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More Than Just Saying No

The Church's Broad View on Sexuality

GLASGOW, Scotland, MARCH 8, 2004 (Zenit) - The Catholic Church is often attacked for its supposedly unscientific and repressive views on sexual health and education. A typical example was an editorial page commentary by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times last Nov. 26.

Kristof accused the Vatican of being "reactionary" and "increasingly out of touch" regarding sexual matters in the developing world. Vatican policy on condoms and safe-sex education, Kristof charged, is "on par with the church under Pope Urban VIII putting Galileo under house arrest -- except that this will have more deadly results."

A frequent failing of such criticisms is to focus on a few critical points -- no condoms, no premarital sex, etc. -- while overlooking the wider context of Church teachings. Its teachings on sexual themes, in fact, rest within a much broader context of the anthropology of the human person and the profound nature of a loving relationship between a man and a woman.

The Church made a recent attempt to explain its arguments, in a submission to the Scottish government in reaction to recommendations made last year by a group of experts for sexual health policies.

The experts, who had been assembled by public authorities, made more than 100 recommendations, the Scotsman newspaper reported Nov. 13. In their document, "Enhancing Sexual Well-being in Scotland," they advocated changes such as quicker access to abortion and free condoms and the establishment of sexual health centers in schools. Following the report's publication a consultation process was opened, which ran through February.

Last Monday, Glasgow Archbishop Mario Conti published the text of the Church's submission. The accompanying press release observed that the November proposals "are a real and grave threat to the rights of parents, to the work of Catholic schools and to society's morality."

More than medical

In his introduction to the Church's submission, Archbishop Conti said the chief weakness of the November report to the Scottish Executive "is its almost total 'medicalisation' of the problem."

He noted that a report submitted 60 years ago by the Scottish Medical Advisory Committee concerning venereal diseases insisted on dealing with the problem not only from a medical point of view, but also with moral remedies. The profound cultural changes in society of the last six decades now mean that many people simply ignore the moral aspect of the question, the archbishop noted. Yet, changing the focus of attention to a purely medical aspect has not led to a better state of sexual health, he said. Rather, things have worsened.

A case in point is the recommendation by the November report that medical services be provided to children without their parents' knowledge. Such a policy, warns the archbishop, would undermine "the whole notion of family unity and community responsibility."

The text of the Church's submission was prepared with help from experts in law, ethics, philosophy and education. "Our guiding principle," stated the submission, "is to seek to draw conclusions which are fully respectful of the human person and his/her inherent dignity."

Defining values

For openers, the submission challenges the underlying values in the November report. The latter uses terms such as "respect, equality, accessibility to clinical services, life long learning and sexual well-being" but never defines them, thus leading to a looseness of thought, says the Church's submission.

The Church also supports concepts like respect and equality. But, this "does not mean that every aspect of an individual's life choices is equally worthy of respect," the Church text says. Likewise, the "concept of equality does not and cannot extend to ideas and practices which are contrary to the common good."

Another fuzzy concept in the November report is "inclusion." It is not clear, explained the Church submission, if this means that no one is excluded from citizenship or a fair share of the resources. Nor is it clear if it means that all philosophies, political and religious views are accorded an equal place in government policy, even those deemed offensive to most citizens, such as the circumcision of young girls or the promotion of homosexuality.

Role of the family

The Church's submission also touches on the role of the family. It notes that the November report did recognize the need for communication between parents and children on sexual matters. Yet, the report had an underlying negative morality, which the Catholic critique paraphrased as "no-one has the right to disapprove of the sexual behavior of others, nor should they comment on them, or teach their children to make judgements in this area of life." In other words, the November report take away from parents the right to teach their children.

The Church document also insisted on the importance of families for the well-being of society. And family stability, in turn, depends on support for the institution of marriage, the Church text said. Thus it argued that the state has a responsibility to support marriage and not to treat it as if it were just another alternative lifestyle.

"Safe sex"

The Church document insists that it is an error to see sexual relationships through a merely medical prism. The championing of "safe sex," it notes, "is in reality the promotion of the idea that promiscuity is a risk-free activity."

Apart from the specter of increased sexual disease resulting from promiscuity, the Church observes that there are other more profound reasons for abstinence from sex outside marriage. "They are connected with personal integrity and genuine respect for others; even in the context of health promotion such considerate behavior should be positively promoted."

The Church cited a number of studies showing that evidence from various fields is overwhelming on the benefits of practicing abstinence until marriage, not only for husband and wife but also for the children who will grow up in a stable family environment. "It is incumbent upon the state to promote that which is good and positive whilst dealing sensitively with that which is harmful," argued the submission.

Such a policy is compatible with respect for those who choose to live differently, the Church said, because tolerance of their behavior is compatible with choosing a public health policy which promotes the model of human relationships which best serves individuals and society.

Likewise, argued the submission, "It is not discriminating unjustly against individuals to note that some behavior is not conducive to sexual health whilst other behavior ensures sexual health." Such a policy is not a question of imposing morality, but is an objective reality. Promiscuity, homosexuality, and sex practiced by children under 16 carry risks, the Church noted.

The submission makes clear that sexual relationships involve a whole range of considerations about the person and society. Without this overall vision, policies run the risk of just putting band-aids on the symptoms.

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