality for a small but distinct minority of people, and  a smaller part of the sexual make-up of many more. This much is familiar, as is the knowledge that many animals (possibly even all or most mammals, but also birds, reptiles and insects) also practice degrees of homosexual activity.

No species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all, such as sea urchins and aphids. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual. For them, homosexuality is not an issue.
But even more important, and not nearly as well-known, are the findings from science that natural sexual activity, as observed in the animal kingdom, is not after all solely geared to procreation. This has been the traditional assumption, but thanks to empirical evidence, we now know better. In several animal species, an extraordinary range of non-procreative sexual activities occur.
  • In some animals, sexual intercourse begins as much as a year or two before physical maturity and the onset of fertility – and so with no prospect of procreation.
  • Some species practice anal intercourse. or conventional intercourse without ejaculation, or intercourse outside of the estrus period.
  • Many species engage in masturbation, alone, or with others of either sex. Where they lack hands they use alternative strategies.
Autoeroticism also occurs widely among animals, both male and female. A variety of creative techniques are used, including genital stimulation using the hand or front paw (primates, Lions), foot (Vampire Bats, primates), flipper (Walruses), or tail (Savanna Baboons), sometimes accompanied by stimulation of the nipples (Rhesus Macaques, Bonobos); auto-fellating or licking, sucking and/or nuzzling by a male of his own penis (Common Chimpanzees, Savanna Bonobos, Vervet Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, Thinhorn Sheep, Bharal, Aovdad, Dwarf Cavies); stimulation of the penis by flipping or rubbing it against the belly or in its own sheath (White-tailed and Mule Deer, Zebras and Takhi); spontaneous ejaculations (Mountain Sheep, Warthogs, Spotted Hyenas); and stimulation of the genitals using inanimate objects (found in several primates and cetaceans)
-Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance
 
  • Dolphins engage in non-procreative sex that has no human counterpart. They use their partners’ blowholes as additional orifices available for penetration.
  • Some species practice oral sex – including oral self-pleasuring (“auto-fellatio”)

Animals of several species are documented as engaging in both autofellatio and oral sex. Auto-fellatio or oral sex in animals is documented in goats, primates, hyaenas, fruits bats and sheep


  • Remarkably, some primates even make their own sex toys, fashioning dildos out of liana vines, and masturbation aids from suitable fruits.
  • Chimpanzees and penguins have been found to engage in forms of prostitution, exchanging sexual favours for food (chimps) or pebbles used in nest-building (penguins).

The implications for sexual theology are profound.

To forestall the standard reaction to this argument, I am not arguing here that because these sexual practices are found in nature, they are therefore acceptable. Animals also engage in incest, intercourse with juveniles, and necrophilia – none of which I recommend. What I am suggesting, is that we must remove the argument from nature in deciding on sexual morality. Much of the traditional Catholic theology on sex derives from Aquinas’ concept of “natural law”, which he in turn derived ultimately from his reading of Aristotle. We now know conclusively that whatever his value as a philosopher, Aristotle has no value whatsoever as a natural scientist. By Aquinas’ own reasoning, to follow Aristotle’s mistakes about nature is to make mistakes about God. To be really true to the spirit of Aquinas, we must therefore reject his own conclusions about nature in the light of the scientific evidence, and find alternative sources on which to base our sexual ethics.
What other sources are there? Traditionally, these have been the Bible and the early Church fathers to go on. Modern Biblical scholars are finding that many of the traditional interpretations of Scripture on sexual matters are flawed, while the ascetic elevation of celibacy as a Christian ideal, and the accompanying disapproval of all sexual acts, was based on a belief in the parousia – an imminent second coming of Christ.
If the traditional sources are now shown to be flawed, what else is there? The example of Aquinas in fact, helps us here, but pointing to his commitment to studying the best scientists of his day. We too can learn (and the Vatican agrees) from the best scientists of our day, not in the field of animal behaviour, but in the modern discipline of human sexuality and related fields. The findings by these scientists are that sexuality is a fundamental part of our human make-up, that diverse orientations are entirely natural, that a healthy and active sexual life can contribute directly to both physical and mental health,  and that sexual expression serves many more purposes than simply procreation alone.
Probably the majority of Catholic theologians already accept this. It is time that the Vatican paid more than lip-service to its claim that we must take seriously the findings of natural and human sciences, and did so too.

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