Truly Human Sexual Acts: A Response to Patrick Lee and Robert George

By Salzman, Todd A.; Lawler, Michael G. | Theological Studies, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Truly Human Sexual Acts: A Response to Patrick Lee and Robert George


Salzman, Todd A., Lawler, Michael G., Theological Studies


IN THE CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH of the article discussed by Patrick Lee and Robert George (hereafter, L/G), (1) we cited the International Theological Commission's judgment that the theologian's task "brings with it a somewhat critical function which obviously should be exercised positively rather than destructively." Accordingly, we invited critique of our article "in the same vein so that an important discussion may move forward." (2) We are doubly delighted that a response has come from philosophers L/G: first, because they have taken up our invitation in the spirit in which it was extended; and second, because it provides an opportunity to clarify the lines of the debate among Catholic moral theologians about sexual morality in general and homosexual morality in particular. L/G claim allegiance to what is known as New Natural Law Theory (hereafter, NNLT), (3) a well-known traditionalist school of Catholic moral theology; we claim allegiance to what is generally known as the revisionist school.

The Catholic magisterium proclaims as absolute moral norms prohibiting certain types of sexual acts such as premarital, contraceptive marital, and homosexual sex. Traditionalist theologians support and defend these norms as absolute; revisionist theologians question the absolute status of these norms. Traditionalists tend toward the traditional rule-based, act-centered, authoritarian, nonhistorical approach, which parallels in general the juridical approach of Pope Paul VI's Humanae vitae. Revisionists tend toward a renewed person-based, relation-centered, and historically conscious approach, which parallels in general the interpersonal approach reflected in Vatican II's Gaudium et spes. The opening sentence of L/G's essay illustrates the difference between the two schools: "Scripture, the popes, bishops, pastors, and authorized Catholic teachers have for centuries proclaimed as a significant part of Christian moral teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically morally wrong." (4) The implication is that moral teaching cannot be changed--a position that flies in the face of historical fact.

EVOLUTION IN CATHOLIC TEACHING

Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still only Professor Joseph Ratzinger, articulated common Catholic theology. "Not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration and keeping present of the mystery of Christ. There is a distorting, as well as legitimate, tradition.... Consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically." (5) Scripture, the popes, bishops, and authorized Catholic teachers for centuries proclaimed all sorts of moral teaching--for instance, the mortal sinfulness of taking interest on money, the naturalness and nonsinfulness of the institution of slavery, the "insanity" of religious freedom, (6) the exclusive Catholic membership in the Body of Christ, all of which beliefs the church has abandoned. All those theological developments are well known to Catholic theologians and need not be rehearsed here, (7) but we permit ourselves a brief commentary on one of them to make a theological point important in the present instance.

In 1964 a small group of Roman traditionalists argued, as do L/G with respect to the ethics of homosexual acts, that the traditional teaching on religious freedom could not be abandoned. Their argument did not convince the council fathers of Vatican II, nor did it deter the council from abandoning the traditional teaching and articulating an entirely new one. "This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.... The Synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself" (8)--revealed in the word of God but not recognized by the Catholic Church until 1964; that constitutes a long history of moral misunderstanding. It is this documented history of development in Catholic moral teachings that makes the mainstream of Catholic moral theologians leery about unhistorical moral claims such as those made by L/G, and makes them even leerier about claims made for the creeping infallibility that L/G insinuate in their footnote 1. …

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