The Strange Rhetoric of Traditional Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Case Study

The whole issue of what the Pope said on HIV and condoms has put a spotlight on the traditional Catholic framework for analyzing sexual ethics and sexual acts. The technical moral requirements of that framework can seem deeply foreign and sometimes even offensive to many people, especially if they're not familiar with the basic framework. But sometimes the way sex is rhetorically approached within the traditional framework can give pause to people who are familiar with its requirements.Consider, for example, this essay by Christian Brugger, who is a professor at the St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver-overseen by Archbishop Charles Chaput. It is not a scholarly essay, but is published in LifeSite News, which is a widely read pro-life portal.I found it rhetorically odd--disconcerting, to say the least- that Brugger seems to be addressing men alone, although the portal is read by both men and women. And it seems to me that his analysis is largely treating women--wives--as if they are objects, not subjects in the most intimate aspects of their marriage. It seems as if he's arguing that men have an obligation --a duty -- to DO something to their wives -- to create a certain physical reaction in them--for their wives' own moral and physical good. This seems to me to be too close to treating women as if they are enfleshed pinball machines.This genre of sexual ethics tends to be written almost exclusively by men --and for men --and about women. I suppose a wife could hand this to her husband. But how many men would listen to Christian Brugger -- or any ethicist -- rather than his own wife? I could be wrong, but my own suspicion is that many women, married and unmarried, would find this approach to the matter very off-putting. Am I wrong? Or does this essay - in tone and content -- give some illustration to why many women don't find the old-style approach to Catholic sexual ethics a place that includes them as subjects, not merely objects, of ethical reflection? It's not content--it's rhetorical style and intended audience. What do you all think?Maybe I am wrong. But Professor Brugger is training future priests. Is anyone giving these future priests a married woman's perspective on all this? Do seminarians ever talk to married women about these matters? It seems to me that it might be a good idea if they did.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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