Towards a Sexual Ethics in a Time of aids

From New Directions in Sexual Ethics by Kevin T. Kelly, Geoffrey Chapman, 1998, Ch. 6

In the light of what we have seen in previous chapters, there would seem to be a number of important directions in which Christian sexual ethics needs to proceed:

  • Since it must flow from a belief in the full and equal dignity of women as human persons, it needs to be purified of any patriarchal influences which have stunted its healthy growth.
  • Since it must also believe in the full human dignity of gay and lesbian persons, it needs to be freed from an unhistorical approach to the Bible and natural law which has consolidated rather than challenged homophobic attitudes in the church and in society.
  • Since it believes that, as human persons, we are created in the image of the Trinitarian God, it needs to do justice to human sexuality as an important dimension of this God-given giftedness.

Though discussion of any specific ethical issues related to HIV/ AIDS will be left until Chapter Eight, the AIDS pandemic will serve as a backdrop for the whole of this chapter. That should ensure that we do not lose sight of the urgency of the justice dimension of sexual ethics, particularly as affecting women and also gays and lesbians. Also, being aware of the human and theological implications of social construction we will be better able to handle tradition as a living and continuing process, as well as seeing human cultures, including the sexual mores and gender roles they incorporate, as open to critical analysis with a view to bringing them more in line with human and Gospel values.

It could be argued that the whole of ethics is ‘sexual’ since our sexuality is an essential dimension of our being human persons and so affects our whole approach to life and all our relationships. However, it could equally be said that the whole of ethics is ‘social’ or even ‘ecological’. Consequently, we need to define more precisely the specific area of human life and relationships which comes within the field of sexual ethics. Unless we do that, our discussion of sexual ethics will become too wide-ranging to be of any practical help.

I would suggest that sexual ethics covers three main, areas: (1) personal identity in so far as it is bound up with our biological and psychological make-up and cultural conditioning and the impact of these on gender differentiation and sexual orientation; (2) relationships of intimacy, their language of communication and the social structures which directly affect them; (3) specifically genital activity and its relational, procreational and recreational potentiality.

That could be stated more simply by saying that sexual ethics covers the whole area of

  • who I am as a sexual person;
  • how 1 relate to others as a sexual person;
  • how I behave as a sexual person.

Obviously, these are not three separate areas. I only discover who I am through the process of relating to other people; and relating to other people is not a purely internal intellectual process. It involves communication by word and gesture. Sexual ethics explores the specifically sexual component of these three areas. As an ethical enterprise its purpose is not merely to offer an accurate description of what actually is going on. Rather it is trying to understand what should be going on if we are to live in a way which most truly reflects who we are in all our richness as sexual persons.

Clearly, in one short chapter, it is only possible to offer a few pointers towards a renewed sexual ethics. That is why I have included the word ‘towards’ in the title of this chapter. It is offered as a modest contribution to a task which is ongoing and in which we all have a stake. In the Introduction to this book I made the comment: ‘Paradoxically, I suspect that this chapter is the least important one in the book’. I stand by that statement, not because the topic itself is unimportant but because I recognize that there are many women and men far more competent than I am to write on this theme. I will be very happy if the inadequacies of this chapter serve to stimulate them to offer something far more substantial and pastorally helpful.

SOME FOUNDATIONAL BELIEFS FOR A CHRISTIAN SEXUAL ETHICS FOR TODAY

I would like to explore six important articles of belief which I consider should lie at the heart of a transformed Christian sexual ethics for today:

  1. Belief in the full and equal dignity of women as human persons as a major touchstone in our age for judging the credibility of the Church’s commitment to the dignity of the human person;
  2. Belief in human freedom;
  3. Belief in friendship, intimacy and love;
  4. Belief in the goodness of the human body, sexuality and sensual
  5. Belief in the giftedness of human life;
  6. Belief in the uniqueness of the human person and respect for personal conscience.

1. THE FULL AND EQUAL DIGNITY OF WOMEN

The more the experience of women has made its voice heard in the field of sexual ethics, the more the focus has moved from a male concern about penetrative sex to the wider context of the sexual relationship. It is to this context that a transformed sexual ethics should devote most of its attention. For women, sexual ethics has generally begun from the wrong starting-point. It has focused too much on sexual intercourse and on trying to define when it was ethically acceptable. For many women, this is not their main concern. Their main concern is the quality of the relationship. In other words, they are looking for a relationship which fully respects them as women and their equal dignity as human persons. If that is lacking, no other compensating qualities can really redeem the situation. Tragically, as things stand, many women feel they have no choice but to settle for less. They see the relationship they are in, unsatisfactory though it may be in many ways, as the best they can hope for at present. However, they know that their experience falls short of the Kingdom values proclaimed by the Gospel.

A Christian sexual ethics must be able to offer a theological critique of the form of marriage which many women are experiencing as oppressive. Hence, it must not have the institution of marriage itself as one of its bedrock foundations immune from any criticism or questioning. It needs to be able to appeal to something more fundamental which will provide it with a more basic criterion for undertaking a critical analysis of the institution of marriage itself.

That more basic criterion is provided by the overarching principle of respect for the human person. This principle which has been canonized by Vatican II seems to be fully accepted by all the other Christian Churches. It even seems to provide common ground with people of other faiths or none. Of course, such a person-centred morality does not involve any rejection of objective morality. Far from it. Vatican II, for instance, is opposed to any kind of purely subjective morality which would claim that the human subject can decide arbitrarily what is right or wrong. We are not free to create our own morality to suit our own convenience. Vatican II insists that morality must be based on ‘objective standards’ (The Church in the Modern World, n. 51). However, its interpretation of ‘objective’ is completely person-centred. In other words, these ‘objective standards’ must be drawn from the nature of the human person ‘integrally and adequately considered’ (cf. my New Directions in Moral Theology, pp. 29-30).

In practice, therefore, specific human actions, sexual intercourse, for example, do not have any in-built moral criterion of their own which is distinct from the human person as a whole and which might require behaviour which is contrary to the good of the human person, integrally and adequately considered. Even such a fundamental human institution as marriage does not have any free-standing independent moral criterion of its own. It can only be properly understood and evaluated with reference to that one all-embracing criterion of the good of the human person, integrally and adequately considered. Of course, trying to discern much more explicitly what that means in practice is a crucial question we all have to face. I have attempted a preliminary sketch of one possible way to answer that question in chapter 3 of my book referred to in the previous paragraph.

As we have already seen, at this kairos-moment in history, one of the major signs of the times in our age is a growing awareness among women – and men – that the structures of our world over the centuries have been based upon the assumption that women have a lesser dignity as human persons than men and so are naturally subordinate to them. These structures even include the institution of marriage itself and the even more basic institution of heterosexuality. Consequently, the criterion of the dignity of the human person as applied to a critical analysis of both these institutions must look at whether, in their current form, they adequately safeguard and promote the full and equal dignity of women. Anything in both these institutions that fails that criterion must be clearly rejected by sexual ethics. Such a critique would more appropriately be made by women theologians; that is why this section is so brief.

2. HUMAN FREEDOM

Freedom is an essential dimension of our make-up as human persons. We are responsible for ourselves and cannot abdicate that responsibility to others. We are not simply ‘objects’ to be used functionally for the convenience of others. Our future is not determined by blind fate or the tyrannical power of ‘the gods’. At a very fundamental level, to be human means accepting responsibility for what we do and for the kind of person we commit ourselves to become. This remains true, even though our freedom is limited in many ways and we are, all of us, wounded people, victims of sin in some way or other.

Marriage tended to be the main focus of sexual ethics. Hence, freedom was seen as relevant principally only in so far as it had implications for married couples. Moreover, given the fact that marriage was viewed within the ‘contract’ paradigm, freedom only seemed to assume importance with regard to entry into marriage. A contract was null and void if not consented to freely. Consequently in the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, a marriage could be declared null, if one of the parties did not consent freely to it. Once past the point of entry, however, the freedom dimension faded more into the background. According to the 1917 Code of Canon Law the couple gave each other ‘a perpetual and exclusive right over the body, for acts which are of themselves suitable for the generation of children’ (canon 1081, #2). That implied that each had proprietorial rights to the other’s body for sexual purposes. In practice, however, this was usually interpreted as meaning that a husband had the right to demand sex from his wife whenever he wanted it. The extreme to which this teaching led can be seen in a matrimonial jurisprudence decision from the Roman Rota which declared that a marriage was considered to be consummated even if the husband had rendered his wife unconscious in order to penetrate her! The text of the decision stated that ‘consummation can be had independently of consciousness and free consent of the will’ (cf T. Lincoln Bouscaren and James I. O’Connor, eds Canon Law Digest, Milwaukee. Bruce, 1961 Supplement, on canon 1119). Since the 1993 Code of Canon Law this appalling interpretation is, thankfully, no longer defensible.

In such an approach to marriage there could be no such thing as rape within marriage. A husband was always within his rights and his wife had no right to refuse. This teaching probably had links with the fact that, in earlier centuries, sexual intercourse, though considered sinful because of its necessary association with concupiscence, was judged by theologians to be justified when it was seen as a way of stopping a husband going off to another woman to satisfy his sexual needs. This seems to have been what was meant by the phrase, remedium concupiscentiae. This way of looking at the couple’s sexual relationship seems to imply that, if the husband did go off to another woman, his wife was to blame since she had failed to satisfy his sexual passion!

In such an understanding of marriage freedom of choice did not loom large. A wife had no such freedom if her husband wanted to demand his right to have sex with her. This was a ‘double-standard’ morality. One of the principal qualities looked for in a wife was obedience to her husband. However, he was not expected to obey his wife. He was her head. It was his role to exercise authority. Tragically, at a popular level this offered a justification for the appalling practice of ‘wife-battering’ if this was the only way a husband could make his wife subject to him. At the end of her essay, ‘Historical theology and violence against women: unearthing a popular tradition of just battery’, in Carol J. Adams and Marrie M. Fortune (eds), Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook (New York, Continuum, 1995), pp. 242-62, Mary Potter Engel makes the challenging statement:

We need to open ourselves to the possibility that discoveries of the interconnection of the ideology of gender inequality and the practice of violence against women in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation may inform our understanding of patriarchy and our practice toward women in the present… As long as we do not unequivocally reject the ideologies of gender inequality, we will perpetuate that tradition, for there will always be at least one just cause for battery of wives: insubordination, (p. 258)

Today’s growing emphasis on the ‘quality of the relationship’ focuses much more on the couple’s shared responsibility for the well-being and growth of their partnership. Consequently, a transformed sexual ethic for today would not interpret matrimonial consent in terms of each partner surrendering their personal freedom or giving up their right to free choice. Consent in marriage is not a surrender of personal freedom or individual choice. It is actually an exercise of personal freedom. It is making a choice. Each partner is effectively saying to the other: ‘From now on, whenever I make a choice, you will be part of the equation. And in terms of our shared life and love together, our decisions and choices will be governed by our mutual consent. I am not surrendering my freedom to you nor am I taking over your freedom. But we are agreeing to exercise our freedom together through our mutual consent. I do not believe I have any right to demand sex from you if you are unwilling – and vice versa. However, we are both committing ourselves to be sensitive to each other’s needs and to accommodate ourselves as best we can to those needs, even when, on occasion, they do not fully correspond with our own needs at that time.’

Our capacity to make such a life commitment reveals the profundity and wonder of our freedom as human persons, Human freedom is not limited to our capacity to choose between different options. It also includes something much more mind-blowing than that. Human freedom includes the capacity to determine who we are to become and what we are to make of our lives. It means, for instance, that we can grasp hold of ourselves, as it were, and commit ourselves to another person for life. Far from being a surrender of our freedom, such a life-commitment belongs to the highest level on which we can exercise our freedom. Another name for this kind of highest exercise of our freedom is love. This is a favourite theme of Pope John Paul II, as comes over clearly in his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. ‘The Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself. . . Freedom is acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self (nn. 85 & 87).

To understand freedom in this way enables us to see that the shift from the ‘contract’ paradigm of marriage to the ‘covenant/ relationship’ paradigm has moved the marriage commitment up a further notch in the freedom scale. However, this brings with it higher expectations of marriage. That creates a problem. People may now have these higher expectations of marriage but it does not follow automatically that they have the skills necessary to build a marriage relationship on this higher level of personal commitment.

Some people believe that this ‘relationship’ approach fosters too romantic a view of marriage. Real-life marriage is more down-to-earth and ordinary. There is probably much truth in that observation. Nevertheless, as we saw in the previous chapter, this ‘free giving of self to the other’ is the understanding of marriage to which most Christian Churches now seem to be committed. They see it as more in keeping with our dignity as human persons made in the image of a relational God. The danger is that this ideal can too easily become a burden on some couples. Having been encouraged to believe in the ideal, they find themselves, for one reason or another, incapable of realizing it in their relationship. And instead of experiencing from the Church understanding and encouragement to pick themselves up and move forward, they discover that their non-attainment of the ideal is seen as disqualifying them from embarking on any further life-giving loving relationship.

The fact that many marriages are breaking down does not necessarily mean that couples do not believe in this higher-level understanding of marriage or that they do not enter marriage with a real desire to make a go of it. It is more likely either that they have not reached the level of personal maturity needed to undertake such a fundamental commitment or that they do not have the interpersonal skills needed to build a marriage relationship of this kind. They have these high expectations regarding the quality of their marriage relationship but they often discover that the reality of such a high-quality relationship seems to be beyond them.

This might partially explain the increasing popularity of cohabitation. It could well be that many couples, believing that it is the quality of the relationship which matters most in a sexual partnership, want to make sure they get this right. Hence, they move in with each other and start living together without any Church or civil marriage ceremony. They believe that the only way they will find out whether they are capable of such a deep relationship with each other is by trying to live it out in practice. Some may even be put off marriage by the fact that it takes too much for granted. It assumes that from day one they are capable of such a high quality relationship with each other. Even though they would love that to be true, they know they cannot take it for granted. So they settle for a lower level of relationship, one they feel more able to cope with. If it grows into something much deeper, they might be prepared at a later date to celebrate it as a marriage. But for the present, they prefer to leave their options open and wait and see.

It could be argued that what is so tragic is that many of these couples, though saying they believe in freedom, do not really believe in their own inner freedom to be able to make a life-commitment of themselves to each other at such depth. It is as though they do not trust themselves enough to make such a commitment. However, they may be being realistic if. in fact, they lack the personal maturity needed for a life-commitment of this kind. Whether cohabitation encourages the growth of personal maturity is open to question. It would be helpful if there was some experimental evidence available as to whether in practice cohabitation provides a setting which is conducive to such people’s growth in maturity.

Without freedom we cannot make moral decisions or act morally. However, freedom is not the only morally relevant factor to be considered. Although good sex, in the full sense of the word, needs to be free, there is far more to good sex than freedom. The catch-phrases, ‘pro-choice’, ‘a woman’s right to choose’ and ‘consenting adults’ are all appealing to a very important dimension of ourselves as human persons. That is why they are so attractive. However, they are misleading if they mean that all other considerations pale into insignificance in comparison with an individual’s freedom of choice. That is tantamount to an extreme form of liberalism which ultimately is inimical to the true freedom of the human person integrally and adequately considered.

Does the freedom dimension we have been considering throw any light on gay and lesbian sexual relationships? I would offer the following comments:

(a) For most people – and almost universally for men — it seems that the sexual orientation we find ourselves with as we emerge from the turbulence of early adolescence is a given, whatever the causal factors which have brought it about. Being true to that given means accepting it as specifying the sexual giftedness of our lives. However, for some women at least, there seems to be more fluidity about the sexual giftedness they receive as their ‘given’. If that is the case, in their living out of that sexual giftedness the basic moral principle guiding them must still be the dignity of the human person. And in fact, respect for the human person seems to lie behind the choice made by many women who ‘choose’ a lesbian lifestyle. Some are in the process of recovering from a marriage which, for one reason or another, has been experienced as oppressive of their freedom; others are making a ‘political’ rejection of what they see to be a patriarchal construction of the institution of marriage; others, like Alison Webster, are choosing a lesbian relationship because they deem it to be ‘qualitatively superior . . . in terms of mutuality, equality, intimacy, communication and sexual pleasure’ (Found Wanting: Women, Christianity and Sexuality., London, Cassell, 1995, p. 27). In such cases their choice for the lesbian option could be interpreted as an exercise of their human freedom in line with their respect for the dignity of the human person. That being so, it could be argued that, in principle, their choice is acceptable on moral grounds.

(b) Leaving aside the above-mentioned exceptional case of women who freely choose to follow a lesbian lifestyle, a sexual ethics which encourages gays or lesbians to enter into a heterosexual marriage would seem to be running contrary to a proper understanding of human freedom. It would be asking the impossible of them. Moreover, it would be making this demand in an area which touches the human person at a most profound level since it is where a person exercises his or her freedom in its highest form. Such a request is almost sacrilegious since it fails to respect the inner sanctum of a person’s self-identity. Given the relational interpretation of marriage accepted by the Christian Churches today, the only person with whom a gay man or lesbian woman could have such a ‘free total giving of self relationship will surely be another gay man or lesbian woman.

(c) It is claimed that relationships between gay men or lesbian women are no less capable of expressing a ‘free total giving of self to another’ than heterosexual relationships. If this is true, it means that homosexual relationships can fully respect the ‘freedom’ criterion for a high-quality human relationship. Hence, unless their relationships could be shown to be ‘anti-person’ on other grounds, to deny gays and lesbians in the name of morality the possibility of choosing to commit themselves to such a relationship would itself seem to be immoral since it would be denying them the freedom to be themselves at a most profound level of their being. To say that they can still freely choose lifelong celibacy would seem to be playing with words. It is implicitly saying that they must choose celibacy and thereby denying them the freedom to choose a faithful gay or lesbian relationship. It would be presenting celibacy as a burden rather than as a gift.

3. FRIENDSHIP, INTIMACY AND LOVE

Our sexuality is an important ingredient of our being relational persons. Although it can be the source of great joy and pleasure for us, the fulfilment of that joy does not lie in self-pleasuring but in the mutual enjoyment of relational intimacy as human persons. Andre Guindon stresses the fact that ‘tradition has never acknowledged as Christian a sexual ethics which construes sexual activity as mere self-enjoyment’, This is not a result of the Church’s being wedded to any particular philosophical stance. Rather Guindon insists that a central tenet of Christian faith lies behind this understanding of our human sexuality. It is ultimately based on ‘faith in a triune God’:

Each person does not appropriate the divinity for some sort of self-enjoyment, but refers it totally to the others, the Father begetting the Son, the Son saying the Father, the Father and the Son spiring the Spirit, who is entirely referred to the Father and to the Son in love. On the model of the divine persons in which they believe, human persons receive their identity only by relating to the other. From the days when she took a stand against pagan sexual hedonism, notably through the African fathers of the third century, right up to her indictment of the solipsistic tendency of the contemporary ‘sexual revolution’, the church, in spite of occasional, clumsy formulations, has never ceased to invite women and men to adopt sexual attitudes and practices which do not enclose them within their own pleasure. Nothing less is at stake than the confession of the triune God. (‘Theologian offers Vatican-requested explanations’, in Origins, 25 February 1993, p. 631)

For Guindon, openness to the other is at the heart of an authentic human self-understanding. It is through encountering the ‘other’ that, ultimately; the door is opened to our encountering God.

However, this openness to the other applies to the whole of human life. The question we need to consider here is in what way our human sexuality has a special bearing on our openness to the other. On the more general level, the dynamism of our human sexuality acts like a kind of magnet drawing us out of ourselves to others and attracting others to us, whether this is in the heterosexual or same-sex magnetic field. It has something to do with our connectedness as human persons. This glorious gift which we share with the animals provides the precious raw material out of which human beings fashion personal relationships, some of them more explicitly sexual than others. The deeper our personal relationships become, the more intimate is our sharing of ourselves in them. This is what the exchange of a loving friendship is all about, two persons opening themselves out to each other in an atmosphere of mutual trust. Elizabeth Stuart, in her thought-provoking and beautifully written book, Just Good Friends: Towards a lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships, even goes so far as to offer friendship as a paradigm for human relationships in general and, in particular, for relationships of a more intimate sexual nature. Moreover, she insists that all human relationships are essentially ’embodied’ and even extends this to our relationship to the material world:

We are called to relate to the world in friendship: a relationship which as it grows between people results in mutual and equal acceptance, respect and delight, it is an embodied relationship with social and political repercussions. In other words, we are called to delight in the world around us. to approach it in a positive rather than negative manner . . . Our delight in our own embodiment should give us a ‘shiver of solidarity’ with all other bodies and a desire to work to ensure that all bodies are treated justly: all bodies are well fed, have access to good health care, are well sheltered and so on; and that the body upon which all depend, the body of the earth, is also treated justly (pp. 213-14)

In some cases, the power of sexual attraction between two people is initially the main, or even the only, thing which draws them together. This can be the prelude to growth into a deep friendship, though that is not always the case. If it never gets beyond the level of sexual attraction, it is a very impoverished version of the quality of relationships two human persons are capable of enjoying. If, in such an instance, the couple’s sexual attraction leads to sexual intercourse, there may have been a meeting of two sexual bodies, but only minimally of two sexual persons.

Our sexuality enables us to share a very special kind of intimacy with another person – not just physical intimacy, but a more fully integrated personal intimacy. That profound intimacy can be celebrated, communicated, shared and enjoyed in a very unique way through the highly symbolic physical act of sexual intercourse. Sex is at the service of intimacy, not vice versa. In itself, sex can be experienced as something trivial. Personal intimacy can never be trivial. It is something which engages us at a very deep level of our being.

Of course, not all intimate relationships involve specifically sexual activity. Most people enjoy a number of intimate relationships which are not sexual in the strict sense of the word. Relationships of parents with their children or between siblings are an obvious case in point; but even beyond the family circle most people enjoy intimate friendships of a non-sexual character. A more holistic understanding of ourselves as sexual persons is leading to a recognition that such intimate friendships can be a very healthy part of a celibate lifestyle too.

Many ethical writers today believe that what makes a specifically sexual relationship so special is its depth of intimacy. Consequently, for them the key question is: what precisely has sexuality to do with intimacy and what kind of intimacy should there be for sexual activity, including sexual intercourse, to be appropriate?

They are clear that intimacy is not just about sexual satisfaction. That point is made very strongly by Elaine Storkey:

Intimacy is not primarily about sexual satisfaction. It can be there in a great variety of relationships, between friends, between those in the same family, as well as between lovers. Intimacy is the sharing of closeness and warmth in a context of vulnerability and openness. It is the trust that, here there is safety, here I will not be betrayed. It is the desire for mutual enrichment, through listening, responding, caring, forgiving, growing. In short, it is the experience of love in relationship with another. It is demanding and time-consuming and requires a solid bedrock of commitment. (‘Sex that’s only skin deep’, in the Guardian., 21 October 1995)

Intimacy lies at the heart of sexual ethics. If we are to appreciate human sexual behaviour precisely as human – in other words, as the appropriate behaviour of human persons integrally and adequately considered – we need to see it in the wider context of our profound need as human persons for intimacy. Sexual behaviour only finds its true human meaning in the context of interpersonal intimacy.

This longing for intimacy belongs to the very heart of our being human persons. Despite contrary appearances at times and despite the various ways this deep longing can be wounded in us, we all long to be loved and we only discover our true selves in this experience of loving and being loved. The relational dimension of being human touches the very core of what it means to be a human person. As Storkey insists, it engages the level of our personal being at the point where we are most profoundly fashioned in the image of God:

Made in the image of God, we need closeness with others in order to express and experience our personhood. And the God who calls us into being, the God who is relationship and love, also calls us into community In community we are simultaneously taken out of ourselves and fully become ourselves. For we are and always will be persons-in-relationship . . . (The Search for Intimacy, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995, p. 231)

Storkey maintains that the dominant cultural values of today present an obstacle to the achievement of intimacy. Intimacy can only thrive in a climate of trust since it involves self-disclosure and vulnerability. It entails the risk of opening ourselves to an ‘other’ with whom we are prepared to share our inner selves, accepting each other’s woundedness and, in the process, struggling together towards healing and greater wholeness. Intimacy is based on a belief that it is not good to be alone. In fact, it is not human to be alone.

In contrast to this. the contemporary climate exalts individualism. We will only survive in the human rat-race if we beat our competitors. Self-sufficiency is the key attribute to be fostered. Paradoxically, although we have never been so conscious of the global linkages in human living, we view this global picture merely as an extension of the competitive playing-field. It makes us more aware of who our competitors are and how we can make strategic alliances to conquer them. The context is global, but the driving-force remains self-interest. In the end, it is a matter of the survival of the fittest. As Storkey points out, this public world works out of an ethos diametrically opposed to the ethos of intimacy.

Some may argue that intimacy is fine in its place – and its place is restricted to the field of interpersonal relationships. However, it is unacceptable to make such a dichotomy between so-called ‘public life’ and ‘private life’ when we are dealing with human morality. If the overriding criterion is the good of the human person integrally and adequately considered, that criterion demands respect for human persons in public life as much as in private life. To give the last word to economic values is tantamount to rejecting that criterion. Both the social and the relational dimensions permeate the whole of our lives as human persons. If the public climate is one in which individualism is in the very air we breathe, that is bound to have an influence on the way we approach our personal relationships. Schizophrenia is a pathological state – it cannot be accepted as an essential dimension of being a human person. We cannot live our public and private lives out of two contradictory philosophies.

Consequently; it is only to be expected that in our current climate a truly human sexual ethic will be, to a large extent, counter-cultural. It will be an ethic which swims against the tide of those forms of sexual mores which are deeply influenced by contemporary individualism, One such form, for instance, is a very individualist recreational interpretation of sexuality which views sexual activity as a kind of competitive sport in which the whole object of the game is to gain maximum satisfaction for the individuals engaged in it. As with all competitive sports, it accepts that there will be losers. They will just have to grin and bear it. Perhaps they will win next time round!

However, the picture is not one of unrelieved doom and gloom. If, deep in our being as human persons, there is this profound longing for intimacy, it is only to be expected that this will still continue to make its presence felt even in the most hostile climate. Storkey maintains that it is still alive and well. In some ways the prospects look even more promising today than in previous ages. One indication of this is the fact that most Christian Churches now recognize the key importance of the intimacy context for sexual ethics. While not denying the link between human sexuality and the continuation of our human family, they are recognizing that the relational dimension is profoundly tied up with our being made in the image of a relational God.

This is almost turning the earlier tradition on its head. For many centuries, the mainstream of Christian tradition regarded the joys of sexual intimacy as dragging human persons down to the level of brute animals. In other words they ‘brutalized’ men and women. Today, on the contrary, the joys of sexual intimacy, when shared in the appropriate context, are seen as ‘divinizing’ the human persons involved. Though these two positions might seem to be in total contradiction, paradoxically the connecting link which provides a certain continuity between them is the notion of intimacy. Intimacy was always seen to hold the key to what it meant to be human. Augustine brings that out in his much-quoted dictum: ‘We are made for you, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ Augustine was suspicious of sexual activity because he saw it as an obstacle to this sublime human experience of intimacy with God. Nevertheless, The Search for Intimacy would have been a very appropriate title for a book by Augustine since it captures his own thinking so succinctly. However, the contents of such a book as written by Augustine would not include a treatment of how the expression of sexual intimacy is sublimely human and revelatory of God. Augustine’s appreciation of what was involved in being human was limited by an understanding of human sexuality which was the accepted wisdom of his day and for many succeeding centuries. Today our more holistic understanding enables us to appreciate that we can experience God not just in the dizzy heights of mystical experience but also in the sublime ecstasy of sexual intercourse within a truly loving and faith-filled intimate relationship.

This longing for intimacy could well be the underlying drive behind the great upsurge in sexual activity today, especially among young people. It is hardly doing justice to what is happening to describe it as an abandonment of morality or an indication of total sexual licence. In company with Elaine Storkey, I believe that the longing for intimacy in people is just as alive as it ever was. However, today people are having to cope with an experience of profound alienation and even meaninglessness. This is partly the fruit of the current ethos of individualism and of a reductionism which assesses everything and everyone purely on their monetary value. People, especially the young, feel alienated – from themselves and from each other. As a result, they want to lose themselves in togetherness. Sadly, many do this by blowing their minds on drugs and communal raves. Many, too, seek an escape from their loneliness in sexual encounters of different sorts.

The tragedy is that they are not finding what they are looking for. This is because they are searching for intimacy in the wrong place. Those who follow the sexual “path” are looking for it in sexual experience itself, divorced from a truly human intimate relationship which is the only context in which it can really be found. Sexual enjoyment will not quench their longing for intimacy. Real satisfaction will only be found in the intimate joy of mutually shared love. However, this is a much bigger undertaking than a one-night stand or even a much longer transitional and uncommitted relationship. Dr Jack Dominian has repeatedly made this same point in his various writings.

Since this undertaking engages two persons at a very deep level of their humanity, it needs to respect certain basic ground-rules if it is to do justice to the human personhood of the two individuals involved. Much of Storkey’s book explores these basic ground-rules for fashioning an intimate relationship. They all revolve around such fundamental issues as trust, self-disclosure, communication, confidentiality, commitment, and so forth. Her treatment of friendship (pp. 151-8) is particularly helpful in this regard.

As Storkey notes, along with many other writers, the search for intimacy seems more in tune with women’s natural inclinations than with men’s. Women seem to sense its importance in a relationship more easily than men. It stands higher on the priorities of most women. In making this observation, she is not suggesting that intimacy is not a human need, common to both men and women. It is just that women seem more aware of this and more naturally endowed with the human skills needed to fashion intimacy. If this is true, it could be argued that we are living in an age in which the emphasis is moving from a predominantly masculine to a more feminine interpretation of human sexuality.

4. THE GOODNESS OF THE HUMAN BODY, SEXUALITY AND SENSUAL JOY

Such a positive affirmation of the goodness of the body, of our sexuality and of sexual pleasure is in complete contrast to so much dualist thinking which, as we have seen earlier, coloured the earlier Christian approach to sexuality in one way or another. No longer is the passionate and affective character of our sexuality seen as a malign force dragging us down to the level of brute animals. It is now seen as an integral element of our being human persons. We are empowered to raise the sexual giftedness which we share so closely with the animal kingdom to an even higher level through our specific giftedness as humans. This is not a matter of leaving behind what links us to the animal kingdom, rather like a space probe casting off a booster rocket. It is much more a matter of integration. We accept the sexuality we share with other animals and ennoble it still further by stamping it with the specific imprint of our humanity. We are not human despite our being bodily sexual beings. We are human through our being bodily sexual beings. To disown the bodily sexual dimension of ourselves would be to dehumanize ourselves.

There has been an increased emphasis in recent years on the bodily dimension of our sexuality. Among the many books read in the course of my research for this book, four of them carried body-centred titles. They are all important books in their own right: James B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (London, SPCK, 1978); Gareth Moore, The Body in Context: Sex and Catholicism (London, SGM, 1992); Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (London, Faber & Faber, 1988) and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, I Am My Body: New Ways of Embodiment (London, SCM, 1994). Moreover, James Keenan points to extensive contemporary Christian writing on the theme of the body in his excellent survey article, ‘Christian perspectives on the human body’, in Theological Studies, 1994, pp. 330-46.

In their different ways these writers are all reminding us that our modern emphasis on personal relationship in sexual ethics must not lead us to overlook the important truth that our relationships are mediated through our bodies. Obviously, they are not suggesting that our bodies are simply highly sophisticated communications systems. That would imply that we are persons living inside our bodies and using our bodies to communicate with other persons, a kind of sexual version of e-mail! Bodily mediation goes much deeper than that. As the title of Moltmann-Wendel’s book reminds us, we are our bodies. Hence, we do not communicate by means of our bodies. Rather we communicate as body-persons. Consequently, in a specifically sexual relationship a couple are not exchanging love notes through their bodies. What they are doing is loving sexually — and sexual loving can be the medium for expressing a whole rich variety of human feelings and emotions. Moore is making a similar point when he insists that sexual gestures are not merely substitutes for words: ‘If Andrew says to Jane: “I love you” and then makes love to her, he is not guilty of repeating himself (The Body in Context, p. 106).

Moore points out that the Catholic Church has consistently condemned sex ‘for mere pleasure’. However, he argues that this condemnation has often been misunderstood – even by those proclaiming it. Some have understood it as condemning any direct enjoyment of sexual pleasure, others as forbidding a couple to have sex together for the sake of their mutual enjoyment. Both are a misinterpretation. ‘Mere pleasure’ was intended to mean depersonalized pleasure separated from any relational significance. Admittedly, many writers interpreted the intensity of sexual pleasure as almost necessarily causing such a separation. Hence, they tended to refer to it as ‘lust’. Today our deeper understanding of ourselves as sexual persons leads us to a very different interpretation of sexual loving. An extended quotation from Moore might help to bring this out:

in any normal sexual activity nobody is out of control. They know what is happening, what they are doing and what they are likely to do; they decide to do some things rather than others; and so on. They may get excited, they may let themselves go, but when they do that they do not in general get out of control. I am not denying that it is possible to lose control of ourselves in sexual activity, to get carried away and do things we would not normally do and of which we may later be ashamed or for which we might reproach ourselves. But when we do that, it is not a matter of the body escaping from the control of the mind … It is simply we lose control of ourselves . . .

. . . neither is it true that sexual pleasure is so great that when it is at its height one cannot think . . . Sexual pleasure is often intense, and it belongs to the notion of intense enjoyment that you are fully engrossed in what you intensely enjoy; you do not want to tear yourself away from it, are not easily distracted, and maybe want more of it. We would only ‘be able’ to think (i.e. want to think) at the climax if the pleasure were less intense. This applies not only to sex but to all pleasures which may be intense, such as listening to music, (p. 49)

Moore also quotes a very interesting passage from Aquinas in this connection:

The abundance of pleasure which is in a sexual act ordered in accordance with right reason is not contrary to the mean of virtue . . . Neither, if the reason cannot freely think of spiritual things at the same time as that pleasure, does that show that that act is contrary to virtue. For it is not contrary to reason if the act of thinking is sometimes interrupted by something which is done in accordance with reason; otherwise it would be contrary to reason for somebody to give himself up to sleep. (Summa Theologica, 2-2.153.2 ad 2 – quoted in The Body in Context, p. 50)

Theologians in the past, being exclusively male, have tended to focus almost exclusively on the male experience of sexual pleasure. That is beginning to change. In Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection (London, Mowbray, 1994), a collection of articles edited by James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow, there is a profound theological reflection on the female orgasm written by Mary D. Pellauer, entitled ‘The moral significance of female orgasm; towards sexual ethics that celebrates women’s sexuality’ (pp. 149-68). The following passage from her article, which is profoundly rich theologically, could never have been written by a male theologian:

Concentrating, focusing – these are ‘mental’ abilities that are as much a part of sex as any purely physical abilities. Being fully present, where is the language for this? Meditation is the closest analogue I know; this comparison is surprisingly apt, for both are disciplines of being here-and-now, of letting go … (p. 155)

Orgasm is sui generis. It is paradoxical. Ecstasy is what is at stake here. Ek-stasis, standing outside the self, is the closest word for this state. At the same time, it is the most definite incarnation I know outside of childbirth, for in it I am most completely bound to the stimulation of my body Thus, immanence and transcendence meet here, another paradox … It is a limit-experience . . . (pp. 156-7)

The Western tradition has been quick to talk about the need for spirit or mind to rule the body with its imperious passions. We have been less apt to talk at length about the gifts the body gives to the spirit … (p. 161)

A good sexual experience is a source of worth and value to the participant(s). To touch and be touched in ways that produce sweet delights affirms, magnifies, intensifies, and redoubles the deep value of our existence. Ecstasy spills over onto the world outside the bed, not accidentally but intriniscally. It awakens rejoicing, but more: wonder and reverence, the poignant astonishment that we are here, that we live, that anything at all is here, that life can enfold such bursting joy. What if more of life were like this? In my experience, female orgasm is so rich, so abundant in meaning that it is supersaturated with it. It is superabundant, a treasure trove. Women wondering, women marvelling … (p. 162)

Sadly, the above description would not be true of every woman’s experience of sexual intercourse. Not infrequently, as came out in a survey conducted some years ago by a French Catholic periodical, it is better summed up in the word ‘nightmare’. That is tragic and only emphasizes the need for a profound change of thinking and practice in the field of sexual ethics.

A few years ago I was involved in a day for Catholic couples who were all involved in running marriage preparation courses in their parishes. In one session I asked them to think of one thing about marriage which they had never heard mentioned in the pulpit but which they would like to hear said very explicitly. The suggestion which elicited the strongest support was: ‘Sex is enjoyable and good’. Christians today are able to see that this statement does not involve a rejection of our earlier tradition. It simply recognizes that when we bring to this tradition the new knowledge and understanding of human sexuality available to us now, the goodness of sexual joy in its appropriate human context is the only conclusion which does justice to the heart of that tradition. Consequently, the message that ‘sex is enjoyable and good’ is something which the Christian Churches should now be saying loud and clear.

A sexual ethics based on the good of the human person integrally and adequately considered will recognize that to be truly human, bodily sexual pleasure must be personal. In fact, it must be interpersonal. This is because it is the bodies of human persons that are involved. Moore makes this point well:

This flesh cannot be alive without being human flesh, and it cannot be alive without being the flesh of this particular person. To regard Jane as live flesh and without being concerned with her as human being, as person, is not a way of being concerned with her but a failure to be concerned with her. This is what is meant by the Christian insistence that what is important in sexual relationships is that they should be relationships between people. (The Body in Context, p. 58)

This is why in prostitution it is the dignity of the prostitute as a human person which is violated by her male client. The word ‘prostitution’ is misleading since it seems to imply that it is something in which the woman is the main actor. In reality, what occurs is sexual abuse of the woman by her male client since normally he is using his economic power to purchase human flesh without any relationship with the person involved. Moore writes:

Why, in Christian ethics, cannot sex properly be a transaction, like buying a packet of cigarettes? . . . Because, though I can want a person’s body without wanting him or her, I cannot get this body without getting him or her. A human being is his or her body. I cannot get the flesh without getting the person. A sexual relationship, precisely because it is an engagement with a human body, is an engagement with a human being, (p. 60)

Jack Dominian is continually insisting on this point. In his book Proposals for a New Sexual Ethic (London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977), he writes:

The evil of our age is not sexual permissiveness so much as the trivialisation of human encounter which, in the name of freedom, encourages the minimum engagement with the maximum haste and the maximum disengagement . . . The trivialisation of our age is not that of sex but of persons, who, in the name of rights and freedom, are sanctifying the partial, the transient, the incomplete, the shallow and who ultimately place each other constantly on the sacrificial altar of the disposable. The evil of our day is disposable relationships . . . (pp. 69—70)

The Church’s mistrust of sexual pleasure probably helps to explain why it saw procreation as the primary purpose of sexual intercourse – and of marriage itself. Today a ‘relationship’ interpretation of the meaning of marriage has changed our whole focus. Relationship is about the shared joy of being together, of sharing all that goes to make up life together. Fundamentally, it is the relationship itself which is pleasurable. Obviously, the pleasure of such a relationship embraces far more than the physical sexual pleasures involved in love-making. Nevertheless, these physical sexual pleasures are an important part of the whole picture. They are a very significant dimension of a couple’s shared enjoyment of each other – part of the pleasure of being together and doing things together. Consequently, the bodily sexual pleasure a couple share is something much deeper than the physical sensations of sexual arousal and orgasm. After all, these physical sensations can be experienced even in situations which are far from pleasurable, as in the horror of rape or sexual abuse.

A fairly prevalent attitude to sex today is summed up in the phrase, ‘sex is fun’. Many young people subscribe to this and live their lives accordingly. Sadly, the Church’s teaching on sex has tended to give the opposite impression, as though sex should not be fun. The negativity of this attitude was strikingly exposed by Hugh Lavery in his memorable one-liner: ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was “No”!’ The fact that sex is fun is bound up with the bodily dimension of our being human persons. However, there is more to our being human persons than our bodily dimension. If we ignore the other dimensions of ourselves, particularly the relational and the social, we may discover too late that the fun we have experienced in our sexual activities is short-lived and can even dull our senses to much deeper sexual pleasures we are capable of enjoying. I could not improve on the way Moore expresses this point:

Sex has more possibilities for pleasure and enjoyment if entered into as part of a relationship between people who. mean something to each other. Those who want to treat sex purely as a matter of bodily sensations or as activities in which the identity of the partners is irrelevant or of little significance arc actually missing out on a good deal of the pleasure that sex has to offer … In stressing the importance of personal relationship as a context for sexual activity, Christians have simply latched on to a truth about things. And they are riot being strict, but trying to open themselves and others up to greater truth and greater enjoyment, (p. 62)

Here Moore is simply stressing that a sexual ethic cannot be constructed exclusively on the bodily dimension of being a human person. To attempt to do so would be to sell ourselves short as human persons.

It is sometimes argued that sexual intercourse, in itself, has no inherent meaning. It only takes on meaning through its context and that context is entirely dependent on the two people involved. It is true that, ultimately, full human meaning is dependent on the human persons involved. Hence, in any specific act of intercourse its human meaning is ultimately dependent on the two individuals concerned. Nevertheless, sexual intercourse is not an action which is without any human significance in itself and which is totally dependent on the persons involved for its meaning.

We are our bodies. Hence, penetrative sex involves entering into a very intimate domain of a person’s bodily being. It involves ‘touching’ a person very profoundly. To encroach upon an intimate physical domain of a person without the person’s permission or invitation is a grave violation of that person’s privacy. It is actually a violation of the person through a major invasion of his or her bodily being.

Because of the profundity of the intimate touching involved, sexual intercourse has the potential not only to express the love a couple have for each other but also to deepen that love or heal its wounds. On the other hand, precisely because of its profound physical intimacy, when this action is used negatively, as in rape, it is experienced by the victim as a horrendously invasive violation of her or his person. Tragically its effects can be long-term since it can seriously wound that person’s capacity to experience love through intimate touching. It may not just impair the person’s capacity for sustaining a loving relationship; it may actually render her or him physically insensitive to the intrinsic potential of intimate touch for mediating interpersonal love. This adds an extra dimension of horror to the evil of child sexual abuse. It can do enormous damage to the development of the child’s God-given capacity to love and be loved as a sexual person.

One question which arises is whether this ‘body’ dimension throws any light on the issue of gay and lesbian relationships. It is argued that the bodily dimension of being a human person means that any love-making in such a relationship is bound to be incomplete and so, at best, very imperfect. This point is made by the Church of England bishops in their 1991 report Issues in Human Sexuality, when they write that ‘there may be for some (homophiles) a mismatch between their bodies and the ways in which they wish to express their mutual self-giving’ (p. 39). A similar point is made by Andre Guindon, in The Sexual Creators: An Ethical Proposal for Concerned Christians (New York, University Press of America, 1986), though he seems to have in mind more than merely biological sameness:

The other’s otherness in the male-female sexual dialogue carries within it a potential for self-discovery in one’s male-female humanity which is not present in the same-sex otherness of the other … A lucid gay person should acknowledge the fact that the sameness of same-sex relations represents a potential deficiency in terms of other-sex challenge, (p. 169)

A few observations need to be made here about the bodily dimension of love-making in gay and lesbian relationships:

1. Although it is true that the act of penetrative sex in its heterosexual sense is not a possibility in a gay or lesbian relationship, it is also true that penetrative sex is not the only sexual expression of love. In fact, as we have already seen, for women it is often not experienced as love-making, especially when it ceases to be part of a much wider repertoire of ways of expressing love which may require much more sensitivity on the part of a man to his partner’s needs and also much more mutuality. It is suggested that lesbian women and gay men have much to teach heterosexuals about the art of love-making over and above penetrative sex.

2. Guindon makes the point that same-sex relationships tend to be non-violent:

An active non-violent style of human relationships must also be counted as a plus of the gay experience. The sameness implied in gay mutuality is, perhaps, too summarily appraised negatively. If it is true to say that sameness does not foster growth-producing conflicts, is it not equally true to state that it averts some destructive ones? … As Freud realised, same-sex attraction does not push gays to make war on each other but to make love to each other. (pp. 173-4)

3. Perhaps the emphasis on diversity found in the 1995 Church of England report Something to Celebrate has something to offer here. Diversity entails difference. Gay and lesbian sexuality is different from heterosexuality. That means that it does not offer the same relational possibilities as heterosexuality. Hence, it is limited in comparison with heterosexuality. Yet so is heterosexuality limited in comparison with homosexuality. The limitations may be different on both sides but they still remain limitations. And limitations are nothing to get worked up about. They are part of the human condition. The gift of being male or female is also a limitation. Limitations do not diminish us. They actually give a focus to our lives. Living within our limitations is not something negative. It simply means living out of our giftedness and our strengths. I believe that the discussion about homosexuality gets off on the wrong footing when homosexuals try to argue that homosexuality is good in all the same ways that heterosexuality is good. It would be better if homosexuals and heterosexuals were prepared to accept that, in this aspect of their sexuality, they are simply different from each other. That is another way of recognizing their respective limitations. To be different is not to be second-class or inferior. To be different is not to be objectively disordered. It is simply to be different. Difference only becomes a disorder when it involves a propensity to behave in a way which contradicts respect for the dignity of the human person. That would be the case in paedophilia, for instance.

4. One of the myths about gays is that they have a propensity towards paedophilia. This myth fuels still further the fires of homophobia and leads to discriminatory practice against gays. In his book Slayer of the Soul: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church (Connecticut, Twenty-Third Publications, 1991), Stephen J. Rossetti mentions a vocation director justifying non-acceptance of gay men as candidates for his religious congregation because of ‘all this paedophilia stuff that is going on’. He even quotes the renowned religious sociologist, Andrew Greeley, as saying: ‘Most homosexuals are not paedophiles and some paedophiles are not homosexual. Nonetheless, the two phenomena shade into one another’ (p. 11). Rossetti refutes such allegations by quoting a variety of scientific studies. One concluded that ‘homosexuality and homosexual paedophilia may be mutually exclusive and that the adult heterosexual male constitutes a greater risk to the underage child than does the adult homosexual male’. This was recognized in An Introduction to the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People, produced in 1979 by the Catholic Social Welfare Commission of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales: ‘In fact, it would seem that proportionately to their numbers in the population, the heterosexuals are more prone to child molestation than homosexuals’ (p. 5, sub-heading b). The Catholic bishops of Washington State said something similar in their 1983 policy document The Prejudice against Homosexuals and the Ministry of the Church. A number of Catholics are concerned about the role of homosexuals in professions which have the care of children. There are those who think gays and lesbians inevitably impart a homosexual value system to children or that they will molest children. This is a prejudice and must be unmasked as such. There is no evidence that exposure to homosexuals, of itself, harms a child’ (full text in Jeannine Gramick and Robert Nugent, Voices of Hope: A Collection of Positive Catholic Writings on Gay and Lesbian Issues New York, Center for Homophobia Education, 1995, pp. 89-97, at p. 97). Another study quoted by Rossetti notes that the phenomenon of paedophilia is linked not to sexual orientation but to having problems in ‘establishing satisfactory adult relationships’. A further study reports that many child sexual abusers would identify themselves as heterosexual, even if they have been involved with children of the same sex, and notes that this appears to be especially true of priests and the religious (p. 12).

5. THE GIFTEDNESS OF HUMAN LIFE

Like ‘pro choice’, the phrase “pro life’ has been hi-jacked by one side in the abortion debate. In that context, ‘life’ is meant to denote unborn life, life in the womb. Defence of unborn life is made a moral absolute. From the moment of conception life is considered to be sacrosanct. Leaving aside some of the assumptions of this position which are not beyond challenge and debate, to limit the meaning of life in this way does not do justice to the wider concern for life which lies at the heart of Christian ethics. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin pointed this out repeatedly in his many challenging addresses on the theme of ‘the consistent life-ethic’. A collection of these addresses, along with some of the discussion they provoked, is found in his book Consistent Ethic of Life (Kansas City, Sheed & Ward, 1988).

My use of the phrase ‘pro life’ as describing an essential dimension of Christian sexual ethics is more in line with Bernardin’s interpretation. Perhaps it is even more inclusive than his use of the phrase. Ultimately, being ‘pro life’ is about being committed to life as something much bigger than ourselves. It is recognizing that, as human persons, we are essentially social beings. Consequently, when it comes to the sphere of sexual ethics, the ‘pro life’ dimension of our being sexual beings should not be reduced to the procreational potentiality of human sexuality, even though that is an important aspect of it. It is certainly true that children are a social concern — the future of society ultimately depends on them. Yet the social dimension of our being sexual persons goes far beyond the birth and upbringing of children. We are interdependent, relational beings and just how far-reaching is our social interdependence is something which the science of sociology is bringing home to us, as we have already seen in Chapter Two. Just as we are not persons living in our bodies, so we are not persons living in society; we are human persons through living in society. The social dimension is part of our being human. Understanding ‘pro life’ in this broader sense, it must be said that we are being inhuman if we refuse to be ‘pro life’.

Our sexuality is part of the ‘pro life’ thrust of our being. It draws us into life since it pushes us out of our isolation and attracts us to other people. The relational dimension of our sexuality is already ‘pro life’, even before we consider its procreational dimension. As mentioned in Chapter Five, the Churches have taken this on board and now recognize that marriage is primarily a covenant relationship of love rather than simply an institution to serve the procreation of children. Hence., children are referred to as the ‘fruit’ rather than the raison d’etre of their parents’ love.

Nevertheless, it is very noticeable that the Churches, while realigning the relationship between love and procreation, still insist that they are inseparably connected, despite disagreements as to how this inseparable connection is to be honoured. For instance, in the previous chapter we saw how the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, though disagreeing about how the inseparable connection between the relational and the procreational dimensions should be present in the sexual activity of a married couple, both agree that the connection between these dimensions is inseparable. The Roman Catholic position maintains that it must be respected in every sexual act to the extent that nothing must be done to nullify the procreational potential of the act. The Church of England position, on the other hand, holds that it is sufficient for the procreational dimension to be embodied in the relationship itself. When that is the case, individual acts, even if physically contraceptive, still belong to the precreative project of the marriage itself.

Perhaps the deeper truth which the Churches are absolutely committed to here is the inseparable connection between love and life. Love is a powerful life-giving force. If we fail to love, we dry up as human persons. Our life begins to wither. Because of the inseparablility of love and life, this same truth can be expressed the other way round. If we do not open ourselves to life, our capacity to love will wither. If we are not open to other people, we are not open to life.

In using ‘pro life’ in this broader sense I am not suggesting that the procreational dimension of ‘pro life’ is something which is the concern only of those who decide to have children. It is a concern which involves all of us, married or celibate, heterosexual or homosexual. Specifically as sexual persons we are all called to be loving women and men. Because of the inseparable connection between sexual love and procreation, our lives as loving persons must embody real respect for this procreative dimension. Although it seems true that, the higher up the evolutionary ladder a species is, the more sexuality seems to take on a relational capacity as well as being procreational, nevertheless, the procreational dimension remains fundamental to our sexuality.

Since our sexuality is part of the social dimension of our being human persons, we all share in a joint responsibility for ensuring the continued survival of our species by parenting the children of the next generation. This joint responsibility is part of our self-identity as human persons. In a sense, each of us, as current members of the human family, must be committed to the survival of our species. As human persons, we have no right to say that future generations are not our concern. We would actually be denying our self-identity as human persons if we disowned concern for procreation as an essential dimension of who we are.

I believe that this social commitment to child-bearing and parenthood can be present in the lives of people who will never be parents in much the same way as the Church of England believes the procreative dimension of marriage can be present in sexual acts which are biologically contraceptive. In other words, precisely because we are social persons, the lives of those of us who will never be parents can still be seen as having meaning in terms of a commitment to the survival of our human species. Let me explain what I mean by that.

As individual members of the human species, each of us needs to own the procreative dimension of human sexuality, on which the survival of our species depends. To disown it would be to opt out of being human, since it would be to deny an essential part of our self-identity as social persons. However, to accept procreation as a basic human value does not mean that we ourselves necessarily have to be directly involved in the procreative process. We can own the procreative dimension of our human sexuality without feeling obliged ourselves to bring children into the world. For instance, an acceptance of the procreative dimension of human sexuality needs to be part of the fundamental mind-set of people like myself who have embraced a celibate life and so will never procreate offspring. The same is true of most lifelong single people and also of married couples who, whether by accident or choice, do not have children.

What about people, if such there be who totally reject the idea that we have any communal social obligation to continue our human species or who very deliberately refuse to accept it as any concern of theirs? Any individual or couple adopting that approach to life would seem to be opting out of an important part of what it means to be truly human. They would be disowning an essential element in the social dimension of being a human person. In a sense, at the wider social level they would be denying the inseparable link between procreation and human sexuality They would be saying that for them human sexuality has no meaning apart from the relational or recreational. That would be tantamount to saying that procreation is purely an optional extra and has nothing to do with what it means to be human.

Lisa Cahill would detect a flavour of this approach in the too-blinkered approach to freedom found among some liberal thinkers. Her fear is that, in their desire to free the human spirit from all constraints, they are prepared to break away from what is, in fact, an absolutely essential dimension of our being human persons, namely, our corporeality. She discusses this in her essay ‘On the connection of sex to reproduction’, in Earl Shelp (ed.), Sexuality and Medicine: vol. II, Ethical Viewpoints in Transition (Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1987), pp. 39-50. For her there is no getting away from the fact that our reproductive capacity is part of our bodiliness and has profound implications for who we are as relational and social beings. She fully recognizes that personhood is more distinctively human than our human reproductive biological faculties. Hence, it is entirely right that human ‘freedom and rationality control and direct biology and the physical conditions of life in community’ (p. 43). However, liberalism goes much further than that: ‘In the liberal view, individuals are seen as free agents who are not intrinsically interdependent and related through innate social and moral bonds, but who enter into “consenting adult” relationships wherein they agree to duties of noninterference or of reciprocal support in the pursuit of their own ends’. Our reproductive biology becomes, therefore, not something we ‘control and direct’ but something to be ‘liberated from’. For Cahill this is a serious failure to appreciate fully our corporeality which, after all, is ‘a precondition of the sexual relationship as interpersonal, and an essential dimension of sexual experience and sexual acts themselves’ (p. 44). For her, liberalism is essentially reductionist in its approach to the human person and this leads it to be equally reductionist with regard to the human community:

The sexual capacity of the human body is just as obviously conducive to reproduction as it is to reciprocal sexual pleasure. The meaning of human sexual function as embodied is not exhausted by affective and emotional and physical satisfaction, though those are essential constituents of its meaning, and perhaps even the most important ones. The fullness of the human sexual reality is neglected if we simply overlook in normative analysis the fact that the creation of offspring is one ‘natural’ purpose of sex as a physical phenomenon, and that the consolidation of a relationship (the conjugal and parental one), and of a social group conducive to the nurturance and education of offspring (the family) are among the purposes for which the affective and interpersonal dimensions of sexuality are apt. The intergenerational family (which can and does assume many forms in many cultures) is a physical and interpersonal structure of connection between the sexuality of the individual and the community. As others have noted, it is communal interdependence, in both its physical or material and interpersonal aspects, which is critically neglected in ‘liberal’ accounts of human nature. (pp. 44-5)

What Cahill is objecting to is liberalism’s assumption that the cause of human freedom is to be advanced through humankind’s being liberated from our generative biological processes. Far from being a liberation, she sees that as discarding an important dimension of our being human. However, this does not imply that the essential connection between sex and reproduction provides a clear-cut ethical imperative for the relationships and acts of every individual couple: ‘Since intimacy is a more distinctively human meaning of sex than procreation, the latter is a secondary good in relation to the former and may for sufficient reason be eliminated from a particular sex act, or even from the relationship as a whole’ (p. 48). Cahill does not accept the Pope’s position on contraception. She has no problem with the responsible use of contraception. However, she totally rejects any position which holds that the reproductive significance of human sexuality is simply an optional extra for people who might be interested in that kind of thing. For Cahill, the connection between sex and reproduction is part of our human make-up. We throw it overboard at our peril.

What are the implications of the connection between sex and reproduction for same-sex relationships? One major objection raised against same-sex activity is that it is not open to procreation. At a purely biological level that cannot be denied. Nor can it be claimed that the procreational significance of same-sex activity is supplied by the overall relationship itself, since that too is not procreative in the strict sense of the word. However, as individuals and as couples, gay men and lesbian women can still be 100 per cent committed to the human family’s procreative enterprise. By using their own creative gifts, often highly developed, they can contribute very substantially to the enrichment and survival of the human species. As mentioned above, the procreative enterprise, in its holistic sense, is about far more than providing for the survival of the species by giving birth to children. It is also about the qualitative survival of the species. Therefore, it is also involves passing on to future generations the benefits of a rich culture.

It is sometimes objected that for society to adopt a positive attitude towards gay and lesbian relationships would pose a threat to marriage. This is a strange objection. It gives the impression that the procreative enterprise is experienced by the human family as an enormous burden and that everyone is simply longing to be freed from this burden, given half an excuse. I do not believe that is true. I suspect that kind of fear is based on another version of dualist thinking. It makes the human sexual drive too cerebral and ignores our glorious oneness with the animal kingdom. Our sexual drive is part of our survival instinct as a species. That is not lost when it is raised to the higher plane of communicating interpersonal love. Perhaps the real threat to truly human marriage and the survival of our species does not come from gays or lesbians but from those heterosexual couples mentioned above whose understanding of marriage is so impoverished that they believe it has no other meaning or purpose than their own personal happiness. That turns marriage into an égoïsme à deux. Such an attitude is both anti-social and anti-life. It certainly has no place in a Christian sexual ethics.

We are frequently reminded that marriage is meant to be for life. That brings up another meaning of ‘for life’ of great importance in sexual ethics. The phrase ‘for life’ resonates with the notion of lifelong faithfulness. Earlier in this chapter we have seen how a commitment to a lifelong relationship, far from being an abdication of freedom, is actually an exercise of freedom at its highest level. It involves an act of faith in what we are capable of as persons endowed with free will.

I share the belief, which we heard expressed by the Churches in the previous chapter, that ‘for life’ is an essential dimension of the relationship-building process that a committed couple have pledged themselves to. Without this ‘for life’ dimension the process is doomed to failure. Lest this claim be misunderstood, I would like to stress that, in making it, I am not claiming that ‘for life’ commitments cannot fail. Tragically, they can and they do. Nor am I suggesting that a ‘for life’ commitment is just another word for marriage. There are some very inspirational ‘for life’ relationships among cohabiting couples. Likewise, there are marriages in which the couples involved have made no real commitment to build a for life’ commitment between them. Moreover, I am not implying that building a ‘for life’ relationship is simply a matter of determination and will-power. I do not believe that for a moment. Jack Dominian has shown very clearly that building a ‘for life’ relationship will involve a couple in a mutual growth process across a number of different dimensions of life. For a variety of reasons, some developmental, some external, and many of them quite outside their control, a couple may not be able to engage properly with this process or bring it to fruition. Nor do I believe that ‘for life’ relationships cannot be prepared for by more transitory relationships. Youth has always been a kind of transition time in life when experience in relating to others is gained through the joys and pains of exploring passing friendships. In reality, some so-called ‘for life’ marriages would fit better into this category of exploratory, transitory relationships.

For love to take root and grow, trust is needed. For trust to develop, intimacy needs to grow between a couple. This in turn involves increasing vulnerability as they open themselves out to each other and accept each other through the process of mutual disclosure. What they are sharing in such loving intimacy is their very selves. That is impossible without mutual trust. Not every intimate relationship involves the sharing of sexual intimacy between the couple. Where it does, however, mutual trust is essential if such sexual sharing is to be a sharing of persons.

6. THE UNIQUENESS OF THE HUMAN PERSON AND RESPECT FOR PERSONAL CONSCIENCE

Each of us is not just an individual instance of the genus, human person. We are all unique. And the paradox is that this uniqueness is an essential dimension of being human that we all share in common. This unique dimension of the human person has been coming very much to the fore in recent years. It is one of the key emphases in postmodernism. (At the time of writing this chapter it has even been raised as a factor in the debate over human cloning.) At a very profound level of our person we are all different from each other. If we are to respond to the human dignity of our fellow human beings, we need to respect the ‘otherness’ of each person. We must not confine the ‘other’ by completely reducing him or her to our own predetermined categories. There is always a radical heart to each person which lies beyond definition.

Nevertheless, our uniqueness as human persons is only one dimension of our being human. Nor can it exist in isolation from the other dimensions. It permeates them all. For instance, there is something unique about the way we embrace our freedom as well as about our bodies, our personal and social relationships, our personal histories and especially our relationship with God. Our uniqueness is not some kind of residue left behind when we have filtered out everything we share in common with other persons. Our uniqueness as human persons can only grow and develop through the way each of us embraces and lives out positively these other dimensions of our humanness. And we will each do that in our own unique way.

1. To your own self be true

Our uniqueness is part of our giftedness. I receive myself as gift, as responsibility, as vocation. I am called to be myself, not someone else. It is this over-arching transcendental context of my existing as pure gift which gives the lie to any interpretation which would claim that my uniqueness constitutes utter self-sufficiency and absolute autonomy. Ultimately I am not my own. I am untrue to my uniqueness when I try to cut myself adrift from my createdness and go into a kind of free-fall. Then my uniqueness loses the comforting richness of being a gift and I am left with the terrifying aloneness of isolation and alienation.

Personal uniqueness is also tied in with our freedom and responsibility. Not only do I have to accept personal responsibility” for my moral decisions. I also have to ensure that my moral decisions really are my own decisions. Consequently, I cannot shift on to another person – or institution – either the responsibility for the decisions I have made or the actual making of those decisions. When I decide that such and such an action is what I must do, it must be I myself who am making that decision. That is not to deny that there may be many occasions when I decide to heed the advice of others or when I obey the legitimate directives of someone who has authority over me and whose authority I respect. In such cases I am still the one who is making this decision about myself, provided I am not abdicating personal responsibility by acting out of unthinking blind obedience or slavishly following teaching I do not believe in.

Acknowledging our uniqueness does not mean that each of us is a law unto ourselves. General norms play an essential role in our lives. Such norms are based on what we share in common as human persons. However, they are not the whole picture. Our moral sensitivity and our conscience comprise much more than a mere down-loading of universal moral principles into our mind’s ethical data system. They will have been formed and coloured by our own unique personal experience. This ongoing, experience-based formation process will also have been affected by the various people who have played an important part in our lives and particularly in our moral education. The result of the combined influence of such people and many other factors, including our family and cultural background, will be the moral sensitivity and conscience which are unique to each of us.

It is important to note that there is a link between uniqueness and difference and how they feature in a person-centred sexual ethics. Obviously, they do not mean the same thing. John is a unique person but that is not because he is a man and not a woman, or because he is gay and not heterosexual. His maleness and his gayness make him different from many other people but they do not make him unique. In a sense, uniqueness could be described as difference writ large. Our uniqueness makes us different, not just from many other human persons, but from every other human person.

At the heart of morality lies respect for ‘the other’. The other is different from us. That difference lies most fundamentally in his or her uniqueness, but it also lies in those more general characteristics in which his or her uniqueness is incarnate and which we do not all share. Fundamentally, John is different from Mary because he is John, and not Mary. However, part of his difference is that he is a man and Mary is a woman. Therefore, in respecting a person’s uniqueness, we are also called to respect his or her difference from us.

Of course, this is not denying the fundamental principles of morality as they are derived from our shared belief in the dignity of the human person and from those basic dimensions of being a human person which we all share in common. John might be unique in the particular way he sexually abuses children. That does not mean that my respect for his uniqueness as a human person demands that I have to approve of his child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse of any kind, but especially when children are the victims, is a violation of the basic humanity which John and I and every other human person share in common. What we are called to recognize and respect is the unique package of giftedness and woundedness that each of us is and also the unique way in which an individual is able to positively integrate this package of light and shade in the various dimensions of being a human person. Consequently, in no way are we called to respect the unique way in which an individual might deliberately give up working at any such integration and instead opt out of behaving as a human person through a serious violation of the common humanity he or she shares with all other people.

In Chapter Four (pp. 86-7) I stressed that my whole approach to homosexuality followed in this book is based on the assumption that it is true, as the 1982 Methodist Working Party report claims, that ‘(homosexual persons) are as capable as other people … of deeply loving and committed relationships with each other’ and that there is no scientific evidence to support the many myths which present homosexual persons as a danger either to themselves or other persons or to the moral health of a nation. Granted that is the case, then a person’s homosexual orientation can be embraced as part of his or her giftedness and celebrated accordingly. For the Christian, therefore, it is part of the giftedness which a person should be drawn to thank God for. This is not to deny, as has also been mentioned in Chapter Four, that, in practice, the attitude of Church and society to homosexuality might mean that this gift comes to an individual in a damaged condition and may even be experienced as a form of woundedness. The healing ‘good news’ of the Christian Gospel is not that this gift of homosexual orientation can be reversed but that it can be accepted by this person as part of his or her unique package of giftedness. Clearly the same cannot be said of any sexual predisposition which inclines a person to act harmfully towards others or oneself. While that predisposition needs to be ‘owned’ as part of the ‘wounded’ side of one’s unique package as a person, the importance of ‘owning’ it lies in the fact that this opens out the possibility of getting appropriate help either towards healing or, at least, to achieving a lifestyle which makes one less of a danger to others and oneself.

2. Respect for conscience: personal goodness is not synonymous with ethical rightness

In his book Moral Demands and Personal Obligations (Washington, Georgetown University Press, 1993), the German moral theologian Josef Fuchs states: ‘The distinction is made today between the ethical goodness of the person – morality in the truest sense of the word -and the ethical rightness of action or behaviour.’ (p. 157; emphasis original). For Fuchs ‘the ethical goodness of the person’ is ‘morality in the truest sense of the word’ because it is dealing with the inner integrity of a person. That is why it goes to the heart of a person-centred approach to moral theology.

In the area of practical decision-making what is meant by ‘ethical goodness’ is that a person tries to honour his or her personal integrity in the reality of everyday life to the best of their ability. They do this if they have with openness and integrity tried their best to discern what course of action in their particular circumstances and taking account of their personal moral capacity is most in keeping with the criterion of the dignity of the human person, integrally and adequately considered – a criterion to which they are fully committed. They realize that their judgement is fallible and so it is possible that they are mistaken. Nevertheless, as long as they have made a serious conscientious judgement according to their best lights, they have clearly demonstrated their commitment to personal integrity.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, this means that no official teaching on sexual ethics can oblige a Catholic to act against their conscience or to accept as true any ethical ruling of the Church which they conscientiously believe not to be true. It also means that a person is abdicating their moral responsibility as a human person if they decline to follow their own convinced conscience purely because a Church directive on sexual ethics forbids them to do what they know they really should do.

This is not saying anything which is contrary to what Roman Catholic moral theology has always taught. It is merely drawing out an important truth regarding conformity to the Church’s moral teaching which is implicit in two items of traditional teaching. This truth is that being in conformity with official Church teaching has never been accepted as an adequate criterion either (1) for assessing an individual’s ‘personal goodness’ in decision-making or (2) for assessing the ethical rightness of an action. Conclusion (1) above follows from the accepted teaching that a person must always be faithful to his or her conscience, even when it is inculpably erroneous. Although this teaching was usually expressed by saying that a person following such a conscience was not blameworthy, implicit in the teaching was the acknowledgement that such a person was, in fact, praiseworthy in being faithful to their personal integrity. This is simply another way of saying that personal goodness is found in being faithful to one’s conscience, even when it is inculpably in error. Conclusion (2) flows from the traditional teaching that the respect due to authoritative non-infallible moral teaching in the Church does not totally rule out the possibility of responsible disagreement. I have explored this further in my book New Directions in Moral Theology (cf. Epilogue, ‘Dialogue, diversity and truth: the vocation of the moral theologian in the Roman Catholic Church today’, pp. 138-59) and also in my article ‘Conformity and dissent in the Church’, in The Way, 1988, pp. 87-101. Hence, the possibility of responsible disagreement means that whether a person’s decision is in conformity with official Church teaching is not an adequate criterion for assessing ‘personal moral goodness’ in decision-making. It is not even an adequate criterion for assessing the ‘ethical rightness’ of the action being done. Although traditional moral theology held that there should be a ‘presumption’ in favour of the truth of that teaching, nevertheless, as Richard McCormick points out, that presumption is ‘weakened’ if those proposing the teaching have short-circuited the process and have not ‘appropriately tapped the available sources of human understanding’ (‘The search for truth in the Catholic context’, in America, 8 November 1986, p. 278).

Hence, if a couple are convinced that the Church’s official teaching on contraception is erroneous, they are not obliged to accept this teaching as true. In fact, they would be wrong to do so while they remain in their present state of mind. If they go on to decide that the good of their own marriage dictates they should use contraception themselves, they should regard their decision as well taken and so they can rest assured that they remain pleasing to God. The same would hold even for a couple who are in substantial agreement with the Church’s teaching on contraception. If they have reached a conscientious decision that, all things considered (including the Church’s teaching), the good of their marriage and their family requires them to use some form of contraception, once again they should regard their decision as well taken and they too can feel at peace with God. Something similar would hold true across the board in the whole field of sexual ethics. So, for instance, it would also apply to similar conscientious decision-making on the part of of gay men and lesbian women expressing their love sexually in a committed, faithful relationship or cohabiting heterosexual couples or people entering a second marriage after divorce.

In none of these cases is it a matter of people just doing whatever they like in any trivial sense. As mentioned above, I am assuming that we are dealing with people who do not have a purely self-centred agenda. They are committed to trying to be faithful to the basic moral criterion of the dignity of the human person, integrally and adequately considered. They are also trying to behave responsibly both in the ongoing task of conscience-formation and in how they go about their conscientious decision-making. That being the case, in all these instances people are obliged to follow their conscientious judgement as to what is the right thing to do; and this remains true, even when their conscientious judgement seems to be at odds with Church teaching.

To express this in theological language, a person following their conscience in this way can be absolutely certain that, in so doing, they are not deviating from their commitment to be faithful to God’s will. Put very simply, they are doing the best they can and God does not ask for more. In following their conscience in this way, they are being ‘ethically good’ as persons, even though it is possible that what they are doing might not be ‘ethically right’.

3. The uniqueness of each person’s story of moral growth

Our striving to live a good moral life will be profoundly influenced by where we are at as persons at this moment. Clearly, therefore, it will be affected by our level of sexual, psychological and spiritual development. For most of us such personal development does not follow an orderly progression through precisely defined stages over a period of time. Rather it embraces all the ups and downs of our unique and often very unpredictable personal stories. The story of some people’s lives can be very turbulent indeed. It might include deeply wounding experiences such as being abused as a child, or the separation of one’s parents, or the breakdown of one’s marriage, or subjection to physical violence or even rape, or drug or alcohol dependence, or sudden and tragic bereavement. Such experiences will have a major impact on an individual person’s unique life-story and on his or her capacity to cope with the demands of interpersonal or social relationships. Understandably, such experiences will often have a negative impact on an individual’s personal development, though, paradoxically, with loving and patient support they can sometimes be turned into positive growth points in a person’s life. Hopefully, the story of most people’s lives is principally made up of experiences which help to develop their capacity to cope with life. These growth factors have a bearing on personal goodness. Personal goodness is about being true to ourselves at our present stage of growth in moral development.

A person-centred sexual ethics accepts that growth is a sign of life and is part of the God-given reality we have to grapple with. Growth in moral maturity and understanding is a sign of life not just in individual persons but also in institutions, including the Churches. In Chapter Five we saw how the Churches have, in fact, grown in wisdom and understanding with regard to the sexual dimension of being a human person made in the image of God. And this process is still going on.

In his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation on ‘The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World’ (Familiaris Consortio), n. 34, John Paul II writes: ‘What is known as “the law of gradualness” or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with “gradualness of the law”, as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.’ The Pontifical Council for the Family quote this to support their own similar statement: ‘The pastoral “law of gradualness”., not to be confused with the “gradualness of the law” which would tend to diminish the demands it places on us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands’ (‘Vademecum for confessors on some themes of conjugal morality’, in Briefing, 20 March 1997, n. 9, p. 37). What they mean by the ‘gradual-ness of the law’ is not clear. Certainly, a person-centred morality believes in a law of ‘growth’ which is not about ‘diminishing’ God’s demands on us but about discerning the ‘progressive path’ we are called to follow as unique human persons. Doing the best we can today may be a necessary stage in our becoming empowered to do even better tomorrow.

In no way would a person-centred sexual ethics want to deny that what we do matters in the eyes of God. Virtually all our actions affect other persons and they, like us, are precious to God. Yet what matters at least equally to God is our own personal goodness (or lack of it) which is mediated through our other-affecting behaviour. As Fuchs says in the passage quoted earlier, that is ‘morality in the truest sense of the word’. Our personal goodness and what we do are related to each other. Yet there is a certain ambiguity in the equation between them. At times, what we do is a very revealing expression of who we are as a person; at other times, what we do conceals the ‘real me’; and at other times what we do shapes who we are becoming as a person. The mystery and ambiguity of human becoming is overlooked if we reduce the meaning of ‘objective morality’ simply to what a person does and leave out of the equation where the person is at who is doing the action. That is not being truly ‘objective’ since it only presents a partial picture of what is going on. Russell B. Connors calls such a partial presentation morally ‘thin’ because it fails to ask some key ‘reality revealing questions’ about what is going on. Borrowing terminology from Clifford Geertz and Gilbert Ryle, he argues that only a ‘thick’ presentation which takes account of both the commonality and particularity of moral experience can give a true picture of our moral living (cf. Russell B. Connors, ‘Thick and thin: an angle on Catholic moral teaching’, in Louvain Studies, 1996, pp. 336-55). In my article ‘Moral theology in the parish’, in Priests and People, 1994, pp. 36 7-72, I use different language to make the same point;

It might help to go back to the parable of the wheat and the darnel. Normative ethics helps us to recognise both wheat and darnel. However, the owner of the field is doing something other than recognising their joint presence in his field . . . He has faith in the healthy growth of his wheat, despite all the darnel mixed in with it. His principal concern is to protect his wheat from the misguided zeal of those intent on destroying the darnel without any regard for the harm this might do to the wheat. Normative ethics is moral theology in its role of distinguishing right from wrong , . . Pastorally, (it can) be like the beautiful picture found on the outside of a seed packet. It can motivate us to plant the seed in the first place. But part of the pastoral role of moral theology is to help the seed to grow, despite soil deficiency, adverse weather, surrounding weeds arid lots of other threatening dangers. . . . Moral theology is not meant to condemn the plant emerging from the seed simply because it does not live up to the promise of the idealised picture on the packet. Rather it appreciates the growth that occurs. Sometimes what might look like a puny and undeveloped plant might, in fact, be a miracle of growth, given the adverse conditions under which it has had to struggle, (pp, 370-1)

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