The Specter of a Sweeping Rewrite of Catholic Sexual Teachings

Last week, Pope Francis approved a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty. While the previous iteration already declared licit use of capital punishment to be “practically non-existent,” the new wording strengthens this stance, pronouncing the death penalty “inadmissible.”

This change has prompted a flurry of speculation, from various media outlets, anticipating a sweeping rewrite of those Catholic teachings that most offend contemporary sensibilities—namely, Catholic sexual morality. Francis Debernardo, writing for The Advocate, cites the catechism revision as proof that the Vatican has “evolved,” and that any Church teaching can thus be altered following “decades of theological debate and discussion.” Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher begrudgingly agrees with Debernardo, calling the Pope’s Catechism edit a “big win” for LGBT Catholics who want to change Church teaching: “I wish [Debernardo] were wrong. I don’t think he is.”

The revised section appeals to the principle of human dignity in its condemnation of capital punishment, and Debernardo argues that LBGT advocates can invoke this same principle to usher a new sexual morality into the Church of the future.

But here is what this perspective fails to grasp: that very principle—the unassailable value of human life (even of death row inmates)—is the foundation of the Church’s current teaching on human sexuality. What the Church says about sex is fundamentally about life.


In an account of his own conversion, G.K. Chesterton highlights the paradox a would-be convert encounters, when viewing Catholicism from the outside:

He is looking through a little crack or crooked hole that seems to grow smaller as he stares at it; but it is an opening that looks towards the Altar. Only, when he has entered the Church, he finds that the Church is much larger inside than it is outside. He has left behind him the lop-sidedness of lepers' windows and even in a sense the narrowness of Gothic doors; and he is under vast domes as open as the Renaissance and s universal as the Republic of the world.

Narrow and lop-sided aptly describes my perception of Catholic teaching before I became a Catholic myself. From an external vantage point, where everything is refracted through American politics, the Church seems an odd mishmash of conservatism and progressivism—against the death penalty, concerned about the poor and the environment, yet curiously opposed to women priests and same-sex marriage. I was particularly perplexed that the Church was against abortion and contraception—was this not an obvious contradiction? Is not contraception clearly the best means to reduce abortion? (This, as it turns out, is not the case.)

The Church seemed like a magnificent but sluggish giant, lumbering steadily toward the present, but always a century or two behind. It would get on “the right side of history” sooner or later, I reckoned, but not quickly enough for me.

But now I am on the inside. And here, under the dome of the whole, I see how these scattered spots of light, which from afar seemed a meaningless blur, actually form a constellation.

To perceive reality as the Catholic Church does, a radical shift must be made—that of locating oneself under a sacred canopy, as part of an interconnected created order, rather than an autonomous atomized self, crashing about in the void.

The pope himself provides a compelling account of this created order in his encyclical Laudato Si. Predictably, discussion of this encyclical tends to muck about in the shallows of American politics, missing the overall vision. Laudato Si is about climate change, yes, but more so about envisioning the cosmos as an integral whole, which “unfolds in God, who fills it completely.” Drawing from his predecessor, Pope Benedict, Francis declares that “the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible,” and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth.” The Church’s teachings about social and environmental justice, then, are not isolated from her sexual ethics, rather, these are unified by an unflinching regard for human life.

This eternal principle is always at work in Catholic sexual morality, and recognizing it requires remembering something our culture is teaching us to forget: Sex is the ground of human existence, the fountainhead of all human life. 

Our sexed bodies are not simply pleasure machines, orgasm generators. The features of our bodies that are designed for intense sexual pleasure are the same features that are designed for procreation. The pleasure center of the woman is the entrance to her womb; the moment of climax for the man is the very moment he gives his seed. The telos of sex is not the orgasmic thrill, but the transmission of human existence. Its unifying power is purposeful; the intense bond formed by sexual union does not exist merely for the insular good of the couple, but for the flourishing of the new person who might result from it.

A Catholic understanding of the universe not as accident but as cosmos demands that we regard the nature of our bodies as good and meaningful—including the fertility and sexual complementarity that binds us to our species and the natural order as a whole. In this view, there is a givenness to our bodies, particularly in their sexed natures, that connects us to all human life. The entwining of pleasure with life-giving potential that is written in our bodies is not incidental or pathological, but the fruits of divine intention. As Francis acclaims in Laudato Si:

Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.” It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology (§155).

In sexual union, love and the potential for new life are intrinsically linked. This endows a dignity, a significance, to sex that goes far beyond the fulfillment of adult desires—beyond even a longing for romantic love or intimacy with another person. And that weighty significance demands something of us—all of us—no matter our sexual histories, proclivities, or marital state. It demands that we make sexual choices based not on desire, but out of respect for human life and the objective creative potential we carry. True human flourishing is not accomplished by transcending or rejecting the intrinsic connection between sex and life, but by acting in harmony with it.

Unlike some conservative Protestant understandings, Catholic sexual morality does not run along a gay/straight axis. Rather, “bad sex” in the Catholic understanding is sex that has been intentionally isolated from the potential for new life, when human beings try to put asunder what God, in the fabric of our nature, has joined together. This view of sexuality actually levels the moral playing field between those who experience same-sex desire and those who do not. Here, in fact, those categories become irrelevant, because everyone is asked to channel eros into agape, to live sacrificially for the sake of life, to honor the goodness of the created order with our bodies.


In the earliest days of Christianity, around the same time Saint Paul was writing his epistles, a treatise called the Didache, the Teaching, circulated among the nascent churches. This is the first catechism, the seed from which the current catechism has grown, and it begins by making an emphatic, clear-cut distinction: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.”

The way of death, as described in this text, includes interdictions that are palatable to the modern-day progressive, such as “not pitying the poor man, not laboring for the afflicted.” Among the litany of possible sinners are those “advocates of the rich” and “lawless judges of the poor.” But the Didache is also concerned with how we make use of our sexuality and safeguard new life: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”

In the moral tapestry of Catholicism, all of these concerns are interrelated, tracing back to a bedrock orientation toward life. The Church does not have a prurient obsession with “pelvic issues”—she has a mission to cherish human beings, and therefore must remain concerned with how those beings come to be.

Perhaps the Church is a magnificent giant, moving through history at a measured pace—but she is not wandering aimlessly. From her earliest days and even now, she is being led down the Way of Life. The truths about human sexuality that have been entrusted to her are not mere edicts against something, but an invitation toward something: a heroic regard for the human person and an otherworldly kind of love that is fortified by sacrifice.

Featured Image: Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1833; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Abigail Favale

Abigail Favale is a writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory.

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