frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND SEX by Jane Barnes [Barnes is the co-writer of FRONTLINE's John Paul II-The Millennial Pope]

the virgin maryThis subject is a flaming match. Drop it in a room of differing opinions and watch the room explode. John Paul II is often seen as the prime arsonist, but his positions are, in truth, not that incendiary. He belongs to the conservative mainstream within the Catholic Church. In fact, he helped define this position when he supported Paul VI's stand in "Humanae Vitae"--the 1968 encyclical that recognized the revolutionary changes in modern life but stood against easing the difficulties which had arisen. In spite of rapid population growth, women's rights and the development of safe methods of abortion and artificial birth control, "Humanae Vitae" condemned abortion and banned use of contraceptives. Those positions make odd bedfellows, so to speak, with the Vatican's stand against homosexuality and women's ordination. Yet, they are linked in interesting ways in people's minds. This emerged in the course of a roundtable discussion we videotaped which explored the root connection in these issues. Here's a sampling of opinions from it:

"There's a hatred of women's sexuality. I don't know if that's the root connection, but I think it could be."
--Sister Mara Faulkner, OSB

"Rebellion. Confusion about the differences between men and women. In our age, sex is an obsession. We have a distorted view of sexuality which is un-human. The Church must stand against the spirit of the age."
--Dale O'Leary, a Catholic journalist

"The Church has no theological understanding of where human sexuality stands in the whole scheme of salvation...They are saying the world is flat. Whenever you want to talk about birth control in their terms, they say the earth is flat. Their view is act-oriented, not relational. How is sex relational to real people, to world population, to power? They won't take the questions on."
--Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest and author of several books about celibacy

"The Church is hung up on sex. It's hung up on a physical quality that has very little meaning."
--Sister Nancy Hynes, OSB

"All of these come under gender issues. Why is [the Pope] this way about gender issues? It was there in Greek culture. You didn't have this in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The division between body and mind goes back to Greek culture."
-- Ron Modras, former Catholic priest and Professor of Religion at Washington University in St. Louis

The Church's stances on these issues--gays, women's ordination, contraception, abortion--are all also determined by principles of Catholic theology. Though many people at the roundtable knew this theology and referred to it, there was no chance to go over the principles with any precision. According to Catholic doctrine and tradition, sex must be generative. In "Humanae Vitae," Paul VI said men and women "collaborate with God in begetting and rearing new lives." Thus birth control is unacceptable, according to John Paul II in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, because it "contradicts the full sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love." Clearly, if conception has occurred, it's logical and necessary to say that life cannot be put to death--hence the ban against abortion. Homosexual sex is not procreative, so it is banned. The question is, how is generative sex related to women's ordination? The answer: both depend on the importance of the differences between the sexes.

Two Sexes

For the Catholic Church, generative sex comes through the union of the biological male and female. In vitro fertilization, for instance, is not generative. If the science existed so that a male could carry the fetus, the Catholic Church would oppose it. In Genesis, God created us male and female, one or the other. We cannot choose our sex for ourselves; nor can we experiment with our bodies to make them something other or more than what they were physically designed to do. At the Resurrection, we will be either male or female, as we were in life, when our souls join our reunified bodies. Our consultant, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, who knows the Pope, said that the difference between the sexes is crucial to him. In fact, he said the Pope's world would fall apart if this difference was effaced or undone.

The physical reality of the two biological sexes presages or is the analogy for spiritual truth. As Evelyn Birge Vitz puts it in Crisis magazine, "At the mystical level, the Church is the Bride of Christ, living only in relation to him, obedient to him: Christ is the head and husband of the Church." If women were ordained, according to this argument, it would disturb the sacrament of holy orders as described in scripture. The Church is the bride, Christ is the bridegroom. "This view derives from the understanding of Israel as not merely God's chosen people but as his wife," Vitz writes. "The prophets, Isaiah in particular, speak sometimes poetically and idealistically of Israel as God's beloved bride--Jerusalem is 'wedded' to the Lord." We live in a society where mainstream corporations are giving medical benefits to same sex couples under liberalized domestic partner policies. It is hard for us--especially Americans--to credit the incredible urgency of preserving clear boundaries between the two sexes. Dale O'Leary put it this way, "The problem with the age is that people no longer understand signs. They don't understand that our nature is to be a sign. We're called to be a sign. Womanhood is called to be a sign of the church: a virgin, a bride, a mother. And men are called to be bridegrooms."

Many people we talked to, especially conservative women who agreed with the Pope, said the theology was too complex to be properly represented on television. Joyce Little, author of The Church and the Culture Wars, said, "A sound bite can't cover this...We have sunk deeply into relativity. The Pope stands for the Splendor of the Truth. But you can't do this on TV. You have to start out with whether there is a truth."

Susan Mangels expressed a variation on that theme. As a Catholic, she accepts the apostolic succession. She believes the Pope's teaching (the tradition) has been handed down from the beginning of the Church. In her pre-interview, she said, "The Pope's authority comes from revelation, from Christ...Americans believe faith is supposed to be democratic. There is a lot of ignorance. That's a very American ideal. We're naive. We think we can work everything out. We think just because our country is democratic, our faith should be...But you don't want the guiding principles of your life to be based on general consensus."


The liberal critique of the Catholic positions on birth control, abortion, homosexuality and women's ordination are more familiar than the theological complexities of the positions themselves. There are also important refinements to the Catholics' stand on homosexuals which are not generally known. The Church is correctly perceived as stern, even punishing on this subject; the Church has softened its stand toward homosexuality but homosexual acts are still "intrinsically evil." In 1986, the Vatican issued a letter to the Bishops on "The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons." It forbid any support ("even the semblance of support") for groups that did not clearly oppose homosexual acts. The letter contained a slightly veiled suggestion that gays were to blame for the AIDS epidemic. In 1992, the Vatican demanded that American bishops oppose all gay rights legislation--even legislation that didn't bind the Church. What was suggestive in the 1986 document was vicious here. The letter compared homosexuality to a contagious disease or mental illness.

Yet, while a person can be ex-communicated for talking about women's ordination, a gay or lesbian person can remain a faithful Catholic and have a homosexual relationship. This is because the Catholic Church teaches the primacy of conscience. As it says in a recent Dignity press release: "The Church teaches right and wrong, but never says who is a sinner. Only God knows our hearts. Many homosexual people simply cannot believe gay sex as such is wrong. So they do what for them is "the best they can do," though Church teaching says that homogenital acts are wrong. Still, according to the same Church's teaching on conscience, they do not sin in their hearts nor before God. Then they need not confess what is not sin, and they may participate in the Sacraments of the Church." Many Catholic homosexuals feel so badly about the way the Church views them that they no longer attend. But they could, just as those dying of AIDS could receive last rites if it weren't so difficult to take final comfort from a Church which blames the victim.

As much passion as the subject of the Catholic Church and sex stirs, as much heated discussion as it provokes, there is a huge body of theory, learning and tradition behind the positions the Pope speaks for. He could not change them if he wanted to. Nothing will change in Rome on these questions until the theology changes, and the Catholic Church is not known for moving quickly. It will take years, if ever, before the Vatican approves birth control, accepts homosexuality and ordains women.

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