Saturday, December 21, 2013

Here's your chance to rewrite Catholic sexual morality

Imagine a new pastor arrives at a parish, full of zeal and plans. He's convinced that the parish would benefit from clear, enthusiastic preaching, particularly on the sacrament of confession. And so, in short order, he begins a series of Sunday homilies, expounding the Ten Commandments.

When the time comes to explore the meaning of the Sixth Commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery," he of course talks about more than marital infidelity. Just as the Catholic Church has always applied this--in conjunction with other Divine Revelation and Natural Law--to the entirety of sexual morality, he covers the waterfront. He addresses masturbation, pornography, premarital sex, homosexual behavior, contraception, and even the immorality of other sorts of sexual behavior that's incapable of being procreative. And, for good measure, he talks about the nature of marriage: indissoluble, monogamous and intrinsically heterosexual.

And because he doesn't want anyone to be unclear--and he is brimming with zeal--he lays it all out very clearly and bluntly.

All this provokes the various reactions one might anticipate, from positive to negative. Among those reacting negatively is someone who writes for a prominent, allegedly Catholic publication that has long advocated a "new" sexual ethic, no longer based in Natural Law or "antiquated" interpretations of Scripture. This progressive writer, both infuriated and dismayed by the "rantings" of this "throwback priest," writes a scathing account of the offending homily. After the article is published, the pastor sees it.

Amidst all the priest's reactions--from anger to shock to sorrow to reflection--he decides to reach out to the parishioner who penned the article. They sit down in a booth in a local eatery, and the priest says the following:

"I read your article--twice. Clearly you not only take issue with me and how I chose to approach these subjects; and no question I made my own mistakes or misjudgments in how I handled the topic.

"But it would be fair to say, wouldn't it, that after taking away all my own flaws of judgment and presentation, that the underlying Catholic doctrine on these matters is still a huge issue for you, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, Father, you're exactly right."

"All right. Well, you realize that that's not up to me, of course; and so I won't blame you for not wanting to engage this next question. But I would really like to know. I'd like to understand something. If you take away Natural Law--you really don't buy that, right?"

"Not so much, no," the intrigued columnist says with a wry smile.

"All right. So let's set that aside. It's unreliable; outdated. Whatever. And let's do the same with the traditional understanding of Scripture. Because you can both argue it is being misunderstood or misused; or you can argue that it's time-bound. So let's say you set that aside for now, as well, OK?"


"Here's my question. This is what I don't get. What is the Catholic--Christian--sexual morality that you have left? What should take the place of what we have? What are the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" of Catholic sexual morality--and why?

"You've probably heard me say that I think the only thing left is whether something is consensual. Am I wrong? Can you see--and explain--any other "nos" from the Church?

"See, it may surprise you, but I don't particularly enjoy telling people they can't remarry, can't marry someone he or she loves, and is attracted to, because they're the same sex, and so forth. I wouldn't--if I didn't think I have to--"

"See, you have to stand up to the authoritarian church! Why don't you--"

Father put up his hand. "Hold on. When I said 'have to,' I didn't mean it in that sense. I meant, I have to, because it's true. All I'm saying is, I'm not telling people 'no' to these things for any other reason. Who would? Maybe someone would, but not many.

"So, the thing is, if the Church is going to say anything is wrong, 'don't do this, this is a sin,' there has to be a pretty strong argument--right?"

"Of course."

"And that's at least one reason you objected, not only to my presentation of Catholic sexual morality, but what the Church says."


"Right. So back to my question. If you could make the case, not to me, but to the pope or bishops, whoever's going to articulate the new, and correct morality, what would that new morality be, and--because it might involve, still, some 'nos'--what's the criteria? What's the justification for any remaining 'thou shalt nots'? Obviously I can't promise I'll agree. But if you're willing, I really want to hear you lay that out.

"It's one thing to say, as you have, that what we've got now is wrong. You're clear on that. But what I don't know is what you propose instead--and how you would justify it, particularly where it still says 'no' to any choices people want to make--assuming you don't just say 'yes' to everything."

Father stopped there, as if to say, "the balls in your court." The columnist pondered the question a moment before he began his answer.

Now, dear reader--particularly if you are aligned more or less with the views of this invented columnist--how would you answer? To be very clear: I'm not looking for a restatement of the current teaching. Tell what it would be without Natural Law and Scripture?


RG said...

I'm more on the priest's side but for your little exercise:
The issue of consent covers most prohibitions: rape, pedophilia, bestiality, and lots of others on second thought.
Then there is the authority of majority and global cultural prohibitions: first degree incest, maybe others.
Then (even atheistically) the Golden Rule prohibits: manipulative seduction, alienation of affection (3rd party), others per Kant.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for commenting.

It's hard to see why incest should be prohibited once sex and procreation are disconnected.

Such a prohibition presupposes some moral obligation of the adults-who-conceive toward those conceived. But more and more of our social mores dispense adults of this sort of responsibility: parentage without marriage, divorce, baby-making as an exercise in self-fulfillment, etc.

Your omission of polygamy and premarital sex are telling. Was that intentional or an oversight?