Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: IX – Catholicism and Sexuality

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

A great crisis is also a great opportunity: this truth has been well expressed by many of those who have responded to this series of articles.

And although the issue of sexuality lies close to the centre of the present crisis of Irish Catholicism, there is an unprecedented opportunity here also for a new beginning.

This assertion will surprise those who insist that Catholicism is fundamentally loopy on sex. They will point to the clerical sex abuse scandals, and to the fact that the Catholic leadership still seems totally bogged down with that issue. They will point also to the virtually total collapse of interest in the celibate priestly vocation among young Irish males.

But something else has happened in Ireland in the past decade – something the media do not highlight as they should. Ireland has also discovered the hollowness of the promises of the sexual revolution – the theory that easy sex is the high road to human happiness. Far from delivering a healthy society, the removal of all restraint from sexual behaviour has proven itself to be far more dangerous to the physical, psychological and social health of Ireland than ‘Catholic guilt’ ever was.

The evidence for this is all around us. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase, threatening the sexual lives and future happiness of thousands of young people. Family dysfunction and breakdown are also increasing, with incalculable future consequences for the children of unhappy and broken homes. The commercialisation of sexuality (redefining it as a mere recreational activity), threatens its power to bind us together in dedicated relationships of mutual service and trust. And the loneliness and misery that flow from all of this are feeding the epidemics of addiction and depression sweeping across the island.

Yet, in the midst of all that, many Irish families have remained strong – raising healthy, happy and balanced young people. And if we look closely, these families are often living proof of the power of Christian, and Catholic, faith, to create a context within which human sexuality completely fulfils its potential to draw people closer to one another, and to God.

Fundamental to most of those relationships is the fact that the church provides a public context in which sexual partners can make a solemn, lifetime commitment to one another. It provides also a continuing external support for their romantic attachment. The liturgy of the wedding mass often makes a deep and lasting impression, convincing the couple that God has blessed their union, wishes it to prosper, and will help to heal whatever tensions may follow.

Such couples often disprove in their own lives the theory that Catholic spirituality and sexuality are incompatible. They prove the very opposite – that the high valuation the church places upon sacramental marriage, lifelong fidelity and family stability, are perfectly in tune with the deepest natural impulse of the human heart.

For however much popular culture may have undermined the stability of sexual relationships, it has left untouched the romantic ideal of sexual partners finding complete personal fulfilment in a permanent, mutually dedicated and fruitful relationship. That romantic ideal remains the bedrock of popular literature, TV and cinema – however difficult it may be to attain in practice.

Placing this relationship within a context of Christian values and spiritual support makes more sense with every day that passes – especially now that we know that informal relationships are statistically far more likely to fail, far less likely to realise the romantic impulse, and far less protective of children’s need for a stable home.

It is within a permanent, dedicated relationship also that sexuality flowers most fully in its capacity for assisting full self-revelation, personal growth and intimacy. Without fully honest and open relationships the human soul can shrivel – because we cannot grow to full self-discovery and understanding on our own. To put it very simply, many, many Irish Catholic couples know that sexual desire can only be fully satisfied within a context of deep mutual love and commitment.

Many married Catholics have discovered that fact through their own relationships, and therefore possess the essential wisdom needed to counter the exploitation of mere sexual expression as an end in itself – the ‘do it now’ imperative that so threatens our younger generations. The tragedy is that, so far, the clerical church has made so little use of the wisdom gained by lay people in this so-important realm.

One perfect illustration of this is the extraordinary fact that no married Irish Catholic can deliver a Sunday homily on the Gospel story of the wedding feast at Cana, or on marriage itself. Thus, although Jesus so often chose the relationship of man and wife as a metaphor for his own relationship with his followers, Catholic married men and their wives are so far deliberately excluded from the most important Catholic ministerial functions, and therefore from the task of re-evangelisation of an over-sexualised culture. There is something fundamentally wrong, even ridiculous, about this.

It is wrong and ridiculous for many reasons. First, it puts celibate priests in the dangerous position of determining the Church’s rules on sexuality. We do not have to look any further for the root source of the scandals that now beset us, or for the alienation from the sacraments caused by Humanae Vitae. Scandal begins at the point where the personal life of a spokesperson for a cause falls short of the principles he urges upon others – and it is inevitable that this will happen a minority of clergy in the area of sexuality.

Humanae Vitae, which became the touchstone for promotion in the clerical church, has weakened the moral authority of the Church also – because it did not arise out of the sensus fidelium – the faith of the whole church. Allowing married Catholics to make use of Mathematics to regulate births, it inexplicably denied them the freedom to use Chemistry or Physics to do so – and this was never persuasive. If there is a medical case for such a policy (now that we know more of the dangers of specific chemical regimes), very few lay people were ever persuaded by the Church’s insistence that God would approve the use of a temporal barrier to conception (the infertile period), but send us to hell for employing a physical or chemical barrier. That argument made God himself appear to be a prudish nitpicker – like the tortured and unrepresentative clerics who imposed this decision on Pope Paul VI.

The separation between ministry and sexuality is wrong and ridiculous also because it exposes the whole church as a community to public ridicule when clerical sexual scandals occur. Irish Catholic bishops have still to measure fully the depth of embarrassment they have caused lay Catholics on the issue of sexuality – for example by appearing at times to argue that God would prefer a married Catholic male (perhaps made HIV positive by an infected blood transfusion), to infect his wife with Aids than to save her life by using a condom.

But the separation of ministry and sexuality is wrong and ridiculous above all because it prevents the Church from bearing powerful witness to the compatibility of Christian spirituality with a full sexual relationship. It virtually defines spirituality as asexual, and implies that sex is essentially sinful. This, I am convinced, is the root source of the alienation of so many Irish males from the Church, and the chief reason the clerical church has made itself a laughing-stock in Ireland on the issue of sexuality.

It follows from all of this that a full healing of relationships in the Irish Catholic Church – and a recovery in the public prestige of the church – must involve a revolution in the status of married Catholics – men and women – within it. Only then can the graces that have been given to many married Irish Catholics be put to work to revitalise the whole Church

Already the bishops of England and Wales have begun to realise this by beginning a process of consultation with Catholic families – to help them develop their own ministry. A similar initiative is long overdue in Ireland – but perhaps this is a good thing. Far too many so-called consultative processes in Ireland in the recent past have been mere cosmetic exercises, leading nowhere.

They led nowhere because the Irish Catholic laity have been deliberately deprived of a corporate structure and voice – a permanent structure of empowerment in, and ownership of, their Church which would have expressed fully the dignity of their lay vocation, and exploited the wisdom they have acquired by living it. Although we have a regular conference of Irish bishops, and another of Irish priests, there has never been a conference of the Irish laity. In the present context, where we have a highly educated, mobile – and often alienated – laity, that is disastrous and inexcusable.

And this is why many commentators in the secular media are supposing that with the extinction of the Irish clergy, the Irish Catholic Church will soon disappear altogether.

This is a mistake. The Irish Catholic family has always been the hidden backbone of the Irish Church. Over the next generation it will emerge to revitalise the whole church.

The agenda for such a movement is already becoming clear. Over the past forty years Irish people have virtually lost control of their own culture, due to media invasion. As a consequence the pace of change is being set by the fastest – those who mimic the lifestyle and mores of other cultures where commercial interests predominate. This threatens the Irish Catholic family to a degree that no-one can now fail to recognise.

It is time to begin a national movement to embody the strong desire that many lay people have to redefine their own values in Christian terms, and to reclaim their own culture – for example by setting together wise and balanced boundaries for teenage behaviour. No section of society has more to gain, or to lose, than Irish Catholic parents.

It is high time, obviously, for the Irish hierarchy to sponsor and support such a development. If they don’t, it will happen anyway – if only because there will soon be no reactionary clerical interest powerful enough to prevent it.

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