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

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