Virtue, Sexual Ethics, and the Catholic Church

Todd A. Salzman, Ph.D. is a professor of Catholic theology at Creighton University. He, along with professor emeritus Michael G. Lawler, have been writing books about sexual ethics within the Catholic Church for over a decade. Check out Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction and  The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology. Their latest is Virtue and Theological Ethics: Toward a Renewed Ethical Method which comes out later this year.

I talked to Dr. Salzman about his work to help prepare for my own talk about pleasure and virtue.

Jera: Why did you decide to write your latest book?

Dr. Salzman: Mike and I have been working on the idea of sexual ethics in the Catholic tradition and proposing reform within the tradition . [Our ideas] have evolved from an underlying sexual anthropology (that’s what The Sexual Person focuses on, which also touched on virtue ethics).

Two aspects of our work are foundational:

  • The anthropological aspect focuses on how we understand the sexual human person and, based on that understanding, certain norms flow from it .
  • The methodological aspect focuses on how we do ethics and how we think about ethics. Virtue ethics is the predominant ethical method in our work.

Those two aspects are intrinsically related because your understanding of the person—or anthropology—is going to affect how you think about and do ethics as well.

It’s a very different method if you focus on the person as a “doer of acts” versus a person who is a being with character, and acts flow from that character. And that would be a virtue ethics approach.

So, our anthropology naturally flowed into methodology. Methodology was always there, but it became more explicit as we shifted from the church’s focus on acts to our focus on virtue. Certainly, The Sexual Person developed that idea of just and loving truly human sexual acts that flowed from a virtuous perspective, but Virtue and Ethics builds upon that foundation, and substantially developed our methodology and approach to ethics that’s grounded in virtue.

I really liked the description of the virtue ethics that is asking the three questions: “Who Am I; Who Do I Want to Become, and How do I get there?” Is that really the foundation of virtue ethics?

That’s MacIntyre’s and Aristotle’s perspectives and certainly that’s [the foundation] for Catholic virtue ethicists such as Fr. Jim Keenan and for us as well. Those are basic questions of virtue ethics.  A common Medieval insight is that doing (or acting) follows from being. What’s fundamental is being or character, and virtue is a reflection of who we are and our acts emanate from who we are. There’s also an ongoing dialectic between our acts and virtues. Our acts are manifestation of our character and virtues, but they also shape our virtues or manifest or shape vice, as well.

I think a better way of thinking about ethics is about character and development, because as finite human beings who are sinful, we make mistakes. Our actions don’t always reflect our character, but our character is enduring, in a sense. Our actions are generally the manifestation of our enduring character. So, for us virtue is foundational, but acts are still important.

In an article from 2011, you wrote:

For the homosexual person, steadfast love is manifested when the gay or lesbian person “comes out” and is authentically true to herself or himself in sexual relationships. For McCarthy, “in its most significant occurrence, coming out is telling who we are to people who are a fundamental aspect of who we are and who we are becoming.” This ongoing self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-disclosure to another person are all expressions of the virtue of self-care. (1)

Particularly for queer folks, valid recognition of who we are is a definite struggle, and I appreciate the acknowledgement of holistic self-love via coming out.

Now, as there’s more discourse and recognition around the fluidity of gender and sexual identity, does your book talk about that at all? Do you have new thoughts about the fluidity of gender and orientation? 

We don’t address that in too much detail, but the principle that we lay out — holistic complementarity — is fundamentally grounded in gender and sexual orientation fluidity, since it does recognize bisexuality.

It also moves away from the strict gender binary and sexual orientation binary that has plagued the Catholic tradition and continues to do so. Catholic teaching that homosexual orientation is objectively disordered is not well-grounded anthropologically, theologically, or scientifically. It is alienating language for LGBTQI people who are created in the image and likeness of God, which includes their sexual orientation as it is.

What the church teaches is an act-centered sexual ethics grounded in genitalia and physiology. According to Church teaching on complementarity, unless there is biological genital complementarity (penis and vagina) there can be no possibility of a moral sexual act between two people. But if you accept the fluidity of sexual orientation and gender as part of your definition of the sexual human person, then it logically leads us to shift from an act-centered sexual morality to a virtue-centered sexual morality.

In a virtue-centered morality, it does not matter whether it’s a heterosexual act or a homosexual act — the foundational question is whether it’s a relationally meaningful, just, loving and truly human sexual act between two people created in the image and likeness God.

I think by shifting to a virtue ethic and recognizing the complexity and fluidity of both gender and sexual orientation, virtue ethics opens up all sorts of possibilities for fulfilling those virtues, whereas an act-centered Catholic sexual teaching is strictly limited to heterosexual reproductive acts.

When I started researching virtue for my talk, I ran into the problem of Galatians five: the dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit, and this idea that virtue arises from a spiritual person that negates the body.

Your basic question is a very important anthropological question about how we integrate the physical and spiritual dimensions of the person, and recognize pleasure or desire as part of that integration. That’s been an ongoing problem in the Christian tradition, whether it be Catholic, Evangelical, or another denominational tradition.

Christine Gudorf has a very good book about the body and pleasurethat really highlights and emphasizes the goodness of pleasure. In the Christian tradition, we haven’t always done a good job of recognizing pleasure as a good. There’s still a great deal of suspicion around sexual pleasure and desire, which are still taboo to a large extent.

The deep suspicion of human sexuality is grounded in a dualistic anthropology or heresies such as Manichaeism that impacted the early Christian tradition and teach the idea that only the spirit is good and the body or material is bad. Since pleasure and desire are associated with the body, they are bad. That dualism continues to impact the tradition, especially in terms of sexuality.

A shift towards personalism that we saw in the Catholic church in the mid-20th century moved towards an integration of the person in terms of body and spirit and seeing the person holistically as an incarnated being. Part of that incarnated being is sexual desire and pleasure, and these dimensions of the person are good. In that sense, I think you could say these dimensions of the person can manifest virtue to the extent that they’re used responsibly between two people, with all the other virtues that guide sexual relationships: love, justice, fidelity, honesty, etc. But they can also be detrimental to human wellbeing and violate those virtues when they lead to the objectification or exploitation of another person. How we use desire and pleasure can promote meaningful relationship or be destructive of relationship.

Any non-reproductive, non-marital sexual acts for the Catholic church are destructive of human dignity. By definition, such acts are sinful.,  I think that’s just a very unhealthy approach to human sexuality. In my class, I tell my students that the Catholic church needs a good theology of foreplay and a spirituality of foreplay, as well. I see that as something very positive and healthy in terms of sexual relationships, which could create a more positive perspective on pleasure and desire and overcome the implicit dualism that has plagued the Christian tradition.

I think class and other power structures in society have to be part of the conversation around the body and sexuality.

You’re absolutely right. The Catholic church, for example, is obviously a very patriarchal institution. I think Pope Francis is trying to address that by promoting greater participation and leadership of women in Church structures. He’s not going far enough for many people, but at least he’s sensitive to it in a way that past popes have not been. The church moves slowly on these issues, but I think it also depends on how we define church. The people of God, laity and ordained, are church. So, if the ordained hierarchy are not interested in engaging in dialogue that often challenges official Church teaching and its understanding of the body and sexuality, that’s unfortunate, but then we must dialogue with one another. And we can affect change and move the church forward in and through our writing, reflection, and dialogue.

I’ve always liked the idea of the hound of heaven that pursues its beloveds. I think that, just like God continues to not just call us to God, we’re also continually drawn into community, even if it’s sometimes painful for us.

I think that is an important insight. God is constantly and continually inviting us to be in relationship with Godself, ourselves, and neighbor in community. Being in community can be challenging and painful, especially for members of the LGBTQI community who desire to be part of the Church community but often feel alienated from that community because of its language or moral teachings that are not theologically sound.

We believe the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit can only do so much with finite, fallible human beings. So, there’s room for growth and understanding through dialogue and, when power structures prevent such dialogue, then we must move outside of those power structures within community that’s open to dialogue and discernment

Augustine has a great line. The translation is basically, “If you understand God, then it’s not God you understand.” I think part of living in community is to be comfortable with mystery and wherever there is love in community or human relationships, God is present.

  1. Todd Salzman & Michael Lawler. “Sexual Anthropology and Virtue Ethics”  INTAMS review 17, 174-186.


One thought on “Virtue, Sexual Ethics, and the Catholic Church

  1. Jera, I’m just stumbling across your blog today and appreciating insightful posts like this so much…! The intersection of Catholicity/Christianity and progressivism, inclusion, diversity, modernity, etc is something that is so relatable to me (and such a “rock and hard place” kind of position to be in – you’re right, there’s little in the way of community here).

    Definitely going to dig deeper into some of the resources you share (and stalk your blog more). Good stuff!! 💜


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