Todd A. SALZMAN and Michael G. LAWLER, Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012. Pp. xxix + 250. ISBN 978-1-58901-913-3. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD, 21727.

Salzman and Lawler (henceforth, SL) reprise their earlier book, The Sexual Person, in a more compact format aimed at “the general educated Catholic population in the hope that it will be more readable and therefore more enlightening on common questions about sexual morality as they arise for Catholics in the contemporary world” (xiii). The text begins with a prologue, and two initial chapters which lay the groundwork for their approach, followed by four extended chapters treating the contested issues of contraception, cohabitation, homosexuality, and artificial reproductive technologies. SL state from the outset that they find “a tension in the tradition,” a “disconnect…between many of the Magisterium’s absolute proscriptive sexual norms and the methodological and anthropological developments explicitly recognized and endorsed in Catholic tradition, especially since the Second Vatican Council” (xv). This tension is seen on a number of fronts: between “nature” and reason, between a classicist view of acts and texts versus a historical conscious one, and between a rather rigid notion of gender difference and the endorsement of a multi-leveled notion of “complementarity.” As is well known, SL draw dissenting conclusions on the particular issues engaged, essentially arguing that the dynamic, relational, historicist anthropology should lead to the revision of norms.

At the heart of their case are two moves. One is relatively familiar: to highlight the move in Gaudium et Spes that removes any language of primary and secondary ends, thereby dethroning procreation as the ultimate criterion for good sexual acts (77). This movement also evidences the tradition’s openness to historical development in its understanding of sexuality. The second is more innovative. They take the new category of complementarity, show its instability (e.g. it is said to be multi-dimensional by John Paul II [75] and yet its instantiation often smacks of “gender stereotypes” [69]), and then revise it in light of a social-science-informed “holistic complementarity” (74), contrasting the emphasis on “heterogenital complementarity” that is found in the writings of John Paul II. Thus, “unitive sexual morality” (the name of chapter 2, the center for their overall constructive proposal) involves “truly human and complementary” sexual acts, ones that are “just and loving” (82-83). Underneath these moves is the concern to overcome the above-stated tension, which (in the traditional norms) clings to (biological) sex and (biological) procreation, despite the fact that these are relativized in the anthropology now being used. In essence, traditional norms remain “physicalist” – hence, the term “nature” is used consistently with scare quotes around it, since it is “not pure, uninterpreted nature” (xxi).

It is a grave mistake to think that SL are engaging in a project that is somehow “relativist.” It is also a mistake to think that they are abandoning Catholic tradition for views from “outside.” To the contrary: the book carefully and constantly grounds its arguments in the texts of the tradition, and especially in texts that display what is undeniably a quite new appreciation for the good of sexuality itself, and not simply its result (procreation). Like Margaret Farley’s Just Love, though with more attention to the specific Catholic documentary tradition, SL are engaged in a sincere and pastorally-energizing project to justify a genuine sexual ethic, albeit one that is more normatively-flexible. SL are right to claim that the traditional norms pay too little attention to relational context and developing a richer account of flourishing. One could argue that their project gives articulation to the common (if implicit) sense of sexual ethics practiced by many Catholic faithful.

Since SL are not offering this text as an authoritative monograph, they do not deal in detail with potential critiques of their position, but they maintain “we are wide open to dialogue in this book” and “we invite our dialogue partners to be as critical in their reading as we are in our writing” (xviii, xx). In this brief review, I will just mention two areas where the argument could be developed further. One, SL continue to rely on the notion that traditional norms must be justified in a “physicalist” and reductively biological way. Prominent authors, like Martin Rhonheimer and Alasdair MacIntyre, have offered extended defenses of natural law norms in ways that are explicitly historicist and do not reduce nature to biology. I do not know what SL think of these arguments. When discussing complementarity they contrast the “intrinsic” relationship between biological and personal they see in magisterial teaching with the “integrated” relationship of personal, biological, and “orientation” complementarity (84). What about “inseparable”? Is biology “inseparable”? SL judge the inseparability argument harshly, as essentially contradicted by Paul VI himself in approving of recourse to the cycle and sexual acts between older, infertile spouses. They offer a related critique of the “total self-giving” argument, in John Paul II as presenting a lofty but impossible-to-satisfy ideal for humans that are “fallible” and “prone to sin” and live in “less-than-ideal and frequently wounded and messy circumstances” in their “real, historical lives” (109-115). While I have some sympathy for these critiques (especially the latter), they elide two different issues: the realization of some state of affairs and the intention of the agent. The popes aim at the intention of the agent, analogous to a distinction between euthanasia and various other acts or non-acts which may result in death. If these are not distinguished, isn’t the result consequentialism? “The judgment of whether or not a particular sexual act is moral is to be determined, as all moral judgments are to be determined, on the basis of its impact on human flourishing within the context of a particular interpersonal relationship” (80). Is this not situation ethics?

The second concern is with the categories of complementarity, and in particular the extensive reliance on “orientation complementarity.” The worry here is that this category is treated as authoritatively “natural” when SL so extensively reject claims about “natural” at other junctures. They claim that they are not doing so (170), but then say that “to be moral, any sexual act… must be not only natural but also…just, loving, and in accord with holistic complementarity.” For once, the scare quotes are missing! After all, John Paul II would certainly endorse the previous sentence – that it is necessary but not sufficient for a sexual act to be natural. If complementarity merely means “a good fit” and a coupling that results in deep mutual care, sharing, and a common life, even including children, there can be no doubt that homosexual couples display this (172). But at such a level, it is really hard to distinguish “holistic complementarity” from what the “unitive” end of marriage or sex has come to mean, involving ongoing mutuality and fidelity.

SL’s volume will help further dialogue within Catholic circles. Regardless of one’s stance on normative issues, the fact is there is an enormous gap between official teaching and ordinary practice, and moral theologians need to wrestle with arguments that try to close this gap.