Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Act Naturally

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Act Naturally

Article excerpt

Many Catholics aren't persuaded by the church's natural law arguments on matters of sex and morality. Maybe it's time we come up with more reasonable conclusions.

A woman I know quit her job as an administrator in student life at a Catholic university because she could no longer stomach what the church had to say about homosexuality. Her gay son was in his second year as an undergraduate and she found it increasingly impossible to defend or overlook Catholic teachings that described her child--or any other gay student--as someone suffering from an "objective moral disorder." You can imagine what she thought of our local bishop's efforts to oppose legislation allowing same-sex marriage, or arguments offered by other Catholic leaders that gay marriage undermines the sanctity of the church's sacrament. To say the least, she thinks these teachings, based on natural law arguments, are deeply unreasonable.

Other friends of mine (you may have them, too) have been wrestling with reproductive issues, and while they support Catholic teaching on abortion, they are not at all convinced that in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, or sterilization are "intrinsically evil"--meaning they can never, ever be done. And do not get these folks started on the church's absolute ban on contraception. Not even their parents see the reasonableness of this natural law teaching.

Here is the problem: Pope Paul VI, who wrote his encyclical on the regulation of birth, Humanae Vitae, in 1968, said that the church's teachings on morality needed to be reasonable. Unlike doctrinal teachings that we accept on faith, moral teachings should be supported by clear and transparent arguments with evidence capable of persuading people of good will. You should not just order Catholics to believe that contraception is always wrong. You need to persuade them, using reason to show the rightness of church teaching. So the pope relied on so-called natural law arguments to defend the church's ban on contraception.

Overwhelmingly, however, Catholic theologians, pastors, and laity were not convinced by the natural law arguments in Humanae Vitae. In the nearly half-century that followed, a growing number of Catholics around the world have found church teachings on sexuality, gender, and reproductive technologies unpersuasive and unreasonable. Catholics in the few countries where bishops have published the responses to the Vatican survey preparing for this October's synod on the family have described church teaching on sexuality as repressive, unrealistic, and disconnected from real-life experience.

Many Catholics in this country have stopped obeying one or more of these teachings, and millions of others have left the church altogether in dissent. Instead of trying to address the weaknesses in these natural law arguments, until very recently church officials have either simply repeated these unpersuasive arguments or tried punishing or silencing any dissent. None of these approaches have made the teachings seem any more reasonable or convincing.

Most of the church teachings that many of us find unreasonable or unpersuasive are in the area of sexuality, gender, and reproduction. It is the natural law arguments underlying these teachings that many Catholics find unconvincing because these arguments are based on a narrow understanding of our nature as people. Even the official preparatory document for the upcoming synod acknowledges that for many "the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible."

When my friend is told that her son's sexual love for his partner is "intrinsically disordered" or "intrinsically evil" because he is not made to procreate with another male, she objects that the love between these two persons is so much bigger and more complex than the question of whether their "parts" fit. When other friends hear that they cannot use in vitro fertilization because sperm and egg must meet naturally (and thus not in a petri dish), they are astounded at this narrow understanding of human sexuality. …

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