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