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The Catholic Bishops Want No Debate About Sexual Morality

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) October 25, 2010 -- Once again, the Catholic bishops have spoken about sexual morality in a new public document. You remember the Catholic bishops they are the fellows whose dubious moral reasoning about allegations of sex abuse by priests contributed enormously to the priest sex-abuse scandal. As is well known, Catholic bishops and priests have been inciting antiabortion anguish ever since the Supreme Court ruling that legalized certain forms of abortion. Remember that moral theory regarding sexual morality is at the heart of the debate about legal abortion in the first trimester, and at the heart of the different debates concerning same-sex marriage and gays in the military.

Thus the sexual morality advanced by Catholic bishops has become a focal point of public attention. Therefore, the American public might be interested in the emerging conflict between the Catholic bishops and two Catholic theologians -- both are married laypersons, not priests -- regarding sexual morality. This conflict may sound reminiscent of the biblical story of David versus Goliath. But will Todd A. Salzman lose his job at Creighton University in Omaha, as the moral theologian Charles Curran lost his job at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC? (But Salzman's co-author, Michael G. Lawler, will not be fired from Creighton because he has already retired.)

Do you support the Catholic bishops in their defense of traditional Catholic sexual morality? Or do you support the two Catholic revisionist theologians? Or do you support another approach to sexual morality -- such as the approach taken in deontological moral theory, or some other approach?

For many Americans, including many Catholics, the terms of this conflict may be heady stuff. But because Catholic moral teachings loom so large in our public discourse, the stakes in this conflict are far too high for the American public to ignore the conflict just because it involves heady stuff. After all, sexual morality is a topic that arguably should concern all of us. Because of its importance, I will undertake to elucidate some of the heady stuff in the bishops' statement. I do so in the hope that the conflict will attract public attention and concern regarding a topic all of us should think about carefully. In short, this conflict is more than just an intra-church conflict.

Go Away Revisionists

On September 15, 2010, the nine-member Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops posted at the USCCB website a 24-page critique of a revisionist way of thinking about Roman Catholic teachings regarding sexual morality: "Inadequacies in the Theological Methodology and Conclusions of THE SEXUAL PERSON: TOWARD A RENEWED CATHOLIC ANTHROPOLOGY by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler." Their book was published by Georgetown University Press in 2008. (The term "anthropology" in the subtitle refers to a theory of being human.)

The nine bishops on the Committee on Doctrine are cagey. For example, if you were to disagree with their inflated claims about their view of natural-law theory, they will shuck you aside by saying that your epistemology is too skeptical. (Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that concerns how we know.) So it will be hard to debate with them, even if you hold a nonskeptical and nonrelativist epistemology, as Salzman and Lawler do. You either agree with the nine bishops' inflated claims, or they declare you to have an epistemology that is too skeptical. In short, the nine bishops already have all the answers, so no revisionist approaches are needed or welcome. Go away revisionists.

The nine bishops claim that they are undertaking to examine and criticize "the basic presuppositions of the alternative theology proposed in THE SEXUAL PERSON" in the hope that their criticism "could thus serve the broader purpose of helping Catholic moral theologians more generally to continue rediscovering a more adequate basis for addressing contemporary moral questions" (page 2). In short, theologians may be allowed to think out new rationales for old positions, but not to re-think the old positions regarding sexual morality in ways that open the door to overthrowing them at long last. Go away revisionists.

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Let us pause here and reflect on the stated aspiration of the nine bishops. They state that they are trying to help moral theologians. But the nine bishops say nothing new, because they seem to be incapable of thinking outside the box, as we say, of traditional Catholic moral thought regarding sexual morality. But moral theologians such as Salzman and Lawyer are trying to help bishops and other Catholics think outside the box of the very points that the nine bishops assert to be supposedly authoritative teachings. (Supposedly authoritative teachings are not formally infallible; they are non-infallible teachings, which means that informed Catholics may disagree with them in good conscience.) But for the nine bishops, thou shall not think new thoughts about sexual morality. Go away revisionists.

The nine bishops on the Committee on Doctrine do not want Roman Catholics to think in the bishops' view Catholics should obey the non-infallible authoritative church teachings regarding sexual morality, regardless of how misguided and mistaken those teachings are. I kid you not.

Here's what the nine bishops declare: "The fact that the alternative moral theology of THE SEXUAL PERSON leads to many positions in clear conflict with authoritative Church teaching is itself considerable evidence that the basic methodology of this moral theology is unsound and incompatible with Catholic tradition" (page 2). Evidence of what, you say? How about evidence of thinking? By definition, non-infallible moral teachings are non-infallible, which means that debate with Catholic tradition should be acceptable, but of course subject to further debate.

By implication, this statement by the nine bishops means that the only acceptable methodology for Catholic moral theology is one which yields only results that are not in clear conflict with the non-infallible authoritative Church teaching. In short, thou shall not think about church teachings regarding sexual morality. In the view of the nine bishops, non-infallible authoritative church teachings regarding sexual morality are not going to change, so new thinking is not welcome or needed. In their view, there is no need for a renewed Catholic anthropology. Go away revisionists.

The nine bishops advance their views in the name of a so-called hermeneutic of continuity, which seems to preclude in advance any serious change regarding sexual morality because the basic presupposition is maintaining continuity. Therefore no debate is welcome that would disrupt continuity in the teachings regarding sexual morality. Cagey, eh? On the one hand, it is acceptable for Catholic moral theologians to somehow discover new arguments to support the old teachings about sexual morality. But on the other hand, no new conclusions about sexual morality are acceptable if they would disrupt continuity. In this way, continuity precludes revision. Go away revisionists. It is hard to reason with people who start with the presupposition of the hermeneutic of continuity, because they have no genuine reason to enter into debate about their positions regarding sexual morality. They are here simply to broadcast their own positions regarding sexual morality. End of story. Go away revisionists.

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As is well known, the Catholic bishops also want no debate about whether or not women should be ordained priests, no debate about whether or not diocesan priests should be allowed to be free from taking a vow of celibacy, and no debate about whether or not priests should be allowed to marry, which of course would run the risk that they might become divorced. I kid you not. The Catholic bishops want no debate about a good number of issues. Evidently, the Catholic bishops have already had their quota of change by accommodating the liturgical and other changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Go away revisionists.

No One Philosophy, But Watch Your Epistemology

On page 11, the nine bishops quote a recent papal encyclical in which it is declared that the Roman Catholic Church today has no philosophy of its own nor does it today canonize any longer one particular philosophy in preference to others, as it did when Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy was favored until the Second Vatican Council changed all that. Now think about that. For most of the twentieth century, Pope Leo XIII's encyclical AETERNI PATRIS (1879) made Thomistic philosophy and theology the favored philosophy and theology of the Roman Catholic Church. But the Second Vatican Council abandoned that position. As a result, today no one philosophy is favored by the Roman Catholic Church. Any philosophy will be OK provided that it does not overthrow old moral teachings regarding sexual morality.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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