Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently gave a wide ranging interview about the HHS mandate that touched upon the challenges faced by Catholicism in articulating its teaching on sexuality.
The timing of the interview was most appropriate: when Lent was about to pass into Easter. For Christians, Lent is a time of penance and Easter is a time of renewed hope. Accordingly, Cardinal Dolan’s hopeful comments were prefaced by some rather penitential admissions.
When asked whether the Catholic Church had “problems conveying its teaching to its own flock,” Cardinal Dolan responded, “do we ever!” He went on to observe how the scandal of clerical sexual abuse had challenged the church’s credibility on issues concerning sexuality. Especially in the wake of the 1960s, discussions of sexuality had become, in the cardinal’s words, “too hot to handle.” Amid his reflections, Cardinal Dolan most strongly emphasized the “towering” challenge to better present the cogency of Catholic views on sexuality.
Cardinal Dolan described the church as being “gun shy” when it comes to speaking about “chastity” and sexual morality in general. But one of the real difficulties Catholicism faces is its perceived emphasis on sexuality to the exclusion of any other issue. One aspect of this has to do with how sexuality is quite simply and obviously “sexier” than most other newsworthy topics--anything that bishops might say on the issue is likely to drown out anything and everything else. But another aspect is that Catholic teaching on sexuality is often the subject of heated debate within and between conservative and liberal circles within American Catholicism. It has become a point of separation; a pivot around which everything seems to turn.
Removing Catholic teaching about sexuality from its broader context not only lessens its power, it subverts its cogency. For example, John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae does focus on contraception and abortion in their connection to “the culture of death.” But encyclical’s specific discussions are grounded upon the principle that human beings “cannot be subjected to domination by others.” For John Paul II, a pervasive concern was how this will to dominate, to assert “the supremacy of the strong against the weak,” was revealed and accomplished through various forms of objectification--of which sexual objectification was one part.
If we can objectify those whom we love the most, we can far more easily objectify the neighbor whom we meet, the convicted criminal we despise, and the suspected terrorist we fear. The cogency of those connections continues to be persuasive to me, and to many others.
But cogency as internal and overall consistency is only one part what allows a teaching to be successfully communicated and received. In his interview, Cardinal Dolan interestingly mentioned young people who ask to be challenged by Catholic teaching even though they “may not be able to obey it.” Here the implicit point is about listening--in two key ways.
The Gospel doesn’t exist to confirm us in our preconceptions or in our comforts. Perhaps one reason why discussing sexuality becomes so fraught is because all of us realize not only how far we are from the ethical ideal but also how often we’re implicated in the very things we criticize. Listening to church teaching then is a way of opening oneself to possibilities for transformation and fullness--possibilities that are deeply hopeful yet also deeply challenging.
Many bishops and theologians would hasten to add that accepting Catholic teaching is not simply about being persuaded-it’s about obedience and submission of intellect. But what was also interesting about Cardinal Dolan’s remarks was that an appeal to authority was neither fore-grounded nor deployed to clinch the case against recalcitrant Catholics. Instead, Cardinal Dolan acknowledged that Catholic considerations of sexuality had a broader dialogical and cultural context.
If one part is listening to church teaching--and realizing that it has something important to say--the other part is the church listening to those for whom the teaching is intended. It is easier to talk about advances in Natural Family Planning than it is to carefully listen to married couples who are struggling with serious marital and medical issues. It is easier to lecture young people about “hook-up” culture than it is to carefully listen to their concerns, struggles, and longings. It is easier to talk in abstract terms about “femininity,” than it is to carefully listen to the diverse voices of women and how they understand, receive, and live out Catholic teachings on sexuality. While the fear among some in the church might be that listening to this degree would simply encourage dissent, it is more likely that it will lead to deepening discernment and a renewed sense of community.
Cardinal Dolan was not opening up the possibility of turning the church on its head and somehow revising Catholic doctrine. But by admitting the church’s own failings, he showed an admirable balance along with an awareness the complexities associated with teaching about the ethics of human sexual expression. Of course, one reason why talking about sexuality can be so painful is because it is in and through our sexuality that we often feel most vulnerable. For contemporary Catholicism, the continuing challenge is how to create spaces in which we can admit and honestly address that vulnerability in light of Catholic teaching.
Mathew N. Schmalz is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross.