Roman Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Dissenting View

by Charles E. Curran

In 1987 Charles E. Curran was visiting professor of Catholic Studies at Cornell University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 16, 1987, pps. 1139-1142. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is obviously very difficult for the hierarchical teaching office, with its understanding of benefiting from the assistance of the Holy Spirit, to recognize that its teaching might be in error.

Issues of sexual morality, always significant ones in the Christian tradition, are among the most vital topics of debate and concern within the Roman Catholic Church today. The content of official Roman Catholic teaching in sexual matters is generally well known. It is equally well known that most Catholic believers disagree with the hierarchy’s absolute condemnation of masturbation, contraception, sterilization and divorce. Many Catholics also question church teachings on homosexuality and premarital sex. This general attitude has been documented in many polls, such as the recent survey conducted for Time magazine which found that only 24 per cent of Catholics consider artificial birth control wrong, despite the church’s condemnation.

Though many married couples who use artificial contraception, along with divorced and remarried Catholics and gays, continue to participate in the life of the church, the great discrepancy between Catholic teaching and Catholic practice has called into question the credibility of the hierarchical teaching office. Because of the church’s sexual teachings, a good number of Roman Catholics have become disillusioned and have left the church. Andrew Greeley and his associates at the National Opinion Research Center have concluded on the basis of their sociological research that Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical condemning artificial contraception, "seems to have been the reason for massive apostasy and for a notable decline in religious devotion and belief."

The vast majority of Catholic theologians writing about sexual morality have challenged the basis for the church’s official teaching. Indeed, the very nature of Catholic teaching has occasioned this type of challenge, for the church maintains that its teaching is based on the natural law, which in principle can be rationally apprehended by all human beings. The church does recognize that reason is illumined by faith in these matters; nonetheless, the natural law methodology claims to rely on human reason, reflecting on human nature rather than directly on faith or revelation.

The official teaching rests on the view that the innate purpose of the sexual faculty is twofold: procreation and love union. Every sexual act must be open to procreation, and must be expressive of love. This is the church’s basis for condemning masturbation, contraception, sterilization and homosexual acts. It is also the ground for condemning artificial insemination, even with the husband’s semen (AIH). Contraception is wrong, in the hierarchical magisterium’s view, because it prevents procreation. AIH is wrong because the act of insemination is not the natural act which, by its very nature, is expressive of love.

But such official teaching suffers from problems—the primary one being its physicalism or biologism. It insists that intercourse must always be present and that no one can interfere with the physical or biological aspect for any reason whatsoever. In this understanding of sex, the physical becomes absolutized. Most revisionist Catholic theologians today argue that for the good of the person or for the good of the marriage, it is legitimate at times to interfere with the physical structure of the act. Note that it is only in questions of sexual morality that Catholic teaching has absolutized the physical and identified it with the truly human or moral aspect. On the question of taking a human life, for example, the church has always distinguished between killing and murder, murder being the morally condemned act, and killing the physical act which is not always wrong. However, in the case of artificial contraception, the church understands it as a physical act that is always and in every circumstance wrong.

Church authorities have taken action against some theologians who have dissented from the official teaching on matters of sexual morality. My own case is by no means the only example. Stephan Pfürtner in Switzerland, the late Ambrogio Valsecchi in Italy and Anthony Kosnick in the United States have all lost their teaching positions because of their writings on sexuality. Rumors circulate that other Catholic theologians who dissent on sexual morality have also experienced problems with the Vatican.

As my account of the controversy indicates, the primary issue in developing a Catholic sexual ethic today is not in deciding the ethical questions themselves but in confronting the ecclesiological question of dissent. Since the church teaching office appears determined to maintain its present positions, and even to discipline some of the theologians who propose other views, those interested in changing the church’s official positions must first deal with the ecclesiological question. Can and should the hierarchy allow theological and practical dissent in these areas? Can and should the hierarchical office change its teaching in these areas?

I have kidded some of my colleagues in ecclesiology by saying that the real ecclesiological issues today, especially those involving the teaching authority in the church, are being faced by moral theologians, particularly those working in the area of sexual morality and sexual ethics. Why is this the case? Obviously, sexuality is a very significant aspect of life which affects everyone personally. Whenever sexuality and authority meet, a volatile situation is bound to result. Also, the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual matters has been inculcated at all levels of Catholic education for a long time. Thus both history and the very nature of the sexual question have guaranteed that the church will be more involved in this area than in most other areas of human life.

There is also a more recent and specific historical reason why the area of sexual ethics is both so troublesome and so entwined with ecclesiological concerns: sexual ethics was not touched by the great changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. At Vatican II many of the documents prepared by preconciliar commissions, documents that expressed the neoscholastic manualistic theology of the times, were rejected in toto by the council. On the topics of ecumenism, the church, religious liberty, faith, and revelation, very significant developments occurred in and through the conciliar process. However, sexual morality and sexual ethics experienced no such development at Vatican II. For example, one of the most important issues of the time was artificial contraception—which Pope Paul VI took out of the council’s hands and reserved to himself, eventually issuing Humanae Vitae in 1968. Paul VI never issued another encyclical in the remaining years of his pontificate. Thus this area of church teaching is still based on the neoscholastic understanding that prevailed before the Second Vatican Council.

This fact was brought home to me by some of the reading I was doing last spring. Herbert Vorgrimler’s Understanding Karl Rahner (Crossroad, 1986), which provides some biographical information on the theologian, much of it based on his correspondence, shows that in the preparatory and early phases of Vatican II, Rahner frequently spoke of the struggles against the manualistic theology that took place in commission meetings. In this connection he often mentioned the stance of theologians Sebastian Tromp and Franz Hürth, two Jesuits who were my professors at the Gregorian University in the 1950s. In fact, I occasionally had long Latin conversations with Hürth, who was always cordial and seemed to enjoy such meetings, Though I have since changed my own views quite a bit, I remember with fondness my conversations with him.

While I was reading Vorgrimler, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its "Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation. "The section of the instruction that sparked the most disagreement within the Roman Catholic community was the document’s rejection of in vitro fertilization even when the process uses the husband’s seed. The footnotes to the condemnation of homologous artificial insemination (AIH) referred to Pope Pius XII’s 1949 "Discourse to Those Taking Part in the Fourth International Congress of Catholic Doctors, " in which the pope condemned AIH because the natural conjugal act itself is not present.

Two comments must be made about the 1949 papal address. First, before it was delivered a number of Catholic moralists held that in practice, artificial insemination between husband and wife could be permitted, provided the husband’s sperm was obtained in some legitimate way. (Those scholars believed that masturbation was intrinsically evil and so could never be the appropriate means of obtaining semen.) Even as conservative a Catholic moral theologian as Thomas J. O’Donnell admits that AIH was an open question in theory and in practice before 1949 (see Medicine and Christian Morality [Alba House, 1976], p. 266). Thus it is difficult to speak about a traditional teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on this topic.

Second, it is well known that Hürth wrote most of Pius XII’s addresses on moral issues. In fact, a commentary on the papal address written by Hürth was published in Periodica even before the papal statement officially appeared.

The conjunction of the Rahner history and the new document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith combined to make me dramatically aware that Catholic moral teaching in 1987 is still based on the neoscholasticism of the pre-Vatican II manuals of moral theology. If this same reality were true in other areas, such as revelation, the church, ecumenism and religious liberty, Roman Catholicism would look quite different today. What would have happened if Vatican II had discussed and decided the issue of artificial contraception? Given the other changes that occurred, perhaps that teaching, too, would have been changed.

How can there be such a change or development in the official teaching of the church? How can the church accept an idea or practice which it had earlier condemned? The best illustration of change at Vatican II was its teaching on religious freedom. John Courtney Murray and others proposed a theory of development based on changing historical circumstances. They argued that in the 19th century the church rightly condemned the understanding of religious freedom that was based on continental liberalism, but that in the 20th century the church could accept religious liberty, understood as a civil right of immunity under a limited constitutional government. One can, of course, criticize this approach for failing to recognize that somewhere along the line the church’s teaching was wrong, or that it should have been changed sooner. On the matter of contraception, it probably would have been necessary to face head-on the issue of error in the official church teaching.

There are many reasons why church authorities are reluctant to change official teaching or to allow dissent. The patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church and of its teaching on sexuality cannot be denied; it has excluded women from any kind of significant decision-making role in the church’s life. (The enaction of the recent synod in Rome has disappointed those who support a full role for women in the church.) I am sure that the desire to control others, along with a celibate’s fear of sexuality, has also contributed to the present teaching and the reluctance to change it. However, those of us working for innovation must address the most significant issues raised by the defenders of the present position, even though we recognize the other factors that support that instruction.

In the eyes of its defenders, the strongest reason for maintaining the present condemnations is the nature of the church’s teaching function, which is believed to be under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Could the Holy Spirit ever permit the hierarchical teaching office to be wrong in a matter of such great import in the lives of so many Christians? The role of the church and of its officially commissioned leaders is to mediate the salvific word and work of Jesus through the presence of the Spirit. Could the hierarchical teaching role actually hinder and hurt the people it is supposed to help?

Such questions cannot be easily dismissed. One must at least feel their force for those who are posing them. The only adequate response is to acknowledge that the hierarchical teaching office itself has failed to recognize and communicate the proper nature and force of its teaching. Teaching on the specific and complex questions regarding the norms governing sexuality involves what has recently been called the authoritative noninfallible hierarchical teaching office. According to a 1967 document of the West German bishops, such teaching has a certain degree of binding force, but since it is not a de fide definition it involves a provisional element, even to the point of being capable of including error.

The ultimate epistemological reason why this teaching cannot claim an absolute certitude derives from the essence of moral truth. Thomas Aquinas pointed out the difference between speculative and practical moral truth. In morality, with its complexities and many surrounding circumstances, the secondary principles of the natural law generally oblige, but in some cases they do not. Thomas uses as an example the natural-law principle that deposits should be returned. There is an obligation to return to the owner what one has been given to care for and keep safe. Such a principle usually obliges, but not always. If someone has left you a sword for safekeeping and now wants it back, but is drunk and threatening to kill people, you have an obligation not to return the sword. In their two pastoral letters on peace and the economy, the United States bishops have recognized the same reality. At the level of complex and specific judgments one cannot exclude the possibility of error. For example, the bishops maintain that the first use of even the smallest counterforce nuclear weapons is always wrong, but they recognize that others within the church community might come to a different conclusion.

Within the traditional understanding of the teaching function of the church, it is possible for authoritative noninfallible teaching on specific moral issues to be wrong. Church authority has added to its problems by failing to recognize explicitly the somewhat provisional nature of its teaching in these areas. In this light, one can understand the charge of creeping infallibilism that has been made. Noninfallible teaching is thought to be as certain and absolute as infallible teaching. If the very nature and limitation of such authoritative noninfallible teaching were better understood, the fact of erroneous church teaching would not be as great a problem as it sometimes seems. Such a recognition would also serve to indicate the various ways in which all baptized Catholics contribute to the teaching of the church, and it would remind the hierarchical teaching authority that it has not carried out its own learning and teaching function in the most suitable way.

It is very difficult for any of us to admit we have made mistakes. It is obviously very difficult for the hierarchical teaching office, with its understanding of benefiting from the assistance of the Holy Spirit, to recognize that its teachings might be in error. However, such a recognition would not be unprecedented. The Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II humbly recognizes that there has been sin on all sides in the work for church unity, and begs pardon of God and our separated brothers and sisters. In the present situation the first step that can and should be made is for the church to recognize officially the somewhat provisional character of the authoritative noninfallible hierarchical teaching. From this acknowledgment could follow the possibility and perhaps at times even the legitimacy of dissent both in theory and in practice.

What about the credibility of the hierarchical teaching office if it explicitly recognizes the legitimacy of dissent or even changes in its teaching? How can anyone ever again put trust and confidence in such a teaching office? It must be emphasized again that the hierarchical teaching office already has a very great problem of credibility in sexual matters. The case can be made that the teaching office would gain credibility by recognizing the possibility of dissent and even changing its teaching in this area.

In my view, dissent from the authoritative noninfallible hierarchical teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is an effort to support, not destroy, the credibility of the teaching office. The theological community can play the critical role of the loyal opposition, thus in the long run enhancing the church’s teaching role. To carry out this role properly, the magisterium must be in dialogue with the whole church. The primary teacher in the church remains the Holy Spirit—and no one has a monopoly on the Holy Spirit. Wide consultation and dialogue are a necessary part of the function of the hierarchical teaching office.

Unfortunately, dialogue and consultation have not occurred in the area of sexual morality. Compare, for example, the process involved in the writing of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letters and the process involved in the writing of the recent instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on bioethics. The American bishops engaged in a broad consultation process and shared their drafts with the world in a very public dialogue. Also, the pastoral letters distinguished principles and universal teachings from specific judgments and conclusions. This approach recognizes that the possibility of certitude decreases as the matter under consideration becomes more specific and complex. (However, even in the pastoral letters there is a tendency to claim too much certitude at the level of principle. The pastoral letter on peace maintains that the principle of discrimination or noncombatant immunity must be held by all people within the church; however, the West German bishops’ pastoral letter on war does not accept this principle as an absolute norm.)

Some may wonder where all this will end. Is everything concerning Catholics’ sexuality up for grabs? Are there no limits to legitimate dissent?

It is incumbent upon those of us within the Roman Catholic Church who are calling for a broader area of dissent to talk about limits. We must recognize that dissent, or more positively, pluralism, exists within a broader area of unity, assent and agreement. In the Christian faith community, not everything is up for grabs. The church is called to creative fidelity to the word and work of Jesus. We must distinguish between what is central to the faith and what is peripheral. The emphasis on praxis in contemporary theology reminds us that what we do is an integral part of our faith commitment. However, on specific issues in complex cases there must be room for more diversity and disagreement. For example, the church must always teach and live the values of love and fidelity in marriage, but it does not follow that divorce and remarriage are wrong in all circumstances.

There can be no doubt that there will be more dissent and more pluralism in the church than there have been in the past, and that there will be more gray areas than ever before, especially since the methodology, as well as the subject matter, of contemporary theology points in this direction. However, the realities of pluralism and dissent on specific issues can exist alongside church unity and a credible hierarchical teaching office in the church. We who are loyal to the church and yet perceive the crucial need for it to broaden its perspective must work assiduously to promote the hierarchy’s recognition of these realities.