Is There a Moral Theologian in the House?
by Donna M. McKenzie
July 20, more than 4,000 Catholics from 30 states and nine countries
gathered in Boston to attend the first convention of the Voice of the
Faithful (VOTF), a lay organization formed to bring about greater openness
and lay participation in the governance of the American Catholic Church.
Jim Muller, the Nobel Prize-winning cardiologist who founded the group,
told the assemblage that they needed to focus on the centralization of power
in the church as the underlying cause of the sexual abuse scandal. Debating
the scandal’s "proximate causes"—the circumstances that
enabled the abuse to occur and be covered up—would not, said Muller, be
But while ignoring proximate causes may be the best way to build a broad
coalition for change, it papers over issues of sexual ethics that
need to be addressed if a solution to the present crisis is to be found.
To be sure, there has been no shortage of voices opining in the news
media on sex and the Catholic crisis. In a polarized debate, liberals have
put the blame on celibacy and the ban on women priests, conservatives on the
post-60s sexual revolution and clerical toleration of homosexuality in the
priesthood. For empirical ballast, a handful of experts on sexual abuse in
the church such as Jason Berry and A. Richard Sipe—themselves strong
partisans of reform—have been quoted again and again on the prevalence of
sexual abusers in the Catholic clergy.
But the question that has not been addressed is: Is there something about
the Catholic Church’s understanding of sexuality that contributes to
sexual abuse and cover-up? Unfortunately, what has been missing from the
public discussion is the perspective of the people best equipped to answer
that question—Catholic moral theologians. Not that the media are to blame
for failing to seek them out.
In a church climate that punishes those who publicly disagree with
official teaching, Catholic theologians have been forced to choose their
battles carefully. The quandary is especially acute for untenured younger
scholars in Catholic institutions. They worry even more than their senior
colleagues about the recently instituted requirement that every person
teaching Catholic theology obtain a mandate from the bishop of the local
As a result, there has been a general reluctance to speak out or publish
anything on sexual ethics. When reporters looking for views on the current
scandal call, the theologians have largely chosen discretion over valor, and
kept their mouths shut.
Two who have been willing to step up to the plate are Lisa Sowle Cahill,
professor of Christian ethics at Boston College, and Rev. James Keenan,
professor of moral theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in
Cambridge. But neither has been quoted on issues of moral theology per se.
Keenan, a tireless advocate for those suffering from AIDS, was consulted
frequently by writers for the Boston Globe while he was on sabbatical
leave in Rome this past spring. His critique of the Catholic hierarchy’s
handling of the crisis was as frank as anyone could wish. "The Vatican
is a very protective world, and there’s a whole way of proceeding with
secrecy and denial," Keenan told the Globe April 8. "I
think they think that eventually this is all going to fade away."
In a March 6 New York Times op-ed, Cahill pointed out,
"Catholics who have divorced and remarried, for instance, or those who
are openly gay, cannot fully participate in the rites of the church. Yet
priests who have committed a worse offense against Catholic teaching can
administer those same rites. It is not necessary to agree or disagree with
any particular Catholic teaching to object to the hypocrisy of the church’s
But behind the hypocrisy lies a theological outlook that needs to be
recognized. Since the Middle Ages the church has based its ethics on the
idea of natural law, which claims that because human beings are endowed with
reason, truth can be ascertained without any special revelation. For that
reason, the church feels entitled to apply its moral teachings to all
people, whether they are Catholic or not.
Natural law doctrine holds that fundamental truths about right and wrong
are grounded in nature. Our job is to determine the right course of action
based on those truths. But of course culture and circumstance can blind
people—including leaders of the church—to what those truths are. A
notorious example of this is slavery, which the church hierarchy supported
As the church has evolved its modern understanding of issues like war and
peace, economic justice, and the death penalty, it has learned to take
social and historical context seriously. For example, in order to make
relevant claims about the best way to help the poor, the church has
jettisoned its medieval opposition to money lending and recognized that
capitalism is here to stay.
But, as has been pointed out by Charles Curran (who was dismissed from
his tenured position as a moral theologian at Catholic University in 1987
for daring to publish a defense of contraception), the church has refused to
take this approach to sexual ethics. Instead, it has been fixated on the
narrowest, biological understanding of the procreative purpose of the sex
In the 1960s, the majority of the papal commission appointed to study
"artificial birth control" took the position that not every sexual
act between married persons need be directed toward procreation. To reach
this conclusion, the commission took testimony from many observant Catholics
who explained ways in which not being able to use birth control was
undermining their marriages and, ironically, making them more obsessed with
However, in his watershed encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae,
Pope Paul VI rejected the majority recommendation. While recognizing the
"unitive" value of sex, he nonetheless insisted on maintaining
that any effort to obstruct procreation was sinful.
It is for the same reason that the church opposes homosexual acts. They
are "unnatural" because they are not intended for procreation.
Along with masturbation, they are inherently wrong.
A fundamental discomfort with sex still seems to influence the church’s
sexual ethics. Classical theologians like St. Augustine linked the
sinfulness of sex to the pleasure connected with it, and argued that in
paradise reproduction would occur without sexual desire.
As things stand, sexual taboo undermines the ability of the church to
deal with sex in an adult way. Not only does it cripple the church’s
ability to minister to lay Catholics, but also to train new clergy. In a
superb piece in the Washington Post July 21, Hanna Rosin looked at
the gay subculture at Washington’s Theological College through the eyes of
two former seminarians, one gay and one straight. Although the faculty made
sexuality a subject of discussion, the discussion took place entirely
impersonally. "We didn’t talk about it," one of the seminarians
told her. "It was talked about to us."
But make no mistake: A positive revaluing of sex could have profound
implications for priesthood. No longer would those with sex lives be viewed
as handicapped in their availability to God and the practice of their faith.
No longer would priests be regarded as superior beings simply because they
took a vow of celibacy.
As the church has recognized in its social teachings, distinguishing what
is "natural" from what is mere social convention is not simple.
Margaret Farley, a Catholic ethicist who teaches at Yale, has argued for
taking seriously the evidence of positive same-sex relationships—as she
puts it, "the witness that homosexuality can be a way of embodying
responsible human love and sustaining Christian friendship." Her view
is that what natural law demands is not procreative acts but human
A rethinking of the ethical importance of context won’t simply provide
aid and comfort to those on the liberal end of the Catholic spectrum. It is
unquestionably the case that the percentage of homosexuals in the priesthood
far exceeds the percentage in the general population. Does sexual
orientation matter in ministry? How appropriate is it for a majority of
homosexual priests, whether or not they are sexually active, to minister to
a majority of heterosexual Catholics?
If ethnic and gender diversity is an important goal in professional life
generally, attention needs to be given to the question of whether diversity
in sexual orientation is desirable in ministry, even if it leads to the
politically incorrect conclusion that the church requires more heterosexual
It should not be out of the question for leaders of the church to think
about making Catholic sexual ethics more relevant to the lives of the laity—or
at least for journalists to press the inquiry. Surveys show that 90 percent
of Catholic adults ignore the church’s teaching on birth control. And
anyone who has experience with Catholic young people today knows that they
are utterly disconnected from what the church has to say about sexual
During the pope’s visit to Toronto for World Youth Day in July,
Cardinal Bernard Law told a group of young Bostonians that it is wrong for
them to participate in any way in the commitment ceremony of two homosexual
people. Their response was unfortunately not reported, but in a senior
seminar on values and sexuality I taught at Fordham last spring, not one of
the students (all of them Catholics) saw anything necessarily immoral about
sexual expression between two people of whatever gender. What worked for
them was Margaret Farley’s theology of commitment, which they found more
consistent with Jesus’ teaching in the scriptures than what their church
The church’s official sexual ethics, which VOTF views as too divisive
and the younger generation dismisses as irrelevant, public discourse cannot
afford to ignore. The inability of the Catholic Church to wrestle with
sexual ethics in ways that reflect the concrete circumstances of people’s
lives cripples its ability to overcome the conditions in which abuse