A new Catholic conversation on sex?

Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently gave a wide ranging interview about the HHS mandate that touched upon the challenges faced by … Continued

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.

Seth Wenig

AP

Cardinal Timothy Dolan waves while processing through St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012.

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.


View Photo Gallery: A debate over the role of religion in political life has shaped recent clashes over contraception and abortion.

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.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • ccnl1

    Dear Cardinal Dolan,

    Some suggestions for your next sermon on sexuality and sex:

    The reality of contraception and STD control: – from a guy who enjoys intelligent se-x-

    Note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter. …

    The Brutal Effects of Stupidity:

    : The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill ( 8.7% failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute. Unfortunately they do not give the statistics for doubling up i.e. using a combination of the Pill and a condom.

    Added information before making your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    “Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars.”

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    “Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here’s a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active “post-teeners”: Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

    “Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University o

  • Carstonio

    Many critics of the Church hierarchy content that the celibacy vows undermine any claim to authority on sexual matters, and they have a valid point. The real problem is the more general claim that the Church knows what’s best for everyone, and this would be objectionable even if the bishops were married and had childen. The teachings on contraception are most definitely not best for everyone, since the effect is to limit women to the role of mother. These treat procreation as the highest good regardless of the circumstances.

  • TruthinesSpeaks

    If that argument is the case, doesn’t the Church also “limit” men to father? Of course not. Absurd.

  • ags7171

    Some truths are irrefutable in nature — e.g., a man cannot bear children. It is as silly to deny these truths or to cavil about it is as silly as to deny that the sun rises in the east. The teachings of Christ as relayed by the Church have always built upon nature to teach that man and woman per se are worthy of respect, and though different, equally worthy of respect. To consider oneself or any one else soley in terms of sexuality is to objectify;

  • nkri401

    Why does the Church obsess about sexual matters anyway?

  • Kseddon1

    @carstonio I agree there appear to be double standards here as the church promotes choice but then takes a perfectionist approach to morality

  • Carstonio

    Truthines, the difference is that lack of access to contraception doesn’t hinder men from participating in public life like it does women.

    And Ags, my point has nothing to do with the genders being different. I’m saying that anatomy should not be destiny – no religious or secular ideology should demand that all fertile people become parents. Gender egalitarianism means that both sexes should be free to decide whether they wish to reproduce. This has nothing to do with defining people according to sexuality, since that’s not the same thing as sexual identity. It’s impossible for any ideology that opposes contraception to treat the sexes as equals, since that opposition means a disadvantage for females.

  • Andrzej_B

    The problem is how the Catholic Church views the purpose of sex, especially as regards women. Through the veneration of Mary, women are taught that the ideal of womanhood is the “virgin mother”- completely removed from sex, yet important because of her role as mother. Originally, the Curch taught that pleasure in sex was a necessary evil; in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas forwarded the idea sex could be pleasurable as long as it was also procreative in nature…and that’s as far as the conversation’s gone in the last 700+ years. As far as “irrefutable truths of nature”, it is an irrefutable truth that the act of sex is used by a wide variety of species for a number of purposes other than procreation, including social bonding, establishing hierarchy, diffusing conflict, etc. That doesn’t mean we should use sex in all those same ways (the fact that we can choose our purpose is an essential aspect of our humanity), but if you’re going to use a “natural law” argument, be ready to take it to its natural conclusion.

  • amelia45

    The real problem with the Church’s teaching is that it tries to make a rule about something that affects people who have all kinds of different wants and needs. Many young people want to get married, continue their education, save to buy a house, and then have only the number of children they can afford. Some couples do not want children – but they do want to build a life with a loving partner.

    Natural Family Planning works for some people – it suits who they are, how disciplined they are, their personalities, wants, needs, and willingness to risk. But NFP does not fit all personalties. So it is a good thing that artificial contraceptives are available to accomplish exactly what NFP accomplishes for couples who need a different baby avoidance method.

    We are not cookies, made of the same ingredients, cut from the same cookie cutter, cooked in the same oven and for the same amount of time. There is not one rule that applies to everyone. That is the mistake the Church makes.

    The Church could learn much for the laity – we know married life as it is lived. They don’t have the foggiest.

  • di89

    It would be nice if some of the Church’s discussion around family-size-limiting among married couples would address the trend of “child as project,” “child as crowing achievement,” “child as blog and book fodder,” and the attitude of “I could never have a second child because *I* could never imagine dividing my overwhelming love for kid 1 [which must make your spouse feel just dandy!] ” and all the other modern parenting attitudes that treat a child as an object to be possessed, an ideal specimen to curate, or an accomplishment to brag about instead of a human being.

    Where is the Catholic Church on this one? Completely, totally absent. I’d love to see a priest get up there and rail against moms publishing their kid’s diets in Vogue to angle for a book contract, as much as against someone who had her tubes tied because she nearly hemorrhaged to death with the last pregnancy.

  • amelia45

    The HHS mandate allows women to have access to birth control, one of the most widely used “medicines” in the United States. I wonder if there are as many people using over-the-counter pain killers every day as there are women taking a birth control pill or depending on some other form of artificial birth control!

    What the HHS mandate does is recognize that core religious groups are people who have voluntarily banded together to practice their faith and to promote their faith (if only to each other). The mandates recognize that this group of people will include those who agree on moral and faith principles. This would include ministers of a faith and the staff of a church, a seminary or convent or monastery. It would even include local religious schools in which religion is required to be taught or in which the practice of faith is a part of the corriculum or campus life.

    What the HHS mandate also recognizes is that a Catholic hospital or university is a group of people brought together by skills to deliver health care or education. The people in the group may or may not be of the same religion and are not brought together for purposes of practicing the same faith; they may be of many different faith. They cannot be assumed to agree on the same moral and faith principles.

    There has to be a line drawn somewhere that identifies when the general rules of law apply and when religious freedom is impeded. It seems to me that the HHS rules did a good job in protecting the religious freedom of groups who join together for their faith. It also did a good job in protecting the religious freedom of individuals who join together for purposes other than practicing a particular faith.

    One persons religious freedom can be lost to another person’s religious tyranny if we are not careful about where we draw the lines. As a Catholic, I believe the Baptist doctor, Methodist nurse, Lutheran accountant, and Catholic professor each have the right to make a personal decision about

  • NeilAllen1

    Dolan, stop running the world’s largest pedophile protection program and stop telling everyone else what to do.

    Thank you,
    98% of America

  • Rayosun

    Have you ever wondered why the all male celibate Roman Catholic hierarchy seems to have problems with just about everything having to do with s-e-x?
    As a former celibate Catholic priest myself, I think I may be able to answer that question. But it will take more than a few words in a posting box.
    I’ve thought long and hard about this question and published my unique insights on a webpage that is the top listing reported when you Google the word “churchvsex”.

  • usapdx

    Thomas Aquinas said that a woman must only lay when haveing sex other wise it was sin. He should know being a real winner.

  • henryvinson

    Thank God for the Freedom we have.

    Henry Vinson
    Washington DC

  • amelia45

    It is difficult to have a conversation on a subject when the theologians, priests, and bishops who want to talk about an issue from a critical point of view are silenced.

    It then becomes a monologue – again.

  • ccnl1

    The following words should cover the issue:

    The reality of sex, contraception and STD control: – from a guy who enjoys intelligent se-x-

    Note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter. …

    The Brutal Effects of Stupidity:

    : The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill ( 8.7% failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute. Unfortunately they do not give the statistics for doubling up i.e. using a combination of the Pill and a condom.

    Added information before making your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    “Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars.”

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    “Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here’s a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active “post-teeners”: Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

    “Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “T

  • jimwalters1

    A conversation between the bishops and the laity requires the bishops to listen to and to seriously consider the words of the laity. As the “obedience and submission of intellect” line in the article indicates, they don’t want to have a conversation. They want the laity to shut up, stop trying to think for themselves, and do as they are told. They don’t want to deal with adults, they want to deal with well-mannered 8 year-olds.

    The bishops fail to get obedience from the laity on conraception because 1) effective contraception has enormous practical advantages, 2) the Church-approved methods of contraception have terrible real-world effectiveness, and 3) the bishops have never made a convincing case as to why “artificial” contraceptioon is immoral.

    I’ve never heard an explanation that didn’t either collapse under 5 minutes of criticalal thought or simply boil down to “because we said so”. For example, consider the argument that artificial birth control separates sex from reproduction. Any method of birth control that allows sex at all is separating sex from reproduction, and “artificial” or “natural” dooesn’t change that one bit. If sex without reproduction is immoral, not only is any form of birth control is immoral, but so is sex at any time unless you have verified that the woman has oovulated in the last day or so. If sex without reproduction is immoral, than a couple with 3 children that has been married for 50 years should ideally have had sex only 3 times – fewer if they had twins or triplets.

  • dadof6

    that sculpture on your web site titled “Holier Than Thou” looks a bit like Cardinal Dolan don’t you think?

  • dadof6

    I ended the article shaking my head and frustrated at listening to the same old stuff. As a Roman Catholic who could take it no more and leftr the church 35 years ago but still married to one I ask you all how can you listen to this and read the Gospels calling for change and remain RC’s. It’s insane….especially for women.

  • jarandeh

    Very well said, Amelia.

  • gustav2

    “The government must stay out of hiring and firing decisions by a religious organization, even if a minister sues for employment discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.”

    The Supreme Court has always made the distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained when it comes to employment law in religiously affiliated organizations. The teacher in this case was commissioned by her church, not just an ordinary employee.

  • PhilyJimi

    I thank “The Enlightenment” for the freedoms we have. I am very afraid my freedoms are under attack by god and his followers. The attack on the 1st amendment is down right scary. The government is appeasing the religious radicals and we’re all in peril of bending the knee.

  • savvy5

    Andrzej_B,

    Here’s what you are missing. The essence of things is defined by it’s purpose an end. The essence of sex is both the things you describe and procreation. To deny both is to put a blanket on reality. It does not make you progressive, but afraid of reality.

    “Originally, the Curch taught that pleasure in sex was a necessary evil”

    Not if you understand the context, the which these words were said. And opinions are also not official teachings.

  • tony55398

    Humans are more than the animals that have sex strictly for procreation, otherwise those who are infertile should not have it. God created the Virgin Mary’s heart for virginity, not so her body. When she gave birth, her body’s virginity was no longer, it was not the miraculous birth so many seem to believe. Let me be clear, it’s the heart that really matters, not the body, God looks to the heart, not the body.

  • catatonicjones

    Why would anybody listen to a sexless old man advising you about sex? Do we ask the baker to overhaul our engines?

    Seriously, why do you Catholics listen to these old men, what the hell can they possibly know about sex?

  • ccnl1

    PLEASE REITERATE THE FOLLOWING TO YOUR TEENAGERS:

    The following words should cover the issue:

    The reality of sex, contraception and STD control: – from a guy who enjoys intelligent se-x-

    Note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter. …

    The Brutal Effects of Stupidity:

    : The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill ( 8.7% failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute. Unfortunately they do not give the statistics for doubling up i.e. using a combination of the Pill and a condom.

    Added information before making your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    “Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars.”

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    “Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here’s a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active “post-teeners”: Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

    “Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher p

  • catatonicjones

    so jesus was gestated in a ventricle?