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A “Foundational Sexual Ethic”

“Some homosexual and heterosexual acts, those that meet the requirements for holistic complementarity, just and loving sexual acts, are truly human. Whether any given sexual act, heterosexual or homosexual, is truly human is determined, as is every moral judgement in the Catholic tradition, not by the naked application of abstract moral principles but by a careful, hermeneutical analysis of how these principles apply in real, concrete human relationships.

-Salzmann and Lawler, “The Sexual Person

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16 Responses

  1. Salzman and Lawler, as an example of what I will call the “revisionist” party among Roman Catholic moral theologians (also know as “theological ethicists”), assert (I’m paraphrasing):

    “Whether any act is truly human human is determined by a careful, hermeneutical analysis of how abstract, moral principals apply in real, concrete human relationships.”

    The authors name their analytical model “holistic complementarity.” Using that model, one can determine which & what acts are “just and loving” an which are not. Their model could be used to analyze any act in any human relationship, but their interest is in sexual acts.

    The “traditionalist” party also says they have a model of moral decision making. I believe Salzman and Lawler call it “traditional complementarity,” but I don’t have their book or any of their papers handy, so I don’t know what term they use; I’ll defer to it once I know what it is.

    A basic tenant of the scientific method is the “fasifiable (sic) question.” How do you create a falsifiable question or questions around each model? Before you get to that point, I suggest considering the following:

    1. What does the acting person understand themselves to be doing?

    2. How does the acting person’s action affect themselves and other people?

    Neither of these questions are falsifiable yet. How could that be done?

    For #1, you could do a survey, something like this. Note that I am not a trained sociologist and I don’t know the first thing about survey research and the statistics you get from surveys. I am just thinking aloud.

    That said, you could ask a group of, say, 100 people, the following questions:

    a. When you decide to do or not do something, do you have a model that you follow to decide to act or not? Answers are yes or no.

    b. Of those answering yes, do you apply your model(s) all the time, some of the time, or rarely?

    c. Of those answering yes, do you apply your model(s) to all acts or some acts?

    d. Of those answering yes, do you apply your model(s) to what you define as a sexual act or acts?

    e. In your decision making about a sexual act or acts, which model best identifies you:

    i. Holistic complementarity (the person taking the survey would have seen some definition of this model and its application).

    ii. Traditional complementarity (again, the person taking the survey would have seen some definition of this model and its application).

    iii. Some other model.

    f. Result: something akin to results around one or more falsifiable questions.


    – people understand themselves to be moral actors.

    – people, as moral actors, can identify their actions as adhering to a model of decision making.

    – people can identify at least one model – or not – that is or is not consistent with at least one kind of decision they have made at least one time.

    Depending on what demographic data is collected in the survey process, you could see if there is a correlation between the answers received and a demographic description of survey participants. This gives a way to deal with question #1.

    Moving on to question #2, you could ask some follow-up questions:

    a. First, you’d need a definition of the following words: happy, sad, right and wrong.

    b. Having a model to help my decision making makes me feel “happy” or “sad”?

    c. My model, when I use it, helps me make decisions about “right” and “wrong” as defined in this survey.

    d. When I make a decision, I consider the feelings of others, yes or no.

    e. When I make a decision, I consider the impact of my decision on others, yes or no.

    f. When I make a decision:

    i. I weigh the facts, apply my model, and make a decision myself. I am the final arbiter of what makes an act happy, sad, right or wrong.

    ii. I weight the facts, apply my model, and made a decision myself. I am influenced by some external authority regarding what makes an act happy, sad, right or wrong.

    iii. When I make a decision about an act, I consider how my decision will affect me? Answer yes or no.

    iv. When I make a decision about an act, I consider how my decision will affect others. Answer yes or no.


    – People can self-identify with a model of decision making.

    – People can use their model in making decision.s

    – In using their model, people consider how their decision affects themselves.

    – In using their model, people consider how their decision affects others.

    – Use of a self-selected model does or does not correlate with an emotional self-perception.

    – Use of a self-selected model does or does not correlate with a self-perception of moral rectitude.

    – Models offered in the survey correlate (or not) with emotional self-perception and/or a self-perception of moral rectitude.

    What would this kind of research NOT tell you? It doesn’t tell you which model is “right” or “wrong.” It might tell you a little bit about how people make moral decisions. Whether you are a Revisionist or a Traditionalist, it offers grist for one’s theologizing.

  2. Mark,

    I don’t understand your point as it relates to Salzmann and Lawler’s assertion that a foundational sexual ethic is one that focuses upon holistic complementarity. I think (but can’t be sure) that S &L are trying to assert that the Church should move away from a teaching of “sexual complementarity” to one of “holistic complementarity”.

    Salzmann and Lawler (apparently) assert that “just and loving” sexual acts are truly human; and that truly human acts are determined by looking at the application of moral principles in real life situations.

    How does it help us to know how or why people think that they make moral judgments? How people actually behave doesn’t help us understand how they should behave, which, it seems to me, is the whole point of morality.

    It seems to me that Salzmann and Lawler are on to something, except, perhaps that they assert too much and too little at the same time.

    A sexual ethic – one that deals strictly with sex and strictly with ethics – needs to concern itself with only one thing – what is a fair way to act sexually. S & L assert too much when they require sexual acts to be loving in order to be ethical. A sexual relationship can be ethical (fair) without love. For example, parties can contract to have sex for money without violating any principle of unfairness.

    They asset too little when they suggest that sexual ethics alone is a basis for defining what one ought to do (morality). Two kids having sex on prom night can tell themselves that they are having sex as a loving act of a human relationship, and they probably are. But, they ought not to do it for a variety of reasons, practical as well as spiritual.

  3. To be honest I am not sure I understand my point either, but writing helps me clarify my thinking. I should do that writing privately before subjecting others to it.

    What I’m groping towards is something like this. Both S & L and their critics presume human beings have a sense of morality, can articulate that sense in a moral model, and can act according to the model they have chosen.

    The Scholastics had a word for this: “synderesis.” There is a good definition of synderesis in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “the innate principle in the moral consciousness of every person which directs the agent to good and restrains him from evil.”

    S & L appear to hold the following positions:

    – like their critics, they say synderesis exists.

    – they assert their critics – the Magisterium and those those defend it, like me – resort to mere authority and not reason.

    – their use of reason, by contrast, is grounded in social scientific data. Neither S or L are trained social scientists, but I digress. I’m not one either – maybe that makes us even.

    So I’m curious. What does the social scientific data have to say about synderesis? Do people have moral models? Do they apply those models in their moral decision making? Can moral models be equated to a better human community & reduced suffering or not?

    I perceive many of the Church’s critics as saying “You bad Church, if you’d just stop putting me down and telling me what to do I’d be happy.” But those same critics could care less what the Church teaches and do what they want. So, are they happy? Are they part & parcel of a better human community where suffering is reduced?

    Put another way, all I have to do is look to, say, The Episcopal Church to see a community where something like holistic complementarity is already in effect. Shouldn’t I see some proof that TEC is “more Christian” than those communities without holistic complementarity?

    Now this critique is absolutely applicable to the Roman Catholic Church. If “traditional complementarity” is the hot setup, shouldn’t I see evidence of that? What I think I see is misery when traditional complementarity in its sacramental context is ignored. Hetero folks forget their promises in marriage and take up with someone else, and the wreckage is everywhere and endless.

    Did I make a little more sense or am I still taking in circles? Probably talking in circles.

    • Mark,

      The new post makes more sense.

      However, from what Terence has posted about S & L, I don’t understand that there is really a “moral model” to be a used as a basis for acting. I understand the acting to be a foundation for the morality. (See Bill’s post below on graced experience.) In other words, holistic complementarity is not a moral theory to be tested either for its internal consistencies nor for its relationship to moral standard of how one ought to act, it is the summary of the experiences of human-ness.

      Consequently, “model testing” doesn’t serve any purpose.

  4. Salzmann and Lawler’s point is, quite simply, that traditional Catholic moral theology has always recognized that three components are necessary for the moral evaluation of any act: the act itself; the intent of the one doing the act; and the context in which the act occurs.

    For a variety of reasons, magisterial teaching about sexual morality has tried to create a sacred boundary line around this field of moral theology and place preponderant emphasis on acts viewed in isolation from the context of relationship in which they occur and the intent of those engaging in the acts.

    The result has been that the magisterium continues to promote an understanding of sexual morality that the vast majority of faithful Catholics know to be absurd, because it is not faithful to their graced experience. And large numbers of people of good will outside the church are simply baffled at the totally unconvincing reasoning on which the magisterium claims to rest its acts-centered analysis of sexual morality.

    No other area of Catholic moral thought approaches its topic in this strange way. And so the church’s magisterial approach to sexual ethics is completely out of sync with how it does moral theology in such fields as social ethics.

    • Bill,

      I think your statements are a mischaracterization of what the Church teaches.

      The Church does not teach that all penis/vagina relations are moral. Only those within a marriage are moral, and only under certain conditions.

      The “preponderant” emphasis is primarily the result of critics continuously challenging the “act” portion of the teaching. The Magisterium and its critics tend to agree that sexual acts need to be in a loving committed relationship (holistic complementarity).

      The difficult questions are whether something more than holistic complementarity is God’s intention with regard to sex, and if so, in what ways is it important, especially for those for whom sexual complementarity was not given.

      S & L fall short in offering a theological explanation. Theirs is simply a human answer to sexuality.

      • David, I fear you may not quite understand what the church teaches.

      • Bill,

        Do you fear that I give the Magisterium too much credit for nuanced approaches to sexuality? Why do you think that I don’t understand the Church’s teachings?

        It strikes me that Church keeps coming back to the “acts” aspect of morality because it is so continuously challenged to change the “acts” aspect to a teaching that more closely parallels the prevailing sexual more (which generally holds that there are no “bad” sexual acts – just possibly bad intents and bad contexts).

        On issues on which the Church’s teaching parallels sexual mores – e.g. don’t cheat on your wife, I think we see quite a bit of support for the Church. In that case, the focus is clearly upon the context of the act, not the act itself.

        I know from your blog that you like to think that the Church is all about penises and vaginas. But, that ignores teachings about adultery, fornication, contraception, polygamy, incest, prostitution, etc.

        • I’m afraid you’re still missing the point, David. You observed, above, that Salzmann and Lawler think “the Church should move away from a teaching of ‘sexual complementarity’ to one of ‘holistic complementarity.'”

          that’s not their primary point at all. The point is simply to remind readers that the classic Catholic approach to moral thinking at its best seeks to balance analysis of acts with analysis of the intention of those doing acts and the context in which acts occur.

          And they’re noting that it’s curious in the extreme that we maintain that balance in every area except sexual morality, where the current magisterial approach is to collapse all analysis into a focus on acts.

          Thereby ignoring the relational context in which acts occur.

          You then replied by speaking of a distinction I didn’t even make–what you call penis/vagina analysis.

          I’m suggesting you aren’t understanding some key aspects of Catholic moral thinking. Salzmann and Lawler are suggesting this, too–and they’re calling on our tradition to return to its more balanced approach to moral thinking in the area of sexual ethics.

          Because the bizarre acts-centered approach with which we’ve ended up betrays our own tradition, is entirely unconvincing to large numbers of faithful Catholics (whose graced experience runs in the opposite direction), and exposes our teachings to ridicule in the public square, where they’re (rightly) viewed as irrational.

          • Bill,

            I’m replying below.

  5. Bill,

    “…because it is not faithful to their graced experience.”

    How do I know I’m having one of these?


  6. Mark, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).

    And: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

    • Proof text? I’m surprised.

      Some time lets discuss what Paul was saying and what his hearers were hearing in their context. Then we can try translating to our context.

      A first question: when Paul says “love” what is he talking about?

  7. Mark, I wonder what you imagine I was proving?

    I was simply pointing you to the scriptural basis for a deep and rich tradition of discernment within the Catholic tradition, which tends to call into question your flippant response to the phrase “graced experience.”

    We are inclined to view experience as moved by grace when it issues in fruits of the Holy Spirit, and in love above all.

    It strikes me as ironic that many “traditional” and “orthodox” Catholics treat this tradition so dismissively, as they (quite untraditionally) ignore the graced experience of lay Christians while absolutizing magisterial teaching in a totally unrealistic and theologically unsound way.

    And so we end up with the interesting dilemma at present, in which large numbers of lay Catholics conclude, on the basis of their graced experience, that the Spirit cannot flourish in their lives if they condemn the obvious, clearly discernible love of many gay and lesbian human beings in committed loving relationships.

    While those shouting that their position is the only possible position, from the standpoint of tradition, orthodoxy, and magisterial teaching, are perfectly content with ignoring, ridiculing, denigrating, and trying to make impossible the love shared by gay human beings in gay relationships.

    Which is to say, these brothers and sisters in Christ are apparently content to suppress the Holy Spirit at work in church and world, the fruit of whose action in church and world is precisely love.

    • Bill,

      I don’t interpret the Catholic tradition the same way you suggest. Nor do I think it is necessary to be so narrow-minded or divisive in its interpretation.

      When Jesus told the adulteress to go and sin no more, he gave us the standard in which to establish moral codes. According to tradition, the act, the intent, and the context must all be good for the act to be considered good.

      The Church has been highly critical of many “context-bad” sexual acts – rape, incest, fornication etc. It has also been highly critical of “intent-bad” sexual acts – contraception, polygamy. open marriage etc. The fact that the Church has also been critical of “act-bad” sexual acts – homosexuality, bestiality, masturbation, sodomy, etc. point to any defect of reasoning.

      The Catechism (being an example of traditional teaching) calls us all to be in loving, committed relationships with ALL of our neighbors – especially the poor and the oppressed.

      The Gospel model tells us that we should try to lead chaste lives, but we should only judge others when we too are without sin. I think the Catechism follows that model very closely when it reminds us that all are to be treated with dignity and respect, and that there should be no unjust discrimination. The Church will teach; but God alone will judge.

  8. I’d like to follow-up on my post by saying Dr. Todd Salzman showed real kindness to me in the Spring of 2011 by contacting me and offering to discuss my critique. What followed was a great, very personal conversation about where we agreed with one another, and where we agreed to disagree with one another.

    Todd showed himself the better man and a true Christian by reaching out to me and I thank him for it. I will post this note wherever I’ve previously posted my critique of he & Dr. Lawler’s work. Mark Andrews.

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