Bishop Robinson: The Middle Ground

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson concluded his critique of traditional Catholic sexual theology, by showing how its obsession with procreation and sexual acts, leaves it inadequate as a sound basis for a healthy system of sexual ethics. He then proceeds to suggest an alternative foundation:

I suggest that the answer is that we should move to an ethic that, firstly, sees any offence against God as being brought about, not by the sexual act in itself, but by the harm caused to human beings; secondly, speaks in terms of persons and relationships rather than physical acts, and thirdly, then builds an argument on these two foundations rather than on unproven assertions.

Although this may remind us at first glance of the phrase, “First, do no harm”, Robinson is careful to insist that this alone is not enough. Rather, it is subservient to the broader principle “Love your neighbour”.  He rejects any suggestion that sex is unimportant, insisting that a careless attitude to the subject simply trivializes it. Sexual pleasure is not morally neutral, but a positive good. Respecting this principle requires that in exercising it, we should be seeking to promote the good of the other, our partner. Trivializing it fails to do so, and ends by doing harm, even where this is unintended.

Catholic orthodoxy recognizes two purposes in sex, the procreative and the unitive. In practice, pronouncements on doctrine designed to emphasis compliance with rules and regulations, as in the Catechism, or to influence political decision – making, as in bishops’ campaigns against gay marriage, have tended to focus on procreative, not the the unitive end. Bishop Robinson is emphasising here that we need to rediscover and emphasise the unitive value.

Almost two years ago in Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Shonborn suggested that perhaps it was time for the Church to move away from its focus on genital acts when considering its response to gay and lesbian Catholics, and instead to pay greater attention to the quality of their relationships.    Several others have since followed his lead, most recently Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who in an article for the Catholic Herald recommended the value of deep same-sex friendships. None of these are openly suggesting that these relationships may be sexual, but by insisting that even for heterosexuals, the requirement of procreation need not be absolute, and that the unitive value of sex may at times stand alone without the requirement that it be open to conception, Bishop Robinson is opening up for discussion the possibility that loving, sexual relations between same-sex couples may after all, be consistent with “God’s purpose”.

Here follows the relevant extract from Bishop Robinson’s address to the New Ways Ministries’ conference  From Water to Wine:  Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships. ( The full text is posted on his own website).


The Middle Ground

If we decide to leave behind an ethic that sees sex in terms of a direct offence against God, that emphasises individual physical acts rather than persons and relationships, and that is based on a repeated assertion rather than an argument, where should we go? I suggest that the answer is that we should move to an ethic that, firstly, sees any offence against God as being brought about, not by the sexual act in itself, but by the harm caused to human beings; secondly, speaks in terms of persons and relationships rather than physical acts, and thirdly, then builds an argument on these two foundations rather than on unproven assertions.

If it is impossible to sustain an entire sexual ethic on the basis of direct offences against God, all the evidence tells us that God cares greatly about human beings and takes a very serious view of any harm done to them, through sexual desire or any other cause. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mk.9:42). “Then they will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” (Mt.25:44‐45) In these two quotations Jesus identifies with the weakest persons in the community, and tells us that any harm done to them is a harm done to himself.

I suggest, therefore, that we should look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct offence against God. Following from this, may we say that sexual pleasure, like all other pleasure, is in itself morally neutral, neither good nor bad? Is it rather the circumstances affecting persons and relationships that make this pleasure good or bad, e.g. a good pleasure for a married couple seeking reconciliation after a disagreement, a bad pleasure for a man committing rape?

The Church v Modern Society

To take this further, if we go beneath the particular teachings of the Catholic Church on sex and come to its most foundational beliefs, I suggest that there is a fundamental point on which the Church and modern Western society appear to be moving in opposite directions.

The Church is saying that love is the very deepest longing of the human heart and sex is a most important expression of love, so people should do all in their power to ensure that sex retains its ability to express love as deeply as possible. They should make sure that sex does not become so trivialised, for themselves individually or for the community as a whole, that it loses its power to express the deepest love. Modern society, on the other hand, has become more and more accepting of casual sexual activity that is not related to love or relationship.

In its simplest terms, the Church is saying that, because love is all‐important and because sex is so vital a way of expressing love, sex is always serious, while modern society appears to be saying more and more that sex is not in itself serious.

On this basic point I find myself instinctively more in sympathy with the views of the Church than with those of modern society. Paradoxically, it was the effects of the sexual abuse of minors more than anything else that convinced me that sex is not trivial.

Do not Harm v Love your Neighbour

Because I see sex as serious, I do not simply conclude that all sex is good as long as it does not harm anyone. I would never want to put the matter in those simple terms, for I have seen far too much harm caused by this attitude.

It is expressed in negative terms (“Do not harm”) and inevitably contains within itself the serious risk of brinkmanship, that is, that, with little thought for the good of the other person involved, one may seek one’s own pleasure and, in doing so, go right up to the very brink of causing harm to another. In a field as turbulent as this, countless people basing themselves on such a principle will go over that brink.

Jesus invariably said “Love your neighbour”, and this implies more than the negative fact of not harming. It implies genuine respect for the other and positively wanting and seeking the good of the other. The essential difference between the two is that an attitude of “Do no harm” can put oneself first, while “Love your neighbour” must put the neighbour first. A Christian ethic must, at the very least, be expressed in these positive terms. It is only on this positive basis of respecting and seeking the positive good of the neighbour that we could feel confident of having found a truly Christian ethic. We could never have that confidence on the basis of the negative principle of “Do not harm”.

In doing this, we must take the harm that can be caused by sexual desire very seriously indeed, and look carefully at the circumstances that can make morally bad the seeking of sexual pleasure because they involve harm to others, to oneself or to the community. Some of these factors are: violence, physical or psychological, deceit and self‐deceit, harming a third person (e.g. a spouse), using another person for one’s own gratification, treating people as sexual objects rather than as persons, separating sex from love to the extent that sex loses its ability to express the depths of love, trivialising sex so that it loses its seriousness, allowing the desire for present satisfaction to restrict the ability to respond to the deeper longings of the human heart, harming the possibility of permanent commitment, failing to respect the connection that exists between sex and new life, failing to respect the need to build a relationship patiently and carefully, failing to respect the common good of the whole community.

It will be seen from all of this that I have most serious difficulties with the idea that “anything goes”. In reacting against one extreme, there is always the danger of going to the opposite extreme. I believe that this is what modern society has done in relation to sex.

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