Catholics For Choice
Sex and Power
By Daniel C. Maguire
a primer on educating bishops
Here is the surprising
news. The Catholic bishops are not all that interested in sex.
As far as I have been able to discover, bishops do not walk around
all day lasciviously savoring sexual images. Some of them may
do that, and perhaps it would be better if more of them did that,
as long as they found nonviolent ways of expressing their obsession.
They might then have less time to investigate nuns and harass
politicians and pretend in the press that they are theologians
although most could not pass a graduate (undergraduate?) exam
I will grant that the
bishops do talk a lot about sexual matters but mainly to say how
awful it all is. They have a plausible claim to being the leaders
in the "Just Say No To Sex Movement." They say no to
stem cell research, no to contraception, no to abortions, no to
same-sex marriage. They even say no to masturbation, a topic that
does not much concern the rest of the Christian Right. That is
carrying the no-to-sex thing a bit too far. Masturbation, after
all, has a claim to innocence. No one gets pregnant; no one gets
a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and someone has a wonderful
time. You would think they would have spared that one. But no.
Our bishops are nothing but thorough in their war against sex.
What then is the agenda
of these bishops in their crusade against sexual joy? Here I turn
to Thomas Aquinas for help. Poor Thomas had a lot of trouble with
bishops who were always condemning himI know the feelingand
I'm sure he would be happy to help us. Thomas said that every
negation is based on an affirmation. Stretching that a bit, if
people are obsessed with denouncing something they are usually
up to something else. What the bishops are up to is power. The
bishops want power. They want control. They want to influence
political elections, and do so from "tax exempt" properties.
The bishops want to exercise thought control in universities and
the press; they want to control all Catholic pulpits lest prophetic
freedom find a home there. And they want to control the sexual
and reproductive lives of people, Catholic or not. All of that
is a tad arrogant.
Here is the good news.
The bishops have a problem, but there is a cure. Education. It
won't be easy. Students who think they are divinely inspired are
a challenge to any teacher. Still, it is worth trying and here's
why. For better or for worse, bishops have more clout in society
than most other religious leaders. When they use it well, it is
lovely. When Congress was moving toward a particularly vicious
piece of anti-immigrant legislation, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of
Los Angeles spoke out against it saying he would tell his priests
to disobey that law if it passed. Congress blinked and returned
to its inhospitable ruminations.There is a reason for that social
power. Compare the arrival of a bishop to a Catholic diocese with
the arrival of a new Presbyterian church leader. I love Presbyterians
but their inauguration liturgies are just plain dull. When a bishop
comes to take over a diocese the event is operatic. He arrives
dressed in medieval garb with a gilded crown and a large glistening
staff in hand. The doors of the cathedral are barred to him. He
knocks and knocks again and then with the blare of trumpets the
doors open, he is received into the church, and the medieval pageantry
unfolds. Presbyterians, eat your heart out.
People notice things
like that. Theater speaks with a booming voice where feeble texts
and iconoclastic ceremonies wither into boredom. We are liturgical
animals and Catholicism is liturgically rich. Hence
my controversial conclusion: bishops are worth educating.
Since bishops like to listen to bishops, we can work with that.
It will seem less presumptuous. We don't want to be presumptuous;
we want to be nice and we want to help them. The old canon law
spoke the obvious when it said that "the bishops, whether
teaching individually or gathered in particular councils, are
not endowed with infallibility" (Canon 1326,cic 1917).
It's good to know that. The Second Vatican Council echoed that
wisdom. There the bishops spoke (at times) with a noble humility.
In The Church in the Modern World they write: "Let the
laity not imagine that pastors are always such experts, that to
every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily
give a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission."
That is a refreshingly beautiful statement.
Moral matters are complicated.
As Thomas Aquinas said moral matters involve "an infinity
of diverse circumstances" (quasi infinitae diversitates).
Take abortion, for example. Now there is a complicated issue full
of "diverse circumstances" and it is wise as the bishops
say not to imagine that bishops are experts on all such matters
or "even that it is their mission." Playing at being
infallible is not in the bishops' job description.
Just take these cases
from real, complicated life, and see how wise it would be not
to pretend to be infallible.
1: A woman is happily pregnant, two months pregnant. She is diagnosed
with cancer requiring immediate chemotherapy treatment which also
attacks the fetus. She aborts.
Case 2: In spite of
her best contraceptive efforts a woman gets pregnant. She has
a heart condition which would put her at high risk of dying if
she stayed pregnant. She aborts.
Case 3: A young woman
is bi-polar, manic depressive and her psychotic condition pregnant
in spite of her best efforts. Lithium would devastate the cardiovascular
system of the fetus and probably already has. She aborts.
Case 4: A nine-year-old
Nicaraguan girl is raped and impregnated. She cannot bear a child
at her age without disastrous effects on her body as well as on
her mind. An abortion is arranged.
Case 5: A case was
once brought to the attention of Fr. Bernard Haring, the distinguished
Redemptorist moral theologian. After removing a tumor from the
uterus of a pregnant woman, a surgeon in Germany could not stop
the bleeding. He removed the non-viable fetus so that the uterus
would contract. It did and the woman survived and a Catholic surgeon
had performed a direct abortion. A priest told the surgeon he
had acted wrongly. The surgeon appealed to Fr. Haring. Fr. Haring
disagreed, saying the surgeon acted morally and properly. He had
saved as much life as was possible. Fr. Haring asked: by what
thinking could the fetus have such a right to life that it could
kill both itself and the woman by exercising it? Such rights,
he said, do not exist.
Case 6. Alicja Tysiac,
in 2000, was advised that her pregnancy, if carried to term, would
cause blindness. She was forbidden to abort and lost nearly all
her eyesight. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in her
favor saying she should have been allowed to abort.
Case 7: In 2005, the
UN Human Rights Committee ruled that Peru violated the rights
of a 17-year-old girl who was forced to carry to term an anencephalitic
fetus, missing most of its forebrain and unable to survive outside
the womb. The International Covenant on Civil and Political rights
ordered Peru to pay reparations and establish a framework for
women to access therapeutic abortions.
Case 8: In 2006 the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made Mexico pay a 13-year-old
rape victim who was forced to give birth $40,000, plus a stipend
for her son's education. Few ethicists in any of the world's religions
would argue that abortion is immoral in those cases. Recognizing
complexity is the beginning of wisdom on abortion or any other
SHOULD WE SILENCE
Of course not. They
have freedom of speech and like all of us they have an obligation
to use it well and to display an appropriate modesty when addressing
truly complicated moral issues on which good and wise people can
and do disagree. Where do we go for an example of that?
Back to the bishops.
In November of 1966,
the American bishops spoke out on the morality of the American
war in Vietnam. They spoke with modesty and sincerity, which is
good, since they were dead wrong. Still, their manner of teaching
was exemplary and could provide them now with a paradigm for addressing
other complicated issues. Here is the admirable way they began:
We realize that
citizens of all faiths and of differing political loyalties honestly
differ among themselves over the moral issues involved in this
tragic conflict. While we do not claim to be able to resolve these
issues authoritatively, in the light of the facts as they are
known to us, it is reasonable to argue
What a marvelous way
to teach. What a model that offers today's bishops when they move
into those pelvic zone issues that so consume them. Using their
own example, here is how bishops should teach on same-sex marriages.
We realize that
citizens of all faiths and of differing political loyalties honestly
differ among themselves over the moral issues involved in same-sex
marriages. While we do not claim to be able to resolve those issues
authoritatively, in the light of the facts as they are known to
us, it is reasonable to argue
Who could object to
that, even if we judge them wrong, as they were in defending the
We don't want the bishops
to be accused of a double standard: total rigor and absoluteness
on sexual and reproductive matters, modesty on little things like
state-sponsored slaughter, that is, war. That's not what we want
from the bishops. That would make them look silly and lopsided
in their moral judgment, and we don't want that. We don't want
them squandering their moral authority on issues where they have
no privileged expertise. That hamstrings any good they might do
in advocating prophetically on basic issues of justice and peace.
IN PRAISE OF CARDINAL
to our theme of "bishops educating bishops," I turn
next to the words of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, in his younger
and saner period. In his commentary on the Second Vatican Council,
he said: Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim
of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience,
which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against
therequirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on confronts
him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the
last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even
of the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition
to increasing totalitarianism. (Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary
on the Documents of Vatican II. Vol. 5, 1976.) What the cardinal,
some day to be pope, was saying is that bishops and popes who
try to usurp the sacred prerogatives of conscience are totalitarian
and need lessons humble of heart." This reflects the wisdom
of Cardinal John Henry Newman when he famously said he would toast
the pope, only after toasting his own conscience. Only in cults
are religious leaders taken to be a substitute for conscience.
next cardinal in this primer for educating bishops is Cardinal
Avery Dulles, of somewhat happy memory. Though theologian Dulles,
like theologian Ratzinger, did not age well he spoke with brilliance
in his presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society
of America. He was addressing the question of hierarchical authority
over conscience and the proper response to hierarchical teaching.
He said that the Second Vatican Council "implicitly taught
the legitimacy and even the value of dissent." The Council,
Dulles said, conceded "that the ordinary magisterium of the
Roman Pontiff had fallen into error, and had unjustly harmed the
careers of loyal and able theologians."
He mentioned John Courtney
Murray, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar. Dulles
said that certain teachings of the hierarchy "seem to evade
in a calculated way the findings of modern scholarship. They are
drawn up without broad consultation with the theological community.
Instead, a few carefully selected theologians are asked to defend
a pre-established position....
" He concludes:
"We shall insist on the right, where we think it important
for the good of the Church, to urge positionsat variance with
those that are presently official." Office holders who are
being harassed by conservative bishops, the likes of Burke, Tobin
and Morlino, take heart and stand your ground. You can disagree
with these fellows; and when they are wrong, it is a good idea
to do so.
On another occasion,
speaking at the Catholic University of America, Dulles wondered
whether Thomas Aquinas "if he were alive today
be welcome at the Catholic University of America." Dulles
did not limit the term "magisterium" to the bishops
and popes and he insisted that the "magisterium of the professors"
relies "not on formal authority but rather on the force of
reason." He aligned himself with St. Thomas Aquinas' view
that "with the growth of the great universities the bishops
could no longer exercise direct control over the content of theological
teaching." Their role, Dulles insisted, "was primarily
pastoral, rather than academic."
To assume power you
do not have is the very definition of despotism. This is the kind
of power the bishops use when they plow into debatable issues
of morality and politics and use every weapon in their power to
impose their control, including sacramental sanctions. And they
don't do this consistently.
They assume the authority
to say who should and who should not receive sacramental Communion.
Sacramental sanctions are out of order. There may be, I concede,
a certain attractiveness to the idea of denying Communion to those
of another political hue, but even that would be wrong. An informed
conscience is the only guide to the Communion rail. No bishop
has a right to block the aisle. It is interesting in a pathetic
sort of way that the bishops who use the sacrament as weapon do
not use it on poverty mongers, war makers and earth wreckers,
but only on those who support sexual and reproductive rights.
It is here they try to marshal their power and impose their will.
It is not for me but for their therapists to help them understand
this preferential option for pelvic zone issues as the expression
of episcopal power.
A PRAYERFUL TIMEOUT
We should build prayer
into our reeducation project for the bishops. Praying to saints
is a very Catholic thing. The bishops may already do that but
it seems they leave out some of the greatest saints in Christian
history. My suggestion, humbly proffered, is this: The bishops
should stop their lobbying in congressional offices and kneel
for a moment to say a prayer to Saints Sergius and Bacchus, fourth-century
male saints, whose marriage to one another is depicted in a seventh-century
icon housed in the Kiev Museum of Eastern and Western Art. Jesus
is in the picture as the pronubus, or "best man," the
official witness of the same-sex union. For a long time in Christian
early history, same-sex unions were liturgically performed as
John Boswell pointed out in his book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern
Europe. Perhaps in the illumination that prayer to these two gay
saints may provide, the bishops would realize that marriage is
not an award for being heterosexual. It is a human good and an
epic of interpersonal love and commitment.
While in a prayerful
mood, the bishops should then pray to Saint Antoninus, Archbishop
of Florence, canonized in 1523, and the premier theologian of
marriage in his day. Regarding abortion, this saintly bishop was
prochoice for early abortions when necessary to save the woman's
life, a large category involving many abortions in the medical
conditions of that day. A prayer to this saintly prochoice fellow
bishop could help to illuminate the minds of theologically challenged
My plan to educate
bishops would seem zany and hopeless were there not examples of
bishops behaving wonderfully. The current bishop of Killaloe in
Ireland spoke recently with Dublin journalists, including the
BBC. Bishop Willie Walsh said he wanted to see "another Pope
John xxiii." (That was hardly a compliment to the current
papal incumbent.) Such a new pope, said Bishop Walsh, would open
up discussion about critical issues in the church, particularly
the exclusion of women from the priesthood as well as optional
celibacy. Bishop Walsh also expressed sadness about the Catholic
hierarchy's attitudes to homosexuality and its policy of refusing
the Eucharist to couples who have remarried.He also challenged
Vatican skittishness about Protestant Christians receiving the
Eucharist, saying that he never suggested to Church of Ireland
members that they were not welcome to receive the sacrament in
his churches in the Diocese of Killaloe. Now that is an educated
bishop. The United States has no comparably educated bishops but
that could happen if our plan to educate them succeeds.
A few years ago, the
bishop of Maputo, Mozambique, came to say Mass at one of his parishes.
Afterwards he took questions from the congregation. The first
question was, "What is the church's position on condom use?"
The question, posed from an AIDS-ravaged continent related to
the Vatican's weird and lethal teaching that condoms cannot be
used even if one's partner is HIV positive. "God clearly
tells us that we must protect life at all costs. Not to do so
is a serious sin against God," the bishop replied. He continued,
using the ABC rule: "What does this mean to you and to me?
It means that A is for abstinence and looking around at all of
you today, many of you cannot live by this advice. Let us be realistic;
few if any of you can abstain. Which brings us to B, be faithful.
Some of you are faithful
many of you are not. So that leaves
us with C, condoms. Now many of you believe that condoms are a
crime against God, that wasted semen is a sin, but I am here today
to tell you otherwise. You see, if you are hiv positive and you
have unprotected sex and infect someone, you have, in the eyes
of God committed murder. Or if you are HIV negative and you have
unprotected sex with someone who is infected, you have in the
eyes of God, committed suicide." He concluded: "So,
my children, wearing a condom is not a sin
not wearing one
congregation took this advice and ran with it. According to the
witness of this liturgy, "Sunday church services will never
be the same, as now, every Sunday, part of the celebration is
the blessing of the condoms." Now there is a blessing you
can believe in.
The South African Catholic
bishop Kevin Dowling gives the same message and no thunderbolts
from the Vatican have struck him. In 2005, 47 percent of pregnant
women in his diocese tested positive for hiv. "The only solution
we have at the moment is condoms," said Bishop Dowling.
In the final exam that
we give to the bishops they must be able to distinguish between
Catholic theology and Vatican theology. Catholic theology is broader,
more ecumenical, more professional, more scholarly and better
informed by real life experience than Vatican theology.
Once they learn that
they will be better Catholics and they will be better prepared
to use what power they have to bring "good news to the poor"
and peace to this battered earth.
C. Maguire teaches Moral Theology and Ethics at Marquette University
in Milwaukee. He is president of the Religious Consultation on
Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics.
this page to a friend!