Finding a third way between rigorism and laxity

What Catholicism has to say about sex runs counter to the ‘ideology of choice’, writes David Quinn

Nothing gets the Church into trouble like its stance on sexual morality. Whether it be contraception, abortion, gay marriage or divorce, the Church is guaranteed criticism whenever it pronounces on any of these things.

Maybe that is why it pronounces on them so rarely. In a way, the Church has evolved a certain modus operandi in this area. The official teachings remain intact. Bishops and Popes will occasionally speak about them but priests almost never will, and the official teaching will only be taught very sporadically in schools (if that) and in Catholic theological centres.

Sometimes, the official Church teaching will be systematically undermined in schools and centres of theology.


Currently we can see how some of the pronouncements of Pope Francis are being erroneously used to further demote what the Church has to say in this arena. It’s true that the Pope hasn’t given much attention yet to topics like abortion or gay marriage, but it’s also true that he has given them more attention than your average Catholic leader.

Last week I addressed fifth and sixth years in one of the country’s leading boys’ schools. The topic was the Christian view of the family. But really the talk was about the way we live now and the philosophy of individualism, which is to say the philosophy of choice, personal freedom and self-fulfilment.

I explained that in the past people often had a particular view of how to live imposed on them by, among others, the Church itself. Understandably people eventually rebelled against this in the name of personal freedom.

But I asked the students to consider what happens when everyone makes their own freedom and their own pursuit of personal happiness paramount?


For example, what happens when someone decides to pursue their own happiness in a way that is detrimental to your own happiness?

What happens when a parent (through divorce for example) chases their own happiness in a way that diminishes the happiness of their children, as often happens?

The effect of making personal freedom your be-all-and-the-end-all can obviously be devastating to family life and to children above all.

If a woman decides her unborn baby will get in the way of her freedom, the baby is very likely to be aborted. If a man decides the same thing, he will either pressure his girlfriend into having an abortion, or else will walk away leaving her to raise the baby on her own, and his child without a father.

I explained to the students that Christian sexual morality isn’t primarily to do with sex at all, but is about maximising the welfare of the family, and especially the welfare of children. It teaches us to exercise our freedom responsibly and that we must sometimes be prepared to give up some of our freedom and even our happiness, for the sake of others.

The Pope said the same thing in even starker terms last week to a group of young people.

He told them: “It takes courage to start a family”, and that the world puts obstacles in their way by “privileging individual rights rather than the family”.

Criticising the culture of divorce, he stated: “You know that marriage is for a lifetime? Yes, we love each other, but we’ll stay together as long as love lasts. When it’s over, we go our separate ways. That is selfishness.”

(If Pope Benedict had said something like the above the headlines would have read, ‘Pope accuses divorced couples of selfishness’)

Since the Christian teaching on love and sex and marriage makes so much more sense than the alternative, why does it get the Church into so much trouble? There are two reasons, I believe.


The first is due to the legacy of what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin referred to at the weekend as the ‘rigorist’ morality that prevailed in the past. It’s not so much that the morality was wrong as that it was often mercilessly imposed, in particular on women who had children out of wedlock.

We are still reacting against this today, not just in society but also in the Church. We don’t seem to have yet found a way of speaking about sexual morality and the family that doesn’t sound rigorist and judgemental but at the same time is true to the teachings of the Church and to what people actually need.

The second reason is that what Catholicism has to say about sex and the family runs so counter to the ideology of choice. This is particularly obvious in debates about abortion, but is also present in debates about divorce, sex outside marriage etc.

People don’t want to be told that their choices are wrong, or even unwise. They just want a pat on the back and to be told their choices are right so long as they think they’re right, and unfortunately there are certain theological tendencies in the Church that are prepared to go along with this.


This serves people very badly. True compassion isn’t about facilitating whatever choices people want to make and then making them feel comfortable about those choices.

True compassion from a Christian point of view is about helping people to make the right choice in an objective sense, and then to live it out. That is, it is about helping people to live in the truth, rather than in their own private version of the ‘truth’.

If rigorism is about condemning those who fail for whatever reason to live in the truth, and laxism (to an extent) is about pretending there is no Truth to live in, just your truth and my truth , true Christianity is about finding a path between these two extremes.

That is, true Christianity is about helping people to live in the Truth but to do so with compassion and mercy, not condemnation. That is the challenge I believe Pope Francis has put before us and it is the challenge we all need to take up.