Sex and the single Christian

November 7, 2014

The headline in the Chicago Tribune read: “‘Stun­ning change’ say local Catholics.” Pope Francis had convened an international assembly of Roman Catholic bishops and, in a preliminary report from the assembly, was calling for the church to welcome and accept gay people, unmarried couples, and those who have divorced. This marks a new, softer tone in the church’s traditional positions on sexual issues.

As expected, conservative bishops are suggesting that the report should be shredded. Along with some fellow Catholics, they insist on the importance of maintaining traditional church standards in the face of growing secularism and moral relativism. But many other faithful Catholics are embarrassed by the fact that the church’s traditional positions are increasingly removed from the way human beings actually behave.

Local Protestant and Catholic pastors have long been on the front lines of the conflict. After all, it’s in the privacy of the pastor’s study that the gap between what the church says and the way people live becomes apparent.

When I talked with couples who were planning their weddings, I’d ask each person for his or her address. I soon realized that often the couple shared an address. According to most Protestant denominations they were living in sin. Should I have terminated those interviews and lectured the couple on traditional church values and practice? I never did. Part of the reason is that I’d learned firsthand from my children that they were living in a world vastly different from the one I’d known as a young man. Many of us pastors, on learning that a couple shared an address, continued the conversation. By the end of my pastoral ministry, this situation had become the norm.

Pastors understand the tension between traditional values and reality. They understand that human beings have the capacity, need, and desire for fully expressed sexuality and that this comes long before marriage is possible or practical. As the average age for marriage rises, the tension becomes even more intense. For a cardiology resident and a fledgling attorney working 90-hour weeks, marriage doesn’t seem like a viable option. A pastor must decide whether to espouse traditional church doctrine or extend understanding of people’s life situations.

In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell say that one of the reasons young adults have fled the church is that they find its teaching about human sexuality judgmental, harsh, and exclusivist. I believe that we’re called to be less judgmentally certain and more understanding. On this issue, it’s time for the church to stop talking and proclaiming, and instead to listen for a while to the world and to the church’s people.


Sex and the Lonely Christian

I have a few suggested additions to the Reverend Buchanan's list, to broaden the scope of inclusion.
Given the tension between traditional values and reality, let's also listen to the married couples who must live apart for extended periods, such as those who travel for their work, or who are professional athletes and coaches, or who serve in the military. Let's listen to the teenagers who live under tremendous stress to build perfect resumes that gain them entrance into the colleges of their preference. Let's listen to the elderly whose spouses are incapacitated. Let's also listen to the pastors, teachers, and employers who find themselves attracted to parishioners, students, or employees. The new tradition of forbidding fully expressed sexuality between them on the basis of unequal power ignores the fact that power never is perfectly balanced, and such rules cannot fit all circumstances. And while we're at it, let's listen to the spouses of busy, over-stressed pastors who are emotionally distant, due to being overwhelmed by the demands of their work. Certainly we're called to be less judgmental, harsh, and exclusivist toward these people as well, or we might be hypocrites.