Family Ethics: Beyond Sex and Controversy

By Rubio, Julie Hanlon | Theological Studies, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Family Ethics: Beyond Sex and Controversy


Rubio, Julie Hanlon, Theological Studies


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MORAL THEOLOGIANS have traditionally viewed sexual ethics and divorce as matters of serious moral concern, but only rarely have they considered the myriad of other ethical issues that emerge in families. "Sexual ethics" was the name we gave to ethical reflection in the personal realm. The majority of Christians who are married are arguably more concerned with how to live ethically in their homes and neighborhoods, yet Catholic moral theology mostly has given them reflection on what goes on in their bedrooms and on whether or not their marriages can end. The ordinary concerns of married people were most often left to pastoral theologians, and only rarely considered serious enough for academic moral theology.

Protestant theologian Don Browning (1934-2010), who started the Religion, Culture, and the Family Project in 1990 with a Lily Foundation grant, was instrumental in gaining legitimacy for the broader academic study of family, ethics, and religion. Browning insisted on rigorous, interdisciplinary conversation covering a wide range of issues. Though he will be remembered primarily for his influence in Protestant ethics, he also reached out to Catholic theologians, and those who work in the field of family ethics today owe him a great debt.

Catholic contributions to the discipline of family ethics today are diverse and include ethical consideration of marriage as a lived reality, family practices, the moral lives of children, family care, and domestic violence. In this emerging discipline, moral theology overlaps with practical theology, social ethics, sexual ethics, bioethics, and social science. Articles and books treating controversial issues have not disappeared. Still, especially when we survey moral theology throughout the world, we find a growing number of theologians (especially, but not only, married ones) writing less about sex and associated controversies and more on issues that are central to ordinary family life.

MARRIAGE, COHABITATION, AND DIVORCE

Marriage

What is marriage? Where does it begin? What happens when it ends? What strengthens it? What harms it? How can Christians better live into its sacramental reality? In the midst of great debate about these fundamental questions, two major types of responses are discernible, though the two overlap. The first is to defend marriage in its traditional form and explore its theological meaning in greater depth, beginning with systematic theology. The second is to work from the ground up, thinking theologically about the experience of marriage and relating it to Catholic social teaching.

The recently released edited collection, Marriage (Readings in Moral Theology 15), exemplifies this trend. (1) Essays by John Grabowski and Angelo Scola follow Pope John Paul If in describing marriage as a nuptial mystery. (2) Scola argues that it is not necessary for theology to be transformed by experience, but rather "what we need today is a conversion 'to the real.' Only then will it be possible to grasp the mystery of which reality is itself always the sign." (3) For him, marriage, when viewed in the light of Christ, is trinitarian in that "the two spouses are moreover led, in a certain sense, to transcend themselves as a unity-of-two (a dual unity) so as to welcome a third person, the child. This reveals that, in the reality of the very love that unites the two, there is an inherent moment of ascent towards a mysterious 'Quid.'" (4) Florence Caffrey Bourg and David Matzko McCarthy, on the other hand, draw from their own experiences of family and make use of social science to give a theological account of actually existing marriages and call families to greater intimacy, communion, and mission. (5) It is not that the second group is uninterested in conversion, but that they tend to view it differently. Bourg hopes that Christian families will embrace a more expansive solidarity. (6) McCarthy celebrates the "open home" that allows for interdependence and gratuity over the "closed home" where isolation and reliance on the market are more common. …

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