We need to revise Catholic teaching on Relationships and Sexuality

In my most recent book I wrote about how the Church has created problems for itself, and for believers, by defining doctrines at particular times in its history, and declaring that they have to be held by all the faithful for all time. Since we are living in an evolutionary world that is by its very nature changing and developing, and since doctrines are constrained by the knowledge and understanding of the particular time in which they were defined, it seems to me inevitable that a doctrine defined many centuries ago will makes less sense as time goes on. I gave an example in my book of the definition of God from the fourth century, now contained in the Nicene Creed, which came out of a time when the understanding of life, of human nature, and of the universe was very primitive compared to our modern understanding. So I suggested that the less we define about God and faith the better, and the more we should leave open to the interaction between the individual, the current understanding, and the reality that we are dealing with mystery.

A relevant modern example of this problem is the whole area of Church teaching on morality, and in particular on human relations and sexuality. The Old Testament tells us that God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Since the early centuries of the Church this list of laws has become fundamental to all Church teaching and attitudes on moral issues. The story of Moses and the commandments is a good story, but it is a story, albeit a mythological one. It did not happen quite like that. Rather those commandments were the result of generations, probably centuries, of thought, reflection and study, along with lived experience by the Jewish people. It was a standard practice in those times for a writer, if he wanted to give some extra significance to what he was writing, to say that he has received this directly from God. This was all good, and the Ten Commandments contain a great deal of wisdom that is useful for any age, but when they are presented as the unchanged and unchangeable Word of God it is a different matter entirely. The effect of that is to put an obstacle to the continuation of the very process by which these commandments came into existence in the first place, the gradual development of wisdom and understanding. Down through the years, as I read and studied books on Catholic Morality, I have been somewhat amused by the obvious efforts of the writer to fit what he was saying into one or other of the Commandments, even if, as was so often the case, the particular issue he was dealing with hadn’t even been dreamed of when the Commandments were first written down.

9Jesus clearly tried to move on from the sort of thinking contained in the Ten Commandments: “I give you a new commandment; love one another”. The greatest commandment of all, he said, was love. And his other great moral instruction was the Beatitudes.

Why was it that the Church, in defining doctrine on moral issues, turned more to the Commandments than the teaching of Jesus.  The statements of Jesus are positive — Love one another……. and “Blessed are ……….   The Commandments are negative; “Thou shalt not………..” I suspect it was that the Church found it much easier to define negative statements, prohibitions, than to present a list of ideals, of aspirations for Christian living, for following Jesus. It was much easier to make a strict law out of a “Thou shalt not…..” and to define the punishment — eternal damnation.  It is so much easier to declare laws that people must follow, and with the appropriate punishment when they don’t, than to present a picture of the ideal, fully lived human being, and trust people to be inspired by this ideal and to strive towards it, with all the inevitable slips and failures along the way.

That is why, because the Church has based its teaching on the time-limited and negative list of commandments, rather than the inspiring picture of best human living, that we today have a Catholic teaching on relationships and sexuality, among other areas of living, that is seriously out of touch with modern life, and as such has lost all credibility with most people, and is no longer regarded as a relevant guideline for living. Most people, even among the believers, consider that the Church has nothing of significance to say on this area of life anymore.

It would be a very interesting and useful exercise for the Catholic Church, if it were to do what the writers and thinkers who produced the Ten Commandments did about three thousand years ago, to draft a list of moral principles for today’s world based on the teaching of Jesus and the reality of modern life.