New Directions in Sexual Ethics Introduction

Kevin T. Kelly, Geoffrey Chapman, 1998.


This introduction offers a route-map for readers. It shows how the various chapters form one coherent whole, even though none of them is meant to be a thorough and exhaustive treatment of the topic they are examining.

Chapter One tells my own personal story – how the AIDS pandemic, particularly as it affects women in the developing countries, began to impinge on me and affect my thinking as a moral theologian. Behind the enormous horror of the pandemic I began to discern the voice of God calling our human family to redeem the situation by working for the radical transformation of the oppressive structures of our society which are playing such a key role in facilitating the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in our world. The injustice of the deep-seated and far-reaching sexual and economic inequality of women is the most obvious instance of such an oppressive structure, though it is not the only one I look at. The impact this personal experience had on me has provided both the energy and direction for writing the chapters which follow.

Chapter Two examines the sociological concept of social construction. Its explores its usefulness as a tool for enabling us to understand the social and historical dimensions of ourselves as gendered sexual human persons. It helps us appreciate that such basic human realities as our gender and even our sexuality are never encountered in any pure distilled version. They are only found within a broader cultural context and will be coloured by the system of values existing within any particular culture. Hence, as actually experienced, they are to a very large extent a human artefact. As such, they should not be regarded as sacrosanct. If their current cultural expression is discerned to be contrary to human dignity in any way, we are charged with the responsibility of transforming them into a shape more in keeping with our God-given human dignity. This even applies to such basic cultural institutions as heterosexuality and marriage. To the extent that, in their present form, they may embody injustice, working for their transformation is a Christian responsibility and an essential dimension of our co-operating with God’s continuing creative process.

Chapter Three looks at the position of women in particular. This chapter begins by showing how a belief in the inferior status of women seems to have operated within the life and thinking of the Church over many centuries. It then looks at how this unacceptable situation is beginning to change and sees many hopeful signs within the Roman Catholic Church itself. Of special note are some recent statements by Pope John Paul II in which he strongly defends the full and equal dignity of women and the need for this to be given practical implementation at all levels of Church and society. The chapter then builds on the previous chapter’s insistence that the gender differentiation between men and women is, for the most part, socially constructed and thus open to a socially transforming reconstruction. In the light of this, the notion of an ‘ontological complementarity’ between men and women, a notion strongly supported by Pope John Paul II, is examined critically in the light of women’s experience and also in its implications for the debate about the ordination of women. The underlying motif of this chapter is that, if our understanding of the man-woman relationship is out of kilter, our sexual ethics is bound to be at least inadequate, if not misguided. The chapter closes by suggesting that perhaps a top priority for the Church today is to support women in their efforts to free themselves from or at least radically transform any cultural institutions, including marriage, which effectively deny their equal dignity as human persons. That is why it even suggests that, if the Church is to be faithful to the demands of the Gospel, it needs to be pro-women before it is pro-marriage.

In the fourth chapter a concern for reducing the spread of HIV leads naturally into an examination of the issue of gay and lesbian relationships. Since one way the spread of the virus can be facilitated is by genital sexual contact with many partners, the conclusion would seem to follow that, within the gay and lesbian communities, one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of the virus would be for gays and lesbians to have faithful, permanent relationships with only one partner. Yet this seems to be anathema to the official position of many Christian Churches and to many individual Christians. The chapter notes how this anti-gay and lesbian gut-reaction has been challenged in many cases by the love and care shown in many gay relationships and particularly when one partner is dying of an AIDS-related illness. It also notes how the negative position on gay and lesbian relationships in many Churches has been based on a combination of two objections: it is ‘against nature’ and it is ‘against the Bible’. In the course of examining these two objections, the issue of social construction arises once again. The motif underlying this chapter is the belief that the Gospel must be ‘good news’ for gays and lesbians and that this is not the case with the present teaching of many Christian Churches. A sexual ethics which is able to be ‘good news’ for gays and lesbians should also be ‘good news’ for heterosexuals too. This is because its primary focus will be the relationship dimension of our being human persons and the potentiality of our sexuality to express interpersonal love between faithful and committed partners.

Chapter Five tries to listen to what the Churches have been saying about sexual ethics during the past century. If we are to listen to the living voice of Christian tradition, we should expect to find it somewhere in this conversation within and between the Churches. The chapter notes how there is a widening of the agenda for this conversation over the years. Advances in birth control make it possible for couples to make love without fear of having any unwanted children. This possibility begins to put the focus on how the procreational dimension of marriage fits in with the relational dimension. There is a gradual move away from seeing procreation as the primary end of marriage. Instead marriage is seen to be about the couple’s love for each other. Any children to the marriage are the ‘fruit’ of their love rather than the raison d’etre of their marriage. Once this relationship dimension comes to the fore, other questions quickly come on the agenda. If marriage is fundamentally about the couple’s relationship, what about when their relationship dies and there is nothing left between them? So the question of marriage breakdown and remarriage after divorce conies on to the agenda. Moreover, the increasing emphasis in the Churches on the centrality of relationship and the importance of the sexual expression of this relationship in the context of interpersonal Christian love prompts gay and lesbian Christians to challenge their Churches to face up to the phenomenon of same-sex love. If it is true that they are capable of loving and faithful relationships, why should the Churches condemn the partnership of gays and lesbians? Stress on the quality of relationships as a basic criterion for sexual ethics means that still further issues begin to come on to the agenda. The basic motif behind this chapter is a belief that somewhere in this (at times) heated and confusing dialogue the voice of God’s Spirit is making itself heard. Hence, this tries to be very much a ‘listening’ chapter. That is why, as far as is feasible, the reader is given a chance to read some of the more significant passages from the documents of the various Churches.

Chapter Six argues that there are at least six ways in which a transformed Christian sexual ethics must adopt a positive stance before life. It must be (1) pro person, and specifically pro-women; (2) pro-freedom; (3) pro-relationship and pro-love; (4) pro-body, pro-sex and pro-joy; (5) pro-life; and (6) pro-respect for personal conscience.

Paradoxically, I suspect that this chapter is the least important one in the book. There are many people far more expert and competent than I am in the specific field of sexual ethics. Returning to the conversation image employed in Chapter Five, I offer this chapter as a very modest contribution to the conversation. In my book New Directions in Moral Theology (London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1992, p. viii), I asked the reader to imagine the words ‘I may be wrong but. . . ‘ as being written at the top of every page. I feel that to be particularly necessary in the case of this chapter.

Despite that, I remain strongly committed to the three points which form the major thrust of this book: – (1) the Church is not able to shoulder its important responsibility in playing a major role in responding to the challenge of the HIV/AIDS pandemic if its sexual ethics is inadequate and unconvincing; (2) as long as the Church fails to take comprehensively on board the full and equal dignity of women, it will fail to give women the help and support they need in their fight for survival against HIV/AIDS since they will find the Church’s sexual ethics to be unconvincing and inadequate to their real needs; and (3) as long as the Gospel does not come over as ‘good news’ for gays and lesbians (and that requires a reappraisal of our sexual ethics), the Church will be failing in its God-given mission to gays and lesbians in this ‘time of AIDS’.

Roman Catholic moral theology is often accused of equating sex with sin. In Chapter Seven I look at how sin would feature in a transformed Christian sexual ethics. Since we are dealing with a person-centred sexual ethics, the presence of sin will be discerned where the good of human persons is being denied or violated. Sexual sin is where this occurs in the sexual sphere, whether at an individual or social level. I argue that patriarchy can rightly be described as a ‘structural’ sexual sin and I explore whether the Church shares responsibility through colluding in it. The chapter ends by facing the question, ‘Is trivial, uncommitted sex right or wrong?’ as an example of how a person-centred sexual ethics would respond to the usual ‘Is it a sin to … ?’ questions.

Chapter Eight focuses on ‘living positively in a time of AIDS’. After drawing inspiration from Uganda it asks the question: Is the Church living positively with AIDS? Its yes/no answer includes a discussion of the ethics of compulsory HIV testing for future priests and religious and also of condom-use as a component in HIV-prevention programmes. The Epilogue picks up on the words of Professor Richard Parker to the 1996 Vancouver International Aids Conference that this ‘time of Aids’ can be a ‘time of grace’.

I cannot end this Introduction without making some attempt to thank the many people who have helped and encouraged me in the writing of this book. The list of those I would like to thank by name is impossibly long and spans many continents. Top of the list must come Dr Maura O’Donohue MMM. Without her encouragement, inspiration, and professional knowledge and experience I would never have dared to attempt this book. Her field reports from various parts of the world, along with those of Ann Smith and Jim Simmons, have helped to keep me in touch with the tragic reality of HIV/AIDS in the developing countries. The other members of the CAFOD AIDS Section and its AIDS Committee, chaired by Dr Mary McHugh, have been a further source of inspiration to me. I owe a special debt of gratitude to my fellow moral theologian, Dr Linda Hogan, who, despite enormous pressures on her own time, was always willing to read and comment on any drafts I sent her. Dr Julie Scott from the Sociology Department here at Liverpool Hope University College made some very helpful comments on Chapter Two, as did Jane McGinley SND. I am grateful to have been able to share a draft version of parts of Chapters Two and Six with fellow members of the Association of Teachers of Moral Theology. Their encouragement and comments were very helpful. Martin Pendergast of Catholic AIDS Link and Dr Elizabeth Stuart of the University of Glamorgan also helped me with their comments on Chapter Four, and Elizabeth Rees kindly read and commented on the whole final draft. Further afield, I would like to express my thanks to Dr Jon Fuller SJ who helped me in more ways than he realizes and also to Bob Vitillo for his inspiring commitment and wealth of wisdom and experience. Pat Doyle too, has helped with his continuing encouragement and offered some valuable observations on an early draft. I am grateful to Christopher O’Hare and Channel Four for permission to use material from the documentary Better Dead than Gay. I am also indebted to all the writers from whose works I quote. I thank them all for their contributions to the ongoing conversation which, I believe, is so essential to contemporary moral theology.

It would have been unthinkable for me to write about AIDS in the developing countries without some first-hand experience, however brief, of what the AIDS pandemic means on the ground. I am grateful to friends in Uganda, Thailand and the Philippines for making that experience possible for me: in Uganda, the Medical Missionaries of Mary and their co-workers at Kitovu Hospital in Masaka, especially Sisters Ursula Sharp and Kay Lawlor; Noerine Kaleeba and her remarkable TASO organization, Sister Miriam Duggan and her co-workers at Kamwokya and the Nsambya Hospital in Kampala; in Thailand, Sister Michelle and her Fountain of Life Centre, Pattaya for a mind-blowing exposure experience, Usanee Nansilp for making my visit to Bangkok so fruitful and enjoyable, Fr Dan Boyd MM at Welcome House, Fr Giovanni Contarin and his Camillian AIDS Relief Centre staff, Fr Antonio Egiguren OFM at the AIDS Hospice in Lamlukka, Sumitra Phongsathorn for inviting me to the Women’s Circle at Mater Dei College in Bangkok, Sister Meg Gallagher MM, and especially Jean Barry SJ and his Jesuit community for their hospitality; in the Philippines, Mgr Francisco Tantoco and Sister Julma Neo for arranging my visit and the Caritas AIDS staff (Sister Oneng Mendoza, Geline Sucgang, Kyara Cruza and Marina Zamora) for sharing their very helpful experience with me, Fr Shay Cullen SSC for a most instructive overnight stay at his Preda Foundation in Olongapo City, Jomar Fleras of Reach Out, Dr Ofelia T. Monzon, Director of the AIDS Research Group in the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, Alabbang, Dr Evelyn Grace Gacad, Head of the National AIDS-STD Prevention Programme at the Department of Health, Aida F. Santos at Wedpro, Sharon Cabusao at Gabriela, Marianna Balquidra of Remedios and, above all, Fr Thomas O’Grady SSC and his colleagues for making me so much at home during my stay in Manila. I am also most grateful to the Trust whose generous grant made these visits possible as well as funding other aspects of my research. Being based in a lively inner-city parish in Liverpool, I would never have found the time to write up my research had it not been for Professor Simon Lee, Rector of Liverpool Hope University College, offering me a part-time Research Fellowship and so enabling me to write in a very congenial setting and among friendly and supportive colleagues. Gillian Paterson of Geoffrey Chapman has been a patient and understanding editor in the face of frustrating delays. She has also helped me by her friendly encouragement and inspired me by her own fine book dealing with similar issues, Love in a Time of AIDS: Women, Health and the Challenge of HIV (Geneva, WCG Publications and New York, Orbis, 1996). Finally, I am particularly grateful to Jim Dunne, Fr Peter Sibert and the parishioners of Our Lady’s, Eldon St, for their patience and understanding while I have been writing this book. There are many other people I would like to name but space is limited. I feel sure they know how grateful I am to them too.

To thank people for their help in the writing of a book is not to burden them with any responsibility for its many failings and shortcomings. That responsibility is mine alone. Though I know I will not have done justice to the rich experience and wisdom they have shared with me, I hope that the pages which follow go some little way to repaying my debt of gratitude to them. I also hope that the many defects and inadequacies in the book will not distract readers from hearing its main message loud and clear. That is that we are living in a ‘time of AIDS’ and that, if we respond positively and creatively to its challenge, we may be able to turn a major human tragedy into a moment of grace for our human family.

Kevin T. Kelly
Liverpool Hope University College, June 1997