Can We Talk? Theological Ethics and Sexuality

By Keenan, James F. | Theological Studies, March 2007 | Go to article overview
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Can We Talk? Theological Ethics and Sexuality

Keenan, James F., Theological Studies

A REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE on human sexuality and theological ethics conveys a renewed hope for a much-needed sustained, critical discussion on sexuality. While, in the past, one finds many theologians writing about the silencing of others so as to leave discourse on sexual ethics breathless, (1) more recent works express a desire to host a variety of conversations on sexual ethics that at once uphold long-held traditional claims while at the same time promoting calls for responsible sexual ethics in a different key. This I think was, in part, the accomplishment of Lisa Sowle Cahill's moral note on sexual ethics in 2003 and then Edward Vacek's in 2005. (2) But it also emerges from Pope Benedict XVI's desire to bring love back to the fore in contemporary Christian discourse and to dispel the Nietzschean claim of Christianity's repudiation of eros.

A survey of the literature for the past four years leads me, then, to consider critical reflections, unsettling information, the call for discourse, and the emergence of new directions.


Three types of complaints arise from scholars regarding magisterial teachings: local episcopal exercise, theological arguments, and the problem of credibility. Instances of the first come from England and Ireland. England's Jane Fraser asks whether the churches are to blame for teenage pregnancy. She argues that those who are led into faith-based abstinence programs almost always abandon their pledge but are less likely to use contraceptives in their sexual relationships because they were not prepared for the experiences they promised to forego. (3) Ireland's Enda McDonagh reflects on the contribution of Pope John Paul II to our own understanding of the need for a justice built on love and a love built on justice and asks where was the love/justice in the U.S. bishops who, during the 2004 elections, excommunicated Roman Catholic politicians over issues of gender and sex. (4)

Regarding theological arguments, Augustine and John Paul II receive a fair amount of attention. Bernadette Brooten analyzes how Augustine in his work On the Good of Marriage drew upon "the ancient system of classifying sexual acts based on whether they conform to nature, to law, and to custom." She finds that this ancient pattern is "inextricably intertwined with inequality and hierarchy" and that it was able "to solidify social hierarchies--between women and men, between the poor and the wealthy, and between socially marginalized persons and the elite." She concludes, asking, "Is this a tradition of which Christians can be proud?" (5)

About the late pontiff, Charles Curran writes: "John Paul II insists on the equality and equal dignity of women." He adds, "No pope has ever so strongly defended and proclaimed the equality and dignity of women." (6) But do these assertions help women enjoy the asserted equality? Here Curran turns to the "problem of complementarity" wherein, inevitably, women's experiences are validated in terms of their (male) complements. (7)

Curran's complaint is more rhetorically focused by Scotland's Julie Claque. By integrating complementarity into a mutually equal relationality, one arrives at a veritable paradox in the face of the nonordination of women: "Somehow, the equal dignity of the sexes--usually considered synonymous with notions of inclusion and non-discrimination--is to be considered compatible with exclusion and discrimination." (8) She concludes, "Tragically, and precisely because of the many merits found in the reciprocity of female-male relations, the 'complementarism' employed in justifying an exclusionary priesthood has created a church where, in the realm of ecclesiastical function, separatism (not collaboration) is a virtue. This ecclesiastical apartheid is a deeply rooted structural sin that wounds men as well as women, and is deeply damaging to the credibility and witness of the Church." (9)

A comprehensive critique of church teaching on sexuality comes from another Irish theologian, Gerry O'Hanlon, who calls it the "elephant in the room of Catholic polity.

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Can We Talk? Theological Ethics and Sexuality


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