Church, Sex – and Silence

A light-hearted aside here yesterday brought a typically pertinent response from reader Etienne:

I’m not too sure that yet another code will do the trick, but otherwise I get the point. May I suggest a thorough theological [re-]thinking in the preparatory phase? I’d want to explore the following subjects for a start: freedom, love, play, the body, sexuality.

Earlier, Colleen (of Enlightened Catholicism) had this useful observation about the Vatican in response to  my previous post, “Episcopal Pornography”:

What they lack is any understanding of sexuality as a relational experience. Reducing sexuality to acts, divorced from it’s relational aspects, is in itself a definition of pornography.

Mareczku, responding to the same post, refers to the Sipe report. By wonderful serendipity, National Catholic Reporter now has an article by Richard Sipe, discussing precisely these ideas we’ve all been circling. I also have an extended post in preparation,  on the “Nature and Purpose” of sex, as observed in real lives (human and animal) and in history, rather than in dry and dusty theological manuals. When I responded to Etienne, I wrote that the re-thinking of the issues  he proposes must involve lay debate, in plain language. My reply to Colleen noted the irony that the “relationships” we are seeking are exactly what the Vatican accuses us of being incapable of, while themselves focussing exclusively on acts.

This discussion and re-valuation has already begun, even without the participation of the Vatican. Long may it continue, and may the discussion here play some small but constructive part.

Here’s Sipe:

Theologian Yves Congar once said, “In the Catholic Church it has often seemed that the sin of the flesh was the only sin, and obedience the only virtue.” This dynamic dichotomy forms the linchpin to the structure of the entire clergy sexual abuse crisis currently embroiling the Catholic Church.

But the sexual abuse of minors by clerics vowed to celibacy is only the symptom of a system desperately in need of fundamental reconsideration.

Human sexuality is the core of the whole Catholic upheaval that the Pope and the Vatican still refuse to face and discuss realistically.

In 1990 a bishop returning from Rome told me that Pope John Paul II personally instructed every new bishop that he “should not discus in public” birth control, a married priesthood, women’s ordination, abortion and the host of celibate/sexual issues that constitute an agenda that theologians have pointed out for decades are precisely the “tangle of issues that clog up” the Catholic agenda.

Roman Catholic leadership has failed to deal credibly and openly with all of human sexuality. William Shea outlined the challenge most elegantly already in 1986 when he listed the issues that need discussion: “divorce and remarriage, premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation, [women’s ordination, mandated celibacy] and the male monopoly of leadership.” He opined that the fear and perhaps hatred of women could be at the bottom of the ecclesial hang up.

It would be disingenuous to protest that the Church has discussed these issues or invites dialogue about human sexuality. True enough, the Vatican has made pronouncements and declarations on every item on the list, but none invite dialogue. Congar’s observation is validated; sex is all sin virtue is submission and obedience to authority and its dictates.

Despite Pope John Paul’s four-year effort to define a Theology of the Body he never transcended some of the basic constraints of church teaching that sex is sin. Sex remains permissible and holy only within a valid marriage.

A chronic problem with church pronouncements about sex is their use of the idea of natural law as they define and apply it. The Vatican represents their interpretation of sexual human nature as an absolute determination. They isolate the idea and impose it as an instrument of control. The approach fails to acknowledge that natural law is also the inherent practical and reasonable guide to conscience independent of revelation. Many Catholics use natural law as the road map to guide their sexual behavior. For instance natural law often trumps the dictates of Humanae Vitae in matters of family planning. Some behaviors labeled by the Church “contrary to natural law” (masturbation one instance among many) should be open for examination and dialogue in the minds and hearts of many serious Catholics.

“Intrinsic” is a church-word that seals off any possibility of conversation. Birth control is presented as intrinsically evil; so is abortion; and masturbation. Sex with a minor girl, however, is not considered intrinsically evil only gravely sinful.
Homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” A 1986 document authored by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declared that homosexual orientation although not sinful in itself, “is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” As if the concept of Original Sin were not sufficient to cover all human beings of any orientation or inclination.

The definition of sex as sin establishes and maintains authoritarian control because bishops and priests (alone) have the power to forgive mortal sin. They are lords over the inner territory of the soul where secret violations are stored. Catholics are required to submit grave sins in sacramental confession for a priest’s absolution at least once a year. All sexual sins, of course, are grave according to Catholic teaching.

(Read the full article at NCR)

 

 

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