Gender, Sex, Marriage and the Clerical State:
A Roundup of Moral Questions that the Church Needs to Face


There is a whole complex of moral issues involving gender, sex, marriage and the clerical state that urgently demands pastoral and theological attention. What I am going to do here is no more than briefly describe these issues, and what I consider to be some of their principle aspects. The Church needs open, intelligent and kind discussions of these issues, especially because they are so emotionally laden. Consider this no more than an imperfect step in that direction.

Birth Control

I have dealt with the problem of contraception at length elsewhere. (Is There a Solution?) Let me only say that I believe a solution is possible even within the Church's traditional theological framework. It will have to deal with the fact that it is very difficult to see a difference between natural family planning and other non-abortive forms of contraception in the moral sense, and go on to examine carefully the link between sexual activity and marriage, as well as what can be called the concrete, or existential aspects of moral theology in contrast to its analysis of the essential natures of things.

If a solution to the question of birth control could be reached, it would unleash a great deal of energy that is now locked up in this conflict, and this energy could be applied to other issues.

World Population

This is a question that is intimately connected with the regulation of birth. The Church's failure to address the question of birth control adequately has greatly hindered it in dealing with population issues. It needs to consider not only the morality of the means used to limit birth, or calculations about the theoretical carrying capacity of the earth - a kind of "everybody could fit into Texas" sort of thinking - but also the ecological and social justice aspects of this issue. Just what relationship, for example, should we have with the earth and the rest of its creatures? And what does a lack of contact with nature do to us as human beings? And how should the human race share the earth's resources?


It is hard to see how the direct killing of a human fetus can be justified within the framework of Catholic moral theology. This does not, of course, answer the question of the subjective guilt of those who have abortions, often under great emotional pressure. Further, a moral judgment against abortion at any stage in the development of the embryo does not, in itself, answer the question of when the human embryo receives a human soul, and thus, can be considered fully human. But even if we argue for a time after conception for the infusion of the human soul - which can be done on the basis of good Thomist philosophy - the fetus as a human being to be is not just in a purely potential state and ought to be protected. At the same time, it is a legitimate question to consider the possible difference in moral guilt of early and late abortions. Clearly, the question of birth control ought to be addressed so that the number of situations in which people consider abortion will be greatly reduced.

Sex Outside of Marriage

The Church's basic teaching that sex should be confined to marriage appears to me to be well-founded. Again, this does not answer the question of the subjective guilt of those who engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, nor does it suggest that the Church's pastoral practice in regard to sexual behavior has been adequate.

Pre-marital Sex. Pre-marital sex, while wide-spread and sometimes forming a concrete gateway to marriage, in itself can, and has, caused serious problems. These problems include: the conception of a child for whom one or both partners are not ready; the reduction of sexual union to its mostly physical aspects; the psychological union between two people that comes about through sexual activity who are not yet ready or may never share a common life, and thus, the heartaches that come when they separate, and so forth.

Extra-marital Sex. Extra-marital sex, or sex by married people with someone other than their spouse, can, and often is, very destructive. It can be driven by psycho-sexual pressures rooted in what Jung called the anima and animus, that is, interior elements of the psyche vital to our psychological wholeness that are projected on people of the opposite sex. This kind of pressure can drive people to extra-marital relationships in order to try to address these interior needs. While such pressures can diminish guilt, the destruction of the marriage that often results is all too real, along with its damage to both partners and the children involved. These interior psychological needs should be dealt with psychologically rather than blindly acted out.


The modern phenomenon of divorce is destroying the very fabric of the family, and thus reeking havoc on our community, and it rests on any number of psychological and social causes. It needs to be reduced by serious marriage preparation, especially of a psychological and spiritual sort, which education should continue into married life.

At the same time, the Church's pastoral response to divorce and remarried Catholics needs to undergo a fundamental reevaluation. Does it really make sense to exclude millions of Catholics from the sacraments because they have divorced and remarried? Murderers are capable of sacramental reconciliation. Catholics who have married outside the Church and then divorce are capable of sacramental reconciliation. The sacraments are meant for those in need of spiritual nourishment. Isn't it possible to see the indissolubility of Christian marriage as a goal that we ought to seriously aim at but sometimes fail to achieve? The history of divorce and remarriage in the Church, especially the witness of the orthodox Churches, has the potential to show us that there are other ways to deal with this issue. A suitable pastoral practice, aimed at saving the marriage, and if that fails, a suitable mourning over the failed marriage, could lead to the reintegration of divorce and remarried Catholics into the sacramental life of the Church.


Can we really imagine that grounds for annulment abundantly exist among U.S. Catholics, but not among Catholics among other countries where the rate of annulment is so much lower? There are certainly cases where annulment is warranted. But we are left with the distinct impression that it is being used as a stop-gap measure to fill the hole left by the Church's failure to address the issue of divorce and remarriage.


While this, of course, is not a pressing issue in large parts of the Church, it still comes up in others. Is it truly necessary for a man who has more than one wife to choose one and put away the other in order to convert to Christianity? Such a practice seems to sin against the justice due to the put-away women who are thereby sometimes deprived of their place in society and subjected to all sorts of moral and economic hardships. Would it not be better to allow these families to stay together in the Church by considering their pre-Christian situation to be much like that of the patriarchs of the faith like Abraham and Jacob?

Clerical Celibacy

There is a well-founded Scriptural basis and a long history in the Church concerning the value and beauty of voluntary celibacy as a gift given to so many men and women to better serve the building up of the kingdom of God. That is not in question. But mandatory clerical celibacy in the Latin rite is quite another matter. It has, historically, and still does lead to serious pastoral problems. There is no essential link between celibacy and ordination to the priesthood. The Church has always had a married clergy.

It is shocking that the institutional Church will consider closing large numbers of parishes and subjecting its priests to an exhausting round of sacramental care and continue to do this for year after year as the situation grows worse because it will not look at the issue of mandatory clerical celibacy. It is allowing something that is not essential to the priesthood create an obstacle to the Church's sacramental mission, which is much more important.

Married Priests

Clearly married priests are possible because the Church has always had them, and so are married bishops and popes. The witness of the Eastern rites is important here, but they have been timid in exercising their age-old customs in places like the United States because of pressure from Rome. They ought to rediscover their freedom in this regard. It is also strange that we now have Anglican married priests who have become part of the Catholic Church while Rome still insists on mandatory clerical celibacy for the Latin rite. No doubt the married clergy would have its own distinctive problems, but so does a celibate clergy in the form of social isolation, misanthropy, addictive behavior, and substitute sexual relationships.

Women Priests

It seems premature for Rome to insist that this issue is settled. Has it really been discussed? Have weighty reasons been brought forth why women cannot be ordained? Not that I can see. And it is quite inappropriate in a Church meant to be dedicated to love and spiritual service that a kind of witch-hunt mentality would grow up around this issue, or something like birth control, so that it is used as a touchstone of loyalty to the Church.

Just what good scriptural and patristic evidence is there for not ordaining women? The Catholic Theological Society of America couldn't seem to find much. And what are we to do about the apparently well-established historical fact of the ordination of women to the deaconate in the early centuries of the Church? If we don't base ourselves on Scripture or the teaching of the Fathers, what kind of theological arguments against the ordination of women can we bring forward? There is no gender in God. Jesus, of course, in his humanity is male, but there is no theological difference, as far as I can see, between the union of men with Jesus, and the union of women.

If we can't bring forward theological arguments, can we develop suitable philosophical ones based on the differences between men and women? Scholastic philosophy and other philosophies, as well, have no adequate way to address the question of concrete human differences. Empirical psychology can and has, done so, but there is nothing in its results concerning the psychological differences between men and women that contraindicate the possibility of women being ordained to the priesthood.

The Clergy and Sexual Abuse

The cases of clergy, accused of pedophilia, have been a heart-sickening chapter in the history of the modern Church, and attempts are being made to put new pastoral guidelines in place. But have the leaders of the Church really examined deeply enough the possible links between this scandal, mandatory celibacy, psycho-sexual immaturity in the clergy, and overt homosexual clerical conduct?

Recent reports of the sexual abuse of nuns by priests, especially in Africa, and other parts of the world (National Catholic Reporter, March 2001) point to the same lack of psycho-sexual maturity.


This is a tough issue. A welcome change is taking place in society in terms of the necessity of social justice for homosexuals, and a similar change is taking place in the Church. But this is a question that exhibits the kind of unhealthy polarization that exists in other spheres of Church life. There is a certain Roman pastoral insensitivity on the one hand. But on the other, there is a certain strident advocacy that asserts that only theological reactionaries - who are likened to people who once believed the earth was flat, or that slavery was a good institution - are resisting the idea of the moral correctness of homosexual acts and the inevitable acceptance of homosexual marriages.

Can we really say that homosexual acts in a loving relationship are not objectionable, and leave it like that? That would be equivalent to saying that heterosexual acts in any loving relationship are acceptable. I don't believe that these are adequate formulations. Naturally, there is more to the question than this. There is, for example, a whole psychological dimension, just as we have seen in regard to the heterosexual issue of extra-marital sexual activity. But even if we posit a deep and powerful psychological drive coming from one of the elements of the unconscious that sweeps one along in the direction of a same sex sexual relationship, we have not answered the question of the morality of these acts.

Homosexual Activity and the Clergy

Naturally, a basic distinction must be made between people who have homosexual inclinations and the sexual acting out of them. I find the acting out of them among priests and religious vowed to celibacy to be disturbing. The institutional Church seems not to have been able so far to look at this issue directly and deal with it. This is an issue, along with mandatory celibacy, clerical sexual abuse and other things, that saps the vitality of the clergy and religious life.

It is also to be hoped that it is not an indication of what William Freiburger called "a deeper clerical problem than sex" where he theorized that overt homosexual conduct among the clergy could rest, in part, on a failure of Christian belief like belief in an afterlife. (NCR, April 16, 1993)

The Role of Lay People in the Church

Lay people have been treated like second-class citizens in the Catholic Church for so long that they have, in some measure, become accustomed to that role. It is easy to find Catholic lay people who are very well-educated in their own professional fields, but poorly educated in their faith, and entirely too docile in allowing the clergy to perpetuate the myth that they ought to run the Church all by themselves.

Recent Roman pronouncements on the role of the lay people have not helped matters. They seem to exhibit a certain fear of the laity, or perhaps, a jealous zeal for the prerogatives of the clergy which might be seen as a defensive attitude of an increasingly beleaguered celibate clergy under attack from different directions. Whatever the reason, it leaves a distinctly bad impression to say that lay people cannot have this or that rather innocuous title in the Church, or more importantly, they cannot vote in the various assemblies of the Church, or descending to the more ridiculous, that widowed deacons should not remarry unless they have young children or aged parents who need care.

In a similar way, the pastoral practice of denying baptism to infants whose Catholic parents have requested it because they have not been married in the Church leaves a bad taste. Is it really just to punish the child for the supposed faults of the parents? It is not that an effort should not be made to reconcile them to the Church in the form of a sacramental marriage, but this kind of behavior smacks of a kind of spiritual coercion on the part of the Church, all the more reprehensible on the part of a Church which has so long proclaimed the necessity of baptism for salvation.

Likewise, the pastoral practice found in some places of limiting the ceremonial scope and pageantry of a Catholic wedding because the couple lived together before marrying also leaves the impression of small-mindedness and vindictiveness, and should be eliminated.

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:


A Response: There are a number of key philosophical areas in which I think we are in agreement; but having recently surveyed your website I decided that I would rather begin by challenging your theological manifesto, in particular that concerning "Gender, Sex, Marriage and the Clerical State: A Roundup of Moral Questions that the Church Needs to Face." It is not that I am more interested in such questions than I am in those of a more directly metaphysical or physical import; in fact I am not. Nor is it because I consider myself in any way a theologian; I am not. Nor yet is it from an itch to be negatively critical; truth is, I much prefer positive dialogue.

But if one is to embark upon philosophical speculations, especially of the most fundamental and challenging sort, one must situate them in proper perspective. Thomists are uniquely blessed in having a metaphilosophical warrant for adhering, at least during their formative or discipleship phase, to the thought of their master. This is not to confuse the domains of the magisterium and of philosophy; but it is to recognize that the hierarchically ordered domains of knowledge are complementary, and that the higher can address itself, in genere and architectonically, to the ends compassed by the lower. In other words, I may follow Thomas because of the manifest vitality and integrity of his thought; but I am the more confident in following him, even when the going seems to get rough, because of the Church’s constant magisterial endorsement of that thought. So even as (believing) philosopher I am well aware of the debt I owe to the Church, a debt which Thomas himself was discharging in writing every line that he ever wrote.

With all respect, I submit that your own attitude, as indicated in the web article under consideration, betokens insufficient awareness of the Church as mystery, as divine mission, as Christ on earth. Hence your philosophical critique runs a serious risk of going astray; it is not being guided by the magisterium, but seeking to guide the same. Of course the magisterium depends upon the work of philosophy – as has been made clear in Fides et Ratio most recently – but the relation is mutual, such that while philosophy provides the means of theological discourse, the magisterium safeguards the end thereof. You appear to want to continue philosophical reasoning in a domain properly reserved to the magisterium.


Editors: While there is a lot of criticism of the Church going around that ends up making you feel like the person who is doing the criticizing has doubts about the deep connection between the Church and Christ, or even about the faith, itself, that is not my perspective. But the Church is also a human institution and suffers accordingly. This is also true in an analogous way of the Church in its role as teacher. Another way of putting it is that we live in a fallen and redeemed world where salvation has not yet been fully worked out. I tried to take that perspective in my analysis of the debate over birth control, and show that without denying fundamental moral principles, it is possible to try to develop an existential morality which deals with our actual fallen and redeemed situation. I think that that same perspective could be applied to the pastoral problems surrounding something like divorce and remarriage. While I have no illusions about the devastation caused by divorce, we are still left with the tremendous pastoral problem of how to treat people when the marriage is irrevocably broken. The same existential perspective is behind some of my remarks in other areas. Naturally, each area is a whole world in itself, but somehow we have to overcome the polarization in the Church that seems to hinder genuine conversations about these matters.

There appears to be two interconnected yet distinctive issues interacting with each other here. The first deals with the actual moral problems involved, e.g., the ordination of women, or birth control, etc. Each demands its own careful and detailed analysis, and represents a real theological challenge for our times, so obviously what I have said here is no more than a checklist of problems that need to be addressed.

The other issue concerns the general attitude we should take towards these kinds of problems. We need to find a balance in our theological approach between a corrosive kind of criticism that writes off the Church as a purely human institution, and treats its teaching authority accordingly, and a contrasting attitude in which our desire to be faithful to the Church leads us in the direction of feeling that we really cannot critically think about these issues. Let's take the question of contraception. Our theological views about it should not be used as a litmus test of our loyalty to the Church. Instead, there is a pressing need for an open conversation about this issue. Or take the issue of the ordination of women. Whatever we may think about the degree of certitude to be given to recent Church pronouncements, it is not good ecclesiastical policy to forbid discussion of the matter. If anything, we need the opposite. If the teaching authority of the Church is going to assert that women cannot be ordained, they ought to engage in open discussion so that people can understand why this is so.

Response: Here are some examples of where I must take issue, on theological grounds, with your website article.

1. From the outset (and I do not accuse you of being presumptuous, only of seeming to be), your frequent expressions such as "the Church needs to face," "the Church’s failure to address adequately," "it seems premature for Rome to insist," "reprehensible on the part of the Church," singly and collectively connote a meta-ecclesial perspective to which you can lay no claim. In context you are appearing to critique not only the Church’s lower levels of authority, or a lower exercise of authority on the part of the Church’s higher institutions – your animadversions appear to target the highest as well as the lowest. I fail to see due recognition, in such criticisms, of the sanctity of the Church – a sanctity which requires of its sons and daughters deference to its higher authority as coming unmistakably from God.

I do not say that the Church does not make mistakes, where particulars are concerned, nor that the defects of her human aspect do not partially obscure the divinity within. But every legitimate theory of theological dissent recognizes that there are bounds which the dissenting believer will not cross – bounds determined, not only by considerations of absolute truth and falsity, but by prudential dictates. (In other words, sometimes the magisterial authority might be absolutely wrong – witness the Galileo case. But it is a very different thing to affirm that that authority is prudentially wrong, or that it is wrong for the faithful to abide by the Church's disciplinary decision in such a case.) How could you or I possess more certitude than the Church possesses in matters of faith and morals? We could not; certitude in such matters is mediated to us only through the Church’s authority. But if we do possess a greater knowledge than the Church, in matters not of faith and morals (but, let us say, of more general pastoral import – granted that the two can hardly be separated), why should we want to scandalize others by exposing the Church to contempt in such regard? Those who are outside the fold, after all, cannot be expected to distinguish the essential from the accidental. Shall we disincline them to consider the essential because we have chosen to openly attack the Church on grounds only accidental?

Editors: Another way of looking at this issue is to say that we should strive to be faithful to Christ as He is manifested in the mystery of the Church, but that does not translate into a deference to "higher authority" that would somehow limit how we reflect on this faith. An unthinking deference to authority can be harmful whereas a genuine thinking about the faith, done out of a desire to draw closer to Christ and serve the Christian community, will not be a source of scandal.

Response: 2. Your theological critique, express or implied, is in error on several particular points.

a) To question whether the indissolubility of Christian marriage should be still be viewed as an absolute is simply to depart from (rather than work within) an overwhelmingly constant theological and magisterial tradition, and hence to imply that a particular philosophical / psychological / pastoral perspective has priority over the ecclesial. This is backwards. And on the moral plane, remarriage after divorce (presuming the earlier marriage to have been valid) has always been grounds for denying the Eucharist to the parties in question because, unlike the case of murder to which you compared it, living in a second marriage is tantamount to persistent opposition (whether culpable or not) to the very source of sacramental grace, i.e. to the public reality of Christ’s divine will. If you wanted to use murder as a comparison, you would have to invoke the case of someone who is committing murder (whether culpably or not) on his way up to the communion rail.

Editors: I don't think that the tradition against remarriage is as uniform as you make it out to be, e.g., the practice of the Eastern Churches. And while it is true that a pastoral perspective cannot be the only factor in evaluating this teaching, it certainly has to be taken into account. I find it hard to imagine that Jesus would be pleased to see so many good people excluded from the Eucharist.

Response: b) To suggest that polygamous converts be allowed to maintain a pre-Christian morality is to imply that Christ did not introduce a radical transformation of the human condition with the new and everlasting covenant. Of course the ex-polygamist incurs a Christian obligation to deal with former wives justly, but in today’s world this will not generally be more difficult if they are separate (maritally) from him than if they were still united. And even if so, no matter; difficulty has always been understood to accompany the Christian commitment. Why should we attempt to better Christ by mollifying where he did not see fit to mollify?

Editors: In the context of African tribal life where polygamy is a pastoral problem, I wonder if we can really say that it will generally not be more difficult if the wife is separated from the husband than if she were not. This would not be true if the result were that the wife were to lose her place both in family and society, and be marginalized both economically and socially.

Response: c) The claim that the Church hinders its own sacramental mission by not allowing priests in the Latin rite to marry strikes me as specious. Granted that the popes may see fit to relax this discipline in future, I say that your argument once again mistakes the essential for the accidental, implying as it does that simply permitting priests to marry would enrich the Church with more priests, as if today, in a world of hundreds of millions of Catholic men, there cannot be found even a few thousand for whom the biological and psychological satisfaction of marriage would not be an adequate exchange for responding to a divine call if this were clearly discerned. Celibacy as such is not the issue. Celibacy is not essential to the continuance of the priesthood; but what is essential is wholehearted dedication to Christ – and it is the failure of this last, evidenced in (but not consisting only of) the widespread unwillingness to hear or embrace the Christian call, and especially to embrace celibacy as a sign and a means of becoming altera Christi, that is at the root of the priest shortage.

Editors: There is no essential connection between celibacy and the priesthood, but concretely the Western Church has created one. This creates problems for those who feel called to the priesthood, but not to celibacy, and it appears that these problems spill over into the general daily life of the Church when priests sexually act out. I don't see why we should imagine that married priests are less dedicated to Christ than celibate ones. Are we to say that there are not married Christian men who are called to the priesthood, and there are not celibate priests who would do better being married?

Response: d) Of course it may have seemed premature – to some – for Rome to have settled the issue of women’s ordination when and as it did; but there can be no mistaking that the decision in question was indeed a settlement, i.e. a debate-stopping intervention by the authority that comes from Christ. All the traditionally recognized characteristics of an irrevocable and infallible decree are manifest in the text of the decree. If this one was not infallible, then no decree can reasonably claim to be infallible, and Christ’s promise to be with the teaching Church is quite meaningless. Nor does it matter whether the reasoning employed behind the decision is the best possible; reasoning is not the business of the magisterium so much as of theologians in the Church’s service, while proclamation is very much the business of the magisterium. A glance at typical dogmatic decrees from any era reveals that it is their conclusions which are proclaimed with authority, rather than their premises. And even supposing, per impossibile, that it were the function of the magisterium to theologize, how could any one who does not speak for the magisterium presume to correct it? Where is the Christian warrant for a super-magisterium?

e) "There is no gender in God." Even prior to the magisterial intervention, could this have been an argument for ordaining women? In sacred theology an argument is as good as its authority. The authority at issue in matters pertaining to revelation is a divine authority. This authority is found in the Church. The Church’s authority had never made use of this argument, nor had the scriptures, nor councils, nor doctors or fathers of the Church; hence the argument is unavailing. Moreover it is misleading. Inasmuch as scripture and tradition are constant in assigning Fatherhood to God, this must be understood as referring to something in God (obviously not maleness, which implies matter and hence can only be assigned metaphorically to God) which is imaged by human fatherhood (whence we derive the name), but not by motherhood. We might as well say "there is no being in God, since he is transcendent": clearly there is something about God which finite being participates, and therefore enables us to name as "being" in Him. However much the modern-day proponents of asexualism may fume, the fact remains that a male is not a female and that Jesus is one and not the other. I do not use this as an argument that priests should be male; that were to fall into the same trap of proto-magisterialism that I just complained about; but it is enough to give us pause before mindlessly affirming that there is no significant difference. Sacramentality transforms and does not destroy nature, and nature is dichotomous in ways that the present anti-naturalist, anti-sexualist mentality finds embarrassing. Oh well.

Editors: I don't think that there is any unanimous opinion among theologians affirming that the ordination of women has been ruled out in an infallible way. Further, the tendency to divorce the teaching of the Church from a clear articulation of the reasons that support this teaching is to embark on a dangerous road. The issue of gender and God is simply a way of saying that I haven't heard any good arguments for not ordaining women. The ordination of women is a new theological question which ought to be openly discussed rather than prematurely cut off, especially since it is not clear from Scripture or tradition, or from philosophy and theology why women cannot be ordained. It is not enough to say that the Church says no, and therefore we have no need to think about the matter again.

Response: f) Your intimation that baptism should not be denied to infants of non-married Catholics (i.e. those who have chosen to live in a state of persistent opposition to the will of Christ as mediated through the Church) seems compassionate, but perhaps takes in too little account of that parental responsibility on which the possibility of infant baptism is founded in the first place. It is because parents can, in faith, give reasonable assurance of their intent to raise the infant according to the faith, that the Church can undertake to lay upon the infant the responsibilities that come with baptism. Should the parents be unable to give such reasonable assurance – as in the case when they are living lives of continuing public resistance to the requirements of the faith, i.e. living outside Christian wedlock – then the Church prudently withholds from the infant in question the responsibility (and, for one in receipt of baptismal grace but not living up to its demands, the greater danger of eternal loss), consequent upon initiation into the Christian mystery. This is no reason for us to doubt of the divine will that baptismal grace be extended eventually to the child; rather it is an invitation to understand that Providence has his own ways and his own times.
Stan Grove,

Editors: I would not be happy in saying that divorced and remarried Christians, or non-married Christians, are any less close to God than I am. I would certainly like them to find a solution to the marriage problems they may be facing, but I don't think the Church should appear to be punishing the child because of the supposed sins of the parents.

In all of this I am not happy with an image of the Church as an institution that is sitting in judgment on people, and telling them that they are cut off from Christ. It would seem that it would be better if, without in any way weakening or denying genuine Christian moral teaching, the Church would be calling people to do better, to observe more fully and completely their moral obligations, yet at the same time feel that Christ is reaching out in love to them to help them do these things.

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments: