Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction

By Sutton, Agneta | Ethics & Medicine, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction


Sutton, Agneta, Ethics & Medicine


Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction

Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012.

Like the authors' earlier award-winning book The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology published in 2008, this book mounts a challenge to traditionalist Catholic sexual ethics. While the earlier work was directed at fellow theologians, especially Catholic theologians, this later book is written for the general educated Catholic population and as a teaching tool introducing college students to the latest debates in Catholic sexual ethics.

Adopting a revisionist position, the authors take issue with traditionalist Catholic moral theologians who defend absolute magisterial norms prohibiting contraception, use of reproductive technologies bypassing spousal intercourse, premarital sex, and homosexual acts. Victims of the naturalistic fallacy, so it is argued, traditionalist Catholic moral theologians derive their norms of sexual ethics from observations about the biological structure of male and female sexual organs and of heterosexual sexual intercourse. By contrast, Salzman and Lawler adopt what they call "perspectivism." That is, they put an emphasis on human interpretation of natural data and on human lived experience.

Structured as a work introducing the reader to Catholic sexual ethics, the book begins with a historical overview of the Catholic moral tradition. Commenting first on the biblical heritage, the authors note that the early Yahwist creation story (Gen 2-3) puts an emphasis on the relational aspect of the man-woman relationship, and thus on human relationships in general, whereas the later Priestly creation story (Gen 1) centres on procreation. Both themes have remained recurrent themes in Christian sexual ethics. Until recently, however, Catholic thinking has put a greater emphasis on the procreative good of marriage than on the relational one, as observed by the authors. They also point to the Stoic heritage, which came to the fore in the negative views on spousal sexual love expressed by the early Church Fathers, and which have set a stamp on subsequent Catholic teaching.

The second chapter, entitled "Unitive Sexual Morality: A Revised Foundational Principle and Anthropology," is the one spelling out the authors' revisionist understanding of human sexuality and relationships. It takes its cues from the Second Vatican document Gaudium et spes, according to which spousal love is "uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act" (GS, 47) and signifies and promotes "that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with joyful and thankful will" (GS, 48). As argued, Gaudium et spes set a new tone in Catholic sexual ethics. No longer was there an overriding emphasis on the procreative dimension of spousal intercourse. …

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