From New Directions in Sexual Ethics by Kevin T. Kelly, Geoffrey Chapman, 1998, Ch. 2
‘New Directions’ might seem a disturbing title for a book on sexual ethics. Human sexuality is as old as the human race. It would surely be the height of folly for each age to try to re-invent the wheel. Men and women, reflecting on their experience over the long course of human history, have accumulated a rich heritage of wisdom about how to live together as sexual persons. Christians, too, have brought the light of faith to this experience-based reflection and have developed their specific understanding of who they are as sexual persons and how this affects how they should live together. Furthermore, as a Roman Catholic moral theologian, I have to face the fact that over the centuries the Roman Catholic Church has developed a large body of teaching in the area of sexuality, human relationships and marriage. With such a wealth of accumulated wisdom, is it not presumptuous and foolish to suggest that as human beings and Christians we might need to explore new directions in the way we live our sexual lives? Should we not be trying to recover the old directions which have served people so well in the past?
The ‘People of God’ model of Church embraced by the Second Vatican Council reminds us that we are a pilgrim Church, a people on the move. We are on a journey of exodus out of unfreedom and journeying towards the freedom of the Kingdom of God. Although the way ahead is not always clear, we must keep going forward with confidence in the belief that, despite our many deviations en route, the Holy Spirit will continue to inspire us with a sense of direction as we move on our way through history. The one thing we must not do as the People of God is to call an end to our journey, claiming that we have reached our destination and so are now in a position to be able to settle down permanently. A pilgrim openness to new knowledge and understanding is taken for granted in one of the key documents of Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World:
The experience of past centuries, the advances in the sciences and the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, which disclose human nature more completely and indicate new ways to the truth, are of benefit also to the church. From the beginning of its history it has learned to express Christ’s message in the concepts and languages of various peoples, and it has also tried to throw light on it through the wisdom of philosophers, aiming so far as was proper to suit the gospel to the grasp of everyone as well as to the expectations of the wise … To develop such an exchange, especially in a time characterised by rapid change and a growing variety in ways of thought, the church has particular need of those who live in the world, whether they are believers or not, and who are familiar with its various institutions and disciplines and understand them intimately. It is for God’s people as a whole, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and especially for pastors and theologians, to listen to the various voices of our day, discerning them and interpreting them, and to evaluate them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can be increasingly appropriated, better understood and more suitably expressed, (n, 44, cf also n. 58)
In the light of this ‘pilgrim people’ model of Church, the phrase ‘new directions’ in the title of a book on Christian sexual ethics should cause neither surprise nor apprehension to its Catholic or Christian readers. In fact, it is a fairly obvious kind of title for a book intended to serve the needs of a people on the move. Admittedly, ‘new directions’ is not the only emphasis that is appropriate. Another emphasis might be to explore the journey so far, how we have arrived at where we are and how we have coped with the uncertainties we have met en route. Yet another emphasis might be to examine where we are at present, appreciating the goodness of this present stage of the journey but also helping us to see more clearly why we are still far from the end of the journey.
Of course, these three emphases cannot be isolated from each other. The only way we can go forward is by moving from where we are. That has to be our starting-point. Moreover, the clues as to where we should be going have to be found in a careful examination of where gwe are and where we have been. We need to discern the direction forward from that of going backwards and retracing our journey. Moreover, we already have a lot of experience in path-finding. Hence, we need to make use of that experience. How we have succeeded in moving forward in the past can help us see how we should continue to move forward today. Hence, although the emphasis in this book will mainly be on ‘new directions’ in our exploration, the directions which served us well in the past will not be ignored and our present bearings will also be given careful consideration.
Moreover, the People of God is multi-lingual. It is made up of many voices. Although we believe that the voice of God’s guiding Spirit is speaking to us in the midst of this multiplicity of sound, it may not be easy to interpret what precisely the Spirit is saying to us at this particular stage of our journey. Some voices in the People of God might seem to claim to have the last word with regard to what the Spirit is saying to us. Yet tradition would suggest that not to expect any final definitive word may often be more in keeping with God’s ways with his people. Consequently, following the advice of F. R. Leavis, perhaps a more appropriate response to those whose God-given teaching role we accept and respect should be ‘Yes, but. . . ‘ rather than causa finita est, there is nothing more to be said.
In the light of the above considerations, these chapters are written with a certain diffidence. I do not claim that they are a full or adequate presentation of Roman Catholic sexual ethics, still less of authoritative Roman Catholic teaching on sexual morality. They are simply a personal account of where I, a fairly run-of-the-mill Roman Catholic moral theologian, stand at this particular stage on our shared journey. As Chapter One has made abundantly clear, I feel deeply about these issues, especially in view of their practical implications for people’s lives ‘in a time of AIDS’. That is why I am sharing what to me makes Christian and Roman Catholic sense at this critical moment in the story of our human family I hope it will help towards our better responding to the call of God’s Spirit coming through the human tragedy of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In his book Religion and the Making of Society: Essays in Social Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 37-8, Charles Davis makes the point that, while religious faith should play a revolutionary role in society since it relativizes every existing order, this does not imply that its effect needs to be destructive of what has gone before. Religious faith is concerned with transformation and renewal. It refuses to see the old as absolute and unchangeable. But likewise it refuses to see proposed changes as unambiguously good. As Karl Rahner once remarked, there comes a time when change is necessary if life is to continue. However, we are constantly tempted to justify change by painting the old as totally erroneous and devoid of value and presenting the new as beyond criticism and perfect in every way. In reality, even when the need for change is undeniable, we usually lose something good in the process and the new inevitably brings its own problems and disadvantages (cf. Karl Rahner, Grace in Freedom., Burns & Gates, London, 1969, pp. 40-4).
Consequently, if we are exploring new directions in sexual ethics, we need to be aware that these new directions are emerging out of a process. They are not a radical new beginning which consigns all former directions to the rubbish tip. What we should expect to find is that religious faith is continually struggling with this transformation process. And it is a struggle since there will always be those who resist change and claim that ‘tradition’ is absolute and unchangeable. Likewise, there will also be those who believe the old is beyond redemption and so have no patience with the process of renewal and transformation.
One reason why renewal and transformation are constantly needed is the fact that our knowledge of reality is constantly increasing and changing and this inevitably affects the way we live our lives. For instance, it makes an enormous difference if our understanding of homosexuality changes from regarding those who engage in same-sex behaviour as either deviant or sick ‘heterosexual’ persons to seeing them as persons whose fundamental orientation attracts them to persons of the same sex. Something similar could be said of our increased understanding of the human reproductive process and how this can be controlled by modern pharmaceutical compounds or new technology.
However, in recent years we have become more aware of a further reason for recognizing the need for renewal. The world in which we live, the social and relational structures which govern our lives and even the very language and thought patterns which enable us to think, are all, to a very large degree, a social construct. In other words, they do not come to us pre-packaged from God. They are all things which human creativity and ingenuity have helped to bring into being. To frecognize that much of life is the product of a human making opens our eyes to the possibility that certain features of life which had been viewed as unchangeable are, on the contrary, open to be changed. Human beings have played a part in bringing them into being, so human beings can help to change them. It would be foolish to view this possibility as an open invitation to change everything in sight. That would be a recipe for disaster. However, it does alert us to the fact that, when we are faced with certain dehumanizing and oppressive traditions or cultural practices which we had previously regarded as unalterable, it may be within our power to eliminate them or, at least, change them for the better.
This ties in with a contemporary Christian understanding of the theology of creation. Our Christian God is not a divine clock-maker who, through an initial act of creation, sets the whole process of evolution in motion and then sits back to let it operate on its own. While the whole of creation is ‘other’ than God, it is also continuously held in being by God. Of course, this is not a new insight. Aquinas wrote very profoundly about the transcendence and immanence of God. Theologically, therefore, creation is not understood as some initial act of God. It is an on-going process and relationship. As such, therefore, creation is not some finished product of God which demands our respect through a kind of ‘do not touch’ response. Creation is on-going here and now. It is a ‘doing’ of God, in which human persons, as intelligent beings made in God’s image, are called to play an indispensable role. What Charles Davis calls a basic trust in or love of ‘Reality’ should move us to play our responsible role in this process of transformation (Religion and the Making of Society, p. 35). This also eleads us to take account of sin and human irresponsibility. The reality which comes to us largely as a social construct is both ‘graced’ and ‘sin-affected’. In other words, the reality we receive, ourselves included, has been worked on already. It has been affected by the process of social construction. As a result, it will be to some extent both ‘flawed’ and ‘value added’.
The important question, therefore, is not ‘Why is change necessary?’ but ‘How can we affect and manage change so that it will be beneficial to us as human persons and to our planet at a whole?’ Not all change is transformation. Some changes can be deforming rather than transforming. How to distinguish changes which are ‘transforming’ from those which are ‘deforming’ is where the task of religious ethics come in. I say ‘religious ethics’ deliberately, though I am not restricting religious ethics to Christian ethics. I agree with Davis when he says that for human rationality to survive at a deeper level than ‘the efficient adaptation of means to ends’ some kind of religious faith is needed. By religious faith here he means faith in the sense of ‘an unrestricted openness to Reality’ (Religion and the Making of Society, p. 37). Such faith could also be spoken of as an openness to be ‘moved’ to transformative action by the mystery of Reality. In more explicitly religious language, such openness could also be interpreted as a ‘radical obedience’ to the will of a transcendent/immanent God moving us to continue the process of creation through human agency.
UNDERSTANDING OURSELVES AS HISTORICAL, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL PERSONS
As human persons, we are social, cultural and historical beings. Even the very process of becoming ourselves as human persons has a historical and social dimension to it. Although it might appear a purely natural process, almost like our breathing in the air around us, it is not something we bring about on our own. Our natural ‘inculturation’ means our taking on board the wide spectrum of thought, language, custom, and so forth which constitutes what is meant by becoming a human person within the culture into which we are born.
Clearly, changes take place in cultures. This can happen through growth occurring in the self-understanding of the people in whom a culture is embodied. Hence, although our self-identity as human persons is, to a large extent, socially constructed, paradoxically, culture, which leaves its mark on us so profoundly in this way, can also be changed by us, since it is in itself humanly constructed and our human freedom plays a part in that ongoing process. Precisely because it owes its continued existence over the ages to this ongoing process of social construction, human culture is essentially historical. As historical, it is always open to further development and change, even, at times, radical change. However, that change does not happen independently of human agency. It does not occur purely by accident or as the result of some determined plan of destiny. Human beings are not unthinking automatons, passively absorbing cultural change. We are necessarily involved in the whole process. That is why it is so important that we are conscious of the cultural changes which are taking place so that we can try to make sure that they are beneficial to the good of human persons and our environment.
In speaking of culture here I mean everything which goes to make up how people in a society live and interact together, how they understand themselves and each other, what makes them tick, how they regard society itself and organize life in society, the kind of the language they use, the symbols which convey basic significance for them, and so forth. To my mind, one of the best definitions of culture is that given by Vatican IV.
The word ‘culture’ in its general sense indicates all those factors by which as human persons we refine and unfold our manifold spiritual and bodily qualities. It means our effort to bring the world itself under our control by our knowledge and labour. It includes the fact that by improving customs and institutions we render social life more human both within the family and in the civic community. Finally, it is a feature of culture that through the course of time human beings express, communicate, and conserve in their works great spiritual experiences and desires, so that these may be of advantage to the progress of many, even of the whole human family. (The Church in the Modern World, n. 53)
The notion of social construction helps us make sense of our human experience. It is a notion which could appropriately be described as ‘revelatory’. It helps us to see in a new and richer light what has always been before our eyes but never before been perceived in this way. It puts into words what we have had an inkling of in our hearts. In a sense, it increases our ability to be moral agents in the social sphere since it makes us more aware of what is happening and how we can influence it.
However, some theologians are suspicious of the notion of social construction. They mistakenly interpret it as a philosophical theory based on the belief that human freedom reigns supreme and all reality is simply raw material for human freedom to fashion as it likes. John Paul II’s advisers on Veritatis Splendor may have misinterpreted social construction in this way. Nevertheless, I can fully endorse the Pope’s rejection of any approach which ‘ultimately means making freedom self-defining and a phenomenon creative of itself and its values’ (Veritatis Splendor, n. 46), while at the same time accepting the notion of social construction as a very helpful sociological tool for understanding the historical processes we are involved in as cultural human persons.
A Christian theology of creation means that we accept the whole of reality, ourselves included, as given and gift. The task of human freedom is to become who we are and we cannot do that without continually trying to understand better who we are. This is, a never-ending process. The notion of social construction helps us appreciate the social, cultural and historical dimensions of that process. It broadens our understanding of what is implied in coming to know and do God’s will since it reminds us that no existing human structure can be regarded as definitive in terms of God’s will. In a sense, therefore, the social process of helping to construct a culture which more fully embodies respect for all human persons can truly be spoken of as ‘creating God’s will’. That is simply drawing out the social implications of what the Pope calls for when he states that ‘the moral life calls for that creativity and originality typical of the person, the source and cause of his own deliberate acts’ (Veritatis Splendor, n. 40). This is very different from an extremist libertarian interpretation of human creativity rejected by the Pope.
SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION AND NATURAL LAW
The notion of social construction is a very enlightening contribution from the field of sociology. Despite some indications of a slight revival of the school of ‘socio-biology’ with its determinist interpretation of the findings of genetics and endocrinology, social construction theory seems to be the accepted thinking among most sociologists today, especially when it comes to understanding ourselves as sexual human persons. It seems to be generally agreed that, to a large degree, our sexuality, whether in the form of heterosexuality or homosexuality, is a social construct. In other words, our sexuality, as a human phenomenon, does not exist outside of history but can actually be influenced, modified and even changed through the interplay of various cultural variables in the course of history. If this is true, it would seem to follow that our sexual ethics needs to be open to modification and reappraisal to take account of significant changes occurring in our sexuality. That is why I look on social construction as a very important tool in a contemporary exploration of the field of sexual ethics.
The application of the notion of social construction to human sexuality might seem to be diametrically opposed to a natural law approach to morality. If change is possible in the sphere of human sexuality, it seems impossible for us to speak theologically about our sexuality being gift from God. It sounds more like the product of human manipulation – or, at least, of the vagaries of human history. That is far from being the case. In fact, very rich insights can be drawn from combining the enriched contemporary understanding of natural law with the notion of social construction. The theological concept of natural law provides a very enlightening interpretative lens for our examination of the human reality which we have been helped to understand better through the notion of social construction.
At the outset of its discussion of marriage and the family (n. 59), the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s 1994 Statement, Life in Christ: Morals. Communion and the Church, runs thus:
Neither of our two traditions regards marriage as a human invention. On the contrary, both see it as grounded by God in human nature and as a source of community, social order and stability. Nevertheless, the institution of marriage has found different expression in different cultures and at different times. In our own time, for instance, we are becoming increasingly aware that some forms, far from nurturing the dignity of persons, foster oppression and domination, especially of women.
When I read that passage, it reminded me of a piece I was asked to write for The Universe some years ago as a commentary on the statement, ‘The institution or custom of marriage has God for its author’. Part of what I wrote is relevant to our exploration of how the merger between natural law theory and the notion of social construction can help us in our continuing quest to understand ourselves better as God-given sexual persons:
To say that God is the author of marriage does not commit us to believing that God issued some kind of formal decree commanding marriage to come into being. We can assume that men and women, by using their God-given intelligence to reflect on their developing experience, discovered that this was the ‘good’ way for most men and women to live together. Though it had its difficulties, it brought them happiness and security and provided a home for their children, thus enabling the human family to increase and grow. . . . We allow God to be author of marriage to the extent that we are open to discovering how best marriage should be lived today. We have an understanding of human sexuality and the generative processes that was not available to our ancestors. We know the way the sexual dimension of our lives has a crucial impact on our growth as persons right from our earliest years. We have a better insight into the way human relationships develop and the stages through which they need to pass. Our understanding of history and culture, too, has made us aware that our 20th century Western, rather romantic, image of marriage with its accompanying ‘nuclear family’ model is just one possible way in which the marriage relationship can be lived – and not necessarily the best way! . . .
There is much ambiguity about the new possibilities opening up for marriage and the new forms of committed sexual relationship which are claimed by some to be marriage without the pomp and circumstance, Contraception is not an unalloyed good – or evil. Neither is in vitro fertilization or other options now available. However, whether they are judged acceptable cannot depend on purely biological criteria. Even our sexual biological make-up does not offer us an adequate criterion. After all, Catholic social teaching is all about our transforming primitive ‘natural’ life into human culture.
A Christian theology of creation, therefore, does not imply a ‘hands-off’ approach, as though all we had to do was to obey the Maker’s instructions inscribed in nature. As Josef Fuchs remarks, all that ‘nature’ shows us is what God has brought into being:
When in fact, nature-creation does speak to us. it tells us only what it is and how it functions on its own. In other words, the Creator shows us what is divinely willed to exist, and how it functions, but not how the Creator wills the human being qua person to use this existing reality. The person, created as a rational and prudent being must interpret, evaluate, and judge the realisation of nature from the moral point of view. (Moral Demands and Personal Obligations, Washington, Georgetown University Press, 1993, pp. 99-100)
‘Nature’ does not carry moral imperatives inscribed within it. Moral imperatives are the fruit of human reflection striving to discern how to live in a way which best respects the kind of persons we are. And the kind of persons we are commits us to facing our responsibilities to the rest of creation as well as to future generations. Moreover, we are becoming much more aware, especially in environmental issues, that what we tend to call ‘nature’ has already been affected – and, sadly, polluted – by the effects of ‘human civilization’ over many centuries.
‘You are playing God’ is an objection often raised when modern technology is applied in some areas of the medical field, for instance in reproductive medicine. The assumption behind this objection seems to be that we should not be interfering with ‘nature’. However, a sound theology of creation does not support that assumption. Rather, it reminds us that we are called to exercise responsible stewardship for our world, for ourselves and for future generations. This is our God-given responsibility. God expects us to use our intelligence. In a sense God invites us to ‘play God’. It shows little respect for God to use the phrase ‘playing God’ to mean taking decisions that are likely to harm or even destroy ourselves and our world. That is playing the fool rather than playing God. To me, the phrase ‘playing God’ reminds us that we are engaged in a God-given task. In a sense, we are continuing God’s creative work. That is a tremendous privilege and one we would be abusing if we were not motivated by a determination to do all we could to safeguard and promote the good of humankind, our world and the whole of creation. The wise application of human technology to ‘nature’ is part of our God-given invitation to ‘play God’ in the sense of continuing God’s creative work in the world. To neglect our responsibility to do this would be to fail to respect who we are as human persons.
Though our bodily givenness is a very important dimension of our nature as human persons, it is not the only one. Our being thinking, evaluating, loving persons is equally part of our nature. Therefore, to be truly human, we need more than an accurate knowledge and understanding of our bodily givenness. We also need to interpret this knowledge and understanding within the broader context of our personal and social relationships according to the best understanding available to us in our contemporary culture. On this point it might be worth repeating a few paragraphs from my book New Directions in Moral Theology:
Philosophically, the natural law does not consist in ‘nature’ nor even in our knowledge of ‘nature’. It consists in our appropriation of this knowledge and our making use of it in trying to discern what kind of personal and social living is most conducive to the safeguarding and promotion of the dignity of human persons . . . This means that the word ‘natural’ in the term ‘natural law’ does not refer to natural in contradistinction to artificial. ‘Natural’ in ‘natural law’ really means ‘reasonable’. In Chapter 3 we considered the eight dimensions of the nature of the human person, integrally and adequately considered. Living as befits a human person means living in a way which takes proper account of all these dimensions of human personhood. Living in this way is living reasonably. It is living in accordance with the natural law
It is clear from the above that whatever the contraception debate in the Roman Catholic church is about, it should not hinge on the fact that certain methods of contraception are ‘ artificial’, In itself that has no direct relevance to any natural law discussion. The mere fact that a procedure is ‘artificial’ does not mean that it is ‘unnatural’ in terms of the natural law. What is ‘artificial’ can in fact be more ‘natural’ in natural law terminology since it can be ‘more reasonable’. The 1982 Report Choices in Childlessness published by the Free Church Federal Council and the British Council of Churches, expressed this point very succinctly:
. . . the popular ethical distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘unnatural’ is a distinction between what is in keeping with human nature and what is not. It is not a distinction between the natural and the artificial. Since, then, human beings are by nature intelligent and creative, and the adaptation of the environment to their needs is an expression of their intelligence, human artifice, such as that developed in medical technology, is in principle ethically natural, (p. 42}
Furthermore, the notion of ‘social construction’ links in closely with the social dimension of sin as found in the writings of many theologians today. This is brought out clearly in the following passage from Nicholas Lash, Believing Three Ways in God (London, SCM, 1992):
The world is still unfinished; its history has still some way to go. And there has never been a time, it seems, when all things have been exactly as, according to the Creed, they ought to be. In some sense, then, evil is as old as time. But wickedness is very recent; so is sin – for human beings have not been around for very long. And, even after human malice and stupidity had begun to wreak their havoc, it was not, for many centuries, all that difficult (in principle) to distinguish between ‘natural’ disasters and the consequences of sin. Now, as the system or structure of the world becomes, increasingly, one complex fact – culturally, politically, technically and economically –, one large artefact, one single outcome of human energy and ingenuity, the stain of our malevolence has spread across the surface of the globe. Pollution of the air and seas, deforestation and expansion of the deserts’ range, annihilation of innumerable species and exhaustion of non-renewable resources – all these and similar phenomena are caused by human arrogance, short-sightedness and greed. Famine and mass starvation, these days, are no more ‘natural’ disasters than are deaths caused by the collapse of a building which the landlord neglected to repair. They are the consequences, albeit in some measure unforeseen and unintended, of human action and inaction, of someone’s wickedness or sin.
The three concentric circles of non-moral evil, wickedness and sin are rapidly becoming coextensive as the plague of human folly tightens its grip, threatening the planet and the human race with violent, premature, slow death, (pp. 114-15)
Although initially this can sound very depressing, it is, in fact, a helpful ereminder to us that theology cannot put creation and redemption into two separate compartments. A natural law approach which focuses solely on the doctrine of creation and ignores the doctrine of redemption will be seriously flawed. That is because the raw material we are handling is not raw at all. It is historically conditioned. It has already been affected by the scenario so vividly portrayed by Lash. While it cannot be denied that we are inheritors of grace, we are also all victims of sin living in a sin-infected world.
Consequently, social construction for the Christian will always remind us that there is a healing task to be undertaken. Salvation necessarily includes the work of ‘salvaging’. Unlike God, we are not creating out of nothing. We are wounded healers, handling precious but damaged material. Lash puts this very succinctly when he says that ‘the forgiveness of “original” sin is, as we would expect, the finishing of God’s creation’ (p. 116) or, a little later, ‘the world’s forgiveness is creation’s finishing’ (p. 119).
As we shall see in Chapter Four, the approach to ‘nature’ involved in this kind of theology of creation has profound and very practical implications for our understanding and appreciation of gay and lesbian relationships.
THE CHALLENGE OF GENDER ANALYSIS
Gender analysis uses the notion of social construction to throw light on the process whereby men and women have come to think and behave so differently from each other and how this has affected the way they relate to each other and their respective roles in society. Contrary to popular understanding, gender analysis is not exclusively focused on female gender, as Ursula King brings out very clearly:
Gender analysis is as much about the construction of male gender roles and identity as it is about female ones, though much less work has been done on the former than the latter. It is about social relations, different sexual orientations, diversity of family patterns, about disruptions and new configurations in gender roles, about the dynamics and flux in cultural symbols, norms and expectations in relation to gender which in turn affect private and public spheres, the world of home and work, the exercise of power and authority. (Theology and Sexuality, vol. 3, 1995, p. 116)
Elaine Graham’s study, Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood and Theology (London, Mowbray, 1995), has made it abundantly clear that gender analysis is a burgeoning science in which there are many different interpretations of the roots of gender differentiation as it currently exists. This reflects the growing conviction that gender differentiation cannot be attributed to any single cause. Graham writes;
critical analysis of gender consistently challenges notions of a ‘unicausal or reductionist model. Rather, it would appear that the foundations of gender relations and gender identity are complex and multidimensional, (p. 26)
Theologians working in the field of gender analysis would fully accept the contemporary understanding of human sexuality as being a profound dimension of our personhood. We are sexual persons. The meaning of our sexuality is not defined by our reproductive organs. Our sexuality permeates our whole being. In a sense, we are all sexually active from the earliest moments of our life. Our sexuality is about our inner drive to go out of ourselves to others. It is an urge for connectedness. The dynamism of our sexuality plays a major part in our personal and social relationships and even in how we give ourselves to life in general. In her book, Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships (London, Mowbray, 1995), Elizabeth Stuart borrows from Sally Cline the words of Sister Charles, a vowed celibate, when asked if she would still regard herself as sexual; ‘I do not engage in sexual intercourse, but the sexuality I live is like a pulse that goes right through me’ (p. 72).
Through understanding sexuality in this broader and much richer sense and using the tools of gender analysis, many theologians have come to the conclusion that our Christian sexual ethics begins from a too limited interpretation of sexuality. It starts from the assumption that our God-given sexuality is essentially bound up with and inseparable from heterosexuality. By heterosexuality is meant the complementarity of men and women as this has been culturally interpreted and embodied in the course of the centuries.
Theologians who query this basic assumption are not challenging the goodness and beauty of marriage, though they, like the rest of us, are fully aware that a marriage can go seriously wrong and can develop into a mutually destructive relationship. Neither are they challenging the value of the family, though here again, like the rest of us, they recognize the enormous shortcomings of families in general and the nuclear family in particular and are aware that today’s families come in all shapes and sizes. What they are suggesting is that heterosexuality (and still less marriage and the family) might not be the most appropriate starting point for sexual ethics. Perhaps, the fundamental fstarting-point should be the human person. And as we have already seen, in this ‘time of AIDS’, a person-centred starting-point would demand a special focus on the dignity of women as human persons.
As we have seen in Chapter One, this starting-point opens our eyes to the fact that heterosexuality, at least as currently understood and lived out, does not do full justice to the equal dignity of women and men. Moreover, this seems to have been the case throughout much of human history. This is a matter of serious concern, since heterosexuality is seen as one of the most fundamental organizing principles of society and its various institutions and structures. This is where gender analysis comes to the rescue. Gender analysis research is enabling us to see that, though gender is a universal phenomenon, it is also something which is constructed by human beings themselves. That is why it is differently nuanced in different societies, cultures and religions. As a result of her extraordinarily extensive reading in the field of gender analysis, Elaine Graham argues that we should see ‘gender as a form of human practice, natural and cultural’ (Making the Difference, p. 155). In other words, gender is not something we are by nature. It is something human beings have developed in the process of social living and which as individuals each of us assumes by being part of this process. Graham quotes Gerda Lerner’s account of how this process might have developed initially:
The story of civilisation is the story of men and women struggling up from necessity, from their helpless dependence on nature, to freedom and their partial mastery over nature. In this struggle women were longer confined to species-essential activities than men and were therefore more vulnerable to being disadvantaged. My argument sharply distinguishes between biological necessity, to which both men and women submitted and adapted, and culturally constructed customs and institutions, which forced women into subordinate roles. I have tried to show how it might have come to pass that women agreed to a sexual division of labour, which would eventually disadvantage them, without having been able to foresee the later consequences, (quoted on pp. 73-4)
Graham goes on to write:
Gender is a fundamental form of social organisation. Gender is but one manifestation of human social relations; it is not an ontological state, nor an intrinsic property of the individual. Theories about gender identity, gender regimes and the symbolic representations of gender arc therefore theories about the formation of human culture; being a gendered person is about inhabiting a particular culture. Such social relations – and thus gender as a form of social relations – are generated and maintained by human practice, symbolic and material. . . Gender is therefore not an innate or ontological category, but the product of human action and social relations, forged by the transformation of the world around us into material and ideological systems. (P-217)
Thus, human bodies, the practices and conventions of science, religion, language, work, reproduction, families and other social institutions are effectively the agents of gender, in that they are the vehicles by which personal identity is forged within a socially-constructed everyday world. This process is entirely cultural, a constant process of generation and regeneration of social relations, (p. 219)
As we shall see in the next chapter, this approach to gender differentiation, though at odds with the Pope’s position on ‘ontological complementarity’, actually provides a strong ally for the Pope’s public call to the whole Church to a ‘renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision’ through ‘setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination’ (Letter to Women, n. 3, in The Tablet, 15 July 1985, p. 917). An awareness of the social construction of gender differentiation can make us better equipped to heed the Pope’s call since it helps us realize that change and transformation really are possible. And an understanding of the complexity of the whole process will remind us that engagement with it will demand long-term commitment since what is involved is nothing less than a radical transformation of one of the major foundations of civilization as we Tknow it.
The aim of this transformation process is not to eliminate difference between men and women. Nor is it to pursue some kind of holy grail of a pure essence of masculinity and femininity which then becomes the model according to which men and women can fashion their lives. There is no version of masculinity and femininity existing outside of culture. As Graham puts it: ‘Whatever human nature may be, it is inaccessible to our understanding beyond the medium of our own culture and agency’ (p. 223). The end of the transformation process, therefore, is to re-form gender relations in accordance with the norms of human justice. This involves applying to gender relations a basic principle first formulated by Rosemary Ruether and subsequently strongly affirmed by many other women theologians:
Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is appraised as not redemptive. Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption. (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology, London, SCM, 1983, pp. 18—19)
In her final chapter Graham argues paradoxically that, though gender is not founded on ‘a God-given order of creation . . . which preordains separate functions for women and men’, yet it ‘is not merely an incidental aspect of our experience of being human’ (p. 223). I would want to express that point theologically by saying that gender is an important dimension of our being human persons which is given to us by God as something which we have to fashion and perfect rather than as a static essence which limits our freedom. To construct gender according to its highest relational possibilities is actually to play our part in the ongoing process of our being created in the image and likeness of God. It is significant that Graham has chosen Making the Difference as the title of her book. The word ‘making’ brings out clearly her key point that gender differentiation is something we make and fashion. A theological version of her title could read Making the Image of God in Us. Graham, is not unaware of this theological dimension:
The decisive impact of gender as a form of social relations is suggestive of a model of human nature as profoundly relational, requiring the agency of culture to bring our personhood fully into being. This resounds with other perspectives that emphasise such an identity as thoroughly compatible with a Trinitarian model of God. (p. 223)
This is why Christian sexual ethics, at its deepest level, should be about the quality of relationships between sexual persons.
One of the principal ways in which the dignity of the human person is being violated today is through the systematic oppression of women through the all-pervading influence of patriarchy. Therefore, a sexual ethics which starts from the dignity of the human person must, at this point in history, interpret this particularly through the lens of the dignity of women. At present, the playing field is not level in terms of the equality of women and men. That is why we must face the disturbing fact that traditional Christian sexual ethics will almost certainly contain major flaws within it. Otherwise, it could not have been blind to the evil of patriarchy down through the ages. Therefore, it is only to be expected that a transformed Christian sexual ethics, if it is to respect living Christian tradition, will involve a radical reappraisal of certain aspects of what we have considered to be traditional Christian sexual ethics.