Thursday, January 08, 2009

Dialoguing with the Archbishop on Natural Law

Good news, friends! After a two month hiatus, The Progressive Catholic Voice is back!

I won’t bore you with why the PCV has been off-air, so to speak, apart from saying that the editorial team is still attempting to establish a Wordpress site for it. Until this is accomplished, we’ve taken the initiative of setting up a Blogger site for the PCV that can be found

There’s already a number of great articles published on the new PCV site: Charles Pilon, for instance, writes about civil discourse in the church; Mary Lynn Murphy shares her thoughts on “falling away”; while Brian McNeil explores the “gay Catholic insurgency.”

Also, the editorial team of the PCV has a brand new installment of its “Dialoguing with the Bishop” series. In this latest one (reprinted below), we attempt to dialogue with Archbishop Nienstedt about his views on marriage and natural law.


Archbishop John C. Nienstedt writes a column in The Catholic Spirit entitled “In God’s Good Time.” As the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice, we take his public statements as an opportunity to discuss his views with him.

Dear Archbishop Nienstedt:

Your column in The Catholic Spirit, December 17, 2008, entitled “Natural Law, Marriage, and the Holy Family” has left us wondering if we have any commonality in reason or language. We seem to think and speak in two different worlds.

You divide moral law into five categories: eternal, natural, revealed, ecclesiastical and civil, designating the last two as emanating from human reason. We take that to mean that church laws and civil laws are made by human beings who decide, based on their current knowledge, what rules and procedures best serve people’s interests. We are with you so far. We know that church laws and civil laws change with the times and cultures of people who make them. You say the ends to be served are “human happiness and fulfillment.” We agree with that too.

You then write four paragraphs about “natural” law. It is “written on our hearts.” “This law of our hearts guides the consciences of men and women in knowing right from wrong . . .” It is “perceived by reason.” But then you say that, although natural law is written on our hearts, not all of us can access it because of sin. How do we know who has accessed it correctly? How is accessing the law written on our hearts different from questioning conventional ideas of right and wrong in the light of Gospel principles and making reasoned judgments? How are eternal law, revealed law, and natural law related to civil law? We need a lot more light on these points.

From those confusing observations, you plunge directly into universal conclusions about marriage based on all the categories of law you mentioned above. Despite the lack of reason in presenting it, your central conclusion is about civil law and it is crystal clear. You believe that civil law should not recognize any form of marriage other than the union of one man and one woman for the purpose of procreation of children, and, therefore, civil law should not recognize same-gender marriage.

If your conclusions are, as you say, based on natural law, shouldn’t they be explainable by reasoning? Don’t you have to give reasons why the form of marriage the Catholic magisterium recognizes as sacramental should be the only one that civil law recognizes? Why should physical complementarity be the only factor in a society’s decision to recognize civil marriage?

The civil society is comprised of many groups of people who hold different theologies of marriage. Why should they agree to be governed by the theology of the Roman Catholic magisterium?

What are the “misguided notions of inclusiveness” that you mention as the basis of people’s desire to change civil marriage laws to include same-gender partners? Are they notions of equal protection under the law established in our Constitution? Are they Gospel notions of love of neighbor, including people whose sexual orientation is different from the mainstream? Those are the two bases for inclusiveness that we are aware of and that we value. In what way are they “misguided”?

You argue that the one man/one woman form of marriage should be maintained because in the past “society in its collective wisdom has established” that form in civil law. Are you then willing to defer to the collective wisdom of society to fashion future civil marriage laws?

Were the priests and deacons who attended the two “marriage study days” satisfied with the reasoning presented to them? Did you give them an opportunity to question you? You may have convinced them, on your authority, that they should preach against same-gender civil rights, but you have further alienated many Catholics who are asking you not just for reasonable moral guidance, not just for good citizenship in a pluralistic society, but also for sensitivity to the Gospel message.

Our disagreement leaves open the question of whose sinfulness prevents them from reasoning clearly about the natural law or discerning the Christian revelation in the matter of same-gender sex and partnering. Is it ours or yours? We are open to your telling us it is ours, but, since it is a matter of natural law, we can’t take it on your authority. The questions have to be answered reasonably.


The Editorial Team of The Progressive Catholic Voice:

Michael Bayly
Mary Beckfeld
David McCaffrey
Rick Notch
Paula Ruddy

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 1 - Herbert McCabe, OP
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 2 - Judith Web Kay
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 3 - Daniel Helminiak
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 4 - Garry Wills
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 5 - Gregory Baum


taxpaying liberal said...

Thoughtful comments ,
At some point the church and CPCSM has to start looking at the “pragmatic” side of things.

About a month ago I attended Conformation at the Basilica as the guest of a young lady and the sermon focused on the need for more priests.
Clearly Archbishop Nienstedt felt little need to explain the relevance of the ceremony to the young women being confirmed.

On one hand the Archbishop was clearly desperate to recruit new priests, on the other; he ignored or refused to see the spirituality of more than half of those whom he was administering the sacrament to.

I point this out as an example of the Archbishops apparent goal of returning to the bad old days of using sexuality as the main basis for determining spirituality and worthiness.

OreamnosAmericanus said...

Stumbled on here and wandered through. What I don't get is that if the Catholic Church adopted the 1. progressive and 2. gay approaches you hold, why it would not turn into the Episcopal Church, with all that unhappy and rapidly shrinking body's attendant problems? Those folks are on the way to becoming Unitarians in drag. Not an attractive prospect.

Plus, a questions. The whole structure, edifice and heart of Catholic sexual morality is based on this axiom: the only valid place for the most intimate sexual activity is between a married man and woman, where it is open to the act of procreation. Outside that, it is sinful.

Now, if you make an exception to this, for gays, for example, the whole thing unravels, and the largest Christian church in the world suddenly has no sexual morality.

What kind of moral principle could replace the current one?

OreamnosAmericanus said...

To continue.

Though I am a very happily homosexual man, I am definitely not a political progressive anymore. And --now from the outside looking in, as an interested "alumnus"-- I think that Cardinal George was right and that "liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project."

I look at the fate of the mainstream liberal Protestants, especially the Episcopals and
Anglicans who were so close to the Catholic/Orthodox tradition, and all I see is dissolution of identity, haemorraghing (sp?)of membership and surrender to a post-modern culture that is at bottom deeply contemptuous of Christianity in anything but an emasculated (yes) quasi-Unitarian format. Schliermacher's lectures on religion to its "cultured despisers" revisited.

After many years, I gave up trying to either a) get the Church to fit me in or b) trying to fit in with the Church. Some situations, I decided, do not admit of a solution. So we parted ways. I let the Church be itself and I live as myself. I leave it to God to settle things up in His own time.

But for you guys who still want to get the Church to adapt to your "gay, progressive" worldview, what would be the fundamental moral principle or principles that you would offer as a replacement for the Catholic one?

It would seem to me that a group like yours would have had time to work on this over all the years you've been around. Do you have a post or a document that does this?

PS. Funny thing. The word verification I am required to enter to upload this comment is "louse". :))

Anonymous said...

Oh, I don't know, USMaleSF, "louse" seems pretty appropriate for the type of pathetic comments you've left here.

As a straight female Catholic, I appreciate the efforts of "progressive" Catholics to help the Church evolve in its thinking and teaching on human sexuality. Who's saying anything about having no sexual morality?

And as to those you dissent from churech teaching on sexually, it's hardly a "small group." Over 95% of Catholic married straight couples practice birth control, and over 50% of students in Catholic colleges and universities believe same-sex marriage is okay.

It seems to me that the majority of Catholics - gay or straight - recognize the church's sexual morality is off the mark and are quietly (and in some cases, not so quietly) dissenting from it. I actually admire those who go that one step further and offer ways in which the tradition can move forward, i.e., progress.

Michael's site is full of posts that offer his thoughts and the thoughts of others on what this progression, this development, might look like. If I were you I'd quit pontificating and start reading.

Oh, and for the record, it's the Catholic Church that's shrank overall more than any other denomination in the United States - losing something like 30 million followers in recent years. The (temporary) spike provided by Latino immigrants usually hides this fact in various polls.

Anonymous said...

Donna, You clearly do not know what you are talking about regarding the fluctuating populations of the various Christian denominations.

More to the point. I find it odd that an article posted in places where there is absolutely no chance the Archbishop (you disagree with) will see is called dialogue.

I guess when you live in a world where the only purpose of your existence is to protest and demonstrate and convince the world that everyone but you is wrong- you can misuse whatever words you want to try to make your point.

As long as there are "Donnas" and others- who will faun on your every word as if you are making an intelligent point- you can feel good about yourself.

OreamnosAmericanus said...

Proverbs 21:19. :)

Anonymous said...


Note the following from this article:

Conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the survey confirms on a grand scale trends that demographers have noted for years: the slipping percentage of Protestants, now down to 51, and the rise of people who call themselves unaffiliated, now at 16 percent, up from similar surveys.

The survey [Conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life] . . . lays out, just weeks before Pope Benedict XVI's first papal visit to the United States, the Catholic Church's challenge: no American faith group has lost more adherents. Among U.S. adults, about the same percentage -- 24 -- call themselves Catholic as in the past, but that statistic masks significant turnover. The percentage has held up primarily because of the huge number of recent Latino immigrants, who are largely Catholic, the survey found. Sixty-eight percent of people raised Catholic still identify with their childhood denomination, compared with 80 percent of Protestants and 76 percent of Jews.

Michael J. Bayly said...


Interesting exchange taking place here.

Just a couple of comments:

TaxPayingLiberal, thanks for your comment and for sharing your observation at the Basilica.

USMaleSF, I think, for now, Donna has said it all for me.

Donna, you rightly observe that among faith groups (as defined by the Pew Study you referenced) Catholic numbers have diminished the most. BUT remember, the Protestant "faith group" is comprised of many denominations. So when comparing denominations, rather than faith groups, it's not the case that Catholics have lost the most in numbers. I seem to recall hearing, however, that Catholic numbers are diminishing at a faster rate than other denominations.

Anonymous, the PCV's "Dialoguing with the Bishop" series is not just posted online. A copy of each installment is mailed to the Archbishop as well. In addition, we've sent him at least two invitations to educational/discussion forums that CPCSM has hosted. He is yet to respond to any dialogue opportunity initiated by either the PCV or CPCSM. This is sad and unfortunate as when he was first appointed as coadjutor archbishop in 2007, he noted how he was looking forward to basically listening and learning from his interaction with members of the archdiocese.



Paula Ruddy said...

I hope USMaleSF is still visiting this site. His comment raised a good question about what is distinctive about Catholicism. Is it really its moral teaching on sexuality? I'll grant that teaching currently gets most attention. In my view, the key moral principle for all Christians is that we should have compassion for one another on the model of Jesus. How do sexual beings relate to one another compassionately? It has something to do with not making promises you can't keep. And with keeping promises you make. I guess my assumption is that physical intimacy promises a unity of spirit, care, concern, support. That is sometimes measured by time and exclusivity, but not always.

But about what is distinctive about Catholicism if its moral teaching is not? Worldwide institutionalization? Radical sacramental sensibility? By that I mean that divine life infuses human life and all creation. I'd be interested in others' views. Paula

OreamnosAmericanus said...

I appreciate Paula Ruddy's attempting to hear my question rather than taking Donna's and Michael's ("said it all for me") attitude to my "pathetic" "pontificating". Thank you.

I know that my comments were colorfully and robustly expressed, and pointed. I thought you guys could handle that. Because I have indeed read through a chunk of this blog a few times before commenting, and the language used by you folks and your allies here is hardly diffident!

I did no personal name-calling, however. Unfortunately, the ad hominem response is one I am familar with when challenging open-minded progressives. Makes it all too easy for me to suspect I touched a sensitive nerve.

Although the distinct identity of Catholicism is indeed the background for my queries, it was the specific issue of the coherence of Catholic sexual morality that I asked about. They are connected, but can be separated for discussion's sake.

So: If a progressive gay theological approach wants to jettison the current and traditional sexual axiom I mentioned earlier, what would you put in its place? If I were the local Bishop, I'd want to know.

Is there no document on this blog (or linked elswhere) called something like "A Proposed New Catholic Sexual Morality", which outlines the actual alternate principles --not general values, feelings, intuitions or attitudes--by which you'd want a Roman Catholic to make ethical decisions about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable sexual behavior?

Paula Ruddy said...

"If a progressive gay theological approach wants to jettison the current and traditional sexual axiom I mentioned earlier, what would you put in its place?"

Hi, USMaleSF. Is the following an axiom?
"In my view, the key moral principle for all Christians is that we should have compassion for one another on the model of Jesus."

I don't think there is a unified progressive gay theological approach comparable to the institutionalized position of the Roman Catholic Church. It looks as if morally responsible glbt people and their morally responsible straight allies are a movement of individuals who are trying like everyone else to make morally responsible choices and to think out the questions they are faced with. Sex is one of those acts that requires lots of nuanced thinking as well as human sensitivity to decide when it is moral and when not. Do you agree?

Michael J. Bayly said...

I’d be the first to admit, USMaleSF, that your comments initially triggered a negative reaction from me. And it’s taken me a while to figure out why that was so. Yet upon reflection I’ve come to conclude that although, like Paula, I can appreciate your questions, it was your “colorfully and robustly expressed” comments and insinuations concerning progressives and our Protestant brothers and sisters that I believe I initially had a hard time with.

Also, I’ve discovered that as I get older I have less patience for LGBT people who claim they’re non-progressive. I’m not sure how you understand “progressive,” but for me and the Catholics I work with, to be a progressive Catholic is, in part, to be drawn to and seek to participate in the Church’s capacity to grow and evolve. It’s been my experience that those who dismiss and/or malign progressives are often folks who wish to maintain the status quo. It’s beyond me why anyone who is LGBT would want to do this – in either the Church or society.

Accordingly, I found it odd (and disturbing) that nowhere in your comments were you critical of the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual theology/morality – one that has caused (and continues to cause) a great deal of suffering and harm to people, especially LGBT people attempting to live lives of integration and integrity. I don’t know what it was in your comments that Donna was referring to as “pathetic,” but I guess for me it’s this silence when it comes to the dysfunction of (and harm caused by) the Church’s sexual theology. (I even have to wonder: If you weren't gay would you still be part of the Church and actively defending its sexual theology against folks like me?)

You ask: “If a progressive gay theological approach wants to jettison the current and traditional sexual axiom I mentioned earlier, what would you put in its place?”

First, I’d look at what the majority of Catholics are already putting in it’s place; the truth, in other words, that has and is emerging through and in their lives and relationships. As Donna mentioned, the vast majority of Catholics have for decades rejected the “traditional sexual axiom” you refer to. Clearly it’s not a “self-evident truth” (i.e., axiom). Thus it’s not so much a “progressive gay theological” approach we should be seeking to observe and articulate (after all, most of these “dissenters” are straight), but an “authentically Catholic theological” approach – one that welcomes the perspective and insights of all (gay, straight, and everything in between); one that embodies the very Catholic “sacramental principle” that recognizes and celebrates God’s transforming presence and action within and throughout all creation.

There are numerous Catholic theologians who are doing just that kind of observing and articulating; who are, in other words, doing what the institutional Church has failed to do: gather and integrate into a body of reflection and insight the corporate body of Catholics’ experience and wisdom regarding sexuality. (Actually, there are some brave souls within the hierarchy calling for this kind of renewal. For instance, see here, here, and here.)

In terms of Catholic theologians and scholars who have and are proposing an alternative sexual theology to that being offered by Rome, I’d start with Margaret Farley, author of Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. (You can read Paul Capetz’s review of this book here.)

Another good example of a Catholic theologian who is exploring and articulating a healthy and holistic sexual theology is Daniel Helminiak. Another is Cletus Wessels, who talks about relationship as the crucial factor in sexual morality. Yet another is Joan Timmerman (see here and here).

Finally, any of the theologians and/or scholars I’ve highlighted in my recent “Perspectives on Natural Law” series would also be worth looking into, as by critiquing and offering alternative perspectives on the concept of natural law, they also point the way beyond the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of this concept and thus a broader (and I’d say more authentically sacramental) way of thinking and talking about sexuality. Some of these folks include: Herbert McCabe, Judith Web Kay, Garry Wills, and Gregory Baum.

I’d also draw your attention to the following Wild Reed posts:
Making Love, Giving Life
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality
The Many Forms of Courage (Part 1)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part 2)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part 3)
When “Guidelines” Lack Guidance
Be Not Afraid, You Can Be Happy and Gay!
The Pope’s “Scandalouis” Stance on Homosexuality
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men



Michael J. Bayly said...


Your thoughtful response reminds me of the following quote by Evelyn and James Whitehead in their book, A Sense of Sexuality: Christian Love and Intimacy.

Through compassion we learn that we are more alike than different. . . To our Christian identity what matters most is not sexual orientation or ethnic origin or gender. What marks us as followers of Jesus is our behavior. From the first century onward Christians provoked the response: “See how they love one another!” The fruitfulness of this love is recognized in its respect, generosity, and fidelity. Today the Churches struggle to have their stance toward Christian homosexuals shaped by such compassion.

OreamnosAmericanus said...

Thanks for the references, especially for the Margaret Farley book info. I did a little more digging around about it and that is the kind of thing I was looking for, an attempt to set out a thought-through alternative model of sexual ethics, with the kinds of criteria that might be used in moral assessment and decision-making.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Michael, for your thoughtful response to USMaleSF. I now realize that I overreacted to his first couple of comments - and so apologize for any offense. You helped me realize what it was I was reacting too, and that was USMaleSF's overall tone - and that "louse" comment of his. That to me, felt like "personal name calling."