Time to get out of the ethics business
Almost 10 years ago a committee of Episcopal Bishops produced a "teaching document" human sexuality declaring that the Church's traditional moral prescriptions ought to be modified to eliminate "discontinuities" between moral judgment and actual practice, that is to say, the rules had to be changed to agree with the way people actually behaved.
I circulated this document amongst some of my colleagues for comment. All of us had taught ethics courses required of all students which most take as sophomores. We agreed that by the standards we set for students in these classes, the bishop's study document should get a C+, and that purely for basic literacy and spelling.
The bishops declared that Freud was an intellectual giant, on a par with Galileo and Darwin, with whom the Church had to reckon. They had no clear understanding of the standard ethical theories that undergraduates were supposed learn about in their sophomore ethics class, appealing alternatively to Kantian notions of persons and ends in themselves and to natural law theory. They did not seem to have heard of utilitarianism or any consequentialist accounts at all. They cheerfully deduced "ought" from "is" and generally relied upon rhetoric and sentimentality in place of argument. This was a bad term paper.
I agreed with the bishops' conclusion that the Church's traditional rules for sexual conduct were overly stringent and often damaging. Indeed, I would have gone further: I believe that all sexual activities between, or among, consenting parties, heterosexual or homosexual, whether in the context of loving, committed, monogamous relationships or not are morally ok. It was the poor quality of the bishops' arguments that that set my teeth on edge.
It was after reading this that I realized it was time for the Church to get out of the ethics business. It would not have been quite so bad if the bishops had claimed that they received their conclusions by divine revelation. But they did not. They assumed that they had expertise in ethics, and that they were competent to assess the results of scientific investigation, decide controversial moral questions in light of scientific discoveries, and pass the results on to the laity. They imagined that they were qualified to issue a "teaching" in virtue of their expertise.
The Church has gotten into trouble repeatedly by making claims that competed with the results of secular experts including notoriously Galileo and Darwin. Most clergy now recognize that they have no expertise in the hard sciences and no business issuing teachings about the age of the earth, the structure of the solar system or the origin of species. Still, they assume, with no more justification, that they have expertise in ethics. And as bishops and priests duke it out about sexual ethics, that assumption has wreaked havoc on the Church.
When I suggest that ethics isn't the Church's business I draw incredulous stares from people who would not turn a hair if I had ridiculed the Trinity as "a sort of committee God," announced that the idea of a God "out there" was as absurd as the idea of a God "up there" or asserted that no educated modern person could take theism seriously, all views that bishops, within my lifetime, have taught. Theology is negotiable; ethics is not. Since the Enlightenment it has been a commonplace that ethics was the Church's most important business, indeed, some have suggested, it's only business. People worry that lopping off the ethical component of Christianity trivializes it, leaves something that is not Christianity at all.
This worry is unfounded. The Creed, which says absolutely nothing about ethical issues, proclaims that there is a God in three Persons, that God became incarnate, and that we shall survive death and enjoy him forever. Such claims about the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being and personal immortality are momentous. I have a sneaking suspicion that some people imagine that getting out of the ethics business would trivialize Christianity because they do not believe these metaphysical claims are true, or even worthy of serious consideration, and have reconstructed Christianity as "commitment to an agapistic way of life" in order to make it out as plausible and significant.
Since Kant made metaphysics disreputable, the Church, in the interest of self-preservation, has been quietly divesting itself of its theological stock while promoting its ethical sideline. Now, ironically and deservedly, the Church is being undermined by the arrogance of priests who imagine that they are in a position to offer intellectual leadership and moral guidance--as if anyone took their half-baked notions seriously. The Church might have done better minding its own business.
There is plenty of legitimate business for the Church to do: baptizing, marrying and burying, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and comforting the dying, maintaining buildings and conducting services. Most of all, the Church's business is mysticism--maintaining church buildings as sacred spaces, openings into another world and doing liturgy through which people can participate in the cosmic drama and experience the thrill of transcendence. That is the Church's area of expertise, something which only it can do, something we cannot do for ourselves. Ethics, by contrast, is something we can do perfectly well for ourselves, in which the Church has no special expertise.
So the Church should get out of the ethics business, and back into the mysticism business. Even if there are few takers for mysticism, there are none for its moral oracles on sexual conduct or anything else.