William Cardinal Baum of Washington has admonished priests and other counselors to stick with official church doctrine in advising the faithful on sexual matters, rather than depend on the guidelines offered in a controversial new study of human sexuality.
At the same time, Cardinal Baum, in his position as chairman of the American hierarchy's committee on doctrine, asserted that the Catholic theologians who produced the study had provided "an invaluable service to the church."
The study, commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America and published this week by Paulist Press, would have the individual determine his or her sexual behavior code based on fixed moral principles and an informed conscience, rather than the traditional thou-shalt-nots of traditional church teaching.
The 242-page study, "Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought," holds that "wholesome and moral sexual conduct" should be "conducive to creative growth and integration." To achieve this, the study continues, sexuality must be "self-liberating, other-enriching, honest, faithful, socially responsible, life-serving and joyous."
In light of these criteria, the five theologians who wrote the four-year study, rebut the church's unconditional taboos against such practices as masturbation, contraception, premarital sex and homosexuality.
While expressing disagreement with the theologians' conclusions, Cardinal Baum said that "the Catholic Church acknowledges the need for critical scientific studies in order to identify the way in which the historical, cultural and scientific limitations of a given time affect the experience and proclamation of our faith."
These limitations, he said, "make it difficult for many people today to hear and accept the demands of the word of God. Those engaged in such critical studies, therefore, provide an invaluable service to the church."
He criticized the theologians' work for failing to give sufficient weight to the "sacred mysteries of redemption" in Christian belief, and said his committee would prepared "a detailed analysis and response to this study."
In a New York press conference, the theologians said they would welcome such a critique, stating that their work was intended as a "contribution not to dissent, but to development of church teaching."
The work has generated some controversy within the organization of theologians that commissioned it. But at its annual meeting in Toronto last week, the CTSA rejected proposals to disassociate itself from the study.
Instead, the body reaffirmed the action of its board of directors last fall to "receive" the report and arrange for its publication, with the understanding that the action implied neither approval nor disapproval by the society.
Some observers, meanwhile, saw a veiled reference to the controversial report in a comment of Pope Paul earlier this week.
Addressing about 85 American bishops in Rome for the canonization of Bishop John Neumann, he referred to "certain challenges today to Catholic teaching, not least of which is in the field of sexual morality."
The pope warned that "far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes . . ."