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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

September 24, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 117




Tom Fox Sex and the mission of the church

By Tom Fox, NCR publisher

I believe the mission of the church is to build the reign of God on earth.

Jesus spoke about this mission repeatedly to his disciples. As I interpret church teachings, building the reign of God means working for peace, justice, compassion, healing and forgiveness. It involves the full liberation of spirit, body and society. This is Christianity, stripped to the core.

This said, I have to admit that I often find myself writing, not about the beatitudes, but about the Catholic church's teachings on sexuality. In fact, I wrote a book on the subject in 1995 called Sexuality and Catholicism. One of the reasons for this -- and I also have to admit to a certain illogic here -- is that I find our church focuses too much on sexuality at the sacrifice of the real church mission. In trying to understand why, I have added to the tomes already written about sexuality.

However, there is more. Many Catholics have been unnecessarily hurt, even disabled, many disaffected, by official church teachings on sexuality. It is important to know why and to correct injustices here. I would go beyond this and say the church's mission is in grave danger because of its teachings on sexuality.

One only has to think of the years of scandal dealing with clergy sex abuse. Further, one can legitimately ask if the church is sacrificing its sacraments because of its disproportionate emphasis on the virtues of celibacy. Then one might look at the disconnection between church teachings on birth control and the practices of the Catholic laity.

Repeated polls -- and these go back some three decades or more now -- indicate that nine out of 10 Catholic couples simply disregard the church's official ban on contraception. For them it is not an issue; it is not a sin.

The other side of this coin has been Pope John Paul II's unwavering emphasis on the importance of adhering to church teachings on birth control. Throughout his pontificate, he has emphasized the importance of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical written by Pope Paul VI, which, to the disappointment of many, upheld the church's ban on the use of all forms of artificial contraception.

With so many Catholics rejecting an official church teaching, and the pope insisting on it at the same time, questions of authority and its proper role cannot be avoided. As a matter of fact, the authority issue has been connected to the sexuality issue for more than a quarter of a century, raising the importance of trying to sort out and resolve the human sexuality questions.

There is a tradition within Catholicism that speaks of the sensus fidelium. It literally means "sense of the faithful." It means that the faithful, as a whole, have an instinct or "sense" about when a teaching is -- or is not -- in harmony with the true faith. At a minimum, the sensus fidelium has been demanding that the church reconsider its teachings on human sexuality.

Prominent Catholics have made repeated efforts to do just this since the 1968 papal encyclical. Those who have dared enter these waters have more often than not been denigrated by church authorities for setting forth. Connected to any reassessment has been considerable fear and trauma. Theologians who have dared have found their careers thwarted. As a result, as pressure has grown to probe church teachings on sexuality so has the resistance by key authority figures.

Since issues of human sexuality are linked with issues of church authority and because they involve every single Catholic and because they have hurt so many, arguably a fresh look at these teachings becomes one of the most pressing matters facing the church today.

Eugene Kennedy the Catholic psychologist and author, argues that the institutional Catholic Church is dying a slow and painful death because it has not managed to develop a healthy sense of human sexuality. He argues that unless the Catholic Church gets its teachings on human sexuality right, it cannot get its teachings on life right, and unless it gets its teachings on life right, it cannot get its sacramental mission right. Kennedy explores this theme at length in an essay that will appear in the Oct. 3 issue of NCR.

In tomorrow's take I will examine the landmark study, Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought. Published in 1977, this was an important effort by Catholic theologians and other scholars to reexamine church teachings on sexuality. It was an effort ahead of its times and continues to remain so today.

Like it or not, the road to the beatitudes, as far as the Catholic church is concerned, passes through human sexuality, meaning the issues involved will not go away.

Tom Fox can be reached at

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