Sex and the city (of God)

Catholic sexual ethics and a truly human civilisation – John and Kerry Kleinsman look at the Church’s attitude towards married sexual love in a summary of an address to the Palmerston North colloquium in September.

This article is a summary of some key points made in a presentation from John and Kerry Kleinsman to the recent colloquium in Palmerston North.

Search through any Catholic book on the saints and you quickly realise that very few saints were married. A key reason for this is the Christian tradition’s suspicious attitude to the body, and especially to the sexual passions. Even though great theologians such as Augustine challenged the extreme dualism of some sects, Christianity has struggled to extricate itself from seeing marriage as a remedy for out-of-control sexual drives.

In recent times the Catholic tradition has fortunately been able to articulate a more positive and integrated appreciation of married love and sexuality. A strong feature of this is found in the writings of married people whose experience of lovemaking is that of engaging in a holy act: a way of encountering the divine love of God and a means of sanctifying the couple.

In a permanent and committed married relationship, the energy generated by wholesome sex is a powerful physical and spiritual force. The procreative power of couples’ love-making extends well beyond any capacity sexual intercourse has to be ‘reproductive’ in the biological sense of the word.

This energy cannot be contained or constrained because its origins and significance are ordained by God: it is a life-fostering activity in the widest sense. For this reason, a couple’s sexual relationship should never be described as a ‘private concern’: it has profound spiritual, social, economic, political and even ecological ramifications.

In our own time, the authority on which Catholic sexual ethics is grounded can be seen, and must be seen, to be located in a vision of sexuality which can be taught and defended as truly human. To our minds, that very Catholic – and human – task can only be achieved at this particular time by listening to the voices of lay Catholics, married and single. This challenge requires the church – all of us – to find creative ways of telling and celebrating the stories of ordinary Christian marriages and single people in whom we see the grace of God at work.

If Catholic sexual ethics can be perceived as being grounded in the experience of Catholic couples and others who understand love-making as a spiritual source of life, then it might once again achieve some traction with those who no longer believe in or trust Catholic sexual teaching. This includes statistically large numbers of Catholics who have departed from church teachings.

Even for those who are acting in good conscience, the outcome seems to be a conspiracy of silence – a peculiarly Catholic version of the dysfunctional ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ game that has scuttled open and frank discussion on what we believe are critical issues.

The task of promoting a truly human vision for human sexuality is all the more urgent given the impoverished way in which contemporary society views sex.

This view is itself dualistic because in its attempt to rationalise so-called ‘free sexual choice’ it fails to consider the broader personal, social, spiritual and political implications of human sexuality. Essentially it trivialises sex because it fails to recognise any connection between sex as an act of enjoyment and gratification, and sex as a deeply symbolic act that somehow and mysteriously connects us with God and all of creation while helping us realise many deeper human realities.

The nature of human sexuality is that it is gift, blessing and mystery. A truly Catholic appreciation of this engenders gratitude as well as healthy awe and respect. Moreover, the notions of gift, blessing and mystery imply stewardship of our sexuality – and its associated limits – rather than free licence.

In the face of today’s impoverished secular understanding of sexuality, church teaching must continue to insist that human sexuality has a meaning that is not simply the product of culture or personal point of view, and a significance that is wider than the union of two bodies.

Yet, at the same time, we need to accept and take responsibility for the fact that our own Catholic tradition is itself simultaneously grace-filled and in need of purification. Changes are required if the church as a whole is to recover from a loss of credibility among its own people as well as in the wider society. This must include greater willingness to trust the experience and goodness of Catholic married persons. It must also involve the provision of a safe space for lay Catholics – married and single – to share their stories and to reflect meaningfully on them in the light of our rich Catholic heritage. This will require allowing and welcoming open and honest discussion of the reasons why so many Catholics in good conscience feel free to depart from church teaching on issues such as contraception, cohabitation and the use of reproductive technologies.

How can we make loving and moral sense of the gap between practice and current teaching? To what extent does it reflect a credibility gap? Does it necessarily follow that ‘departure’ implies ‘disagreement’? How can we hold on to our ideals without giving the message that those who, for good reasons and in good conscience, may not be able to reach those ideals are second-rate Catholics? Is it really the case that so many ‘good’ Catholics have gone so badly awry? While it is possible that all such Catholics are morally wrong, is it not also possible that the current mismatch between official church teaching and the convictions and practices of many members points to some weakness in that teaching? Surely there is a requirement for us all, while accepting the basic assumptions upon which Catholic sexual ethics rests, to reexamine our interpretation of the God-given mystery that is human sexuality? And surely there is a responsibility for us to re-examine the current formulations of our understanding, not to mention the unhelpful ways in which we do and don’t communicate it?

These questions affect all Catholics – cohabiting, single, married, divorced, heterosexual, homosexual, fertile, infertile, parents and grandparents. Surely we have the maturity to talk about such things? The current sexual crisis demands we do so for the sake of a truly human civilisation.

[John Kleinsman is a lecturer with the Catholic Education Centre specialising in moral theology and bioethics, and is passionate about marriage and the marriage journey.]