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Eminence, the emeritis cardinal archbishop of HGN

Monday, May 17, 2010

Everything Pope Benedict Knows About Human Sexuality

John McNeill in a strong critique of Benedict’s recent comments on gay marriage in Portugal wonders what alternate universe the pope inhabits.  It is also possible to wonder what the pope knows about human sexuality.

McNeill’s analysis is a strong indictment of the traditional catholic teaching on sexuality and a condemnation of Benedict’s continual attacks on gay people and gay marriage. In Portugal Benedict inferred that gay marriage is the most insidious threat to the human family. In the same article McNeill blasts Benedict for overlooking so many real threats to the human family from nuclear war to inner city violence.

In a particularly profound part of his critique, McNeill says of Benedict’s theology of human sexuality that the pope equates human sex with animal sex. It seems to me, Benedict's knowledge of human sexuality is more mechanistic.  Sex for the pope is like the man and women in the picture in the plug and receptacle costumes.  McNeill says that Benedict’s theory of human sexuality is based on gender difference and gender complementarity and not on the uniqueness of the two individuals entering into a marriage relationship.

McNeill argues that Benedict does not understand the reality that when two unique people enter into a marriage relationship it is much more than a fusion of biological opposites.  McNeill moves far beyond simple gender complementarity as a basis for the marriage relationship pointing out that the two individuals bring a range masculinity and femininity to the relationship not based on biological gender.

Here are the two relevant and extremely significant paragraphs from John McNeill’s article.  You can read the whole article here.

 “Every human psyche has both masculine and feminine attributes. Both parties following the patriarchal model must accept only those aspects of their psyche that accord with their gender identity. Males, for example, should only accept the masculine dimension of their psyche and suppress the feminine, which they then must project out onto their female partner. Women, in turn, must suppress everything masculine in their psyche and project out the masculine on their husband. Many psychically healthier women today, who are more in touch with both their masculine and feminine dimensions, and see themselves as whole persons, increasingly are unwilling to play the role of being mediators of the feminine emotional, spiritual and compassionate needs of men. They want a man who is a total human person in himself! They are demanding, and rightly so, that we men get in touch with our feminine dimension”

“Many men, in turn, are coming into touch with both the masculine and feminine dimensions of themselves and refusing to play the role of being the mediator of the masculine needs of women for assertiveness and autonomy.” …”Both genders are being called on to develop the fullness of their own humanity, so that they can approach each other as complete, independent persons and not remain essentially dependent on the other gender for their completion.”

In McNeill’s analysis that coming together of two unique human persons to form a marriage relationship is much more than the coming together of two people at the level of gender difference.   A further reality is that over the course of a relationship these two unique individuals will access differing aspects of his or her masculine/feminine polarity as they mature together.

McNeill’s conclusion is powerful saying that the coming together of two people whether male and female, male and male, or female and female in a marital relationship is much more than the coming together of two biological gender opposites. McNeill offers that there is a whole range of masculine and feminine psychic energy that comes together in a marriage relationship. This opens up so much more what the reality of marriage is. The reality is that when two people come together to form a committed relationship, marriage, that it is a union formed on a psychic, emotional, and spiritual level. Benedict’s theory of human sexuality is very one dimensional.

Instead of condemning gays and gay marriage Benedict should be praising it.  Here is McNeill's powerful rebuttal. “Gay marriage then, rather than being a threat to the family, opens up a new paradigm for a fuller, more human and fulfilling love between the partners.”


  1. Keep up the good work "Wild Hair

  2. wild, Fr McNeill's piece is one of the very best things I have ever read concerning the reality of marriage.

    If Benedict was correct and all it took to make a good marriage was the manly man occasionally slipping the right peg in the womanly woman's correct slot, we'd have no divorce. Unfortunately marriage is about way more than that.

    His observation about projecting stereotypical gender roles on one's partner is worth a much longer discussion. Too often the projections become divisive demands, not unifying or complimentary at all.

  3. Bbear, thanks for the encouragement.

  4. colkock, yes, one of the very best articles written on the reality of marriage and by a gay man. Oh, the horror.

    I agree that there is much more to be discussed on the projection of gender roles. It gets even more fascinating, I think, for a gay couple.

  5. Thanks, Wild,

    If Benedict knows the Church's teaching about sexuality and has never had an intimate relationship with another human being, then, of course, he knows nothing worthwhile about sex.

    I've just finished three books by "revisionist" theologians, the mot recent of which is Charles Curran's latest book on the history of moral theology in the U.S. from the 19th century to the present.

    I used to feel that the Church's teaching was "inadequate," but now I'm of the opinion that it is "wrong-headed" in it's foundation. Why?

    Three elements of fundamental importance to the Church's teaching are:

    1) that marital sex is THE norm for ALL sex.
    2) the "physicalist" notion that it is essential that the penis enter the vagina, the only fit place to deposit semen.
    3) its particular philosophical understanding of "natural law" and "act centered" focus when assessing moral behavior.

    Until these three elements are dislodged there can be no contemporary holistic, ethic of sex that applies to everyone.

    Only a relational, person-centered ethic will help us at this time. John McNeill's seminal work, Charles Curran's, and a number of feminist theologians' work increasingly explicates this "new" understanding at the conceptual, academic level.

    At the "practical" level, Gays realize more and more and testify to their actual deep love experiences expressed in the fullness of union with a beloved. And today, among the lower clergy, there are a number who are sympathetic supporters of an ethic of relational love.

    Complementarity is a good and useful idea but not in the way Benedict uses it. Reducing the notion to physical-biological and traditional cultural definitions of gender roles, Benedict skews and twists out of shape all the wonderful aspects of complementarity that are possible. Gay men in relationships know the many ways they complement each other.

    I know that most philosophical, theological and scientific literature continues to speak in terms of masculine-feminine differences in character and traits. Yes, there are differences and many of them are complementary. But, for example, washing the car "verses" cooking the dinner, being a logical thinker "verses" an affective feeler are false dichotomies based on socio-cultural definitions of gender roles. A specific example of this dialogical (either-or) thinking is the assumption that "bottoms," gay men who prefer to bottom during sex are feminine or "girly men." But, in fact, loving to bottom has nothing, in itself, to do with whether or not a man is femme. Masculine-feminine identity and active-receptive behavior during sex are two separate dimensions on which human beings exist.

    Anyway most of those who comment on this blog already know these things. I don't mean to insult others. I just believe it's helpful to remind ourselves again and again that we do know what is going on and that there are authentic understandings of sex and sexual ethics other than what is presented in "official" Church teaching.

  6. Sabastian,

    I appreciate the nuances you raise in regard to the reality of complementarity especially in the experience of gay men. Yes, I agree there are many levels of complementarity in gay relationships.

    I approach all this more from a Jungian perspective and actually prefer the concepts animus and anima rather than male and female gender roles. I like what John McNeill writes because although he does not use the concepts of animus and anima or the unconscious, his use of gender roles and projection at least begin to get at some of the ways and dynamics involved when human beings are attracted to one another and the ways they complement one another.

    Thank you for your pursuit of a sexual ethic that is relational and person centered. We can all hope that some day Catholic moral teaching will catch up with the 21st. century.

  7. Yes, Wild,

    I know Jung from Notre Dame. Enjoyed the course and learned a lot that I still treasure. However, it can be a very dangerous concept, as it is in Benedict's hands.

    It can also be an underpinning for those Stromo's or "straight-acting" gay men who despise "girly men," femms, etc. more than they despise women.

    What needs to happen is a continued refinement of the concept based on a real inductive understanding of contemporary men and women in all their wonderful diversity.