When I read Lisa Fullam's recent Commonweal essay about contraception and Gary Gutting's New York Times essay about unraveling the Catholic ban on gay sex, I'm tempted to ask, "Who knew that natural law theology would be so much in the news in 2015"? I don't by any means intend to cast aspersions on these two essays with that question. They're both fine theological expositions of the natural law theology that underlies magisterial prohibitions against artificial contraceptives, gay sex (and, as Gutting reminds us, masturbation or any sexual act between a married man and woman in which the penis is not inserted into the vagina when the man reaches orgasm).
What I mean in asking my question is to note how persistent the hold of natural law theology been on a certain kind of Catholic mindset right up to the present, despite the widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae's ban on use of contraceptives from the moment the encyclical was issued. Or perhaps more accurately: a large percentage of Catholics are so badly catechized that they have little notion of why official Catholic teaching teaches all those things about sex that I've just enumerated, or even that it does teach all those things.
Many heterosexual Catholics who are determined to uphold "unchanging" Catholic teaching that bashes gay folks, for instance, have no inkling at all that the very same teaching that prohibits any homosexual act also prohibits any act of masturbation — or, as I just stated, any sex act between a married man and woman in which the man achieves orgasm without insertion of the penis into the vagina. Many contemporary heterosexual Catholics, particularly younger ones, who want the church to keep the gays firmly slapped down because magisterial teaching about homosexuality is "unchanging" appear not to have a clue, in fact, that the very same norms used to condemn homosexual sex also prohibit use of contraceptives.
It's instructive to read Fullam and Gutting side by side. After noting that Humanae Vitae espouses a natural law understanding of human sexuality that is "arguably unnatural in at least two respects" (Fullam) and that, "rightly developed, natural-law thinking seems to support rather than reject the morality of homosexual behavior" (Gutting), both argue to conclusions that mirror each other. Here's Fullam's conclusion:
We need a new approach, starting with basic Catholic values like the primacy of love and justice, respect for conscience, the dignity of human life and human sexuality understood in all its aspects, and trust that sound arguments will resonate with people of good will. Doctrine should reflect the way those basic values are incarnate in the lives of Catholics, and especially women, whose voices have largely been absent from the formulation of the church’s teaching on this question. The credibility of church leaders, especially on sexual matters, was badly undercut by Humanae vitae. To double down on a doctrine that presents an unnatural vision of sex to Catholics who know better would only exacerbate the atmosphere of distrust between the laity and their bishops. Silence is not the answer. Nor is a "gradualist" approach: the problem with Humanae vitae is not that people are striving, with incomplete success, to grow into this teaching, but that the terms of the teaching itself do not seem to reflect their experience. Nor does the encyclical’s reasoning about what is and isn’t sinful intent when it comes to avoiding pregnancy convince most ordinary Catholics. The bishops—and, more urgently still, those at October’s synod in Rome—need to begin by paying attention to all the people of God, the insights of the sciences, and the full range of theological opinion.
And here's Gutting's:
More generally, the church needs to undertake a thorough rethinking of its teachings on sexual ethics, including premarital sex, masturbation and remarriage after divorce. In every case, the old arguments no longer work (if they ever did), and a vast number of Catholics reject the teachings. It’s time for the church to realize that its sexual ethics are philosophically untenable and theologically unnecessary.
And, of course, one highly-regarded moral theologian after another in the Catholic tradition has been saying just those things for many years now, though this theological reflection has had little effect at the level of the hierarchy except to provoke condemnations of distinguished theologians like Charles Curran and Margaret Farley. Will the synod on the family reflect any attempt on the part of the hierarchy to listen any more intently to the wisdom of the laity and of many theologians about these issues?
Well, if you're sanguine that the synod will listen to the laity about these issues, then I suggest you have a close look at the map Mick Forgey published yesterday in National Catholic Reporter, showing which U.S. dioceses have set up some process to permit lay Catholics to make their voices heard in preparation for the synod. The dark blue dots — the ones that predominate — indicate "no method found." That is, these dioceses appear to have no process whatsoever set up to permit lay Catholics input in preparation for the synod on the family.
I live in one of those "no method found" places.