Church fixated on sexual morality

sexual morality

Nine out of ten Catholics in France firmly believe the Church needs to change its attitude towards sexual morality, according to the findings of poll last month that was co-sponsored by La Croix.

Many moral theologians in the country agree with that assessment.

One of them said that re-formulating Church teaching on human sexuality is one of the most “urgent” and one of the most “difficult” challenges facing contemporary Catholicism.

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE), which recently published a shocking report on abuse cases in France over the past 70 years, agrees.

One of the recommendations it made in that report is to carefully examine “how the paradoxical excess of Catholic morality’s fixation on sexual matters may have a counter-productive value in the fight against sexual abuse”.

The CIASE report notes that the Church’s persistent strictness on sexual issues has led to a paradoxical situation by which some Catholics, especially priests, have committed serious transgressions according to the idea that “if you don’t respect all the law, then you don’t respect anything at all”.

Not all sins are equally serious

Added to this is confusion about the various “sins against the flesh”, which Catholic tradition has grouped together under the umbrella of the sixth commandment: “Thou shall not commit adultery.”

“The enumeration of acts without gradation of their seriousness is highly problematic because, for example, one cannot put masturbation and rape on the same level,” deplored Marie-Jo Thiel, an award-winning Catholic ethicist who teaches theology at the University of Strasbourg.

Catholicism’s focus on sexuality and procreation has intensified since the 19th Century in proportion to its loss of socio-political influence.

Like others, she considers rape to be “a crime that kills another”, which is actually a violation of the fifth commandment, rather than the fifth.

“Even today, anything that goes outside the framework promoted by the Church would be ‘wrong’,” says Dominican Sister Véronique Margron, president of the Conference of Men and Women Religious of France (Corref).

“We thus maintain confusion between wrong and failure, which all human beings encounter at one time or another in their emotional and sexual life. As a result, we don’t know how to recognize what is really wrong, such as sexual violence, or perceiving the other person as an object,” she said.

“Catholic sexual ethics remain very normative”

Catholicism’s focus on sexuality and procreation has intensified since the 19th Century in proportion to its loss of socio-political influence. But that focus actually goes back to the beginnings of Christianity.

The contribution of Saint Augustine of Hippo is particularly “weighty” in this matter, according to Alain Thomasset SJ, professor at the Centre Sèvres, the Jesuit school of theology in Paris.

“For Saint Augustine, sexual desire remained an effect of original sin. It is only saved by the act of procreation within marriage,” he said.

There is still much work to be done to transcend the culture of merely “what’s allowed and what’s forbidden” and to broaden our view.

The Second Vatican Council certainly opened up sexuality to purposes other than procreation, such as communion between spouses.

But Thomasset believes there is still much work to be done to transcend the culture of merely “what’s allowed and what’s forbidden” and to broaden our view.

“Catholic sexual ethics remain very normative,” the Jesuit pointed out.

“It is much more normative than the Church’s social doctrine, which takes into account relationships, circumstances, intentions, the complexity of reality, etc. Relational anthropology, already present in social doctrine, would be welcome in sexual ethics,” he argued.

A Church people are no longer listening to?

The 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, with its prohibition of artificial contraception, did much to discredit the Church’s discourse on sexuality.

Then the 2019 book, In the Closet of the Vatican, which alleged the widespread existence of homosexuality (and pedocriminality) among priests and bishops in Rome, seemed to further weaken the Church’s voice on this issue.

Some Catholics regret this. They believe the Church is right to insist that our bodies are a gift of God that should not to abused or that sexual intimacy should not be trivialised at a time when pornography has never been so easily accessible.

So, is it conceivable that there can be an evolution Church teaching on human sexuality?

“First of all, we must keep in mind that a good part of the French episcopate remains marked by the heritage of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who defended a sexual morality with clear norms, in the name of human nature,” emphasized Francine Charoy, a moral theologian who taught for twenty years at the Institut Catholique in Paris.

Moving beyond a “confrontation between two blocks”

Pope Francis has taken a different approach by encouraging more discernment in complex situations. But he has not changed Church doctrine on the substance of the matter.

This has left some theologians “disappointed”.

They believe that the pope could make changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which, among other things, calls homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered”), as he did in 2018 concerning the death penalty.

Charoy, meanwhile, wants to see the Church move beyond a “confrontation between two blocs”, progressive and conservative.

“We need to work in synodality among different theologians, to analyze together the denial regarding pedocriminality in which the institution has remained for so long,” she argued.

The theologian said it would be a way to start dismantling the “culture of silence” highlighted by the CIASE report.

  • Mélinée le Priol is a journalist for LA CROIX France. She has a particular interest in topics related to the Middle-East but also more widely religious news.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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