Paul Flaman, B.A., S.T.D.

St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2J5
Tel. 780-492-7681; Fax 780-492-8145
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 1. A Comparison of the Three Approaches
         A. The Submission of Women
         B. Absolutes in Sexual Ethics
         C. Some of Their Respective Strengths
 2. Some Unanswered Questions


(Note: This article was accepted in June 1992 for publication in a special edition of The Canadian Catholic Review. This special edition, however was canceled due to funding problems and the regular edition of this journal did not publish articles this long. Since the issues treated in this article are still relevant today I have decided to publish this article on-line. Although the works analyzed here are a few years old, the authors have not substantially changed their approaches or positions.)

Today the area of Christian sexual ethics, as is well known, is highly controversial. This is true not only in Protestant denominations such as the United Church of Canada, which is divided over questions such as whether homosexuals involved in a "gay" lifestyle may be ordained to the ministry. It is also true within the Catholic Church, in spite of its official teaching on sexual ethics which holds that certain actions such as masturbation, nonmarital genital relations including homosexual ones, contraceptive intercourse and direct abortions are always objectively immoral. (Catholic teaching regarding sexual matters does not merely proscribe certain actions though. It relates morality to the great dignity of the human person and Christ's call to love God and people.)

Especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), one finds not only many Catholic ethicists (both philosophers and moral theologians) who still agree with this teaching, but also many others who disagree with certain aspects of it. In the present context it, therefore, seems worthwhile to examine and compare the approaches to Christian sexual ethics taken in three recent books by Catholic scholars: Between the Sexes: Foundations for a Christian Ethics of Sexuality by Lisa Sowle Cahill; The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality by Paul Quay, S.J.; and Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation, & Defense by Ronald Lawler, O.F.M.Cap., Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and William E. May.(1)

These books, I think, each make an important contribution to the contemporary discussion concerning Christian sexual ethics. Cahill's approach involves a critical assessment of the relevance and relation between four complementary sources for Christian ethics: the Bible, tradition, and descriptive and normative accounts of the human. She then offers some provisional proposals with respect to Christian sexual ethics. Quay's approach involves exploring in detail the natural symbolic meaning of human sexuality, as well as its meaning in light of the model of Christ's relationship to his Spouse, the Church. In view of this he discusses a number of contemporary sexual issues. Lawler, Boyle and May's approach first involves an historical overview of the development of sexual ethics in the Bible and in Catholic theology and Church teaching. They then treat conscience, the requirements of chastity for married and single people, and pastoral care in light of integral human fulfillment in Christ.

In this article, I first compare some features of these works, with an eye to understanding some of their major differences and underscoring some of their respective and complementary strengths. Second, I raise some questions that I think these works leave unanswered, before offering a few concluding remarks.

1. A Comparison of the Three Approaches

In comparing these works and their respective approaches one will notice many differences. One should not miss, however, certain important similarities. Their authors all see the Bible and Christian tradition as primary sources of Christian theology and ethics. They avoid a "prooftext" approach and realize the importance of reading scriptural and other texts in their contexts. These authors are widely read, and they try to express their views carefully. They all hold for the equal fundamental dignity of all human beings, male and female, created in the image and likeness of God, express faith in the same Lord Jesus, and see the role of the Church (Christian community, people of God, body of Christ) as important for Christian sexual ethics. They also all seek to avoid a dualistic interpretation of the human being and human sexuality. Their three books are interesting to read and contain much substantial content.

Many of the differences of these three approaches can be easily reconciled since they are simply a matter of treating different subjects or treating the same subjects with different concerns and emphases, and/or from different perspectives. There are, however, some differences that are not so easy to reconcile, if at all. The next two sections (A and B) consider two of these "irreconcilable" differences.

A. The Submission of Women

Although Lawler, Boyle and May briefly note some of the issues concerning the submission of women, they do not develop their own position on this question in their book. Therefore, only Cahill's and Quay's positions, which are quite different in some respects, will be compared here.

Cahill considers the submission of women to men or the hierarchy of the sexes to be simply a consequence of sin.(Ch. 3) She attributes the sexual hierarchy promoted in the Bible to the social institutions of ancient Israel, and the cultures in which Christianity was first institutionalized.(84) Aquinas's view that women are naturally subordinate to men in history is attributed to his philosophical and theological sources, and his social milieu.(Ch. 6) Cahill explicitly states that she presupposes the essential equality of the sexes and that they are equally competent to fulfill most if not all social roles. Nevertheless, she says that sex differences ought to be appreciated rather than denied, and that it seems dualistic to hold that basic physical forms of existence have no affective or cognitive implications. Ethics should encourage interpretations of gender characteristics free from connotations of inferiority and superiority.(Ch. 5)

Quay, on the other hand, considers the Pauline exhortations that husbands love their wives (Eph 5:25, 28, 33; Col 3:19) and that wives submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22, 24, 33; Col 3:18) to correspond to their needs.

Concerning this he says,

The man who truly loves his wife satisfies her greatest need as a woman, her need for the security of a steadfast love and faithful protection. The wife who obeys her husband confirms the need he has for authority so that he can accept his full responsibility towards his family. She thus helps him to hold fast to a commitment he might otherwise be tempted to reject; whereas a wife who disregards her husband's authority robs him of his function and undermines his ability to give her what she most needs and desires, his abiding love. So, too, the husband who is not concerned to make manifest in body, mind, and heart his love for his wife, makes it far harder for her to submit to his authority, no longer seen as being exercised for her good but arbitrarily or merely for others. He thus weakens her ability to give him that support, in his wrestling with the world, that he needs from her. (29-30)

Within Christian denominations today, one can find both many people including writers who would agree more with Cahill in this area of gender roles and many others who would agree more with Quay. Many Christian "feminists" today advocate an egalitarian approach and consider any form of patriarchy as sexist.(2) On the other hand, many "traditional" Christians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, women and men, consider the husband's headship and the wife's submission to correspond to their deep needs and/or as important for the unity of the marriage and family.(3)

One can, therefore, ask whether one should dismiss peremptorily what either Cahill or Quay say in this area. Concerning Cahill's position, sin certainly has brought harmful consequences into marriages and cultures in this and other areas. We should all seek to overcome these with the help of God. With regard to the headship and submission advocated in Eph 5:2-33 in reference to Christ and the Church, it should be noted that in the next chapter of the same epistle slaves are told to obey their earthly masters as servants of Christ and masters are told to be good and forbearing to their slaves since they both have the same Master in heaven (6:5-9). Most Christians today, however, reject slavery. Many exegetes do not consider this text as approving slavery, but rather as offering a liberating and Christ-centered vision within its historical cultural context.(4) One can, therefore, ask whether or not patriarchy (or at least the degrading aspects of it that one finds in certain families and cultures) can likewise be rejected while still appreciating the value of the model of Christ and the Church for spouses.(5)

With regard to Cahill's position, we can also note here that in treating the roles of wives and husbands in Familiaris Consortio Pope John Paul II says, "all people, in every area, are working with equal rights and equal responsibilities". He denounces "machismo" or "a wrong superiority of male prerogatives which humiliates women and inhibits the development of healthy family relationships", but adds, "In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God(cf. Eph 3:15), a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family..."(6)

Is what Quay says on this issue sexist, that is, unfair sexual discrimination? Interestingly, Cahill herself acknowledges that it is arguable that patriarchy is "confirmed by Christian tradition, by empirical studies (e.g., cross-cultural anthropology), and, at least until recently, by most mainstream philosophical anthropologies".(144) Quay is also by no means the only contemporary author to relate headship and submission to the needs of husbands and wives. For example, Joseph and Lois Bird, who are Catholics, psychologists and experienced marriage counselors, married to each other, parents, and widely known and respected authors, say that the husband's headship (understood as responsibility and leadership) and the wife's voluntary submission (understood as total giving and surrender) are important for their complete sexual fulfillment.(7)

If one reads the brief comments (cited above in this section), concerning the Pauline exhortations to husbands and wives, by Quay in the context of his book, one can ask whether or not they will tend to foster better marriages if accepted and applied with due discretion. Will not a man be a better husband if he strives to be a loving, self-controlled, chaste, sensitive, committed and responsible man as Christ? Will not a woman be a better wife if she strives to be open, actively responsive, chaste, respectful, supportive, fruitful and loving as the bride of Christ, the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit?

Since both Cahill and Quay explicitly affirm the equal dignity of men and women created in God's image, the question of why they arrive at somewhat different conclusions concerning submission and hierarchy merits closer consideration. It appears to me that underlying their differences are different views of authority and submission, different positions regarding the canon of Scripture, and different views concerning the implications of sexual differences for gender roles. Cahill ultimately interprets the submission of women as something purely negative, a consequence of sin. Quay does not understand a difference of authority to mean a difference in dignity, stature or rights of the person. Concerning the canon of the Bible, Cahill seems to adopt some form of a "canon within the canon"(cf. 25), whereas Quay would hold for canonical integrity and unity in light of the living Tradition of the Church. (cf. v) Cahill is reluctant to admit that sexual differences might have significant implications for gender roles. In fact, she even considers the contrasting connotations of the expressions "fathering a child" and "mothering a child" as sexist.(96) Quay, on the other hand, treats with considerable detail the sexual differences of men and women and how they relate differently to their family, society and the world. He understands these differences to have deep symbolic meaning.

It seems to me that this whole area of gender roles, like most areas of human life, is very complex. It is beyond the scope of an article like this to do full justice to this important topic. Elsewhere, I have treated some areas relevant to this topic including loving communication, decision making and responsibilities, and work and family unity.(8) I, however, would like to underscore here a few points that I consider important.

First of all, according to a Christian perspective the whole issue of roles is subordinate to loving God and peoples as Jesus loves (cf. Mt 22:35-40; and Jn 13:34-35 and 15:12-14). It seems to me that this sort of love will lead one to avoid unfair stereotypes, to appreciate and respect general sexual differences as well as individual differences such as different talents, attributes and personal gifts, and to seek to respond to the real needs of others according to one's capacity. Differences of customs and cultures in this sphere will be regarded for what they are worth.(9) This love will also lead one to appreciate sexual symbolism, both natural and cultural, for what it is worth. It will lead one, too, to read the Bible humbly and prayerfully, allowing God to speak to oneself.(10) I think the biblical models of God's faithful love and the relationship of Christ and the Church still have great value today. The union of man and woman in marriage as it refers to Christ and the Church is a great mystery (Eph 5:31-32). I doubt that we have fathomed yet all its implications.

A simplistic, narrow or extreme approach to gender roles is unhealthy. To respect real differences and to appreciate the complexity of this question is definitely more mature and healthy. I consider one of the most important things in this whole area of discussion and living is that both men and women see their need for continual conversion from sin (the cause of every form of exploitation, lack of respect of the human person, male or female, and unwillingness to respond to the real needs of others - cf. Mt 25:31-46) to the love of God. This divine love transforms the living of all human roles in a liberating way that transcends human understanding and verbal description. With regard to the love of God and the roles of women and men, Chiara Lubich, a prominent Catholic lay woman and writer, says,

This love will be the best means for re-evaluating the role of women, giving them their true place in society. This strong love will create an increasing awareness on the part of many men of their responsibility to take a more active part in the life of the family sharing with their wives every aspect of family life on a level of equality.(11)

I would like to conclude this section by expressing my agreement with Pope John Paul II's analysis of Eph 5:21-33.(12) He emphasizes the context of this text in the whole letter to the Ephesians which considers everything, including family relationships, in light of the mystery of Christ and his universal headship. Eph 5:21-33 does not present a husband-wife relationship of one-sided domination. The mutual submission, out of reverence for Christ, advocated in Eph 5:21 applies to husbands as well as wives. Christ is the model of both love and subjection. "All the reasons in favour of the 'subjection' of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a 'mutual subjection' of both 'out of reverence for Christ'".(13)

B. Absolutes in Sexual Ethics

Concerning the question of absolutes in sexual ethics (perhaps the most controversial question in contemporary sexual ethics), the approach taken by Lisa Cahill, as well as some of her conclusions, is markedly different from those taken by Paul Quay, and Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle and William May. Homosexuality, the only specific area of sexual ethics that is treated at some length in all three books, will be used to help illustrate their general views on this topic.

Cahill deliberately avoids presenting her ethical conclusions in any absolute way. Referring to a few biblical texts relating to marriage (polygamy, concubinage and levirate marriage) and divorce she says, "On the biblical model, the question of exceptions appears to be an open one".(145) She takes an inductive, flexible, approach to human nature rather than holding for some abstracted ideal of human nature.(Ch. 5) She says that while empirical studies "bear out the pervasiveness of the institutionalization of sex in marriage and family, they also clarify the circumstances of variance".(145) Using homosexuality as a case in point, she says the evaluative norm for improvements in the self-image, interpersonal relationships, and social adjustment of the exclusively homosexual person appears to be "ability to sustain stable, affective, sexual relationships, particularly with one person".(146) Cahill speaks of one's obligation to enhance human life as far as possible in the midst of conditions such as homosexuality, but notes that moral evaluation lies beyond empirical description.(147) Her two criteria of Christian sexual responsibility - an intentionally permanent commitment of partnership and love, and the couple's willingness to welcome and nurture any children that result from their union (149) - are presented as dialogic rather than as definitive. According to these criteria, the committed homosexual relationship could be responsible.

Cahill says that if there are morally responsible sexual acts that violate the norm of procreative, heterosexual monogamy,

Their justifiability would be contingent upon the convergence of circumstances in a moral dilemma that the agent finds insoluble, except at the cost of 'sinning bravely,' that is, of causing some evil for what is perceived as an obligatory good. I am not willing to disallow in principle the possibility of moral conflicts so radical that the agents caught in them cannot be absolved by refraining from the 'direct' causation of material evil, by taking as an absolute the principle 'Do not harm,' or by refusing to decide. Although the moral universe of the ideally 'natural' or of the mind of God may be orderly, human moral existence as we know it, live it, and often suffer it, can be impregnable to human efforts to render it coherent".(149)

Referring to the New Testament, Cahill emphasizes that the Christian community itself, "and the experience of its members in the Spirit, is the primary reference of moral evaluation..." Although the experience of the Christian community "is not utterly new in every age," for it is made up of the same created, called and redeemed humanity and has the same Lord, it is "a people in progress; and the Lord is the God who shows forth commandments, judgement, and mercy in partial and puzzling signs".(150)

Quay emphasizes God's revelation concerning the meaning of human sexuality. He speaks of Jesus Christ, the image of God in which we were created, as "the natural law....the norm for all that we do, think, or hope to be".(10) In accord with his motif of sexual symbolism, Quay explains the basic principle of Christian sexual morality: "We ought so to engage in the natural sexual activity of body, mind, and heart that its basic symbolic structure is always preserved and honored, so that this structure may serve rightly to symbolize in turn the relations, in the spirit of the Father, between Christ and His Church"(63); and, "We may never use sexual activity, the living and naturally symbolic language of marital love, to tell a lie; nor may we ever corrupt it by using our sexual powers and organs for actions that are only seemingly sexual, but whose meaning has been radically altered".(65)

Quay speaks of the symbolic structure of homosexual activity as corrupt. "What is ostensibly a symbol of love between two men or two women contains nothing that can truly be received, personally and as abiding gift, by the other person. It is a shallow symbol: of sentimentality, of perpetual juvenility and adolescent ambiguity, of not really know which sex one is, and of a sense of sexual inadequacy".(69) There is no openness to the creation of human life. True face-to-face communication and intercourse are precluded. "...sexuality implies another whose appeal is in that otherness and who is very different from oneself in body and temper of mind. But the person who is homosexually active fears the very nature of sexuality as something open to such difference".(70)

Male homosexual activity symbolizes at the supernatural level man as in love with one like himself. "It signifies secular humanism, for which 'the only God of man is man himself,' refusing to accept the true otherness of God...."(79) Lesbianism, a feminine-feminine relationships, symbolizes "a Church turned away from God to the created world..."(80) Concerning the solution to a problem of this sort, Quay says that if the person is still capable of free choice, "he is capable of chastity if he is humble enough to want and seek God's grace."(70) Homosexual attractions need not make life intolerable. With God's help, they can be sanctifying.

Lawler, Boyle and May define the human good as that which perfects and completes human nature. God loves us and wishes us to flourish in what truly enriches and fulfills us. Concerning this they speak of basic goods, pursued by persons of all cultures, such as interpersonal goods (e.g., love, friendship, justice and peace), self-integration, knowing the truth, and human life itself (including health and procreation). These goods are often at stake in sexual activity. Such deeds as faith has proscribed absolutely are always wrong "because acts such as these are incompatible with the goods of persons which God calls us to love and absolutely respect."(90) Although we cannot immediately pursue and promote all that is humanly good in a given act, we must always act in such a way as to be "open to integral human fulfillment." This is seen in "the perspective of the kingdom of God made possible by Jesus' human acts and God's loving response to them."(91) Our freely chosen acts affect not only the world and other persons. By them we determine ourselves to be friends of God (by responding to his grace and freely loving all that is good), or we choose actions incompatible with love of God and people.

With regard to homosexuality, Lawler, Boyle and May point out that the Church's moral judgment is directed toward homosexual acts, which can be freely chosen, and not toward the homosexual condition, which is to a large extent not voluntarily established. Homosexual genital acts are of their very nature seriously wrong. "This teaching is clearly based on Scripture and is rooted in the biblical understanding of sexuality."(197) The sexual differentiation of the human race is divinely willed, male and female complement each other and marriage provides the normative condition for genital sexual expression.

Genital acts are "acts of profound meaning and importance to the person who performs them and to human society." But homosexual acts "fail to show responsible concern for the precious human goods (that is, those of marital friendship and of procreation) toward which genital activity must be directed to be true to its own nature and meaning."(200) Homosexual acts must leave altogether out of consideration the life-giving meaning of human sexuality which is always good and worthy of respect, transcends sexual activity itself and is essential for its human significance. Homosexual activity is simply incapable of expressing marital love "which opens those whom it unites to what is other than themselves, to a transcendent goal or good toward which they can commit themselves and their shared lives."(200) Even relatively stable homosexual relationships, if they involve homosexual actions, are deeply flawed because this activity "cannot be directed toward nor have a proper respect for the goods of human sexuality."(201)

Nevertheless, Lawler, Boyle and May affirm that homosexual persons can have happy and holy lives, rich in meaning. They, as all human persons, are called to friendship with God and holiness of life. "Catholic teaching insists that God makes it possible for them to live as they are required.... There are many persons besides homosexuals who must refrain from the sexual acts toward which they are intensely inclined."(202) The Christian community should love and support persons of a homosexual orientation who have distinctive heavy burdens to bear. "If, as many homosexuals do, they carry their burdens with generous and chaste fidelity, they support and strengthen all Christians" becoming "witnesses to the nobility of making great personal sacrifices to guard the great human goods sexuality is ordered to".(202-3)

With regard to comparing these three approaches to the question of absolutes in sexual ethics, it first of all appears to me that Quay's approach is not "irreconcilable" with that of Lawler, Boyle and May. Both approaches come to the same conclusions concerning specific areas of sexual ethics, in full agreement with the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Quay's developed symbolic model can be seen to complement the model of basic human goods and integral fulfillment in Christ developed by Lawler, Boyle and May. It appears to me that from a moral perspective, which is concerned with right and wrong free choices and voluntary actions, the categories of "good" and "evil," and hence also of the human good (and choices and actions which properly respect or violate this good), can be considered wider in scope than sexual symbolism. One can consider the symbolic and sacramental in terms of the human good, that is, what is good for human beings in terms of their integral fulfillment in Christ. Sexual symbolism, I think, can be related to such basic human goods as knowing the truth, self-integration, interpersonal goods including friendship and marital love, and human life including health and procreation.

One can now ask why Cahill arrives at some different conclusions concerning absolutes in sexual ethics than Quay, and Lawler, Boyle and May. What are the underlying differences of their approaches? It seems that these involve somewhat different presuppositions concerning divine revelation and human nature, and somewhat different methods for arriving at the morally normative.

Although Cahill expresses faith in the Lord and the Spirit, her focus is more on the experience of the Christian community. She speaks of God showing forth "commandments, judgment, and mercy in partial and puzzling signs".(150) Both Quay, and Lawler, Boyle and May, however, accept traditional Catholic faith assumptions concerning divine revelation and this faith's claims to certainty. Quay believes that Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, guards his beloved bride, the Church, and "maintains her in purity of doctrine..."(56) Lawler, Boyle and May hold that the authoritative teaching of the pope and bishops teaching in communion with him, in matters of faith and morals made in the name of Christ, even when not infallible, "is the best guide a person could have".(122) Also, with regard to certain differences of practice within the Bible, Cahill sees these as supporting an open model of exceptions to moral norms. Quay, and Lawler, Boyle and May, however, would interpret these in light of different stages in God's revelation, a human development and growth in understanding this revelation more deeply, and some other traditional Catholic distinctions.

Cahill takes an inductive approach to human nature and holds for a flexible view rather than some abstract ideal. She considers circumstances of variance such as the homosexual condition as sometimes justifying exceptions to or violations of the norm of procreative heterosexual monogamy. Quay, however, believes that in Jesus and Mary alone "God's will for the human nature that He created can be seen whole and integral. If we look at human nature anywhere else, we are looking at a fallen nature."(9) Lawler, Boyle and May consider human nature in light of God's plan for integral human fulfillment in Christ. Both Quay, and Lawler, Boyle and May emphasize that God calls all people, whatever their circumstances or condition, to holiness, to the fullness of chastity, to love as Christ loves. They emphasize, too, that if anyone responds to this call, God's grace will enable him or her to do so. God's Spirit transforms those willing to cooperate, empowering them to share in the victory of the risen Christ and become children of God.

With regard to what is morally normative, Cahill only presents some very general criteria such as what builds community, and what enhances human life and "goods such as freedom, rationality, sociality, cooperation, commitment, fidelity and equality".(144) Concerning sexual responsibility, her proposed criteria of commitment to one's partner and any children that result are again very general. While these criteria exclude sex between uncommitted and unloving people, her application allows certain behaviors, such as homosexual acts in certain cases, which traditional Christianity would never condone. Her method approves of "sinning bravely" or causing evil for a perceived obligatory good. She sees the Christian community, and its experience, as the primary reference of moral evaluation. Quay, and Lawler, Boyle and May offer some more specific moral principles which enable them to argue for more specific moral absolutes concerning choices and actions in the field of human sexuality. Lawler, Boyle and May also argue that it is unreasonable to deny the moral significance of the distinction in Catholic morality between directly willing or doing evil (here one fixes the heart upon doing the evil as a means toward some end) and indirectly causing or permitting evil. Even God, who never sets his heart on evil, permits evil.(Ch. 4)

I think that one needs to be careful about formulating absolutes in ethics including sexual ethics. It is difficult to articulate well specific principles which apply to all concrete cases. While I agree with some of Cahill's general criteria such as her concerns for commitment to people, building community and enhancing human life in all conditions, I also agree with the received teaching of the Church. I think Quay, and Lawler, Boyle and May present a number of very cogent reasons in support of this teaching. I am convinced that the official teaching of the Catholic Church (not only in the field of sexual ethics) offers many important principles necessary for the true enhancement of human life, in all conditions and situations.

Any coherent view of moral absolutes, it seems to me, needs to be related ultimately and logically to the one eternal Absolute, God, and God's purposes. Everything else is dependent on God. Since Quay, and Lawler, Boyle and May relate their explanations of absolutes in sexual ethics to God, Christ's call to love as he loves, and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives, in an intelligent way, I find their arguments convincing. With regard to the call to love as Jesus, true God and true man without sin, loves, there are indeed certain kinds of actions he would never freely do, certain kinds of choices he would never make. Can one who wants to be united with Christ forever, in perfect love, holiness, truth and purity, justify deliberately acting and choosing in a way he never would? I do not see how this is possible (cf. 1 Jn 3).(14)

Regarding the question of moral absolutes, while Pope John Paul II indeed affirms that human persons are historical beings who accomplish moral good "by stages of growth," he also says that this "cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law', as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations".(15) Affirming the objective requirements of the law or call of Christ does not negate the many important questions concerning the subject's personal responsibility.(16)

C. Some of Their Respective Strengths

In comparing the three approaches by Cahill, Quay, and Lawler, Boyle and May, I would like to note as well some of their respective and complementary strengths.

Cahill's work emphasizes the importance of using sources carefully. She is sensitive to many of the concerns of contemporary critical scholarship, including biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, in the area of Christian sexual ethics. With respect to this note, for example, her concerns regarding the historical and cultural contexts of texts, and the biases, agendas and presuppositions of writers including those of empirical scientists. Cahill appreciates, too, the value of a multi-disciplinary approach to sexual ethics and she is ecumenically minded. Instances of the latter are her treatments of Aquinas and Luther. While her appraisals are critical, she, nonetheless, treats them quite sympathetically.

Quay's work shows how sexual symbolism can be used to explain the ultimate meaning of human sexuality. It underlines the importance of God's revelation and Christ as the ultimate norm for Christian sexual ethics. Quay's work also represents an interesting attempt by a Catholic scholar to give a clear, concise and understandable presentation, for Christian adults, of the deep reasons undergirding the Church's moral teachings on sex. Sexual ethics is not only an interesting area for academic debates. What is meaningful, and right and wrong, in this area is very relevant for the happiness and fulfillment of all men, women and children.

Lawler, Boyle and My's work explains the good news of Catholic sexual ethics, presents a balanced review of its historical development and shows that, in spite of many arguments to the contrary, it is still most reasonable in today's world. Those who teach Christian sexual ethics or who simply would like to do further reading in this area will find this work very valuable. The book's ample notes provide many references for further study. These not only refer to many works the authors endorse, but also to quite a number which present positions they find unacceptable. One of the noteworthy strengths, I think, of Lawler, Boyle and May's approach is that on controversial issues they try to present fairly some widespread objections to their positions and then respond to these seriously, without ridicule or making light of them.

2. Some Unanswered Questions

Lisa Cahill's work treated here leaves unanswered some important questions with regard to her view that the Christian community itself, "and the experience of its members in the Spirit, is the primary reference of moral evaluation, and also the primary basis from which moral discernment proceeds".(150) In this regard we can note the many real controversies (and even polarizations), past and present, within the historical Christian community. When there is no consensus, whose experiences or whose interpretations of various human experiences count? When various people and groups, all claiming to be Christian, disagree on basic issues and specific conclusions, who is to say what is the authentic Christian position? With regard to such questions, it is interesting to note that, as a Catholic, Cahill does not treat the role of the Church's magisterium in her book.

Paul Quay's work discussed here leaves unanswered a question regarding the female imagery used in the Bible with regard to God (see, e.g., Is 49:15 and 66:13; and Ps 131:2-3) and Christ (see Mt 23:37 and Lk 13:34). How would one integrate this imagery into the symbolic male-female paradigm of God and his people, Christ and his bride, the Church? While Quay develops this paradigm in significant detail, he does not indicate how such female imagery would fit into it.

Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle and William May's work treated here leaves some unanswered questions concerning a number of specific areas of sexual ethics which they only treat briefly, such as in vitro fertilization, or do not treat at all, such as Gamete Intra-Fallopian Tube Transfer (GIFT).(17) Lawler, Boyle and May's approach could be developed more, taking into account these and other areas of morality, clarifying further what respect for persons and the basic goods integral to human fulfillment in Christ requires and why, in light of human experience, God's revelation and Christian faith.

In light of such questions and possibilities the whole field of Christian sexual ethics should continue to be a lively arena of fruitful discussion and debate. Catholic teaching in this area has developed over centuries. No doubt it will continue to develop with further reflection, guided by Christ's Spirit, on the Christian heritage and human experience.


The three recent and developed approaches to Christian sexual ethics, taken in the books treated here by Lisa Cahill, Paul Quay, and Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle and William May, each make a significant contribution to the contemporary discussion. Although these approaches differ from one another in many ways, they all represent serious efforts by intelligent scholars.

This article has compared these three approaches noting some of their similarities, differences, respective and complementary strengths, and some questions they leave unanswered. Two areas of "irreconcilable" differences considered here, regarding the submission of women and absolutes in sexual ethics, seem to reflect some different presuppositions - anthropological, philosophical and theological - of their respective authors, and somewhat different methods of arriving at the morally normative.

With regard to the controversies in the field of Christian sexual ethics today (not only within the Catholic Church), I would like to conclude this article by noting that the truly Christian way in such disputes is to love those who think differently than oneself (see Mt 5:43-48). Also, the truly "catholic" approach is to be open to the whole truth, to embrace the truth with gratitude, no matter who says it. With respect to this, Lisa Cahill, Paul Quay, and Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle, and William May all say many things that are true and valuable.


1. The respective publication data of these three books are: (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985); (Evanston: Credo House books, 1985); and (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1985 and 1996). All specific references to these books will be given in the body of the article.

2. See, e.g., Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983).

3. See, e.g., Stephen B. Clark [Catholic], Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in the Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1980); and Larry and Nordis Christenson [Lutherans], The Christian Couple (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1977).

4. See, e.g., John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965); and Xavier Léon-Dufour, Dictionary of the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980).

5. Cf. Edward Schillebeeckx's analysis of the New Testament texts concerning the husband's headship and the wife's submission in Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery (London: Sheed and Ward, 1976 ed.), 171-201.

6. (Ottawa: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1981), nn. 23 and 25.

7. See their The Freedom of Sexual Love (Garden City: Image Books, 1970), Chs. III and IV.

8. See my Family Unity: A Christian Perspective (Muenster, Sask.: St. Peter's Press, 1986), Ch. IV.2.

9. Cf. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (see note 6), n. 23; and Pius XI, Casti Connubii (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1930), 13-16.

10. See Walter M. Abbott, S.J., ed., The Documents of Vatican II (Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1966), Dei Verbum, n. 25; nn. 11-13 also present some good points regarding the inspiration and interpretation of the Bible.

11. "Message at the 1981 Family Fest in Rome", Living City, July 1981, 7.

12. See especially his General Audiences of Aug. 4 and 11,, and Sept. 1, 1982, L'Osservatore Romano, English ed., Aug. 9, 1982, 1 and 8; Aug. 16-23, 1982, 1 and 16; and Sept. 6, 1982, 3 and 12.

13. Mulieris Dignitatem (Ottawa: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988), n. 24.

14. Cf. Also Benedict M. Ashley, "Scriptural Grounds for Concrete Moral Norms," The Thomist 52, Jan. 1988, 1-22.

15. Familiaris Consortio (see note 6), n. 34. See also Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (Ottawa: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1993) regarding morality being rooted in God, the human good, the call to become in Christ holy and perfect as God, and intrinsically evil acts.

16. Regarding some of these questions see, e.g., Thomas Pazhayampallil, S.D.B., Pastoral Guide: Moral - Canonical - Liturgical (Bangalore: Kristu Jyothi College, 1977), Ch. 1.2 "Impediments to Human Acts"; and Germain Grisez, Christian Moral Principles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), Ch. 17 "Sufficient Reflection; Sins of Weakness". This large work of Grisez also treats the difficult and controversial question of moral absolutes in many places much more comprehensively than is possible in an article like this. For a number of other authors, including some (e.g., Richard McCormick) whose views differ in certain respects from Grisez's, see his many references.

17. GIFT is a recently developed medical procedure which can be used to alleviate certain kinds of infertility. With this procedure fertilization and all embryonic development, if they occur, take place within the woman's reproductive tract. No genetic manipulation or human selection and discarding of embryos occurs and the procreation of a new human being can be the fruit of a normal act of loving marital intercourse. It is at present considered an open moral question in the Catholic Church.