Click & Learn
by Richard Sipe
28 May 2006

"It always has been the conviction of the church that God gave man the ability to arrive, with the light of his reason, at an understanding of the fundamental truths about his life and his destiny and, concretely, at the norms  of correct action," - Pope John Paul II

Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, on January 25, 2006. It is a beautiful statement about love. He points out the beauty of sex within a committed love relationship. Among other things he suggests that sex within that love relationship fosters closeness, generosity and service.

There is little that the pope says in the encyclical to which anyone can take exception. It gives the Christian world hope that he has chosen the core of Gospel teaching to set the tone of his reign. God is love.

The pope, bishops, and priests should preach love and be examples of what loving Christian service looks like in action. They should be trained and qualified to do just that.

But there is a great deal about human love and human sexual love that the pope did not address: What of the relationships of young people who are experimenting with love and sexuality? Imperfect love, if you will, but love nonetheless, oftentimes with profound, lifelong ramifications.

What of the love between men, the love between women?  What about sex within those dedicated love relationships? What about the sexual love between couples that for legitimate reasons cannot marry? What about the sexual love between a wife and husband who choose not to have children?

There are Catholic moral responses that pope, bishops, and priests can and do make about those and other sexual questions that face many Catholics.

Every church and its ministers have a right to state their moral convictions and teach the basis of their moral teaching. There is no question about that.

But questions remain:

What makes Catholic Bishops and priests qualified to teach human sexuality?

1.) The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition about the morality/immorality of sex. The core of that tradition is clear, and like the moral teaching of many other Christian churches, is based on the Bible. The Catholic Church teaches that:

  • Sexual activity is only sin-free if it is exercised within the bonds of a legitimate marriage between one man and one woman. In this context sex is extolled as beautiful and life giving and part of a legitimate Christian vocation. (This was not always held in such positive terms)

  • Sex is primarily directed to the procreation of human life. Therefore any sexual intercourse within a legitimate marriage that is not open to conception is considered mortally sinful. That means that the use of any devise that keeps the sperm from meeting the egg or causes interference with the possibility of the egg being fertilized or induces the ejection of a fertilized egg is considered gravely sinful.

  • Every means of “artificial” birth control is considered sinful (intrinsically evil) including the so-called Pill, condoms, intrauterine devices, cervical caps, etc. Coitus interruptus long-used to limit conception is not without guilt.

  • The prohibition of any type of birth control (except the so-called Rhythm Method) is absolute. This includes the use of a condom between a married couple even if one of them has contracted HIV/AIDS via a blood transfusion.

  • Any and all sexual activity outside of a lawful marriage is mortally sinful. One criterion of sinfulness has to do with orgasmic pleasure or even putting oneself in the proximate occasion of sin.

  • Masturbation, or self-stimulation to orgasm, is mortally sinful. Intrinsically evil is the term used to describe this and other sexual activity that vary from the ideal of married sex and man-woman intercourse.

  • Traditionally this teaching is summarized that any voluntary sexual thought, word, desire, or action outside marriage is mortally sinful.

2.) Roman Catholic bishops and priests are commissioned to teach (and live) the moral system they profess. This is a right and obligation they hold just as intently as Mormon teachers, Muslim Imams, and Methodist Ministers. The moral strictures, theological bases, and the liturgical requirements and customs related to sex and marriage may differ greatly, but each confession has a right to teach and require its members to abide by certain standards of sexual behavior.

The Roman Catholic Church’s teaching about sex and marriage is reasoned, but is it reasonable?

The reasoning of the church claims that its moral teaching is not only based on the foundation of Scripture but also on the natural law.

The natural law interpreted by many Catholic moral theologians applied to sex is reasoned thus:

  • The fullness of the sexual capacity of a man and woman is reached in sexual intercourse that results in the procreation of another life. This is “natural” and is inherent in the essence of the ACT.

  • Intercourse is legitimate, and completely natural only in a lawful marriage.

  • The church’s moral teaching on sex is very biological: for instance intercourse is defined not only by penetration of the penis into the vagina, but also the ejaculation of semen there. If these conditions are not met a marriage is not considered consummated.

  • This is the reasoning that makes the use of a condom intrinsically evil.

  • Any sexual exchange even in marriage must hold the possibility of conception, or at least the partners must not do anything to interfere with conception if it is possible. It is this reasoning that makes the use of the pill, intrauterine devices, etc. intrinsically evil.

  •  If age or nature determines that conception is not possible intercourse does not disrupt the nature of the act and is permitted.

  • During the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) a serious concession was made to a secondary end of marital sex—that of mutual consolation and support. Benedict XVI speaks eloquently of the beauty and positive qualities such love—sex—holds for marriage.

  • All else tends toward perversion, or at least is a distortion of the nature of sex.

  • It is this reasoning that marks sex between two men or two women as sinful and intrinsically evil.

There are some interesting, even puzzling consequences to the church’s basic interpretation of the nature of sex. For instance according to this reasoning masturbation (which has been called “the greatest sin”) is further from natural than incest, since sex between a brother and sister or father and daughter is more in accord with the nature of the ACT than masturbation that has none of the elements of married man-woman intercourse.

Few Catholic moralists still insist that masturbation is always mortally sinful. Of course this puts a strain on the logic and pronouncement that the act is intrinsically evil. How does logic shift what is intrinsically evil to an act that is morally neutral?

In fact, that moral determination about the whole range of sexual behaviors from contraception and masturbation to homosexuality poses a tremendous roadblock to intelligent dialogue about human sexuality with the scientific community that fails to measure sexual nature and behaviors in terms of intrinsic disorders. Catholic moral theology throws a whole group of women and men into that moral dustbin if by nature they are homosexually oriented. The church pronounces people disordered on their inclination to intrinsically evil acts.

That is a moral judgment. It is not based on science or natural law. It is based on biblically reasoning and tradition that is similarly deficient to judgments in the past about science and reason.

The Natural Law is that inherent quality in every human being capable of determining right and wrong. It is not dependent on the bible, nor restricted to the “nature” of an act. The truth of natural law is eloquently articulated by Pope John Paul’s statement. That reality is distinct from the term “natural law” as it is applied to current moral sexual teaching. 

Where do bishops and priests get their education about human sexuality?

Priests and bishops do not get educated about the nature of sex or celibacy during their seminary years—not withstanding protests from seminary staffs and bishops. There is no seminary in this country that could pass any academic examining board to qualify its teaching on human sexuality.

The traditional social status of priests—just the fact that they are priests not based on personal qualifications—makes many people turn to priests as experts on sex and other moral questions.

The assumption of expertise is insufficient ground for making solid life decisions or to trust another person’s judgment.


Priests get their sexual education from the people who come to them for advice, counseling, and especially confession. This is a gift and service that lay people give to the priesthood—sharing personal concerns especially about sex. But that educational process has many sides. Not all of them positive.

The church has not been blind or unaware of the sexual dangers to penitents and priests who enter into this sacred and secret (for the priest) alliance. Any person who is concerned about his or her sexuality is vulnerable, especially if she or he casts concerns in the context of sin. Confession is frequently used as a site for sexual seduction. That is a long-standing problem and is cited many times in current accounts of sexual abuse of minors and adults.

Church documents especially from 1050 C.E. onward get more and more explicit about the dangers of confession. There is a specific canonical term for clergy misbehavior in association with confession: it is Solicitation. That term is articulated in one papal document after the other up to the present time; it refers to a priest who either before, during, after, in the place of, or under the pretext of confession gets sexually involved with the penitent or uses it for his sexual gratification.  (Cf. Sex, Priests & Secret Codes, Pp. 295-300)

More times than I can count I have seen priests’ behavior around confession involved in the stories of abuse victims. It is very common to hear about the priest who is over curious about the sex life, concerns, or sins of a person coming for a sacrament. Some priests even have a person “confess” to them after they have violated the person. Some people mistakenly think that this puts them under a seal of silence that in fact only applies to the priest. (By the way, such behavior by a priest is illicit and makes him automatically excommunicated “reserved to the Holy See.”) This behavior is common—very frequent. Also very common is the priest who gets a bead of a vulnerable minor of adult who has confessed to him; the priest then pursues that person for sex. This is also solicitation.

This problem is not unusual or arcane. I have seen it in newspaper headlines this month.


It would help the church if clergy recognized that married people are the experts on sex and marriage, in as much as there can be experts. Bishops and priests are not experts on the nature of human sexuality. They have gotten themselves into a lot of trouble and inflicted a tremendous amount of harm on countless people by keeping the pose of qualified teachers of human sexuality.

Bishops can hold themselves to be experts on the morality of sexual acts. Their moral judgments are valid only in as far as they reflect an accurate understanding of nature. This is why science and religion, lay people and clergy need each other.

Catholic bishops and priests no longer hold a solid place of credibility about any sexual matter. The church is not in touch with the nature of human sexuality. Fr. Chris Mooney, S.J. said it well, “In so far as theologians fail to take account of physics and biology, their interpretations of their own data as well as their models of God must inevitably lose credibility.“

There is no solution to the questions about human sexuality without cooperation and mutual dialogue. Mutual means on an equal level of openness and respect. As Pope John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”

So in answer to the question “are Catholic bishops and priests qualified to teach human sexuality?” the response is “No.” But there is hope for dialogue.

Both clergy and lay people have to ask if priests and bishops can be trusted sexually. The answer to that is not a simple “yes” or “no.”

In light of the sexual activity of bishops and priests this second question is only fair. “Can priests and bishops be trusted to act celibately?” The response to this is a qualified “yes.” With most people at most times bishops and priests can be trusted to refrain from sex.

But the practice of celibacy is not very well kept. (Cf. Celibacy in Crisis) That means that at any one time only half of the priest population is practicing celibacy. This is not the time to go into detail about the variety of sexual activity of priests. But it is always appropriate to discuss: “how safe are our children and the vulnerable with priests?”

If you consult the church documents, the experience and knowledge of caring Christians (those whose judgment is not distorted by what Fr. Tom Doyle identifies as religious duress: an unrealistic reverence for clergy and religion) and your own good sense you will probably come to the conclusion: I have to watch out for priests. I have to be realistically cautious.

St. Charles Borromeo introduced the confessional stall into Catholic churches at the time of the 16th century reformation as a precaution against priest’s sexual advances. Today glass doors and other devices have been recommended for the same reasons. Many priests cannot be trusted in these intimate circumstances. The church in these round about ways says, “Priests cannot be trusted.” Some may want to put the spin on these maneuvers that priests must be protected from false accusations. History—even recent history—clearly shows that children and others have much more to fear priests than the other way round. Be Cautious.

This will remain the reality until the church takes seriously the sexual/celibate education of clergy and an active dialogue of its moral foundations regarding human sexuality.


Many Catholics do not accept the church’s teaching on sex. They do not agree with the ideas about the universal sinfulness of activities the church insists on defining as Intrinsically Evil. Many priests and some bishops also disagree with church teaching when they have to apply the theory to real living people. We have to give credit to priests of justice and compassion, sensible and reasonable men when it comes to Praxis: that refers to the process of putting theoretical knowledge into practice.

When it comes to sexuality reason (especially reason) and compassion cause problems. The defenders of the Catholic system of sexual morality rightfully fear a complete collapse of their theory if it is examined (there is no theology of sexuality) or else the whole system will be even more exposed as hypocritical. And church authority fear any change or discussion about human sexuality will tumble the house of cards to one, the other or both dangers. (This was the logic behind the 1968 decision about birth control.)

Theologians who taught about the contextual reality of theology ran into a lot of trouble with Pope John Paul II. He understood Liberation Theology as a contextual theology—theology proceeding from practice rather than doctrine.

And certainly, like in every other serious endeavor, there are pitfalls and benefits, in balancing theory and practice. But there is no theology without praxis. Theology is doctrine is for living or it is an empty exercise.

Theologians the likes of Bernard Haring warned decades ago that the church has lost the young because of their lack of trust in the church’s teaching on sex. The sex abuse crisis has only compounded the problem exponentially when the clergy are perceived as failing to practice what they preach.

Priests need lay people to teach them about sex. Lay people need priests to teach them about the Spirit. This is a joint venture. We cannot get along without each other and expect to integrate sexuality into our Christian practice or our sexuality into our Christian understanding.


The declining numbers of American men studying for the priesthood is no secret. The bishops originally funded a sociological study of vocations, but pulled the money plug when the preliminary report projected exactly what has happened—a continuing loss of vocations. Sociologist, Richard Schoenherr, was not guessing when he and his staff made their projections in 1993 that US vocations would drop 40% between 1966 and 2005. The fact that it was a scientific study made no difference. (Cf. Full Pews and Empty Altars, 1993 and Goodbye Father, 2002) Cardinal Roger Mahony called the study “a great disservice” and attacked Schoenherr of having a “personal agenda.” Andrew Greeley with Schoenherr spoke out about the problem already in 1969.

The bishops treated the Doyle, Mouton, Peterson 1985 Report on the problem of clergy sexual abuse the same way—the same disdain, the same vocabulary. The same arrogance clothed in the spiritual palaver that the Holy Spirit, not sociology determines vocations. That is exactly the reception my work has merited. I am content that I am in good company. The bishops do not know who their friends are. The hierarchy mostly ignores even Father Greeley, the most populist priest of the last decades, who unquestionably has the welfare of the Catholic Church foremost in his work.

The American Bishops have proceeded in resistance to dialogue about the vital issues of sex and celibacy at peril to people and priests—to say nothing of their own complete loss of credibility. The pattern is clear: Denial, Delay, Defiance, and Deception.

The lack of American vocations to the priesthood—that must have some as yet undiagnosed meaning about the church in this country at least—is being avoided by two movements: the importation of foreign seminarians and priests, Polish, Indian, South American, Vietnamese, African, and others (the Irish no longer have priests to export).

The second “bright spot” that is being touted as the solution to fewer priests is the number of “older vocations,” that is men in their 30s to 60s entering the seminary and being ordained.

Just from the point of view of celibate/sexual observance both developments present challenges. Priests coming from other cultures sometimes bring with them companions or establish relationships with compatriots in their assignments here. It may be of some consolation to the Vatican and the homosexually pressed American hierarchy that many of the African, Indian, and South American priests choose heterosexual partners. (Although sex with minors is not eliminated in the immigrant clergy corps.)

Older vocations bring their own challenges to seminaries and celibate priesthood. Men of age (certainly 25 and older) who begin their seminary studies come with sexual baggage just as younger candidates do. Only the older person is more established in his inclinations and experience. A&E television (2006) aired a reality series, God Or The Girl, which followed four men who were deciding whether or not to enter seminary training. The program was sensitively done and accurate in pointing out that a choice to study for the priesthood is a choice for celibacy. (A parallel series God Or The Guy would also be appropriate,) Will this cadre of older men bring the vitality of conversion similar to what Saint Augustine and the early Jesuits brought to their centuries? Are they the vanguard to reform the existing sexual corruption in the hierarchy and priesthood?

It may be best at this time not to consider the alternative.

EDUCATION FOR SEXUALITY  (added 6/21/2006)

The Church from the Vatican has written several directives on sex education in the past decades: Pope John Paul II wrote an Exhortation, THE ROLE OF THE CHRISTIAN FAMILY IN THE MODERN WORLD (11/22/81); The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education wrote EDUCATIONAL GUIDANCE IN HUMAN LOVE: Outlines for Sex Education (10/22/83); The Pontifical Council for the Family released a statement on The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (12/20/95).

All of these documents have many positive things to say about human love and sexuality. Main and central is the point that parents have the right and duty to educate their children to love and human sexuality. Right. No argument.

Pope John Paul expressed one of his basic theological hypotheses in his 1981 exhortation: that “education for chastity is absolutely essential… which means respecting and fostering the Nuptial Meaning of the body. Indeed Christian parents, discerning the signs of God’s call, will devote special attention and care to education in virginity or celibacy as the supreme form of that self-giving that constitutes the very meaning of human sexuality.”

This is a religious speculation and certainly not based on the nature of human sexuality or natural law. This kind of stance leads scientists like Huxley to say, “Celibacy is the greatest sexual perversion.” That too is an exaggeration, but no more than that of the Pope.

The 1983 statement gives the responsibility and charge of sex education and oversight to the Bishop.

The 1995 statement again takes the positive stance of the parents’ right and responsibility to educate their children for love, sexuality, and chastity. But woven into the essence is the distortion of nature following morals rather than morality following nature.

The first of their Four Working Principles listed is that human sexuality is a sacred mystery and must be taught always bearing in mind the effects of original sin. In popular parlance it amounts to: “sex is dirty, save it for someone you love.” Original or any other sin ought not to be the first association with sex education. That is not a secular stance so often condemned in Church documents on love and sex.

“The lasting effects of original sin” that the document reemphasizes along with “human weakness” are again false and premature moral intrusion on the nature of sex and human development in spite of the lip service the documents pay to respecting developmental stages.

Masturbation should not be talked about in terms of sin or selfishness. It is a normal human function; it of course has moral implications like eating and drinking.

Respect for life and love does not, in the scheme of human nature, exclude contraception. Contraception should involve a rational and responsible decision about love, life, and commitment. It is not intrinsically evil, neither is masturbation and that applies to the nature of homosexual orientation, too. Those natural dispositions, choices, and behaviors are not primarily expressions of selfishness.

When this directive recommends “books and other resources approved by ecclesiastical authorities” the double message is extended—parents are teachers, but bishops and priests are the authoritative sources of the truth about human sexuality. It is not true. Grace builds on nature. In sex the church tries to turn that verity on its head. The Bible is no more a guide to the nature of human sexuality than it is to the nature of the stars or geology even if it has many good lessons about the right and loving use of natural gifts.

I repeat: every religion has its right to pronounce its views and teaching about morality and its worldview. These beliefs, however noble, cannot be honestly promulgated as science or natural in the fundamental sense.

Bishops and priests are not reliable sources of knowledge about the nature of human sexuality.

A great deal of damage is done when any religion confuses scientific teaching with their moral dogma. First, faith cannot substitute for science; and second, the great wealth of religious image, ideation, and inspiration is lost for the moral guidance of people when they are confused with non-credible assertions of faith as science.

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