Tag Archives: The Sexual Person

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.

Sexual Ethics, Social Statistics, and the Sensus Fideii

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).

Salzmann and Lawler (“The Sexual Person“) put it like this:

The simple social fact that 89% of Catholics in the communion-Church believe that they can practice methods of contraception prohibited by the Church and still be good Catholics proves nothing theologically. It does, however, raise questions that theologians cannot ignore without fulfilling contemporary prophecies that theologians and their theologies have nothing to do with the real questions of the real world in which men and women live. Another moral question presses the Church we have considered in this book presses the Church in our day, perhaps even more than contraception, namely cohabitation prior to  marriage.  If the first union for some 75 to 80 percent of Western women is cohabitation and not marriage, again  social fact raises questions for theologians about what the communion-Church believes.

The argument for simply dismissing the evidence from social science in considering the SF is two-fold: the Catholic church includes all its members, it is said, and not simply those still living. As Catholics, we must also consider the views of those who have gone before, those now in the communion of saints. The chief difficulty of this argument is, we have no way of knowing what people who lived a thousand years ago would believe today, in the circumstances of the modern world, and equipped with modern knowledge about human biology and sexuality.

The second argument is superficially more persuasive: simple head counts in social surveys are just that – head counts. They make no allowance for varying degrees of commitment to the Catholic church. Some respondents to a survey question on “religion” will identify themselves as Catholics for want of any more accurate descriptor, even though they may never come near a church or open any book on religion.  It is possible (even likely) that their views introduce a measure of distortion to poll findings. This is an objection that I fully accept as valid. It is not appropriate, in assessing the state of the SF, that the views of lapsed or merely nominal Catholics should be taken as equally valid as those of  those who take their faith far more seriously. But this raises another problem. If we are to take some views more seriously than others – which will hey be? Whose views should be considered the most influential: those of the professional moral theologians, perhaps?

Now, here there are even more ominous alarm bells for the sensus fideii, if the lay theologian Charles Curran is to be believed. Writing in his introduction to The Sexual Person, he claims that a majority of moral theologians no longer agree with the full Vatican teaching on sexual ethics, while no more than a minority (although a strong one) defend the Magisterium. Is he right? I don’t know, but his claim is certainly consistent with others that I have heard anecdotally from several priests and theologians I have spoken to. More importantly, the simple fact that such claims can be made calls into serious question any pretence that the officially approved doctrines have the support of the church as a whole – or of its body of theologians as a whole.

Within the Catholic theological community, all recognize that the great majority of Catholic moral theologians writing today support revisionist positions in general, but a strong minority defends the position of the hierarchical Magisterium.

(“Revisionist” theologians are those calling for a change in the hierarchical teaching)

John Paul explicitly wrote Veritatis Splendor in light of the genuine crisis that seriously endangers the moral life of the faithful and the communion of the Church. Today it is no longer a matter of limited and occasional theological dissent but an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral teachings, which is occurring even in seminaries and in faculties of theology. This is a genuine crisis.

And so, I ask again:

Where is the evidence that on Vatican teaching on sexual morality, the sensus fideii exists?


Recommended Books:

Cahill, Lisa: Family: A Christian Social Perspective

Cahill, Lisa: Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics 

Curran, CharlesThe Moral Theology Of Pope John Paul II 

Farley, MargaretJust Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Salzmann, Todd A & Lawler, Michael GThe Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology

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.

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