Catholicism and Sexuality: A Roundtable Discussion

Kate: So, the topic of sexuality itself is really broad and we've already touched on this a little bit by having ideas about procreation, homosexuality, birth control and abortion, and all these sub-topics within sexuality. I think that when we're talking about sexuality we're really talking about a lot of different things -- from an individual attraction, to a person's sexual practices, to philosophical and ethical approaches to sex, and the way that people understand these ideas in relation to their other values and beliefs, like the weight that they place on the ideas and whether they see ideas around sexuality as related to other areas of spirituality or religion. So my question is, do you think that the official teachings of the Church tend to emphasize certain aspects of sexuality over other aspects, and do you think that in your own approach to sexuality you tend to place a similar emphasis or to emphasize similar aspects in terms of your own philosophies?

Johanna: I think -- I hate to say it, I mean I know this is the popular conception but it's what first comes into my mind -- the Church emphasizes a list of dos and don'ts when it comes to sexuality, to the point of minutia, and really with very bizarre leaps of logic to get to this very strict "these behaviors are acceptable in this restricted context for this specific reason" without looking at larger issues of relationship and identity. And then you sometimes see an attempt to track back, if that makes sense. Using birth control as an example, the teaching is that sex has a purpose for procreation within a marital relationship between a man and a woman, and any artificial birth control that could interfere with that is wrong. But it's like you aren't looking at the larger context of the well being of this family, etc., and justifications will be written to get back to that point, to get back to the dos and don'ts.

I was in a moral theology class at a Catholic seminary, and this topic would come up, and people would take it down the rabbit hole of, "well, the reason the Church teaches this is because birth control makes it convenient to use women as sexual objects." No! Now you're trying to make a relational argument out of these very, very specific dos and don'ts that the Church teaches. The Church doesn't say anything about the relational effects of the use of contraception. It's just not there. Whereas for me, I think I start at a place of relationship and its ethics, then I move back to what are my dos and don'ts based on my relational values and what I think about.

Kate: It's funny what you said about the rules being about these particular acts and these contexts, because when I was preparing for this conversation I actually wrote down in my notes "what you do, with whom, and in what context" as being the Catholic Church's approach to sexuality. At least in terms of the teachings that get disseminated to the masses, there really is a lot of focus on sexual practice and a lot less of a focus on the philosophies behind it. And what is even less emphasized, which I wish were more fleshed out in Church teaching, is the relationship between sexual ethics, the broader values of our faith system regarding social justice, and our overall theological outlook. How is the sexual experience of two people -- what they are doing, with whom, and in what context -- related to the overall mission of the Church in the world? And if that's not fleshed out in the teaching then I feel like there's something totally missing. There's just so much in terms of the tradition that can be tapped into in that way to really make a much broader and probably a much more helpful and just sexual ethic than what most people think of when they're thinking of Catholicism and sexuality.

Johanna: There's not a lot of talk about justice and sexuality in our Church I think. And sexuality is something that, in so many places in our culture and in our Church, has been used in an unjust way, has been used as a tool to harm others. I hate to even bring it up, but we're in the midst of another scandal of sexual abuse being swept under the rug by our leaders, and there's not a lot of talk about how that is a betrayal of our Catholic values of social justice and the dignity of the person. And I agree with you, I think that's a big chunk that's missing from our sexual ethic in the Church.

Jessica: In conversations that I've had with other young adults, they've echoed the experience of growing up and really not having many experiences of actually talking about sexuality in a parish setting or a formal religious education setting. Some people, of course, had parents that were proactive about having a conversation about sexuality that integrated their faith, and their family's faith, but I just know from my own experiences growing up and from what many of my friends have said that there wasn't really that much conversation about sexuality and integrating it with faith in a very complex and rich, or even just general, way, that would lay a foundation and perhaps a framework for the more specific teachings that you both referenced. I think that is a real detriment, not only because then these dos and don'ts totally lack a context and the really rich tradition that you referred to, Kate, but also because I've found that it's hard to learn how to talk about sexuality and faith. I feel like that's something we have to learn how to do and feel comfortable with, particularly in the weird sex language of Catholicism! I feel like I wish the Church emphasized more of how, in very basic ways, to integrate and think about sexuality and faith together, rather than just dos and don'ts.

4/13/2010 4:00:00 AM
  • Religion and Sexuality
  • gender
  • Homosexuality
  • Sexuality
  • Roman Catholicism
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