Savi Hensman

After Synod, the Catholic debate on sexuality continues

By Savi Hensman
October 22, 2014

A statement issued at the end of a Synod on the Family pulled back from a bolder stance on including divorced and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. However, in a major advance, sexuality is now being debated more openly in the Roman Catholic church.

In recent decades, in the pews in many countries and among theologians, attitudes have shifted considerably on sexual ethics. Less obviously, even in official doctrine, the emphasis has changed to some extent.

The two-week discussion among bishops is the start of a build-up to a broader Synod in a year’s time. Over the next few months, amidst a greater openness under Pope Francis, calls for a more just and welcoming attitude will be widely heard.

Too far or not far enough?
The official position of the Roman Catholic church has long been that the only right place for sex is in marriage, which cannot be dissolved and in which sex should always be open to conception if possible. However, some marriages are annulled. Also couples can marry if unable to have babies, or use timing to reduce the chance of conceiving, for purposes of family planning.

Many theologians argue for a very different approach to sexuality and, in practice, this is favoured by numerous parishioners. Many today use contraceptives and want people who have experienced marital breakdown to be treated mercifully. Increasing numbers also welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and often support committed loving partnerships.

However, the hierarchy has been far from encouraging to those expressing dissenting views, sometimes using disciplinary measures to stifle debate. And the language used has sometimes been cold and off-putting.

An example was a 1986 Vatican letter which stated that “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is...ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus... an objective disorder”, though it added that “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action.”

The election in 2013 of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, who became Pope Francis, marked a shift of tone. He had already spoken out in favour of a less legalistic, more pastoral approach.

While he did not himself propose any major doctrinal change, those senior clergy in favour of greater inclusion were given greater scope to put their case. What is more, especially in a church where reason is valued along with the Bible and tradition, pastoral encounters with people in diverse settings help provide a store of knowledge about what helps or hinders holiness. This can influence ethical thinking.

After Catholics internationally were asked about their views and experiences – itself a breakthrough – he convened a gathering of bishops in Rome to talk about family life.

A ‘Relatio post disceptationem’ (report after debate) on the discussion issued halfway through the Synod surprised some people by its warm tone towards those long treated frostily in official pronouncements. This included cohabiting couples, divorced and remarried people excluded from communion and lesbians and gays.

It stated that “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community” and asked if it might be possible to value their sexual orientation. It even noted, with regard to same-sex unions, that “there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.”

Not surprisingly, there was a backlash by some ‘traditionalist’ bishops. The final draft watered down some of the more radical proposals and certain paragraphs failed to get the required two-thirds majority because certain participants thought they went too far, others that they did not go far enough.

Nevertheless, debate has been opened up on key issues in a way which has not taken place since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. This is likely to intensify in the run-up to another, wider, Synod in a year’s time.

Francis himself sounded far from discouraged in his closing speech, pointing out that “we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront.”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and one of the bishops who has promoted a more pastoral and inclusive approach, also struck a positive chord when he was interviewed by BBC radio. He emphasised the new openness: “people expressed themselves freely and frankly, which is exactly what the Pope asked them to do.” To him, “this Synod is the first movement of a rather long concerto.”

He pointed out that there was some encouragement for people in second marriages. But he felt that even the final draft did not go far enough in making a commitment to respect, welcome and value lesbian and gay people, and expressed the hope that the church will continue to move forward through dialogue and discernment.

This is likely to be broad process drawing in the laity as well as clergy. In a talk in October, Cardinal Walter Kasper emphasised that the Pope wanted "the People of God, every single one them, to participate in the church," the National Catholic Reporter stated. Francis is a "gift of God", he said.

Tradition and change
The Roman Catholic hierachy has a (sometimes deserved) reputation for inflexibility – or, as some would regard it, praiseworthy persistence in doctrine and practice. However, in reality, there have been huge shifts, for instance from a rather anti-sexual stance where celibacy was favoured, and in attitudes to women.

In recent decades, even ‘traditionalist’ popes helped to re-orientate the emphasis on marriage being mainly for the purpose of procreation, highlighting the importance of a couple’s love.

In a series of lectures by John Paul II on the theology of the body, given from 1979-1984, he suggested that the relationship between spouses was of great importance, linking this with key theological themes including the Holy Trinity.

Revisiting the beginning of Genesis, he wrote that the human “becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Right ‘from the beginning,’ he is not only an image in which the solitude of a person who rules the world is reflected, but also, and essentially, an image of an inscrutable divine communion of persons.”

In a 1994 ‘Letter to families’, he added that “In the light of the New Testament it is possible to discern how the primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery of his life” (emphasis in original).

Benedict XVIII’s 2005 encyclical ‘God is love’ went further, locating married love in the wider context of the loving nature of God and affirming that the erotic could be positive.

Referring to the Song of Songs, he suggested that “Love is indeed ‘ecstasy’, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: ‘Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels.”

However, love cannot be confined to a family unit but must go further: “The rich man (cf. Lk 16:19-31) begs from his place of torment that his brothers be informed about what happens to those who simply ignore the poor man in need. Jesus takes up this cry for help as a warning to help us return to the right path. The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-37)” clarifies that “Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour.”

He highlighted the need for the church to take up the work of love more widely through charity, seeking justice and acting with compassion. “Love is the light – and in the end, the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practise it because we are created in the image of God”, he wrote.

Revisiting the theology of sexuality
‘The ways of love’, an international Catholic conference on the pastoral care of LGBT people, was held in early October, just before the Synod on the Family met. Speakers included Geoffrey Robinson, a now-retired auxiliary bishop who served in Sydney, Australia.

“There is no possibility of a change in the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexual acts unless and until there is first a change in its teaching on heterosexual acts,” he suggested.

The official position is “that God created human sex for two reasons: as the means by which new human life is brought into being (the procreative aspect) and as a means of expressing and fostering love between a couple (the unitive aspect... the use of sex is ‘according to nature’ only when it serves both of these God-given purposes, and that both are truly present only within marriage, and even then only when intercourse is open to new life”, he explained.

He questioned the assumptions this involved about nature and God and whether the teaching was based on assertions rather than evidence. While “the unitive and procreative elements are foundational aspects of marriage as an institution of the whole human race”, he asked why these had to be present in every marriage and act of sexual intimacy.

For instance a “couple might decide that they already have several children and that they are both financially and psychologically unable to add to their family. On what basis is it claimed that they would be acting against God’s will?” There are “problems when human beings claim that they know the mind of God.”

Attention to “the experience of millions of people in the very human endeavour of seeking to combine sex, love and the procreation of new life in the midst of the turbulence of human sexuality and the complexities of human life” was important, he argued.

This applied also to lesbians and gays: “Why should we turn to some abstraction in determining what is natural rather than to the actual lived experience of human beings? Why should we say that homosexuals are acting against nature when they are acting in accordance with the only nature they have ever experienced?” Such a claim “brings the whole concept of natural law into disrepute.”

Sexual ethics should be more deeply rooted in the teaching of Jesus, he argued. He suggested a “move to an ethic that:
1. sees any offence against God as being brought about, not by the sexual act in and of itself, but by the harm caused to human beings;
2. speaks in terms of persons and relationships rather than physical acts;
3. draws its ideas of what is natural from reality rather than abstractions;
4. draws consciously and directly on the gospels,
5. and then builds an argument on these foundations rather than on unproven assertions.”

This was not simply about embracing the prevailing culture. “In its simplest terms, the Church is saying that, because love is all-important in human life and because sex is so vital a way of expressing love, sex is serious, while modern society has become more and more accepting of the most casual sexual activity, even when in no way related to love or relationship”, he wrote. “On this basic point I find myself instinctively more in sympathy with the views of the Church than with those of modern society.”

He suggested that “we must take the harm that can be caused by sexual desire very seriously,” and raised the question: “Are we moving towards a genuinely Christian ethic if we base our sexual actions on a profound respect for the relationships that give meaning, purpose and direction to human life, and on loving our neighbour as we would want our neighbour to love us?”

Many others too in the Roman Catholic church have been reflecting on how Gospel values can be reflected more truly in approaches to sexuality, and the Synod on the Family has encouraged greater openness about the diversity of views and experiences.

What is more, Catholics are part of a wider Christian community where numerous others have been thinking seriously about sexual ethics. Moving beyond the use of depersonalising language and mere assertions which fail to convince, while remaining true to what is richest in the Christian heritage, is a challenging task for the churches as a whole.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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