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The Catholic hierarchy’s problem with sex

2018-09-20T11:29:12+00:00

The Catholic hierarchy’s problem with sex — Part I

An obsolete understanding of the differences between men and women

Jeanne Follman, Chicago
United States
September 17, 2018

This is a three-part series exploring the Catholic hierarchy’s problem with sex.

Part I looks at the Church’s outmoded understanding of the biological basis of sex itself, and what that means for beliefs about the differences between men and women. Part IIcompares the Church’s view of men and women with the way we used to think about race, and describes it as an ideology. Part III shows how Church teachings based on this view of men and women contradict other longstanding moral teachings of the Church, and have not been received by the faithful.

It’s not just the crisis of sexual abuse and cover up, which is ghastly enough. If we think back over the span of time since Vatican II, almost every divisive controversy within the Catholic Church has been about sex.

Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae kicked it off by declaring the use of artificial contraception a mortal sin. That ban generated enormous dissension among the faithful, clergy, and theologians, and even among many bishops.

It quieted down after a while, with the tacit agreement between the parties that the faithful and the clergy would ignore the ban and the bishops would ignore them ignoring it.

Sex still roils the Church today: insurance coverage of contraception; mandatory priestly celibacy; homosexuality and gay marriage; the ordination of women; cohabitation before marriage.

The fight over the reception of the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried has generated threats of schism.

The Synods of Bishops in 2014-2015 and the recent World Meeting of Families all ended up getting stuck on sex. The Catholic hierarchy simply can’t stop litigating who should have sex with whom, and how they should have it.

Yet when it comes to sex, the institutional Church regularly behaves in a way that is either painfully hapless or tragically destructive. Why is this so?

The failure in dealing with sex is driven by a host of things, including enforced priestly celibacy, a clerical culture, and an autocratic governance structure that expects obedience and rewards secrecy.

This is especially true of the crisis of sexual abuse and coverup. But underlying it all is an outmoded understanding of the biological basis of sex itself, and what that means for the differences between men and women.

This understanding affects not only its teachings, but ultimately the way in which the Church governs itself and behaves in the world, so it is well worth illuminating.

The Feminine Genius

Pope Francis has always admired women, even describing us as having a special “feminine genius” that men do not share.

He expressed it like this when he spoke to the Union of Superiors General in May 2016: “… women look at life through their own eyes and we men cannot look at it in this way. The way of viewing a problem, of seeing things, is different in a woman compared to a man. They must be complementary, and in consultations it is important that there are women.”

As flattering as such an attitude may be, what comes along with it is a bit more fraught.

In Church teaching on the subject, the feminine genius is defined by four key attributes. Women have a receptive nature, both biologically as they are built to receive new life, as well as spiritually.

They are sensitive, and are able to see the deepest needs of the heart. They are generous, and available to meet the needs of the surrounding community, and they are maternal, both within the individual family and among the whole human family.

The feminine genius of women nurturing children, one child at a time, can change the face of society.

The pope sees this feminine genius as a matter of ecclesiology – the theology of the Church itself, its nature and structure.

As Pope Francis explains, “In Catholic ecclesiology there are two dimensions to think about, the Petrine dimension, which is from the Apostle Peter and the Apostolic College, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops, as well as the Marian dimension, which is the feminine dimension of the Church.”

The Petrine dimension includes Peter and the apostles, and the roles of priests and bishops building and maintaining the life of the Church.

The Marian or feminine dimension includes the maternal work of bearing and raising children. This exercises the feminine genius and should be generalized to society so that women can humanize its structures and make society more homelike.

This view of men and women as innately different and complementary is foundational in the Church’s concept of itself and its response to the world.

The idea that men and women are innately different and complementary underpins its view of marriage as a partnership between a man and a woman as the root of the family; it is seen as a God-given certainty in an uncertain time, with the Church as the last bulwark against an encroaching secular West that seeks to blur sexual identities.

Since sex is proper only within the bounds of marriage and only if it is always open to procreation, birth control and sex outside of marriage are morally wrong.

Since male-female complementarity is essential to marriage, homosexual acts are disordered, and any attempts to make same-sex unions the equivalent of marriage are also wrong because they disregard the essential nature of an institution established by God.

And since men make up the Petrine dimension of the Church and women the Marian dimension, ordination to the priesthood (and thus Church governance) is reserved only to men.

The question is, is this an accurate way for the Church to think about men and women?

Obviously, it’s hard to argue with the fact that men and women in general are different. That’s a no-brainer.

In fact, much of feminist thought is taken up with identifying the ways in which sex affects how we see and interact with the world, and understanding and experiencing those different perspectives.

The groundbreaking 1982 book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development by Carol Gilligan is a classic example of this. Of course, men and women are different. That’s not the issue.

The issue is that in Church teachings, men and women must be different, must all be different, and their immutable, complementary differences must go on to define and constrain what each individual is obligated to do, as well as that from which each is excluded.

Men to one side, women to the other, each with their own innate sexual essence. And therein lies the problem.

We’ve seen this business of innate difference before, back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in how we used to think of race.

In Part II, we’ll explore how the Church’s view of the innate differences between men and women is eerily similar to the old, now-debunked understanding of race, and show that it is in fact an ideology.

Jeanne Follman is the author of When the Enlightenment Hit the Neighborhoods: The Waning of the Catholic Tradition — and Hope for Its Future.

The Catholic hierarchy’s problem with sex — Part II

A debunked, ideological view of men and women

Jeanne Follman, Chicago
United States

This is the second in a three-part series exploring the Catholic hierarchy’s problem with sex. Part II compares the Church’s view of men and women with the way we used to think about race, and describes it as an ideology.

Part I of this series explored the Church’s outmoded understanding of the innate differences between men and women, embodied in the idea of the feminine genius. It turns out that this idea of innate sex differences is strikingly similar to how we used to think about race.

The traditional view of race held the following: there are a finite number of separate, natural races; there are clear, scientific ways to distinguish them; there is a fixed racial essence that each member of a race possesses; and race can predict individual behavior.

It was also assumed at the time that separate and distinct races were a part of the fabric of God’s creation, and society was morally obligated to defend that separation.

Marriage between the races was illegal, and ministers who presided at such ceremonies were often prosecuted. This idea of innate differences was pervasive until after World War II, and was discredited only after its embrace by Nazism to justify the superiority of the Aryan master race.

In the U.S., interracial marriage was only finally decriminalized in 1967 with the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia.

The traditional view of race is now considered deplorable; the secular West, including the Church, no longer buys into it. Today we know that racial boundaries are fuzzy and that there is no absolute way to demarcate one race from another.

Even obvious characteristics such as skin tone fall on a continuum, with the line between races often drawn both arbitrarily and differently in various cultures.

Racial boundaries have shifted over time as well; the Irish in nineteenth century America were not considered “white,” as demonstrated by cartoons portraying Irishmen as monkeys.

We also know that there is no evidence of a fixed “racial essence” and no evidence that racial characteristics can predict individual behavior. Furthermore, the use of race as a reason to compel or exclude is thoroughly unacceptable.

Yet if we flip out race in this traditional view and replace it with sex, what we get is something very close to the Church’s view of men and women.

This view holds that there are only two sexes; that there are clear ways to distinguish them; that there is a fixed “sexual essence” which each member of the sex possesses; and that sex predicts individual behavior.

In this view, humans are either men or women, and there is no possibility of fuzzy boundaries between the two. Biological sex creates a distinct “sexual essence.”

Women, because they are women, have particular characteristics that men do not. They are the maternal ones; they are more nurturing, more sensitive and intuitive, and have other distinctive qualities that make them different from and complementary to men.

Sex both predicts and constrains individual behavior, and it’s fine to compel or exclude based on it. This view of men and women as innately different and complementary is a part of the fabric of creation and the foundation of the family, and must be defended, particularly against the onslaughts of the secular West.

But what if, in this case, the secular West got it right and the Church got it wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time.

The Church no longer condemns democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, historical analysis, ecumenism, literary criticism of the Bible, or the study of the early Church Fathers, as it did in the early 1900s. The historical record is rich with teachings that have quietly (and rightly) been abandoned.

What if, in fact, sexual boundaries are actually somewhat fuzzy, just like racial boundaries? What if sexual traits do fall on a continuum?

What if biology, genetics, and neuroscience now paint a much more complex picture of sexual boundaries, with individual humans sharing some bits of each sex? What if “sexual essence” may only be true in general?

What if men and women are not always complementary, and what if sexual characteristics in fact do not predict individual behavior? What if receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, and maternity are admirable human qualities rather than exclusively feminine ones?

Then the Petrine and Marian dimensions break down, and Church teachings on all things sexual, based on the idea of innate and complementary sex differences, including its teachings on homosexuality, the ordination of women and the like, are all seriously flawed.

Conservatives often criticize Catholic outreach to the gay community because it privileges pastoral concerns over Church teachings. This is a valid criticism; pastoral outreach should be in harmony with Church teachings.

But there are some very good reasons to think that the teachings themselves are the problem, not the pastoral outreach, and thus are in need of critical scrutiny and re-evaluation.

Besides its obvious similarity to a now-discredited view of race, Church teachings based on innate and complementary sex differences are problematic for other reasons.

Ideology

Disconnected from sex, the metaphors of the Marian and Petrine dimensions are a lovely and authentic articulation of the various ways in which the Church fulfills its mission in the world. They certainly work as poetry. But they fail as ideology.

Pope Francis hates ideologies; he calls them brutal and detached, “divorced from the people themselves,” and disconnected from the lives people actually live. He says they “coerce reality to fit an idea, which turns people into instruments.”

He rails against those seeing everything “through the prism of their ideologies.” During an October 2013 sermon, Pope Francis made this point: “The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people].

In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought.”

This is exactly what happens when the Church teaches that men and women must be seen as innately distinct and complementary, and enforces that difference by blocking access to the sacraments (e.g., the Eucharist, marriage, ordination).

The ideology of innate and complementary sex differences refuses to recognize the obvious and overwhelming variation among individuals, and is disconnected from the circumstances in which so many members of the faithful live their lives.

It attempts to coerce our very messy reality into a rigid, abstract ideal, prescribing certain obligations and excluding others. And it punishes those individuals whose lives don’t match the characteristics it constructs, especially those on the fuzzy boundaries of sexuality.

Traditionally, the Catholic moral context for looking at any issue is always to start by looking at the at the concrete, lived experience of individual humans, not by looking at some abstraction.

As Pope Francis said in his homily to priests at the Chrism Mass before Easter, 2018, “Closeness is also the key to truth; not just the key to mercy, but the key to truth.

Can distances really be shortened where truth is concerned? Yes, they can. Because truth is not only the definition of situations and things from a certain distance, by abstract and logical reasoning.

It is more than that. Truth is also fidelity. It makes you name people with their real name, as the Lord names them, before categorizing them or defining ‘their situation’.”

As we shall see in Part III, Church teachings based on this view of men and women also contradict both Catholic social teaching and the Catholic intellectual tradition, and have not been received by the faithful.

Jeanne Follman is the author of When the Enlightenment Hit the Neighborhoods: The Waning of the Catholic Tradition — and Hope for Its Future.

The Catholic hierarchy’s problem with sex — Part III

Church teachings based on an obsolete view of men and women contradict other longstanding moral teachings of the Church and have not been received by the faithful

This is the last in a three-part series exploring the Catholic hierarchy’s problem with sex. This part shows how Church teachings based on this view of men and women contradict other longstanding moral teachings of the Church, and have not been received by the faithful.

Part I looks at the Church’s outmoded understanding of the biological basis of sex itself, and what that means for beliefs about the differences between men and women. Part II compares the Church’s view of men and women with the way we used to think about race, and describes it as an ideology.

The idea of innate and complementary sex differences not only fails as science and as ideology, teachings based on it contradict other longstanding moral teachings of the Church.

Catholic social teaching articulates the moral principles regarding individuals and the common good.

It puts the dignity of the human person at the center of a moral vision for society, teaches the intrinsic value of all human life, argues for the protection of human rights and the protection of the poor, defends the dignity of work and the rights of workers, and requires care for God’s creation.

It condemns utilitarianism, which would, for example, see a worker as a cog in a corporate profit-making machine rather than first and foremost as a human being.

It recognizes that meaning is distinct from purpose, and grants that the essential dignity of the human being rises above and beyond whatever practical use is served.

Yet the ideology of innate and complementary sexual differences sees women first and foremost as bearers of children, instrumentalizing them and reducing them to their utilitarian purpose.

In this view, purpose is meaning. It’s one thing to honor and respect a woman’s role in reproduction; it’s another thing to put it at the top of the moral hierarchy.

There is only one precept that belongs at the top of the moral hierarchy, and that is Christ’s primary command to love God and fellow creatures in charity.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops website says that “We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences.” We would be wise to add sex (currently missing) to that list.

The ideology of innate and complementary sex differences not only contradicts Catholic social teaching, it is in conflict with the Catholic intellectual tradition, a framework we all share.

The Catholic intellectual tradition tells us that the world (including the secular West) is essentially good, because all creation is infused with the presence of the divine.

It also tells us that faith and reason should never contradict each other. The idea that faith and reason are coherent, that truth cannot contradict truth as Aquinas says, means that a truth discovered by reason cannot contradict a truth articulated by faith.

If what we know through reason is true, it cannot contradict something we know through faith, if that is also true. And visa versa. Not only can reason be tested by an understanding of the world that flows from faith, faith can be tested by an understanding of the world that flows from reason.

If faith and reason do contradict, then one or both are wrong, and that contradiction must be resolved, using the full scope of available evidence.

Just as it did with race, science is now finding that sexual boundaries are much more fuzzy than previously thought. We are only at the beginning of understanding biological sex, and there is already plenty of ambiguity. Like race, sex falls on a spectrum.

Some people are born obviously male or female, yet carry the opposite sex’s chromosomes. The actions of genes and the effects of hormones on development also complicate the picture.

As Catholics, we are obligated by the Catholic intellectual tradition as well as common sense to pay heed to this; it is evidence that in good conscience cannot be ignored.

Reception

The final reason why Church teachings on sex are in need of critical scrutiny is that they have not been received by the faithful; teachings on the ordination of women, birth control, cohabitation before marriage, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, mandatory celibacy and the like are regularly ignored.

But what does it mean to receive a teaching, and what happens when teachings are not received?

The classic book on the subject is Receiving the Council: Theological and Canonical Insights and Debates by the Jesuit canon lawyer Father Ladislas Orsy. He describes reception as the role the faithful play in receiving what authority has to say because they think it is credible and trustworthy.

For him, “The receivers are the people of God: grace-filled, intelligent, and free persons.” The point of laws laid down by authority is the acquiring of the intended values the laws promote through the process of reception.

He describes it as a dynamic process driven by the “desire implanted by the Creator into the human heart to seek the good.”

How? First, the faithful take cognizance of the law. Then comes the quest for understanding — what is the value that the law intends to promote? Then, the law meets the conscience of the receiver.

There, he says, “a sovereign judgment will have to be made over the law, a judgment for which the person is responsible to his or her Maker and to no one else….The gist of this doctrine is the affirmation of the primacy of conscience over the law: no Christian must hold otherwise.”

Next, “He or she is willing to act, that is, to reach out for the value that the law wants. This is, before and above all, an obsequium to God, ‘honoring God,’ and only secondarily an act of obedience to the law.”

Finally, the receiver acts accordingly, and this is “the implementation of the law in the world of concrete, particular, and personal events.”

What does good reception look like? Father Orsy says, “When, on the wake of the reception, joy and gladness abound, the concentration on faith, hope, and love increases, and the sense of unity is strengthened, then the law is doing good service to the community.

For good people to have wise laws is a liberating experience.” And what does poor reception look like? “Contrariwise, if a law brings sadness and sorrow, distraction from the exhilarating experience of God’s presence, and undue preoccupation with temporal structures and institutions, it is time to question the law.”

For the past 50 years, the Church has been the poster child for the poor reception of its teachings on sexuality, all of which, it should be noted, were never discussed during Vatican II.

Pope Paul VI removed the questions of celibacy and birth control from the Council agenda altogether, and the question of women’s place in the Church and in particular the ordination of women never even made it on to the agenda. Likewise homosexuality.

Poor reception indeed. The faithful have studiously ignored the ban on birth control. They have suffered through the priest shortage, driven by the refusal to ordain women and married men.

They have watched parishes close, and seen the practice of faith and its evangelization compromised.

An entire generation of young people have been set spiritually adrift after leaving the Church because of the injustices they see in its condemnation of homosexual acts, its stand against gay marriage, and its exclusion of so many individuals and families from the Eucharist and other sacraments because they have landed on the fuzzy boundaries of sexuality.

When it comes to sex, the pope and the bishops have botched the job. It is time to question the law. It is time for the faithful, theologians, and the clergy to take back the conversation and hold up all current teachings regarding sex to the full light of day.

This starts with a comprehensive reckoning of the damage done by such teachings, and proceeds with open and honest discussion, informed by scientific evidence and the full Catholic moral tradition, with no smackdowns, no doors closed, and nothing off the table.

Then we can have the debate skipped at Vatican II, finally and fully, until Church teachings on all things sexual are no longer outmoded, no longer ideological in nature, no longer in conflict with other longstanding Catholic moral teachings, and actually received by the faithful.

Jeanne Follman is the author of When the Enlightenment Hit the Neighborhoods: The Waning of the Catholic Tradition — and Hope for Its Future.

 

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