The Time Is Now for Church’s Sexuality Dialogue

The National Catholic Reporter’s editors have called for a “Time for dialogue on sexual ethics” as a response to recent developments in the world of Catholic LGBT issues.

The publication of Jesuit Father James Martin’s book,  Building a Bridge, which examines the relationship between the LGBT community and the Catholic Church, along with Bishop Thomas Paprocki’s recent decree banning lesbian and gay married people from most of parish life, have highlighted, respectively, a path to better dialogue in the church and an example of the worst of episcopal excesses in regard to sexuality.

These events have drawn the NCR editors to focus in on LGBT discussions as the linchpin for a wider issue in the church:  the need for doctrine on all sexuality to up examined and updated. The consternation that LGBT issues cause traditional Catholic thinkers brings to relief the fact that the very foundations of church teaching about sex is dangerously antiquated.

The magisterium’s disapproval of genital same-sex relationships is based on what the editorial calls  “an indissoluble connection between the procreative and unitive meaning of the sexual act.”  Re-evaluating this concept could bring about “far-reaching consequences for all Catholics, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”  The procreative norm is harming a lot more people than just the LGBT community.  A reexamination of it could produce healthy and holy results for all.  The editorial provides the following example:

“Much is often made about the church’s teaching that same-sex relations are ‘intrinsically disordered.’ But equally harsh language is used for other sexual transgressions of the church’s procreative norm. For example, the catechism declares that every action used to render conception impossible, such as use of contraceptives, is ‘intrinsically evil’ (2370). The catechism also condemns masturbation as an ‘intrinsically and gravely disordered action’ because ‘the deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose’ (2352). . . .

“The institutional church’s vocal objections to same-sex marriage often mask the fact that church teaching is fundamentally opposed to sexual acts that a majority of human beings participate in. The church condemns any sex acts — including those engaged in by married couples — that do not respect the procreative norm. Therefore, in reality, few Catholics ever live up to the church’s moral norms governing sexual activity. . . .

“If bishops like Paprocki were more vocal about their opposition to masturbation, in vitro fertilization or vasectomies as they are in their campaign against same-sex marriage, perhaps more Catholics would realize how urgent the need is to rethink the entirety of the church’s sexual ethics.”

While the editorial calls for laypeople and bishops to dialogue about all matters sexual, it also recognizes that “dialogue can have its limits, particularly if those in leadership do not demonstrate an openness to developing the church’s teaching on sex and sexuality.”

The modern dialogue on sexuality began at Vatican II, the editorial notes, but it was “stalled by the hierarchy’s unwillingness to loosen its rigid interpretation of millennia-old ideas about natural law and the procreation norm.”  While theologians and other scholars in the Church have produced great insights into Tradition and modern views of sexuality, “those who have made the greatest contributions to deepening our understanding of sexual ethics, such as Fr. Charles Curran and Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, have been silenced or had their work condemned by bishops and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

Congratulations and thanks to The National Catholic Reporter for this insightful analysis and helpful recommendations!  Since at least 1968, with the publication of  Humanae Vitae, the Church has been aware that its sexual ethics doctrine was not received by the majority of the faithful. Leaders, for the most part, have kept their heads in the sand.

The success of the movement for LGBT equality in the U.S. and around the globe highlight that new understandings of sexuality can be life-giving and holy.  This new reality also has brought opposition to the church’s antiquated sexual ethics teaching “out of the closet” and into the open.  Church leaders can continue to keep their heads buried, or they can courageously move forward with a dialogue that has been waiting to happen for 50 years.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, August 12, 2017


10 replies
  1. Don Siegal
    Don Siegal says:

    This is all very good; however, I do not believe when considering the current polarity of sexual ethics that the institutional church is ready for such a conversation at this time.

  2. Larry
    Larry says:

    As long as the Church is ruled by celibate old men, it will continue to have a warped view of sexual relations. Don’t hold your breath for any basic change. Roman hierarchy have denied an essential part of themselves and fundamentally cannot allow others to express any human sexuality that does not have an extreme practical purpose.

  3. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Frank thank you for making such an important and thoughtful statement. And now is as good a time as any. Being quiet in the face of abuse is always an obligation.

    You have accurately brought focus to the larger question of – is sex only a means to an end resulting in the birth of a child or a gift from God like food to provide, with wisdom and generosity, a great joy to humans? Just as slavery was seen as part of a sacred tradition with thousands of years of history and is now seen as a denial of basic human freedom, so history will look back at us and see that a tight constraint on sex is equally restrictive of human freedom. It should be noted that the majority of civilizations in the world do not share this self-denial concept. And in fact most Catholics do not accept it either. (Why otherwise has the Catholic birthrate fallen to two children from six like their non-churched fellow members of humanity?)

    Marriage in fact is strengthened by a view that sex is a celebration and strongly empowered when two people pledge to share it with one another only. Outside of that pledge experienced in a manner based on shared respect and looking for the benefit of all involved sex is comparable to sharing a meal for the benefit and pleasure of the body. Or as one of my favorite Graces before Meals from Isak Dinesen says and is also appropriate before sharing a bed with someone – Lord, grant that we may with happy heart administer to wants of this our flesh which you have destined for glory of the Resurrection.

    • Loretta
      Loretta says:

      Did you mean to say, “Being quiet in the face of abuse is always an obligation”? (1st par, 2nd sentence). If so, I don’t understand your position. Thank you.

  4. Trish
    Trish says:

    Perhaps US Catholics are unaware of the evolution of sexual mores in the Old World over a millennium and more.
    Once, sexual relations within marriage had to stop with the menopause, and there were so many days forbidden for sexual activity between husband and wife, that bishops ran brothels (Avignon and my own diocese of Southwark (SE London) are proven examples) not only as a source of profit, but also to distract men from raping virgins, indulging in same-sex relationships – or HORROR OF HORRORS- masturbating!!!
    Augustine and Aquinas regarded prostitution as a social necessity; my vote is for St Alfonso Liguori who not only condemned prostitution (but not prostitutes) and whose writings calmed Jean-Marie Vianney down somewhat, no doubt to the annoyance of the local “tourist” trade!
    Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis…

  5. Kevin Welbes Godin
    Kevin Welbes Godin says:

    I think the Institutional Church HAS to be ready or it will further erode the confidence of it’s dwindling numbers. With Francis at the helm, well appointed Bishops to the dialogue just might help the lurching Church to stay afloat. Have “we” not always known and appreciated the progression of the laity far ahead of an ancient institution? Fr. Martin articulates what many have wanted for decades. Hopefully more won’t give up the ship before some fruitful efforts are achieved.

  6. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    I’m listening to Al Gore speaking at Netroots Nation. I’ve heard his interview with Chris Hayes, and seen his latest movie. He speaks strongly about “speaking truth to power.” Those of us who are LGBT people (and indeed those of us who are also straight) have been speaking truth to the powers that be. The leadership of the RC Church will either respond to its members and our experiences and lives and loves. Or the leadership will find themselves presiding over a Church whose best days have become a distant memory.


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