PUBLIC FORUM ON SEXUAL MORALITY
On Saturday July 14, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson addressed a public forum in Sydney. The forum was sponsored by Catalyst for Renewal and Aquinas Academy and held at the Salvation Army Congress Hall in Elizabeth Street Sydney. About 300 people were in attendance. Michael Whelan SM introduced Bishop Robinson’s presentation with the following words:
We live in a time of transition. Many issues demand attention. There are three particular issues, intimately connected with each other, that are relevant to our conversation here this morning.
The first is the FACT of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The second is the REACTION to that fact by representatives of the Catholic Church. The third is the SYSTEMIC reality in which the fact and the reaction took shape.
First there was the discovery of the FACT. It took us a while to assimilate this terrible truth. Then there was the discovery of the EACTION. With some notable exceptions, the reaction was, at best inadequate and at worst reprehensible. Our first instinct, it seems, was to cover up rather than own up. And one of the consequences of that was our disregard for the pain and suffering of the victims.
We must ask ‘WHY?’ Even allowing for the loss of perspective that so often accompanies hindsight, we must still ask certain questions:
• Why was our first instinct one of self-defence?
• Why were we so averse to the truth?
• Why did we not immediately ask, ‘What about the victim?’
• Is there anything about our self-understanding that might have aided and
abetted the FACT and our bad REACTION to that fact?
Such questions lead us to the third issue – the SYSTEMIC reality. We Catholics need to look long and hard at ourselves and what we are in fact proposing as Good News for the world. Fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council set in train this program of renewal. It remains very much unfinished business. In particular, we need to have an honest and informed conversation about sexuality.
That is the purpose of our gathering here today. As we engage in that conversation, I urge you remember the link between onversation and conversion. The one thing that will make this a truly enriching event will be our openness to conversion, metanoia, whatever that might mean for us individually.
Bishop Geoffrey Robinson will address us to facilitate that conversation. Geoff studied in Rome from 1955 through to 1965. He was rdained in Rome in 1960, a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney. His doctoral work was in Canon Law, though he has always maintained a scholarly interest in the study of Sacred Scripture. From 1967 until 1983, after a few years as a parish priest, he taught Canon Law at theCatholic Institute of Sydney. In addition to serving as Chief Justice of the Archdiocesan Marriage Tribunal, he was secretary and then president of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand.
In 1984 he published a book on marriage, divorce, and annulment. A few years later he published books on the Gospel of Mark and religious experiences in our everyday lives. More recently he has published his book, Confronting Power and Sex in the
Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (2007) and Love’s Urgent Longings: Wrestling with Belief in Today’s Church (2010).
For many years he served as the Chairman of the Sydney Archdiocesan Catholic Schools Board and the Australian Catholic Education Commission, NSW. Finally, he worked extensively in the areas of ecumenism and professional standards in ministry. In 1984, he was named auxiliary bishop of Sydney, combining administrative work with his Tribunal and other duties.
In his work in the area of professional standards, from 1994 to 2003, Geoff showed intelligent, courageous and wise leadership in tempting to develop honest and constructive ways of dealing with the issues I have mentioned above. In particular, he was largely responsible for the Towards Healing process that was introduced in December 1996 and is widely followed both in Australia and abroad.
SEXUAL MORALITY: HIERARCHICAL TEACHING v CATHOLIC PRACTICE –
CAN WE BRIDGE THE GAP?
Bishop Geoffrey Robinson
The constantly repeated argument of the Catholic Church is that God created human sex for two reasons: as a means of expressing and fostering love between a couple (the unitive aspect) and as the means by which new human life is brought into being (the procreative aspect). The argument then says that the use of sex is “according to nature” only when it serves both of these God-given purposes, and that both are truly present only within marriage, and even then only when intercourse is open to new life, so that all other use of the sexual faculties is morally wrong.1
I have no problem with the idea that human sex has both a unitive and a procreative aspect, but I havefour basic difficulties with the teaching that every single act of intercourse must contain both of these aspects.
A Sin Against God
The first difficulty is that through this teaching the church is saying that the essence of sexual sin is that it is a direct offence against God because it is a violation of what is claimed to be the divine and natural order that God established. It is claimed that God inserted into nature itself the demand that every human sexual act be both unitive and procreative. If it does not contain both of these elements, it is against “nature” as established by God. This raises two serious questions, one concerning nature and the other concerning God.
The Question concerning Nature
In relation to nature, may we not argue that, if this divine and natural order exists in relation to our sexual faculties, it should exist in many other areas of human life as well? So should not the church’s arguments concerning sex point to many other fields where God has given a divine purpose to some created thing, such that it would be a sin against God to use that thing in any other way? Why is it that it is only in relation to sex that this claim is made? I remember reading years ago the mocking argument that the natural God-given purpose of human eyes is to look forwards, so rear vision mirrors in cars are against nature and hence immoral. Granted that this is a mocking argument, does it not raise questions about what we mean by “nature” and how difficult it is to draw moral consequences from a claim to a divinely established nature?
The Question concerning God
Imagine that you read in the newspaper two stories of Australians being physically attacked while overseas. Imagine that the first concerns a man who has largely brought it on himself by drinking too much and getting into a fight, while the other concerns a woman who has not been drinking, has done nothing to provoke anyone and whose name is Julia Gillard. The second story would be by far the bigger, with profuse apologies from the government of that nation. The reason would be that, as Prime Minister of Australia, she represents this country, and an unprovoked attack on her is an attack on the nation. We would all agree that this story concerns a far
greater offence. In the same way, a physical attack on Queen Elizabeth would have the entire United Kingdom up in arms.
This helps us to understand the argument in past centuries that striking a king was far more serious than striking a commoner. In line with this, it was said, the greatest king by far is God, so an offence against God is far more serious than any offence against a mere human being.
Because all sexual sins were seen as direct offences against God, they were, therefore, all seen as most serious sins. This put all sexual sins right up there with the other sin that is directly against God, blasphemy, and this helps to explain why, in the Catholic Church, sexual morality has long been given a quite exaggerated importance.
For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin.2 In this field, it was held, there are no venial sins. According to this teaching, even deliberately deriving pleasure from thinking about sex with anyone other than one’s spouse, no matter how briefly, is a mortal sin. The teaching may not be proclaimed aloud today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes,3 it has never
been retracted and it has affected countless people.
This teaching fostered belief in an incredibly angry God, for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. I simply do not believe in such a God. Indeed, I positively reject such a God. If this were the only God on offer, I would be an atheist.
My first rebellion against church teaching on sex came, therefore, not directly from a rejection of what the church said about sex, but a rejection of the god that this teaching presented.
The parable of the prodigal son may help us here4. The younger son had received the entire share of the property that would come to him and he had wasted it. He had no right to one further square centimetre of the property, for the entire remaining property would now go by strict right to the elder son (“You are with me always and all I have is yours” v.31). The father respected his elder son’s rights and would take nothing from him. When, however, it came to the hurt the prodigal son had caused to his father by abandoning him and wasting the property he had worked so hard for, the father brushed this aside out of love for his son and insisted that he be welcomed and treated as a son rather than a servant. The message is surely that God cares about the rights of human beings and what they do to one another, but is big enough, loving enough and forgiving enough not to get angry at direct offences against God.
When a person takes great offence at even a trivial remark, we tend to speak of that person as a “little” person, while a person who can shrug off most negative comments is a “big” person. My reading of the bible leads me to believe in a very big God indeed who is not easily offended by direct offences. I believe, for instance, that God shrugs off much of what is called “blasphemy” as an understandable human reaction to the felt injustice of evil and suffering in this world. I do not believe that God is in the least offended when parents who have just lost a child rage in terrible anger against God.
In this vein, I must ask whether God will be offended by any sexual thought or action considered solely as an offence against an order established by God, before any question of its effect on other persons, oneself or the community is taken into account.
It must be added that, in the response to revelations of sexual abuse, the idea of every sexual sin as a direct mortal sin against God became a most serious problem, for far too many church authorities saw the offence primarily in terms of a sexual offence against God. This sexual sin was seen as the great mortal sin, far more serious than what was seen as the lesser sin committed against the minor. At the same time, sexual sins were seen as sins of weakness rather than malice, so forgiveness was always easily given. The sexual mortal sin involved in paedophilia was, therefore, to be treated according to the criteria governing all sexual offences – repentance, confession, absolution, total forgiveness by God and hence restoration to the status quo. This contributed greatly to the practice of moving offenders from one parish to another in the name of Christian forgiveness. There was never going to be an adequate response to abuse as long as many people thought primarily in terms of sexual offences against God rather than harm caused to the victims.
Proven Fact or Simple Assertion?
My second objection to the teaching is that it appears to be a mere assertion rather than a proven fact.
No one disputes the facts that sexual intercourse is the normal means of creating new life and that it can and ought to be a powerful force in helping couples to express and strengthen their love. Both the unitive and procreative elements are, therefore, foundational aspects of marriage as an institution of the whole human race.
But are they essential elements of each individual marriage, no matter what the circumstances? For example, if a couple are told by medical experts that any child they had would suffer from a serious and crippling hereditary illness, are they going against God’s will if they decide to adopt rather than have children of their own? Beyond this, are the unitive and procreative elements essential in every single act of sexual intercourse, and, if so, on what basis?
There are always problems when human beings claim that they know the mind of God. So is the statement that it is God’s will, and indeed order, that both the unitive and procreative aspects must necessarily be present in each act of sexual intercourse a proven fact or a simple assertion? If it is claimed to be a proven fact, what are the proofs? Why do church documents not present such proofs?5 Would not any proofs have to include the experience of millions of people in the very human endeavour of seeking to combine sex, love and the procreation of new life in the
midst of the turbulence of human sexuality and the complexities of human life?
If it is only an assertion, is there any reason why we should not apply the principle of logic: What is freely asserted may be freely denied? If it is no more than an assertion, does it really matter who it is who makes the assertion or how often it is made? Where are the arguments in favour of the assertion that would convince an open and honest conscience?
Concentration on the Physical
The third objection is that the teaching of the Catholic Church is to far too great an extent based on a consideration of what is seen as the God-given nature of the physical acts in themselves rather than on how such acts affect persons and relationships. Moral questions are then concerned solely with the details and circumstances of the physical acts rather than of the persons performing them. And the church continues to do this at a time when the whole trend in moral theology is in the opposite direction.
As a result it gets into impossible difficulties in analysing physical acts without a context of human relations. For example, some married couples find that there is a blockage preventing the sperm from reaching the ovum, but that in a simple procedure a doctor can take the husband’s sperm and insert it into the wife in such a way that is passes the blockage and enables conception. But the Vatican condemned this action because the physical act was not considered “integral”.
Teaching of Jesus
The fourth objection is that the entire idea of the necessity for both the unitive and procreative element in each act of intercourse is not based on anything Jesus said or implied, but comes from ideas outside the bible concerning acts that are said to be natural and acts that are said to be against nature. Sexuality concerns a most powerful and important force in human life. In seeking to understand its moral nature, why would the church not turn to anything Jesus said or did, and instead rely
on ideas from other sources?
Hierarchical Teaching and Catholic Practice
We are left with the fact that the Catholic Church is propounding a teaching that only a minority of Catholics still accepts, especially among the young. Western society as a whole has rejected this teaching and gone to a position that is in many ways an opposite extreme. Few people, it seems, are left to argue for a middle ground between the two extremes. It is this middle ground that I now wish to explore.
The Middle Ground
If we decide to leave behind an ethic that sees sex in terms of a direct offence against God, that emphasises individual physical acts rather than persons and relationships, and that is based on a repeated assertion rather than an argument,
where should we go?
I suggest that the answer is that we should move to an ethic that, firstly, sees any offence against God as being brought about, not by the sexual act in itself, but by the harm caused to human beings; secondly, speaks in terms of persons and relationships rather than physical acts; thirdly, looks to the gospels and the person of Jesus for its inspiration; and then, fourthly, builds an argument on these three foundations rather than on unproven assertions.
Harm to Persons
If it is impossible to sustain an entire sexual ethic on the basis of direct offences against God, all the evidence tells us that God cares greatly about human beings and takes a very serious view of any harm done to them, through sexual desire or any other cause. As the gospel of Mark says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mk.9:42). Granted the deliberate Semitic exaggeration in these words, does not this quotation
alone tell us what God thinks of paedophilia? Does it not also tell us that Jesus puts the emphasis on the harm done to the victim rather than on some direct offence
Or take the quotation from Matthew’s gospel, “Then they will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” (Mt.25:44-45) In these two quotations Jesus identifies with the weakest persons in the community, and tells us that any harm done to them is a harm done to himself.
I suggest, therefore, that we should look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct offence against God.
Following from this, may we say that sexual pleasure, like all other pleasure, is in itself morally neutral, neither good nor bad? Is it rather the circumstances affecting persons and relationships that make this pleasure good or bad, e.g. a good pleasure for a married couple seeking reconciliation after a disagreement, a bad pleasure for a man committing rape?
The Church v Modern Society
To take this further, if we go beneath the particular teachings of the Catholic Church on sex and come to its most foundational beliefs, I suggest that there is a fundamental point on which the church and modern Western society appear to be moving in opposite directions.
The church is saying that love is the very deepest longing of the human heart and sex is one of the most important expressions of love that we have, so people should do all in their power to ensure that sex retains its ability to express love as deeply as possible. They should, therefore, make sure that sex does not become so trivialised, for themselves individually or for the community as a whole, that it loses its power to express the deepest love. Modern society, on the other hand, has become more and more accepting of casual sexual activity that is not related to love or relationship.
In its simplest terms, the church is saying that, because love is all-important and because sex is so vital a way of expressing love, sex is always serious, while modern society appears to be saying more and more that sex is “a bit of fun” and not in itself serious.
On this basic point I find myself instinctively more in sympathy with the views of the church than with those of modern society. It was, in fact, the effects of sexual abuse on minors more than anything else that convinced me that sex is always serious.
Do not Harm v Love your Neighbour
Because I see sex as serious, I do not simply conclude that all sex is good as long as it does not harm anyone. I would never want to put the matter in those simple terms, for I have seen far too much harm caused by this attitude.
The idea is expressed in negative terms (“Do not harm”) and inevitably contains within itself the serious risk of brinkmanship, that is, that, with little thought for the good of the other person involved, one may seek one’s own pleasure and, in doing so, go right up to the very brink of causing harm to another. In a field as turbulent as this, countless people basing themselves on such a principle will go over that brink.
Jesus invariably said “Love your neighbour”, and this implies more than the negative fact of not harming. It implies genuine respect for the other and positively wanting and seeking the good of the other. The essential difference between the two is that an attitude of “Do no harm” can put oneself first, while “Love your neighbour” must put the other first. A Christian ethic must, at the very least, be expressed in these positive terms. It is only on this positive basis of respecting and seeking the positive good of the other that we could feel confident of having found a truly Christian ethic. We could never have that confidence on the basis of the negative principle of “Do not harm”.
In doing this, we must take the harm that can be caused by sexual desire very seriously indeed, and look carefully at the circumstances that can make morally bad the seeking of sexual pleasure because they involve harm to others, to oneself or to the community. Some of these factors are: violence, physical or psychological, deceit and self-deceit, harming a third person (e.g. a spouse), using another person for one’s own gratification, treating people as sexual objects rather than as persons, separating sex from love to the extent that sex loses its ability to express the depths
of love, trivialising sex so that it loses its seriousness, allowing the desire for present satisfaction to restrict the ability to respond to the deeper longings of the human heart, harming the possibility of permanent commitment, failing to respect the connection that exists between sex and new life, failing to respect the need to build a relationship patiently and carefully, failing to respect the common good of the whole community.
It will be seen from all of this that I have most serious difficulties with the idea that “anything goes”. In reacting against one extreme, there is always the danger of going to the opposite extreme. I believe that this is what many people have done in relation to sex.
The Teaching of Jesus
The major criterion of sexual morality that Jesus gave us was his universal principle of “Love your neighbour”. He presented this principle as the basis of everything in the Christian life, and this means that, like any other act in a Christian’s life, a sexual act should be based on a genuine desire for all that is good for the other person rather than simply on self-interest. Since we may assume that he was not naïve about either the good or the harm that sexual desire can cause, we must conclude that, having said this, he believed he had said all that needed to be said. In this the church has definitely not followed his example.
The Central Questions
I therefore suggest that the central questions concerning sexual morality are:
Are we moving towards a genuinely Christian ethic if we base all our sexual thoughts and actions on a profound respect for the relationships that give meaning, purpose and direction to human life, and on loving our neighbour as we would want our neighbour to love us?
Within this context, may we ask whether a sexual act is morally right when, positively, it is based on a genuine love of neighbour, that is, a genuine desire for what is good for the other person involved, rather than solely on self-interest, and, negatively, contains no damaging elements such as harm to a third person, any form of coercion or deceit, or any harm to the ability of sex to express love?
Is the question of when these circumstances might apply, and whether and to what extent they might apply both inside and outside marriage, one for discussion and debate by both the church community and the wider community, and for decision and responsibility before God, other people and one’s own deeper self by each individual?
Let me here give the briefest possible answer to some of the questions that might be asked. I am, of course, aware that each question deserves to be thought through far more thoroughly than in it is in these brief comments.
Adultery: It would be very hard to justify adultery under the ideas I have presented, for there would surely always be the breaking of a solemn promise on which another is building his or her life and there would always be the gravest danger of harm to that other. I do recognise, however, that some marriages can be very dead indeed.
Pre-marital sex: I would always like to see a couple carefully building their relationship on a solid foundation of friendship and mutual interests rather than being caught up too quickly in the intoxication of sex, but I recognise that the closer they get to their marriage, the more intimacy there will and should be. I would like them to think about the implications of a full sexual relationship rather than just fall into it, or
feel that there is something wrong with them if they don’t.
Masturbation: My questions would be along these lines: Is it simply part of the normal search for identity of an adolescent? In an adult is it an act of needed self-love and affirmation? Or, on the other hand, is it part of a turning in on oneself and the avoidance of relationships with others? Is it becoming addictive?
Homosexual sex: I believe that, once we see the matter in terms of persons and relationships, the ideas I have suggested apply equally to homosexual sex.
Many would object that what I have proposed would not give clear and simple rules to people. But God never promised us that everything in the moral life would be clear and simple. Morality is not just about doing right things; it is also about struggling to know what is the right thing to do.
Many would also object that such ideas would be too easily abused and would lead to people doing whatever they wanted to. Yes, these ideas would be abused, for sexual desire is a most powerful force, and for that very reason any moral framework on this subject will be abused, just as Catholic teaching has been abused and ignored. But morality is not just about doing what everyone else around us is doing; it is about taking a genuine personal responsibility for everything we do. And sexual morality is about being profoundly sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of the
people with whom we interact. It is through this sensitivity that we will grow as moral persons, in a way that mere obedience to authority can never make us grow.
I believe that there is normally a far better chance of a sexual act meeting the requirements I have suggested within a permanent vowed relationship than there is outside such a relationship. But I could not draw the simple conclusion that: inside a vowed relationship everything good, outside everything bad. The complexities of human nature and the turbulence of sexuality do not allow for such simple answers. Ultimately we must come to personal responsibility, with all its difficulties and dangers, but also with all its potential for growth.
The encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968 was a genuine watershed in the relationship between papal teaching and Catholic people, and I cannot see the slightest possibility of the Catholic people as a whole ever returning to the current hierarchical teaching on sexual morality. If the gap between the two is to be bridged, it must be on the basis of mutual acceptance of a middle ground. I hope that I have pointed in fruitful directions.
1 The most important papal document on sexual morality of the last century, the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, expressed the argument thus:
“Such teaching, many times set forth by the teaching office of the church, is founded on the unbreakable connection, which God established and which men and women may not break of their own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.” Indeed, in its intimate nature, the conjugal act, while it unites the spouses in a most profound bond, also places them in a position (idoneos facit) to generate new life, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and woman. By protecting both of these essential
aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in an integral manner the sense of mutual and true love and its ordering to the exalted vocation of human beings to parenthood.” Pope Paul VI, encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, 26th July 1968, no.12.
2 See Noldin-Schmitt, Summa Theologiae Moralis, Feliciani Rauch, Innsbruck, 1960 Vol.I, Supplement De Castitate, p.17, no.2; Aertnys-Damen, Theologia Moralis, Marietti, Rome, 1956, vol.1, no.599,p.575. The technical term constantly repeated was mortale ex toto genere suo. The sin of taking pleasure from thinking about sex was called delectatio morosa.
3 For example, Clement VII (1592-1605) and Paul V (1605-1621) said that those who denied this teaching should be denounced to the Inquisition.
4 Lk. 15:11-32
5 In recent years there has been an appeal to anthropology, but I have not seen a clear statement of how anthropology demands that every act of intercourse include both the unitive and procreative purpose.