The content of Sex and Virtue reflects upon contemporary experience and traditional magisterial teaching, and is a welcome addition to an often contentious literature. The text presents a solid case for the rationality of a Catholic sexual ethic, though some readers may find this approach somewhat overly intellectual. John Grabowski, a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America, hopes that when the Church's ideals are presented on rational grounds they will sway the minds of those who have chosen to ignore church authorities, and in the process bridge what he calls the "alienation" gap between Church teaching and the actual beliefs and practices of Catholic Christians. He builds his case from an analysis of competing moral claims in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae (1968).
While the goals are laudable, Grabowski slips into polemic on occasion and this can color the reader's judgment. For instance, already in the introduction, Grabowski assails Lisa Sowle Cahill's work on sexual ethics by making the following blanket critique of her two books, Between the Sexes (1985) and Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics (1996): "An overall difficulty with these works is that Cahill's revisionist commitments place her at odds with the Church's tradition and teaching on issues such as the morality of contraception, homogenital sex, and reproductive technologies" (xiii). The author does not explain what Cahill's revisionist commitments are. Whatever they are, in his view, Cahill may not only be unsupportive of church teaching, she might actively oppose it. In either case, Grabowski's argument limps without specifics. One finds similar grousing against the effects of l'affaire Curran as well as the work of Margaret Farley on same sex relations.
This shortcoming notwithstanding, the underlying thrust of the book elicits a broader framework from which to enact potential lifestyle changes. A brief presentation of the volume's architecture is therefore in order.
Chapter two—by far the most technical—surveys the biblical data on human personhood. It is also an important peg in Grabowski's argument for the creation of "a more compelling vision of sexuality in the light of faith" (23). The chapter ends with a section entitled "Intercourse as Anamnesis," which is a creative attempt at linking the sexual act to biblical covenant themes and the sacramental exchange of vows.
The third chapter dwells at length on the call to discipleship. I found this essay crucial to the whole work because it fosters a biblical spirituality of conjugal love. It is constructive insofar as it attempts to treat seriously those passions for the partner and fidelity to the gospel. It is demanding insofar as it places the onus of sexual responsibility within the context of one's faith commitment. The argument is nearly seamless as it transitions into a discussion of chastity in chapter four. Here Grabowski provides a historical overview of the concept and presents it as positively counter-cultural.
The last chapters deal with theological anthropology—already emphasized in chapter two's discussion of the Genesis material—together with the equality and complementarity of the sexes. Additionally, Grabowski has sections on destructive acts against chastity (from masturbation to prostitution), as well as short treatments on reproduction issues and sexual education as character formation.
As a plan for meeting the social and personal challenges to and responsibilities for sexual being, Grabowski's book hangs together well. I plan on using this text for an undergraduate course on Christian sexual ethics in the spring term together with Mark D. Jordan's The Ethics of Sex. The differing visions of the two authors should create some sparks for discussion and, I hope, offer an invitation to complacent students to think positively about the sacral character of their own bodies and those of others.