The Sexual Person (Book Review)

Kevin T. Kelly

Todd A. Salzman & Michael G. Lawler, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology. Georgetown University Press, 2008.

Salzman and Lawler are two lay and married moral theologians in the US. They have made a name for themselves as challenging thinkers, especially in the field of sexual ethics. In The Sexual Person they offer a thorough overhaul of sexual ethics in the light of the person-centred theological vision undergirding Vatican II. I suspect that very many of my fellow moral theologians will accept, as I do, much of what is found in this book, both at a general theoretical level and in their teasing out the implications for everyday life.

They take their starting point from Vatican II’s emphasis on the nature of the human person, as found in the Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes (GS). GS’s opening chapter is entitled, “The Dignity of the Human Person”. That is a kind of banner headline for its approach to morality, including issues in the field of sexual and marital ethics. A few bishops at Vatican II argued that sexual acts as such had their own specific nature over and above the nature of the human person. This was not accepted and n.51 of GS was worded very precisely to bring out this point. (cf. my New Directions in Moral Theology, pp.29-30) Moreover, the Drafting Committee insisted that this was “a general principle” which applied right across the board: “Human activity must be judged insofar as it refers to the human person integrally and adequately considered”. In fact, Humanae Vitae provoked such widespread criticism precisely because it seemed to disregard this key principle. The same is true regarding the current official teaching of the Church denying the goodness of sexual love in faithful homosexual relationships.

It is for this same reason that Salzman and Lawler are critical of the inadequacy of much of the magisterial teaching, i.e. because “the emphasis in its teaching continues to be on the ‘nature’ of the act rather than on the ‘nature’ of the human person and his or her acts.” (p.3) That emphasis would condemn homosexual acts as “unnatural”, whereas for Salzman and Lawler, since “homosexuality is a way of being before it is a way of behaving” (p.216), “homosexual acts are ‘natural’ for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual acts are ‘natural’ for people with a heterosexual orientation.” (p.227) However, our two authors recognise that the theological meaning of ‘natural’ demands a fuller explanation than that. It is about our being truly human. Hence, they lay great emphasis on the totality of what it means to be human. “To be truly human, and therefore reasonable and moral, a sexual act must be integrated with the whole self, biologically, personally, relationally, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. An essential part of the human person and of his or her constitution, and therefore an essential part of self-integration … is sexual orientation.” (p.65) Hence, they go on to argue that “holistic complementarity – an integrated orientation, personal, and biological complementarity – is a more adequate theological anthropology of the human sexual person and foundational principle for comprehending human sexual relationships and morally assessing sexual acts.” (p.90)

Twice in the book they cite a text from Margaret Farley, which presents a similar position to their own even more forcefully: “Sex between two persons of the same sex (just as two persons of the opposite sex) should not be used in a way that exploits, objectifies, or dominates: homosexual (like heterosexual) rape, violence, or any harmful use of power against unwilling victims (or those incapacitated by reason of age etc) is never justified: freedom, integrity, privacy are values to be affirmed in every homosexual (as homosexual) relationship; all in all, individuals are not to be harmed, and the common good is to be promoted.” (p.161) I tried to say something similar, perhaps even more positively, in a letter to The Tablet (13/2/10): “I now believe that God’s call to lesbians and gays is to accept themselves as they are as a gift from God, a.v. to accept their homosexual orientation as the way God has gifted them to live their lives as loving persons. Consequently, provided their loving tries to be self-giving, faithful, life-enhancing, just, mutually respectful and not self-centred nor exploitative (all demands applying equally to heterosexual loving), then their relationship and their loving can truly be experienced as a sharing of God’s love in their lives – and, in that sense, sacramental.”

This is not an easy book to read, perhaps because the authors are so thorough in trying to counter every aspect of the official teaching with precise argumentation of their own, almost after the style of a medieval disputatio. I would love them to write a more popular volume in simple and accessible language, portraying the beauty of the positive mind-set of their Vatican II ‘sexual person’ and the attractiveness of their life-style. I should add that the book also deals positively with the issues of gay parenting and adoption. (pp.229-230)

Not surprisingly, the book has its critics, most notably the Committee on Doctrine of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. In September 2010 they published a document pin-pointing a number of what they called “inaccuracies” in the text. Their rejection of the book’s position on homosexuality is not simply because it is counter to the Church’s teaching. They critique the whole approach to theological and ethical methodology on which it is based. In fact, the bishops’ document is carefully argued and is far from being a purely negative condemnation. Moreover, far from hiding behind bureaucratic anonymity, the members of the Committee have all signed their names to the document. Perhaps this offers an opportunity for dialogue with the bishops. In an on-line moral theology discussion forum I challenged US moral theologians to show their professional solidarity with Salzman and Lawler by critiquing the objections raised by the bishops. Sadly none of them have as yet responded to this challenge.

Dr. Kelly is a moral theologian and a retired priest of the Liverpool archdiocese. He was a speaker at the 2005 Quest Conference in Liverpool.

This text has been originally published in the Quest Bulletin, Spring 2011