Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ongoing Catholic Conversation about Sexual Morality: Two Recent National Catholic Reporter Pieces

And, even as the Catholic hierarchy bash away today, and are willing to divert huge sums of money to the bashing when that money is needed to keep Catholic parishes and schools open, feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and defend the unwelcome stranger in our land: the Catholic conversation goes on. 

Catholic people keep thinking and talking (and praying and living our faith).  And we increasingly come to conclusions, on the basis of our graced experience, that don't entirely mesh with those of the hierarchy,  particularly in the area of sexual morality.  In fact, we increasingly come to conclusions that actually challenge the claim of our pastoral leaders to speak in the name of God definitively and for all time, in a way that ends all discussion, about these issues. 

National Catholic Reporter has two pieces right now that illustrate what's happening in this lay conversation, and that discuss why it complements (and is much needed as a complement to) the hierarchical discourse about matters of sexuality.  The first of these is an essay by Regina Schulte, whose late husband James Schulte was one of the co-authors of the 1977 study commissioned by the Catholic Theology Society of America, Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought.

As Regina Schulte notes, that study was immediately and almost hysterically condemned by the American Catholic bishops, because it called on the hierarchical leaders of the Catholic church to listen to and learn from the lived experience of lay Catholics.  Just as the bishops have recently condemned a book by lay theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology. 

For the same reason.  Because, on the basis of our lived experience of the life of grace, we who are lay Catholics are reaching conclusions about issues ranging from homosexuality to contraception that move in directions counter to official magisterial teaching emanating from the top of the church.

And so Schulte asks,

Is it reasonable, then, to derive sexual guidelines only from the more limited experiences of males committed to lifetime celibacy?

Should final decisions regarding sexual morality for all persons be filtered only through such a single mindset and then imposed dictatorially on all members -- men and women, married and single, homosexuals at all androgynal points on the spectrum?

It borders on the ridiculous to disallow contributions that the very people possessing the requisite wisdom born of experience can bring to the discussions.
And on the basis of these questions, she concludes,

The roles of theologian and bishop in their complementary relationship are badly in need of re-examination and carefully nuanced distinctions.

It is apparent that the hierarchy has usurped the entire teaching office -- the “magisterium” -- for themselves; yet they are only one of three components endowed with this charism. Theologians and the wisdom born of experience in the “sense of the faithful” comprise the other two. It would seem, then, that appropriate exercise of their distinctive roles requires that bishops collaborate rather than compete.

The second NCR piece I'd like to recommend today, the paper's latest editorial, builds on Schulte's essay to call for renewed attention to what John Henry Newman called the church's three magisteria:  "the mouth of the episcopacy, the doctors (meaning the theologians) and the people in the pews."  As NCR notes, Newman valued all three teaching offices equally and saw all as necessary to achieve balance in the church's teaching.

And so the NCR editorial concludes that the teaching of the Catholic church about sexual morality and issues of sexual morality can achieve balance and coherence in our complex contemporary pluralistic culture only when the magisterial function that now claims to speak for all of us--the mouth of the bishops--begins to listen to the reflection of theologians and the lived experience of the faithful: "Such dialogue has shaped the church’s overarching cultural and ethical watchtower from the earliest days, and it should guide us reliably and wisely through the complex terrain of sexual ethics as well."
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