Friday, April 06, 2012

Retired Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson Calls Catholics to a Better Sexual Ethic

I am especially grateful to the National Catholic Reporter for reporting in mid-March that Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who served as Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Australia from 1984 to 2004, is calling for a thoroughgoing reformation of official Catholic teaching on sexual ethics.

I appreciate learning about Robinson's proposal, because it is significant in several way.

First, he is no stranger to the church's rules on marriage or to canon law in general:  prior to being named bishop, he was Chief Justice of the Archdiocesan Marriage Tribunal and President of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand.  This is no theological neophyte or lightweight speaking up.

Second, Robinson headed the Australian bishops' investigation into the causes of clerical sexual abuse in his country--which, he says, convinced him that sex is always a serious matter and that abuse crisis showed that the church's official sexual teachings dangerously misplace what should be taken seriously about sex:  (a) they allowed the perpetrators and their bishops to treat the damage done to victims as not very serious at all, enabling the offenders to be handled clandestinely, by just making a good confession and getting reassigned; and (b) they encouraged the bishops to give higher priority to protecting the institutional church from public scandal--and criminal and civil damages--than to just treatment of the victims and effective discipline of the perpetrators.  Robinson concluded that an official teaching on sexual ethics that could yield such outcomes was seriously deficient.

Third, when his fellow bishops took umbrage at his findings, Robinson decided he could no longer serve as a bishop.  Officially he resigned in 2004 for reasons of health.  But he says the health problems were brought on largely by the antagonism of his peers.  His integrity in parting company with them and taking his views global indicate that his proposal is based on faithfulness to the damning facts he gathered about the sexual abuse crisis and to his conscientious convictions about the new directions those stubborn facts require.

Robinson's proposal, which NCR has endorsed editorially, is straight-forward:  the official Catholic position on sex since Humanae vitae (issued on July 26, 1968)--that, to be moral, every sexual act by any human being must be open to unitive and procreative purposes within heterosexual marriage--is badly flawed, and that fixing the flaws will result in a better valuation of heterosexual and homosexual relationships, not to mention marriage and contraception.

NCR reports on Robinson's proposal as it was delivered to the Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality, sponsored March 15-17, 2012, by New Ways Ministry in Baltimore, MD.  But NCR notes that Robinson's analysis is more detailed and developed than can be summarized in an article and refers readers to Bishop Robinson's website for the complete text of his thesis.  It is found at a link entitled Christian Basis for Teaching on Sex.

In terms of its content, there is little in Robinson's proposal that could be called radically new.  Virtually all of the content reflects the ideas of several prominent Catholic moral theologians in the second half of the 20th century.  But what is truly novel is that a Catholic bishop has grasped their arguments, made them his own, and spelled out where those arguments must lead the church in its teachings on sexual ethics.

One of Robinson's key insights is that the church's teaching on homosexual acts is flawed because its teaching on heterosexual acts is flawed.  This was my thinking as well in my doctoral dissertation in 1982.  In Chapter 2 of Part II, Examples of Creativity in Christian Doctrine, I positioned two doctrines back to back--the teaching on contraception and the teaching on homosexuality--because I believed changes in one would result in changes in the other.  It is clear that Robinson grasps this linkage.

Robinson argues, first of all, that Christians must question church officials when "It is claimed that God inserted into nature itself the demand that every human sexual act be both unitive and procreative."  If the claim is true, Robinson says, it appears to stand out as the only instance of God giving such a specific divine purpose to a created thing.  It also suggests a God who takes undue, disproportionate offense at matters which seem not to have much impact on the unfolding of his universe.

Robinson also questions whether unitive and procreative aspects are essentials of each and every marriage, not to mention each and every act of sexual intercourse.  He also echoes several Catholic moral theologians who have said that the Catholic tradition on sexual ethics focuses much too exclusively on the physical structure of sexual acts, "rather than on how such acts affect persons and relationships."

Against the tradition's emphasis on a supposed natural law that only conservative Catholics seem capable of discerning and on openness to producing offspring as the sine qua non for ethical sex, Robinson proposes that what should be taken seriously is what Jesus told us to take seriously:  "all the evidence tells us that God cares greatly about human beings and takes a very serious view of any harm done to them, through sexual desire or any other cause... I suggest, therefore, that we should look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct offense against God."

Robinson notes that this direction would still pit the church against a modern society that "has become more and more accepting of casual sexual activity that is not related to love or relationship."  Thus, says Robinson, "I do not simply conclude that all sex is good as long as it does not harm anyone... Jesus invariably said 'Love your neighbour,' and this implies more than the negative fact of not harming... The essential difference between the two is than an attitude of 'do no harm' can put oneself first, while 'Love your neighbour' must put the neighbour first."

Drawing directly on his analysis of the sexual abuse crisis, Robinson is insistent about this contrast:  "we must take the harm that can be caused by sexual desire very seriously indeed, and look carefully at the circumstances that can make morally bad the seeking of sexual pleasure because they involve harm to others, to oneself or to the community.  Some of these factors are:  violence, physical or psychological, deceit and self-deceit, harming a third person (e.g. a spouse), using another person for one's own gratification, treating people as sexual objects rather than as persons, separating sex from love to the extent that sex loses its ability to express the depths of love, trivializing sex so that it loses its seriousness, allowing the desire for present satisfaction to restrict the ability to respond to the deeper longings of the human heart, harming the possibility of permanent commitment, failing to respect the connection that exists between sex and new life, failing to respect the need to build a relationship patiently and carefully, failing to respect the common good of the whole community."

For me, the list is a bit too comprehensive.  I understand, especially after the priestly sexual abuse crisis, why Robinson insists on taking sex seriously.  But is there a point at which the focus on relationships is being taken too seriously?  The approach as Robinson presents it seems to devalue and exclude all instances of, to sanitize commentator Bill Maher, pleasure sex.  Is it possible that "sexual activity not related to love or relationship" between truly consenting adults can be appropriate for some individuals at some points in their lives?  The church could never preach that it would be good for anyone to become permanently stuck in that lifestyle.  But do such experiences never have value?

Yet to take love and relationships as the aspects of sexual pleasure that should be taken most seriously would be a tremendous advance over focusing exclusively on procreative purpose.  Indeed, the analysis of the teaching on contraception in my doctoral dissertation showed several attempts to nuance procreative purpose with a greater emphasis on the unitive aspects of sex, especially in the period from Thomas Aquinas through the 19th century.  It was only when the Anglican Communion decided that contraceptive practices could be moral that Roman Catholicism responded with encyclicals like Casti canubii--which Humane vitae declared sacrosanct.

Robinson would propose evaluating homosexual acts by the same standards as heterosexual acts.  So "anything goes" would be ruled out, but homosexual acts which embodied love of neighbor and care for sexual relationships would be applauded:  "Positively, it would follow that sexual acts, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are not, in and of themselves alone, offensive to God.  It would mean that sexual acts are pleasing to God when they help build persons and relationships, displeasing to God when they harm persons and relationships."

What I find most encouraging about Bishop Robinson's appropriation of this sexual morality is that it exhibits the pattern of creativity in church teaching that I highlighted in my dissertation.  Christians reach a point in time when a received teaching is no longer functioning as it should:  rather than promoting growth and harmony among Christians and humans in general, the teaching starts yielding unintended consequences.  Honest followers of Jesus pay attention to those outcomes, re-examine the teaching, and discover novel evaluations that place the old teaching within new limits.  In this case, giving priority to love of neighbor and loving relationships recontextualizes procreative purpose and anything we once might have said about the physical structure of sexual acts.

It is a process that has gone on numerous times in the history of Christianity.  It is how the church achieved the teachings we still value today, how the church achieves new teachings that address the signs of the times, and how the those teachings will be placed in an even newer context tomorrow.  It is how, in the context of all the proposals ever made about Jesus and ever to be made, "the many become one, and are increased by one."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As someone who, like Bishop Robinson, was born in 1937, I grew up in the “old” church, and I found that as I matured, the teachings of the Catholic Church on sex were irrelevant to what the real problems and opportunities are. I suggest that a deeper way to understand the power and beauty of sex is best expressed by Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., in his book Grace and the Human Condition (Orbis Books, 1973, p. 159):
“To love - the creative activity par excellence - is to deliberately choose to lose one’s own autonomy. To do this, however, we must use and canalize the forces that are within us at the start as instinctive forces.
“Consider sex, for example. For the vast majority of human beings, liberation from egoistic and passive solipsism is possible only insofar as self-giving utilizes the sexual instinct. In other words, the person liberates himself by stripping sex of its merely instinctive character and converting it into what it really is: a vehicle of personalization and hence of human community. Love will use the basic instinct of sex for self-giving. In so doing, it will mark both its power and its poverty.”
The first moral test of the proper use of sexual activity is thus whether it is self-giving and other-directed, or whether it is self-serving and egoistic. And this test must not be applied simply to each act, but to the pattern of acts which occur and form the relationship. A dietitian would not examine each meal of her patient without reference to the general pattern of eating; that would be nonsense. Similarly, a moral judgment of sexual activity requires a view of the pattern of activity in the relationship. In a loving relationship, self-giving sexual activity which strengthens that relationship is good, wholly apart from its “openness to procreation.” The applicable commandment is not the one against adultery, but the one against false witness. Is the statement of deep affection which sexual activity naturally expresses true, or is it false?
The morality of the procreative aspect of heterosexual sex is properly situated in the light of one’s responsibility to plan one’s family: how many children to have, and when to have them. To abrogate this responsibility would be immoral. To withhold sexual love as a family-planning matter simply harms its unitive purpose for the benefit of the procreative purpose. To refrain from using available methods of contraception to achieve responsible family planning is like refusing to take an antibiotic for a bacterial infection.
Given these fundamental principles, a mature morality of sexual relationships naturally follows.

Patrick J. Amer