Francis’ Silence on Sex: Requires “More Reflection and Study”?

One notable feature of “Evangelii Gaudium”, which I and others have already commented on, is that there is not a single reference to gay marriage, or to same – sex relationships, or to any other matter of sexual ethics.

The document does not discuss sexuality, gender, or LGBT issues.  In fact, in chapter two, he outlines many of today’s social ills, and unlike the previous two popes, he does not single out any sexuality issues for discussion here.  His only reference to these topics is a passing one, and noteworthy for NOT naming any hot-button issues such as same-gender marriage.

- Bondings 2.0

evangelium gaudiumThe obvious question arising, is…..

Why not?
My immediate assumption from an initial reading was that this indicates that these issues occupy a low place in Francis’ priorities, just as they do in the Gospels (which have almost nothing to say about sexual ethics, other than direct condemnation of divorce, and implied criticism of adultery).

At Bilgrimage, William Lindsey has a more pessimistic interpretation, shared by many of his readers – that as a gay Catholic theologian he, together with other gay Catholics and women, is simply “not in the room”, not part of Francis’ church. A closer reading of the text yields a simpler, more hopeful explanation: that this is one of the topics referred to as requiring further study.

But both, I now suspect, are superficial assessments. Rereading the text, I found the key for the exclusion of LGBT concerns in an early paragraph, stating clearly that some topics were excluded from comment, because they need more reflection and study. This affects all areas of sexuality, for all orientations:

16. I was happy to take up the request of the Fathers of the Synod to write this Exhortation.[19] In so doing, I am reaping the rich fruits of the Synod’s labours. In addition, I have sought advice from a number of people and I intend to express my own concerns about this particular chapter of the Church’s work of evangelization. Countless issues involving evangelization today might be discussed here, but I have chosen not to explore these many questions which call for further reflection and study.

I see this as more hopeful than my earlier assumption that these are not important to Francis, because it is simply not true that sexuality and sexual ethics are not important. The Catechism makes clear that sexuality is an important part of our human make – up. which needs to be fully integrated into our personalities. The problem with Church teaching on sex is not that sex is unimportant, but that the conclusions it draws on quite how this important part of our make – up is to be integrated into our personalities is grievously, and dangerously, disordered. It bears no sound relationship at all to the findings of social science, or to the belief expressed by many professional moral theologians that there is an urgent need for revision of the orthodox norms, or to the lived experience of Catholic adults in loving sexual relationships. The need for further reflection and study is compelling – and already accepted by Francis, in calling for an extraordinary synod on marriage and the family. It is becoming constantly more evident that this synod will inevitably consider more than the narrow matter of conventional marriage and family specified in its title, but will also go into much broader areas of human sexuality. (This is obvious from the questions submitted to bishops in preparation for the synod, and published more widely for lay consultation).

Church documents make many references to the importance of paying due attention to the findings of both social and natural science. In his Motu Proprio “Socialium scientiarum announcing the creation of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Pope John Paul II began with the words

Social science research (Socialium scientiarum investigationes) can effectively contribute to improving human relations, as has been shown by the progress achieved in various sectors of society especially during the century now drawing to a close. This is why the Church, ever concerned for man’s true good, has turned with growing interest to this field of scientific research in order to obtain concrete information for fulfilling the duties of her Magisterium.

This sounds encouraging, but in fact the work of this Academy is distinctly unbalanced, offering nothing at all to inform Church approach to matters of family, marriage, or sexuality. This is clear from an examination of its publications (the titles, lists of contents and PDF copies of the papers are all available on the website), and from the eminent men and women who constitute the academicians. I have found my own exploration of these distinctly depressing: among all the papers contained in nearly fifty publications, there does not appear to be a single one that deals with anything remotely concerned with human sexuality. The list of twenty nine academicians is dominated by scholars in law, philosophy, and economics. There is not a single psychologist or social anthropologist, and only four who describes themselves as “sociologists”. Of these four, only one has worked even tangentially in the field of family, as a part of what his specialization in “relational sociology”. The other three are concerned primarily with the “philosophy of social science”, “community economics”, and “socio- political and educational analysis”.

It is undoubtedly true, as John Paul’s Motu Proprio affirms, that social science research has a great deal to contribute to the development of understanding, and obtaining “concrete information for fulfilling the duties of her Magisterium”.  For the topic of human sexuality, which “affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul” (Catechism, 2332) it is both astonishing and scandalous that this is totally ignored both in the personnel of the Academy, and in its publications.

It is  not only the Academy which has ignored the abundant social science research findings on sexuality. Of 73 references cited by the Catechism for its chapter on the sixth commandment (which it it notes Christian tradition takes as encompassing the whole of human sexuality), there is not one which refers to any such research. The same applies to the 45 references in the footnotes to the 1975 Declaration on Certain Questions of Sexual Ethics, “Persona Humana” (the most comprehensive CDF document on sexuality). The 1986 Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons “Homosexualitatis Problema” (also known as Ratzinger’s Hallowe’en Letter) does not include a convenient listing of references as footnotes, but those cited in the text similarly ignore any to scientific research findings.

In short, I have found no published evidence, anywhere, that the magisterium on sexuality has in fact paid the slightest attention to research findings of either the social or the natural sciences.

It should be self- evident to anyone with real – life experience of loving sexual relationships that the existing orthodoxy is grievously flawed, and so in desperate need of further reflection and study. Instead of dismissing or deploring the absence of these issues in “Evangelium Gaudium”, we should be thankful for Francis’ evident recognition of this.


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4 comments for “Francis’ Silence on Sex: Requires “More Reflection and Study”?

  1. Daniel
    December 3, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    I think Pope Francis is very wise in not singling out any hot button issues. He is trying to refocus us on what really counts. Not that he is ignoring the issues, but I believe he wants us to be grounded in our faith first and then to see all these issues through the eyes of our faith. For too long, these hot button issues have been viewed through the lense of the secular culture and the language of “rights” rather than that of faith. Please follow Pope Francis train of thought. I am very proud of him for his leadership in this.

  2. Chris Sullivan
    December 3, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    I think that Pope Francis’ focus on the salvific message of Christ, the joy of the Gospel, the great damage done by “free market” economics and growing social inequality, and the centrality of care of and advocacy for the poor, are an excellent focus on the most important and central issues.

    The sexual issues will flow from those in Francis’ teaching.

    God Bless

  3. December 5, 2013 at 2:08 am

    My point, Terry, is simply to echo what Joan Chittister said recently regarding Pope Francis’s silence about how women–women, period–are the poor, as Francis condemns our refusal to see and hear the poor:

    “Pope Francis has won the heart of the world by being humble, simple and pastoral — a warm and caring face of this church, a man like Jesus who is a man of the poor. But no one can say that they are for the poor as Jesus was and do nothing, nothing, nothing for the equality of women.”

    The argument from silence seems to me a dangerous one to make, when one’s talking quite precisely about the need to overcome our inability to see and hear those who are excluded.

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