This collection of essays is the work of the Boston College project, “The Church in the 21st Century.” Its overall aim is to build hope and to heal the wounds from the crises troubling the church. This volume features papers generated by the C-21 Sexuality Committee. Rather than rehashing superficial and condemnatory material on the pedophilia affair, the offerings set a constructive tone for dialogue. They place the “crisis” in a broader context, bringing wisdom from the rich Catholic tradition to contemporary reality. The reader will find the book reflective of the best of both past Catholic tradition and contemporary insights.
The topics addressed include John Paul II’s theology of the body, eschatology as it relates to sexuality, married love and parenting, celibacy in today’s culture, and homosexuality. The selections are framed by papers from Naomi Meara and Stephen Pope. Meara calls for communities of “scholarly conversation” that addresses issues which she says underlie the current crisis: power and privilege, lack of intellectual engagement in with the modern world, and an absence of the emotional components that breed such things as empathy and compassion. These communities should be located in the professional, intellectual, and emotional spheres of life. Pope calls for taking seriously a variety of positions on what ails the church, sometimes even contrary positions. He examines the work of three scholars who propose three different sources of the crisis (infidelity, lust, and mistrust). Not surprisingly, the scholars come to disparate conclusions about what is needed to resolve the problem—a great place to begin dialogue.
Between the bracket summary articles, specific topics are addressed. David Cloutier and William Mattison offer contrasting views on John Paul II’s theology of the body. Cloutier sees the appeal of this theology as fulfilling a need in modern society for finding real meaning and authenticity in sexual relationships. Nevertheless his essay exposes some of the weaknesses of the late pope’s approach. Mattison, while appreciating the overall appeal of John Paul’s work, takes issue with his central idea, the “nuptual meaning of the body.” Is human fulfillment defined comprehensively by the term, “nuptual,” as the pope suggests? Mattison sees a disconnect between John Paul’s central placement of marriage and sexuality and other traditional Catholic understandings.
The next two papers focus on married love. Christopher Kaczor argues from a substantially traditional approach. He seems to take the Adam and Eve accounts in Genesis literally, using its themes to support a Catholic traditional approach to love and marriage. Nevertheless he expands the base of his argument beyond church teaching. Defining the Greek concept of eros as physical attraction that yearns for union, he suggests that children fulfill that yearning. Christine Traina looks at marriage as radical discipleship, drawing from the metaphor of the rich young man used by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. Discussing the challenges of such discipleship, she uses real world examples to illustrate her points.
It is interesting that the volume contains four papers on celibacy, in contrast to the two that other aspects of human sexuality are given. Not an overwhelming percent of the population—Catholic or otherwise—lives a celibate life. John O’Malley presents a good history of celibacy in the Catholic tradition. John Witte gives a Protestant take on the issue. Columba Stewart offers a look from the monastery. Particularly noteworthy in this section is Margaret Farley’s crystal clear paper on celibacy and the sign of the cross. Today, she says, celibacy is “a little like living on a park bench,” but certainly an authentic way to live one’s sexuality.
Two acutely contrasting papers are offered on homosexuality. Christopher Wolfe’s article is comprised largely of a tradition-infused letter to an imaginary young gay person. Since he believes that that the issue is already solved by existing church teaching, he offers a pastoral solution to being gay. James Allison’s sensitive and hopeful piece calls for acknowledgement of the truth of the lived experience of gay and lesbian Catholics rather than a lock-step reliance on past teaching.
Mercifully, the book does not rehash the rhetoric and recrimination that has characterized the so-called pedophilia crisis. The editors have the courage to include authors who examine disparate positions on issues of homosexuality, marital sexuality, and celibacy. Nonetheless much more could have been said about married love.
The hope is that this volume will bring others to the table of discussion on these controversial contemporary issues. Modeling non-judgmental interdisciplinary discussion in the selection of works and topics, it is likely that the book will do just that. It could be used profitably not only as a starting point for professional discussion, per Meara’s suggestion, but as a “reader” for students either in a course on sexuality or—more selectively—in a general fundamental ethics course.