Catholicism & Sexuality: A Roundtable

An excerpt of this conversation was posted at patheos.com in April, 2010. Here is the full text of three young Catholic women’s conversation about Sexuality & the Church.

Kate Henley Averett

One needs only to turn on the radio or open a newspaper today to get bombarded with opinions on the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality.  It may be one of the most talked-about topics these days, but it can feel like all the debate consists of is over-used sound bytes being flung around haphazardly at whoever may or may not be listening.  Knowing that there’s so much more to the topic of sexuality and Catholicism than editorials on the harmful effects of mandatory clergy celibacy or quips and clips about homosexuality, I decided to seek out a deeper conversation on the subject with some women who are graced with a particular talent for articulating their thoughts on the complexities of being Catholic.

So on a Tuesday evening at the end of March I sat down for such a conversation with Jessica Coblentz and Johanna Hatch, two of my co-contributors to the recently released volume of essays From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicsm (2009, Liturgical Press). Aided by the marvels of modern technology, we each sat in front of our own laptops miles apart for a video-chat roundtable discussion on Catholicism and sexuality.
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Kate Henley Averett: First off, I just want to thank you both for joining me in the discussion tonight! I was really excited that there were multiple contributors from From the Pews in the Back who were eager to be a part of a discussion on sexuality and Catholicism. In preparing for tonight’s conversation I wondered a lot about the unique perspectives that we as young Catholic women may have on the topic of sexuality, specifically whether there is something about the particular convergence of these three identity markers of being young, female, and Catholic that might result in our demographic being set apart in some way in terms of how we approach sexuality, both on a broader philosophical level and in our own personal lives.  So to start off, I was hoping we could each say a few words about where we are coming from, why we were interested in the conversation about sexuality and Catholicism.  So whichever one of you guys wants to jump in first – what is it about the topic that interests you?

Johanna Hatch: I can go first. I think there’s quite a few reasons I was really interested in this topic.  It was really one of the first areas where I started questioning the Church, started forming my own opinions, started having to really deal with that whole question of my conscience not meshing with the official Church teaching.  One of my earliest memories of the topic was in high school, one of my really good friends in our Catholic youth group came out as gay, and that created a lot of tension within the youth group and then he was kind of like rejected, and it was a real struggle for me because I didn’t understand, it didn’t make sense to me –  how could we, why would we turn him away? Why would we reject him? He was still the same person.  And then coming more into my feminist identity, a lot of the issues of dealing with contraception, and abortion, you know, within and against the Church, has always been an area where I’ve really been trying to integrate those identities and trying to find some sort of peace with that.  And I think kind of where I’m coming from is, well right now one of the reasons I was interested in this is that I feel like I’m in the area of “approved sexuality” by the Catholic Church if you will, being married to a man and being a mother, but in many ways I still kind of feel like an outlaw, when we talk about issues like contraception and identity and things like that, so that’s kind of where my interest is right now.

Jessica Coblentz: I would echo very similar experiences.  I’m reminded, I gave a talk just about a week ago at a big Catholic conference in Los Angeles and I was talking about young adult identity and at one, just one point in the talk, I mentioned that many of the young adults I know are concerned about sexuality. And after the talk – there was a number of young adults that shared – after the talk this older gentleman came up to me and confronted me and said, “Why is it always about sexuality, and moral issues and things?” and I heard his concern, but at the same time it struck me to kind of respond to him, “Well, you know, if you want to know why it’s always about sexuality, you should probably ask your bishop, not just me.” Because on the one hand, I totally agree, I’ve had a lot of personal relationships with people who have struggled with the Church’s positions on sexuality, I struggle with the Church’s positions on sexuality, but also, I feel like as a young thinking Catholic, so much of the public rhetoric about Catholicism surrounds sexuality, that even if I wanted to escape it in my personal life I feel like it would be imposed on me in the public sphere.

KHA: I think that I kind of tend to come at this topic kind of on three different levels at the same time.  The first is academic, that I’m really interested in pursuing study particularly on LGBT Catholics and kind of the way that the struggle that you have both mentioned gets played out, and how people, how their spirituality is or is not attached to or detached from their identity and their sexuality.  I’m also interested in it from a ministerial perspective – I did my MDiv thesis work on ministerial models for doing ministry with LGBT Catholics, so I’m kind of excited about ways of working with LGBT Catholic communities and working on issues of conflicting with Church teaching and integration of the spirituality and sexuality aspects kind of despite that conflict.  And then also on a really personal level, being an openly gay Catholic, obviously I feel like I have a lot at stake in conversations about Catholicism and sexuality, and that in a lot of ways my adult spirituality and my adult faith life has been about the tensions that are inherent in claiming both identities of being gay and being Catholic, and that my way of experiencing myself as a spiritual person is completely inseparably from that tension.

Conceptions and Misconceptions: What do others think of Catholicism and sexuality?

KHA: Jessica, you touched on this a little bit already, the idea that there are conceptions and often misconceptions in the public sphere about Catholicism and sexuality coming both from Catholics and non-Catholics. I’d love it if both of you guys could reflect a little bit on what the conceptions and misconceptions are that you think are held in the public sphere, and whether there are aspects of Catholic thought and teaching on sexuality that you wish people were more aware of.

JC: I struggle to answer this question because on one hand my first instinct is to say that I feel like it’s pretty widely known, even when people think about popular moral, sexual teachings in the Catholic Church, it’s also pretty widely known that there is a lot of contention surrounding them. So for as much as people recognize at least some version of the teaching on birth control, I find a lot of people I know would also acknowledge that it’s not necessarily practiced the way it’s taught.  But at the same time, just as I observe that, in my own interactions with people, I’m thinking particularly of my peers in Divinity School at a multi-religious Divinity School, I’m constantly in conversation with peers who can’t, or who really struggle to understand why I identify as a Catholic if I do disagree with the Church’s moral teachings. And somehow this is really baffling to them, even though on a larger scale people seem to grasp that just because a church teachings something, particularly in regard to sexuality, doesn’t mean that everyone actually ascends to the beliefs.  So that’s one tension that I see in terms of misconceptions.

JH: I think that that’s one of the more prominent conceptions or misconceptions, and I feel like it’s something that Catholics who are in dissent with these particular teachings get both from more conservative members of our own Church and then from people who would normally be our allies who aren’t part of the Catholic Church with the “well, why don’t you just leave.” And that’s been a continuing struggle for me and something that I continue to discern – is it appropriate for me to, or what level of complicity do I have if I stay within the Catholic Church?

But a couple other conceptions or misconceptions, I think that there is a big misconception both from some members of our Church and from people who aren’t part of the Catholic Church about the teachings about gays and lesbians – and I always make sure I say gays and lesbians because I’ve never seen anything about people who are bisexual and transgendered in relation to the Catholic Church, that’s it’s own thing! But there’s this conception that the Catholic Church automatically says, “if you identify as gay, you’re wrong and you’re out,” and while Church teaching I think is really imperfect and in need of reform around gays and lesbians, our Church does teach that discrimination against gays and lesbians is wrong, and our Church does teach that gays and lesbians are children of God, and are still part of the Church.  And like I said I don’t condone all the teachings around sexuality in this area, but there’s something to that, that a lot of other Christian churches don’t have that much, and I wish more people knew about this.

The other conception/misconception that I wish more people knew about is the teaching that sex is procreative but it’s also unitive, and I wish we talked more to people outside the Church about the whole unitive thing.  Because there’s this stereotype of, you know, people who are married Catholics having twelve kids, or you know, NFP is another word for pregnant next year or whatever, but I think there really is something beautiful about the idea that sex has a unitive purpose as well, and I think that really invites a lot of possibility and opens up a lot of avenues for what sexuality can be.

KHA:  Yeah, I think that part of it is that for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, that we tend to think of Catholic Church teaching on sexuality in terms of the dos and don’ts, and probably more specifically in terms of the don’ts, and what a lot of people either aren’t aware of or just don’t think of are the theological traditions that feed the dos and don’ts, that feed into the teachings, kind of what’s lying behind them.  Because even when the specific list of things that you should and should not do are things that can be really contentious, there’s so much behind it that really enriches the debate around it, that it’s not just about you can’t do this but why the Church comes to those conclusions, and like you said, Johanna, about how everybody knows that the Church teaches that homosexual behavior is wrong and very few people know that the Church has this teaching as well about not discriminating and about making sure that gays and lesbians know that they are God’s children too and that they are part of our communities and are to be loved and respected. And so there’s so much more other than the dos and the don’ts that is part of the teaching but it’s the part that people don’t necessarily get exposed to.

What is sexuality? How do we define the terms of the conversation?
KHA: So, the topic of sexuality itself is really broad and we’ve already touched on this a little bit by having ideas about procreation and about homosexuality and about birth control and abortion and all these sub-topics within sexuality.  I think that when we’re talking about sexuality we’re really talking about a lot of different things, from an individual attraction, to a person’s sexual practices, to philosophical and ethical approaches to sex, and the way that people understand these ideas in relation to their other values and beliefs, like the weight that they place on the ideas and whether they see ideas around sexuality as related to other areas of spirituality or religion.  So my question is, do you think that the official teachings of the Church tend to emphasize certain aspects of sexuality over other aspects, and do you think that in your own approach to sexuality you tend to place a similar emphasis or to emphasize similar aspects in terms of your own philosophies?

JH: I think – I hate to say it, I mean I know this is the popular conception but it’s what first comes into my mind – is I do feel like the Church emphasizes a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to sexuality, to the point of minutia, and really with very bizarre leaps of logic to get to this very strict, “these behaviors are acceptable in this restricted context for this specific reason,” without looking at larger issues of relationship and identity and those kinds of things.  And then you sometimes see kind of an attempt to track back if that makes sense. Like with birth control as an example, the teaching is that sex has a purpose for procreation within a marital relationship between a man and a woman, and any artificial birth control that could interfere with that is wrong.  But it’s like you aren’t looking at the larger context of the well being of this family, etc, and justifications will be written to get back to that point, to get back to the dos and don’ts.  I was in a moral theology class, I spent one year at a Catholic seminary, and this topic would come up, and people would kind of take it down the rabbit hole of, “well, the reason the Church teaches this is because birth control makes it convenient to use women as sexual objects.” And it’s like, No! Now you’re trying to make a relational argument out of these very, very specific dos and don’ts that the Church teaches.  The Church doesn’t say anything about the relational effects of the use of contraception.  It’s just not there.  Whereas for me, I think I start at a place of relationship and then the ethics of that, then move back to what are my dos and don’ts based on my relational values and what I think about.

KHA: Its funny what you said about the rules being about these particular acts and these contexts, because when I was preparing for this conversation I actually wrote down in my notes “what you do, with whom, and in what context” as being the Catholic Church’s approach to sexuality. At least in terms of the teachings that get disseminated to the masses, there really is a lot of focus on sexual practice and a lot less of a focus on the philosophies behind it. Qnd what I would say is even less of an emphasis, that I wish was more flushed out in Church teaching, is the relationship between sexual ethics, the broader values of our faith system regarding social justice and our more overall theological outlook. How is the sexual experiences of two people, and what they are doing, with whom and in what context, how is that related to the overall mission of the Church in the world? And if that’s not flushed out in the teaching then I feel like there’s something totally missing there. There’s just so much in terms of the tradition that can be tapped into in that way to really make a much more broad and probably a much more helpful and just sexual ethic than what most people think of when they’re thinking of Catholicism and sexuality.

JH: This popped into my head, the thought that there’s not a lot of talk about justice and sexuality in our Church I think.  And sexuality is something that in so many places in our culture, and in our Church, has been used in an unjust way, has been used as a tool to harm others.  I mean, look at the – I hate to even bring it up, but – we’re in the midst of another scandal of sexual abuse being swept under the rug by our leaders, and there’s not a lot of talk about how that is a betrayal of our Catholic values of social justice and the dignity of the person. And I agree with you, I think that’s a big chunk that’s missing from our sexual ethic in the Church.

JC: And going off of what you both said, in conversations that I’ve had with other young adults they’ve echoed the experience of growing up and really not having many experiences of actually talking about sexuality in a parish setting or a formal religious education setting.  Some people of course had parents that were proactive about having a conversation about sexuality that integrated their faith, and their family’s faith, that they were Catholic, but I just know from my own experiences growing up and what many of my friends have said there wasn’t really that much conversation about sexuality and integrating it with faith in a very complex and rich, or even just general, way, that would lay a foundation and perhaps a framework for the kinds of more specific teachings that you both referenced.  I think that is a real detriment, not only because then these dos and don’ts totally lack a context and the context of this really rich tradition that you referred to, Kate, but also because I’ve found that it’s hard to learn how to talk about sexuality and faith.  I feel like that’s something we have to learn how to do, and feel comfortable with, particularly in the weird sex language of Catholicism! I feel like I wish the Church emphasized more of how to, in very basic ways, integrate and think about sexuality and faith together, rather than just dos and don’ts.

Critiques of Church teaching
KHA: Since we’re kind of on the topic, what would you say is the aspect of Catholic teaching on sexuality that you are most critical of?

JH: Do I have to pick one?
Laughter
KHA: You don’t have to. It’s hard to!

JH: Well, I’ll pick one, and it’s kind of an easy – I don’t know, I mean they’re all easy to critique – but I really, and I have always – I remember being like a teenager and asking this question – I really don’t understand the teaching against birth control!  I just don’t! It doesn’t make any sense to me. Particularly in the context of a Church that opposes abortion.  I can understand where the Church is coming from on that, but then to couple it with not allowing people to prevent unintended pregnancies, thereby preventing abortion, really doesn’t make any sense to me. Especially when I began to learn a little bit about the papal commission on birth control after the Second Vatican Council and their recommendation that the Church change its position to allow birth control, because they listened to the theologians and to married couples and to doctors and they believed that there was nothing inherently wrong with a married couple using contraception to regulate the size of their family and then….we got Humanae Vitae. This is definitely the one that sticks in my craw the most because…I just don’t understand.  I can’t comprehend it.  And I continually have struggled against it and I remember being a teenager and asking these questions of Catholic adults that I knew and respected, and asking it of priests and not getting a full enough answer and I still struggle with it, I still disagree with it, I still think it’s the most…I don’t know, it’s just the one that sticks out to me the most, but there’s many more I could pick, too.

JC: I actually, when I read this question I thought about something, Kate, that you said back in the fall at an event that we had in Boston on From the Pews in the Back. An audience member asked, he observed the fact that in our book, issues of gender and issues of sexuality often appeared sort of within the same stories, and he wanted to know about the relationship between those two things in our own experiences and in the Catholic Church, and forgive me if I misquote you Kate, but what I remember that you said, was sort of talking about how a lot of the Church teachings on gender complementarity of men and women sort of undergirds all this other teaching about sexual ethics. For instance, the fact that sexual acts should be procreative, that feeds into the position on birth control, on abortion, on homosexuality, non marital sex, and all these things.  And it really struck me, Kate, when you said that, and even though gender complementarity isn’t necessarily seen as an issue of sexual ethics under some sort of definition, that might actually be the thing that I find the most contentious because of the way that that binary sets up the mentality for all these other positions that I really struggle with.

JH: That’s a really good point, and that’s another one that I just find so illogical at this point – because I come from a women’s studies background and a gender studies background – with our understanding and all that we’ve learned even in the past thirty, forty years about gender identity and all these things, and we’ve had the feminist movement and we’ve had this de-essentialization of gender roles in many ways. But then in the Church there are still very, very strong gender roles, and like you said that undergirds everything – you’re absolutely right! And it’s so frustrating that it’s something that’s so wrong and not real that is what undergirds all these teachings!

KHA: Yeah, it’s funny because when I was thinking about this question myself – well I was thinking it is so hard to pick just one thing to be critical of!  But the first one that pops into my mind all the time is obviously all of the teachings on gay and lesbian sexuality and how I find, especially having done work in queer theology, I just find the teachings to be so…I mean, narrow-minded doesn’t even encompass it. It’s like tunnel vision.  It’s like looking at it from this one tiny perspective and then making a conclusion while forgetting that there are all these other lenses that can also be looked through to get a much broader picture of what’s at hand.  But then I also thought to myself, and jotted into my notes, “complementarianism in heterosexual relationships,” and how frustrating that is, for all of the reasons that you mentioned, both of you, but also because in modern society, these specific gender roles that exist are caught up in these other societal injustices that are happening.  In my mind you can’t talk about the roles of a man and a woman in a relationship and separate that out from issues of domestic violence or issues of power imbalances in society in regards to gender, and you can’t separate it out from men having more financial independence than women, and all of these issues that wouldn’t come up when you’re just thinking about it from a very basic theological perspective. But then when you’re extending this theology out into “how is this working in the real world,” not taking into account the context that these theological and philosophical ideas end up playing out in, I think ends up often perpetuating injustice.  And again in the case of the clergy sex abuse scandals, it’s the idea that sex, yes it has these procreative and unitive possibilities and that’s so wonderful, and so sacred, and so beautiful, but it also is tied up in power and in using sex to gain power and to take power away from other people. In not acknowledging that in the teachings of sexuality, it separates sexuality from the Church’s mission toward justice in a way that is dangerous and really heartbreaking in a lot of ways.

If we’re so critical, then what’s to like?
KHA: So it’s kind of tough to transition from there back to the previous question, but I do want to find out the answer to this question and I think the readers will appreciate it as well, so what would you say is one aspect of Catholic teaching on sexuality that you really appreciate?

(long pause)
If there is one!

JH:  Well I think the idea that the nature of sex can be procreative and unitive, and I’m going to take the liberty to expand procreative to a larger meaning than sperm plus egg, but the idea that sexuality or that sexual acts that come from a place of love and mutuality have the power to bring two people closer together and also to create something new, whether it’s a child or a relationship that can sustain a family, or help sustain each other for the work that they do for justice, or in their communities, or in their faith communities, I think there’s something really beautiful and really sacred about that.  The idea that a sexual act isn’t just an act devoid of meaning, it’s something that brings two people together but also can create something more.

JC: My instinct to answer this question is to talk about Catholic teaching more generally, and I think that one thing that I appreciate about Catholicism, particularly Catholic practice, is how bodily it is.  And while I think any teachings on sexual ethics can be seen as sort of coloring the body in negative lights, and surely there are many Catholic practices that can be deemed harmful to the body, I think in general just how even in the regular weekly liturgy our bodies are so much a part of how we worship God.  To me, that has been a really fruitful reality for thinking about sexuality for myself in broader terms, beyond just these teachings that we usually hear about.

KHA: I had some similar thoughts to yours, Jessica. I think the thing that I love the most about Catholic theology in general is the idea that embodiment is sacred, that in God becoming embodied, our bodies are caught up in this Divine-ness.  And then coupling that with the teaching of the Mystical Body of Christ, that our bodies are somehow also caught up with each other in this crazy mystical web that’s not just a spiritual thing, we’re not just spiritually linked to each other, but we’re actually physically linked in some way.  It opens up all sorts of possibilities for thinking about how the ways that we use our bodies relate to the other things that we do in the world, and how anything that we do with our bodies is not just about our bodies, but it’s also related to the Divine – it has implications for our spiritual life – but then also that it has implications for the ways that our bodies are related to other bodies as well.  And not just in any specific act, but there’s this way in which I can envision a sound and just and mutual sexual relationship being just beneficial to the body of Christ in general, and how unjust uses of sexuality are hurtful to other bodies, and not just the bodies that are being used unjustly, but to all of us as well.  It gives kind of this urgency and importance to everything that is done with our bodies that I think is just so…it’s just so crazy to think about! It really expands, or can expand, your thinking in terms of what the potential is in terms of the things that our bodies do, and how bodies can be a tool for justice.

Sexuality and Catholicism: It all comes down to struggle?
KHA: I guess one of the final things that I wanted us to reflect on is that one of the major themes that came out of the essays in From the Pews in the Back is the theme of struggle, that for young Catholic women and particularly for the young Catholic women who contributed for the book, that their understanding of themselves in relationship to the Church is marked by a constant push and pull and a feeling of being both discouraged and nourished by the Church at the same time. It that makes the authors seem that they’re never locked into a static Catholic identity, but rather that their being Catholic is actually a mode of being that exists through this commitment to continually struggling with the complexities and the contradictions that being young, female, and Catholic can produce.  I guess I’m betraying my own biases here by saying that I think that the theme of struggle is one that is really appropriately applied in this context! But I would love for both of you to also comment on whether the theme of struggle is one that you would find appropriately applied to your experience of Catholicism in relationship to sexuality, or if there’s another theme or metaphor that you find more salient that you wanted to add to the mix.

JC: Yeah, I would agree with you Kate.  I don’t think I know a young Catholic woman who doesn’t struggle.  Whether she upholds the Catholic social teaching on sex and sexuality as she sees it or not, I think everyone I know struggles with it.  Because even if one agrees with it, it’s a hard thing to actualize.  Yeah, I definitely think that’s a good metaphor.  And I’d say personally, one thing I really struggle with is to remember the good that is in the tradition with regard to sexuality even when I am disenchanted with some of its views on sexuality.  Because there’s the temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water, as they say, so I’m grateful that you asked us the question of what we like about the teaching on sexuality in the Church because I think it’s very easy for me to grow weary of the things that I do so often hear, particularly in the media and in a lot of Church leadership discourse on sexuality, that my instinct is automatically to roll my eyes whenever the issue comes up, when really there is so much goodness in the tradition alongside the parts that I struggle with.

JH: I’m going to be honest that when I first read this question there was a part of me that was like, “Well, I don’t know if struggle is the right metaphor, because I’ve made up my mind and I don’t struggle with it anymore!”  But I don’t want to sound flippant, either.  I guess I’d say that I do think that struggle is an appropriate word and I have struggled with it, particularly when I was younger and I was trying to form my identity as a Catholic, and I was also really starting to form my identity as a feminist, and trying to understand how those identities could fit together, and how I could be honest about both of them.  In many ways I came into my feminist consciousness through struggles with some experiences of really seeing how sexuality can be used as a tool of oppression and as a tool of violence, so it really was a struggle to integrate those identities, and then also over time not only to integrate them and to come to a place where I could be at peace with how my conscience was formed within and against the Church in many ways, but also to come to peace with sexuality itself, as something that can be good and as something that can be safe and as something that can be a powerful force for happiness and pleasure.  So I do think struggle is an apt word, but at the same time through that struggle I really feel like I’ve found a place where I am at peace with the way my conscience has been formed. And in many ways I am not in line with the official Church teaching but I think for me, and I think for a lot of other young Catholic women, it hasn’t been a flippant decision, it has really been a development of their conscience.  And I think one of the things that I find most offensive from people who perhaps don’t agree with where I’ve landed is the idea that young people who reject a lot of the teachings on sexuality have done it flippantly, because it’s somehow easier to stay Catholic and disagree with all these things.  Whereas I’ve seen, Jessica, like you’ve said, young women specifically and I think young people in general who also identify as Catholic really, really have struggled with it and really want to find a place of authenticity, and I don’t think anyone arrives here lightly.

KHA: Well thank you both so much for all of your wisdom, and for being so generous with your perspectives and your experiences!

Kate Henley Averett, 28, received a B.A. in religion from Mount Holyoke College in 2004 and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School in 2008.  Kate will begin work toward a doctoral degree in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin this fall, where she will focus on the study of gender and sexuality in religion and education.

Jessica Coblentz, 23, graduated from Santa Clara University in 2008 with a double major in Religious Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies. There, she served as a Hackworth Research Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, where she conducted research on religion and sexual ethics.  She is currently a first year student at Harvard Divinity School where she is pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree with a focus in “Women, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion.”

Johanna Hatch, 27, is a feminist activist, Catholic, writer, spouse, and mother currently residing in Verona, WI. It is through trying to reconcile these converging identities that compel her to speak out on issues of sexuality, gender, and religion. Johanna graduated from the College of St. Benedict in 2005 and studied spirituality at the graduate level at Washington Theological Union.

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