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When sex is the topic, ignorance is hardly bliss

In "Shadowlands," the biographical movie about the writer C.S. Lewis, there is a scene at an Oxford college reception. Joy, Lewis' American wife-to-be, is enduring a condescending assessment from a snooty Oxford don.

Finally she says, "Are you trying to be offensive or just merely stupid?"

The same question might be put to the Vatican over recent pronouncements on a topic about which it professes to know much and understands nothing: marital sex.

The Vatican recently allowed as how divorced and remarried Catholics might be admitted as fully participating members of the church as long as they abstain from sexual activity. Isn't that nice?

This breakthrough in misguided pastoral concern and sympathy is now followed by the announcement that priests should show more understanding of married Catholics in the confessional (see page 11).

In an admonition to confessors that sounds like "don't ask -- don't tell," the latest Vatican decree suggests that Catholic couples -- except those inquisitioned by the superscrupulous confessor -- can take solace in conscience or, as the Vatican prefers it, in "invincible ignorance."

As pastorally generous as that might sound, the Vatican in fact upped the ante on the matter by referring to the teaching as "definitive and irreformable," the heavy-guns phrase that is increasingly being thrown around in Rome these days.

The pastoral concern voiced in the latest pronouncements is the Vatican's version of "we feel your pain." In the case of remarried, divorced Catholics as with the birth control matter, Rome flaunts an ignorance that is breathtaking. The Vatican created the problem it seeks to redress but still can't admit its error.

Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which continued the papal ban on artificial contraception, came at a time when scholarship on human sexuality was unveiling much that was cleansing and wholesome about who we are sexually. This ran smack into the Vatican sexmeisters' Jansenistic approach that suggests that everything we are sexually is reprehensible.

With Humanae Vitae the church's leadership again placed all sexual activity between men and women at one level: the street level.

By failing to allow -- encourage would have been too much to expect -- Catholic couples to choose whichever form of contraception suited them, or none, the Vatican failed to recognize sexual activity within marriage as holy.

Despite some clever distinctions, the effect was that the Vatican lumped together all sexual activity.

Married people in conscience have largely ignored the Vatican, a trend the Vatican has been forced to recognize as growing worldwide. The Vatican has created and perpetuates a situation sufficiently horrendous that most Western Catholic couples approaching the altar have to fudge the contraception question in order to be married in the church. What a start that is to a sacraments-oriented married life.

The Vatican's pleas and proscriptions are like the urgings of a midwife who has never experienced childbirth. When it comes to pain or happiness, observation is one thing but experience is another.

Experience brings to the marriage the one factor that separates Vatican officials from married Catholics. The title of one of C.S. Lewis' books offers a clue: Surprised by Joy. While the Vatican starting point with married sexual activity -- procreation to one side for a moment -- is still sin, for married couples it is still joy.

Not to belabor the point -- but by definition, if the Vatican's celibate men experience sexual activity, it is a sin. Not much joy there.

The Vatican's unmarried males who are the final-word authorities on sexual activity not only have a lopsided view of the subject; they have no experience of an intimacy that is wholesome, bonding, forgiving, sharing, romantic, mutual. There is no sign of joy. A batch of married Vatican officials would indeed be surprised by joy. They would soon discover what normal Catholic couples discover: that sexual activity is one essential component of the lasting joy that marriage brings.

The Vatican just doesn't understand.

Married sexual love isn't a calendar thing. It isn't even just a sexual thing. It's a love thing.

The Vatican speaks the love words but, frankly, it still doesn't know what it's talking about.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 1997