Friday, January 7, 2011

Archbishop Vincent Nichols on Need to Keep Conversation of Sexual Ethics Open: Critical Reflections

Jim McCrea has emailed me (and other folks) information from an interesting article in the latest issue of the British journal The Tablet. I'd link to the article, but it's behind a firewall for subscribers, and I can't direct readers to the article itself. If you'll bear with me, though, as I cite an article that you can't read in its entirety, I'd like to make some comments about this worthwhile essay.

The article's by Clifford Longley, and is entitled "The Archbishop Said Nothing to Contradict the Magisterium, But He Does Face a Dilemma." Longley is reporting on comments Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster made in a pre-Christmas radio interview, in which he stated,

When it comes to understanding what human sexuality is for, there is a lot that we have to explore. Because I think what is at one level in the broad perspective clear, is that there is an intrinsic link between procreation and human sexuality. Now how do we start from that principle, not lose it, and have an open, ongoing conversation with those who say, well, that’s not my experience? How do we bring together some principles that if you like are written into the broad book of nature, and individual experiences? That’s the area that we have to be sensitive and open to, and genuinely wanting to explore.

As Longley notes, these sane observations are brave ones to make, in the church's current political climate, and they're observations for which, Longley thinks, many British Catholics will be grateful. Longley thinks, however, that making even these sane observations, which in no way contradict the teaching of the magisterium, confronts Archbishop Nichols with a dilemma.

For instance, how is it possible to be "sensitive and open to" the genuine experiences of gay and lesbian believers when one is committed to an official teaching that precludes any real openness at all, but requires only unilateral condemnation of precisely the experience to which one is claiming to be open? And in what precise way does the "broad book of nature" inform us that there is an intrinsic link between procreation and human sexuality"? As Longley observes (rightly), official Catholic discussion of how the law of nature ought to be read remains curiously truncated, paying no attention--for instance--to data provided to us by evolutionary biology re: the development of human sexuality.

In my view, Longley's observations here are absolutely correct. Though I'm encouraged to read these sane observations from a leading Catholic prelate (Archbishop Nichols is president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales), I find the insistence of the Catholic magisterium "that there is an intrinsic link between procreation and human sexuality" increasingly unconvincing, as I think about issues of sexual ethics. I find this insistence unconvincing not as a description of the obvious--namely, that a male and female are biologically necessary to beget a child--but as a precondition, a ground rule, for thinking about sexual ethics that precludes any careful discussion of the value of and gifts provided to the human community and to communities of faith by those who do not procreate.

This is a point I have tried to get at in repeated posts in recent months--as, for instance, when I noted in November my serious reservations about American Catholic journalist Peter Steinfels' praise of Pope Benedict's comments about condom use, which Steinfels prefaces with the observation that Benedict's position is praiseworthy, since it sees "a drastic separation of sexuality from procreation" as morally inadmissible.

What's to be gained by these framing provisos, I wonder: "there is an intrinsic link between procreation and human sexuality"; and we look askance at "a drastic separation of sexuality from procreation"? I'm choosing the term "framing proviso" very deliberately here. Any discussion of sexual ethics from the Catholic standpoint that wants to avoid giving the appearance of conflicting with magisterial teaching nowadays must always begin with these framing provisos: the purpose of human sexuality is procreation, and the procreative norm is and must be foundational for all of our ethical consideration of any aspect of human sexuality.

What's to be gained by framing our outlook on matters sexual in this way, I want to ask: what's to be gained by framing the discussion this way from the outset? The first point I'd like to note is this: this framing device distorts the discussion from its very beginning by imposing on it an empirical description of fact--namely, as a human race, we beget new members by biological procreation--as a moral imperative that turns what is into what ought to be. And yet, there is no sound or clearly explained reason for framing the discussion this way.

This strong, always present, framing proviso of Catholic ethical thinking about human sexuality might make sense, for instance, if anyone were seriously (and persuasively) claiming that procreation is inadvisable, is a bad thing, and ought to be prohibited or discouraged. To my knowledge, no one who talks about sexual ethical issues is pressing that point at all, however. There is, of course, much talk about responsible procreation and about stewardship in the area of sexual life, talk that encourages us to think about the responsibility we assume when we procreate, and about our need to be good stewards of our sexual lives as we should be good stewards of all other areas of our lives.

Normally, when I hear the preceding framing provisos, what I am actually hearing is something quite different than these insights about stewardship, however: what I'm hearing is the echo of some kind of insistence that, if one grants non-procreative sexual expression and non-procreative sexual behavior any kind of normativity--if one permits such expression and behavior a legitimacy that makes it co-equal with heterosexual procreation--one endangers procreativity, and thus one endangers the human race itself. There is an implication that the biological facticity of procreation is a given--you need a male and a female to make a new human being, and continuing the human race is an obvious good--and non-procreative sexual expression and behavior therefore flies in the face of the obvious, of the factually given, and therefore subverts nature itself.

These echoes, which run strongly through all critiques of homosexuality in Christian faith communities of the religious and political right (and through faith communities of some non-Christian traditions), would be convincing if there were any scrap of evidence at all that legitimating homosexual activity and homosexual lives in any way endangers procreativity or procreative relationships. These echoes might be convincing if, in the increasing number of social groups throughout the developed world that have, in fact, legitimated gay lives and gay relationships, procreation is under attack, or is declining, or is in danger of being prohibited.

I am not aware, however, of a single place in the world in which same-sex marriage has been legalized, and people have simultaneously begun to cease procreation, or are considering the cessation of procreation, or feel that their option to be biologically procreative is endangered by the existence of legally sanctioned same-sex unions. I am not aware that heterosexual married couples who intend to have children or who are already having children find themselves any more endangered, as procreative units, in places that permit same-sex unions than they feel endangered in places (and these are legion) that permit non-procreative people of the opposite sex to marry.

And so where do we end up with our framing proviso that appears to be intent on reminding us that the biological facticity of procreation--a male and a female are required to beget a new human being--ought to be a framing moral imperative that norms any and all discussion of sexual ethical issues? In my view, we end up in a position of fundamental dishonesty that vitiates Catholic conversations of these issues from the outset. I choose the word "vitiate," whose root meaning is "to introduce vice into," intentionally.

There is an insupportable viciousness about the official Catholic approach to sexual morality at present, which 1) grants unmerited power and privilege to all human beings who are heterosexual, and 2) demeans all human beings who are not heterosexual. And because our Catholic discussions of matters of sexuality fail to acknowledge the injustice built into these discussions by our framing principle--which does not meet threshold tests of rationality and of logic--they begin and end with some fundamental dishonesties about our sexual lives. They go nowhere productive.

As I've noted in numerous previous postings, it is less than honest, and it is seriously unjust, for married heterosexual Catholics to proclaim, on the one hand, that the procreative ethic ought to be primary in all discussions of sexual ethics, while proposing, on the other hand, that married couples should have the right to choose when and how and if they wish to discard that ethic in their married lives. There is something less than honest and something seriously unjust at work when married couples suggest that it should be permissible for heterosexual, legitimately married couples to thwart the procreative goal of sexual life, while those same couples simultaneously proclaim that procreation is the end-all and be-all of sexual life--and, therefore, all homosexual relationships must always be considered as functioning at a level beneath that of all heterosexual relationships.

Even when many--the vast majority, in fact--heterosexual married Catholics are practicing birth control. And when the magisterium turns a blind eye to this fact even as it hammers away at gay and lesbian human beings through its insistence on the procreative norm of sexuality as a basis for opposing civil rights for gay human beings. And as it continues to speak as if anything but a procreative framing of the discussion about sexual ethics is unthinkable.

There's a level of fundamental dishonesty built into our discussion of sexual morality within Catholic circles, and the dishonesty begins with the selective and unjust way in which our first principle is applied to all our considerations of sexual morality. Our fundamental, vitiating dishonesty begins with our refusal to admit that we are framing the conversation as we are framing it precisely to grant unmerited privilege to those who are heterosexual and precisely to place those who are not heterosexual in a subordinate status, from the outset of our discussions.

And from this fundamental dishonesty proceed all kinds of other dishonesties, when we Catholics talk about matters sexual: the refusal to admit that, even as we attack those who are gay and lesbian for thwarting the procreative purpose of human sexuality, we ourselves are, to a great extent, doing precisely the same thing in our own heterosexual relationships; or the refusal to admit that the grounding principle of all of our discussions of sexual issues grants unwarranted power and privilege to those who are heterosexual, and excludes those who are not heterosexual from power and privilege within our faith community and its various institutions.

In the past week, I've read a number of powerful Catholic statements about the need for the Catholic community to develop the virtue of welcoming others. For instance, Jerry Filteau reports in a recent National Catholic Reporter article that, at a Woodstock forum in Philadelphia in early December, Fr. Tom Reese challenged American Catholics to cultivate a "a welcoming attitude" and to develop "concrete welcoming practices" that are, in Reese's view, conspicuously lacking in most Catholic parishes. Reese asked Woodstock attendees, "When was the last time you entered a Catholic church and actually were welcomed?"

And in the same issue of NCR, I find that in his homily for the Feast of Epiphany, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton recently asked,

How well do we welcome . . . people of different sexual orientation? They are made to feel unwelcome. It was only very recently that the bishops of the United States could write a pastoral letter in which they say to people of different sexual orientation: “You are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters. We welcome you.” But that hasn’t been carried out fully in all of our parish families.

I applaud these statements just as I applaud Archbishop Nichols' observations above. But I also feel it's important to note that a church which frames all of its discussions of sexual issues with the framing proviso, "there is an intrinsic link between procreation and human sexuality," cannot be a welcoming community for those who are gay and lesbian. It cannot be a welcoming community for those who are gay and lesbian because, to all practical extents and purposes, this framing proviso means only one thing in the Catholic milieu of 2011: it does not mean that married Catholics practicing artificial contraception are unwelcome and should consider themselves second-class citizens; and it does not mean that heterosexual couples that cannot procreate ought to be excluded from marriage and should consider their unions abnormal and disordered.

It does mean, however, that simply by being gay or lesbian, we who happen to be made gay or lesbian by God present a serious dilemma for a community that professes to be all about welcome, but cannot develop the tools to welcome us. Or to recognize the injustice that it continues to practice by upholding a sexual ethic that is really about heteronormativity (and about male entitlement) far more than it is about procreativity, despite what it professes itself to be.

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