Tell the Catholic Hardliners: Safe Sex Is Moral

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The upcoming report from the Vatican Synod on the Family will be scrutinized six ways from Sunday for evidence of a less punitive attitude toward LGBTQ Catholics. But there's a background issue here that has to be resolved before the Catholic church can get its act in order about gay marriages and gay families. The hardliner Catholic bishops have to recognize that safe sex is moral.

When I insist that safe sex is moral, I'm not talking about disease prevention. That's part of it, of course. STDs are an epidemic threat. But there's another, richer ethical reason to practice safe sex: conceiving a child is a morally serious act. Even potentially conceiving a child is morally serious act. Hardliners in the Catholic hierarchy don't see that, although reasonable priests and bishops always have. But the hard-Right radicals? Hardliners among the Catholic bishops are so deeply opposed to sexuality itself that they fail to acknowledge the moral seriousness of parenthood.

None of them have ever been parents. None of them have struggled with the fact that infant childcare is more costly than college--and a lot harder to find. None of them have faced the decades-long commitment to little people that parenthood entails. Nor have they ever coped with the sustained chaos of any household with kids. They don't realize that morally mature adults think about all that carefully before planning a pregnancy--or even risking a pregnancy. If the family already has a particularly vulnerable child, is another baby wise? Or what about the need to care for Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Edna? Just how thinly can two parents spread themselves before having another child becomes morally irresponsible?

The nuns lectured us sternly about morally irresponsible procreation when I was in high school--fifty years ago, not long after The Pill first became legal. I grew up in a neighborhood of enormous Irish clans, a dozen kids sleeping three or four to a bed in small bungalow. The nuns understood that safe sex is a moral obligation because the nuns spent their lives dealing with the kids growing up in such households. But the hardliner bishops remain oblivious. Fifty years later, their continued oblivion represents a radical failure of moral imagination

Furthermore, none of these men have ever been pregnant. They don't realize that there's a limit to how often our bodies can safely cope with pregnancy. Or how often we can go through all that without serious damage to our careers, and hence our ability to provide for the children that we already have.

Neither do the hardliners acknowledge the well-established data showing that inexpensive, easily available birth control brings down the rate of unwanted pregnancy, which in turn brings down the abortion rate. Their opposition to insurance coverage for contraception has been widely--and disastrously--influential. Thanks to the Supreme Court, employers can now deny insurance coverage for contraception. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who is opposed to contraception is not morally serious about preventing abortion. It's as if centuries of rich and nuanced Catholic moral theology has suddenly gone off-line. These reactionary bishops are the Catholic equivalent of the Freedom Caucus.

Puzzled, I did some research, reported in my new book Confronting Religious Denial of Gay Marriage: Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination. Bottom line: as gentile or ex-pagan Christians came to outnumber Jewish Christians, Christianity became increasingly Neoplatonic. For Christians who follow Plato far more closely than Jesus, sex is sinful. In fact, Augustine of Hippo said that orgasm is punishment for sin in the Garden of Eden: as we rebelled against God, our bodies rebel against us. The body momentarily overcomes the rational mind. Adam and Eve would have had sex, he admits--a remarkably "moderate" position for his day. But orgasm? Never. Sex is tolerable only because a society needs baby-making to survive. But aside from baby-making? No sex. Absolutely not. Sexuality and spirituality are antithetical--as Plato insisted in the Phaedrus (370 BCE). Jesus would have been baffled. That's not the Jewish attitude toward embodiment.

And if safe sex is immoral, then the sacramentality gay marriages will never be recognized. And the children in gay-couple households? They are doubly invisible.

Somebody needs to convince the hardliner Catholic hierarchy: safe sex is moral.