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Church needs study of human sexuality


The foundation of the current crisis in the church has to do with a distressing lack of understanding of human sexuality. Even the most educated of Catholics don’t understand the concept of healthy sexuality. Bishops have claimed they transferred abusive priests from parish to parish due to their own ignorance about pedophilia. Clergy have alleged that their seminary education arrested their sexual development, making them into priests who acted like adolescents. Some victims of sexual abuse have voiced concern that receiving cash payments from the church or seeing their abusers in police custody hasn’t provided the healing they were expecting.

Still, many Catholics believe that human sexuality doesn’t merit study. Jesuit Fr. James Gill, director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality, laments, “People who are involved in formation work in seminaries, religious communities and other educational institutions serving young Catholics do not take advantage of the opportunity we offer to deepen their understanding of sexuality. They inevitably say that they don’t feel a need for more knowledge.”

Although Catholic universities have traditionally avoided all but a perfunctory study of human sexuality, Boston College has commenced two years of scholarly investigation into all aspects of the current crisis. So many Boston Catholics showed up for the first evening of this program “to revitalize the church,” that the event had to be moved from a lecture hall to the hockey rink.

Jesuit Fr. William P. Leahy, Boston College president, told the 4,000 assembled faithful, “The current situation calls for healing, and healing requires not only work of the heart, but also work of the mind.”

While I laud Leahy’s intentions, I would go further in seeking to dispel the monumental ignorance about human sexuality tragically affecting the Catholic church worldwide. I propose that the church commit to the study of sexuality and spirituality by establishing an educational superstructure. This institution would allow academics, mystics and those with practical wisdom to gather for months at a time to collectively research and explore topics crucial for the 21st century. Much of the learning process as well as the results of this research would immediately be made available to the whole church through the Internet.

Certainly Catholics would prefer to contribute to sexual education than to priestly abuse settlements. This whole interdisciplinary program would cost less than the athletic budget of Boston College or Notre Dame.

The educational superstructure I suggest as a model is the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. In the early 1980s, I worked at the University of California at Berkeley in what was undoubtedly the best mathematics department in the world. Many of the professors I interacted with daily felt that the field of mathematics would be best served by a structure beyond the traditional university department. Under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, a research institute was formed in 1982, which allowed scientists the opportunity to come together to explore major research topics with peers from around the world.

For the last five years, all of the researchers’ formal presentations have been made available over the Internet using video streaming. Over a thousand past presentations can be viewed for free at the institute’s Web site (www.msri.org). This democratization of information invites immediate worldwide discussion and functions as an invaluable resource. The wisdom of these gatherings, made available to all interested persons through the Internet, has changed the entire world of mathematics.

A Catholic sexual and spiritual research institute that brings together researchers, both academic and practical, is one strategy to enable wisdom to flow throughout the church. The researchers invited to investigate specific topics need not be Catholic, but should demonstrate a commitment to spirituality and sexuality.

Three of my choices for researchers would be Bill Moyers for his ability to listen, then question; Episcopalian Fr. Matthew Fox for his genius in creating new paradigms; and Sr. Wendy Beckett for her ability to teach with passion and humor.

Open access to the research and formal presentations would allow all of us a better understanding of the lived sexual dimensions of being an embodied Christian.

Investigations, even into issues such as healthy celibacy for priests and homosexuals, or how comfortable Jesus was with desire, would be approached with openness and respect for differing positions. Topics I suggest for study would be: determining sexual health by assessing degrees of embodiment and mindfulness; and how young people can develop committed relationships that are about love-making, justice-doing and pleasure.

The creation of this institute would provide all of us with access to wisdom about sexuality and spirituality. Such truth telling always results in the profound understanding of sex as blessing, as a gift of God.

Joseph Kramer is an assistant professor at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco.

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002