Friday, September 24, 2010

Riches to Rags: "The Sexual Person", the Bishops and the Catholic Press Association

In 2008, a couple of well-established American theologians came out with a new book on the Catholic Church's teachings on human sexuality. Published by Georgetown University Press, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology earned considerable critical accolades for its authors, Dr. Todd A. Salzman, chair of the Department of Theology at Creighton University, and Dr. Michael G. Lawler, a professor and dean emeritus in the same department. In its description of the work, Georgetown University Press says:

"Remaining firmly within the Catholic tradition, [Salzman and Lawler] contend that the church is being inconsistent in its teaching by adopting a dynamic, historically conscious anthropology and worldview on social ethics and the interpretation of scripture while adopting a static, classicist anthropology and worldview on sexual ethics...The Sexual Person draws historically, methodologically, and anthropologically from the best of Catholic tradition and provides a context for current theological debates between traditionalists and revisionists regarding marriage, cohabitation, homosexuality, reproductive technologies, and what it means to be human. This daring and potentially revolutionary book will be sure to provoke constructive dialogue among theologians, and between theologians and the Magisterium."

The Sexual Person received plaudits from other renowned theologians in the field such as Lisa Sowle Cahill, J. Donald Monan Professor of Theology, Boston College, John A. Coleman, SJ, Casassa Professor of Social Values, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Edward C. Vacek, SJ, Department of Moral Theology, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Paul Lauritzen, director, Program in Applied Ethics, John Carroll University, and Richard M. Gula,SS, The Franciscan School of Theology, Graduate Theological Union.

In 2009, the Catholic Press Association gave The Sexual Person a book award -- first place in its "Theology" category. In its award statement, CPA said: "For more than twenty-five years Roman Catholic moral theologians have struggled to speak and write candidly and clearly on controverted aspects of sexual ethics. The reasons are well known and frequently rehearsed. In this book by Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, serious Catholics have an honest and forthright presentation of the complex and challenging background to many of the most perplexing questions of sexual morality in our time. Framing their study around a clear and consistent Lonerganian hermeneutic, the authors guide us with breathtaking frankness through marital morality, cohabitation, and homosexuality. This work is a tour de force."

"The best of Catholic tradition", "a tour de force"...that was then. No sooner had the book come out, the two theologians found themselves in hot water with the Catholic Church hierarchy, particularly over the views they express on homosexuality. The USCCB Committee on Doctrine promptly received a request from both the current and former archbishops of Omaha (where Creighton is located) to review the work for doctrinal correctness.

For the record, the former archbishop of Omaha, Msgr. Elden Curtiss, had already tangled with the Creighton theologians. In 2007, the archdiocese cut ties with the university's Center for Marriage and Family, a move instigated by the conservative Cardinal Newman Society. CNS claimed victory, saying that the severance occured "because director Michael Lawler, also Professor Emeritus of Catholic Theology at the Jesuit university, co-authored [with ethics instructor Gail Risch] an article in the June issue of U.S. Catholic magazine endorsing premarital sex and cohabitation for couples who plan to marry." "Lawler also opposed Catholic teaching in April 2006 when he and Todd Salzman, a Creighton theology professor, wrote in The Heythrop Journal that 'homosexual couples can engage in sexual acts that are natural, reasonable and therefore moral.'" Writing in the diocesan newspaper, Msgr. Curtiss effectively censured the theologians, saying: "In these articles, Professors Lawler and Salzman argue for the moral legitimacy of some homosexual acts. Their conclusion is in serious error, and cannot be considered authentic Catholic teaching." Creighton's Center for Marriage and Family was closed in 2009. Salzman and Risch are still on Creighton's faculty; Lawler retired in 2005 but the Department of Theology has named a lecture series in his honor.

This week, the bishops issued their ruling on The Sexual Person. The bishops concluded that the authors of The Sexual Person "base their arguments on a methodology that marks a radical departure from the Catholic theological tradition" and "reach a whole range of conclusions that are contrary to Catholic teaching." The Committee on Doctrine stated that "neither the methodology of The Sexual Person nor the conclusions that depart from authoritative Church teaching constitute authentic expressions of Catholic theology. Moreover, such conclusions, clearly in contradiction to the authentic teaching of the Church, cannot provide a true norm for moral action and in fact are harmful to one's moral and spiritual life."

The current archbishop of Omaha, Msgr. George Lucas, published the bishops' ruling prominently on the archdiocesan website along with a press release in which he states: "It is disappointing that Professors Salzman and Lawler have persisted in publishing material that is not consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church...Professors Salzman and Lawler have departed in a serious way from sound Catholic teaching. Catholics are well advised not to be misled by them.”

Creighton University's president Rev. John Schlegel, SJ, issued a statement to the media affirming that the university is “fully committed to the Catholic tradition” and that the institution “accepts as authoritative the statement” of the bishops' conference. But, the statement added, Creighton “is nonetheless mindful of its obligation to honor the academic freedom of individual faculty members.” The Cardinal Newman Society, however, is not satisfied. They have sent a letter to Schlegel asking him to assert upfront that the university is "not defending the right of Professors Salzman and Lawler to dissent from Catholic teaching as University professors of theology."

Rebel Girl can only hope that Fr. Schlegel will ignore CNS's intent to intimidate his institution into abandoning its principles of academic freedom and that this renewed clumsy attempt at theological censorship will have its usual positive effect of stimulating interest in The Sexual Person and lead many more people to purchase the book, whether as a protest or merely to see for themselves what the fuss is about.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rebel Girl,
    I wanted to let you know that these authors have published another book on the same topic titled Sexual Ethics. As thanks for your support for the first book, I'd be happy to send you a free copy of the new book. Just email me at jb594 AT georgetown DOT edu
    My best,
    Jackie Beilhart