Beyond the Impasse?

“Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old,” the prophet Isaiah proclaims (43:18–19). “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Since 2002, a group calling itself “New Wine, New Wineskins” has convened yearly symposia at Notre Dame, gathering “early career” Catholic theologians for papers and conversation on a chosen theological topic. These symposia have led to the publication of two books: one in 2005 on “key issues in Catholic moral theology,” and now the second in 2010 on Catholic sexual ethics. The new book’s blurbs, collected from various established theologians, give a good sense of the group’s self-conception. In Leaving and Coming Home, a back-cover blurb tells us, “we see emerging theological voices effectively move beyond the impasse of a previous generation.” According to another blurb, the book “is a breath of fresh air in Catholic moral thinking about sexuality.”

The “previous generation” consists of those theologians who lived through, among other events, the Second Vatican Council (1961–65), the promulgation of Humanae vitae (1968), and the dismissal of Charles Curran from the Catholic University of America (1986)—three events cited by Dana Dillon, a theologian at Providence College and the group’s current director, as having “particularly shaped those theologians’ sense of the church and their own role and their own risks as theologians within it.” (See her interview with Michael Sean Winters on the National Catholic Reporter Web site.) By contrast, “Theologians of my generation,” Dillon comments, “learned about all of these incidents like a history lesson—perhaps a bit more like family history than like history class.” The upshot is that they have little stake in, and sometimes even little patience for, the battles and resentments of the Vatican II generation. And so they have, it is suggested, new things to say. Dillon also claims that, because the young theologians of New Wine, New Wineskins were raised in what David Cloutier, the editor of Leaving and Coming Home, calls a “post-subculture historical location” (outside the so-called Catholic ghetto), they are more attuned than the previous generation of theologians to the challenges of practicing theology “in a world hostile to faith in a church divided against itself.” And so the new things that they have to say are directed to the church as it now is.

There likely could be no tougher test of these claims than a book on Catholic sexual ethics. Whatever else we are to think, the New Wine, New Wineskins group is to be commended for its courage. After all, it is difficult to imagine, without a change in the Vatican’s teaching, “effectively mov[ing] beyond the impasse” occasioned by Humanae vitae. For many theologians, Curran prominent among them, that encyclical was a betrayal of the council’s understanding of the church not merely as the hierarchical office but as the people of God. (For the history of “The Charles Curran Affair,” see chapter 4 of Mark Massa’s study The American Catholic Revolution: How the ’60s Changed the Church Forever.) In brief, there is good reason to wonder whether the relevant past here really is simply past, rather than bearing still on the church’s present, shaping and limiting what it has to say, and perhaps even imperiling its future.

Leaving and Coming Home takes its title from the fact, explained well by Cloutier in his introduction, that “marriage and sex in our culture appear on a journey away from home.” Nowadays, unlike in the recent past, young adults typically move out of their parents’ homes before they marry, and they often “try out” sexual relationships before marrying and committing, however conditionally, to making a home. The book’s first six chapters focus on these new cultural practices, with essays on dating, the “hookup culture,” pornography, being single, cohabitation, and homosexuality. Each essay takes much the same form: it presents a critique of the cultural practice in question, and then offers a liberatory Catholic alternative. The essays vary significantly in quality with respect both to style and to substance. Generally, though not always, the critique is insightful while the proposed alternatives are, on the whole, unsatisfactory. For example, the sacrament of reconciliation is proposed as “a counter-practice to pornography and pornification.” I can imagine the essays on dating, hooking up, and pornography generating lively discussion in a college ethics class. I can also imagine, however, most students rejecting the “counter-practices” as unrealistic church talk.

The essay on homosexuality—which claims that homosexual activity is “a disordered sexual inclination that is essentially self-indulgent because it is not self-giving”—fits poorly with the others. Whereas most of the essays aim to provoke discussion, this one, written by Nicanor Austriaco, OP, aims to bring all discussion to a close. The author’s reasoning in support of his conclusion begins with the premise that “conjugal love is ordered toward two complementary ends, the procreation of children and the union of the spouses.” As same-sex partners “can never share their powers to procreate,” it follows that “the union in same-sex unions can never be...complete and total self-gift.” It does not follow, however, that this union must be, in the author’s words, “essentially self-indulgent” or that it is “not self-giving” at all. Here the author lets his enthusiasm for his conclusion leap ahead of his logic.

The book’s second half, chapters 7 to 11, concerns “coming home,” which means principally sexual practices in marriage and, in the closing chapter, “revisionist proposals for homosexual marriage.” Chapters 7 to 9 focus on contraception, “responsible parenthood,” natural family planning, and Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In other words, these chapters are concerned with...Humanae vitae!

Chapter 7, by Florence Caffrey Bourg, is remarkable in this context. First, she is the only author to question Humanae vitae. Second, her essay is by far the most historically informed in the book. The book’s early essays display some knowledge of contemporary sociology, and the essay on homosexuality cites selected psychological studies, but no essay in the book other than Bourg’s wrestles with the development of doctrine. Instead, in chapter 8, which seeks to lay forth “the sublimity of the church’s teaching about conjugal love” (church here being equated with hierarchy), we read of the objective, ahistorical language of the body in sex. According to Michel Therrien, if sex is to be a fully marital act expressive of “the will of the spouses to fulfill the vows they have sworn to share the whole of life together as husband and wife,” each must “hand over to the other—as a supreme gift of self—his or her generative power, fertility, bloodline, and so forth.” Otherwise, the spouse contradicts himself or herself. Marital sex that is not open to conception isn’t “ontologically spousal”—that is, it is not really marital—but “intemperate and concupiscible,” more like fornication and adultery. But it strains credulity to think that the body speaks “a language” across all times and cultures, without regard to what embodied persons understand themselves to be “saying” in expressing themselves bodily. And it is by no means evident that sex cannot be charitable if it does not involve handing over one’s bloodline and so forth—which, in any event, sounds like something married couples should not try at home.

In chapter 11, which defends “the traditional theology of sexual difference” by drawing from Augustine and Karl Barth with no one in between, the term “revisionist” is used as an aspersion. This chapter, by a colleague of mine, Christopher C. Roberts, is both learned and careful to call for “sensitive, humane, and patient pastoral responses” to homosexuality. I have no idea, however, what Roberts’s “nuptial teleology of sexual difference” would make of intersex persons. Also, I find it unlikely that gay persons would take much comfort from the assurance that, while “homosexuality must be rejected as an impossible attempt at self-rule,” as such it is “only one manifestation of a universal spiritual problem.”

What is, in the end, a bit doleful about this book is that a historically informed voice like Bourg’s is very much in the minority here. Affirming the tradition and questioning it are posed as opposites. In contrast, Bourg dares to wonder whether, “if Aquinas understood menstrual cycles and knew women are infertile more often than not, he might have thought sex was designed by God for purposes besides procreation, and adjusted his sense of sin accordingly.” Now there might be, in Isaiah’s terms, a new thing. Do you not perceive it? One hopes that other young theologians might.

 


Related: Nancy A. Dallavalle's review of New Wine, New Wineskins:
A Next Generation Reflects on Key Issues in Catholic Moral Theology

Published in the 2011-04-22 issue: 

Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory: An Introduction (Paulist Press, 2016). 

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