Monday, August 01, 2011

Beyond the Hierarchy: The Blossoming of Liberating Catholic Insights on Sexuality (Part 2)


Last month I commenced a new Wild Reed series highlighting the liberating insights on sexuality that are emerging and “blossoming” beyond the Vatican; a series presenting the best of what Catholic theologians are saying about sexuality. These theologians, it should be noted, are not just Vatican stenographers, but men and women open to and receptive of God’s transforming presence throughout the entire church.

Today I continue this series with an excerpt from Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether’s essay “Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Pastoral Practice” in the 1994 anthology Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection.

In this particular excerpt Ruether examines how the Church’s “traditional” (i.e., Augustinian) view that reproduction is the only legitimate purpose of sex “sprang not from a high valuing of children, but from a negative valuing of sex.” She also clearly explains how the condemnation of homosexuality as “incomplete and narcissistic” is a “basic reinforcement of heterosexism.” Finally, Ruether highlights a norm of sexual morality based on “moral relationality.” Variations of this idea have been offered by Catholic thinkers over the years, and this particular norm was advanced by the Catholic Theological Society of America in its 1977 report Human Sexuality. It’s a norm that “eliminates the neat boundaries between moral and immoral sex defined by heterosexual marriage and procreation” and instead promotes a much more compassionate and healthy “developmental goal.” “We are to grow toward healthy, loving, mutual, and faithful relationships, away from abusive and dishonest ones,” writes Ruether. “The morality of homosexual or heterosexual relations is judged by the same standard, rather than by different standards.”

In short, it’s a very insightful and, yes, liberating view of sexuality and sexual morality that Ruether presents. I look forward to my readers’ responses to it in the comments box!


The Christian tradition that views homosexuality as a sin rests on a view of sexuality as legitimate only within monogamous marriage with reproduction as its primary purpose. As developed by Saint Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth century, this view disregards the relational purpose of sexuality as an expression and means of creating love. Sexuality is seen as inherently debasing to the soul. Even reproductive sexuality within marriage is seen as spiritually debasing. The optimal Christian life-style was that of celibacy. The celibate anticipated the heavenly order of redemption by renouncing sexuality for the “angelic life.” Underlying this view of redemption is a quasi-Gnostic anthropology that sees finitude and morality, and hence the need for reproduction, as characteristics of a fallen order. In the original and future heavenly order, sex, sin, and death were and will be absent.

Saint Augustine sees the blessings on procreation in Genesis as pertaining only to the Old Testament. But this era of the Old Adam has been superseded by Christ, a virgin born of virginal marriage. Although sex and reproduction within marriage are allowable in the Christian era, they are now of inferior value. Married people belong to a moral lower class in the church, the members of which are unable to attain the fullness of the gospel, as do the celibates, who imitate the virginity of Christ and Mary and anticipate the eschatological age.

We see from the above that the traditional view that reproduction is the only legitimate purpose of sex sprang not from a high valuing of children, but from a negative valuing of sex. Sex was the epitome of the sinful, death-prone instinct. Original sin was transmitted from generation to generation through concupiscence, the orgasmic feeling of sexual release. The enjoyment of this experience was regarded with horror as a thing to be restricted as much as possible. It was venially sinful in marriage even when used for procreation, and mortally sinful in every other case. Thus even heterosexual married couples “fornicated,” or sinned mortally, when they had sex solely for “pleasure” and avoided reproduction.

In this view, contraceptive, oral, and anal sex, between heterosexuals or homosexuals, were sinful for the same reason. Thus, in much of classical Catholic penitential literature, the sin of sodomy refers not only to homosexual sex, but to and non-procreative sex. . . . The root of this tradition lies in a view of all sex as sinful, although allowable or venially sinful within procreative marriage. This view sees no autonomous purpose of sex as a means of creating and expressing a love relationship.

. . . The categorization of homosexuality as disease belongs to an older Christian tradition, but it has been reinforced in recent times by the psychoanalytic profession. Patriarchal psychoanalysis, as developed by Freud, defined homosexuality as a developmental disorder. Freud postulated that infant sexuality is characterized by “polymorphous perversity.” That is to say, our original sexuality is non-genital and non-gender specific. As infants we feel sexual all over our bodies and respond sexually to both sexes. But Freud believed that this infantile “perversity” must be overcome by repressing a generalized sexuality in favor of heterosexual genital sexuality, the goal of which is reproduction. Homosexuality is developmental failure, a “fixture” on an infantile stage of sexuality. Homosexuals are described as “narcissistic.” Their attraction to persons of the same gender reflects a self-love that is incapable of loving others. Oddly enough, this view fails to recognize persons of the same gender as distinct other persons from oneself.

Lurking under the charge that homosexuals are narcissistic lies the psychological doctrine of complementarity. Complementarity defines males and females as rigidly opposite personality types. Males must cultivate the “masculine” characteristics of autonomy, force, and rationality; women, the “feminine” characteristics of passivity, nurturance, and auxiliary existence. Only heterosexual sex is directed to the “other half” of this dualism and unites the two sexes in a “whole.” Homosexual sex is, therefore, “incomplete,” directed toward one’s own “half,” rather than the other “half.”

This condemnation of homosexuality as incomplete and narcissistic is a basic reinforcement of heterosexism. Its doctrine that only heterosexual sex is “whole” is actually based on a truncated human development for both men and women in which both must remain “half” people who need the other “half” in order to be “whole.” This truncated personality development reflects patriarchal social roles. The male and female stereotypes are asymmetrical and reflect the dominance-submission, public-private splits of the patriarchal social order.

Against this patriarchal social stereotyping, I would claim that all persons, male and female, possess the capacity for psychological wholeness that transcends the masculine-feminine dichotomy. Once this is recognized, the argument for heterosexuality, based on the genders as complementary opposites, collapses. All sexual relations, all love relations, should be the loving of another person who is complexly both similar and different from oneself. Such relationships should help both grow into their full wholeness. Complementarity, by contrast, creates a pathological interdependency based on each person remaining in a state of deficiency in relation to the other. The female can’t make her own living. The male can’t do his own wash or meals. So each “needs” the other to supply these lacks in themselves. The relationship is set up to reinforce this deficiency in each.

. . . We should see sexuality as an integral part of our total psychosomatic being, not something that can be separated out and repressed without damage to our fullness of being. We should recognize that the love-relational purpose of sex has its own integrity and goodness as the creation and expression of bonding, affection, and commitment. It is not dependent on procreation for its justification, and indeed today out of many thousands of sexual acts in the lifetime of any person, only a small percentage can be intentionally reproductive. The defense of marriage between sterile people, sex after menopause, and the acceptance of birth control, including the so-called rhythm method – all tacitly accept the autonomous love-relational purpose of sex.

Once one has accepted any non-procreative sex to be moral for heterosexuals, one can no longer define homosexuality as immoral because it is non-procreative. One cannot even say that homosexuals avoid the responsibility to raise children, since celibates also do not raise children, while many homosexuals are raising natural or adopted children. Once one has accepted the understanding of humanity in which men and women are complex psychological wholes, not stereotypic opposites, and that the goodness of relationship lies in mutual support of the wholeness of each, not the mutual deficiency of masculine-feminine interdependence, then the difference between loving and bonding with someone of the same sex as yourself or someone of the other sex can no longer be rigidly distinguished. Both are relationships with another person, with all the complex problems of developing a healthy mutuality, rather than pathological dependency and exploitive misuse of each other.

There has emerged among Catholic moral theologians in the last twenty years a comprehensive effort to revise the traditional Catholic view of sexuality, although these moral theologians are currently very much under fire from the Vatican, which recognizes that its system of social and ecclesiastical control rests on the older definition of sexual sin. The Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) report Human Sexuality, published in 1977 represents this alternative tradition of Catholic moral theology. The starting point of the moral system developed in this report is that sexual morality or immorality is an expression of moral or immoral human relationality. Relationships are moral when they are mutual, supportive of the full personal growth of each person, committed, and faithful. Relations are immoral when they are abusive, violent, exploitive, keep people in truncated stages of development, and lead to lying, deceit, and betrayal.

This norm of sexual morality, based on moral relationality, eliminates the neat boundaries between moral and immoral sex defined by heterosexual marriage and procreation. Such a norm makes for much stricter judgments about sexual morality in some cases. Much of the sexuality promoted in patriarchal marriage, which, for example, saw the husband as having a right to force his wife to have sex with him, would be regarded as immoral by such a standard. What is moral or immoral sexually becomes more a question of a scale of values than of clear boundaries. No one achieves perfectly mutual love, and perhaps few relationships are totally evil. Rather, such a norm promotes a developmental goal. We are to grow toward healthy, loving, mutual, and faithful relationships, away from abusive and dishonest ones. The morality of homosexual or heterosexual relations is judged by the same standard, rather than by different standards.

– Rosemary Radford Ruether
Excerpted from "Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Pastoral Practice"
Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection
pp. 387-391

NEXT: Part 3

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Beyond the Hierarchy (Part 1)
Clearing Away the Debris
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace
A "Fruit" Reflects on the Meaning of "Fruitfulness"
Getting It Right
A Wise and Thoughtful Study of Sexual Ethics
The Standard of Sexual Ethics: Human Flourishing, Not Openness to Procreation
Joan Timmerman on the "Wisdom of the Body"
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
Making Love, Giving Life
Italian Cardinal Calls for a "New Vision" for Sexuality
A Catholic Statement of Support for Same-Sex Marriage
Tips on Speaking as a Catholic in Support of Marriage Equality

Recommended Off-site Links:
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1) – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 15, 2010).
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 2) – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 19, 2010).
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 3) – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 28, 2010).

Image: Michael J. Bayly.


jamez said...

I actually wrote a paper proposing this very same thesis for a theology class in college. I, of course wasn’t so eloquent and erudite as Rosemary Radford Ruether. I referred to a relational moral criterion as opposed to an object/act oriented one. I don’t believe myself to have been precocious either. For those of us brought up within and after the tumultuous cultural transformations in the 1960’s, this just makes sense…

brian gerard said...

Hi Michael,

Can I borrow that book? This post is great. I do have one note. Ms. Reuther gives a clear headed description of mutuality as a right basis for moral relationships. But, I do think she still elevates sex to a higher plane than is necessary. She states: "We should recognize that the love-relational purpose of sex has its own integrity and goodness as the creation and expression of bonding, affection, and commitment. " This statement is not supported by any real evidence. The only readily definable "purpose" of sex IS the creation of another human life. What we can say is that healthy people living out their mutual love may find sex to be an expression of bonding, affection or what have you. They may EQUALLY find these expression in many other activities they share.

Terence Weldon said...

Once again, Michael, an important and helpful instalment in an important series. Quite apart from the specific content on sexuality, what I find liberating in this, is the historical and theological context - most of this is, in a sense, old hat.

The article itself comes from an anthology published 17 years ago, and makes repeated reference to the CTSA's Human Sexuality, which itself was published way back in 1977. Today, these observations might sound startling to the Vatican claque whose only understanding of Catholicism comes from the rule books, but it is likely that they are pretty well accepted wisdom among professionals in the field.

I firmly believe that this also applies to the serious theologians in the Vatican. The problem for them is not recognizing the truth, which is clear to so many people with real sexual lives, and to theologians not limited by the power structures in what they may say.

No, the major problem facing them, is simply to find a way to admit that they have been wrong, on homosexuality and on contraception, without also admitting that their entire sexual theology is a house of cards with no firm foundation.

Sexual puritanism, with the myth that sexual abstinence has some mystic moral value, is at the heart of the clerical caste system which puts celibate clergy at the apex, religious women in the middle, and the dirty, sexually polluted laity at the base.

Admit that the sexual theology is flawed, and they seriously damage an important pillar of ecclesiastical power.

It is no wonder that competent theologians in the Vatican club are unwilling to admit what must be as plain to them as to all others.

Terence Weldon said...


Can you even define what you mean by "the purpose" of sex?

I seriously doubt that even for married couples, when they embark on sexual expression, they say "We're going to do this to make a baby".

Procreation is obviously one of the outcomes of sex, and in the grand scheme of the human race, is one of its functions. It is unequivocally the means by which the race reproduces.

There is however, abundant evidence that even in the animal kingdom, there are many "purposes" of sex that go beyond procreation. The evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden, for instance, describes several for chimpanzees, including (from memory, here):

mutual bonding; improving social cohesion; conflict resolution; material gain; procreation - and simple pleasure.

And as for the response that you mean "God's purpose" - how do you know that? It's am assumption that has crept into Catholic theology, but is not supported by Scripture: see for example the Song of Songs, for which simple erotic pleasure is celebrated, with no suggestion at all of baby-making (or even that the lovers are married).

Invictus_88 said...

Ruether reads Augustine.

Ruether dislikes like Augustine.

Reuter publishes book criticising Augustine, unnecessarily imbued with vitriolic slander against the Church.

Forgive me for not being excited, but this really is just more of the same - neither insightful or constructive.

Terence Weldon said...

Wild Reed publishes a post on Ruether.
Invictus doesn't like it.
Invictus weighs in by slandering Ruether, with no attempt to assess the content.

And so?