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“The Sexual Person”: Bishops, Theologians Clash on Sexual Ethics

In 2008 two Catholic academic theologians at a reputable Jesuit university published a book, “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)“,  on the Church’s sexual theology which represented a fundamental critique of its entire foundations. The United States Catholic Bishops have now launched a strong counter-attack, concentrating their fire especially on the authors’ section on homosexuality.

I am grateful to the Bishops for this attack: it has brought to my close attention a book that I was previously aware of, but had not considered too seriously. After reading some reviews and the extracts available at Google Books, I will now most certainly read it in full – and will later discuss its conclusions with my readers. As I have not yet had this opportunity to read the book for myself, I will not attempt in this post  to evaluate the content or conclusions. However, I have read the authors’ intent and methods as presented in the prologue, and can contrast these with the bishops’ disappointing response, which I have read and re-read in full.

Todd A Salzman and Michael G Lawler are both married, faithful Catholics who are careful in this book to work strictly within the Catholic tradition. However, as married Catholics living in the real world, they are compelled to recognize the well-known fact that most Catholics simply do not believe or follow the orthodox Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. In response, they have considered the teaching in its historical development, considered the Scriptural foundations, and examined also the findings of modern science and anthropology.

The bishops reject their book primarily because they disagree with its findings.

As married men with real-life experience of sexual love in marriage, the authors are able to bring some personal insight to their discussion.

The bishops reject the value of personal experience.

Salman & Lawler recognize that sexual theological ethics are a complex web affecting many different aspects, including marital morality, cohabitation and the “process” of marrying, homosexuality and reproductive technology.

The bishops train their fire specifically on the easy target of “the gays”.

The authors discuss the many disconnects and contradictions in the Vatican’s own abstract pronouncements, such as those of “Gaudium et Spes” on the unitive value of conjugal love  and the failure of the Magisterium to give this formal expression, or between the guidelines on scriptural interpretation, and the complete failure of the Magisterium to follow these guidelines when pronouncing on homosexuality.

Even in the prologue to “The Sexual Person”, the authors point to the dependence of the Catechism on the Genesis story of Sodom to condemn homosexuality, whereas  most Biblical scholars no longer believe that this was remotely the point of the passage.

The bishops respond,

In the final analysis, all interpretation of Scripture is subject to the authoritative judgment by those responsible for the Church’s deposit of faith.

In other words, scripture means what the Church decrees that it means.

The medieval scholar Mark Jordan has shown from an analysis of its rhetorical style, that the Vatican is incapable of rational debate, instead depending primarily on techniques such as simple repetition of its own mantras. So it is here: in the  24 page document constituting their response to what is clearly a thoughtful, reasoned and thoroughly researched piece of academic writing which draws on a wide range of sources and approaches, the US bishops can refer only to the writings of the Church itself.

The book was prompted by the recognition that most Catholics simply do not accept the orthodox sexual ethics of the Catholic Church. There is nothing in the bishops’ response to suggest that it will change anybody’s mind (or sexual behaviour).

The bishops’ full statement is here.

This is what some others have said about “The Sexual Person”:

“This superb volume courageously explores Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. The authors’ exploration of the biological, relational and spiritual dimensions of human sexuality engages Catholic teaching respectfully, critically, and creatively. The book is a significant contribution to both sexual ethics and moral theology generally.”

Paul Lauritzen, Director, Program in Applied Ethics, John Carroll University.


“This book is a much-needed contribution to the contemporary Catholic discussion of sexual ethics. The authors utilize the most recent sociological and psychological data to supplement their careful parsing of the Catholic theology of sex, gender, and embodiment. It is a work that manages to be highly theoretical while addressing everyday concerns about premarital sex, contraception, homosexuality, divorce and reproductive technology.

Salzman and Lawler embrace the model of theology as dialogue, and as a result, their treatment of both traditionalist and revisionist views about human sexuality is constructive and helpful. They succeed in moving a seemingly stalled conversation forward”.

Aline Kalbian, associate professor, Department of Religion, Florida State University.


 

“A bold and brave book! Tightly argued and well documented, this book lays out an understanding of human sexuality that expresses the profound work that theologians do on behalf of the Church in order to find ever better understandings of what the Church teaches in light of the witness of scripture, the tradition, and our understanding of human experience.”

Richard M Gula, SS, The Franciscan School of Theology. Graduate Theological Union

This is from the publishers’ blurb posted at Google Books:

In this comprehensive overview of Catholicism and sexuality, theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler examine and challenge the principles that any human genital act must occur within the framework of heterosexual marriage, and must remain open to the transmission of life. Remaining firmly within the Catholic tradition, they contend that the church is being inconsistent in its teaching by adopting a dynamic, historically conscious anthropology and worldview on social ethics and the interpretation of scripture while adopting a static, classicist anthropology and worldview on sexual ethics. “The Sexual Person” draws from Catholic tradition and provides a context for current theological debates between traditionalists and revisionists regarding marriage, cohabitation, homosexuality, and reproductive technologies.. This daring and potentially revolutionary book will be sure to provoke constructive dialogue among theologians, and between theologians and the Magisterium.

The bishops may disapprove, but this will not prevent this important book attracting careful attention from the growing band of Catholic theologians not tied to their apron strings, and from ordinary Catholics who place a search for truth above simplistic rule-book Catholicism.

I will have more on this once I have been able to source and read a complete copy. For a taster meanwhile, I list here the table of contents:

Prologue

One:     Sexual Morality in the Catholic Tradition: A Brief History

Historicity

Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome

Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in the Catholic Tradition

Reading Sacred Scripture

The Fathers of the Church

The Penitentials

Scholastic Doctrine

The Modern Period

Conclusion

Two:     Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Traditionalists

“Nature” defined

The Revision of Catholic Moral Theology

Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology

Traditionalists and Sexual Anthropology

Conclusion

Three:  Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Revisionists

Revisionist Critiques of Traditionalist Anthropologies

Karl Rahner: Transcendental Freedoms

Revisionists and Sexual Anthropology

Conclusion

Four:    Unitive Sexual Morality: A Revised Foundational Principle and Anthropology.

Gaudium et spes and a foundational Sexual Principle

The Relationship between Conjugal Love and Sexual Intercourse

Multiple Dimensions of Human Sexuality

Truly Human and Complementary

Conclusion

Five:     Marital Morality

Marital Intercourse and Morality

NNLT and Marital Morality

Modern Catholic Thought and Marital Morality

Marital Morality and Contraception

A Renewed Principle of Human Sexuality and Contraception

Conclusion

Six:       Cohabitation and the Process of Marrying

Cohabitation in the Contemporary West

Betrothal and the Christian Tradition

Complementarity and Nuptial Cohabitation

Conclusion

Seven:  Homosexuality

The Bible and Homosexuality

Magisterial Teaching on Homosexual Acts and Relationships

The Moral Sense of the Christian People and Homosexual Acts

The Morality of Homosexual Acts Reconsidered

Conclusion

Eight :  Artificial Reproductive Technologies

Defining Artificial Reproductive Technologies

The CDF instruction and Reproductive Technologies

Parental Complementarity, Relational Considerations, and Social Ethics

Conclusions

Epilogue

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3 Responses

  1. Just what we need, 2,000 years of “personal experience” to counteract the teaching of Jesus Christ.

    Don’t your realize that He is God?

    • Ray, nowhere do these theologians suggest that “personal experience” replaces the word of God. What they do say, is that proper interpretation of how the word of God is to be applied to sexual ethics, requires a fuller application of the findings of science than traditional theologians have given. Your insistence on the teaching of Jesus Christ is important – but the Vatican teaching on sexual ethics, from contraception to sex before marriage to homosexuality, are absolutely not based on Jesus’ teachings at all. He had absolutely nothing to say on any of these.

      • Saying Jesus “had absolutely nothing to say on any of these” issues in an argument from silence. Just because nothing is recorded in the Christian scriptures does not necessarily mean Jesus or the proto-church had “nothing to say.”

        I’ve become interested in the work of The Context Group. Its a pity that Salzman & Lawler don’t pay more attention to it; their colleague Bruce Malina has an office just down the hall from them, but I digress.

        To take “historicity” seriously means to take the cultural & social situation of Jesus and His early followers seriously. It also means taking the difference between the ancient & current situation seriously. Ancient cultures were “high context.” The writers of the Christian scriptures presumed and assumed a great deal of what we might call “common knowledge.” Everyone had that knowledge, so there was no need to explain it.

        In modernity we are “low context” and everything “must” be spelled out. So what happens when low context moderns read a high context ancient text? We get statements like “He had nothing to say on any of these.”

        Jesus values were the values of His culture. It was inconceivable to 2nd Temple Judaism to acquiese to the various imperial cultures which overran the Mediterranean Basin, whether Roman, Greek or Persian. Jewish sexual mores were part of what kept Jews “set apart” from non-Jews.

        So to the extent that Roman sexual liberty (from a Jewish perspective) served to distinguish Romans (not the Chosen People) from Jews (the Chosen People) it was condemned – explicitly by the early Christians, implicitly by Jesus. Jesus, as a good Jew, a Pharisee (recall that Pharisees believed in the resurrection) and a man of of his time, place & culture, had no need to explain the obvious.

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