Stunted Teaching on Sex Has Role in Church's Crisis. (Viewpoint)

By Callahan, Sidney | National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

Stunted Teaching on Sex Has Role in Church's Crisis. (Viewpoint)


Callahan, Sidney, National Catholic Reporter


The effects of the sex abuse crisis in the American church aren't going away. A host of issues concerning church government and accountability continues to surface. Everyone from the bishops on down may agree that change is needed, but when it comes to specifying reforms, disagreements bubble up

Deep and fundamental differences, for instance, emerge when it comes to the future role of the official teachings of Roman authorities on matters of sex and gender. Two opposing agendas for the church directly conflict.

One traditional group sees our current sex abuse troubles as stemming from past and present infidelities of priest perpetrators to Pope John Paul II's articulation of sexual teaching. In this view, sin and evil are recognized as always present, but abusing priests have been led to violate their vows of chastity and celibacy because of the debilitating permissiveness toward sexuality that pervades both the church and the culture. Offending bishops did not exercise their proper authority of oversight and correction, in part because they, too, were infected by the climate of laxity and infidelity to the church's sexual teachings. Granted, the bishops had to cope with the `60s sexual revolution and bad psychological advice, but, goes this indictment, infidelity lies at the heart of the matter. Many seminaries have been remiss in not adhering to the strict theological and practical formation necessary for priests.

The solution? In this neoconservative diagnosis, the American church and its leaders must conform more strictly to the church's sexual teachings as articulated by the Vatican. Disobedience to the hard sayings of Christianity produces sin and hinders the church from being a countercultural force. Courage is called for: the bishops in their teaching roles must reassert the ban on artificial contraception, on women's ordination, on married priests, on remarriage of the divorced, and most important, the ban on homosexual activity, particularly in the seminaries and the priesthood. Only then will health and integrity be restored.

To get with this program, dissenting Catholic laity and theologians, along with wavering bishops, must be shaped up to obedience. The seminaries must be set straight on sexual matters and, if need be, purged of dangerous influences. It may even be a good idea, say some, to ban the ordination of homosexuals to the priesthood.

I cannot agree with the above analysis and agenda in good conscience. I belong to that large centrist, reform-minded group of devoted Catholics who affirm the creeds, the scriptures and the teachings of Vatican II, but have come to a far different diagnosis of our current sexual abuse troubles. Indeed, I see the present teachings on sex and gender as contributing to the current disarray. The last thing we need is a reaffirmation of rigid teachings, which are seriously flawed morally and theologically.

Yes, I agree with the conservative assessment of our sexually permissive secular culture as destructive and dangerous to men, women, children, families and the unborn. But I don't think our present Catholic stance is helping the situation. The official Catholic teachings on sex and gender are too inadequate, stunted and skewed to help engender mature chastity in either a celibate or marital vocation. The distortions on sexuality also weaken the church's moral authority in the crucial work of the prolife movement and for peace and justice.

While Vatican II marked a positive turn toward accepting human sexuality as a gift of the Creator, no adequate theology of the body and sexuality has been developed since. Paul VI's postcouncil reaffirmation of the ban on contraception in Humanae Vitae was a sad regression. Giving in to conservative fears, the pope reversed the recommendation for change offered by the majority of the birth control commission he had appointed. In effect, he repudiated the testimony brought by married lay members on the burden of the teaching. …

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