Catholid Priest Timothy Radcliffe’s Submission to the Cof E Inquiry into Human Sexuality.

The Pilling Report on the commission of the same name, purports to be an inquiry into “human sexuality”, but in practice, it deals primarily with one part of that rich diversity of what is meant by sexuality – that is, gay and lesbian sexuality.

The inquiry heard extensive submissions from a wide range of groups and individuals, reflecting a full range of opinion. One of these came from a senior Catholic priest, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, who was once the worldwide Master of the Dominican order.  With his permission, we are able to publish here, the text of his submission.

The Anglican Commission on Sexual Ethics

I feel very honoured to have this chance to share some thoughts on sexual ethics from a Catholic perspective. I must confess that I also feel rather unqualified.  I can make no claim to being a moral theologian.

It is frequently asserted that Christians are obsessed with sex, and with what we are or are not forbidden to do. But for most of the last two thousand years, Christianity has neither been especially fixated on sex, nor has it thought about it in terms of rules. Jesus says little about sexual ethics, except on divorce. Nor was it a central concern in the Middle Ages. Think of the two great classics of Medieval Christendom, the Summa Theologica of Aquinas and Dante’s Divina Commedia. Thomas had a positive view of our passions, including sexual desire. They are basically sound and good. They can go a bit astray and need education and the purification of grace. But sexual passion is good, and belongs to our journey towards God, the one whom we most deeply desire. Aquinas hardly ever refers to the commandments. Sexual morality is about becoming virtuous, not about obeying rules.

In Dante’s Inferno the top circles of Hell, where the punishments are lightest, are reserved for people who got carried away by their passions. They desired the good, but desired it wrongly. The really grave sins, for which people get a serious roasting, are telling lies, being violent and, worst of all, the betrayal of friends.

And it is only with the Reformation that we see the Ten Commandments placed at the centre of the moral life. The medieval stress on holiness as sharing the life of God is replaced with a new stress on obedience to rules. We see the rise of what Charles Taylor calls ‘the culture of control.[1]’ There is the emergence of the centralised state, absolute monarchs, standing armies, a police force, and the exponential growth of law. Human behaviour must be regulated and controlled. Sex must be disciplined!

I suspect that it is only with the Enlightenment that one sees the rise of our modern obsession with the regulation of sex. For example, it was at the beginning of the 18th century, according to Thomas Laquer that people began to worry in a big way about masturbation. There is a new hysteria about solitary sex.[2] What are people up to behind closed doors? So my suspicion is that both this obsession with sex and a stress on rules both relatively late and alien to traditional Christianity.

The most nerve wracking lecture that I have ever given was in Mauritius. I had to talk to 600 noisy teenagers about sex, and in French. I tried to move them beyond just thinking about what was allowed towards some understanding of the deep meaning of sexual relationships. It was hopeless. Every single question was about what was permitted or forbidden.

So what then might be a Christian vision of sexual morality? We could go back to Thomas Aquinas and look at how he understands good sexual behaviour in terms of the virtues of temperance and justice. This would be an excellent thing to do, and is becoming increasingly popular, especially in America. We could look at Aquinas’ wonderful understanding of natural law.

But I want to try another approach, because I am not an expert on St Thomas’ virtue ethics. I want to look at the Last Supper. Jesus says to the disciples: ‘This is my body, given for you.’ He gives us his body. This surely helps us to understand what it means for us to give our bodies to another person. Let us try to imagine a sexual ethics which is Eucharistic.

Jesus gives his body away. This is my body, given for you. His body is a gift. This tells us something fundamental about being bodily. A friend of mine said to me the other day: ‘Now Timothy I understand. I am a soul but I have a body.’ I felt a bit embarrassed to have to reply: Well, not in the Catholic tradition. Famously Aquinas said ‘I am not my soul.’ We are ensouled bodies, or embodied souls.

Much of the history of Christianity is a battle against dualism, the splintering of the human person, a division between the soul and the body or the mind and the body. St Dominic, our founder, started the Order to combat Albigencianism, which maintained that the world was created by an evil God, and that our bodies are bad. Our order was founded in part to argue for the goodness of the body and of creation, the unity of the human person. You know that Dominicans and Jesuits are supposed constantly to argue about which is the greatest Order. Well, the Dominicans were founded to oppose the Albigensians, and the Jesuits to fight Protestantism. When did you last meet an Albigensian?

Alas for this argument, an Albigensian disregard for the body still marks modernity. Descartes, it can be argued, understood human identity as essentially mental, Cogito ergo Sum. If we are in essence minds, then what we do with our bodies is not that important. You can have as much sex of every imaginable sort, because it has nothing to do with the real me, the soul or the mind. Our permissive society has an implicit contempt for the body.

But when Jesus says ‘This is my body, given for you’, he gives himself. The body is not just a lump of flesh that he owns and happens to give away; it is essentially gift. We realise and express our bodily nature in giving ourselves away, in mutual generosity. The body is essentially relational.

Think of the human face. A human face is not just the platform on which are stuck the eyes and nose and mouth. It took thousands of years for the heavy masks of our ancestors to become mobile, soft, expressive, flexible: human faces. The human smile was the fruit of innumerable generations trying to shape their faces into expression of joy. It is as if all our desire for communion, for love, comes to embodiment in the face. Wittgenstein said, ‘The face is the soul of the body.[3]’  Our faces enflesh our mutuality.

We live or die through the faces that other people turn to us. Jesus is the face of God turned towards us in delight. You might say that it belongs to his self-gift that he smiles on us. His body is not a lump of flesh, but the embodiment of God’s loving self-gift.

So this is a one way to understand Christian sexual ethics: sexual intercourse is most fundamentally mutual generosity. This is inseparable from every aspect of our lives, in which we accept the gift of another person, delight in their talents, cherish their hopes, their weakness, even when they are old and ill, and sex has probably ceased.

Herbert McCabe, my next door neighbour of many years, wrote: ‘Ethics is just the study of human behaviour in so far as it is a piece of communication, in so far as it says something or fails to say something.[4]’ The first question is not: ‘I am allowed to do this?’ But ‘What does it mean?’ When you have sexual intercourse with someone, then you say with your body, ‘I give myself to you and I receive you are as a gift.’ But if we get up the early next morning and leave a note by the bed saying ‘Thanks for the pleasurable sex, but I never wish to see you again’ then we have, in a sense, lied with our bodies. It is as if we were to say, ‘I love you eternally’ and then walk away.

So sexual ethics has to be embedded in how we communicate with each other. During my visits to Asia, problems of celibacy were rarely mentioned. There was a silence which is a part of many Asian cultures. During a visitation of the Order in Vietnam, I got to know our students well, and finally we had many discussions of great honesty about their struggles with sexuality. But when I met the Provincial and his Council, it was asserted that this was not a problem at all. Celibacy is a western problem. I was not sure whether they did not know what their young friars experienced or simply did not consider it proper to even mention it. A culture which maintains a deep silence over its sexual activity may find it hard for it to be truly communicative.

Secondly, Jesus’ self-gift implies vulnerability. He gives himself to Judas who has already betrayed him, to Peter who is about to deny him, and to the other disciples who will take to their feet and run away. Self-gift is immensely risky. To give yourself to another is dangerous. To be naked in their sight is to risk rejection or mockery. You may also be betrayed, denied or deserted.

You entrust yourself. I would guess that this is a tremendous challenge in the Central and Eastern European countries that were dominated for decades by Communism which cultivated deep mistrust between people. It will take a long time for this mistrust to be laid to rest. I have the impression that even within marriages, the challenge is to dare to trust the other, to entrust oneself to the other person.

Bad sexual behaviour is usually linked with domination and violence, invulnerability. Think of David and Bathsheba. It is the strong, powerful king who takes by force the wife of his soldier and then organises his death. All over the world today, one can see the violence that often accompanies sex. Think of the millions of children who are forced into sex with foreign tourists in Thailand and the Philippines.

War is always associated with the rape of women, but women are daily forced to submit to the domination of men, forcing them to have sex. When Pope John Paul II said that a man may rape even his own wife, stupid people laughed at him. Whenever dominance is introduced into a sexual relationship, then the heart of our sexuality is denied. This has been a factor in some, though by no means all, the cases of sexual abuse by the clergy. Clerical power used to abuse the vulnerable is doubly repulsive, because it is intrinsically wrong and destructive and because it is a betrayal of the priestly vocation to serve. It abuses touch, which Aquinas argues is the most human of the senses. Good touch is inherently mutual. You can see and hear and not be seen or heard. But if you touch well, you are touched.

Pornography destroys that mutual vulnerability which is an intrinsic part of holy sexuality. Susan Griffin wrote, ‘Above all the voyeur must see and not feel. He keeps a safe distance. He does not perspire and his photographs do not glisten with sweat. He not touched by reality. And yet, in his mind, he can believe he possess reality. For he has control over these images which he makes and he shapes them to his will.[5]’  Surely cruelty and pornography coincide in those terrible images of the sexual humiliation of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison.

We must learn to desire in way that reverences the other, that treasures their freedom. We must delight in another as God delights in us, tenderly and without dominion. In so far as there is a taking possession, then it is to be mutual. As St Paul said, ‘For the wife does not rule over her own body but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.’ (I Corinthians 7.4).

A particular challenge for sexual ethics in the Latin world is the macho culture. This is an especial challenge in Latin America where Imperialism was experienced as a sort of emasculation, the dominance of the foreign man. Wounded male pride cannot bear to show vulnerability. Even the priest must be a real man, whatever his Church may say. Until recently, homosexuality was seen as effeminacy and so buried and hidden. This sometimes led to concealment and dishonesty. I suspect that in our own urban deserts, the lack of father figures often give young men an insecurity which is easily results in machismo.

Then there is fidelity. Jesus gives himself once and for ever. It is an act of covenant. In the words of the Eucharist: ‘This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

The disciples will be unfaithful, but he will not, and when they meet him by the side of the lake, in John 21, he will offer healing and forgiveness. When we give our bodies to another person the deepest meaning is surely that we give ourselves for ever. We become one flesh. Paul quotes Genesis: ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ We become one as God and humanity have become one in Jesus.

This has become much more difficult in our society, in which people live much longer, and are more mobile. Marriage is a fragile institution. In fact in our society no bonds are as secure as they used to be. We live in a society of short term contracts, whether at work or at home. And this creates immense problems for couples whose marriages have broken down and who find themselves in ‘irregular situations.

That is why we must be deeply compassionate and supportive of people whose marriages have broken down. Any of us could end up in the situation of estrangement, separation or divorce. I believe that the Church must find ways of offering a complete welcome to people whose marriages have broken down and ended. No one should be permanently shut out from communion. As the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume is supposed to have said: Shit happens.

Fidelity is much deeper than just sticking together and not divorcing. It is the commitment to remain open to the other person, to go on listening to them, letting yourself be surprised even when you think that you know their every joke. It is the promise to forgive, to start again, and to let yourself be forgiven, like the disciples on the banks of the sea of Galilee.

So the challenge for the Church is both to cherish the inherent meaning of sexual intercourse, as covenantal, a self-gift for ever, while coping with the inevitable failures that even the best Christians will experience.

Finally, I would suggest that Jesus’ act of self-gift is one of incomparable fertility. He has been betrayed, and is about to be denied, by his close friends. He will be handed over to death. But Jesus takes into his hands this destructive handing over and makes it into a gift. He transforms a moment of barren rejection into a new and eternal covenant. You will hand me over to my enemies, but I give myself to you. This is a radical fertility which infinitely transcends that of the mating of Middle Eastern gods and goddesses. It is the fecundity that will explode into fruition on Easter morning, when the dead wood of the cross flowers, and love has the victory over hatred.

Surely then fertility is an intrinsic element of sexuality too. It’s primordial and archetypical expression is in the bearing of children. This is a profound way of sharing God’s creativity, in bringing new life into existence. The first promise to Abraham and Sarah is that they will have children. In Africa, I had the impression of a profound understanding of sexuality in the context of fertility. Most African cultures remain deeply rooted in the rhythm of the agricultural year, cycles of sowing and reaping. And so the Catholic tradition of the last thousand years of an unmarried clergy was for many difficult to understand. When I visited  the home village in Burundi of a member of my General Council, he confessed that although he had a doctorate from Fribourg, he was hardly considered an adult since he had no children.

It also meant that homosexuality was hardly discussed. Only once, in Abidjan, on the eve of the new millennium, at around midnight, drinking beer in the night with some Dominican students when we could not see each others’ faces, was it ever openly discussed, as something strange but which they accepted happened even in Africa. It so contradicted the deep relationship between sexuality and fertility as to be hardly comprehensible.

But not every marriage is fertile in this way. We must avoid having a mechanistic or simplistic understanding of fertility. Jesus speaks a fertile word: This is my body, given for you. He is God’s fertile word.  And surely it is in the kind and healing words that we offer each other that we all share in fertility of that most intimate moment. When Jesus met Peter on the shore after Easter, he offers him a word that renews their relationship. Three times he asks him; ‘Do you love me more than these others?’ He allows him to undo his threefold denial. Sexual fertility cannot be separated from the exchange of words that heal, that recreate and set free.

How does all of this bear on the question of gay sexuality? We cannot begin with the question of whether it is permitted or forbidden! We must ask what it means, and how far it is Eucharistic. Certainly it can be generous, vulnerable, tender, mutual and non-violent. So in many ways, I would think that it can be expressive of Christ’s self-gift.

We can also see how it can be expressive of mutual fidelity, a covenantal relationship in which two people bind themselves to each other for ever. But the proposed legislation for ‘gay marriage’ imply that it is not understood to be inherently unitive, a becoming one flesh. This is why no equivalence is proposed either for non-consummation, the becoming one flesh, nor for adultery, which is the denial of that bond.

And what about fertility? I have suggested that one should not stick to a crude, mechanistic understanding of fertility. Biological fertility is inseparable from the fertility of our mutual tenderness and compassion. And so that might seem to remove one objection to gay marriage. I am not entirely convinced, since it seems to me that our tradition is incarnational, the word becoming bodily flesh. And some heterosexual relationships may be accidentally infertile in this sense, but homosexual ones are intrinsically so.

Sexual ethics is about what our acts say. And I have the impression that we are not very sure of what gay sexual acts signify. Maybe we need to ask gay Christians who have been living in committed relationships for years. I suspect that sex will turn out to be rather unimportant.

My nickname as a child was ‘Ah but’. I must have been very irritating I can imagine someone saying at this point: ‘Ah but! For Christians and perhaps for some other religious people, this is the meaning that you give to sexual intercourse. But it is not what it means in our society. Sex for some people is a sign of tenderness and love. For others it is just a pleasurable activity, a hobby, or a way of getting rid of tension. Each culture gives different meanings, just as some societies are founded on monogamy and others on polygamy or even polyandry. Who are you to tell us what is the meaning of sexual activity?’ We must do so because we believe it to be true. The Last Supper reveals a truth about what it means to be human. Other faiths may incarnate other truths. The truth of that love which is God is beyond our grasp. We do not possess it; it possesses us. All that each of us can do is to share what we believe to be true, and hope to learn from others too.


[1] Thomas Laquer ‘The Rise of the Disciplinary Society’ A Secular age Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 2007 pp 90 – 145

[2] Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation by Thomas W. Laqueur 2003

[3] Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch Chicago 1980 p. 23

 [4] Law, love and language p.92.

[5] Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge against Nature London 1981 p.122

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