Responsible love: digging deeper

Gay priest “Bart” continues his weekly series of posts on the challenges of sexual honesty faced by gay priests:

Rummaging through a pile of books waiting to be read, I picked up Sex Camp (Brian McNaught) and took a cursory look at the contents. I thought: Well, this is just what I need to read right now! The book details the workings of a week-long programme on sexuality. The manner in which the events are narrated make it a thoroughly absorbing book, a blend of fun and seriousness, but informative nonetheless. More or less midway through the story, Brian and the rest of the team discuss in greater detail the importance of achieving and maintaining sexual health. Two particularly interesting definitions resonated with me, and helped me to understand that there is a common denominator to sexual health and responsible love. I would like to reproduce the definitions here [emphases in bold print are mine]:

Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.” (World Health Organisation, 2002. The original definition together with a report was made in 1975, and was subsequently refined)


“Sexuality is an integral part of human life. It carries the awesome potential to create new life. It can foster intimacy and bonding as well as shared pleasure in our relationships. It fulfills a number of personal and social needs, and we value the sexual part of our being for the pleasures and benefits it affords us. Yet when exercised irresponsibly it can also have negative aspects such as sexually transmitted diseases – including HIV/AIDS – unintended pregnancy, and coercive or violent behavior. To enjoy the important benefits of sexuality, while avoiding negative consequences, some of which may have long term or even life time implications, it is necessary for individuals to be sexually healthy, to behave responsibly, and to have a supportive environment – to protect their own sexual health, as well as that of others.

Sexual health is inextricably bound to both physical and mental health. Just as physical and mental health problems can contribute to sexual dysfunction and diseases, those dysfunctions and diseases can contribute to physical and mental health problems. Sexual health is not limited to the absence of disease or dysfunction, nor is its importance confined to just the reproductive years. It includes the ability to understand and weigh the risks, responsibilities, outcomes and impacts of sexual actions and to practice abstinence when appropriate. It includes freedom from sexual abuse and discrimination and the ability of individuals to integrate their sexuality into their lives, derive pleasure from it, and to reproduce if they so choose.” (Office of the [US] Surgeon General, 2001)



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One might say that these definitions are not perfect, and that controversy surrounds their applicability. However, they underline much of what I have said thus far, and what I intend to pursue here. I have always sought to help persons become mature, integrated adults, preferring a holistic approach to ministry. To my mind there is a very clear link between this perspective and the definitions proposed for sexual health (especially the parts emphasised in bold print). I therefore understand sexual health to be an issue that is relevant for all persons, including priests and other persons in the consecrated life. That is why I cannot for the life of me fathom how it is possible that only procreative, marital sex fits the bill for achieving sexual health. Who is the Church kidding? Why should a (chaste) celibate lifestyle be the only other morally acceptable option? Do we really expect folk to buy this?

My personal experience, as well as that gained from my interaction with other persons in the exercise of my ministry, leads me to conclude otherwise. The official teaching of the church, with its “aut aut” of procreative marital sex or celibacy just doesn’t cover the whole gamut of sexual behaviour. Worse still, it unjustly condemns all other sexual expression as being morally wrong. I prefer to see a continuum between these two extremities. It actually begs the question to say that procreative, marital sex in and of itself leads to sexual health. What of the bonding process that keeps the couple together? And what of the dimensions of pleasure and play? I don’t deny that (some) persons can achieve sexual health and maturity even in lifelong celibacy. Rather, what I am saying is that sexual health may be achieved also somewhere along the line between these two poles of Catholic sexual theology. Take gay sex, for example, especially where there is a strong, underlying commitment to the relationship. If my focus is on the actors and the context of their relationship, and my wish for them is to become healthy, integrated persons, then I have to consider what, in the context of those actors, enhances both them and their relationship. This contextualisation of sexual relationships serves a better purpose than a pure, act-based morality. I do not focus on homosexual acts, but on the relationship between two persons who happen to be gay. That’s a world of a difference. This difference in approach applies even to the wider scope of heterosexual relationships. For example, I come across many couples whose relationship – burdened by the guilt placed upon them through rigid Church teaching on contraception  – does not lead them to the sexual health (and if one may add, spiritual health) they thought was supposed to be theirs in marriage. I suppose even the commitment to celibacy needs to be reconsidered if it is not leading to sexually healthy individuals.

Mark Jordan does a marvellous job of unmasking the Church’s use of homophobia to control its gay priests in his book The Silence of Sodom (equally interesting is the response to his book by a number of contributors, in a collection of essays entitled Gay Catholic Priests And Clerical Sexual Misconduct, edited by Donald L Boisvert & Robert E Goss). I dare go further and say that the Church’s attitude towards human sexuality in general is nothing but a game of power and control over persons, their bodies, and their sexuality. We must, gay and straight Catholics together, call the Church authorities’ bluff on this matter, and learn how to repossess ourselves and our sexuality. Only thus will we truly become responsible for how we love.

Suggested reading:

McNaught, Brian: “Sex Camp”

McNeill, John J: Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else

Jordan, Mark D:  The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism

Salzman, Todd A & Lawler, Michael G: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)

Boisvert, Donald L & Goss,  Robert E, eds: Gay Catholic Priests And Clerical Sexual Misconduct: Breaking The Silence


Previously, in this “Gay Priest” series:


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