Another Theology of the Body, Part IV--What Sexual Morality is Not

I've been struggling with this post for a while now, having a hard time making the pieces of what I want to say fit together in a cohesive manner.  I was thinking of abandoning the project.  But then, I got bailed out, because I read a post that showed me a critical pre-requisite to talking about sexual morality--first, drop the "sexual" part.

This post, by Fred Clark on his Slacktivist blog, makes a point that should be obvious but seems to me to be completely lost--sexual morality simply means "morality applied to situations involving sex."  It is not some wholly distinct sphere of moral inquiry that is untethered from other kinds of situations.  As such, you should be able to apply the same basic moral principles that are used to evaluate, say, non-sexual relationships, to sexual relationships.  To use Clark's example, if "do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8) is the touchstone for all of your other relationships, then that same touchstone should be used for sexual relationships--one's sexual relationships should be characterized by justice, mercy, and humility before God.  Similarly, "love your neighbor as yourself" should be just as applicable in a sexual relationship than in any other relationship, and in the same basic way.

The problem with Christian sexual morality is that it often turns into a series of special pleadings, rules that are at best tangentially related to the basic moral principles.  Sexual morality becomes "do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God--and only have sex with your officially recognized spouse of the opposite gender while being open to the transmission of life, etc."

Framed this way, it becomes obvious that these special pleadings are different in kind from the general moral principles that predominate the rest of the Christian ethical tradition.  If you tried to argue in the economic sphere that the proper Christian approach was "do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God--and support a progressive income tax," you would be laughed out of the room.  "Support a progressive income tax" may (or may not) flow from the three principles, but it is clearly different in kind from them.  It is not a core moral principle in the same way the others are.  Why, then, is it OK to load up all of these atomized rules in the sexual sphere?

It's true that if you define things like "justice" and "mercy" (and especially "walking with God") in a certain way, you can get to those conclusions.  But that is really another way of saying "traditional sexual morality is correct because it is correct."  You are not really engaging in any moral reasoning, but instead restating your pre-existing commitments to certain moral outcomes.  This, more than anything else, is the problem with JPII's Theology of the Body--it knows exactly what conclusion it needs to reach, and so it builds everything to get back to that point.  It's really just a more complicated form of the same special pleading.

And, here's the other thing.  I suspect that a true commitment to living out a sexual relationship based on "justice" is far more challenging than following the isolated series of prohibitions that has traditionally made up Christian sexual morality.  Rowan Williams in "The Body's Grace" makes the point that the following the traditional model of married life leaves opportunities for grave injustices (especially, I would add, injustices to the woman):

 Much more damage is done to [the ideal of relationships] by the insistence on a fantasy version of heterosexual marriage as the solitary ideal, when the facts of the situation are that an enormous number of "sanctioned" unions are a framework for violence and human destructiveness on a disturbing scale: sexual union is not delivered from moral danger and ambiguity by satisfying a formal socio-religious criterion.  Let me repeat: decisions about sexual lifestyle are about how much we want our bodily selves to mean rather than what emotional needs we're meeting or what laws we're satisfying. "Does this mean that we are using faith to undermine law?  By no means: we are placing law itself on a firmer footing" (Romans 3.31): happily there is more to Paul than the (much quoted in this context) first chapter of Romans!

The point is that following the "old rules" is no guarantee of getting the couple to a state of justice or mercy, and in some cases can act as a justification for one party to oppress the other.  Thus, a fixation on these isolated rules can be used to swallow-up basic Christian moral commitments.  A system which suggests that one does not have to just or merciful to your own spouse in the same way that you do to a random stranger is, by every definition of the word, perverse.

So, the take-away is that we should be deeply skeptical on any kind of special pleading in terms of sexual morality.  If a particular relationship would be praiseworthy in a non-sexual context (because it manifests Christian values such as justice, mercy, love for neighbor, etc.), then it is probably OK in a sexual context as well.  Conversely, a bad relationship is not made any better because it follows the traditional model of heterosexual marriage.

The problem with Christianity is not that it makes moral demands on people in terms of sex--it should, and it must.  Moral demands that flow from basic Christian commitments to human dignity and a vision of the human person in relationship to God seem to me to be a positive and necessary contribution of Christianity to the world.  The problem is that it makes demands that are unrelated to, and in some cases in conflict with, the demands it makes more generally.  That's the part we need to re-evaluate.


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