For National Catholic Reporter, Joshua McElwee reports on a statement issued by the Association of German Moral Theologians and the Conference of German-Speaking Pastoral Theologians in response to Pope Francis's call for lay Catholics to provide input about issues of contraception, gay marriage, and family life prior to the upcoming Synod on the Family. McElwee has helpfully linked to a translation of the theologians' statement by Stephanie Knauss.
What strikes me as I read the statement is that it depends on a distinction that Catholic moral theologians (and Catholic theologians in general) have been making for a long time now: the magisterium offers Catholics an "idealized" understanding of human sexuality that does not take into account the experience of lay Catholics to whom this idealized teaching is handed down. Magisterial teaching on sexual ethics is very conspicuously not "received" by lay Catholics--particularly, as the document points out, regarding the issue of contraception.
The gap between the idealized, acts-centered, non-experience-based sexual ethical teaching handed down by the magisterium and the experience-based understanding of human sexuality lived by lay Catholics in their lives of graced discipleship continues to grow (see: issue of same-sex marriage), and the gap is becoming insupportable.
The German theologians call for an understanding of sexual ethics that continues to enshrine the ideals to which magisterial teaching points, but corrects the idealized, acts-centered, non-experience-based teaching of the magisterium by incorporating dimensions of care (a "pallial" dimension), emancipation, and reflectivity:
- a caring (“palliale”) dimension to protect that which is fragile. As a “pallial” ethics, Christian sexual ethics has to beware of the insisting focus on acts in its moral tradition and demand discretion and protection from the glaring light of normativity. Marriage could then be understood as an institution that protects this fragility, not as an institution of obligation. Such Christian sexual ethics would have to show again and again the need for interpersonal boundaries that counter late romantic rhetoric of fusion. Finally, this pallial dimension creates possibilities for an ethics of pregnancy as a phase of life in which parents and child are exceedingly vulnerable.
- an emancipatory dimension that liberates and opens new perspectives when vulnerability has become violation. As an emancipatory ethics, Christian sexual ethics has to take the side of those who lose in relationships, the ones who are left and hurt to the core. It rejects all forms of sexual violence.
- a reflexive dimension that accepts vulnerability and counters the banalization and routinization of sexuality. As a reflexive ethics of vulnerability, Christian sexual ethics know the ontological value of vulnerability. The joy of intimacy can be experienced only when it is possible to be vulnerable without being violated.
The overweening emphasis of idealized Catholic moral teaching about sexuality, with its obsessive focus on acts considered in isolation from any examination of the persons doing the acts: this "insisting focus," with its "glaring light of normativity," is something from which lay believers need protection, the theologians bluntly state. And Christian sexual ethics should always be concerned with taking "the side of those who lose in relationships, the ones who are left and hurt to the core."
Instead, with its obsessive focus on acts considered in isolation from any careful analysis of the persons who commit acts, and with its application of the "glaring light of normativity" as a weapon to attack and condemn those who fail to meet the ideal being proclaimed (and this is to say, the majority of lay Catholics, who reject the teachings about sexuality as they're currently formulated), magisterial teaching about human sexuality actually appears to harm rather than to provide care or to liberate lay Catholics.
To me, it's rather refreshing to hear Catholic moral theologians who are dealing with the church's sexual ethical teachings begin--at long last--to talk about the effect of those teachings in terms of care and justice. For a long time now, too many Catholic moral theologians have pretended that we can prescind from any consideration of matters of care and justice as we place human beings--particularly members of targeted minority groups--under a microscope and dissect their pathologies and their "disordered" acts while we do sexual ethics.
Nothing about that approach to thinking about any moral issue at all even begins to approach the threshold of an authentically Christian ethics. It's astonishing to me that this way of thinking (and behaving) has so long prevailed in my Catholic tradition, with the very active complicity of many lay theologians who have not been the objects of that microscope and the tools of dissection it enables.
The photo of the theological section of Bristol (England?) Library is from the Flickr photostream of aesop, who has kindly made the photo available for sharing with acknowledgment of its source.