Here in the papal interregnum, rumors fly about a shady cabal of Vatican officials who may—or may not—be subject to blackmail for sexual misbehavior. UK Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigns and admits to sexual misconduct. The church is reeling from a clergy sex abuse scandal that continues to unfold worldwide. America’s Catholic bishops continue to raise objection to HHS’ policy that requires employers to cover birth control.
It seems like every media mention of the Catholic Church involves sex, sexual abuse, or cover-ups of sexual abusers.
Yet most Catholics seem underwhelmed by church teaching on sex: the vast majority of Catholics reject or simply ignore church teaching against contraception. In vitro fertilization, even fertilization of a woman’s ova with her husband’s sperm, is forbidden by church teaching, yet Catholics pursue those procedures nonetheless. Catholic leaders fiercely oppose gay marriage and talk of homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered,” but now most Catholics now support marriage equality and say same-sex relationships are not always sinful. Catholics cohabitate before marriage, and far fewer Catholics are getting married in the church: there were 8.6 marriages per 1,000 U.S. Catholics in 1972 to 2.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics in 2010 And it’s not just a lay issue: a 2002 LA Times poll found that only one-third of priests “’do not waver’ from their vow of celibacy, while 47 percent described celibacy as ‘an ongoing journey’ and 14 percent said they ‘do not always succeed in following’ it.” The report also found that two percent of priests admit they are not celibate.
Is it time for a new Catholic conversation about sex?
Current Church teaching on sex is clear: sexuality is a gift, but sex acts are only allowable between (heterosexually) married partners, and each act must be both loving and open to procreation. Any other sex act is seriously wrong. Whatever the merits of current church teaching, it simply seems not to resonate with most Catholics who often make their own decisions on sexual matters. And they have come to different conclusions than their bishops about sexual morality.
Why is that? One factor may be a shift in how we understand sexual issues generally. More than ever, sexuality is thought to be a matter of personal preference rather than morality. “As long as no one is hurt, who am I to say what’s right for somebody else?” seems to be the contemporary mantra regarding sex. To its credit, this view does draw a clear line between the horrific acts of sex abusers and people who simply choose to live according to sexual mores of which Catholic leaders disapprove.
But this “personal preference” model doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of guidance toward good—or even great—sexual relationships. And in contrast to the traditional views of the hierarchy, many contemporary Catholic theologians are moving toward a positive expression of values, virtues, goals and ideals that resonate with the complexities and delights of our sexual experiences. A critical appreciation for experience, cross-checked by fundamental Christian values like love of God, neighbor and self, and informed by the insights of contemporary biology, psychology, sociology and the arts, create a more resonant vision for sexual ethics. Still, church leadership seems far from poised to evolve its understanding of sexuality.