Theology or Ideology? Parsing Vatican Thinking on Sex and Sexuality

Recently LaCroix International published Chicagoan Jeanne Follman’s three-part essay on the interdependence of hierarchy, sexuality, authority, ecclesiology, marriage, and ordination in Vatican teaching.  In the equivalent of about 12 double-spaced pages, Follman makes an accessible case that normally would fill a whole book, or even two. (Incidentally, she has written one:  When the Enlightenment Hit the Neighborhoods: The Waning of the Catholic Tradition – and Hope for Its Future.)

Jeanne Follman

In a nutshell, Follman’s essays demonstrate that Pope Francis’s theology of sex and gender complementarity (inspired strongly by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II) has hardened into an ideology that uses a single strand strand of reflection about God to powerfully determine Catholic sacrament, canon law, and ethics.  It consequently closes out all other kinds of reflection about God, riding roughshod over both contemporary science and contemporary social experience.

Turning a theology into a rigid ideology poses a problem for the Catholic theological tradition, which insists that because faith and reason—which are both the creations of a good God—must agree, theology must always be open to the new information that reason and experience lay before it.  The shift from many theologies to one ideology also poses a problem for the Church, because it implies that a single theology of sexuality and gender should shape ethics and canon law.

To see why this might be a problem, let’s look at our belief in Jesus Christ as a case study.  We believe that Jesus was God-in-flesh, forgave our sins, and redeems the world.  But how all this works and what it means to us spiritually are the subject of many different theologies.  Some of them stress Jesus’s divinity; others stress his humanity; others stress his sacrifice in death; others stress his resurrection; others stress his concern for justice on earth; still others stress the Christ-in-us; and so on.  All of these theologies express important dimensions of our experience of Jesus, and all of them coexist around out shared belief in the Jesus of the Creed.  They create a hologram, if you like:  one rich three-dimensional belief, viewed from many angles.  Nobody thinks we should choose just one view, form ethics and sacraments around it, and declare the others heretical.

By contrast, following his predecessor popes, Pope Francis has adopted a single theology of sex and gender strongly shaped by his own social experience.  In this view—also expressed in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body—“the masculine” and “the feminine” are a complementary pair of forces meant to be realized in the true natures of men and women, respectively:  paternal and maternal; or active and receptive; or leading and nurturing; or Petrine and Marian.  This framework not only distinguishes our roles in the Church but justifies limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples:  after all, reproduction aside, if human personality traits are divided between the genders, a healthy couple would need some of each.

The first problem with this approach is that neither science nor everyday lay experience backs it up.  For one thing, everyone knows perfectly wonderful, sentimental, nurturing dads and ambitious, gritty moms, as well as same-gender couples who together cover the personality waterfront for their lucky kids. (For my own writing on this topic, see “Papal Ideals, Marital Realities.”)  For another, the line between “man” and “woman” is not clear:  intersex, transgender, and other queer persons inhabit places between the two.  If theology is faith seeking understanding—making sense of our spiritual experience and our basic convictions—then the Theology of the Body is at best inadequate, or at worst bad, theology.

The second problem is that assertions about essential gender complementarity are not rooted in revelation very well.  The imagery and analogies of all scripture and all theology are colored deeply by their milieus:   historical gender relations, political structures, scientific and medical understandings. Taking time-bound imagery and analogies literally would actually be idolatrous, setting them up as permanent standards of orthodoxy. We’ve all seen paintings of Jesus with blonde hair and blue eyes that might have expressed a particular kind of “God in and with us” for the Germans who hung them; insisting that Latin American or African American parishes that later occupy the same buildings worship the “German” Jesus would be idolatrous and anachronistic.

The upshot is that employing Vatican authority to construct canon law, sacramental practice, and the moral law on the basis of a single theology of gender is putting theology to an ideological purpose.  In addition, it’s putting gender, which is peripheral to the theology of salvation, at the center of our faith, right up there with the creation, redemption, and ongoing presence of God’s love and wisdom.  Again, idolatrous.

This caution does not mean that theology should avoid gender and sex completely.  Our lives give us tools to think with.  Meditation on a God who gives birth to us and lovingly nurses us, or a God who conceives us in the midst of the world’s crazy complexity, enlarges our languages for God’s love—as does envisioning God’s gender as changeable or unclear.

The mistake is installing a single theological perspective as the measure of all truth, not to mention as the mold for ethics, canon law, and even civil law.  As Follman concludes, there is another way:

“It is time for the faithful, theologians, and the clergy to take back the conversation and hold up all current teachings regarding sex to the full light of day.  This starts with a comprehensive reckoning of the damage done by such teachings, and proceeds with open and honest discussion, informed by scientific evidence and the full Catholic moral tradition, with no smackdowns, no doors closed, and nothing off the table. Then we can have the debate skipped at Vatican II, finally and fully, until Church teachings on all things sexual are no longer outmoded, no longer ideological in nature, no longer in conflict with other longstanding Catholic moral teachings, and actually received by the faithful.”

Let’s get to it.

If you want to sample other Catholic theologies and ethics of gender, you might start with these:  Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God Talk; Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, The Sexual Person; and Patricia Beattie Jung and Aana Vigen, editors, God, Science, Sex, Gender.

Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, September 28, 2018

3 replies
  1. DON E SIEGAL
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Sex and Sexuality
    Your synopsis of Part I of this essay was concise and easy to read and understand. It greatly helped me put my scattered thoughts together in an orderly way. I believe it is going to be for me good preparation for the coming retreat: New Language for Old Truths.

    Please keep us updated on parts II & III.

    Reply
    • Cristina Traina
      Cristina Traina says:

      Don,
      I linked to only the first essay, but my blog responds to all three of them taken as a unit.
      All best with the retreat.
      CT

      Reply
  2. Kris
    Kris says:

    If Pope Francis has indeed patched together some theological synthesis and looks to it as an ideological text for present and future directives on ‘Catholic sacrament, canon law, and ethics’, he’s kidding no one but himself. Of all the popes from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Francis is the one whose human fallibility has most often been in a global media spotlight. (Witness his utter crassness in handling the sex-abuse crisis in Chile over Bishop Juan Barros and, more recently, his unbelievably imprudent call in blaming Satan for the criticisms of bishops over situations into which they…and they alone…plunged themselves. I’m amazed Satan doesn’t sometimes sue for defamation.)

    If Pope Francis were chief executive of a global news agency, there would already be serious questions about his intellectual suitability to run such an organisation, not to mention increasing calls for his resignation; but, because he’s pope (God’s vicar), he gets a pass, however mindboggingly he behaves.

    The Roman Catholic Church is arguably the only global organisation in which the intelligence quotient of a papal candidate is, at best, of secondary importance.

    No other institution on planet Earth would tolerate this level of arrogant, dogmatic ignorance. Nor will twenty-first century Catholics.

    If Pope Francis wants to be taken more seriously, he needs to show more common sense, never mind intellectual nous. Better this than increasingly coming across as a papal Stan Laurel.

    Reply

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