Is it all about sexual ethics?

I get a little annoyed when the Christian philosophy of life is all brought down to family and sexual ethics. That is at least the impression when I read The Synod and the Ordinariates, which I found via Deborah Gyapong’s piece, The Anglican Ordinariates and the synod. The subject is dealt with sensitively, and we can sometimes wonder what reactions were over the recent Synod in Rome presided over by Pope Francis.

A few days ago, I commented on some of the underlying issues in Benedictine and Ignatian Views of the Liturgy. I see good in both sides, with the “Benedictine” neo-Platonic approach to the liturgy and the Church’s sacramental life and the more personal, individual and moral approach of the school of thought broadly based on Nominalist metaphysics. I mentioned the possibility that Anglo-Catholicism had some success in reconciling these two “tendencies”.

What I find disconcerting is the strident and shrill discussion on the moral questions of our day, sexual ethics in particular – sexual relations in or out of marriage, contraception, homosexuality. Then there are the questions of human life, such as abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. The indissolubility of marriage is yet another question, since it is a Sacrament which brings the natural contract shared by almost all humanity to a spiritual level. We are brought to a conflict of ideologies between those who wish to legitimize sex outside marriage, contraception, homosexuality, the “right to choose” and the possibility of remarriage after divorce, on one hand, and those who uphold traditional moral teachings on the other hand. In all the shrill dialectics between conservatism and so-called liberalism, there is a missing element – pastoral care.

The question of human sexuality is one of society and social pressure. It cannot be treated simply as an individual moral issue. The social questions are not addressed by anyone. Without the wider social context, marriage is under immense pressure. Most cases of women having abortions are horribly tragic. Who offers financial and human help to these women? Those most against abortion would be the most judgemental about the women in question being a single mother! Similarly with euthanasia, the human tragedies are swept under the carpet, and there are cases where we cannot but “understand”. At the same time, we cannot approve of something that could lead straight to the kind of things that happened under Nazism! Capital punishment is increasingly coming under the judgement of abolitionism. The way it is done in the USA is completely hypocritical. If that country wants to carry on punishing heinous crime with death, then let them use the guillotine and in public. The public outcry would put an end to capital punishment in five minutes flat! But, what do you do with an unrepentant evil and dangerous person against which society has to be protected? These are all questions with answers that are often tormenting. I find that may of the conservative polemicists lack empathy and pastoral concern. All they care about is order and authority. Should we conclude that Hitler was right, taking the logic to the extreme?

Conservatism frightens me, and so do the feminist and gay lobbies that would persecute and silence their adversaries in the debate. Both camps seem to think in the same ideological terms.

I noticed this kind of clash of ideologies during the Ordinariate era during the final year of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. At that time, the apologetic artillery was firing salvos full blast. I remember the difficulties I has at the time of the now-defunct English Catholic blog. On one side, I favoured moving into communion with Rome but according to a corporate trajectory that Archbishop Hepworth was pushing – and in which we believed at the time that he was enjoying success. Anglicanorum Coetibus was a carefully studied essay in ambiguity for reasons we had yet to learn in November 2009. It was a compromise, and the solution was available to former members of the Anglican Communion (and a few TAC priests) on condition that they had never been Roman Catholics, cradle or converts. That much was clear in 2009, but we were misinformed that there would be “pastoral” exceptions. Finally, the provision was tailored for Anglo-Papalists. Anglo-Papalism was a movement in Anglicanism that advocated the uncritical aping of Tridentine and Vatican II Roman Catholicism with the exception of compulsory clerical celibacy. Anglo-Papalism was a term that would often be confused with Anglo-Catholicism, a kind of “English Gallicanism” or a compromise of this tendency with the Arminian tradition in the English Reformation. Many of these questions are debated in Continuing Anglican circles, and there has been pressure to demonise non Anglo-Papalist forms of Anglo-Catholicism. In the end, what’s in a name, in a label that does not adequately describe anything?

I opened this article with moral questions that have, in recent years, eclipsed even the question of ordaining women to the priesthood and episcopate. Many Anglicans were alienated from the American Episcopal Church and the Church of England over questions of sexual ethics and the question of whether a same sex couple could contract a relationship that would be legally and morally assimilated to marriage. In general, we can say that Forward in Faith and Continuing Anglicanism came into being over the ordination of women, and bodies like the Anglican Church of North America, supported by the Southern Cone, split with ECUSA over questions of sexual ethics. The latter tendency is clear in sites like Virtue Online.

Hard-line conservatism seems to be more of a target for Pope Francis than the use of liturgical rites other than the Novus Ordo. This seems to be apparent in much of the polemics over the Synod on the family and its projected follow-up in a year’s time. It is very easy to make an ideology of the Christian family, and very difficult to live it out, especially in today’s society and the “consumer” culture. Perhaps my viewpoint is not unbiased, since my wife is infertile – but I am not sure that the family is the only or best basic unit of society for the procreation and raising of children. It can be, but so much can go wrong – as “masculine” and “muscular” husbands can be as physically abusive as wives and mothers can be psychologically and spiritually abusive. There is no infallible way for all, any more than Christians of different traditions and communities being told they have to be Roman Catholics or go to hell. There were other forms of communities in the 1960’s that perhaps did a better job of bringing up and educating children than the nuclear family. That is something for a priest to say!

A serious discussion of the family should not be centred on currently polemical issues like remarriage after divorce or the related same-sex marriage. Instead, the social context of the nuclear family needs to be studied. For example, families need to get together to explore ways of creating better larger village-scale communities as I have discussed about intentional communities in The Epitaph and The Pit. Alternatively, alternatives need to be found to the family. That idea could be very frightening and suggestive of a dystopian society where babies are bred in “farms”!

Another problem is the distinction between the pulpit and the confessional – the distinction between what we say to all as a general principle, and what we say to an individual person whose special issues we have come to understand. Abortion is something truly sordid and dreadful, but understanding and empathy would go a long way. Torching an abortion clinic will do no good, but true pastoral care of a women who is suffering might result in a decision to have her baby and find a supportive community to help the single parent. I disapprove of the gay lobby, but that doesn’t mean that I think that the persons concerned should be persecuted. There is something positive about same-sex love – it is called friendship and the lives of those people are their business, not ours. We have a lot of progress to make in our pastoral care of people. The institutional Church has failed too many, alienated the working class bedrock and intellectual people who can no longer switch off their brains and accept any old bunk and bosh. The institutional Church no longer has the support of Mussolini, Pinochet and so many other authoritarian dictators by which the “social kingship of Christ” could be imposed by force! Unless the Church is spiritual and pastoral, then it really is a load of bunk.

And so I have kept out of the hubbub, constantly seeing e-mail with links sent to scores of e-mail addresses including my own. Finally, I see the way through it all – by empathy and pastoral care – both of which are increasingly rare in our world.

I reread this old posting – Election address of Pope Celestine VI – which I wrote during the sede vacante of 2013. There are elements of comparison with Pope Francis.

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2 Responses to Is it all about sexual ethics?

  1. ed pacht says:

    Great post!
    I am committed to Biblical/traditional sexual morality (which, as I am same-sex-attracted, commits me to celibacy), I cannot find justification for divorce/remarriage or abortion, at least not in 99% of cases.

    Having said all that, though, I have a very serious question to present to the loudest of so-called conservatives: What was Jesus’ priority? Did He speak most strongly against these sexual sins, or did He rather save his strong condemnation for legalists with a judgmental spirit?

    To a woman taken in adultery he said, “Go, and sin no more”, but it was the same kind of ‘leaders’ as those who condemned her that he called “whitewashed sepulchres full of dead men’s bones”,
    and it was the same people that he pointed to as children of their father, the devil.

    Sexual sin is so very easy to condemn, but there are other sins (six other ‘deadly sins’ in the traditional account) that are yet more damaging to the soul.

    Frankly, those calling themselves ‘conservatives’ ought to begin trembling now. Chances are they will find themselves doing so when they are questioned before the heavenly throne.

  2. Simone says:

    “One-size-fits-all” surely doesn’t work anymore, either on the rigid conservative or on the “liberi tutti” side. If you look at the cardinals and bishops on the “progressive” side you surely won’t find a great concern for pastoral care either (rethoric aside, obviously), but rather the desire to come back to the ’70s with a revenge. It’s a power struggle. In my issues with Humanae Vitae I found the orthodox position on contraception more sensitive and less hypocritical than (my own) Roman Catholic. Both traditions departed from early church’s father position, why not just admit it and let to the pastoral care the treatment of single cases? The problem lies in the uber-dogmatization about sexuality, that is the last bastion of catholic tradition remained once everything else went down the drain after the ’60s (beginning with liturgy). Being less obsessed with the sixth commandment would greatly benefit the Catholic church, but after the canonization of Paul VI and John Paul II it’s very hard to go backward.
    Also, there’s a flaming cognitive dissonance in the conservative camp; in fact there is a strong and pervasive homosexual trend among the lovers of tridentine mass, and it’s not easy for many individuals to reconcile their own stances on liturgy with what they would be supposed to believe in morals. It could be surprising how many “latin mass society” types are actually more “pastoral” on certain issues than the die-hard “liberal” counterparties. And i certainly prefer their company more than that of the fundamentalists whose main task in life is to repopulate the world no matter what the human cost for their wives or children.

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