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Time Makes Ancient Good Uncouth: The Catholic Report on Sexuality

by Rosemary Ruether

Rosemary Radford Ruether, a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis, is Georgia Harkness Professor of Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. One of the foremost feminist theologians of the time, she was trained in church history arid historical theology and has published widely on feminism, the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, and the situation of the Palestinians. This article appeared in the Christian Century August 3-10, 1977, p. 682. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It should be fairly clear to observers of contemporary Christianity that Roman Catholicism has been embattled in recent years over questions of sexuality. There are several reasons for this development. More than most denominations, the Roman Catholic Church preserves not only a long historical memory but also institutions such as celibacy deriving from earlier periods of Christian consciousness. Second, the effects of modernization through Vatican II have legitimated the enormous pluralism that exists within this large community (there are some 48 million Catholics in the United States alone). Roman Catholicism is heterogeneous in national origins, education and cultural consciousness. It contains a great variety of religious subcultures, expressive of radically different values derived from various settings and historical periods.

Finally, the rigidity of the church’s centralized authority makes it peculiarly difficult for it to change past rulings, even though the consciousness of the majority of its laity and of its theological experts may have shifted dramatically away from earlier formulations. All these factors contribute to major confrontations in a number of areas. Given the peculiar 2,000-year history of Christian attitudes toward sexuality, it is not at all surprising that sex-related matters have become one arena for confrontation.

Papal Intransigence

In recent years a number of dramatic statements issued by the Vatican have pointedly refused to acknowledge new thinking on sexuality and have reaffirmed traditional teaching. Thus, in 1968 Pope Paul VI went against the majority of his own papal commission to affirm the immorality of artificial contraception. The 1975 Declaration on Sexual Ethics ignored contemporary developments and reiterated a severe condemnation of masturbation and homosexuality. Intransigence on such issues as divorce, married clergy and the ordination of women are related, psychosocially, to these controversies over changing sexual mores.

The recently issued study on human sexuality commissioned and approved by the Catholic Theological Society of America (Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, Paulist Press, $8.50) is a direct effort to respond to this impasse. Enable to impress newer views on papal declarations, the theological society (the major organization of Catholic professional theologians) has opted for an independent magisterial statement issued on its own authority which will allow Catholics, both lay and pastoral, fuller options for choice between traditional and more recent thinking.

The issuance of such a statement on the authority of the theological society -- a study that contradicts traditional and recent papal views at a number of points -- represents the surfacing of a major authority conflict in the Roman Catholic Church. More and more, theologians are refusing to make themselves exegetes and apologists for hierarchical views that contradict their own best understandings. It is unlikely that this gap of consciousness and conflict of authority between the hierarchy and the intelligentsia will soon disappear.

Scripture, Tradition and Science

The Catholic study represents a major effort to shift the basis of sexual ethics from act-oriented to person-oriented principles. It begins with an evaluation of authority in Scripture, tradition and empirical sciences. All three are treated as equally important, with empirical sciences offering important correctives to inaccurate notions found in Scripture and tradition.

It is noted that traditional Catholic sexual ethics, despite its avowed foundations in “natural law,” was aprioristic. Deduced from metaphysical assumptions, it ignored developing scientific knowledge. Much of its preoccupation with the male seed “going in the right place” was derived from a false biology that overlooked the female ovum. The social subjugation (A women was also an important factor in preventing the emergence of authentic interpersonal principles. For example, traditional ethics treated masturbation as a more serious sin than rape, since the former “wasted the seed” while the latter preserved the biological structure of procreation!

In the theological society’s new study, Scripture is treated as pluralistic, setting forth no unified code, with many of its dictates referring to social situations that no longer obtain. The person-oriented ethics of Jesus is seen as a corrective to the patriarchalism of the Old Testament and the later Pauline tradition. Tradition is regarded as seriously flawed throughout because of its negativity toward sex and its objectivist view of the “function” of women. Procreation as the norm of sexual ethics suppressed proper consideration of interpersonal values. Science can provide important biological and anthropological data to correct dogmatic notions of the universality of this or that sexual norm, but cannot itself provide an ethical norm. A more person-oriented ethic, the study suggests, has been emerging gradually in Catholic thought over the past several generations, and is vindicated in the liberal wing of contemporary Catholic ethicists of which this study is a reflection.

A Humanized Sexuality

The study goes on to spell out a “theology of sexual ethics” which can provide the basis for both principles and pastoral guidelines. The notion of absolute “do’s and don’ts” that can provide final judgments about the immorality of any particular sexual act is rejected. In its place the study proposes a criterion of humanized versus dehumanized sexuality. A humanized sexuality is one that promotes “creative growth toward integration.” It contains the capacity for personal affirmation and mutuality at the same time. It is “self-liberating, other-affirming, honest, faithful, socially responsible, life-serving and joyous.” Dehumanized sex is sex that consistently negates one or more of these principles. It is evident that no one sexual act serves all these functions all the time. The question is one of patterns of life rather than of individual acts. Is the particular pattern of sexual acts moving toward the pole of humanization or toward the pole of dehumanization?

Traditional moralists will be acutely discomfited by these principles. No longer is it possible to state dogmatically that any particular act -- masturbation, adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, etc. -- is automatically and intrinsically immoral. Rather, all such acts must be judged in the context of their service to self- and other-affirming life patterns or their opposites. This approach allows relative judgments that certain categories of acts are likely to be negative, but no absolutes. Not the act but the quality of life it serves is the standard of judgment.

The study also discards all double standards of sexual ethics that judge women differently from men, single persons (including celibates) differently from married persons, and homosexuals differently from heterosexuals. All persons, in whatever walk of life or sexual orientation, are sexual beings who must find self-development through sexual maturation. The standards of humanizing versus dehumanizing sexuality can be applied equally to all, with proper nuancing for those who have chosen to bear and raise children and those who have not.

Responsible Decisions

The study then moves into the consideration of pastoral guidelines for particular issues. Starting with married couples, the authors see responsible partnership and responsible parenthood as equal values. They discard the hierarchy of values that made procreation the norm to which sexual love was subordinated. Couples have a serious obligation to develop their sexual relations as the fullest expression of mutual love. Any positions and any aids (such as sex clinics) that properly serve this end are acceptable.

Responsible parenthood means that couples should bear only as many children as they can properly raise, considering not only their economic resources but also their psychological capacities. Once a responsible decision is made, ‘the whole range of birth-control methods can be considered as options in accordance with their medical, psychological and personal effects. For example, if a method (such as rhythm) is ineffective and thus causes great personal anxiety, that factor argues against its use.

The study considers such matters as sterilization, artificial insemination and child-free marriage. Both sterilization and artificial insemination are viewed as acceptable if they accord with values of mutual decision-making and responsible parenting. Child-free marriage is viewed as a minority decision, but one that can be responsibly made by those concerned with overpopulation or those whose personal careers and psychological capacities do not dispose them to parenting. In order for the over-all values of a relationship to be served by this decision, such a couple must not only build a high level of mutuality between themselves but also use their relationship for life-serving; functions in society. Thus the “lifeserving” criterion of humanized sexuality, while it normatively means bearing and raising children, can also be sublimated in childless and single people as a nurturing role in society.

Challenges to traditional monogamy -- common-law marriage, adultery and “swinging” -- are considered. Common-law marriage is seen as often the result of economic impediments. For example, many older persons who seek companionship and form a relationship of mutual support are prevented from legalizing this union by the fear of losing social-security benefits. Christians should work to change laws that create such conflicts rather than judging the relationship as immoral. The common-law marriage may have the qualities of mutuality that make for an authentic relationship. Swinging and adultery, on the other hand, are viewed as so impeding the values of fidelity and mutuality that it would be difficult to find an instance where such behavior belongs to a humanizing rather than a dehumanizing pattern.

If the study rejects the act-oriented ethics of earlier tradition, it equally rejects a merely physical, “recreational” view of sex. A pleasurable sexual relationship that is dishonest and destructive toward the betrayed marriage partner cannot be justified. The authors do not rule out the possibility that there may be instances where full permission and acceptance of a three-cornered relationship may be given and received by all parties concerned. But they regard the exclusivity of the sexual relationship as so inherent in its structure that such a relationship could rarely happen. Some couples may delude themselves into thinking they have such an arrangement and then discover later the psychological damage done.

Premarital Sex

The authors’ evaluation of premarital sex is more tolerant than that of extramarital relations. It is assumed that social mores have changed significantly on this subject and that the greater autonomy of women, as well as the availability of contraception, alters many of the earlier sanctions in this area. Young people will normally grow into an awareness of their sexuality through a process of relations and experiences. They should be guided toward a faithful and committed relationship of mutual growth. Full sexual expression should follow rather than precede the development of in-depth friendship and relationship. But if a particular relationship is moving toward a full commitment, a sexual expression even before legal marriage cannot be regarded very severely. On the other hand, casual use of sex, where no such in-depth relation exists, is regarded as dehumanizing. The assumption here is that sex is the most intimate and vulnerable expression of interpersonalism. The more it expresses and operates in the context of such relationship, the more it promotes positive values.

Single persons and the divorced or widowed cannot be expected to be asexual, even if they have no prospects of marriage. Some faithful friendship that allows such persons to love and be loved is good for them too. Here too, sexual expression must be in proportion to the approximation of such relationships to in-depth mutuality, faithfulness and commitment. Even celibates cannot be excluded from such considerations. They too must accept and develop themselves as sexual beings – i.e., develop their capacities for friendship and caring with both sexes. Although the nature of the celibate commitment is one of sublimation of the capacities for genital sexuality and procreation for some more universal life-serving to humanity, close personal friendships, perhaps of long duration, between sexes cannot be excluded as part of the development of a mature capacity for relationship.

Faithful Relationships

One of the most controversial areas of the study will undoubtedly be its judgments on homosexuality. The study speculates that homosexuality may be a regular though minority orientation, like left-handedness, occurring in about 5 per cent of the population. Most persons have a certain range of bisexuality, with a preference for one or another orientation. Although the vast majority of persons are biased toward heterosexuality, that minority which finds homosexuality the “normal” orientation cannot be changed by therapy or psychosocial harassments. It is immoral for society to attempt to do so. Rather, once persons are clear that homosexuality is the orientation that is normal for them, and is not simply a stage of their development, then they should be accepted as such.

Like heterosexuals, homosexuals should be encouraged to form faithful and mutual relationships. They too must judge the morality of their sexuality for its capacity to develop life-serving, self-liberating and other-enriching honest and faithful relationships. It is the quality of this relationship that makes it moral or immoral, not its heterosexuality or homosexuality. There is some slight suggestion in the study that homosexuality falls short of the full norm of sexual development because it cannot be procreative. But since this criterion has already been relativized for child-free marriages and other heterosexual relations that sublimate procreation toward societal forms of life-serving, it would seem that the same standards should be applied to homosexuals as well.

At the close of the study, such topics as masturbation, transsexualism, bestiality, sex clinics and pornography are considered. The overly severe judgments on masturbation are discarded; nevertheless, not all masturbation is regarded as healthy. The question rather is whether it is a part of youthful self-exploration and development toward the ability to use one’s sexuality relationally or whether it has become a neurotic compensation for the inability to relate. Transsexual operations are regarded as acceptable if they enable a person to function in a more holistic way by bringing biological and gender identities into harmony.

Likewise, pornography should be distinguished from sexually explicit material intended for education. Such material should be rejected as pornographic when its fundamental message is degrading and exploitative and when it treats sex as an object for use rather than as a medium of human relationship. But sexual education is desirable for most people -- not only youth but also sexually miseducated adults, including celibates, who need to develop a mature sense of their sexuality.

Person-Centered Principles

There is no doubt that these principles and judgments will cause great controversy in American Catholicism. It should be emphasized that such a brief description hardly does justice to the nuanced efforts to weigh various traditions of moral judgment and to apply person-centered principles to balanced decision-making. The result is neither ascetic nor libertine but respectful of the difficulties of multivalued decisions in an imperfect world where, nevertheless, one must constantly pursue wholeness and love rather than their opposites.

Taken seriously, such person-centered principles would not merely relax many traditional judgments, but would impose much more rigorous standards of ethics where the tradition was lenient. For example, exploitative and joyless marital sex was traditionally not only condoned but often enjoined on the woman as her marital “debt.” The principles of this study would judge such dehumanized sex, even within marriage, as a serious moral failing. Most of all, the study calls people of all kinds and conditions to the difficult task of using their sexuality to be fully human.


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