Fr Owen O’Sullivan on Gay Inclusion (Pt 6): Liberating our theology of sexual relationships from the Church

In some recent posts, I have responded to a reader who pointed to the sixth commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, by pointing out that so much of orthodox sexual teaching has nothing to do with adultery. This commandment has been extended to prohibit much that was never originally included. Fr O’Sullivan makes the same point, but adds to it the contrast with the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, which has been so frequently qualified to permit killing in certain circumstances.

We have the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but have developed an elaborate theology around self-defence, just war, capital punishment, and indirect killing. But, where the sixth commandment is concerned, a blanket disapproval covers everything outside the marital bed, and much within it. Some theological language around sexuality is so spiritualized and out-of-the-body that it becomes a way of avoiding the truth that God created people sexual. Is there not much in our tradition that is anti- the human body, despite the Incarnation and Resurrection? We are not far from thinking, if not actually saying, that people should have as little sex as possible, and ideally – as in celibacy – none at all.

We wish that eros be safely tucked away and put to sleep in the bed of monogamous heterosexual marriage. But re-awakening it could help us to see our relationship with God as a love affair, with emotion. All our theology, not only of sexuality, is so deeply pervaded by exclusivism, by either-or instead of both-and, that we are probably not capable even of imagining such an awakening. In the Septuagint Song of Songs, the word used for love is agapein; this includes the sexual. Yet the church is afraid of sex; it’s our Pandora’s box, better kept locked. Why is the church so afraid of erring on the side of love? Jesus had no such fear. The difference between being open, or not, to questioning your prejudices is what Christian tradition calls conversion.

Fr Owen O’Sullivan


To me, the extraordinary thing about popular perceptions of Christian moral theology, and particularly of the Catholic presentation, is that it is so dominated by questions of sexual ethics. Yet Christ himself, beyond a few words on divorce and an oblique reference to adultery, had remarkably little to say about sexual behaviour. In complete contrast, he had a great deal to say about the religious hypocrisy, the importance of looking at oneself before judging others, and on fighting injustice. By his example, he constantly emphasised the importance of providing welcome and inclusion to all.

Indeed, we can go further. We have no direct evidence of Jesus’ own sexual practices, but we certainly know that being fully human, he had sexual thoughts and feeling. We may not know what his sexual activities were, but there is no evidence that he was totally celibate. We also know that in more general terms, he did not reject sensual pleasure: he clearly enjoyed celebrating friendship with food and wine, and joined in a wedding feast (which in Jewish tradition would have also included dancing).

The Christian view of strict asceticism is not one that comes from the Gospels or the Hebrew bible, but has been added by later teachers, largely influenced by a distorted idea of the stoic philosophers. (These did not reject all pleasure, but rather promoted moderation in their enjoyment).

In evaluating Christian teaching on sexuality, it is important to draw a distinction between the essential message of the Gospels, and later additions from the ideas of those anxious to impose  their own sexual choices on others. As Fr O’Sullivan notes, there is no need for the Church to fear sexuality. It is time that we set aside our fear and prejudice – and accept conversion.


The full series of extracts from Fr O’Sullivan’s “Furrow” article at Boundless Salvation is:

Inclusion – Is Sexuality the Final Frontier?

My own response and reflections on these themes are at:




Recommended books:

Glaser, Chris: Coming Out to God: Prayers for Lesbians and Gay Men, Their Families and Friends

Helminiak, Daniel: Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Salzmann, Todd & Lawler, Michael : The Sexual Person

Sweasey, Peter: From Queer to Eternity: Spirituality in the Lives of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People (Lesbian and Gay Studies)

2 Responses to “Fr Owen O’Sullivan on Gay Inclusion (Pt 6): Liberating our theology of sexual relationships from the Church”

  1. Paul Robert Says:

    “The Church is afraid of sex”. I applaud Fr. O’Sullivan’s blunt statement. I think that is the problem even before, and probably underlying, the rampant homophobia in the Church of which the interview with Spiegel speaks. We have a lot of work to do in reintegrating sex into our Christian thinking and we each have to make our contribution from where we stand. Heterosexuals cannot do it for homosexuals, and vice versa. Plus we have to be careful not to repeat the historical mistake of trying to impose our sexual choices on everybody.

    • Terence Says:

      Paul, there are two observations here I endorse fully: that there is a lot of work to be done reintegrating sexuality into Christian thinking (are we the only major religion that has such a horror of sexuality – which has nothing whatsoever to do with Christ’s own words?); and that as we contribute to the process by sharing our thoughts and reflections, we must avoid the trap of trying to impose our conclusions on others.

      Where I am not sure I agree, is that there is a fundamental difference in approach between heterosexual and homosexual activities. There is an obvious difference between procreative and other sexuality – but is heterosexual sex necessarily procreative?

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