Change as a Constant: Towards a Catholic Sexual Ethic beyond Procreation

By Ott, Kate | Conscience, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Change as a Constant: Towards a Catholic Sexual Ethic beyond Procreation


Ott, Kate, Conscience


Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction

Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler

(Georgetown University Press, 2012, 250 pp)

978-1589019133, $26.95

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

SEXUAL ETHICS: A THEOLOGICAL Introduction is one of the most comprehensive and carefully written books for a Catholic-educated lay audience in recent history. It distills the best of the sexuality-related theological and ethical claims raised in the edited series Readings in Moral Theology published over the past 20+ years. Salzman and Lawler situate their work in the Scholastic tradition of quaestio disputata, meaning the disputed question, inviting the reader into a process of historical excavation, contemporary awareness and, most importantly, moral discernment. Central to their approach is a shift away from understanding sexual morality as only "marital morality" to what they call a "unitive sexual morality." Sexual Ethics relies on methodological and anthropological developments that are part of the Catholic theological tradition, which gives the faithful resources for questioning current official Catholic teaching on sexual morality.

The starting point of this thesis is that doctrinal and theological change in the Catholic tradition is not an anomaly but, paradoxically, a constant. The authors depict the basis of Catholic teachings as fluid--"the scriptural rule of faith and the theological writings derived from it are historically and culturally conditioned"--and take this to mean that "they will require translation, interpretation and enculturation to truly disclose God in every different historical and cultural situation." Their work is meticulous, to the point of repetitious in some places, as they show how theological and doctrinal change is often influenced by more accurate social and scientific information and new conversation partners. In other instances, however, change is stunted by magisterial concerns over authority (such as happened with the papal Birth Control Commission and Humanae Vitae).

The book's approach requires the reader make a shift from a classicist to a historically conscious worldview--that is, from a fixed to a fluid perspective on truth. For example, the first chapter takes the reader through a broad and representative history of sexuality issues from scripture through the Birth Control Commission, demonstrating that a variety of stances on sexual acts, marriage and procreation have been part of the Catholic tradition. In particular, Salzman and Lawler are most concerned with how two ends of sexual intercourse--procreation and conjugal love (marital communion)--became set in a hierarchical relationship and how procreation as a good of marriage in general eventually was seen as required of each and every marriage act. The historical approach explains how classicist decisions shape the current procreative marital morality of Catholic teaching. In response, the authors propose a unitive sexual morality that reflects both historical and theological truths.

Ultimately, the central claim of the text is not a new sexual ethic. Many moral theologians have argued that a diversity of relationships exists, and that they should be judged on their moral qualities, meaning that there are morally justified sexual acts beyond procreative sexual intercourse--spousal love need not come in second to childbearing. What is unique about Sexual Ethics is the diligence with which the claims are argued in a contemporary Catholic language and situated within the whole of the Roman Catholic tradition. These sexual ethics are set within the context of a whole person who is, reflecting the language of Vatican II, a "relational, incarnated, enculturated, historical subject." The authors, like many Catholic ethicists in the 20th and 21st centuries, define sexuality as having multiple, significant moral dimensions beyond the physical to include relational, psychological, spiritual and emotional aspects. …

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