People often ask why I remain in the Roman Catholic Church. There are many reasons, the most significant being that my life's meaning is inextricably woven into the story which the Catholic tradition tells about the world in its sacraments, liturgies and doctrines. But I also find myself in a worldwide community of people who continue to inspire and encourage me with their visions, their often anonymous and unrecognized work among the poorest and most marginalised peoples, and their capacity to live fully human lives without denying the darkness as well as the light, the oppression as well as the freedom, which we discover within the human condition and within the church.
There is also much to celebrate in the church's artistic heritage, in its art, music and literature, in the creativity which connects Catholics across time and space as we seek to give expression to the elusive mystery in which we participate through our intellectual and artistic endeavours.
I'd add what many refer to as 'the sacramental imagination'. Today, the church's sacramental life is impoverished and in need of re-enchantment, not least because it is so often used as a form of policing the boundaries of the church rather than as a lavish response to the gratuity of life. However, there is still an insight at the heart of the church's understanding of sacramentality that creation is good and graced by the Creator, that we live in a material world which shivers and shimmers with the divine presence if only we know how to look, and that our lives our immeasurably enriched if we can live in a spirit of thankfulness for the wonder that there is something rather than nothing.
Sin is not a popular concept today, but it takes on new dimensions when we consider the extent to which greed and exploitation have not only destroyed so many human lives and denied so many people the most basic essentials for survival, let alone the conditions for flourishing, but now also threaten the very fabric of the natural world with its delicate and wondrous harmonies and balances. It seems to me that a rediscovered appreciation of the sacramental nature of the cosmos might open us to a more holistic and less violent relationship with one another and with nature.
To leave the church would be to abandon all this into the hands of the most repressive and joyless of bigots, but it would also be an act of disloyalty to all those who stay and struggle, who refuse to choose between keeping quiet or getting out. The history of the Catholic faith is written in the margins. That's where the most interesting and inspiring Catholics are to be found.
Talk given at St. Mary’s Church, Dublin, Thursday, 5th November, 2009
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Catholicism, Sex and Society in Changing Perspective
(The following is an unedited version of the talk which requires further referencing and polishing before publication.)
Last year, a Vatican official announced seven new social sins to be added to the original list of seven deadly sins. These, you might remember, include lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. The new sins – included by Time magazine among the fifty best inventions of 2008 – include bioethical sins, morally dubious experiments that harm human embryos, drug abuse, polluting, social injustice, accumulating excessive wealth and creating poverty.
One could argue that this updated list more or less coincides with those whom Dante consigned to hell, where the lustful and the gluttonous endure the torments of hell alongside misers, spendthrifts, fraudsters and grafters, each with a form of torture tailor-made to their particular sins. But it is also evidence of the extent to which the Catholic understanding of sin is shifting to accommodate new challenges to traditional moral values, in a way which entails broadening the concept of sin to include social and economic as well as private and personal sins. But does this constitute a more integrated and dynamic understanding of the human in the Church’s teachings, or does it create contradictions which leave us floundering between the devil and the deep blue sea in our attempt to reconcile the Church’s social and sexual ethics? That’s the question I want to explore tonight, by examining how Pope Benedict is incorporating questions of reproduction, marriage and the family into his own vision of Catholic social teaching in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, and by asking how we might interpret this in the wider context of the church’s social and sexual ethics.
‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ So says the author of Ecclesiastes, that strange little book in the Wisdom literature which vacillates tantalisingly between world-weariness and poetic hopefulness. To a certain extent, that’s true. From the beginning, the Christian Church has been concerned with economic justice and sexual ethics, and its earnest endeavours over two millennia to get people to be more generous and less lascivious really don’t appear to have shifted humankind very far along the road to paradise. Caritas in Veritate arguably belongs within this continuous tradition which seeks to discover what it means to be human, in the context of a holistic approach which recognizes the continuity and co-dependence between the private and the public, the sexual and the social, the individual and the community.
But is this really an integrated ethos which speaks to our human condition with the maturity and wisdom which one might expect from a tradition as ancient and enduring as the Catholic Church, or might it begin to unravel at the seams if we look too closely?
In coming to speak in Dublin I’m aware that I’m visiting a society still reeling from the effects of two recent traumas – the release of the Ryan report, and the global economic crisis. In both situations, trusted institutions have been found guilty of catastrophic failures, brought about not by so-called ‘acts of God’ but by human corruption, exploitation and abuse, by a lack of institutional accountability and transparency, and by an apparent indifference to the most basic rules of decency and respect which should govern human interactions, particularly when these involve a relationship of trust and a duty of care to the vulnerable. I’m also mindful of the fact that, as an outsider, I may have little insight into the complexity and indeed the diversity of responses to either of these crises among the people I’m addressing. But I see my invitation to this gathering as evidence of a desire shared by many Catholics today, practising or not, to understand more about our faith and its challenges and visions, to be informed about the role of the church in the modern world, and to make an active and intelligent contribution to shaping that role and offering our own insights and experiences as potentially transformative resources in the context of an institution which is creaking and groaning under the weight of its own hierarchical superstructure.
So, with those opening comments in mind, what I want to do tonight is to offer a broad overview of that tradition known as Catholic social teaching, which is usually taken to originate with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Next, I focus on Caritas in Veritate, in order to say what its many strengths are in its vision of the human in a context shaped by love and by the giftedness of all life, and confronted by the widespread abuses and exploitations which proliferate in the current global economic order. Then I turn to consider some of the more problematic aspects of the encyclical, not so much in what it says but in what it fails to say, and I focus on its treatment of marriage, the family and procreation. I conclude by saying a little about how I understand this in the context of the wider crises facing the Church in its understanding of human sexuality and the ways in which this affects our relationships and institutions.
Catholic social teaching is a developing tradition, in which each new document presents its arguments and insights in conversation with its predecessors. So, for example, Caritas in Veritate is written as a reflection on Populorum Progressio, Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical on human development which many regard as the most left-wing of all the church’s teaching documents.
There are however certain basic concepts which have shaped Catholic social teaching from the beginning. These include the inherent dignity of the human person made in the image of God; solidarity and respect for the common good in recognition of the fundamental sociability of human beings; the balancing of individual rights and responsibilities; defence of workers’ rights; respect for the family as the foundation of the social order; the demand that justice entails a particular concern for the most vulnerable members of society, and the principle of subsidiarity, in which the responsibility of the state to maintain justice, protect its citizens and participate in the international order is balanced against the rights of smaller and more localised groups to organise their own affairs and to participate in civil society without undue interference by the state. All these are staunchly defended in Caritas in Veritate. While the right to private property is also enshrined in Catholic social teaching, this is always relative rather than absolute, for poverty and need have a prior claim upon our individual and shared resources. This means that, although the church ostensibly rejects socialism and communism, its preferred economic model is closer to that of European Christian democracy with its broadly socialist economic principles than British and American forms of free market capitalism.
The greatest impetus to the development of the church’s social teaching came from the Second Vatican Council, which in the years between 1962 and 1965 brought about arguably the greatest transformation in the Roman Catholic Church since the Reformation. The opening paragraph of the 1965 Vatican II Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, offers a clear vision of how the Council sought to reposition the Church in the world, and it continues to be a source of inspiration for many who seek to keep that vision alive at a time when it is perceived to be under threat from powerful forces within as well as outside the church:
The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community of people united in Christ and guided by the holy Spirit in their pilgrimage towards the Father's kingdom, bearers of a message of salvation for all of humanity. That is why they cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history. (#1)
The Council coincided with a postwar era when liberation movements were transforming the shape of global politics and revolutionising the social and sexual values of the western democracies. European colonialism was coming to an end in the African independence movements, in America the civil rights movement was at its height, the cold war and the war in Vietnam were inspiring widespread peace movements, and the women’s movement was gathering momentum across the western world with demands for sexual and reproductive liberation which would overturn centuries of patriarchal Christian hegemony. They were heady times – a series of seismic shifts within the values and institutions of modern society which heralded widespread and irrevocable change. For some it was an era of exhilarating freedom, for others it was a catastrophic falling apart of the values and institutions of society. This was also true with regard to the impact of Vatican II on the world of Roman Catholicism.
Catholics who had been raised in a spirit of suspicion often verging on isolation with regard to the non-Catholic world were suddenly told that they had a duty to enter into dialogue and active social and political participation with those of all faiths and none. The barriers which had kept Catholics safely insulated from their Protestant neighbours came tumbling down as new ecumenical initiatives were fostered and encouraged. The vernacular replaced the rituals and mysteries of the Latin Mass, and a church rooted in western history, tradition and culture put out new shoots of inculturation and liberation, so that it became a world church bearing the cultural imprint and expressing the political concerns of a representative cross-section of the whole human race, particularly the poor and the marginalised. The old rules and regulations which had governed Catholic life for generations were abandoned in favour of a new approach which privileged personal conscience and responsibility over unquestioning obedience to the Church’s teaching authority, and which allowed for a far greater plurality of interpretation and observance than had previously been the case. For some Catholics, this was a time of unprecedented optimism and freedom. For others, it was (and remains) a near-apocalyptic disaster.
And of course I’m aware that these changes played out differently in the context of Irish Catholicism, where traditional models of Catholic faith and life persisted for longer than they did in other parts of Europe, and arguably imploded with a far greater sense of crisis than they did elsewhere.
Many would say that the door slammed shut on the liberalism of the postconciliar church in 1968 with the publication of the birth control encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI went against the advice of the commission he himself had appointed and insisted upon the unbreakable connection between the procreative and unitive aspects of married sexuality (in theory, the only kind of physical sexual expression permissible to Catholics). The widespread failure of that encyclical to gain acceptance even among many devout Catholics, and the sense of outrage which it provoked in societies which were celebrating the sexual revolution, the invention of the contraceptive pill and the coming of age of the women’s movement, shattered the optimism which the Council had inspired. For conservatives, Humanae Vitae was and continues to be a much-needed brake on the libertarianism and licence of modern sexual mores which they argue have led to the unleashing of feminism and homosexuality, the destruction of the family, and the spread of abortion. For liberals, Humanae Vitae was a profound betrayal of the spirit of Vatican II. Many left the church, many others ignored the teaching on contraception, and some would say that 1968 was the beginning of an age of dissent on the one hand and growing authoritarianism on the other, so that the teaching authority of the church is undermined and conflict intensifies between liberals and conservatives – a conflict which has had a deleterious effect on American politics in recent years.
In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict credits Humanae Vitae with ‘ushering in a new area of magisterial teaching’ which insists upon ‘the strong links between life ethics and social ethics’. (#15) While the documents of the 1960s and 1970s tended to focus on questions of social justice and had little to say on issues of reproduction and sexuality, since the publication of Pope John Paul II’s so-called pro-life encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, in 1995, there has been a growing tendency to weave together the personal and the political, and to present an integrated vision of the human in his or her most intimate relationships as well as in the context of global institutions and structures. This approach is to a large extent informed by the personalist philosophy of Pope John Paul II, who appealed to the fundamental dignity and freedom of the human person in his increasingly passionate resistance to new medical technologies and rights-based claims in the areas of sexuality, reproduction and euthanasia.
When the ageing John Paul II surveyed the world by the time of his later encyclicals, he saw a darkening of the human horizons. As well as continuing war, violence and economic injustice, he identified new and serious threats to the fundamental dignity of the human person in the form of reproductive technologies, the legalisation of abortion, and the growing threat of euthanasia. In Evangelium Vitae, he continues to seek a balance between the politics and economics of socialism and liberalism, but he also focuses considerable attention on abortion, euthanasia, war and capital punishment. In fact, just as a relevant aside, the church is gradually shifting its teaching on capital punishment, as it is on war, so that it is edging towards an ethos of non-violence which would encompass all deliberate taking of human life as wrong, whatever the circumstances. Whether or not this will ever translate into moral absolutism on questions of war and capital punishment remains to be seen, but in pragmatic if not in absolute terms, recent popes have been unequivocal in their condemnation of war and, when the 1992 Cathecism was revised in 1997, the teaching on capital punishment had been reworded in such a way as to render ‘practically nonexistent’ the conditions under which an offender might be executed.
So in terms of its vision for society, there is I think an enduring legacy of wisdom within the body of Catholic social teachings, and one which we might recognize as prophetic in the light of recent events. It has rightly been called the church’s best kept secret, and it may not be entirely irrelevant to what I’m saying this evening to ask why it is that most people know what the Catholic Church teaches about abortion, contraception and homosexuality, but even among Catholics very few know much about the social teaching. I recently had to run a class for a group of graduates training to be teachers in Catholic secondary schools, and none of them had heard of let alone read the social teaching documents.
However, if one change is the weaving together of sexual and social ethics in recent documents – a topic to which I shall return – another change is the shift from a natural law to a more biblical or christocentric approach. The natural law perspective of the earlier encyclicals up until the 1960s reflects a distinction between nature and grace in early twentieth century Catholic thought which many theologians have since rejected, for it implies that the natural, historical world of human affairs is in some sense distinct from the life of grace revealed in Jesus Christ. The risk of this is that the church understands itself as inhabiting a separate and more elevated plane which sets it apart from the world, so that there is little connection between reason and revelation, and the language of human affairs becomes largely dissociated from the language of salvation and faith. The advantage is that it allows the church’s teachings to be expressed in a language which appeals to a wide audience, because it is not predicated upon a set of religious beliefs particular to the Christian faith. More recent encyclicals have been more biblical and Christocentric in their arguments, so that they manifest a greater tension between the appeal to universal reason on the one hand and the appeal to Christian revelation on the other, and this is certainly true of Caritas in Veritate. Caritas in Veritate begins with the words:
Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. It is a force that has its origin in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth.
The Christocentric vision of Caritas in Veritate may be welcome to many within the Church, it might also make it irrelevant to the very people who most need to read and engage with it. The question immediately arises, therefore, as to who this encyclical is addressed to. In common with other modern encyclicals, it includes within its intended audience ‘all people of good will’, but I wonder if some of those, on reading the opening lines, will decide it’s not for them.
Of course this is a complex issue, because one could argue that the Church’s purpose and mission is not economics but the Gospel, and the proclamation of the Gospel should be the central organising focus of all that the Church seeks to say to the world. But my unease with Caritas in Veritate is that, by positioning itself within the language of Absolute Truth from the beginning, it disguises its own subtle bid for papal power. The more I see of this Pope at work, the more I fear that he lacks the kind of critical guidance which would enable him to recognize that dynamic, which may be deeply encoded within the genetic make-up of the Roman curia. The latest evidence of its pervasive influence is the invitation to disaffected Anglicans to convert wholesale to Rome, without apparently any process of collaboration or dialogue with those most affected by this invitation.
This brings me to focus more closely on Caritas in Veritate, and the problems it presents in wedging together a historically contextualised and critique of existing economic and corporate structures, with a far more idealised and decontextualised concept of marriage and the family as if the procreative family unit is somehow removed from the contingencies of its historical and social contexts.
Caritas in Veritate is vast in its scope. It includes globalisation and world government, procreation, marriage and the family, the market, technology, tourism (including sex tourism), trade unions and workers’ rights, finance and the economic crisis, the role of consumers, the natural environment, energy, and social communications and the media. The encyclical takes up the theme from Populorum Progressio of integral human development and seeks to interpret that in the light of the current economic crisis, the conditions which contributed to it, and the transformation of political, social and economic institutions which it calls for. (Publication was delayed to allow for analysis of the changing economic situation). Its different chapters address a range of challenges including ‘The Message of Populorum Progressio’, ‘Human Development in Our Time’, ‘Fraternity, Economic Development and Civil Society’, ‘The Development of People, Rights and Duties, The Environment’, ‘The Cooperation of the Human Family’, and ‘The Development of Peoples and Technology’. However, it positions all its arguments in the context of the transcendent horizon of human life, so that it insists repeatedly that the meaning of human existence and the endeavour for authentic development can only be approached in the light of the Gospel. The encyclical begins by stressing the centrality of love – caritas – to justice and peace, and it emphasises the relationship between love and truth. ‘Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope.’ (#2) This gift of love is the only authentic basis for all truthful human relationships and interactions, from the intimacy of marriage and the family to the sphere of global politics and economics, and when it is neglected or sacrificed then various forms of relativism, exploitation and injustice proliferate. Thus ‘love in truth – caritas in veritate – is a great challenge for the Church in a world that is becoming progressively and pervasively globalized.’ (#9)
The second chapter of the encyclical – ‘Human Development in Our Time’ – offers a wide-ranging and highly critical analysis of the economic practices and values which led to the current crisis so that, even although economic growth has brought some benefit, it ‘has been and continues to be weighed down by malfunctions and dramatic problems, highlighted even further by the current crisis.’ (#21) The interconnected nature of the problems confronting humanity calls for ‘new efforts of holistic understanding and a new humanistic synthesis’, (#21) which go beyond simply economic and technological solutions to meet the manifold challenges of a global order in which new forms of injustice and exploitation have proliferated since the time of Paul VI’s encyclical, including the diminution of the power of public authorities, deregulation, and the rise of powerful corporations which has undermined social security systems, neglected the interests of citizens and workers, and caused ‘great psychological and spiritual suffering’. (#25) At the same time, the mobility of modern life brings with it a mingling of cultures in a way that encourages relativism and a loss of any transcendent perspective.
There are moments of poetic eloquence which may be the hand of Benedict himself rather than the many advisors who I suspect had a hand in drafting the encyclical. For example, there is a soaring sense of hope in the assertion that ‘The human is not an abandoned atom in an accidental universe but is God’s creature, whom God willed to infuse with an immortal soul and whom God has loved for all eternity.’ (Homo non est atomus in casuali universo deperdita, sed est creatura Dei, cui ipse infundere voluit animam immortalem, quamque ab aeterno dilexit.) (This is my translation. The official translation reads, ‘Man is not a lost atom in a random universe: he is God’s creature, whom God chose to endow with an immortal soul and whom he has always loved.’ (#29)
So although my approach to the encyclical is critical in what follows, I also think its economic critique and its vision of the human understood in the context of the eternal love of God and the essential giftedness of life itself and therefore of all our interactions and transactions is a rich and inspiring vision. However, the mixed reception it has received suggests some of the problems inherent in engaging with and interpreting the document coherently – not least because it is excessively long and repetitive.
Well-known American conservative theologian George Wiegel published an article which had the subheading ‘The revenge of Justice and Peace (or so they may think).’ Here, Weigel claims that Caritas in Veritate
seems to be a hybrid, blending the pope’s own insightful thinking on the social order with elements of the Justice and Peace approach to Catholic social doctrine, which imagines that doctrine beginning anew at Populorum Progressio. Indeed, those with advanced degrees in Vaticanology could easily go through the text of Caritas in Veritate, highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker. The net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.
Weigel sees the Benedictine influence in the encyclical’s ‘strong emphasis on the life issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive stem-cell research)’. Supporters of the economic critique in Caritas in Veritate have criticized Weigel for his selective engagement with papal teaching, but they too have been highly selective insofar as they have minimalized or ignored the problems which arise if one focuses on the more conservative aspects of the encyclical. For example, theologian Richard McBrien claims that
There is far more in this encyclical for liberals to cheer than for conservatives to applaud. With a few significant exceptions, Caritas in Veritate is in the left-of-center tradition of Catholic social teachings, from the time of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum (‘Of New Things’) in 1891 to the present.
Meanwhile, the organisation Catholics for Choice issued a press release in which they criticised the encyclical for its failure ‘to show a true compassion for women, who often are the last to benefit from development aid.’ The press release continues to point out that Benedict XVI ‘never mentions maternal mortality [and] fails to fully address the impact of HIV and AIDS on developing economies’. Now I don’t always sympathise with Catholics for Choice, but in this instance I do and I want to say why.
As I mentioned earlier, Caritas in Veritate promotes the primacy of the family over and against the abuses and powers of the state and the economic order, and it is has in my view a culpably naive approach to the problem of over-population. Referring to ‘the problems associated with population growth’, the encyclical points out that ‘This is a very important aspect of authentic development, since it concerns the inalienable values of life and the family.’ (#44) However, it immediately goes on to discuss the problems created by declining birth rates, and it insists that the solution to population problems lies in ‘the primary competence of the family in the area of sexuality’. (#44) When I read that, I thought, ‘try telling that to Josef Fritzl’s daughter’, who happened to live in one of Europe’s few remaining bastions of conservative Catholicism. The encyclical goes on to develop its argument that declining birth rates contribute to economic problems, and concludes by arguing that it is ‘becoming a social and even economic necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person.’ (#44) It’s interesting to compare this idealised vision with the very brief reference to the family and over-population in Populorum Progressio. Affirming the importance of the family for society, Populorum Progressio also acknowledges that ‘The family's influence may have been excessive, at some periods of history and in some places, when it was exercised to the detriment of the fundamental rights of the individual.’ (#36) It goes on to consider the question of procreation and over-population, and it argues that
it is for the parents to decide, with full knowledge of the matter, on the number of their children, taking into account their responsibilities towards God, themselves, the children they have already brought into the world, and the community to which they belong. In all this they must follow the demands of their own conscience enlightened by God's law authentically interpreted, and sustained by confidence in Him. (#38)
That was written a year before the publication of Humanae Vitae. One cannot help but wonder how much greater credibility Catholic social teaching might have had, if it had been based on this kind of pragmatic approach to the family and contraception rooted in a respect for personal conscience.
Benedict reiterates John Paul II’s condemnation of the ‘culture of death’, evident in the ‘tragic and widespread scourge of abortion’ and in ‘the systematic eugenic programming of births’. (#75) Interestingly however, in its references to abortion and population control, Caritas in Veritate situates these in the context of economics and politics rather than focusing on issues of personal morality. Paradoxically, its closest allies in this might be some radical feminist theorists, who would share its concerns about the use of enforced sterilization, abortion and mandatory birth control policies in population control programmes. However, Caritas in Veritate promotes the rights and competence of the family and of parents over and against state-controlled population control policies, while feminists would promote the rights and competence of women in these issues, and would insist that reproductive choice – including access to effective contraception and abortion when necessary – are intrinsic to the defence of justice and women’s rights in these areas.
The difference between these two approaches is that Caritas in Veritate has a highly idealised idea of the family which offers no acknowledgement of the fact that the family, like other social, economic and political institutions, can be destructive and violent as well as benevolent and nurturing. In other words, families and marriages also suffer the effects of sin. In the vast majority of social, economic and cultural contexts, women are not equal partners with men in parenting and sexual relationships but are far more likely to be victims of sexual violence, abuse and overt and subtle forms of domination and manipulation. In other words, defending the equality, dignity and rights of women is absolutely integral to the promotion of social and economic justice and indeed of the kind of equal and responsible family life which Pope Benedict seeks to defend, and this entails recognizing that families and marriages, like cultures and societies, are imperfect institutions.
Not long after the publication of Caritas in Veritate, a statement by Amnesty International described maternal death rates in Sierra Leone as ‘a human rights emergency’. The report stated that Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world, with one in eight women dying during pregnancy or childbirth:
Thousands of women bleed to death after giving birth. Most die in their homes. Some die on the way to hospital; in taxis, on motorbikes or on foot. In Sierra Leone, less than half of deliveries are attended by a skilled birth attendant and less than one in five are carried out in health facilities.
If we widen the scope, the statistics make for grim reading. According to the World Health Organization, there were an estimated 536,000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2005, of which 99% were in developing countries. Some readers might remember that, two years ago, the Catholic bishops urged Catholics to withdraw all their support from Amnesty International because it changed its constitution to include among women’s human rights the right to abortion, largely in response to the widespread use of rape in conflicts such as Bosnia, the Sudan and the Congo.
The denial of these harsh realities of women’s sexual and reproductive lives suggests that perhaps there are still profound prejudices which shape the thinking of the Roman Catholic hierarchy on questions of women, arising out of the ancient belief that suffering in childbirth is Eve’s punishment for eating the fruit. And of course, this failure to consider questions of maternal health denies the ongoing work of many Catholic agencies and religious orders throughout the world, who incarnate a rather different and more holistic approach to these issues in working for and with the sick, the poor and the abandoned than the men in Rome.
To draw attention to these statistics and challenges is not to deny that stable and loving families provide the best environment within which to raise children, and our modern western societies offer ample evidence of the extent to which children themselves are the most vulnerable and afflicted of all human beings when family life disintegrates. Nor is it to deny that women are just as capable as men of destructive and irresponsible behaviour. But in a post-Freudian age, and in an age when the privacy of the family home or the closed religious institution have become the scenes of some of the worst forms of physical and emotional abuse, we need to be more honest and more courageous in seeking the roots of these problems, and we also need men and women together to be involved in dialogue.
The Church’s credibility on moral matters is increasingly undermined by its failure to engage with the perspectives of women scholars who have now amassed a wealth of ethical reflection which draws on the combined resources of theology, philosophy, sociology and women’s own experiences to develop moral responses to the complex challenges surrounding reproduction and sexuality. Caritas in Veritate emphasises the importance of dialogue in relation to truth, arguing that
Truth, in fact, is lógos which creates diá-logos, and hence communication and communion. Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things. (#4)
If this is indeed true, then the encyclical’s own claim to truth is seriously undermined by its lack of dialogue with women.
But if we probe a little deeper, we find that this encyclical manifests what moral theologian Charles Curran argues is the inconsistency in methods of theological reflection in official church teachings, depending on whether they are referring to social teaching or sexual ethics.
Curran argues that two methodologies are apparent in the Church’s teaching. In the social teaching documents produced during the 1960s and 1970s, he identifies a theological method which is informed by historical consciousness – eschewing universalism and deductive thinking in favour of inductive and contextual approaches to social institutions and values. This is particularly apparent in the call to ‘read the signs of the times’ in formulating theological arguments and propositions. Although Pope John Paul II was cautious of this historical approach, Curran argues that he ‘strengthened and even developed the shift to personalism’ which has been emerging gradually during the twentieth century, and which emphasises ‘freedom, equality, and participation’ over the more authoritarian approaches of earlier papal teachings which privileged the need for order and obedience over the need for personal freedom, culminating in the acceptance of religious freedom during Vatican II. Third, Curran detects a ‘shift to a relationality-responsibility ethical model’, in which ethical reflection is shaped less by deontological or teleological principles and more by the human person’s ‘multiple relationships with God, neighbour, world, and self and the call to live responsibly in the midst of these relationships’.
By contrast, Curran argues that official Catholic teaching with regard to sexual morality is informed by deductive methods of reasoning which privilege law and nature over the human person and which leads to absolutist distinctions between right and wrong with no room for ‘gray areas’. Curran argues that ‘the official teaching is guilty of a physicalism that insists the human person cannot interfere with the physical, biological structure of the sexual faculty or the sexual act.’
It’s interesting to compare this analysis with a recent essay by James Corkery, in which he analyses the theology of the then Cardinal Ratzinger by following a consistent trajectory in his work, from his postgraduate writings through his years as Head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Corkery refers to Ian Linden’s argument that there are two types of theologian, one which acknowledges the political and social contextualisation of theological utterances, and the other which views theology as essentially apolitical. The latter, suggests Linden, ‘requires self-deceit and is itself a political position providing cover support for the status quo.’ Corkery argues that Ratzinger belongs within the latter category. He attributes the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s condemnation of liberation theology to his profound wariness of what he believed were the utopian tendencies inherent in the writings of liberation theologians. Liberation theology’s emphasis on praxis – the idea that through political activity we participate in the transformation of unjust social structures and the beginning of God’s kingdom on earth – militated against Ratzinger’s anthropological concerns. Ratzinger’s rejection of praxis-based theology, what liberation theologians sometimes referred to as the need to privilege orthopraxy, right practice, over orthodoxy, right teaching, is because, to quote Corkery, it
falsifies who the human being is. It is a travesty of the Christian understanding of the human to put making before receiving, doing before being, or ... ethos before logos. When he points out, repeatedly, that it is not social structures that make people good, but rather people who, in their fragile, daily-renewed, Sisyphus-like attempts at ethical decision-making, attempt to contribute to developing models for action that may help to open up conditions for redeemed existence, he is making the point, vital for him, that action/ethos does not give birth to meaning/logos, but vice versa.
Corkery argues that Ratzinger was guilty of misreading Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians, and that they were far less utopian than he supposed them to be. But I want to suggest that Benedict risks a different kind of utopianism, in failing to acknowledge that the family no less than the social and economic order is also the site of ‘fragile, daily-renewed, Sisphyus-like attempts at ethical decision-making.’ The idea that the modern nuclear family is some kind of privileged locus of wisdom and truth which is immune from the social and economic contexts within which it belongs is empirically false and theologically unsound. And here is where I think the stitching together of Ratzinger and Benedict begins to pull apart, so that the iron fist begins to show through the velvet glove.
This latest encyclical is symptomatic of a profound malaise within the traditions and values of Catholic ethics and spirituality, and I think that malaise is becoming more problematic as the active presence of both women and gays within the Church becomes harder to ignore.
My suggestion, and it is just a suggestion, is that perhaps, if we ask ourselves how the Church can be home to the kinds of abuse which the Ryan Report has revealed, we need to probe more deeply into these unexamined areas of the Catholic culture of priestly celibacy. I am not, I must insist, suggesting that sexual abuse is the prerogative of celibate Catholic priests and nuns. What I am suggesting is that the loathing for the sexual body which underlies much of the Church’s teaching, constitutes a dysfunctional dimension of the Catholic tradition which has a potentially catastrophic impact on those in positions of care for the vulnerable, who are trapped in dark fantasies of sexual self-hatred and repressed desire. I suggest – again with all due caution – that the Catholic Church has a fundamental lack of respect for the intrinsic dignity of the sexual dimension of our humanity as a gift from God, and because of that, its modern idealisation of married love is simply the mirror image of its demonization of every other kind of sexual love.
Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition tell us that there is a profound disorder in the human psyche which manifests itself at the level of sexuality, and that the struggle towards understanding and healing has to include an exploration of unacknowledged impulses towards fear and violence which are a constituent aspect of human sexual development. It seems to me that the Catholic tradition of original sin says something pretty similar. But the answer is not to say that there is one kind of sex which is good, holy, loving and pure – fertile married sex – and every other kind is equally condemned and prohibited. We need a more nuanced and honest approach. There is a vast difference between two adult men or women entering into a consensual and loving sexual relationship, and a predatorial regime of adults who, living in a state of denial and resistance to their own most fundamental and misunderstood urges, begin to see every sexual body (including their own) as a demonised source of evil to be punished, abused and subjugated.
The problem as I understand it is that the Church’s social teaching is based on an integrated and nuanced understanding of the ways in which our lives are played out at the intersection of many political, economic and social currents which need to be understood and nurtured in positive ways if they are to create spaces of human flourishing. Its sexual teaching, on the other hand, too often takes the form of an acts-based perspective which understands human sexuality, not in terms of a dimension of our personal stories of relating and becoming, but as a series of disconnected events, any one of which can make a whole relationship bad. So, a married couple who have children but do not remain open to more children during every act of sex stand condemned on the same grounds as a couple who refuse to have children at all for reasons which some Catholics may judge as selfish or misguided. A gay couple who seek to commit themselves to one another in a lifelong relationship of fidelity and love patterned on the Christian understanding of marriage stand under condemnation just as surely as men who go cruising in city parks every night. And, by extrapolation, a priest who sexually abuses a child in his care is no more and no less to blame than a priest who falls in love with a fellow seminarian. All fall below the bar of the ideal, and below that bar there are no degrees of goodness, no more or less good enough ways of loving and being. It’s all or nothing, black or white, and the shades of grey within which most humans explore and come to terms with what it means to live creatively in the light of the sexual aspect of who we are is obliterated.
I remember during my evangelical days, a minister preaching a sermon which was intended to show us why nothing we can do is pleasing to God, and we are totally dependent on the grace of Christ. He asked us to imagine a bride getting ready for her wedding day, and she gets a small stain on her dress. There’s no point in saying that the rest of the dress is perfectly clean and white, because that one smudge has in her eyes ruined the dress. In God’s eyes, said the preacher, even our smallest sin is like that. That to me is pernicious, but it may also tell us much about the understanding of sexual transgression in the Catholic psyche. It matters not how small or how great your transgression is, they are all loathsome and so are the bodies who commit them.
But we are not brides at the heavenly wedding feast. That is the promise of the eschaton. We are gardeners, co-creators in the ongoing work of tending the garden of creation with God. We go about our daily lives in spiritual dungarees and muddy wellies, not in white lace frocks and satin shoes.
So, let me conclude. The church’s social teaching deserves to be much more widely read, discussed and implemented. But – and it is a very large but – it is increasingly rooted in a dangerously romanticised fantasy about the power of the family to resist the evils of society, without recognizing that the family is just as vulnerable to sin, corruption, violence and abuse as the societies of which it is a part, and women and children are overwhelmingly the victims of such violence and abuse. If the church truly wants to promote values of human dignity, equality, participation and flourishing across the frontiers of social, economic, sexual, domestic and political life, then perhaps it could learn a great deal from feminists as to how to go about that. In the meantime, I want to add an eighth sin to that list of seven mortal sins which was introduced last year. I want to say that ‘denying women full and equal participation in church and society’ is a deadly sin, a sin whose deadly effects are not experienced just in the hereafter because every day women suffer Dante-esque torments at the hands of husbands, fathers, neighbours, friends, strangers and soldiers. And the penance? Let women write the next papal encyclical.