For the love of God

by Dennis Coday

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Frequent visitors to our website may have the impression that I begin my days scouring the Internet for stories for Morning Briefing, the daily roundup of news about all things Catholic that I post to our NCR Today blog most mornings. I do try to get that job done early, but before I read the news I like to remind myself of the deeper values that guide my life. I like to begin the day with a scripture reading and at least a few minutes of meditation.

The reading on the day when we finalized our editorial "NCR endorses call for a new sexual ethic" was from Isaiah 49:8-15, which ends with God’s most ancient promise: “I will not forget you.” That immediately moves me to Romans 8:38-39: Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Comprehending that takes more than a few minutes of meditation. Let me tell you, I almost didn’t get Morning Briefing posted today.

My meditation, though, took me to an unexpected place. I was reminded of our editorial on Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s call for a reexamination of the church’s teaching on sexuality. In his talk, Robinson includes a short reflection on the prodigal son, or, to be precise, on the prodigal son’s father, which is of course a beautiful story of the love of a parent for a child. Robinson says that this metaphor for God is how we should understand what God wants for us: God is about love, not about tracking our sinfulness.

As we kicked around ideas for the editorial, one of our writers noted: “To me, the best part of Robinson’s talk was that he roots his ethical perspectives explicitly in our understanding of God. This seems very Ratzingerian. Ethics flow from theological anthropology, all of it rooted in what we believe about the Trinitarian love revealed by Jesus Christ.”

I’ll leave it to the theologians to decide how “Ratzingerian” Robinson’s ideas are, but I hope they are. Robinson will need all the friends in his corner that he can get. As our editorial notes: “Robinson is not the first to articulate the need for a responsible reexamination of sexual ethics.”

NCR publisher Tom Fox wrote Sexuality and Catholicism (George Braziller Inc.) in 1995 asking for a reexamination. He said that the Vatican’s absolutist approach ignored contemporary scientific understandings of sexuality and the experience of ordinary people.

Among the others are also Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman, theologians at Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. Their 2008 book The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Georgetown University Press) won high praise among scholars. The reviewer for NCR called it “among the most important works in Catholic sexual ethics to emerge in the last two decades.” It also earned first-place honors in the books in theology category from the Catholic Press Association.

Our reviewer, Julie Hanlon Rubio of St. Louis University, wrote: “Their book will be noticed because of its controversial positions on contraception, same-sex relationships, cohabitation and artificial means of reproduction. However, its contribution is its clear articulation of a person-centered natural-law ethic that offers Catholics an authentic way to think about sex in relation to their faith.”

The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine weren’t so impressed. The committee denounced the book in September 2010. Its 24-page statement said, “The book proposes ways of living a Christian life that do not accord with the teaching of the church and the Christian tradition,” and that the author’s approach represents “a radical departure from the Catholic theological tradition.”

Another of our writers asked about this issue’s editorial: “This invitation to reexamine the church’s teaching, to whom in particular is it directed?” I’d say that the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine would be a good group to receive the invitation.

We all know, though, that many people have already received the invitation and are reexamining the teaching in light of their experience. I mean, of course, the tens of millions of Catholic families who, despite the surrounding cultural pressures, do sustain, and work hard to sustain, loving mutual relations, but who don’t always find current church teachings really helpful. Our hope in furthering this invitation is with the persistent, faithful lay Catholics. As our stories this week from Cleveland (Page 1) and St. Louis (Page 14) show, the laity sometimes can win.

Read Robinson’s talk

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