Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 2, Feb. 6, 1999



Part 4

In this final portion of our paper, we would like to show how things have changed for Roman Catholics since the days of our fathers when answers to questions about sexual ethics were laid out neatly like folded clothes on a bed, clothes that came in just two colors: black and white.  The Italian moralist, Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1697-1787), had been declared a Doctor of the Church and came to occupy a position in the field of morality that paralleled the position of Thomas Aquinas in the field of scholastic theology.  Alphonsus Liguori marked the triumph of the age of moral casuistry when every sexual thought, word and deed was measured against moral absolutes.  Behavior was dissected like a frog in a laboratory and catalogued "mortal", “venial”, or "imperfection."  However, when it came to sexual behavior, violations were always "mortal".  While violations of love or justice could be classified "mortal", "venial", or "imperfections", sexual violations were always "mortal".  The "man in the pew" was presented with a moral system in which one size fit all -- all people, in all situations, for all time.  The deed itself determined the degree of immorality involved.  Although the individual might get a lesser or greater sentence in the "sacramental tribunal" (confession) because of mitigating or aggravating circumstances, the physical deed itself was both the point of departure and the basis of final moral judgment.


Roman Catholic theologian Philip Keane tells of two nuns who lived in the same convent.  One nun "because of her consistently selfish and unloving ways had a major negative impact on the life of the convent and on the life of the parish in which the convent was located." The other nun became sexually involved with a local priest "to the point of intercourse." Keane says that: "In a traditional or more physically oriented approach to celibacy, the behavior of the second sister would have been considered the worst possible failure against celibate love, while the behavior of the first sister would almost likely have been interpreted as a series of relatively minor acts of uncharity." (Keane, 1977, p. 156). Keane is highlighting here a profound shift in Roman Catholic ethical thinking.

Traditionally, the physical act was more important than the interior disposition of the "actor".  The physical component of the deed determined its degree of morality or immorality.  Thus, for instance, to French kiss a prostitute would have been less immoral than to have intercourse with her.  For a celibate priest to fondle a woman's breasts would be less immoral than to engage in mutual masturbation with her.  Immorality was determined by the physicalism of the act.  Through his story of the two nuns, Keane is telling us that there is movement away from the physicalist approach to morality.  The new emphasis is personalist.  Given his story of the two nuns, the personalist would arrive at a different conclusion: " In the personalist approach to celibacy, the ongoing selfishness of the first sister would be a greater failure against celibacy than the acts of the second sister (ibid. p. 157).

Thomas Aquinas based his sexual ethics on a physicalist approach to sexual activity.  To paraphrase Aquinas: sexual activity was moral if it were done with the right person (one's spouse), for the right reason (procreation), and in the right way (man on top).  Aquinas' approach to human sexuality was very "clinical" , very physicalist.  He has next to nothing to say about covenant love.  Because Aquinas' physicalist approach became the dominant ethic of the church, traditionalists would have no doubt about which nun (in Keane's story) committed the greater sin.  As far as traditionalists are concerned, there is no comparison between a nun who infects the environment with her negativity and a nun who takes a penis into her vagina.  It is clear from the "Physics" of the deed that the copulating nun is guilty of the greater sin.  That's how the traditionalists would see it. The possible "love factor" of the sexual deed is of no relevance to the traditionalist.  Philip Keane is telling us that this is changing.  With a new emphasis on covenant love, sexual acts are no longer being judged simply by their physical composition.  The new approach is to look first at the persons involved and what they hold in their hearts for each other.

Clearly, this approach impacts in no small measure on the way celibacy and abstinence are seen.  Love in general, and covenant love in particular, will be the new way to determine whether individual sexual acts mirror the love covenant between Yahweh and Israel, or the "new and everlasting covenant" between Christ and the Church.

We do not want to give the impression, however, that Rome has been totally close-minded to a personalist approach to sexuality.  We would describe Rome's recent history as one of ebb and flow, almost of ambivalence, although ambivalence will never be acknowledged by a church that has proclaimed itself infallible in matters of faith and morals.  Pope Paul the Sixth was very physicalist in that section of "Humanae Vitae" (encyclical, 1968, nos. 10-14) where he stated that all acts of sexual intercourse must be open to procreation.  Yet, as noted earlier (p. 61). Vatican Council Two gave the personalist component of marriage priority over the physicalist, or procreationist.  Eugene Kennedy sums up the balancing act that Rome is engaged in: "From the viewpoint of organizational solidarity, the encyclical has become a rallying point for administrators, and that probably
has strengthened the church as an institution ....  (yet) ... A close look at the behavior of the Catholic community might startle many ecclesiastical leaders who have no real idea of the far-advanced transformation of American Catholic consciousness.  It is obvious that on levels of sexual relationships, Catholics have made decisive statements they are not likely to change". (Kennedy,  1984, pp. 112 & 179).

We agree that "Humanae Vitae" reined in the church's hierarchy and consolidated power at the center. For no man today will be promoted to the office of bishop if he has any reservations about the teachings of "Humanae Vitae". Meanwhile, however, "the man in the pew" is moving away from a physicalist approach to sexual morality and embracing the personalist approach.  The central administration of the church will feel secure in knowing that it has obedient conformists in the front lines.  But, how do you shepherd a flock that has a mind of its own?  Unless Rome accommodates more to the new sexual ethic, the shepherds will find that they have fewer and fewer sheep in the fold.


In our discussion of the physicalist vis a vis the personalist approach to sexuality, we have been on the first floor of attitudinal changes that have already begun to impact on how we view celibacy and abstinence.  We would like now to go down to the basement, to explore what we consider to be the bedrock of contemporary ethical thinking, namely, the emergence of a new worldview.  In the comic strip "Peanuts", Linus has been introduced to the new form of mathematics.  He is struggling to understand it.  In his frustration, he says: "How can you do "new math" problems with an "old math" mind?" At basement level, we find a radical theological shift that confounds the Linuses of the church because it involves a shift from a classicist worldview to an historical one.  Theologian Bernard Lonergan has analyzed this shift in the context of history and holds that it follows from the development of empirical science combined with a philosophical shift from object to subject. (For a full treatment see Crowe, 1967.  pp. 221-239).

For descriptions of "classicist worldview" and "historical worldview" we adopt those proposed by Richard Oula: "Stated briefly, the classicist worldview works on the assumption that the world is a finished product ... there is nothing more to do but reproduce the order given in the world and to live by it. The Greek Parthenon and the Gothic cathedrals are symbols of the classicist worldview ... Stability is the principal virtue; change is a threatening vice.  Abstract, universal, eternal, necessary, essential, and static are adjectives that characterize the classicist worldview." By contrast, the historical worldview sees "life as an ongoing process of knowing more and more ... This point of view recognizes that all knowledge is conditioned by time and place, limited self-awareness, and limited grasps of reality". (Guda, 1982. pp. 18, 19).

Clearly, two such diverse worldviews will see celibacy and abstinence very differently.  The classicist will judge behavior according to abstract, universal principles, will judge an individual's moral integrity by his degree of obedience to those principles, and will feel secure that he has answers that are valid for all time and all circumstances.  In no way could the classicist accept sexual activity as an expression of covenant love outside of marriage.  Each individual must fit into the general ethic mold.

The historical worldview, on the other hand, sees reality, not just in the abstract, but as dynamic and evolving.  Each individual lives and moves within the reality of his/her own life, not within some general and abstract reality, or the reality of someone else's life.  What matters to this individual is not the historical situation in which Augustine or Aquinas found themselves, but the historical context of this individual's present life.

Thus, for instance, advocates of the historical worldview could see a couple's decision to use artificial birth control as the most responsible and loving thing to do, given the historical context of their lives.  The classicist will see this as a morality of do-your-own-thing, or, if-it-feels-qood-do-it, which, in his eyes, is a total renunciation of absolute moral values.  The classicist is uncomfortable with making love the absolute value.  He needs law as a measurement of love.

Theologian Richard McBrien of Notre Dame, who has been forbidden to lecture in several dioceses, sees one irreconcilable difference between the two worldviews: "The classicist assumes that one can know and express absolute truth in ways that are essentially unaffected by the normal limitations of our human condition". (McBrien, 1980, p.943). We might expect the classicist, then, to bend on the celibacy issue long before he will bend on the issue of extra-marital sex since he will more readily concede that celibacy is not a moral absolute like extra-marital sex.

Havina said that, however, we should point out that some of the documents of Vatican Council Two abandoned the classicist worldview at times and incorporated the historical worldview.  Thus, for instance, the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" (nos. 4 & 5) had this to say: "We must, therefore, recognize and understand the world in which we live, its expectations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics ... The human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one.” Now that the church has acknowledged the need to "recognize and understand the world in which we live" it remains to be seen how long it will take the classicist to realize that the numbers espousing the historical worldview are increasing and multiplying with each new generation.

We should not be surprised to find ambivalence.  On the contrary, ambivalence may indicate that an honest search for truth is in progress.  Augustine was ambivalent about sexuality.  Sex, he believed, was evil because of concupiscence, yet, sex was good because of procreation: "something good is made out of the evil of lust", he wrote. (Defarrari, 1955, p.13). Augustine was all in favor of sexual abstinence and virginity as means to redemption, yet, when St. Ambrose praised the fifteen-year-old Palagia for committing suicide rather than  lose her physical virginity, Augustine did not agree with Palagia's action or Ambrose's high praise for her. (Bettensen,  1972, p. 37).

It is also curious to find Augustine defending the practice of prostitution: "remove prostitutes from human affairs and you will pollute all things with lust." (Tannahill, 1992, p. 278).  There is, of course, Augustine's most celebrated expression of ambivalence: "Lord, make me pure, but not yet."

Martin Luther was an admirer of Augustine.  Like Augustine, he could also be ambivalent at times.  Raymond Lawrence Jr. writes: "If Luther sometimes speaks in a traditional manner of marriage as an instrument for the control and inhibition of a polymorphous sexuality, there is also ample evidence to demonstrate him at variance with such a view.  Luther was ambivalent on the matter." (Lawrence, 1989, p.177). Many have found Luther's rejection of marriage as a sacrament, the emphasis he placed on the worldliness of marriage, yet, at the same time, his insistence on marriage as a divine institution, very confusing.  They find this confusion acted out in his own marriage to Katharine.  He married her in his home, not in church.  Yet he had a minister witness the marriage, and, two weeks later he celebrated his marriage in church.

Raymond Lawrence Jr. sees this as following from the fact that: "Much of Luther's theological thinking has an ad hoc quality ... Some of his teaching is contradictory ... He changed his mind about some things in the course of his development . " (op. cit. p.174). German theologian Helmut Thielicke, on the other hand, sees no ambivalence here.  Luther appears ambivalent "only to one who has failed to understand the relation between spiritual and worldly in Luther's theology ... the kingdom of the world is included within the scope of God's sovereignty ... When marriage is understood as a "worldly" estate in this sense, then it has actually been instituted as such by God." (Thielicke, 1964, pp. 137) One of the best understandings of what has been seen as Luther's ambivalence comes from Anders Nygren. We would like to offer here a key quote from Nygren, understanding, as we do, that reducing an insightful thesis to a single quote is less than fair to the author: "No one has equaled him (Luther) in the insistence that the worldly kingdom is God's own rule, just as definitely as the spiritual, and that God never allows the reins to fall from his hands ... (but) ... Luther knows very well that there is a Christian way to exercise power, as well as an unchristian way; and that it is the task and responsibility of the spiritual kingdom to teach how the sword, the secular power, is to be used in a Christian manner ... There is no confusing of the two kingdoms in this ... Ultimately it is always a call for a love that ministers.  This demand he makes of one as of the other." (Nygren, 1952,  p. 294).

As we move, then, from a physicalist approach to a personalist one, and from a classicist worldview to an historical one, we should not be surprised to find ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis at times, for ambivalence can indicate a search for truth. Thus, Pope John Paul the Second was able to say ambivalently that celibacy does not belong to the essence of the priesthood but that he was going to insist on it nonetheless; Vatican Two could espouse the classicist worldview sometimes, the historical worldview at other times; Augustine and Luther had to struggle with ambivalences in their own thinking -- all of which suggests that truth frequently germinates in ambivalence.  The difference lies in the fact that those with a classicist worldview are very unsettled by ambivalence and feel a need to resolve it by appealing to some absolute; those with an historical viewpoint expect ambivalence and see it as part of the evolutionary process.


We find striking parallels between what is happening in modern Roman Catholicism and the witness of Peter Abelard in the 12th, and of Joan of Arc in the 15th centuries.  Abelard tends to be remembered mostly for the events of his life: his love for Heloise; his secret act of intercourse with her in a convent refectory; his castration by Heloise's angry guardian; the exchange of love letters between he and Heloise; how his body was exhumed for desecration seven times before being left in peace.  It is, no doubt, the poignant story of two people who loved each other but felt obliged to do what is expected of Latin priests to this day -- choose the "life of the spirit" over the "life of the flesh", two life-styles that the church continues to see as incompatible for its priests and nuns.  Our interest here is in how Abelard carried in his person some of the tensions being lived out in the church today: as a monk, he was subjected to the asceticism and sex negativism that characterized the monastic environment; as a brilliant intellectual, he had an expansive mind that was tortured by the absolutist value system of the entrenched bureaucracy; as a lover, he was forbidden by the law of mandatory celibacy to express his love sexually. When he challenged the past, critiqued the present, and offered a new way of thinking for the future, his arch-rival and staunch defender of celibacy, Saint Bernard (although they were reconciled later) succeeded in having the pope declare Abelard a heretic.  The pope ordered that all his books should be burned.  Sadly, much of his work was destroyed.  Some scholars believe that the famous eight letters exchanged between Abelard and Heloise were doctored to show that Abelard returned to the sexual ethics of the official church later in life. (Dronke, 1976 pp. 491-501).  In Ethics 3, Abelard dared to mock the established sexual attitudes of the day: "If to lie with a wife or even to eat delicious food has been allowed us since the first day of our creation which was lived in paradise without sin, who will accuse us of sin in this if we do not exceed the limit of the concession?... They say marital intercourse should be performed wholly without pleasure. But, assuredly, if this is so, it was an unreasonable permission that allowed them to do it this way since, for sure, it cannot be done this way." (Luscombe, 1971, p. 21). Abelard sums up in his person, in his life, in his sexual ethic, the pain of alienation and misunderstanding endured by Roman Catholic theologians today who, like Abelard, turn the entrenched sexual ethic of today's church inside out and dare to suggest that the church should be purged of the remnants of Augustine's sexual ethic.

Abelard would feel more at home today in Roman Catholic academia than he did in his own time.  He would find, for example, that modern Roman Catholics are far less legalistic in their approach to sexual ethics than former generations.  He would, of course, find himself again on opposite sides to Anselm of Canterbury.  Gustaf Aulen notes, referring to the great Atonement debate, "The whole conception of Atonement (by Anselm) is juridical in its inmost essence... The relation of man to God is treated by Anselm as essentially a legal relation, for his whole effort is to prove that the atoning work is in accordance with justice". (Aulen, 1969, p. 90) . Abelard rejected the notion that Christ had to suffer and die so as to make satisfaction to the Father for the sins of men.  As Aulen writes: "He (Abelard) emphasizes especially that Christ is the great Teacher and Example who arouses responsive love in men; this love is the basis on which reconciliation and forgiveness rest". (ibid. p. 96). Anselm, on the other hand, "interpreted the doctrine of Atonement in terms of the satisfaction due to the outraged majesty of God". (Oxford, 1983, p. 61).

Since the main interest of our paper is sexuality, we do not wish to be distracted here by a theological debate from the middle ages.  However, we are interested in Anselm and Abelard because we hear in their individual theologies an echo of today's tension between a legalist vis a vis a personalist, and between a classicist vis a vis an historicalist approach to human sexuality.  Aulen writes: "Apart from a few isolated points, it cannot be said that Abelard's thought exercised any great influence in the Middle Ages". (ibid. p.96). Does this mean that the "modern Abelards" who are championing the cause of personalism and an
historical worldview in sexual matters will have little influence?  We think not.  Our main reason for saying so is because we are dealing with two very different social settings.  In the days of Anselm and Abelard, all matters were judged by juridical norms.  Thus, Anselm's approach to Atonement had a much better chance at acceptance than Abelard's since it was formulated in juridical terms, and that was the order of the day.  Modern people, by contrast, are not making sexual decisions juridically, as is evidenced, for example, by the millions who are cohabiting "illegally".  Anselm and Abelard are represented today by the juridical and personalist approach to human sexuality.  The same drama is on stage, but the audience is different.

We would also like to mention, in passing, another significant person of the medieval period -- Joan of Arc.  This leader of French armies has little to say to us about sexuality. Other than the fact that she defied the conventions of the day and wore male clothes, there is no record of her challenging the institution's sexual ethic, or engaging in any sexual activity (which may be why most artists paint her without breasts). Our interest in Joan is that she symbolizes today's feminist movement that has begun, like Joan and her army, to use a battering ram against the entrenched sexism of the church.  She typifies what we said earlier about the transition from classicist worldview to historical worldview because Joan defiantly shut out the ecclesiastical voices in favor of the inner voice of her own conscience.  When Rome canonized her in 1920, they delicately by-passed her defiant spirit and exalted her for her virginity.  Thus, a woman who has been called "the first Protestant" was entered in the book of saints and martyrs as a virgin.  History had been manipulated to support the status quo.


As far as sexuality is concerned, we would go so far as to offer this assumption: the radical re-interpretation of the Genesis story by Augustine can be compared, in our time, to the publication of the encyclical "Humanae Vitae" (1968) as far as impact on the Roman Catholic Church is concerned.  Augustine established sexual attitudes for centuries to come. History, we believe, will record how "Humanae Vitae" impacted the church just as profoundly, though in an entirely different way.  Augustine consolidated, "Humanae Vitae" divided.  We wish to elaborate on that here because it seems to us that "Humanae Vitae" did what it never intended to do, namely, it prompted "the man in the pew" to examine the relevance of the church's sexual ethic and, by way of spin-off, surfaced new questions about celibacy and abstinence.

Theologian Hans Kung describes revolution as "a fundamental transformation of an existing state of affairs. (Kung, 1978, p. 183). What we are witnessing, then, in Roman Catholicism today is nothing short of a revolution, one that will re-shape the sexual ethic of the church in time.  Central to this "revolution" is the movement from an institutional faith to a more personal faith, from form and structure to substance.  Many Roman Catholics received their identity from the institution.  The "faithful" were those who obeyed the pope, received his credal instructions obediently, recognized his infallibility, ordered their sexual lives according to his instructions and their church lives according to the prescriptions of canon law.  Faith and obedience were synonymous to "the man in the pew." He was Roman Catholic because he was "faithful" to form and structure.  Which is why it is so vital to many Catholics to hold onto old forms and old structures.  Their identities depend on it.  Indeed, we might say, their "faith" depends on it. Michael Valenti writes: "They seek refuge from the effects of radicalization through entrenchment behind the protective walls of an ever more adamant assertion of the old order in which ultimacy of the institution guaranteed the comfort of certainty in theological matters." (Valente, 1970, p. 94).

But the new man in the pew sees things differently.  He is no longer dependent for his identity on an “institutional faith".  Therefore, as he sees it, to question the sexual ethic of the institution does not constitute heresy.  His whole definition of heresy is different. Anything that is anti-human is anti-God in his eyes.  If he considers "Humanae Vitae" as anti-human (because  its demands frustrate his sexual life or disregards the world's population crisis) he can dismiss it without feeling heretical.  Many contemporary Roman Catholics can dispose of form and structure in favor of substance without feeling that they have lost their identity or their membership in the faith community.  This would have been unthinkable to former generations of Roman Catholics for to dissent would have been equivalent to heresy.  Also, natural law, as the basis for sexual morality, has been replaced by technological law in the minds of many Roman Catholics, while faith in Christ has replaced "institutional faith". Many Roman Catholics today base their value judgments on substance rather than on structure and form.  Thus, for instance, celibacy is judged as a distortion of the gospel because it is seen as anti-human, therefore, anti-God. Abstinence is not judged against the structure of marriage as much as it used to be.  The substance of a relationship is the primary interest.  Contemporary Roman Catholics, then, are "revolutionaries", indeed, for they find their worth, not in what the institutional church thinks of them, but in their sense of having been created to the image and likeness of God. They measure the quality of their faith, not against encyclicals and canonical canons, but by the level of their faith in Christ.

So, we ask: what kind of a church will modern men, women and youth relate to?  We feel that Michael Valente has the answer to our question: "(The) Church must exist to help men function better together as humans, not to impede that functioning ... Too often representatives of the institutional church have functioned in a vacuum.  They have moved and spoken within a universe of thought and discourse populated essentially by philosophical verities and essences rather than by existential facts of life and the realities of human situations." (op. cit.  p.100).

We have devoted some time to this matter because we believe that contemporary Roman Catholics are beginning to de-institutionalize their faith.  The "man in the pew" no longer feels obliged to conform to a structure (like mandatory celibacy) or to a sexual ethic (that tolerates covenant love expressed sexually in marriage only).  The burden is really on the institutional church itself to speak a sexual language that supports and directs individuals in their struggle for sexual fulfillment. Black and white is not enough for modern women and men who know that most of their lives are lived in the gray.


Eros was banished from the church.  A few harmless remnants of eros may be detected in contemporary Roman Catholicism -- for instance, the handshake that replaces the kiss of peace; the plunging of the Easter Candle into the baptismal bowl which originally symbolized copulation; churches with their penis shaped spires and vulva shaped entrances; the sensuous smearing of a new altar with oil when consecrated by a bishop; the religious pictures on the walls of Latin American brothels, and, of course, a central motif in most churches -- the cross, an ancient symbol of the "crossing" of male and female.  How many church people could accept the fact that Jesus died on a sexual symbol?  Apart from such innocuous symbols of sexuality whose original meanings have been removed from the consciousness of the faithful, our churches have been successfully purged of all conscious references to eros.  Add to this the fact that the Roman Catholic celebrant is expected to be one who does not associate with eros because of his celibacy and abstinence, and the purification is complete.

Even though Eros is presumed banished, it raises its head from time to time.  We find it in the so-called "spiritual Marriages" between nuns and Christ, in the special "devotional" relationship between some priests and the Virgin Mary.  It was very evident in St. Bernard (who opposed the sexual ethics of Abelard). Bernard's meditations on the Virgin Mary are filled with erotic imagery, leading Marina Warner to conclude: "The antinomy at the crux of Christian thinking lies nakedly exposed in Bernard's use of erotic imagery ... On this tragic tension, Christian discipline flourishes." (Warner, 1976, p.129). Then, there was Mechthild of Magdeburg who encouraged the novices to imagine themselves in love with Christ at the age of eighteen: "Then he took my soul into his divine arms, and placing his fatherly hand on my bosom, he looked into her face and kissed her well." (Taylor, 1970, p. 41). And Veronica Giuliani (beatified by Pope Pius the Second) who, in memory of Jesus as the Lamb of God, took a lamb to bed with her every night and had it suckle her breasts. (ibid. p.42). Though officially banished, eros has been tenacious.

Hans Kung takes the church to task for attempting to banish eros.  After acknowledging that there is a difference between selfish love and self-giving love, Kung goes on to say that "the distinction between selfish love and true love is not identical with
the distinction between eros and agape." (Kung, 1978, p . 261).  By identifying eros with selfish love, according to Kung, the church felt justified in banishing eros.

Kung volleys with a series of questions: "Could not someone desire another person and yet be able at the same time to give himself?  And, on the other hand, is not a person who gives himself also permitted to desire the other? ... Does not the God of the Old Testament, for instance, desire his people Israel passionately...?" (ibid. p. 261). Kung concludes: "Education hostile to eros and more especially religious attitudes opposed to eros and sexuality have caused an enormous amount of harm ... When eros is depreciated, agape is overvalued and dehumanized ... leaving a love that is totally unattractive.  When love is merely a decision of the will and not also a venture of the heart, it lacks genuine humanity.  It lacks depth, warmth, intimacy, tenderness, cordiality.  Christian charity often made little impression just because it had so little humanity." (ibid. p. 262).

Celibacy was used by the church to demonstrate that the sexual had been separated from the spiritual, that agape had triumphed over eros.  The obsolete Freudian notion of sublimation was used to demonstrate how eros can be swallowed up by agape.  In his classic work "Eros and Agape", Anders Nygren goes so far as to say that "the doctrine of Eros stands in the center dominating both these ways, both ascent to and descent from the ONE." (Nygren, 1953, p.195).


We would like to say something here about liberation theology.  Liberation is often confused with emancipation.  People emancipate people.  God liberates people.  As we know from the testimonies of people in concentration camps under Hitler, some were liberated, though not emancipated.  Liberation is a result of intimacy with God, of a divine embrace which gives meaning to life, even in the midst of suffering.  Applied to sexuality, then, liberation theologians are not interested in who copulates with whom, but, rather, they would see sexual expression, not so much as freedom FROM restrictions, but as freedom FOR self expression.  As one of the leading proponents of liberation theology, Leonard Boff, writes: "Thus human intimacy and innerness brings the mystery of human beings closer to the supreme mystery which we call God.” (Boff, 1976 p. 187). Boff also sees a necessary connection between love and suffering.  Love, and by inference, love expressed sexually, is a living out of the dying-and-rising cycle of life itself. Since love has a suffering component, Boff sees no value in asceticism.  Love and its sexual expression are unavoidably ascetical in themselves since they involve life's mix of pleasure and pain: "The fact is that love makes sense only in connection with suffering.  It is not that love is rooted in suffering but rather that suffering finds its real roots in love ... Thus asceticism has no meaning in itself. " ( ibid. p. 99)

He criticizes the church for positioning itself as the dispenser of God's grace, for deciding who is graced, who is "disgraced." As far as Boff is concerned, the situation, not the church, determines the "gracefulness" of an experience.  Thus, logically, he would see good sexual experiences as graced experiences: "Now if we do live and move within the divine milieu of grace, then any situation is capable of introducing us to the experience of grace". (ibid. p. 89).

In the previous section we discussed the different worldviews -- the classicist and the historical -- and their impact on sexual ethics.  No body of theologians in the church, since the scholastics, has been so successful in institutionalizing a particular worldview, namely the historical, than have the liberation theologians.  The "father of liberation theology", G. Gutierrez, writes: 'History is the scene of the revelation God makes of the mystery of his person." (Concilium, 1974).  Assmann goes so far as to say that the historical situation is "the primary text for the theology of liberation . (Assmann, 1976, p.104).

It is easy to understand Rome's discomfort with liberation theology.  While Rome lumbers along with moral absolutes and dogmas that have never been reformulated so as to be relevant to the contemporary world, the liberation theologians have little time for "the study" of theology.  They "do theology".  How they "do it" is determined by the historical situation.  Consequently, when it comes to sexuality, for instance, their interest is not so much in the "material" aspects of sexuality -- whether condom use is moral or immoral -- but in grander issues like the liberation of women from a position of sexual objectification. Also, in the area of sexuality, they reject the tradition that puts agape in opposition to eros and libido.

Leonard Boff writes: " . . . love too is an ontological structure in human beings.  It can be articulated in many different concrete forms: eros, libido, friendship ... Far from being inimical to each other, they are ordered to one another in a single movement that keeps seeking the other and finally ends up in the absolute Other, God." (op. cit. p.167).

We have given here a very limited presentation of liberation theology.  Our purpose, however, is not a study of liberation theology in itself, which would take volumes, but rather an attempt to identify particular aspects of liberation theology that we consider relevant to our thesis.  Committed to an historical worldview, opposed to the separation of eros and agape, champion of sexual equality, liberation theology goes beyond sexual emancipation to sexual liberation, thus making God the great Liberator of  the sexually disenfranchised.  Would not those who are under the yoke of mandatory celibacy be numbered among the sexually disenfranchised?  We believe so.


Liberation theologians like to dwell on the story of the Exodus for this is a story of liberation effected by God, therefore, redemptive.  The Exodus event has captured the theological imaginations of theologians north of the border in a new way and is being applied by them historically.  As Elizabeth O'Connor writes: "The old us fights to maintain things as they are, clinging to that which is known and secure and promises protection.  We cannot overcome our dependences and fear, and acquire a whole new liberating attitude, and at the same time keep everything as it is ... But camp will have to be broken again for we are the People of the Exodus.  The long trek of bondage is not over." (O'Connor, 1976, p.18). These words might have been written by Brazilians Assman or Boff, by Chile's Galilea, by Peru's Gutierrez, by Mexico's Mirandag or by Uruguay's Segundo.  Liberation theology has come north across the border. With it have come new definitions of redemption, such as the one proposed by Dick Westley: "Redemption is just another name for learning the lessons of intimacy. (Westley, 1981, p.103).

The sexual dimension of Liberation Theology south of the border has "found its home" north of the border in the single word "intimacy".  Indeed, intimacy is seen, not only as the purpose of sexual activity, but as a way of judging that activity's moral worth, for true intimacy is a fleshed experience of God, the One who liberates through intimacy.  Thus, American theologians are nudging us away from seeing the Incarnation as some sort of morality play to experiencing the humanness of God in our own flesh.  This is a long way from Aquinas for whom sexual activity was moral if it were done for the right purpose
(procreation), with the right person (spouse), in the right way (man on top).  Even the leaders of spirituality are centering on human intimacy as a way of experiencing divine intimacy.  Thus, Roman Catholicism's leading writer on spiritual matters, Henri Nouwen, who spent some time in Latin America breathing in the new theology of liberation, says that contemporary men and women "are always operating out of a power mode.  To sustain that sort of life, they must be armed against their fellows and one another.  They are constantly on the alert, watching lest they be taken, and anxious to spot in the other any, weakness they might exploit to their own advantage. They live constantly in a war-emergency posture; they are not at peace, and so love and intimacy are not even looked upon as possibilities by them". (Nouwen, 1969, pp. 23-37).

Dick Westley makes this bold assertion: "The truth is that intimacy is both a human and a Gospel imperative; we can be neither human nor Christian without it.  There is no use our any longer pretending to love everyone in general (Christian charity) if we are not willing to risk being intimate with someone in particular." (op. cit. p.105). When Latin American liberation theologians and their American counterparts hear Jesus calling on people to give up their lives so as to find life, they do not interpret this, as the scholastics did, as a reference to heaven, eternal life, or martyrdom but, rather, as a call to take the risk of intimacy since, in intimacy, we sacrifice surface life for authentic life.  Thus, our churches are inhabited by two types; those who are "religious" and refuse to go forward; those who are "faithful" and refuse to go backwards, those who see intimacy as an introduction to sexual license, and those who see intimacy as an introduction to the Incarnation.

It is hard to imagine that all these new attitudes to life, to the world, to human intimacy, to personalism, to liberation, will not have a profound effect on how we view celibacy and abstinence.  Those who are open to read "the signs of the times" can see that we are experiencing a new Exodus and a new Pentecost in human sexuality.  It is more than emancipation.  It is liberation.


Thus far we have relied on the theologians to move us forward.  We wish to turn, briefly, now to a "secular" source, to one who has contributed in a unique way to an incarnational understanding of the divine presence in human sexual activity -- D.H. Lawrence.  Hounded and harassed all his life for the graphic sex scenes in his novels and poetry, little appreciation was shown to the deep spirituality that lay beneath the surface of his explicit descriptions of sexual encounters.  It could be argued that Lawrence predates the incarnational theologians of today.

If we look behind the "Physicalism" of Lawrence’s erotic scenes, we see ritual.  All contacts, whether between man and woman, or between humans and nature, are expressions of a spiritual communion for Lawrence.  For communion was central to his thinking -- communion sacred, or communion debased.  Mark Spilka writes: "For just as the essence of religious ritual is communion so Lawrence saw all deeply significant contacts ... as spontaneous forms of communion." (Spilka, 1966, p. 24).

If we look closely at some of the scenes in his novels, we find a spiritual dimension to what he is saying, as, for instance, in "St.  Mawr", the relationship of Lou Witt and her husband to the horse is a mirror of the relationship between this married couple; when Gerald and Gudrum attempt to tame a stubborn rabbit in "Women in Love", it mirrors how they are destroying the flame of life in each other.  Lawrence's preoccupation with flowers in sexually explicit scenes demonstrates one of his fundamental beliefs: that men and women must be in communion with nature in order to experience life.  The sexual episodes in his novels are ritual enactments of a basic religious conviction that sex is communion that has the power to nourish or debase the human spirit.  Spilka also sees in Lawrence's scenes of explosive sexual passion an expression of what prayer meant to Lawrence.  He was cynical of the "correctness" that Christians bring to prayer since it manifested no passionate outpouring of the heart.  Explosive sex, Lawrence is saying (according to Spilka), is explosive prayer (op.cit. p. 34).  Dianna Trilling believes that all the characters who move in and out of the pages of Lawrence’s works in search of the spiritual are "but slightly modified projections of Lawrence himself." (Trilling, 1946, p.15).  In line with the liberation theologians, Lawrence, according to Diana Tilling, resented the banishment of eros by Christianity.  He resented the fact, as Tilling puts it, that "Christianity thinned out the blood with ideal love." (op. cit. p. 23).

Harry T. Moore says that love was the heart of Lawrence's message: "Love was the answer: passionate love, not willed or mentally controlled love -- the product of a crippling civilization -- but a love that would burn out shame and all other hampering elements." (Moore, 1953, p.19).  We see here an interesting comparison with Augustine.  As Lawrence sees it: love is central and sexual passion burns out shame.  As Augustine sees it: love is central and sexual passion burns in shame.  Lawrence would applaud the emphasis on intimacy in contemporary theology.  In one of his essays, Lawrence expressed his frustration at the lack of intimacy in the world: "We are all extremely "nice" to one another, because we merely fear one another." (Moore, 1953).

Lawrence went the way of many prophets.  The publisher of Lady Chatterly's Love in Japan was tried and convicted (1953) since the book was considered an affront to the monogamous values of that tradition.  A book seller in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was fined and imprisoned for selling the book to an undercover agent of the New England Watch & Ward Society.  Lawrence's writings led to heated debates in the British Parliament where the Obscene Publications Act that dated back to 1857 was invoked against his works. Lawrence had his defenders too.  Aldous Huxley wrote that "D.H. Lawrence has written very beautifully (about) the sexuality of Eden". (Moore,  op. cit. p. 30). A powerful literary voice had anticipated the chorus of theological voices that would call for a return of Eros to "her" rightful place in the economy of Christian spirituality.


We conclude this paper with a futurist who has looked into his crystal ball many times in the past and whose prognostications have been uncannily accurate. Eugene Kennedy has this to say: " Instead of drawing all things to Rome, Rome will increasingly be drawn out to embrace the wealth of diversity in the human family it serves.  Issues such as celibacy will not be debated away; they will rather become less important and will be resolved in the context of a Church no longer strongly identified with the bitter struggles of Western Europe in the Middle Ages.  The American Church will not be surprised at such changes.  It already feels them in its bones..." (Kennedy, 1984, p.171).

In this paper we have quoted from a variety of sources.  However, we are inclined to believe, with Eugene Kennedy, that issues such as mandatory celibacy and the absoluteness of sexual abstinence will not be "debated away" but will become as irrelevant to people of tomorrow as the great medieval debate about justification is to people today. We feel it in our bones.

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