Pope Francis Reinforces Sexual Taboos

Pope Francis won wide praise for lightening up on Catholic condemnation of divorce but a closer reading of his text shows him reinforcing the Church’s repressive positions on human sexual behavior, writes Daniel C. Maguire.

By Daniel C. Maguire

It embarrasses me to remember it. In 1960, as a young priest in my very first year in a parish, I took it upon myself to give a two-day retreat to the married people in the parish, to tell them how to live their married lives.

The event should be filed under A, for arrogance or I for ignorance. I am glad the talks were not preserved on YouTube, for much that I said was awful. In condemning contraception I trotted out what was a staple of the time, “A Letter From An Unborn Son.”

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

It was an epic of emotional blackmail. It said “I know you did not have me so you could get that new car or that new refrigerator, but that car and that refrigerator will never run up and put their little arms around you like I would have done if you hadn’t used contraceptives.”

Pope Francis too should be embarrassed by the significant failings in his Exhortation The Joy of Love. A fatal flaw in the text is that Francis is singing in an all-male chorus and in that company he embarks on marriage counseling, a field in which neither he nor they have any privileged expertise.

Laity were consulted in the preparation of this Exhortation but their voices are missing in the text, or filtered through the male chorus. Worse yet, Francis’ theology is muddled, and unrepresentative of the best of current Catholic thought. To be fair, Francis admits from the start that what he says makes no claim to infallibility, a healthy admission since some of his mistakes are whoppers.

The Joy of Love is the product of a committee; committee reports are never eloquent and rarely coherent. This one emanated from years of dispute-ridden Synod meetings. It is replete with compromises and contradictions. It has been hailed as a retreat from rule-centered church teaching. But it is no such thing. The old rules hover over its pages like an eminence grise.

To give credit where credit is due, the gospel according to Francis in this and in his other writings redefines “pro-life” and “family value” the shibboleths of the Far Right, whose reverence for life seems to be cut off at birth.

Being pro-life (Francis style) means working and voting for living wages for all, having a preferential option for the poor, half of whom are children, firmly rejecting the death penalty and militaristic obsessions, welcoming immigrants and refugees, fighting ecocide, and supporting unions. Families should be gardens where all those values flourish and grow.

Francis also recognizes that the world cannot withstand unlimited population growth; there are other earth-friendly ways of being fruitful. He even admits Catholics can learn much from the married clergy of other religions. (Clearly, their sexual behavior makes fewer sordid headlines.)

But Now to the Failings

Francis refers briefly to the right of conscience in the Catholic tradition. Unfortunately he does not apply that properly to some major issues in The Joy of Love: same sex marriage, remarriage after divorce, mercy death, contraception, and abortion. On those issues he is rule-bound and rigid, however couched it all is in calls for mercy.

Francis waxes rhapsodic on the beauty and personal enrichment offered by marriage and sexual cherishing in marriage. Marriage is the “ideal” human love. Marital love is love at its best, superior to the love of “friendship, filial devotion or devotion to a cause. And the reason is to be found precisely in its totality.”

“Unwillingness to make such a commitment is selfish, calculating and petty.” All this is true, says Francis, even for childless marriages.

And now the rub! This magnificent experience is reserved by God and the Catholic hierarchy only for heterosexuals. It’s beyond the reach of gays who love one another. The document should have been called The Joy of Heterosexual Love.

Is it that all LGBT persons are too “selfish, calculating and petty?” Are they so deficient in their humanity as to be incapable of this achievement of human love. Is the Pope suggesting in a new nasty way that all these persons are “queer” and “deviant.” Is that why heterosexuals have seven sacraments but gays only have six since marriage is beyond their reach? That is theologically queer. Do we see here the old brutal prejudice wrapped in the language of love, pastoral concern, and pity?

Marriage by definition is the paramount form of committed friendship between sexually attracted persons. There is nothing heterosexual-specific in that definition.

Francis quotes the Christian scripture that “everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected.” (1 Tim. 4:4) Does that not apply to those whom God has made gay?

The pope is wrong here. And he is cruel. He insults LGBT human beings who suffer enough in a heterosexist world. He says in the face of well-documented evidence that children cannot be well raised by same sex couple — there must be a  father and a mother — and thus he insults those children with same sex parents and demeans the families in which they are thriving.

More distressing yet are the fawning, uncritical comments on this document from theologians and bishops. If they see Peter as the first pope could they not join Paul who said of Peter “I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” That’s called prophecy, not disloyalty.

Why Not Stick to “Who am I to judge?”.

Francis’ noble hesitancy to judge once expressed regarding homosexuality, abandoned him in this document. Inexplicably, Francis disinters Humanae Vitae, an ill-conceived encyclical that contributed greatly to the emptying of pews and the closing of church doors. Theologians and the sensus fidelium, (the experience-fed wisdom of the laity and one of the sources of truth in Catholic theology) have rejected this disastrous condemnation of contraceptives by Pope Paul VI.

Why would Francis trot this out again in a world where overpopulation affects every crisis on this planet!

Similarly, on abortion, Francis yields to the conservatives and declares it evil in every case.  Thus, in a swoop, he condemns, sight unseen, the millions of women who choose to terminate problem pregnancies, often brought on by the lack of contraceptive availability. In this harsh judgment, those women are either morally guilty or excused by ignorance of what they are doing. There is no gentle alterative in this arrogant and unnuanced judgment.

Francis tries to ease up a bit on the condemnation of those who remarry after divorce. They are not excommunicated; they may not be in mortal sin. Still, they are in an “irregular” union. (The rule thing again; regula is the Latin for rule.)

Their situation is linked to unflattering symbols of “lost sheep,” those who have lost their way, displayed human weakness, and who are in need of mercy as candidates for admission to the church seen as “a field hospital.” They are not absolved of “objective sin.”

Subjectively their weakness or lack of understanding could absolve them of subjective guilt, but they remain “irregular.” To say more than that would allegedly have “changed church teaching” and made many Synod fathers go ballistic. The pastoral door is opened to their going to Eucharistic communion but only inasmuch as they need it more than the regulars.

There is no appreciation here of the fact that the decision to divorce might be an act of integrity and courage or that staying in a toxic union might be the wrong decision. In erotic fervor, mistakes can be made. Immaturity beclouds judgment. There is nothing weak or irregular about correcting mistakes when all else fails.

The Ready-at-Hand Catholic Solution

Catholicism has a splendid, but well hidden, theory of conscience. Francis alludes to it several times but doesn’t use it to scuttle the insensitive taboos. He quotes some of Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on rules where Thomas says the practical moral principles are good in pluribus, that is usually but in certain circumstances that good principle cannot meet the value needs of the situation.

For example, truth-telling is a good principle, but not when the Gestapo asks if you know where the Frank family is hiding and you do know. Speaking falsely then is better than truth-telling which would be lethal. So, the principle that marriage is a life-long commitment is a good principle, but in certain circumstances it would be wrong to insist on it.

Again, Aquinas: “Human actions are moral or immoral according to their circumstances.” In some circumstances divorce is the moral while not the easy choice.

A second Catholic treasure is called Probabilism, a theory developed largely by the Dominicans and Francis’s own Jesuit order. It is a theory that frees conscience from the weight of undue authoritarianism. It says that in debated moral issues (such as all the ones we are discussing) when there are good reasons with good authorities on both sides of the debate, you are free to decide and the more rigorous view is not to be imposed on you. It is a system of Catholic moral pluralism which is based on insight, not permission.

Some 30 years ago, I spoke to a Dignity group of Catholic gays. I explained Probabilism, reading from old Catholic moral theology books, and applied it to same sex unions. In the light of that, I said, “your loves are not only good they are holy and full of grace.”

A number of them were in tears. They loved the Church and did not want their deep love of another to separate them from it. I spoke of it also in a lecture at Trinity College Dublin around that same time, and applied it to contraception and remarriage after divorce.

I wondered how this was going over with my 400 Irish listeners. The first question, from a middle-aged woman, gave me the answer. She asked: “Why in God’s holy name were we not told this!” Why indeed?

I teach it in every class I teach at Marquette and students often have said: “I guess I could remain a Catholic. I had no idea there was such respect for my conscience.”

Pope Francis says: “individual conscience need to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis.” He’s right. And the tools are there to do it.

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is author of A Moral Creed for All Christians and The Horrors We Bless: Rethinking the Just-War Legacy [Fortress Press]). He can be reached at [email protected]

25 comments for “Pope Francis Reinforces Sexual Taboos

  1. Ray(O)
    April 20, 2016 at 17:54

    “The joy of love” is an exhortation from the pope for his own clergy. The people already ,know the joy of love. They don’t need a pope to teach them. All the moral issues highlighted in the exhortation have already been settled by the people.
    It is now up to the institution to find that joy already expressed by the “sensus fidelium” and make the necessary changes to bring the institution into the 21st century. A medieval monachy is a grossly outdated structure.
    We only have to look at the volume of words that has been generated by the exhortation to gauge its success. AL is a little verbose, but that serves another purpose. That purpose is one word:- dialogue. Just look at or better still read, the number of articles and resulting comments that AL has generated on many blog sites and on the internet generally.
    Without dialogue there will be no change; Francis has started the dialogue. There is no going back once the gate is opened; the people have spoken. Is the institutional church listening? They are not used to dialogue with the people.
    The doctrines of the institution are not in question here, but the teaching authority of the institution. Is the institution ready to teach the “good news” in a post-modern society? A society that is centred on family as the primary focus, not outdated doctrines.

  2. Jacob
    April 14, 2016 at 21:50

    Leviticus 20:13 says “And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
    What this means is exactly what it says, literally, that people who commit what we call homosexual acts shall be put to death. Church officials can try all they want to change how people think about homosexuality, but that is what the Bible says about it. The Bible says all sorts of things that are immoral as well as illegal in modern societies, so theologians choose to cherrypick the Bible and tell us only what they want us to think it says. Most people, including those who faithfully attend church, have never actually read the Bible themselves.

    • Frank McEvoy
      April 15, 2016 at 00:26

      The Council of Jerusalem decided the non-Jewish Christians were not bound by tbe Law.

      Eating clam chowder here. (Not an abomination for my Irish thoin.)

    • J'hon Doe II
      April 17, 2016 at 16:16

      Just for the record, Jacob-
      ‘man lying with man’ is a kindergarten view of excess.

      Last night I dreamed
      of one I loved
      for seven long years,
      but I saw no face,
      only the familiar
      presence of the body:
      sweat skin eyes
      feces urine sperm
      saliva all one
      odor and mortal taste.

      • Dosamuno
        April 17, 2016 at 20:23

        “Just for the record, Jacob-
        ‘man lying with man’ is a kindergarten view of excess.”
        —Or a priest’s dream of access.

  3. Zachary Smith
    April 14, 2016 at 12:06

    Mr. Maguire is a better man than myself to have waded through all 264 pages of that “Joy of Love” thing. For what it’s worth, here is a link:


    Using a word-search feature of my pdf viewer, I found what I was looking for.

    The upright consciences of spouses who have been generous in transmitting life may lead them, for sufficiently serious reasons, to limit the number of their children, yet precisely “for the sake of this dignity of conscience, the Church strongly rejects the forced State intervention in favour of contraception, sterilization and even abortion”. 20

    Presumably the “forced state intervention” means that the “state” has laws allowing individuals freedom from interfering Religious Big Wigs – the Bishops, Cardinals, and Popes. Until fairly recently, those types had managed to forbid the sale, and even the discussion, of contraception. Those Big Wigs and their little Protestant Puppets are working very hard to end abortion, and you can safely bet that ending access to contraception is their next goal. The Pope is God’s voice on earth, and therefore this must be the right thing to do, for God obviously wants us to live in an overpopulated hellhole like 1847 Catholic Ireland had become.

    Using the author’s words, this doctrine is wrong and cruel.

    • J'hon Doe II
      April 14, 2016 at 13:56

      Contraception and abortion
      are as the difference between

      a number of years in prison
      vs a gurney w/lethal injection.

      Can you see it???

      • Dosamuno
        April 14, 2016 at 14:31

        Religious education
        Thwarts critical reason;
        Facilitates apologist

        • J'hon Doe II
          April 16, 2016 at 11:36

          “As an anti-Zionist descendant of Jews” —- Dosamuno

          Your hatred of Christ and promotion of lasciviousness – as well as the lack of civility in your comments are a picture of the dark heart within you — but then, you are a product of the Deeply Liberal Jewish bias that informs and persuades modern cultural views.

          “Jews in America have been sexual revolutionaries. A large amount of the material on sexual liberation was written by Jews. Those at the forefront of the movement which forced America to adopt a more liberal view of sex were Jewish. Jews were also at the vanguard of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman replaced Marx, Trotsky and Lenin as required revolutionary reading. Reich’s central preoccupations were work, love and sex, while Marcuse prophesied that a socialist utopia would free individuals to achieve sexual satisfaction. Goodman wrote of the “beautiful cultural consequences” that would follow from legalizing pornography: it would “ennoble all our art” and “humanize sexuality.” ”
          —Nathan Abrams, Jewish Quarterly.

          “Many early proponents viewed psychoanalysis as a redemptive messianic movement that would end anti-Semitism by freeing the world of neuroses produced by sexually repressive Western civilization. The cure for aggression characteristic of anti-Semitism was therefore believed to lie in freeing gentiles from their sexual repressions. Although Freud himself eventually developed the idea of a death instinct to explain aggression, a consistent theme of the Freudian critique of Western culture, –as exemplified for example by Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, and Wilhelm Reich, –has been that the liberation of sexual repressions would lead to lowered aggression and usher in an era of universal love. ”
          —Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique.

          • Dosamuno
            April 17, 2016 at 20:18

            “You are a product of the Deeply Liberal Jewish bias that informs and persuades modern cultural views.”

            Well actually my family was mixed and was pretty secular. I attended a Christian liberal arts college and studied the Bible.

            But let’s not nitpick. Nothing wrong with bias—everyone has one.
            Let’s look at yours:

            To accept Christian mythology, one must believe there once existed an idyllic garden where the first two specimens of humanity lived under the tyranny of a male god named Jehovah. Jehovah fabricated a man from dust, but made the woman from one of the man’s ribs.

            The woman was convinced by a talking snake to challenge the will of this god by sharing a magic apple with the male. After eating the apple, which may be a metaphor for fornicating or acquiring forbidden knowledge, the two humans were kicked out of the garden.

            All of humankind was stained by this “sin”—a crime whose victim is God, and had to bear this stigma until God decided to forgive them.

            Although God was omniscient and omnipotent, he nevertheless could not figure out how to forgive humankind without artificially inseminating a virgin with a test-tube of god sperm carried down to earth by something called “The Holy spirit”; the virgin bore a male child; the male child grew up and practiced magic like walking on water and raising the dead until, at the age of 33, he was nailed to a cross, where he dangled until he died.

            Three days after he died, his cadaver got up and walked out of the crypt like the zombies in a George Romero movie.

            God was so pleased about this that he forgave all of us as long as we loved his Zombie son.

            “Jews in America have been sexual revolutionaries”

            Damn the bastards! I suppose they think people who jerk off should not go blind, women should be in charge of their own bodies, and sex is OK without the priest’s permission.

            “Many early proponents viewed psychoanalysis as a redemptive messianic movement that would end anti-Semitism by freeing the world of neuroses produced by sexually repressive Western civilization.”

            Eugenio Pacelli and his Nazi friends had a more practical approach to ending Jew hatred—anti-semitism is a bullshit word, as did the Catholic Church which confined Jews to ghettos for almost 2,000 years.

            You’re a zombie, J’hon Doe II: A brainwashed Christian Zombie. They got you before you developed critical reason and nothing I say will free you.

            So I’ll let you have the last word. I’ll no longer try to argue with you.

            I will leave you with Ambrose Bierce’s definition of religion:

            —A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

      • J'hon Doe II
        April 16, 2016 at 13:04

        Contraception and abortion
        are as the difference between

        a number of years in prison
        vs a gurney w/lethal injection.

        Can you see it???



  4. Dosamuno
    April 14, 2016 at 11:24

    “Charles Darwin nullified Christianity 150 years ago, …the fact of evolution completely dismantles the Garden of Eden story and obliterates Jesus’ raison d’être, his faux-death as our apparent salvation from ‘original sin’. And thus the very foundations of Christianity are categorically and absolutely demolished.”
    (Michael B. Paulkovich)

    It’s amusing to see Christianity still stumbling around like a chicken with its head cut off despite evolution supplanting the fairy tale of The Garden of Eden.

    No Eden=No Eve=No Original Sin=No need for Jesus.

    And it’s at once amusing and sad that CONSORTIUM wastes space covering this mountebank.

    The Pope is a charlatan even though he has three billion followers: if Jim Jones hadn’t opted for the Kool Aid version of The Rapture, he might have caught up with the Whore of Rome and have three billion morons adoring him.

    Please stop with the articles about the Pope.

    You don’t offer articles on the pedophile prophet or Yahweh or the more interesting deities invented by Ovid in METOMORPHOSIS.

    Enough with the goddamned Pope.

    • J'hon Doe II
      April 14, 2016 at 13:42

      “Charles Darwin nullified Christianity 150 years ago…”

      nullify = nonexistent , abrogate, destroy——–

      Clearly, not any major religion has been destroyed, Dosamuno ————
      nor has the fundamental existence of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness

      “The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked- who can know it?”

      I heard Thom Hartmann yesterday talking about the evils of human sacrifice. In all of his summation of that history in our world, he never mentioned abortion. —
      — Failure to see abortion as a human sacrifice is an illustration of deceit. So, with all of his good hearted liberalism — the calls for justice and equality- all of that- yet born babies nullified in the womb is the stealing of a life. Man made law may proclaim it ‘legal’ but the Law of Nature screams aberration! abnormity! violation!!! (the heart of man is deceitful)

      The (so-called) intellect of your mind, Dosamuno, reflects the heart of darkness within you. The God you deny is here, knocking softly at the door of your heart and declaring Himself through nature’s creativity and sustainability. Science didn’t create the nature we see – the multitude of flowers each spring — the seeds for food that grow within themselves (what Monsanto wants to usurp for profit). Scientists only study the phenomenon of it all, collect data, study enzymes and Living organisms, find cures and supplements,etc from Nature.

      Deceitful hearts seek to supplant God. They ignorantly raise themselves above God even though they had Nothing to do with a Creation of plants, trees, flowers, birds, animals, weather, cloud, rain, seasons sun/moon and stars —
      What arrogant deceit ! What subliminal ignorance !!! (the heart of man is deceitful)

      ” Darwin nullified Christianity” – though it still exists this very day !!! ?
      Darwin nullified God — isn’t that what you really meant, Dosamuno?

      The fool has said in his heart “there is no God” — (the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked)

      • Dosamuno
        April 14, 2016 at 14:08

        “Nature abhors a moron.”

        H.L. Mencken

        • J'hon Doe II
          April 14, 2016 at 14:28
          • Dosamuno
            April 14, 2016 at 14:38

            “I didn’t know that cats could grin.”
            “They all can and most of ’em do.”

            All scientists can be morons.
            Some of them are.

          • Dosamuno
            April 14, 2016 at 15:45

            Ah, Korea—another triumph of American foreign policy and of the murderous campaign of bombing led by the Mad Bomber himself, General Curtis Lemay.

            To the north, a nightmarish personality cult now in its second generation; where people are more brainwashed than the victims of Muslim madrassas, JewishYeshivas, or Catholic “schools” or missions. Where the economy never recovered from America’s scorched earth policy thanks to the numbskulls in a bureaucracy from Hell.

            To the south, the American version: fundamentalist Christianity spawned by Kim Jung-un clones like the Reverend Moon and other godly men. A country where people live like sardines in overpriced cells the country’s leaders have the temerity to call “apartments”; a country where its Morlocks work more hours than almost any other place in the world, earn coolie wages and have less vacation time than anyone else on the planet —and are proud of it; and where the drones spend the little leisure time they have drinking more alcoholic beverages than the second and third highest consuming countries (Russia and Philippines) together.

            The result? Asymmetrically developed freaks like J’hon Doe II.

            This post is an ad hominem attack. I don’t apologize for it.
            JD II is incapable of responding to a comment with critical reason and resorts instead to verse as well crafted as the Hyundai; and denunciations of my dark, deceitful heart.

            I hope Evangelista isn’t around. His is a more formidable intellect; he is a more formidable opponent. Arguing with JD II is like arguing with a tar baby.

          • Zachary Smith
            April 16, 2016 at 01:46

            Yes, some scientists are morons, and my source is the inimitable (late) Carlo M. Cipolla.

            Key quote:

            Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

            The actual number is necessarily vague, but it’s always more than you expect in a given group. Cipolla remarked that the rule applied even to Nobel Prize winners.


            Paul Krugman of the NYT has displayed a recent streak of “stupid” with his determined and really dumb defense of Hillary’s position on Big Banks.

            I’m not saying he’s always a low-wattage bulb, but it’s a fact that his “Nobel” prize is a fake one. The dynamite inventor simply didn’t endow that one – it was done by some rich bastards to give a certain superior ‘odour’ to the right-wing nuts who all too often got it. Think “Milton Freidman” types here…

        • Silly Me
          April 16, 2016 at 08:18

          Apparently, nature abhors you.

          • Dosamuno
            April 17, 2016 at 20:27

            You display impressive rhetorical skills.
            Were you trained by Jesuits?

      • paganus
        April 14, 2016 at 18:38

        Many of us hate religion for the very quotation you are so proud of, the unspeakably obscene lie that “the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked”. Such attribution more aptly applies to the monstrous deity created from the depths of man’s ignorance.

        The first Christians were members of a militant millennial cult who considered themselves the only righteous folk in a world filled with wickedness. From the beginning, Christianity was marked by the intolerance, self-righteousness, and deceitfulness it inherited from Judaism. When Christians seized complete state power in the mid-4th century its priesthood embarked on a two-centuries long orgy of violence, destroying ancient temples, hospitals, and universities, butchering priests, priestesses, doctors, professors, pillaging centuries of sacred and secular artworks, burning libraries, condemning women and gay people as demons, projecting their morbid sexual obsessions onto a people now barely more than slaves to an authoritarian unforgiving church, and in the process sending the west into a thousand years of intellectual, cultural, and technological stagnation.

        Never again!

        • Dosamuno
          April 15, 2016 at 09:06

          Good. Very good.
          As an anti-Zionist descendant of Jews, I would add two words to your last sentence:

          “Never again–for anyone.”

  5. Silly Me
    April 14, 2016 at 07:42

    By whose authority does the author judge? His arguments are also conspicuously lacking references, destroying the meager credibility of the author. Seems like he has fallen victim to the major professional hazard of academic teaching; he believes he is always right.

    You can also observe Christian denominations that, after switching to the author’s dogmas, lost much of their followers.

    Theoretically, the Church is right, except it is nearly impossible to live by its rules. But don’t worry; nobody is doing that, anyway.

    • Regina Schulte
      April 14, 2016 at 12:08

      To Silly Me:

      I find plenty of references in this commentary; e.g, personal experience (can’t quarrel with that); Thomas Aquinas,
      Dignity members, the document itself, long-used Catholic moral principles for decision-making, facts that most of
      us know from following Vatican activities, etc., etc., etc.

      To use your criticism, what reference do you have for “Theoretically, the church is right”? How do you know that?

      • Silly Me
        April 16, 2016 at 08:20

        Sadly, most people are not interested in the truth as much as in being right.

Comments are closed.