The National Catholic Review

Trust me, Bill” a retired priest friend said to me a few years ago; “if the church didn’t utter another word about sex for 5,000 years, people would still know what Catholicism says about it: NO!” He said it with a mix of humor and exasperation while venting his frustration over how difficult it was to deal with the issue pastorally. So many of the people he encountered over many decades—married, unmarried, straight, gay, etc.—longed for wholeness in their lives and relationships but couldn’t take the church seriously on sexual matters.

The reasons for that disconnect ranged from active disillusionment over the hypocrisy surrounding the sex abuse scandal to simple irrelevance because these people had grown up in a culture that enshrined “good sex” as an inalienable right on a par with life and liberty.

My friend’s words came back to me as I read about Father Andrew Greeley’s passing at the end of May. I was reminded of the research he published in the mid-90s in which he found that—contrary to the stereotype—Catholics weren’t hung up and prudish at all when it came to sex. In fact, his study found that Catholics were having more and better sex than their Protestant and Jewish counterparts.

Greeley’s statement no longer sounded provocative. What struck me instead was how it stood in such stark contrast to the findings of my own research. I’ve found an epidemic of bad sex that appears to be flourishing across the board among young adults.

The statistics tell us that 70 percent to 80 percent of college-age students are sexually active, but what they don’t say is how numbing and sad much of that sex actually is. In my book The Freshman Survival Guide, the most compelling insights on “hook-up culture” on campus came from campus ministers—across all denominations—who are trying to help students make sense of these experiences. “It’s not hard to find people in college feeling ambiguous, if not crappy, about their sexual life—once you scratch below the surface” said Rabbi Yonah Schiller, director of Hillel at Tulane University. “Our need for intimacy comes from a spiritual desire to be connected to people; their bad feeling comes from that connection not being rooted in anything real.”

The Rev. Scott Young, Protestant campus minister at the University of Southern California, echoed Rabbi Schiller, saying that sex has become simply one more commodity students think they need to have to be successful human beings. “This is where we can help them see the disconnect as to why they’re feeling terrible about the experience: They’re feeling like an object.”

Kerry Cronin, who works in mission and ministry at Boston College and speaks on the issue at colleges across the country, finds students “startlingly underwhelmed” by sex. In her conversations with them, issues like romance, dating and sex seem more confusing than anything else. “It all just seems like a lot of work to them” she says. “They have a notion that it means something, but they have no idea what.”

Cronin sees this as symptomatic of growing up during a time when sex has become entirely unmoored from any religious or cultural institutions like marriage and family. Young people have no reference points to access or identify the meaning of their sexual behavior and the emotional fallout after. “Without the scaffolding of meanings and values, it’s all pretty quickly reduced to whatever they need from it now: pleasure, an ego boost, etc.,” she says. “Young people are having plenty of sexual encounters, but the sex they are having doesn’t seem to be all that good.”

Despite the onslaught of their experiences, Cronin continues to be surprised at the depth of her students’ blankness. “The really sad thing is that they seem hopeless about it. They don’t believe they’ll be able to find anything particularly meaningful in any of the hook-ups they’re having.”

What my retired priest friend once thought sounded like a universal declaration of no from on high now feels like a quaint echo from a more innocent age. The sound we hear reverberating now isn’t a declaration at all; instead, it is a painful question being directed at young adults over and over again by those on the front lines with them: “Why?”

Bill McGarvey, author of The Freshman Survival Guide, owner of and former editor in chief of Busted Halo (2004 -10), is a musician and writer.


Tim O'Leary | 7/19/2013 - 2:49pm

This article once again confirms the sadness of looking for love in all the wrong places. A US News report out this week on data from the University of Chicago provides evidence that devout, married Catholics have the most fulfilling sex of any demographic group (see here:

I know most readers of this blog find it hard to accept the truth of Humanae Vitae, but I just read it again this week. I believe it is the most prophetic teaching of the Twentieth Century, possibly only exceeded by Dignitatis Humanae or Centesimus Annus. All three documents relate to the right relationship between modern humanity's desire for personal fulfillment and freedom. And in the most intimate union this side of death, HV promotes a love that is freely chosen, vowed forever, faithful to both one's spouse and the natural law of God, and open to participating in God's plan for new human life.

Laicus Romanus | 7/24/2013 - 6:14am

One should not infer a causal relationship from a mere correlation. The high mortality rates among hospital patients doesn't mean that hospitals are the cause of their deaths. The correlation between patienthood and death merely means that sick people happen to visit hospitals. The correlation between catholichood and fulfilling sex lives merely means that fulfilling-sex-life-having people happen to visit catholic churches.

Michael Barberi | 7/20/2013 - 4:19pm

The study mentioned in this posting relied on a 1992 survey. This same article mentioned Andrew Greeley's 1994 survey that reported that 80% of devout Catholic married women approve of sex for pleasure only, something HV would classify as intrinsically evil. Hence, I am not certain what this survey proves other than devout married Catholics have a loving and fulfilling sex life. Good for them.

Tim O'Leary | 7/20/2013 - 9:13pm

Michael - I was aware that Fr. Greely also reported (was he using the same data from the U. Chicago Survey?) that faithful Catholics said they had more fulfilling sex lives. But, I would appreciate the web reference to the survey (Fr. Greely's) to see how devout is defined and how the question was put. I tend to doubt that 80% of "devout" Catholic married women would approve of sex for pleasure alone - apart from love or fidelity to God. But, even if the poll found that, we are of course not in a Church where doctrine is defined by votes or polls. If we did, some polls would suggest we drop doctrine on the Real Presence, abortion, homosexuality, and a host of other items. Nowhere in the words of Jesus is a poll or survey or vote mentioned as the way to get at the Truth.

The US News article picked their interesting newsbite from the the early part of the following lecture by Dr. Fagan where he outlines the deleterious effects of pornography on marital relationships and a host of other data on marital fidelity and its supports -

john andrechak | 7/25/2013 - 11:43pm

nowhere in the Gospel does jesus talk about gays, abortion, or most of what the Bishops worry about

Mr. Anderson | 7/22/2013 - 3:39pm

It has been my experience with Tim O'Leary's comments that the appropriate definition of "devout" is what Mr. Tim O'Leary defines it as. If you or anyone (even you Magisterium!), deviate from that definition, you are a sinner and are in violation of the natural law.

Mr. O'Leary will never, ever doubt the absolute truth of his convictions. The rest of us are still chained, looking at the nice pictures on the wall (For all those who don't get it, I am referencing Plato).

Tim O'Leary | 7/22/2013 - 6:10pm

Mr. Anderson (did you get that name from the Matrix?) - I do not believe I made a definition of devout on this blog but I would be happy to see yours.

I know the modern mind doesn't like to be pinned down by the meaning of words but I would love to see how you define it. It is not that simple, for a devout Buddhist is not the same as a devout Catholic, which would be different from a devout Jew, in terms of belief and practice. One cannot be devout in a vacuum. One can only be devout in relation to binding (religio) oneself to certain doctrines and practices.

Michael Barberi | 7/21/2013 - 5:25pm

Tim -- I was quoting exactly from the article you referenced. I have no reason to disbelieve it since the conclusions are similar to other surveys that I had provided to you in the past. This only made you deflect from the facts of surveys and posit, as I would agree with you, that polls are not a decisive factor in doctrine formulation or revision, but a sign of the times that must be seriously evaluated.

Since devout Catholics are Church going, they often rely on the advice of their parish priests. I posit that a much more serious problem for the Church is the beliefs of priests that are only revealed in confidential surveys. Note the link to the 2002 LA Times Survey of U.S. Priests. Note the conclusions, especially those of younger priests.

Search results
Los Angeles Times Poll, Priest Survey: Sex Scandal In The ... Cached
Print. Polls List A SURVEY OF ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIESTS in the United States and Puerto Rico conducted by the Los Angeles Times Poll June 27 to October 11, 2002 “I ...
How the National Survey Was Taken - Los Angeles Times Cached
This is the most extensive opinion survey of the nation's Catholic priests since a Los Angeles Times poll of priests and nuns conducted over several months in 1993 ...
File format: Adobe PDF

Please note that I do not believe that priests who disagree with some Church teachings are being unfaithful. This is a more important sign of the times that the Vatican should seriously consider as it reflects on the truth. When the Vatican turns a blind eye and does little to address these issues, the Magisterium becomes more irrelevant to Catholics. We come to a closer understanding of truth in dialogue not when issues are closed to further debate and ignored.

The percent of priests that believe it is seldom or never a sin:

1. 40% for married couples to use artificial birth control; 31% of younger priests, those ordained less than 21 years, also believe this.

2. 42% to masturbate; 39% of younger priests, those ordained less than 21 years, also hold this belief.

3. 43% to use a condom as protection against AIDS; 38% of younger priests, those ordained less than 21 years, also attest to this belief.

4. 19% to engage in homosexual acts; 18% of younger priests, those ordained less than 21 years, hold this belief.

> 15% of priests are homosexual or somewhere in between, but more on the homosexual side; 23% of younger priests, those ordained less than 21 years consider themselves to have this sexual orientation.

> 58% of priests think Catholics may disagree on some issues and still be considered faithful; 57% of younger priest, those ordained less than 21 years, agree with this belief.

Tim O'Leary | 7/21/2013 - 9:02pm

Michael – It is hard to know how useful such a survey is, since 63% refused to respond. For the responders, I could not find out if they ensured it was filled out by priests and not others at the address the survey was mailed to. The questions were obviously biased toward sexual license and doctrinal dissent, and veered obsessional on homosexuality. Questions on women’s ordination were the most obviously biased, as even those who did not “favor” it - the wrong word as this is not a taste decision but a doctrinal one – were then asked to pick the most compelling reason for allowing it! (it begins with “Regardless of whether you favor or oppose it…). And, 5% said they would likely leave the priesthood in the next 5 years.

Only 71% agreed it was always a sin to have an abortion. Disturbingly large minorities in this report found the following seldom or never sinful: cloning (24%), homosex (19%) and euthanasia (17%). And, 46% of this group favored women priests. The priests should have been asked if they knew they were deviating from Church doctrine in these questions.

Most surprisingly to me, only 68% agreed with the statement that “the sole path to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ,” whereas Jesus insisted He was (John 14:6) and that is Church doctrine. But, again, the self-selected group that responded was low.

Michael Barberi | 7/22/2013 - 4:32pm

Tim -- it often is difficult to accept the results of these surveys especially when they point to a major problem for the Church. All surveys have limitations, but this one is statistically valid.

The sample was designed to be geographically distributed in the same way the 45,382 priest make up the total U.S. priest population. To achieve the largest possible return rate, the poll contacted respondents four times. The response rate of 37% for a total of 1,854 respondents was statistically significant. Within each diocese the response rate varied from 30% to 44% and was statistically acceptable. The sample slightly over-represents active diocesan priests compared to those who belong to religious orders. Some priests agreed to speak with reporters for follow-up interviews. Some of the questions required a more complicated answer, but the overall survey was indicative of the beliefs of U.S. priests. A similar survey was conducted in 1994.

It would be disrespectful and frankly irresponsible to ask the priests if they knew they were deviating from Church doctrines. What priest do you know does not understand Humanae Vitae, et al? It is your opinion that the survey was "obviously bias" toward sexual license and doctrinal dissent and veered obsessional on homosexuality. You have to ask the tough questions if you want to understand the opinions and beliefs of priests on the many issues that confront our Church today.

You cannot bury your head in the sand and ignore these findings. We live in a divided Church and in a crisis in truth. Only in dialogue will we be brought to a better understanding of the truth. Unfortunately, the hierarchy refuses to give any credibility to such surveys or reflect on the signs of the times even when it involves the pastoral clergy. As far as the Magisterium is concerned, the book is closed to any respectful and needed debate or discussion on these issues.

Tim O'Leary | 7/22/2013 - 6:17pm

Michael - I do not think you can reasonably say I am burying my head in the sand when I spend substantial blogging time on a website debating with so many participants who have a jaundiced view of Catholic doctrine (as expressed in the official Catechism). In any case, I am not disagreeing that some priests might have the views expressed, but I doubt that the numbers reflect the total population of US priests, when 63% refuse to respond to a questionnaire (their refusal was not random). I am in the medical research field and I am well aware that the tests for statistical significance do not remove all the biases of the researchers.

But, even if it is true that >20% of priests do not believe that Jesus was the only savior of mankind, that would be sad and worth asking why - not to change the Church's doctrine but to find out what was wrong with their formation.

Michael Barberi | 7/22/2013 - 7:40pm

Ask any of the major polling services and you will quickly know how to both construct and obtain a reliable statistical sample. The LA Times methodology and a 37% response rate renders the findings statistically significant. This does not mean there are not limitations to any survey, but the bigger picture and the overall findings are a good reflection of the beliefs of U.S. priests. The 2002 survey findings point to similar findings in the 1994 survey. It is highly unlikely that the priest respondents in the 2002 and 1994 surveys were identical.

Unless there is a major flaw or problem in the methodology, you cannot ignore these findings. Asking difficult questions, while not perfect and may appear to be slanted in a direction to obtain answers to specific contemporary issues, does not invalidate the findings. Some questions could have been worded differently or answers might have allowed more for more flexibility, but this does not make the entire survey flawed and not important. I was an Aerospace Engineer and have advanced degrees in math and finance. I was also a senior partner in a worldwide healthcare consulting firm that conducted many complex studies and I also know about statistical significance and study biases.

The 2002 LA Times Survey of Priests makes clear that a significant percentage of U.S. priests, in particular younger priests, do not agree with many of the Church's sexual ethical teachings. Since devout Catholics rely of their parish priests for advice and spiritual guidance, this is one of many major reasons we have a divided Church and a crisis in truth. It is a sign of the times that the Magisterium should seriously consider. When the Church closes the book on dialogue, this makes the Magisterium irrelevant to Catholics on many of these issues.

I can assure you that in the parishes I have attended, including my current parish, my spiritual advisor parish priest did not fully embrace Humanae Vitae and my current spiritual advisor has no problem with same sex civil unions, among other issues. I don't think that my experience is an anomaly. You might have reservations about one of two questions and answers of the 2002 survey, but the overall facts and findings are clear.

This will be my last comment Tim. I will let our fellow bloggers interpret these findings and draw their own conclusions inclusive of our different points of view.

Tim O'Leary | 7/23/2013 - 10:46am

Michael - I wouldn’t keep this up but your comment above demands a response. You have more confidence in the poll than the authors do. The authors of the poll state (page 28 on Methodology) “All population surveys, including this one, are subject to errors of many kinds. Bias may be introduced through coverage errors, survey non-response, question wording issues… “ They also say that “many non-responding priests indicated that their refusal to cooperate was due to a concern that their answers would be sensationalized by the press.” They were right.

You have too much faith in polls and not enough in the priests or the Magisterium.

Roberto Blum | 6/28/2013 - 2:23pm

"the research he (Father Greely) published in the mid-90s in which he found that—contrary to the stereotype—Catholics weren’t hung up and prudish at all when it came to sex. In fact, his study found that Catholics were having more and better sex than their Protestant and Jewish counterparts."

I am very surprised of the stereotype mentioned above because catholicism is a very open religious conception. It could be described as somekind of a "pagan judaism" in the sense that it has through the ages integrated into itself many cultural traditions and thus it is open to different practices -- including different sexual practices. It seems to me that the stereotype Greely found not true is the result of a "puritanical strain" that some Catholics acquired from their protestant neighbors in the U.S.

Not only catholicism is open to different traditions and practices but it is essentially based on the concept of sacramentality, the idea that body and soul, matter and spirit are not in conflict, but that God became incarnate and thus God's grace is channeled through words spoken and matter handled -- the very essence of sacraments.

Sex is intimately united to love, even if people don't realize it, love cannot exist incorporeal.

edward mcgoohan | 6/27/2013 - 8:27am

What should be coming clear to even those bound up in theological gamesmanship is there is no restriction on sexual pleasure by ANY so called higher authority.But there is one immutable proscription, one eternal verity, inescapable: if you make a child you take care of it. And if you are of true heart, that responsibility will only end with your death. All the rest is bullshit.

J Cosgrove | 6/26/2013 - 10:11am

People seem to have their heads in the sand on this. We have seen probably the greatest assault on a culture in the history of mankind in the last 50 years in this country and Western society. The lone challengers from the past may be the French Revolution and communism. And look what good they have done. We have had our own revolution, the sexual revolution and we are witnessing the very negative effects of this revolution today in terms of excesses.

So what do you expect when New York City health says one can not be a mature adult unless they experiment sexually as a teenager. Abstinence programs though successful are sneered at and defunded while we see an unheard of increase in STD and children out of wedlock (40% in the US and much higher in the various under-classes.) The typical school shoves down the throat of every kid, that they must use condoms and now has equipped them with PlanB and as a fail safe there is always abortion and of course antibiotics until they fail. If a young female does not protect herself with birth control, PlanB or abortion she is shunned.

And we wonder why young people are confused. Devolution is the right word as we as a society are in a downward spiral. And guess who the young people of today blame for this mess, their parents. Actually I would blame the education system even more especially at the college level where the so-called academic elites set the standards.

CLAIRE BANGASSER MS | 6/26/2013 - 2:06am

On the one hand, the Catholic Church endorses sex as a way of having children in a couple; on the other hand, the world offers sex as a commodity, as a soul-less copulation, with hints of sado-masochism, where both man and woman are projected as sex objects.
To ask celibate old men to tell us what sex is is a joke. What's remarkable is that they have been allowed to tell us all these centuries.
I feel sorry if young people indeed find sex sad. But then sex is an apprenticeship as well, like love, tenderness, compassion... Good sex comes with age, when strangely and beautifully enough, God himself (or Godde herself, as you prefer) is part of it all.

Beth Cioffoletti | 6/26/2013 - 9:39am

Indeed, Claire. The people who can shed some light on this are sexually committed couples -- those who explore the spiritual depths of sexuality within the context of a long term committed relationship. Of course, that brings up the issue of contraception again, which the Church officially opposes.

Michael Ward | 6/24/2013 - 2:14pm

With all due respect the author's retired priest friend is part of the problem.His comment is a glib short change of all that I have been taught and come to experience in my single and married life. How sad ;-( to have that undercut by a man who has promised to teach and uphold what the Church teaches. OUR teaching is is YES in the context of conjugal marriage only..and not otherwise. All "other" cases thus being equal. It is the basis of sexual sanity and integration that benefits the individual and society, protects the dignity of spouses and life itself.

Craig McKee | 6/23/2013 - 7:25am

In the WRONG hands, arguments like these can DE-VOLVE into magisterical pouncing on young people, complete with chest-thumping exclamations of "See, we TOLD you it wasn't gonna be any good. Now you know WHY we've been saying NO all these centuries!"
Curious though that no mention of the M word (masturbation) appears on the radar of any of the college-level sleuths...Or are we just supposed to simplistically believe that -like GAY people in China- it simply doesn't exist?

Chris Pramuk | 6/21/2013 - 11:33am

The theology department at Xavier University where I teach has been trying to address this reality for some years, with my former colleague, sexual ethicist Dr. Jennifer Beste (now at St. Benedict's in MN), courageously leading the way. Much of Jennifer's work begins with listening to students themselves, and encouraging colleagues across the University (not just in theology) to open spaces for critical examination of "hook-up culture" (akin to Donna Freitas' in her new book reviewed in this issue of America).

As Bill writes and Beste, Freitas and many others point out, any such critical examination needs as well to hold up an alternative vision of sexuality that sparks young peoples' (sacred) aspirations for intimacy rooted in friendship, mutuality, honesty, healthy experimentation, slow-paced trust, etc., etc. Here I think elements of Ignatian spirituality (e.g. the Examen) are very helpful. Likewise the Song of Songs is a rich and much neglected biblical resource for the church, and developmentally just about right for college students, if explored poetically with care.

One also has to be prepared to open a space for honest discussion of homosexuality. (Here the Song of Songs falls short but its central intuitions can still be applied.) In short, one has to be able to establish trust (which implies modelling honesty and vulnerability) and be willing to risk accompanying them through a range of disparate sources, including church teachings, over time. I dedicate about 3 weeks to the subject, around mid-semester, in our introductory theology class. It never fails to be emotionally labor-intensive, delicate, and challenging--one presumes, and sometimes learns, there are students in every class who have experienced sexual trauma. I confess my constant prayer is "first do no harm."

Bill McGarvey | 6/24/2013 - 12:28pm

Great points Chris. It sounds like you're involved with people who are trying to think deeply about this issue (and all the related issues that surround it). In addition to the folks I spoke with for The Freshman Survival Guide, Kerry Cronin's work at Boston College (and the numerous schools she's asked to speak at) is well worth being included in the discussion. I met her after our book was done so I couldn't include her but her insights and experience are powerful.


Michael Barberi | 6/21/2013 - 4:35pm

It would be insightful to understand how much sex has really changed among college students and unmarried young adults. I always felt that unmarried sex was mostly disappointing in that something was missing. Nevertheless, this did not prevent me, as a young unmarried adult, from entering into sexual relations with a young unmarried woman for whom I had serious relations with. I had the normal appetite for sex that most people had. What was apparent to me was that sex comes to fruition and fulfills itself as a true expression of love in a marriage where the cardinal virtues are used to develop the sexual relationship. Justice requires that we see the person as subject and not object, as person with dignity that cannot be compromised. Catholic fidelity helps the Christian grow further in love and in humility. Self care is also important.

However, in my opinion, part of the reason that Catholics both young and old have a hard time embracing the Church's sexual ethical teachings is that the principles and underlying philosophy in support of such things as birth control, do not ring true to the deepest levels of their minds, hearts and souls. An an example is John Paul II's Theology of the Body especially for married couples. The issue here is whether it is a metaphoric leap that unless there is a total self-giving and openness to procreation under all circumstances, and in every act of coitus, spouses are expressing a false, evil and destructive love. John Paul II had a creative moral imagination, but “imagination enables theology to resist the constant temptation towards absolutizing…. And if we are to accept the priority of symbol over intellect, then theology has an important role to play in ensuring that the image does not become the only word, or the last word….” This means we must resist the temptation of proclaiming we know God’s procreative plan with moral certainty based on symbolic speculation. We also must balance assertions with existential reality when we find no evidence whatsoever that PC couples treat each other as loving subjects, while couples that use artificial birth control have a utilitarian attitude and a diabolical love grounded in concupiscence.

Such assertions are in profound tension with collective human experience and reason. For many Catholics who practice periodic continence or natal family planning do not want more children for good reasons and deliberately act (through plotting basil temperature and cervical mucus on a calendar) to ensure that the marital act is always non-procreative and will not result in conception. For most Catholics natural family planning and artificial birth control either both violate Humanae Vitae or they do not. Most Catholics regardless of birth control method would welcome a child conceived by accident into their lives with unconditional love. Most, if not all, do not have an anti-life mentality and very few would resort to abortion.

ed gleason | 6/29/2013 - 1:02pm

Good points Michael B.. lets include the word bonding with sex.. Bonding naturally occurs when any sensitive, caring couple have sex, whether straight, gay, married or single. That the Hook-up system tries to exclude the natural tendency toward bonding is maybe the reason for it's emptiness.The bonding may also be the reason gay hookup evolved into SSM and the majority opinion so fast.

KEVIN DOYLE | 6/23/2013 - 3:15pm

Thank you, Bill McGarvey. Great column. As Walter Kerr contended, it is a sin to eat bad ice cream.

And thank you Michael Barberi for your thoughtful comment. From your lips to our bishops' ears.

C Walter Mattingly | 6/30/2013 - 7:06am

Michael, I always look forward to your commentary on sexuality and the church.

I'm trying to draw a bottom line on what you are implicitly (and explicity?) advocating here. I'd appreciate if you would clarify/correct as you see fit.

-That the church, in an attempt to recognize practical reality, when advocating natural family planning is in fact promoting "natural" birth control which, no matter how we parse it, separates conjugal love from procreation. Put simply, you seem to suggest that distinguishing between that and say a birth control pill is splitting hairs. Correct?

-Your opinion seems to be aligned with the church and Jesus' words that the married state involves a permanent bond between a man and a woman who become one flesh, which is the proper state for mature sexual love, although you seem tolerant for those who arrive there in roundabout fashion. You are not however totally clear on this issue, perhaps intentionally so. Do you believe the church should welcome gay marriage as Ed suggests? You also seem to agree that procreation and family is inseparable from Christian marriage, and that while marriage which intentionally completely divorces sexuality from procreation is deficient, not every act of sexual intimacy within marriage need be procreative. Correct?

-You appear to be in general agreement with the church's position on abortion, at least in regard to elective abortion.

Michael Barberi | 6/30/2013 - 7:26pm

Walter Mattingly,

To your first point, there is no real difference between the agent's intention and goal whether they practice natural family planning or artificial birth control. Both of these methods separate the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act. The Church says that PC couples are abstaining from sex on fertile days. Others say that PC couples are plotting basil temperature and cervical mucus on a calendar to determine infertile days in order to deliberately limit sexual intercourse to those days rendering the marital act non-procreative.

Having said that, it is important to recognize that Humanae Vitae 12, sometimes referred to as the inseparability principle was never a constant teaching of the Church. This novel teaching was never mentioned by any pope, theologian or bishop in the history of the RCC before it was offered up by Karol Wojtyla in his 1960 book "Love and Responsibility". Equally important is the fact HV 12 was pronounced as God's procreative plan as a moral certitude. Unfortunately, no one knows God's procreative plan and John Paul II's explanation of it was symbolic speculation. My point is that even if you believe HV 12, it is contradicted in the encyclical Humanae Vitae because periodic continence or natural family planning separates the so-called two meanings of the marital act. The lack of a convincing moral theory for HV 12 has caused most theologians such as the late Bernard Haring and many priests today to believe that HV should be responsibly reformed.

I believe that a marriage should be open to procreation but not every act of sexual intercourse. However, even Pius XII exempted couples from their procreative obligation in marriage for good reasons. Many couples are infertile, marry in menopause and do not want children for valid reasons. No priest or bishop I ever knew ever condemned or made null and void a Catholic marriage because they did not have children.

As to your second point, there is a profound difference between a civil and church marriage. A civil marriage has to do with constitutional rights and a church marriage has to do with church law and theology. Within the Christian community of Churches, there are profound disagreements about civil and church marriages. The issue of same sex marriage within the RCC is a complex one. Many theologians are challenging the underlying philosophy and anthropology of this teaching.

I will quote my parish priest when I asked him about same sex marriages. He said he had no problem with civil unions but he believed that a church marriage was between a man and a woman. Frankly, I am not convinced that there is much difference when you consider a marriage from the point of view of a legitimate, faithful, life-long committed, and loving relationship. Even same sex couples adopt children or have children by in vitro fertilization, as do heterosexual couples.

Do these comments answer your questions?

C Walter Mattingly | 7/1/2013 - 1:48pm

Thanks Michael, that was helpful. If I may continue the conversation.

Almost all of us can probably think of something we wish Jesus hadn't said, or perhaps think is not relevant to the Zeitgeist we experience. One of those is his quite clear statement on marriage: a man and a woman, one flesh, permanent. Having seen one friend go through a quarter century of suffering in a troubled marriage, I would wonder in his shoes how fearful I would have been of the possibility of future perdition, as he was already suffering something hellish. Yet there it is, one man, one woman, one flesh, about as clear a definition as anything in the NT. How would one go about arguing coherently from a Catholic point of view that this marriage union could be between two men, two women, or some grouping of more than two? On what principle/s would the argument proceed? (I understand the annulment process/answer, which appears to me in practice somewhere between a valid accommodation and a fig leaf.) Also, Anne's question is interesting, if problematic. Whereas an infertile or couple too old to have children marrying would not in my mind contravene the interconnectedness of human sexuality and procreation, as they would be acting out of inabillity rather than unwillingness, a couple committed beforehand not to have children preferentially would clearly disconnect the conjugal nature of marriage and any necessary relationship to fecundity.

Michael Barberi | 7/1/2013 - 9:01pm

Walter Mattingly,

The issues you are raising require a long response and so I will only comment sparingly. If you want to debate these issues further, email me.

1. Jesus's NT sayings about marriage is not that clear. In Matt. 5:27-32, he say "But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery". For many Christian Churches, Jesus offers an exception to divorce, namely unchastity. One of the worse examples of unchastity is adultery. Hence, many Christian Churches permit divorce for these reasons. In other NT gospels, this "exception" is not mentioned, but one must understand when each NT gospel was written, the audience it was written to and the issues of importance at that time. Hence, not every saying of Jesus reported in the NT is completely clear and there are legitimate exegesis and interpretations, especially as it applies to morality.

2. During ancient times, the normal, natural and God-given human orientation was assumed and believed to be heterosexual. Any voluntary human sexual act that was unnatural for heterosexuals were considered immoral and incomprehensible. For example, in the Lot story the angry mob wanted to rape Lot's angelic visitors. This mob was considered heterosexual and for heterosexuals to voluntarily choose to rape male visitors was despicable and a grave evil. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that Western scientific society first started to realize that there was a homosexual orientation. For those who are homosexual, it is unnatural for them to sexually desire someone from the opposite sex, as it is for heterosexuals to sexually desire someone from the same sex. This issue of same sex marriage is more about the morality of homosexual acts than it is about what Jesus taught. To my knowledge, Jesus never mentioned homosexuality or homosexual marriages. The reference to Genesis and symbolism, while itself not clear, is another issue.

2. Your thinking that infertile couples and those in menopause do not contradict or undermine the connection between human sexuality and procreation is not persuasive. Couples who practice natural family planning and artificial contraception do not want more children and want to ensure that their marital acts are non-procreative. Their intentions and ends are the same. Also, many couples do not have children for good reasons and the Church does not claim they are committing a sin, nor are their marriages condemned. The point is that the Church asserts that it is God's will that married couples must never separate the unitive and procreative meanings of marital acts under any circumstances. Most people find it hard to imagine that the only licit means of birth control that God permits is for couples to plot temperature and cervical mucus on a calendar to determine infertile times and restrict all martial acts to those times making sexual intercourse non-procreative. If this is true, why did God wait 2,000 years to disclose to a pope in 1951 the only licit form of birth control? If God wanted couples to abstain from sexual intercourse on fertile days, why is it impossible for couples to do this. In other words, the maximum fertility window per month for couples is 4-6 days. Yet, the average program of natural family planning requires 12 days because science has yet to develop a convenient and accurate way to determine the moment or day of ovulation.

The requirement that the unitive and procreative meanings of the martial act must never be separated goes to extremes. Consider the fact that the Church says that a young woman with children that is told that another pregnancy will be life-threatening cannot choose the most prudent and securest means of safe-guarding her life, namely sterilization, but must practice a life-time of sexual abstinence. This teaching turns the hierarchy of values upside down. Safe-guarding one's life and marriage, including the well-being of existing children, must be subordinated to the requirement to ensure that every act of sexual intercourse must be open to procreation. To most people, this teaching is absurd, unreasonable and irresponsible.

C Walter Mattingly | 7/2/2013 - 10:05am

Thanks, Michael. You and O'Leary (I believe the name is) debate, as you both seem well-informed; I listen and pose questions for personal clarification and to become better informed. One remains though; I'll email you rather than hog too much more space in the dialogue.

Anne Chapman | 6/30/2013 - 8:20pm

Michael, I know this is addressed to Mr. Mattingly, but as I have great respect for your scholarship and knowledge of this issue I hope that you will indulge me. I have a question about this statement - "I believe that a marriage should be open to procreation ..."

Do you believe that couples who, for reasons of personality and disposition, do not wish to become parents should be denied marriage by the church? There are many fine people who would not make good parents.

Or do you mean that all married couples should be "open to procreation" in the sense that if a conception occurs with a couple who have chosen not to have children, they are willing to become parents rather than abort?

Michael Barberi | 7/26/2013 - 6:00pm


I apologize for this last response. In short, in 1951 Pius XII exempted married couples from their procreative obligations in marriage for good reasons. They are medical, eugenic, economic and social. They were not explicitly defined. If a couple does not want children, to the degree that if contraception fails they would abort the fetus, then they have an anti-life mentality. If they do not want children but would not abort a child conceived by accident, they do not. If a couple is selfish, does not like children, finds children a irritating burden to be avoided at any cost, then they have an anti-life attitude. Unfortunately, there are no explicit definitions of "good reason" because it would be difficult if not almost impossible to define all the circumstances that are medical, eugenic, economic and social that would be considered good reasons. The reasons cannot be arbitrary without a foundation that is considered rational and not inconsequential. For example, under medical, there is mental. A woman who had a dramatic event in her upbringing and has some type of psychological issue where children would be both a physical and mental burden resulting in negative consequences for the child as well as the couple, then not having children would be a loving and prudent human action.

The bottom line is this: the Church does not teach that a couple cannot get married if they do not want children for good reasons. There are legitimate reasons where human sexuality in marriage does not have to be procreative. The fact that natural family planning separates the narrowly RCC-defined unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act, making sexual intercourse non-procreative even for a lifetime (as Pius XII allows), is a case in point that the Church ignores.

Hope his helps.

C Walter Mattingly | 6/30/2013 - 6:57am

Michael, I always look forward to your commentary on sexuality and the church.

I'm trying to draw a bottom line on what you are implicitly (and explicity?) advocating here. I'd appreciate if you would clarify/correct as you see fit.

-That the church, in an attempt to recognize practical reality, when advocating natural family planning is in fact promoting "natural" birth control which, no matter how we parse it, separates conjugal love from procreation. Put simply, you seem to suggest that distinguishing between that and say a birth control pill is splitting hairs. Correct?

-Your opinion seems to be aligned with the church and Jesus' words that the married state involves a permanent bond between a man and a woman who become one flesh, which is the proper state for mature sexual love, although you seem tolerant for those who arrive there in roundabout fashion. You are not however totally clear on this issue, perhaps intentionally so. Do you believe the church should welcome gay marriage as Ed suggests? You also seem to agree that procreation and family is inseparable from Christian marriage, and that while marriage which intentionally completely divorces sexuality from procreation is deficient, not every act of sexual intimacy within marriage need be procreative. Correct?

-You appear to be in general agreement with the church's position on abortion, at least in regard to elective abortion.

ed gleason | 6/30/2013 - 3:49pm

@CW Mattingly asks.. "Do you believe the church should welcome gay marriage as Ed suggests?; To ask Michael a rhetorical question about which you falsely say I 'suggest that the church should recognize or officiate at gay marriages is not even worth a retort, but I will reply none the less. Having been in a Sacramental covenant relationship for 58 years I and my wife recognize and the Church ought to recognize [it's an observable fact] that that bonding has occurred in the overwhelming number of relationships that have existed in the last 40 thousand years without the benefit of a Sacramental covenant marriage. .. I guess just about 10% of all couple relationships during that time were Sacramentally witnessed in Church. . One ought to recognize that couple bonding is a naturally occurring good if bonding is good.....what's your problem?.

C Walter Mattingly | 7/1/2013 - 12:45pm

Ed, I apparently mistakenly concluded from your comment that you were an advocate for same-sex marriage within the church. If that is not the case, I am apologize for my mistaken assumption.

Jim McCrea | 7/22/2013 - 7:09pm

Most LGBT couples that I know ... and I include my partner of 41 years and myself ... aren't interested in asking for or receiving any RCC blessing. We know that it would, at best, be grudgingly granted and, quite frankly, we have survived quite adequately without it, thank you very much.

We want CIVIL recognition of our marriages that grant SECULAR rights, benefits and responsibilities. That will be more than enough.

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