Meeting last month in Baltimore, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a number of statements, including guidelines for the pastoral care of “persons with a homosexual inclination” and an instruction-titled “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper”-on who should or shouldn’t receive Communion.
Overshadowed in the media reaction to the guidelines and the bishops’ “hard saying” about Communion was Bishop William S. Skylstad’s “Call for Dialogue and Action on Responsible Transition in Iraq.” Skylstad is president of the USCCB and his statement on the war has much to recommend it. Dismissing the idea that there are only two options in Iraq, either “cut and run” or “stay the course,” Skylstad pleads for a “collaborative dialogue that honestly assesses the situation, acknowledges past difficulties and miscalculations, recognizes and builds on positive advances.”
These are sensible recommendations, necessary steps in bringing about a responsible resolution to a tragic and untenable situation. The USCCB would do well to adopt just as sensible a policy in confronting the laity’s doubts about church teaching on the meaning of human sexuality. For instance, 95 percent of married Catholics do not find the teaching on contraception persuasive. And how do the bishops respond? “Stay the course or get out of the Communion line” might be a rough paraphrase of the USCCB statements. Homosexuality is not a sin, write the bishops further, but engaging in homosexual acts is. Increasingly, Catholics find this distinction hard to square with what they know about homosexual persons. The bishops’ response? “Stay the course or get out of the Communion line.”
It is especially disappointing that before issuing their statements, the bishops didn’t bother to listen in any systematic way to either homosexual or married Catholics. If one’s syllogisms are all in order, why bother talking with people who possess such “inclinations,” or who have tried to reconcile the church’s teachings with actual marital life? Instead, the bishops stumbled on the brilliant strategy of reminding the faithful that in the church’s view, resorting to contraception and engaging in homosexual acts are equally “disordered.” Evidently, the bishops believe that equating homosexual acts with a sexual “sin” committed by 95 percent of married Catholics makes their pastoral guidelines “welcoming” to homosexual persons.
Echoing John Paul II’s idiosyncratic “theology of the body,” the USCCB’s statement on “Married Love and the Gift of Life” argues that the use of contraception introduces “a false note” into the spousal sexual relationship. By such acts, the bishops explain, you begin to make yourself “into the kind of person who lies.” When fertility is “suppressed”-rather than merely outwitted through the diagnostic calculations of Natural Family Planning (NFP)-the sexual act becomes “something less powerful and intimate, something more ‘casual.’” Married Catholics may be surprised to learn they are inveterate liars obsessed with having “casual” sex. What is not surprising is how unconvincing the argument for NFP remains. Why is it morally permissible to avoid pregnancy by using NFP, but “disordered” and an “intrinsic evil” to act on the same intention using a different contraceptive method? When the bishops can explain that, perhaps Catholics will resume listening to what they have to say about marital love.
Some outspoken conservative Catholics argue that it was the failure of the bishops to strongly affirm Humanae vitae, and not the teaching itself, that explains the encyclical’s rejection by the laity. Will the condemnation of contraception now be vigorously preached from the pulpit? If so, the effect may be the opposite of what is hoped for. Telling married Catholics that their sexual lives are seriously “disordered” will likely only increase their doubts about the church’s understanding of sexuality, while strengthening the growing moral solidarity felt between heterosexual and homosexual Catholics. Ironically, perhaps that is what the Holy Spirit has been up to at the USCCB. As the saying goes, God writes straight with crooked lines.
The point is that when “stay the course” and “cut and run” are the only alternatives in the battle over human sexuality, too many Catholics will opt for the latter. Just as Iraq requires, in Bishop Skylstad’s formulation, an honest collaborative dialogue-one that “assesses the situation, acknowledges past difficulties and miscalculations...and builds on positive advances”-so too is such a dialogue desperately needed between the laity and the bishops concerning the church’s teachings on sexual morality. The current situation, to adapt Skylstad’s words again, is indeed “taking a terrible toll,” and “moral urgency, substantive dialogue, and new directions” must be found. While “stay the course” is not an option, “cut and run” cannot become the default position. What Catholicism has to teach us about the meaning of sexuality should not be reduced to NFP.