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The Churches and Sexual Wholeness: A Progressive View

The glory of God is humans fully alive”, St Irenaeus teaches us.  A crucial, indispensable part of that life is sexuality. (Although some individuals can and do voluntarily forgo it for a life of celibacy, this is not so for the overwhelmingly majority, and is absolutely not feasible for us collectively.) Unfortunately, for most of us, the only time we hear the churches talking about sexuality it is in the context of prohibitions, or grounded in understandings of sexuality so rooted in inappropriate historical and cultural circumstances,  and oblivious to the findings of medical or social science, that it comes across as nothing more than a string of prohibitions against specific acts. This has nothing whatever to do with “humans fully alive”.

Reading a report this morning from Religious Dispatches, I was delighted to learn of an organization of the name “Religious Institute” (on Sexual Justice, Morality and Healing) to correct this imbalance. Ten years ago they issued a report, “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing”, which strikes me as a sensible starting point for any discussion of faith and sex, and which I reproduce in full below, highlighting some portions that I believe are particularly important.

The news story that led me to this was about a new (and detailed) report they have just issued, “Sexuality and Religion 2010: Goals for the Next Decade.” This is long (over 50 pages), so I will not be attempting to write about it until I have had a chance to read and digest it in full – but I will certainly return to it within the next few days. In the meantime, think about the principles in the original  declaration, and read more about their work at the Religious Institute, or follow the links to Religious Dispatches for their summary and commentary,  or got to the institute and read the report in full.

Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing

Sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. We come from diverse religious communities to recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality. We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression, and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.

Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality.  We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited.  However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing, and restored relationships.

Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.  Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.

God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality. We are called today to see, hear, and respond to the suffering caused by violence against women and sexual minorities, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality.

Faith communities must therefore be truth seeking, courageous, and just. We call for:

· Theological reflection that integrates the wisdom of excluded, often silenced peoples, and insights about sexuality from medicine, social science, the arts and humanities.

(This point is of particular importance in the Catholic Church, where the insistence on clerical celibacy and centralized power means that in effect, the wisdom of all those who have any real life experience of sex are excluded from formulating teaching. In the Catholic church it is not only the obvious sexual outsiders who are silenced and excluded from formulating sexual theology, but all who are not ordained priests.  I find it absurd that a bunch of celibate – or supposedly celibate- old men in Rome can take it upon themselves to legislate on sexuality for the rest of us:  and appalling that we in turn allow them to do so.)

· Full inclusion of women and sexual minorities in congregational life, including their ordination and the blessing of same sex unions.

Doing so would simply expand the practice of the early church, when women were included in ministry, at least to some degree, and where liturgical rites existed for blessing same sex unions in church.

· Sexuality counseling and education throughout the lifespan from trained religious leaders.

· Support for those who challenge sexual oppression and who work for justice within their congregations and denomination.

Faith communities must also advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness in society. We call for:

· Lifelong, age appropriate sexuality education in schools, seminaries, and community settings.

It is also important here, to remember the need for religious leaders themselves to receive appropriate sexual education, which in most ministerial training programmes is today woefully inadequate.  The lack of proper understanding of sexuality by those who are expected to guide us in its moral negotiation, is scandalous – and a contributing factor in the Catholic Church to the problems of clerical sexual abuse.

· A faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STD prevention and treatment.

· Religious leadership in movements to end sexual and social injustice.

The Catholic Church (and others) has often been notable for its struggles on behalf of the oppressed and marginalised, and against social and political injustice. It must now face up to the problems of sexual and gender injustice, in society and also in its own structures.

God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity.  We, the undersigned, invite our colleagues and faith communities to join us in promoting sexual morality, justice, and healing.

See also the following, from the Religious Institute website:

Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Sexual and Gender Diversity

Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Adolescent Sexuality

Open Letter to Religious Leaders about Sex Education

and the research reports:

Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice

Survey of Religious Progressives: A Report on Progressive Clergy Action


4 Responses

  1. “this ethic fosters physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status, or sexual orientation”

    A few comments.

    Surely…surely…SURELY these people aren’t serious about sexual standards applying equally to all regardless of age.

    There is, of course, throughout, no mention at all of marriage, except that “marital status” is not something which apparently here should make any difference. One can’t help but think of all the pioneers in the press right now, both Republican and Democrat, who are being lambasted for having failed to treat their wives unequally, and who are being criticised for having taken their “responsibilty…for pleasure” seriously.

    Can someone define the different “sexual orientations” for me? Are they the old “paraphilias” which are slowly being removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? Or are some of the orientations still verboten?

    I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but I suppose that someone should note that Vatican II provided a wealth of positive and life-affirming teaching on sexual life, which is, needless to add, utterly at odds with the approach presented here.

    • Rick, I’m assuming that they are talking here about adults – if not, I take your point.

      I cannot agree with you that Vatican II proposed “positive and life-affirming” teaching on sexual ethics. Instead, it fell back once again on odeas that sexaul expression was valid only within marriage – ideas that may have made sense when people were marrying very young, when the risk of pregnancy ensuing was very real, and when the economic consequences to an unmarried mother and her family were devastating. Today, the situation is very different when people are marrying at a much greater age, and reaching physical maturity much younger – and that’s before we even begin to consider other issues, such as adoloscent mastrubation or homoerotic relationships.

      The simple fact is that even reputable Catholic theologians recognise that taken as a whole, Catholic theology on sex rests on extremely shaky foundations, and is badly in need of radical overhaul.

  2. Terence,

    The Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality IS based upon personal relationships.

    I don’t view the teachings as being based upon “prohibited acts”; rather I view the teachings as identifying which personal relationships are coexistent with which sexual relationships.

    • That may well be your view David, but it is not the way it was taught to me through twelve years of Catholic schooling, nor is it the message I continue to hear from Catholic spokesmen.

      However, the declaration I placed was not my own, nor was it directed specifically at the Catholic Church. It camae from the “Religious Institute”, which as I understand it is concerned with the churches as a whole. especially the mainline Protestant churches.

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