The Catholic Church explains sexual mores - with economics

The Catholic Church explains sexual mores - with economics

Emma Green

Buried 38 paragraphs into the Vatican's recently released report on family issues, including homosexuality, divorce, and pre-marital sex, the phrase, "Getting married is a luxury", is simply stunning - it seems like it belongs in a progressive polemic, or a wonky blog post, or an Atlantic headline, not an official Church document.

But there it is: evidence that Pope Francis's focus on the morality of markets has penetrated all parts of the Church, even its teachings on sexuality.

And it's not just in that one spot. Economic language comes up repeatedly throughout the document.

On pre-marital sex, the bishops write that "Simple cohabitation is often a choice ... [made] while waiting for a secure existence (a steady job and income)." In third-world countries, they say, "material poverty encourages people to live in common-law marriages".

On divorce, they acknowledge that "it is not rare to encounter cases in which decisions are taken solely on the basis of economic factors". And lower birthrates are explained as a function of income, reducing "the generation of life to a variable of an individual's or a couple's plans".

"I think they're using this economic language as obviously as they are because they suspect this is a language that a broader range of people can understand - this is the language of the modern world," said Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University.


Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis seems to have taken this idea to heart and while he has been highly critical of first world economics he has used its terminology to make moral points.

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, he spoke acerbically of capitalism, chastising those with a "crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power".

The ubiquity of capitalism has moral implications for modern life, he wrote: "The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase."

"He sees a fundamental crisis in the modern world that's being driven by markets that are out of control," said Schneck.

This affects all kinds of relationships, "working in a way to encourage isolation, toward a fairly radical individualism that's narcissistic".

In that context, it makes sense that this kind of language would also be used to talk about the way people have sex and think about marriage.

The Church has a moral interest in preserving and promoting relationships. If market-driven individualism undermines those relationships, then it's logical for the Church to push back against market-driven individualism.

Plus, popes have a long history of drawing a connection between economic forces and the family.

In the encyclical Rerum Novarum, published in 1891, Pope Leo XIII endorsed trade unions. He questioned the way industrialisation had affected working conditions for labourers - and particularly how much time they had to go to church and tend to their families.

Throughout the 20th century, "pope after pope [identified] a relationship between economics and culture and values ... explicitly by drawing this connection between economics and what it means for family," Schneck said.

Even so, the language of the synod's report seems like a radical shift in the Church's ideological approach to these issues, even compared to the synod's beginnings in early October.

A preparatory document released in June relied on heavily moralistic language to explain the theme of the meeting, which is "pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelisation."

According to the Vatican committee that prepared the document, the Church is facing concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago ... from the widespread practice of cohabitation, which does not lead to marriage, and sometimes even excludes the idea of it, to same-sex unions between persons, who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children.

New situations

The many new situations requiring the Church's attention and pastoral care include: mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; ... a culture of non-commitment; and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; ... relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life; underlying trends of thought in legislative proposals which devalue the idea of permanence and faithfulness in the marriage covenant; [and] an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire).

Within the Church, faith in the sacramentality of marriage and the healing power of the Sacrament of Penance show signs of weakness or total abandonment.

"Forms of feminism hostile to the Church" and "wombs for hire" -rhetorically, that's a long way from the mid-synod report that was just released, which talked about the economic realities women face when they get divorced and the way tenuous job security affects people's living situations.

The pre-synod document relies on the straightforward language of right and wrong, not references to structural market forces that affect people's behaviour in ways they can't control. Economic logic shifts the responsibility for traditionally "immoral" acts away from people and onto the economic system they live in.

It's ironic that the Vatican is being cheered for softening its stance on homosexuality and premarital sex by advocates of personal sexual freedom, yet this shift has nothing to do with endorsing individualism - it's more of a recognition that sometimes people don't have the ability to make the sexual choices that the Church wants them to.

Some of this dissonance might be caused by disagreements among conservative and liberal bishops about the best way to approach these kinds of social issues.

"I'm sure that we'll hear more voices of concern raised as well - this is just the beginning of the process," Schneck said. Some reports have already "indicated that there was perhaps some disagreement among some of the bishops that were participating in the synod".

Yet, he added, it doesn't seem likely that there will be a big schism over these tonal shifts toward openness, whether they're explained through market logic or not - particularly because it seems unlikely that "the Church is going to change its position on abortion or same-sex marriage".

Market language

Just as the synod has issued a call to make the Church a "welcoming home" for people with all kinds of family situations, perhaps this turn toward market language is an urgent attempt to bring the Church up-to-date.

As rates of Mass attendance and baptisms and other Catholic rites have fallen, there has been "a widespread recognition ... that the Church needs to find another tone, a new way of reaching out to the modern world," Schneck said.

"I don't think that the bishops want to become economists by any stretch of the imagination," he added.

But "if they want to find a way to speak to the modern world, and the modern world is a world of markets and market logic, they have to adopt the consciousness of the modern world".

Emma Green is Assistant Managing Editor of The Atlantic ( Reprinted with permission.

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