[ CathNews Discussion Board ]
    Reclaiming the moral high ground on human sexuality IV
    Posted by BrianC on December 8, 2002, 2:11 pm

Further to my previous posts trying to "break apart" the difficulties the Church seems to be experiencing in getting her message across in the matters of human sexuality...

This fourth and final post has been the most difficult to write because, as I foreshadowed back at the beginning of this series of posts, in it I want to try and summarise where I think Catholic thinking has been correct and where it has caused difficulties. Before embarking on this exercise I should point out the perspective from which I am writing. As I keep emphasising in virtually all that I write in this forum, my principal concern in my work is trying to understand why the Church has been "losing touch" with so many in her congregation, particularly in the affluent, educated, socially sophisticated part of the world in which I live. I am trying to suggest ways in which the Church might communicate better, but not simply because the numbers are falling, but because we are charged with a profound responsibility "to bring the Good News to all nations". While it undoubtedly is true that some of the reason why the "Good news" is not getting through is because of distractions out in the secular world that prevent people hearing that news, I believe we also have to accept some responsibility – and I would argue a fair measure of responsibility – for failings in the way we are communicating the "Good news". Human sexuality, from reliable survey data as well as from anecdotal experience, would seem to be perhaps the single "hottest" issue over which people seem to part company with the Church. In this series of posts then I have been endeavouring to analyse this from a communications' perspective but, at the same time, remaining faithful to the theological considerations that ought to determine our attitudes and behaviour regarding our sexuality.

For a complexity of reasons too difficult to go into in a short post like this, I believe our attitudes to our sexuality within the Church, have been as much formed by genuine theological considerations as they have been by considerations that are as much rooted in superstition and old wives' tales as they are in any understanding of our relationship to God. It is simply untrue for anyone to suggest that the Church attitudes to our sexuality have been fixed and immobile down through history, or even that the changes that have occurred in the last 150 years are merely a "development" of the teaching. Compared internally with themselves, and not to what has been going on in the outside world, Catholic teaching on the matters of contraception and family planning have literally been turned on their head since about 1850. Family planning and contraception were simply not considered morally permissible under any circumstances whatsoever prior to about 1850 yet by the mid 1950s there were circumstances where it is considered morally permissible and indeed Family Planning was being taught as a significant moral onus that rested on us as married couples and as individuals.

I believe there is presently an enormous disjunction between the conclusions that ordinary married couples have been coming to in the privacy of their marital relationships and the official "line" being held by the Church. Furthermore, I don't believe this disjunction is merely driven by a sense of rebelliousness or sinfulness on the part of the these "ordinary married couples" but has been arrived at through careful reflection and practical experience. Particularly in the last half-century an important input into all these considerations has come from the half of the population who had been traditionally excluded from thinking or even being thought of much as even having a capacity to think. Church thinking on the subject, theological and otherwise, has almost been exclusively in the preserve of men and, more to the point, men who at the same time have had to struggle in their personal lives with the disciplines imposed by celibacy. I believe it can be argued that the intellectual, social and sexual liberation of women has been as much a gift from God in the last half of the twentieth century and should count as importantly as any gifts or insights from God that are injected into human thinking by those who choose celibacy or have it thrust upon them as "the price they pay" in pursuing some higher objective in life.

While I have little doubt that there have been some who have commercial motives, or indeed just outright motives of sin, in exploiting the changes in human thinking that have been going on in human sexuality over the past half century, I believe their endeavours pale into relative insignificance alongside the truly "blessed" and morally good new insights that have been coming to people in stable relationships. These new insights have been coming to people through their own self-understanding of what relationship and marriage means as those terms have matured so significantly since the end of the Second World War. Notwithstanding the enormous strain that all relationships are under today, and indeed of the statistics of marital breakdown, as we go through this period of transition, I believe, in general terms, relationships today are far more honest and many times more mature and equal between the partners than they were in the past. A lot of the change has been driven not by forces from the underworld at all, but merely by the developments going on in our understanding of the human person, and how he and she work, coming from the developments in medicine and science. These developments have not only been in our physical understanding of our sexuality but the possibly even more important developments that have occurred in our self-understanding of ourselves at the emotional level and in our understanding of the human psyche.

Now I do not want to spend further time arguing through all the background as to why things are as they are as important as those arguments might be to explaining why those things are as they are. Rather, I want now to drive to the heart of what I believe needs to change in Church thinking if she is really to become a partner with Christ in bringing the world to a better balance in its handling of the complexity of things that ordinary people need to get their heads and hearts around as they struggle with their sexuality.

As I argued in my very first post in this series some weeks ago, I believe what is called for is less law and less intervention by the Church into our sexual behaviours. To some extent this is actually already happening. Most bishops and priests have actually "bugged out" of the public debate and I actually have half a suspicion that this itself has been driven by the HS [Holy Spirit] as much as it has been driven by their own embarrassment or sense that the issue is "too hot a potato". I am not arguing that the Church should have absolutely nothing to say about human sexuality, far from it. What I am arguing is that she needs to formulate the general principles within which people are then free to take their guidance and counsel. This is in distinction to the policy which would appear to have prevailed for so long where she has endeavoured to dot every i and cross every t as to what is permissible and what is not permissible in the expression of our sexuality. As I have argued elsewhere, I actually suspect the major problem today is not actually coming from the Magisterium, or at least the leadership of the Church through most local ordinaries (bishops) and priests. The worst damage is actually being done by a small gaggle of insecure lay people, and some ordained, who take it upon themselves to believe that they in fact know the mind of the Church even better than the Magisterium or the Colleges of Bishops and Cardinals. If the Bishops and Cardinals have a responsibility at the moment it is to close those people down and put them in their proper place.

So what are the "principles" that the Church ought to be putting forward concerning human sexuality within which the ordinary faithful ought to be free to then explore their sexual nature as part of their broader human nature? I believe there are three such principles. The first two are general principles and the third is a particular principle divided itself into two parts:

  1. The first is that our sexuality is fundamentally a good and noble part of our being which is a part of the complete giftedness given to us by God. It is part of the Divine part of our nature. It is something good and it is given to us so that we can do good.

  2. The second aspect that does need to be understood is that of all the attributes that go in to make up the whole of human nature, our sexual nature is perhaps the most complex part of the whole of human nature. It is not necessarily an easy thing to come to fully know our sexual nature in a mature way. There are aspects of our sexual nature that are distracting and which require self-control lest our sexual nature controls us rather than we control our nature. The sexually mature person is not an undisciplined or an unreflective person regarding their sexuality. The human person, in distinction to the other species of creation, is characterised by an understanding that life has an ultimate purpose and that we have to make intelligent choices based on mature self-reflection if our ultimate purpose is to be achieved. We have to make mature choices concerning the uses we make of our sexuality as much as we need to make mature choices concerning the uses we make of every other aspect of our nature.

  3. The third aspect is two particular principles that need to be taken into consideration alongside the aforementioned two general principles. This is what I believe they are:

    1. Every expression of our sexual nature must contribute towards, and not detract from, our theological nature (ie our relationship to the Divine or God). Our sexual nature is subservient to our Divine nature.

    2. every expression of our sexual nature must contribute towards, and not detract from, the theological nature of others (ie. their relationship with the Divine or God). Our sexual nature is exercised always in partnership with others and never in an exploitative way of others.

Now what I have written so far is probably uncontroversial. What I have stated above is probably only formulating in slightly different words what the Church already teaches. What I am about to write is the controversial bit.

I believe that the foregoing ought to be about the limit of what she says. The implementation of those two general principles and two particular principles ought then to be left up to the individuals and, where necessary, within the privacy of additional consultation with a spiritual counsellor who has the competence to guide a person to making their own mature choices within those principles. I believe the Church then needs to bug right out of dotting every i and crossing every t beyond that. This is the error the Church has fallen into and this is the error that has been exploited by the psychologically and emotionally immature and insecure to want to run around like thought police and which has been bringing the Church to its knees. In practical terms, what I am proposing here means that there are a lot of rules that the Church might seem to have opinions on at the moment that I believe she simply needs to become totally silent about. Just as she is totally silent and has no opinions about a whole host of matters in the realms of politics, economics, science and other aspects of the business of life we human beings are engaged in where she only lays down general principles not dissimilar to the ones I have outlined above and does not deign to be prescriptive at the particular level of every single decision that every single person has to make, so also I believe she ought to become silent about many particulars in the realm of how we explore and utilise the giftedness we have been given in our personal sexuality.