Call for a Sexual Ethics Encyclical

The Tablet reports :

Bishop Klaus KUng of Sankt Plten, Austria, has called for a new encyclical on the Churchs teaching on human sexuality, following the publication last week of Light of the World, a book of interviews with Pope Benedict XVI.

I could not disagree more. First, the field of sexual ethics is in a state of considerable development just now. Folks like Lisa Cahill, Margaret Farley, James Keenan, and of course Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman are opening up a richly humanistic and profoundly Catholic approach to sexual ethics. This new wave of Catholic sexual ethics is raising questions of justice, of virtue, and of moral anthropology, among others, and it is simply too soon for Rome to supply "answers" when it is the very nature of the questions that is under discussion. Second, what the pope said isn't really new in terms of moral methodology. The "object/end (intention)/circumstances" understanding of human moral action is Thomistic. What the pope DID do is explicitly apply that reasoning to using condoms in sex, thus implying that doing so is not "intrinsically evil." Once we look beyond the technology (the condom) to the human act, we're back on familiar ethical turf, and away from the physicalism that plagues current magisterial teaching on sex. If anything, what might be needed is a moral refresher-course for Catholics who found the pope's language startling.Third, if using condoms must be understood in light of the intention (disease prevention or contraception,) in circumstances where AIDS is a risk, why wouldn't we also consider circumstances like the woman's health in cases where too-frequent child-bearing has put a serious strain on her, or on the family's ability to feed the kids, etc.? Double effect would no longer apply. But the pope's argument wasn't based on double effect. In other words, by not being explicit, he may have opened up a far wider conversation than he intended to. Now is NOT the time to close that argument with an encyclical. HT: Jan Jans

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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