The End of Absolute Sexual Morality? No.

Kyle Cupp at Vox Nova writes, in The End of Absolute Sexual Morality, that

Christian moral reasoning is typically absolutist–i.e., based on absolute principles–and its approach to sexual moral norms is no exception. Embracing homosexuality as a valid sexual expression goes hand-in-hand with letting go of these traditional sexual norms.

The problem with this analysis is that it conflates the “absolute” part with the “traditional” part.

Christian moral reasoning does indeed typically rely on absolute, rather than relative, principles. So do other types of moral reasoning. What ought to distinguish Christian moral reasoning is that those absolute principles are derived from, or at least coherent with, the core values of the gospel, which is the heart of the Christian life.

I’ve long been perplexed by the identification of “traditional sexual morality” as a critical element of the church, as if traditional sexual norms were somehow derived from an independent source of equal importance with the core gospel values.

In fact, they are derived from an independent source: they were more or less uncritically taken over from the Jewish cultural matrix of time, which had two characteristics that should raise some suspicion. It was a patriarchal culture, with the concomitant issues of women being less equal than men, and access to women’s sexuality being controlled by men. And it was a culture that defined itself over against the Gentiles, who were stereotyped as sexually immoral as well as idolaters. These traditional sexual norms were thus one of the instruments maintaining a hierarchy between insiders (Jewish men), semi-insiders (Jewish women and Gentile God-fearers), and outsiders (Gentiles). That doesn’t mean that they are inherently bad and should obviously be discarded; but it does mean that we should scrutinize them critically for coherence with the gospel.

Catholic moral reasoning was for many years based on natural law, rather than on the gospel. One of the great reforms of Vatican II was to re-orient Catholic moral theology on the gospel… which happened in every subdiscipline except the area of sexual morality, which stubbornly continues to reason about the “right uses” of our sexuality (and in practice, only about our sexual bits, our genitalia) based on biology (and in practice, only in terms of procreation). This is disjointed both biologically (because our sexuality is more pervasive than our genitalia, and our biology as sexual beings involves more than just procreation) and theologically (because it is not sourced in the gospel).

The work of Catholic theologians like Sr. Dr. Margaret Farley in her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, is an attempt to construct a coherent sexual morality that is worthy of the name Christian, by basing it on gospel values. Such work is a long-overdue effort to complete the Vatican II reform of moral theology, by bringing sexual morality in line with the rest of the field, and thus resolve some of the inconsistencies that trouble the church.

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