Catholics need a better explanation of traditional teachings

Father John A. Kiley

The Archdiocese of Boston recently sponsored an afternoon of talks on issues critical to appreciating the church’s teachings on sexuality and reproduction.

The speakers were Catholic laywomen and a woman religious who have distinguished themselves by their earnest efforts to understand abortion, contraception, infertility, and the male priesthood from an especially Roman Catholic perspective. These women, all with impressive academic degrees and all currently active in religious and secular universities, presented what might be called practical, rational arguments in proposing traditional Catholic teachings. The afternoon’s presentations were filled with respect for incipient life in the womb, for the male and female aspects of fertilization, for science in the service of human reproduction, and for fidelity to Scripture and church tradition. The speakers maintained that no one has suffered more than women – and especially poor women – at the hands of a modern culture which has “denigrated sex, marriage and life itself.” They were confident that Catholic women will assume their especially “feminine mission of cultural renewal: to reveal to the world the way of attentive, humanizing, self-giving love.” Thus both the church’s sacramental commitment to family life and her perennial mission to the poor would be well served by a richer, more Christ-like analysis of contemporary sexual behavior.

It was particularly refreshing to hear from women who genuinely understand and appreciate Catholic teaching on sexual morality at a time when some contend that the Catholic Church is engaged in a so-called “war on women.” The bishops of the United States and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome have spoken out recently regarding a few women religious who have failed to reflect authentic Catholic teaching in their public offerings. One religious sister suggested that believers must be prepared to go “beyond the church, beyond Christ” in their religious pursuits. Another religious sister proposed that the divine names “Father” and “Son” are merely metaphors and not integral to a believer’s appreciation of the divine nature. Lately, another woman religious in her writings on sexual morality claimed that she saw no problem with masturbation, that same-sex relationships should be accorded the same respect as heterosexual unions, and that marital commitments can expire and should be recognized as terminated. Clearly it was not without reason nor without fraternal solicitude that the church’s magisterium cautioned the faithful on these secularistic, modernistic points of view.

More often than not, the popular media place the reservations of church leaders concerning the views of some women religious in the context of a “male-female” controversy. The traditional male hierarchy is pitted against the church’s female constituency. Theology becomes a question of power: power threatened and power denied. But the afternoon conference in Boston during which learned, faithful women shared their considered analyses of critical moral issues and were met with respect and appreciation by the men (mostly priests) in their audience puts the lie to that argument. The issue is not sexism, nor suppression, nor myopia, nor fashion. The issue clearly is the truth: the truth handed on by Christ to his church and the truth interpreted by that church in the light of constant and ever-deepening tradition.

By frankly facing up to tough church teachings on the nature of God, on the centrality of Christ, on the male priesthood, on the essence of marriage, sexuality and family, all church teachers, both in the hierarchy and in the academy, will render a genuine service to all believers by revealing both the practical and the spiritual value of an authentic and traditional Christian life. Instead of liberalizing church policies “on celibacy, divorce, homosexuality, contraception and abortion,” as called for by feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether, the official church and her committed lay, religious and clerical members must plumb anew the richness of authentic revelation on God, Christ, the church, men and women. What the Catholic world needs is not a new teaching as demanded by some feminists and their supporters but rather a better explanation of traditional teachings as required by the church’s wisely watchful magisterium.