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Church must rethink its 'anachronistic' sexual ethic: priest

Ronaldo Zacharias, a moral theologian, feels Catholic theology not helping people integrate sexuality into their personhood
Father Ronaldo Zacharias (left) is pictured with Pope Francis while attending the International Congress of Moral Theology from May 13-14, 2022, at the Vatican City.

Father Ronaldo Zacharias (left) is pictured with Pope Francis while attending the International Congress of Moral Theology from May 13-14, 2022, at the Vatican City. (Photo: UNISAL)

Published: March 23, 2024 05:40 AM GMT
Updated: March 23, 2024 05:44 AM GMT

The Catholic Church's "established, dogmatic models of the theological approach to sexuality have become anachronistic," a moral theologian told a conference on sexuality and culture at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome.

Developing a new theological ethics of sexuality is "a task for the entire church community," Salesian Father Ronaldo Zacharias, a professor of moral theology at the Salesian University of São Paulo, told the conference March 21.

"We cannot ignore that in recent decades there has been a remarkable evolution regarding terminologies, concepts and descriptions related to sexuality," he said, noting the strong influence such developments have had on people's conceptions of their own sexuality.

The church, therefore, "should not talk about sexuality without considering the understanding we have of it today," he said, while also keeping in mind potential problems with modern understandings of sexuality.

Citing the Brazilian theologian Augustinian Sister Ivone Gebara, he said that the church's "theology of binary sexuality is no longer able to understand the complexity that we discover in ourselves."

According to Father Zacharias, Catholic theology has not helped people integrate their sexuality into their personhood -- an issue that, among the church's ordained ministers, has reared its head in the clerical sex abuse crisis.

"Sexuality is a constitutive dimension of each person, a central aspect in the life of human beings that characterizes who a person is to the point that it cannot be left out in the process of personal fulfillment," he said.

Any person's sexuality, regardless of their vocation, "has a legitimate role in all phases of their development," and therefore it "cannot be confined to the context of marriage" or reduced to a means for procreation, he said.

The church, the priest said, must overcome "an essentially negative view of sexual desire, as if it were something to be repressed at every moment" and which suppresses a person's desire for love.

"Self-control is self-control, it is not a virtue," he said.

Sexuality, he said, "acquires its true human quality if it is oriented (toward), elevated and integrated into love."

"Authentic love moves one toward self-transcendence, and makes sexuality a 'place of reciprocity,' a place of affirming the good of the other," he said. "The integration of sexuality does not depend solely on the will of the person."

Father Zacharias noted that a challenge for the church's theology is to "affirm the meaning of sexuality in light of an eminently relational anthropology."

Sex cannot be treated as a "separate entity, an object for ethical reflection," but must be considered as part of "the whole of the relationships which it serves," he said.

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4 Comments on this Story
Evangelization and conversion are ongoing and never ending opportunities. Sensitizing and conscientizing fellow moral theologians is a herculean task. The Reverend Ronaldo Zacharias is doing his best. May his tribe increase.
“The Catholic Church's ‘established, dogmatic models of the theological approach to sexuality have become anachronistic…’” The good Father Ronaldo Zacharias, despite all his degrees, does not seem to understand a basic truth of Divine Revelation that my senior generation learned in about second grade at faithful Catholic schools: the Church cannot change the Ten Commandments to suit the times.
Ma'am, I understand your point of view. But, do you understand that there are people who simply cannot express their sexuality in those narrow categories? No matter how much they may want to do so, they cannot. For the vast majority, that is no problem. But, what is your answer for the people who cannot. Be honest, you want your point of view to prevail, but it does not cover all the life experiences. You cannot apply the rules of sighted people to those who have no sight. Analogously, over time and many social groups, there are "deviancies" (in the technical sense) from the norms. So, what rules apply to them? Is it really that simple? Is the earth really capable of sustaining 8 billion or more people? ...especially in the breakneck pace of consumption of fossil and other fuels? what happens when the system breaks?
Everyone has their unique cross to bear; our individual weaknesses and shortcomings are allowed by the passive will of God in recognition of the consequences Original Sin along with His generous allowance that we may be able to choose good vs evil; which is born out of His Love for us that we are made in His image. Our struggle with our inclination to sin, our concupiscence, causes suffering that is often allowed by God because through suffering we can grow closer to God in persevering through the trial. In suffering there is opportunity to increase our assent & reliance on Him, like a child trusting a loving Father. Necessarily, this comes with trust in His messengers, the Prophets and Church Fathers. It's the same story over and over in the Bible. It's the Isrealites suffering in the desert and coming to doubt Moses, even though they'd seen God’s miracles through Moses and Aaron; even though they'd heard God’s voice firsthand, causing them to beg that Moses be God's mouthpiece so they wouldn't have to hear His terrifying voice. It's Job suffering in the test of his faith only to come to know God personally in the end. Do we remain steadfast in obedience to God despite our hardships or do we abandon Him and blame Him for allowing us to be tested? So some struggle with greed, others gluttony, others with selfishness. We could pretend that our inborn default inclination to privilege our own desires over others means we're helpless in concluding we were "born that way" and surrender to our internal urges. We could even claim some unfortunate external circumstances out of our control that cause pain and deprivation, and hardship, could justify indulging what feels good when it is in fact selfish and contrary to what God revealed to us is truly Good. Virtue is hard! Vice is easy. If our only criteria for morality is what makes us feel good versus what makes us feel bad, then why was it necessary for Christ to suffer on the cross for us? That must've felt pretty bad. Why was it wrong for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit? That must've felt pretty good. We limit growing closer to God when we demand to know the justification for our suffering as a prerequisite to assenting to God's rule. Don't be like the Isrealites in the desert. Don't follow Korah, Dathan, and Abiram into the pit. Job 40 Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm and said: "Gird up your loins now, like a man. I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Would you refuse to acknowledge my right? Would you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like that of God, or can you thunder with a voice like his? Adorn yourself with grandeur and majesty, and clothe yourself with glory and splendor. Let loose the fury of your wrath; look at everyone who is proud and bring them down. Look at everyone who is proud, and humble them. Tear down the wicked in their place, bury them in the dust together; in the hidden world imprison them. Then will I too praise you, for your own right hand can save you. Job 42 Then Job answered the LORD and said: I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. “Who is this who obscures counsel with ignorance?” I have spoken but did not understand; things too marvelous for me, which I did not know. “Listen, and I will speak; I will question you, and you tell me the answers.” By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.
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