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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 25, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 118




Tom Fox A revolution deferred: sex and the church Part II

By Tom Fox, NCR publisher

In yesterday's take (Sex and the mission of the church) I wrote that the mission of the Catholic Church is to build the reign of God on earth. Yet Catholics, myself included, spend considerable time talking and writing about matters of human sexuality. Why?

I offered two possible reasons for our Catholic sexual "hang up." First, a serious disconnect between official church teachings and Catholic experience on human sexuality. This hurts church credibility. Second, deep wounds, stemming from church teachings, haunt many Catholics. (For more on this, read Eugene Kennedy's essay in the Oct. 3 issue of NCR.)

Today, I build on these observations, offering one refinement while looking back to look forward to find future directions for healthier Catholic approaches to sexuality.

First the refinement: Catholics 50 and over, I have found, feel the wounds more than Catholics 50 and under. This is because, allow me to suggest, that many older Catholics grew up attempting to adhere to church teachings. Many younger Catholics have simply tuned them out and walked away, finding eventual peace outside the church.

Traditional Catholic sexual teachings are not quickly traceable to Jesus who said little about sexuality. They stem from what is called systematic theology and end up being act-centered and biologically oriented. They come out of deductive reasoning, from absolute principles not replicated in other areas of life. There is never a moral justification of using a condom. It is always a morally grave act because it does not allow the theoretical passing of life during sexual intercourse. On the other hand, there are some more justifications for killing in war depending on whether or not the war is "just."

Decades of papal and episcopal admonitions to the contrary, official Catholic sexual morality, failing to make sense within the context of human experience, loses credibility and begins to offer little effective pastoral guidance.

If you think this is too harsh a judgment you have not spoken to many parish priests in the last three decades.

It did not have to be this way. Valiant efforts have been made to renew Catholic sexual teachings, but many who have tried have found themselves marginalized by the powers that be for their efforts. Ask any priest who had quite ambitions to become a bishop, but felt, in conscience, the need to respond honestly when asked what he thought about the 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

I mentioned the disconnect between teaching and practice. It grew gradually through the 20th century, but jumped into the public arena with the publication of Humanae Vitae, in which Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the church's traditional ban on contraceptives.

The document left Catholics cold. Nine of 10 Catholic couples ignored it from the start. By the turn of the century, despite a pontificate dedicated to advancing the importance of the teaching, the means of contraception, as an issue of morality, was simply off the Catholic laity radar screen. To say otherwise, is to deny reality.

It was with in the context of widespread disaffection following Humanae Vitae that the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1972 commissioned a group of Catholic scholars to undertake a study of Catholic sexual teachings with the aim of developing new approaches.

The work fell to five bright young people, each with then promising careers: Anthony Kosnik, Ronald Modras, Agnes Cunningham, William Carroll and James Schulte, two priests, one woman religious and two laymen. The group collaborated for nearly five years before their efforts were published in a book titled Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought. Their work was essentially pastoral in nature. It is as if they toiled carrying the collective Catholic pain of frustrated bishops and incredulous laity. Their work was honest, thoughtful and, given what they knew they were up against, even courageous.

They did not disregard traditional teaching, but instead attempted to build on it as best they could. By today's evaluations, their conclusions, while pastoral, might be viewed as timid. They looked back into scripture, but paid attention to the culturally conditioned nature of traditional scriptural passages. They attempted to offer new "guidelines." The choice of the word, while honest and forthright, proved devastating.

The book, meanwhile, was hailed by many as a major achievement and a significant breakthrough. The late Redemptorist priest, Father F.X. Murphy, gave the work this bold assessment: "The publication marks the arrival at maturity of the U.S. theological community. It introduces a revised methodology in moral consideration, which responds directly to modern demands."

Wrote Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn: "Even if it takes several generations -- as it most probably will -- for the church formally to accept it, Catholic thought on human sexuality will never again be the same. 'Revolutionary' is the only label apposite to these recommendations."

These thunderbolts were bound to get reactions and they did. Key members of the U.S. hierarchy condemned the work, some without even reading it. Soon the Catholic Theological Society of America was backing off too. Its board of directors voted to "receive" the report, neither approving nor disapproving it. Fair enough. But to be sure they were no longer eager to be called its parents.

This group -- all deeply loyal Catholics -- were hung out to dry in the mid-day sun. Once bright career paths darkened. As they did, the word went out to a generation of moral theologians: "Stop thinking -- or at least talking publicly -- about matters of sexuality."

Modras, who eventually left the priesthood, recently told me, "My first reaction to the way the report was received was disappointment. It bothered me that bishops who had not read it were condemning it. They were simply quoting one another."

"We had attempted to move away from the traditional (Catholic) deductive, principle-based, act-oriented approach to evaluating moral behavior to a person center relational approach. We broke the knot between procreative and love making sexuality. They did not always have to be connected. Yet we had to find a middle way of relating those two ends."

That middle way disturbed many prelates. One year after the publication of the book came the election of Pope John Paul II who made it clear there would be no discussion whatsoever of a move away from traditional Catholic teachings on sexual morality.

Kosnik, then a priest in the Detroit archdiocese and a theologian at Orchard Lake Seminary outside of Detroit was eventually pressured to leave his seminary post. While his promising career ended, he remained a priest for the next 25 years, retiring last year when he decided to leave the active priesthood and marry.

At the time of the publication of Human Sexuality, Kosnik said, "It is our hope that the publication of this study will provide a stimulus for the serious theological discussion that will contribute to a better understanding and more effective articulation of the Christian values we Catholics share in common."

I believe that Human Sexuality, which offered hope to millions, will have an important place in Catholic history. It represented a scholarly effort -- and Catholicism is a reasoned faith -- to renew church teachings. The book inspired, albeit quietly, many Catholics who have held firmly to the belief their church would one day grapple with the pressing issues of sexuality in more pastorally oriented ways.

As Rabbi Gittelsohn remarked, it might be another generation away. When the day does come, Kosnik and the rest of the group will be remembered not only for their courage, but also for their prophetic witness to the faith.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher and author of Sexuality and Catholicism. He can be reached at

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