Cutting edge moral issues for the third millennium

Cutting edge moral issues for the third millennium

Br Barry Coldrey

Five years ago, the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, was confronted by a TV interviewer with the following moral dilemma. Two former nuns were living in a lesbian relationship and one was a distant cousin of the Cardinal's!

This woman, via the TV presenter, asked Cardinal Pell: "As Australian members of our Congregation we served for 19 years in Chile. However, three years ago we left our religious congregation to live together. Are we living in sin? Are we going to Hell when we both gave nearly twenty of the best years of our lives to the service of the Catholic Church in Chile?"

The interviewer felt he had Cardinal Pell in a bind: on the one hand, there was his blood relationship with one of the women; on the other hand, there was their long service to the Church in a difficult foreign mission. Now they had found a deeply satisfying "loving relationship" since they left their congregation. Tough questions. The audience's sympathy was with the women. What could he say?

With a whimsical flourish Cardinal Pell reminded the interviewer and the vast TV audience that he (Pell) was not God; he was not appointed as the women's judge; he would not be reviewing their lives at either the judgment at the point of their deaths or at the Last Judgment of the human race.

However, as a Catholic Archbishop, he could say that since the dawn of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament, through the teachings of Jesus, His Apostles, and the writings of the evangelists all enshrined in the New Testament, together with the consistent teaching of the undivided Church, and of the Catholic Church since the Reformation, the ladies "relationship" was not one the Church could bless - not ever. They should abandon their relationship since, objectively, they were living in sin. Subjectively, well, that was not his call as Archbishop of Sydney.

Movie depiction

In the popular 1994 English film, Priest, "Father Greg Pilkington" (Linus Roache) has to struggle with the conflicting emotions of being gay and being a celibate priest while dealing with the day-to-day reality of his ministry.

"Father" is in turmoil as he attempts to deal with his passionate love for his partner (Robert Carlyle) and the teaching of the Church of which he is an official witness. Things are brought to a head when Father Greg is arrested by the Merseyside police in a public place, "in flagrante" with his gay lover. This leads to a crisis in the parish and his temporary suspension from ministry.

In the movie, the punch line is provided by Father Greg's parish priest who is mixing "celibacy" with a long term heterosexual relationship. He remarks broad-mindedly that God does not care what sexual activities men get involved in. A profound theological opinion, not leaving much room for priestly celibacy!

This, of course, is the view of the film and its secular audience. And so, with such a tolerant parish priest, Father Greg is "saved", continues in the priesthood, accepts his homosexuality and his gay lover, and they all live happily ever after.

Obviously, the parish priest of the movie was not an attentive reader of Scripture and plainly there were yawning gaps in his seminary training and formation for ministry. He had not read Ephesians (5:3-8), for example, in which St Paul says: "You [Christians] are followers of Christ. Among you there must not be even a mention of sexual vice or impurity in any of its forms, or of greed; this would scarcely become the holy people of God! There must be no foul or salacious talk or coarse jokes - all this is wrong for you ... You can be quite certain that nobody who indulges in sexual immorality or greed - which is worshipping a false god - can inherit the Kingdom of God. Do not let anyone deceive you with empty arguments."

Purpose of life

All Christians, especially young Catholics, confronted as they are with the hedonistic attitudes of the cultural majority, have to face the fact that each individual's view of human sexuality is bound inextricably with an understanding of the purpose of life.

Most of the cultural majority have not given much thought to their positions on life issues. Their general moral-ethical stance is guided by their upbringing, the legal system and the confusing messages they receive from the media, especially via the popular, long-running soapies like Neighbours or Home and Away (Australia).

While there are thoughtful people concerned about moral issues, the prevailing secular view of sexual morality would probably include some of the following:

* Human beings have to develop and define their own values but happiness and fulfilment in this life are the critical things; there is no other. We don't know what happens after death.

* Human sexuality is deeply satisfying and between consenting adults in private any sexual experience is good so long as no-one is hurt or inconvenienced against his or her will. There is, therefore, no moral problem with pre-marital or gay sex, or indeed any sexual experience between consenting adults. The age of consent is defined by the law as men and women who have reached the age of eighteen years.

* There is no overarching moral system; all may decide what they feel to be right or wrong in a given situation, guided by life's experiences and by the law as it stands. Issues such as divorce, abortion, birth control, IVF or embryonic stem cell research are decided on a case by case basis, depending on what one feels to be appropriate in a given situation. This is situation ethics.

This is the secular view. However, the committed Christian in the Catholic tradition cannot think of sexual - or any moral issues - merely in this way. In contrast, Catholicism teaches:

* A loving God has intervened in human history and given His guidance for living. While our human life in this world has a special quality, it is short, transitory and a preparation for eternal life with Him.

* After His passion, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ authorised His Church to provide guidance for appropriate living as new issues arise across the centuries.

* Sexual experience is deeply satisfying, but deliberate sexual activity is restricted to men and women within marriage. This conviction differs fundamentally from the view and practice of the secular majority.

Chosen People

Since the dawn of Revelation, God demanded a sterner sexual morality from His Chosen People than the free-and-easy sexual mores of the pagan nations which surrounded Israel. The following Old Testament quotations from Deuteronomy could not be clearer:

* "I am Yahweh, your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived; and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you" (18:3).

* "You shall not lie with a man, as with a woman. That is detestable. You shall not lie with any animal to defile yourself with it ... that is a perversion" (18:22).

When we consider specific "cutting edge" moral issues, we see that the Church can give reasons for its stances - on pre-marital sex, abortion, divorce, the gay life style, IVF and stem cell research. These reasons constitute intellectually respectable responses for Christians and non-believers alike.

While Christians in general accept the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God, the informed, committed, practising Catholic believes that where public theologians and private Bible readers differ, the Church, via the Pope and bishops in union with him, have the authority to pronounce on faith and morals.

Many issues of sexual morality and related matters arose prior to God becoming man as Jesus Christ, such as whether the active homosexual lifestyle is permissible. Scripture responds with a resounding no!

Other issues have arisen only more recently with the impressive advances in medical research, such as IVF and stem cell research. However, in one case, that of marriage, divorce and re-marriage, Jesus was questioned in His lifetime and gave a concise but full answer which His Church re-states down the centuries.

Two of the four Evangelists, Mark (10:2-12) and Matthew (19:3-12) recount a confrontation between Jesus and some Pharisees over the question of divorce. Matthew's is the more detailed version.

Jesus was asked: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" Jesus threw the question back to them: "What did Moses command you?" The Pharisees replied that, in essence, Moses had allowed the Hebrews to divorce.

Jesus took this as His cue and told them unambiguously that Moses allowed this but the arrangement was not God's original plan: "It was because of your hard hearts that Moses wrote you this law!" Then Jesus gave His teaching: "I say to you ... What God has joined together, let man not separate."

The disciples standing around listening complained: "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry!" As the Pharisees and the crowds dispersed, some disciples took the matter up again with Jesus. He gave them the same answer.

A few years ago, a religious brother, one of his congregation's Leadership Team, remarked, "Modern people take their sexuality more seriously than people did in the past."

Brother's expertise was not history, that ebb and flow of the human story over millennia, but in another field of study. In fact, sex has presented its challenges from the beginning of human history. What might be different in the modern world?

* There has been an explosion of the means of mass communication and the media has done much to create a sex-saturated culture.

* Abortion (and infanticide) have existed throughout human history, but while abortion is now generally a safe and easy procedure for a qualified medical practitioner, during most of human history, the process was extremely risky for the mother.

* Homosexuality has existed in all societies throughout human history, but gays often had to practise in secret in fear of the strictures of the mainstream population.

* Birth control is now much easier than it was once, since the development of the contraceptive pill and the more convenient condoms during the 1960s.


On the modern scene, committed Catholics - especially the younger ones - have many challenges to their faith and morals and not merely from the secular majority.

The fact is that Catholic youth have had ghastly witness and wretched example from a minority of priests, members of religious orders and full-time lay workers whose sexual activities have made a mockery of the Church's teaching on sexual matters such as the highly publicised sexual abuse of minors by some and lapses from the standards of committed celibacy by others.

Here is human weakness in spades!

The Christian is aware of human weakness for every person sins. The Lord is aware of the fallen human condition and throughout His revelation in the Old and New Testaments God has stressed repeatedly that His mercy is available to all who ask for forgiveness and promise to try again to live as they should. Moreover, the Lord gave a sacrament to His Apostles, that of Penance or Reconciliation, by which His followers could be certain that their sins are forgiven.

Dr Barry Coldrey, a former teacher at Christian Brothers secondary colleges is active in Catholic youth ministry and a regular contributor to AD2000.

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