33 Years of a Conventional Mantra: On Sexuality, the Hierarchy Has Usurped the Entire Teaching Office

By Schulte, Regina | National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

33 Years of a Conventional Mantra: On Sexuality, the Hierarchy Has Usurped the Entire Teaching Office


Schulte, Regina, National Catholic Reporter


For more than three decades the Catholic church has seen no progress in formulating a contemporary understanding of human sexuality, one that will provide principles for pastoral accommodation to new insights. If this were a board game, the church's piece would still be sitting on "Start."

Last month we witnessed a reoccurring event. This time two theologians at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, who have been attempting to bring lay insights into the subject of human sexuality, were sharply rebuked by the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for defending the moral legitimacy of homosexuality, contraception, premarital sex, and other hot-button issues in sexual ethics.

The Sept. 15 doctrine committee, in addressing the men's book, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, found serious error, saying the work could not be considered authentic Catholic teaching.

"The book proposes ways of living a Christian life that do not accord with the teaching of the church and the Christian tradition," according to the statement.

By rejecting the book as in opposition to "authentic" teaching, the bishops once again reeled this vital issue back to the 1966 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. It was then that Pope Paul VI stunned the church by writing that allowing contraceptive practice as a moral choice for married couples would break with traditional church teaching.

By then the majority of laypeople had already concluded that artificial birth control was a necessity, and therefore a right for them and their families. The theological community (lay men and women among them by that time) felt that their role in serving the church community compelled them to dissent from Humanae Vitae. "Traditional" moral teaching was woefully inadequate, many concluded, and imposing it with this unilateral decision was a misuse of papal authority.

Thus it was that the Catholic Theological Society of America commissioned a study of sexual morality to be undertaken by a committee chosen from their members. Theologians Anthony Kosnik, William Carroll, Agnes Cunningham, Ronald Modras and James Schulte took on the task. In 1977 they published Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought.

In a near instantaneous reaction that bordered on hysteria, it was condemned by the hierarchy, despite the fact that the Catholic Press Association that year gave the book its first-place award in the theological category.

The denouncing of Human Sexuality then and The Sexual Person now--33 years later--indicates nothing has changed and that we are hearing the repetition of a conventional mantra: They are not in accord with traditional/authentic (i.e., hierarchical) church teaching.

In both cases, this judgment was delivered with neither prior dialogue with the authors or invitation to enter a dialogue. That both of these studies took the matter into territory dictated by contemporary need received no consideration. The grace experience of the laity, known as the sensus fidelium; remained outside the pale.

True, a nod to the person-centered natural law used in both studies can be found in a few church documents. Pope John Paul II nudged this forward. However, these concessions seem never to get translated into praxis. In the end, conclusions and rejections continue to revert to "authentic" teaching.

In both of these scholarly works, theologians found the seed for their thought in the 1965 document Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council. Article 51 states that the moral aspects of conjugal love and procreation derive from "the nature of the human person and his acts."

Society has since come to realize the many and deep complexities embedded in "the human person" and how sexuality engages our very "nature." New advances in science, biology, psychology, genetics and medical sciences are creating an accumulation of situations and possibilities not even dreamed of when the church's traditional sexual moral code was formulated. …

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