Saturday, October 11, 2014

More on Sex and the Synod

Saint Augustine and his
mother, Saint Monica: the
tensions of Catholic Sexuality
The synod address by Ron and Mavis Pirola, the Australian couple who are co-directors of the Australian Marriage and Family Council that is advisory to the Australian Bishops’ Conference on issues of Pastoral life was a wonderful call for the Synod Fathers to examine their own attitudes on human sexuality.  Too many Catholics—and perhaps especially those who are leading celibate lives—consciously or unconsciously view sex as something sinful but which is given some moral legitimacy in marriage if accompanied by a willingness for procreation.  Our attitudes on sex and human sexuality are greatly shaped by Saint Augustine.  Now, I need to say that I am normally a great admirer of Augustine.  I think he is the greatest mind in the two thousand year history of the Church,  including the Apostles.  But even Augustine didn’t always get it right.  Augustine himself had flirted with Manichaeism for about ten years, from his mid-thirties to his mid-forties and Manichaeism tinged his attitude about human sexuality with its Gnosticism.  Augustine believed that every sexual act, even in marriage, was sinful and was only justified by the desire to reproduce.  While the Church does not explicitly teach this negative theology of human sexuality, this attitude has never been effectively expunged from the Catholic mind.  The requirement that a couple seeking to be married must “be open” to the possibility of having children for the marriage to be valid is one indication of this.  The prohibition of contraception is another.  In practice, of course, the Church understands that sex provides for married couples a depth of intimacy that is inseparable from the physical pleasure; it does not bar from marriage couples who for reasons of age or health are unable to conceive and, indeed, it requires the sexual union of the spouses—at least once after the vows have been made—for the validity of the marriage.  But lurking in the shadows of the Catholic consciousness is the conviction that something so pleasurable as sex must not be completely right.   It was therefore a milestone of change in Catholic thought when a married couple stood up in an assembly charged with shaping the magisterium and declared that the fullest expression of grace in their sacramental life was found in their sexual intimacy.  As one priest I know expresses the same idea: the spouses making love is to the sacrament of Matrimony what the priest celebrating Mass is to the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  Maybe we have finally slipped the bonds of Augustine’s own anguish over the guilt his mother, Monica, instilled in him about his relationship with the unnamed love of his life whom he abandoned at Monica’s directive.  (Augustine tells us in the Confessions that Monica had arranged a marriage for him with a woman of his own social class that required Augustine to abandon the fourteen year “common-law” relationship he had with an unnamed woman.  He expresses the deep love he had for this woman, his faithfulness to her throughout their relationship, and, of course, she was the mother of his son Adeodatus.)   The marriage Monica arranged never took place as Augustine instead embraced a quasi-monastic life after his baptism.  One would think that as a good Catholic, Monica would have been more concerned to have her son regularize the union that had produced his son rather than arrange a new marriage that would advance his career, but Monica is not quite the spiritual figure to which popular Catholic hagiography has reduced her.  Read the Confessions: it is enlightening about the complexity of the mystery of sin and grace, in Monica’s life as well as her son’s.) 
Ah yes, the complexity of the mystery of sin and grace.  That leads us to the point of conflict for many in the Synod and for even more of those following it from our armchairs and monitors.
Now for what I am going to write, I am not a theologian and am not giving a theological evaluation, only an explanation of the phenomenon to the best of my ability.   “Gradualism” or “the Law of Graduality” is a proposed principle in moral theology that recognizes that the Moral Law (as revealed in Scripture and Tradition) sets a standard for which we must all strive but to which we do not all achieve immediately.  It is sometimes simplified to “you can only do the best you can do” but such caricatures reduce it to moral ambivalence.  An example of gradualism, one presented by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, would be of a woman who marries a man who was abandoned by his first wife and left with three children.  Granted, the woman should not have married the previously-married man in the first place until he received a Church annulment.  But now that she is married to him, the Cardinal said, she cannot abandon him and the care of the children.  Of course, it can be argued, that yes she can stay with him, but live in a brother/sister relationship until his first marriage is resolved canonically.  Maybe she can; maybe she can’t.  She loves the man, he loves her, and they find great blessings in their marriage—including in the sexual expression of their love.  Maybe they can’t find the strength to live without this intimacy.  Maybe they try to live in a non-sexual relationship and from time to time they fail. “The grace is always sufficient for us to do the right thing,” one person once told me when I presented a similar situation.  Yes, it is.  But maybe the right thing isn’t what we outsiders to the situation always think that it is. We need to listen attentively to the stories of sin and grace before we unilaterally—like the scribes and the Pharisees—make up our heavy burdens and lay them on others’ shoulders. 
The law of gradualism acknowledges that we develop morally.  We are not all the way yet at perfection.  We take two steps forward and fall one step back. 
This isn’t the same as moral relativism in which there are no moral absolutes—it is the acknowledgement that we all grow in our relationship with God and we all have room yet to grow in our relationship with God and none of us will be all the way there by the time we are summoned to the judgment seat.  If we were we would not need a Redeemer. 
If you check my entry for July 19, 2014 you will see that I wrote then about the theory of moral development which Lawrence Kohlberg, a Harvard professor of psychology, developed a half-century ago.  There has been criticism of Kohlberg’s schema over the intervening decades, but I think it still has great validity.  We move in our moral development from a fear of punishment through a fixation on law to a genuine appreciation of the moral good.  (I am skipping several steps here—check out Kohlberg for a more nuanced appreciation of his ideas.)  I think this corresponds to the principle of gradualism.  As I mature both psychologically and, from a Christian perspective, in my relationship with God I come to an ever-deepening appreciation for what is right and what is wrong.  As I move along the spectrum, I can not only move beyond a fear of punishment or the hope for some eternal reward, but I can transcend the bonds of the law and see the moral good for itself.  I can also see evil, not simply as it is defined by the law, but as it takes on its evil character from the situation in which it finds itself.  An example of this—to resort to the trivial for ease of understanding—I like my glass of whiskey at the end of the day.  There is nothing wrong with a glass of whiskey.  However as the first leads to the second and the second to the third and so on, the moral good (the relaxing glass of whiskey) takes on an evil character.  Another example, somewhat more complex.  I make love to my wife.  That is a good thing.  It is, as the Pirolas point out, a celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony.  On this particular evening, my wife is not sexually responsive and I force her, not physically but still force her, to have sex with me.  A moral good has become evil in a way that the moral law does not foresee.  The moral law says that the wife has an obligation to satisfy the husband—and vice versa.  But the Law of Love, which is the true moral good, knows that this must be done freely and without coercion.  Those who focus solely on the Moral Law most often can’t get a clear vision of the Law of Love (aka the Gospel), which, again, was the flaw of the scribes, and the Pharisees.  There are those who are frozen in their own moral development and confident in their own righteousness without compassion for the complexity of others’ lives.  This moral fixedness is neither spiritually or psychologically healthy and can’t be allowed to be the moral guideposts—they are the blind guides leading the blind (Matt 15:14).    


  1. Actually in England a few years ago, at the height of Benedict's reign, a conservative priest did refuse to marry a woman with MS and her long term male partner. He said that because the woman's medical condition meant she could not engage in penetrative sex / conceive that canon law barred the possibility of a sacramental marriage together. Total tosh but it made the newspapers.

  2. I have heard of a number of situations in which priests refused to marry couples because they could not engage in sexual intercourse due to medical conditions, but in each case with which i am familiar, the bishop overruled them. After all, what does the requirement for sexual intimacy say about the marriage of Mary and Joseph? I think we need to see that certain things are normative, but but not always a deciding factor--but then I am neither a theologian nor a canon lawyer