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“The Sexual Person”

I have just completed a first reading of “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)“, by the Catholic theologians Todd A. Salzmann and Michael G. Lawler.  I stress here, “a first reading”, as I have no doubt that this will be for me one of those foundational texts that I return to again and again.  After just an introductory acquaintance, I have no intention of attempting here any kind of formal assessment or review, but I do want to share some preliminary thoughts, some of which I propose to expand into full posts a little later.

 

The constantly evolving, ever-changing  Catholic tradition.

Whatever it is that Vatican spokesmen mean when they refer to the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition”, it cannot be what the plain English words appear to mean. Across the full range  of sexual ethics, Catholic tradition has changed constantly. This is not only an historical fact, it is also inevitable and in fact demanded by the Magisterium itself. I particularly like the words of a certain Joseph Ratzinger, which highlight the importance of identifying and correcting the “distorting tradition” in the Church:

“Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition…. There is a distorting tradition as well as a legitimate tradition, ….[and] …consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.”

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The Distorted Modern Teaching on Marriage and Procreation

The often repeated claim that marriage and sexual intercourse exist primarily for the purposes of procreation, is simply fallacious. It is clear from the Magisterium itself that there are several purposes to both. The additional claim by Pope Paul VI in “Humanae Vitae” that every sexual act must be open to the production of new life, is in fact a distortion of clear earlier statements that the requirement is for the marriage to be open to procreation – not every single sexual act.

The bizarre parallel claim in Humanae Vitae that marriages which are sterile, or which deliberately avoid pregnancy by “Natural” Family Planning, raise serious doubts about the validity of the simultaneous insistence that homosexual activities are necessarily prohibited as not open to procreation.

The Distortions of Natural Law

“Natural law” is widely used as a pretext for the condemnation of homosexual acts, but the concept itself is poorly understood.  Salzmann and Lawler present extensive evidence that a more accurate reading of the concept is in fact supportive of sexual activities between men or between women, in specific circumstances, for people who have a homosexual orientation.

The Distortions of Scripture

It is by now well established that numerous scholars have shown that the traditional use of a half dozen verses from the Bible as clobber texts to condemn all homoerotic acts is based on distortion, relying on misinterpretation, mistranslation, or plain misrepresentation. “The Sexual Person” summarizes these familiar critiques, concluding that the most important feature of the very limited Biblical references to homoerotic acts is that they simply do not take account of the existence of a homosexual orientation as we know it to exist. Recognizing such an attraction, the authors submit, leads to the conclusion that the references to “unnatural acts” in Romans must imply that for people with a natural homosexual orientation, sexual activities with others of the same sex are entirely natural, and so not condemned by Paul.

On the other hand, attempts to force us into heterosexual marriage are indeed attempts to enforce what for us are “unnatural acts” – and so condemned by Paul.

(I would go further, and add that by extension, even enforced celibacy is unnatural, and so condemned by Paul, and also a contravention of natural law, properly understood).

The Distorted Teaching on Cohabitation

Perhaps the most eye-opening chapter of the book for me, was that on cohabitation.  I grew up with the clear understanding from my Catholic education, which I often heard repeated, that all sexual activity before our outside of marriage was expressly forbidden – and that marriage in effect commenced with the marriage ceremony, as solemnized in a Catholic Church, by a Catholic priest, in front of witnesses.  More recently, I have recognized that this idea of marriage as an obligatory sacrament, required before legitimate sexual intercourse, was a relatively modern one.

Until reading “The Sexual Person”, I did not realize quite how modern an idea it is, or how far it is flatly contradicted by the practice of the church for at least three quarters of Christian history, right up to the Council of Trent and even beyond.  Previously, the church wedding (if it took place at all) was not an event that began the process of marriage and legitimized husband and wife living together in a sexual relationship, but merely a public acknowledgement of a partnership that may have begun long before, with mutual consent consummated by immediate sexual intercourse. What today we would call “cohabitation” did not precede the marriage – it initiated it. It did precede the public wedding – but that was of no importance to the sacramentality of the marriage itself, or to the legality of the sexual relationshipthat accompanied it.

For most of Catholic tradition, it is then clear that any conception of sin in cohabitation before marriage was impossible – as soon as cohabitation began, the marriage commenced. Applying this reasoning to the modern situation, where (for good reasons) we accept the importance of a public commitment in a wedding ceremony, we should also recognize that marriage is a process, not a one-day event. The process begins with the private commitment to each other. As long as the cohabitation is part of a nuptial process leading up to marriage, and not a simple shacking up, Catholic tradition suggests that we should recognize and accept cohabitation prior to the wedding as part of the marriage, and so fully valid.

Gay marriage and Catholic Tradition.

Here I move on to more treacherous ground, but as I read in this book so many extracts from Church documents on our sexual lives and on marriage and family, I was struck by how little amendment is needed to extend church endorsement of the value of marriage, as sacrament and as an institution furthering both private and public good, to include same sex couples alongside all others.

The Theological Ferment Under Way.

“The Sexual Person” has made waves in the press, largely as a result of the US Bishops’ criticism of it. However, it is far from unique in highlighting the contradictions and failings of current orthodoxy on sexual ethics. It now becomes clearer than ever to me that there is a fundamental rethink under way. This has not yet broken through into major papal pronouncements or Vatican documents – but I am certain that they will soon start to do so. When they do, they will no doubt be accompanied once again by the comforting assurances that these new, more human and sympathetic understandings of human sexuality have been around for decades (as they have), and so form part of the “constant and unchanging Catholic tradition”.

La plus ça change…..

 

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3 Responses

  1. Terence,

    It occurred to me that Salzmann and Lawler’s objections do not go to the constitutive principles of the Church’s teachings. Rather, their arguments go to the interpretation of the principles within the present day teaching.

    By taking this tactic, Salzmann and Lawler can present valid objections without addressing the principles of human sexuality within the larger framework of being-ness.

  2. Terence,

    Following up on the earlier posting:

    It seems to me that much of what Salzmann and Lawler claim are distortions of teachings are, in reality, distortions not of the Magisterium’s making, but a misunderstanding of the principle being proposed.

    For example, the constitutive, or core, principle surrounding sexual relations outside of marriage is not that all sexual relations outside of marriage are wrong just because they are outside of marriage. They are presumed wrong if they are done outside of marriage because they (almost always) lack the requisite unitary or procreative function connected with what we perceive is God’s intention for sexuality itself.

    Salzmann and Lawler’s comments about the distortions of teaching remind me of the adage regarding democracy – it is a terribly flawed system of government, but it just happens to be the best one that we have at this moment.

    • David, I should clarify that the word “distortions” of teaching is not really one that is used by Salzmann & Lawler themselves. It was rather, part of a quotation from Bernard Ratzinger, in his commentary on Vatican II. In their book, S & L describe many of the ways in which teaching has changed, but do not use the word “distortions”. In my post, I used the word in my section headings purely as a peg on which to hang my personally, and preliminary, responses to the book.

      For a more accurate reflection of how these changes have progressed through history, I hope to follow up with more specific posts on each of the themes I discussed, after more careful re-reading of the relevant chapter for each.

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