Stuck on Sex: Rethinking Parenthood Beyond the Sex-First Paradigm

Jacob Kohlhaas

Today’s post is from guest blogger Jacob Kohlhaas, an associate professor of moral theology at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa. Professor Kohlhaas has written on theology of family topics for U.S. Catholic and America magazines, and is the author of Beyond Biology: Rethinking Parenthood in the Catholic Tradition (Georgetown University Press).

The US Catholic hierarchy’s eagerness to prioritize matters of sexual morality when these are a feature of public policy has influenced responses to any number of proposals with otherwise clear benefits to the common good. As Bondings 2.0 has documented with regard to LGBTQ issues, this propensity has led the bishops to publicly state their opposition to elements of bills on early education, domestic violence, and immigration reform.

I acknowledge that Catholic leaders have an obligation to defend the Church’s teaching, and they also have a right to voice their opinions on matters of public policy. Yet, time and again, prioritizing sexual ethics, specifically calling attention to LGBTQ people, has jeopardized public awareness of the larger, wholistic Catholic commitment to the common good. Even more significantly, this behavior has actively reshaped understanding of Catholic social values as issues from health care access to adoption seem approachable only through this sex-first lens.

This particular pattern in the Catholic Church’s public face serves as the backdrop to the argument of my recent book, Beyond Biology: Rethinking Parenthood in the Catholic Tradition. As the title gives away, I am concerned with the implications of this preoccupation with sexual ethics that is narrowly defined around physical, sexual acts and biological reproduction. I explain how this pattern of thought has been so overwhelmingly central to public expressions of Catholic commitments in recent decades that Catholic theological understanding of parenthood itself has been significantly impoverished.

Like the more recent examples above, my argument begins with a legal battle over Catholic institutions’ participation in adoption services following non-discrimination legislation passed in Illinois in 2011. That new state law prohibited publicly funded adoption providers from discriminating between legally married couples and same-sex couples in civil unions. Although there had been an early promise of religious exemptions, Catholic adoption providers soon learned that they would be required to comply with the law in order to remain eligible for publicly funded contracts (which accounted for a significant portion of their funding).

Symptomatic of the pattern noted above, Catholic opposition to same-gender sexual relationships took priority in the ensuing legal battle. The state of Illinois argued for its right to award contracts only to organizations that complied with its laws whereas representatives of Catholic agencies pressed their argument for religious freedom.

Catholic organizations, they argued, could not in good conscience support placing children with same-sex couples as if these were equal to the homes of heterosexually married couples. Not only was this equivocation problematic, but cooperation would amount to participating in a grave and unjustifiable sin. Regardless of how many Catholics actually believed this to be true, the faith-based argument was supported by a 2006 letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the archdiocese of San Francisco that clarified this teaching.

While I don’t find the legal arguments particularly exciting, what does fascinate me is how little the arguments in this case had to do with the actual work of parenting. What it takes to actually be a good parent rarely rose to the level of consideration. If a man and a woman are in a sacramental marriage and don’t use contraception, apparently the rest just sort of takes care of itself. All others, of course, need not apply.

As a parent myself, I do not count the fact that I am a man who is in a committed, sexual relationship with a woman (my wife) as a singly determinative factor in my ability to raise our daughters. Nor do I suspect this sex-first way of approaching actual parental capabilities resonates with the lived experiences of very many parents. Parenthood relies far too much on human practices and capabilities, that are developed through the experience of parenting, to be reduced to sexual acts or gendered expectations.

But following the publication of Humanae vitae in 1968 the Catholic hierarchy committed itself to a narrow path on matters of human sexuality and came to assert this commitment as centrally important. The road traveled since then has always been committed to defending a certain vision of a moral order that is absolute, philosophically abstract, and singly governed by the Church’s own authority.

The complexities of actual lived human experiences fit uneasily into this guiding framework, but, having come so far against so much opposition, Catholic leaders are now essentially locked into their defensive posture. In this predicament, engagement with human experiences and emerging social scientific evidence will always take a back seat to fears of “gender ideology” and the “homosexual lifestyle.” With no place left to turn and no clear way out, the remaining option is to force perceptions of reality into the limits of the existing paradigm for as long as it can possibly hold.

Given this state of affairs, my research attempts to offer some means of separating the complex web of defensiveness and anxieties around human sexuality from their overflow into related social matters. As a starting point, this requires differentiating those things that are tightly related to human sexuality and gender from those things that are broadly human experiences.

The ability to commit oneself to the vocation of parenthood seems to be of the second category. In articulating what a broader theological vision of parenthood might look like (one that does not so easily dismiss same-sex parenthood as well as many other diverse family models), I propose retrieving the greater riches of the Catholic tradition as well as contemporary experience.

Within the historical tradition of the Church, there are many different understandings of kinship. At its best, the Christian understanding of the family is rooted in the unity of Christian baptism and the fact that all persons share a common creator. Contemporary social scientific research provides a complex picture of the various social and economic forces that interact to affect family forms and family well-being. And Catholic Social Teaching offers a surprising wealth of resources for reimagining the work of parenthood and our common call to commit ourselves to others. This all points to the possibility of uncovering a more actively faithful, even if less certain, path towards rethinking parenthood in the Catholic tradition.

Editors’ note: To learn more about Jacob Kohlhaas’ ideas about Catholic parenthood in general, and how they affect LGBTQ families in particular, we suggest reading his book, Beyond Biology: Rethinking Parenthood in the Catholic Tradition.

Jacob Kohlhaas, December 16, 2021

1 reply
  1. Julie Nichols
    Julie Nichols says:

    I think this is one of the best articles I have read on this topic. The “sex first” lens has created an obsession with this topic to the point of discarding all other life issues except those related to sex like abortion. It’s absolutely ridiculous l.


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