Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Official Catholic Teaching about Sexuality: Side-by-Side Statements of Mary Cunningham and Phyllis Zagano

I just ended my overview of an assortment of articles about Paul Ryan by placing two op-ed statements in today's New York Times--Maureen Dowd and Ross Douthat on Paul Ryan--side by side.  As I noted when I concluded my previous posting, it's interesting to me that Dowd and Douthat are both Catholic, as Ryan is.  Yet Dowd and Douthat have strongly contrasting moral assessments of the agenda of their fellow Catholic Ryan's agenda for the nation.

I'd like now to do a similar side-by-side contrast of two very recent statements about sexual ethics as handed down by the magisterium of the Catholic church.  At the website of the (Irish) Association of Catholic Priests, Mary Cunningham encourages the Catholic hierarchy to "get real" if it really wants to reach out to a new generation of Catholics with its "new evangelization" program.  And at National Catholic Reporter, Phyllis Zagano, who will receive Voice of the Faithful's St. Catherine of Siena Distinguished Layperson award a few weeks from now, writes in support of the magisterial teaching against contraceptive use and in support of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' current "religious freedom" war vs. the Obama administration's ACA guidelines re: contraception.


Any effort at new evangelisation or renewal of faith in the Roman Catholic Church is doomed to failure unless there is a radical shift to address the dysfunctional magisterial teachings on sexuality.

As Cunningham notes, last year, the Irish bishops launched Ireland's first National Directory for Catechesis, Share the Good News.  She notes that Irish scholar Sean O'Conaill defines the good news to be shared through the process of Christian evangelization as follows: "The really good news for me in the Gospel and the Eucharist is that we are all indeed, and in every moment, of equal and infinite value."

And then she asks, in light of that definition, 

1. The everyday reality of people’s lives and their lived experiences are difficult to discern in some of the rhetoric used in ‘Share the Good News’.  For example, “The dignity of the human person demands that justice and solidarity be recognised as key dimensions at the centre of all catechetical efforts”.(p.161).  What about basic dignity, and justice for the equal rights of women, gay people, those who have babies via IVF etc.? 
2. In relation to young people ’Share the Good News’ proclaims ” It is only when the young person knows who they are and what is important for them that they can truly move forward toward a more intimate understanding of relation with others and, indeed, with God”(p.149).  
Where does this leave ‘intrinsically disordered persons’, as the Vatican describe some, because they stand in judgement on their sexual orientation? 
3. Church teaching on sexuality will have to be addressed in any effort to evangelise our idealistic young people.  Among their main areas of concern are suicide and homosexuality, (Diarmuid Martin).  Their sense of fairness, compassion and ability to discern hypocrisy, would put many of us to shame.  You hit the nail on the head, Jo O’Sullivan.  ‘Young people accept that discrimination in any form is simply wrong, so they cannot accept the misogynistic, homophobic aspects of Catholicism’.

Zagano: Writing about another aspect of Catholic magisterial sexual ethics--the topic of contraception--Zagano states,

As I understand it, the U.S. Catholic bishops fear the time-tested concept of religious liberty is at stake because the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act -- "Obamacare" -- which requires all non-ministerial agencies to provide no-cost prescription contraceptives, IUDs, morning-after pills and sterilization. That means St. You-name-it University must give whatever to employees and students free of charge. 
Could we please have a reality check here? Personally, I think there is lots wrong with free birth control, abortifacients and sterilization for any number of reasons even beyond the "Catholic" ones. I mean, has anybody talked about entitlement? The object of birth control at the undergraduate level is avoiding the law of consequences -- playing without paying -- and now the government wants to double the free-play idea. For everybody? 
Beyond entitlement, is anybody talking about what happens to women's bodies when they've been encouraged to take birth control pills, use patches or under-the-skin rods between the ages of 13 and 50? Is there an endocrinologist in the house? 
And beyond entitlement and damaging hormones, is anybody talking about what ends up in the water supply? (Years ago, they found traces of Prozac in the Thames, and folks near Cork Harbor in Ireland still joke about how helpful Pfizer's Viagra manufacturing plant has been.) 
These are all real reasons -- intellectual, physical, environmental -- to seriously question the mandate for universal free birth control. These are all real reasons to add to Catholic arguments against IUDs (highly creepy, to say the least, when stopping implantation of fertilized ova) and sterilization. If religious organizations can't opt out, what's next?

It's interesting to me to read these two statements by two contemporary Catholic women addressing magisterial teachings re: sexual ethical issues side by side.  Granted, Cunningham is focusing on the church's approach to LGBT persons, while Zagano is focusing on church teaching about contraception (and the USCCB's political strategy designed to uphold and impose that teaching in the secular sphere).  

But though the two Catholic thinkers are engaging different aspect of Catholic magisterial teaching re: human sexuality, they're both still addressing implicitly and directly the role the magisterium should play in defining, governing, and imposing teaching in the area of human sexuality.  And to my ear, they're coming to very different conclusions about that role.

And about the role that the graced experience of the faithful should play in helping shape official definitions of sexual ethics within the Catholic tradition.  It's interesting to me, in that regard, that Zagano never once adverts to the fact that the vast majority of Catholics reject the teaching the USCCB wants to impose on the nation at large, and which she defends.  

Once we open the door to questions about the graced experience of lay Catholics and the role this should play in shaping official definitions of sexual ethics within Catholicism, we also open the door--as Cunningham rightly points out--to questions about "getting real."  We open the door to questions about the real world in which lay Catholics really live.

And as Cunningham also notes, this naturally opens the door to questions about what the experiences of real-life gay and lesbian Catholics should mean as the church hands down definitions of gay personhood as intrinsically disordered.  It opens the door to questions about how on earth the Catholic church imagines it can sustain a vision of human life as worth defending, and a vision of a world in which the rights of all human beings must be respected, while it tramples on the rights of LGBT human beings and/or pretends gay human beings simply don't exist.

Questions that, for my money, drive right to the heart of Zagano's concern about defending the human lives and human dignity of the unborn, since one has to ask how it's possible to defend the human lives and human dignity of the unborn from the standpoint of Catholic teaching, when that teaching and those who defend it treat the human lives of already born gay human beings as less than significant and less than human . . . .

 The graphic: a traditional icon of Jesus the Teacher, one that I have kept on my desk for many years.

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