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Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith



Your Excellency,

The book Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, a study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America and edited by the Reverend Anthony Kosnik, has been given wide publicity through its distribution not only in the United States but elsewhere, both in the English version and in various translations.

The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wishes to commend the actions of the American bishops, who exercized their pastoral ministry as authentic teachers of the faith by calling to the attention of their priests and people the errors contained in this book, particularly in regard to the unacceptability of its “pastoral guidelines” as suitable norms for the formation of Christian consciences in matters of sexual morality.

The Congregation particularly wishes to commend the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine for its statement of November, 1977, which gives an evaluation of the book that can serve the bishops and the Catholic community at large not only in the United States but wherever this book has made its appearance. The enclosed “Observations” of this Congregation may also be useful to the bishops for their continued prudent guidance of their people on this delicate pastoral question.

At the same time, the Congregation cannot fail to note its concern that a distinguished society of Catholic theologians would have arranged for the publication of this report in such a way as to give broad distribution to the erroneous principles and conclusions of this book and in this way provide a source of confusion among the people of God.

I would be grateful to Your Excellency for bringing this letter to the attention of the members of the Episcopal Conference. With kind regards and personal best wishes for you, I remain

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Franjo Cardinal Šeper

Observations about the book «“Human Sexuality”.
A study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society
of America, Rev. Anthony Kosnik editor»


The book Human Sexuality has already received substantial criticism on the part of theologians, of numerous American Bishops and of the Doctrinal Commission of the American Episcopal Conference. It would seem clear that the authors of this book, who speak of “encouraging others to join us in the continuing search for more satisfying answers to the mystery of human sexuality” (p. XV), will have to give rigorous reconsideration to the position they have assumed in the light of such criticism. This is all the more important, since the topic of the book — human sexuality — and the attempt to offer “helpful practical guidelines to beleaguered pastors, priests, counselors and teachers,” charge the authors with an enormous responsibility for the erroneous conclusions and the potentially harmful impact these ideas can have on the correct formation of the Christian consciences of so many people.

This Sacred Congregation, considering the fact that this book and its opinions have been given wide distribution within the United States, throughout the English-speaking world and elsewhere through various translations, considers it a duty to intervene by calling attention to the errors contained in this book and by inviting the authors to correct these errors. Here we limit our considerations to some of these errors which seem to be the most fundamental and to touch the heart of the matter; this limitation should not lead to the inference that other errors of a historical, scriptural and theological nature are not to be found in this book as well.

1) A most pervasive mistake in this book is the manipulation of the concept or definition of human sexuality. “Sexuality then is the mode or manner by which humans experience and express both the incompleteness of their individualities as well as their relatedness to each other as male and female...This definition broadens the meaning of sexuality beyond the merely genital and generative and is so to be understood in all that follows’’ (p. 82). This definition refers to what may be called generic sexuality, in which “sex is seen as a force that permeates, influences, and affects every act of a person’s being at every moment of existence.” In this generic sense the book quotes the Vatican “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics,” which acknowledged this basic human differentiation saying, “it is from sex that the human person receives the characteristics which, on the biological, psychological and spiritual levels, make that person a man or a woman, and thereby largely condition his or her progress toward maturity and insertion into society” (Persona Humana, 1).

It is not, however, in this area of generic sexuality that the moral problematic of chastity is engaged. This occurs rather within the more specific field of sexual being and behavior called genital sexuality, which, while existing within the field of generic sexuality, has its specific rules corresponding to its proper structure and finality. These do not simply coincide with those of generic sexuality. Hence while Human Sexuality cites the first paragraph of Persona Humana, as noted above, it fails to refer to the rest of this document’s teaching on human sexuality, especially Number 5 which clearly states that “the use of the sexual function has its true meaning and moral rectitude only in true marriage.”

It is equally evident that Vatican II, in Number 51 of Gaudium et Spes, speaks clearly of genital rather than generic sexuality when it indicates that the moral character of sexual conduct “does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives. It must be determined by objective standards. These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love. Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced.” While the first part of this quotation is often cited in Human Sexuality, the last part is regularly omitted, an omission extended also to the following sentence in Gaudium et Spes, Number 51, which states, “Relying on these principles, sons of the church may not undertake methods of regulating procreation which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of divine law.” While the book speaks in fact exclusively about genital sexuality, it sets aside the specific norms for genital sexuality and instead attempts to resolve questions by the criteria of generic sexuality (cf. N. 2 below).

Furthermore, in regard to the teaching of Vatican n, we note here another mistaken notion. This book repeatedly states that the council deliberately refused to retain the traditional hierarchy of primary and secondary ends of marriage, opening “the church to a new and deeper understanding of the meaning and value of conjugal love” (p. 125 and passim). On the contrary, the (council’s) Commission of the Modi declared explicitly, replying to a proposal brought forward by many fathers to put this hierarchical distinction into the text of Number 48, “In a pastoral text which intends to institute a dialogue with the world, juridical elements are not required....In any case, the primordial importance of procreation and education is shown at least 10 times in the text” (cf. Nos. 48 and 50).

2) In the view of sexuality described in Human Sexuality, the formulation of its purpose undergoes a substantial change with respect to the classical formulation: The traditional “procreative and unitive purpose” of sexuality, consistently developed in all the magisterial documents through Vatican II and Humanae Vitae, is substituted by a “creative and integrative purpose,” also called “creative growth toward integration,” which describes a broad and vague purpose applicable to any generic sexuality (and practically to any human action). Admitting that procreation is only one possible form of creativity, but not essential to sexuality (cf. p. 38 sq.), is a gratuitous change in the accepted terms without any substantial argument, a change which contradicts the formulation used in Vatican II and assumed in Persona Humana. This change of purpose and consequently of the criteria for morality in human sexuality evidently changes all the traditional conclusions about sexual behavior; it even precludes the possibility of fruitful theological discussion by removing the common terminology.

3) The authors of this book try to give more concrete content to the formal criterion “creative growth toward integration” (p. 92 sq.), but hardly anything in this development seems to refer specifically to genital sexual activity. It is true that they intend to give only some “particularly significant” values (cf. p. 92); nevertheless, those cited (e.g. honest, joyous, socially responsible) may be postulated equally well of most human activity.

The authors pretend that these are not purely subjective criteria, though in fact they are: The personal judgments about these factors are so different, determined by personal sentiments, feelings, customs, etc., that it would be next to impossible to single out definite criteria of what exactly integrates a particular person or contributes to his or her creative growth in any specific sexual activity.

Thus in Chapter 5, the criteria for discerning “creative growth toward integration,” when applied to specific areas of sexual activity, yield no manageable or helpful rules for serious formation in matters of sexuality. In the book, moreover, they are called “guidelines” which can never be regarded as “absolute and universal moral norms” (p. 97).

4) The practical applications proposed in Chapter 5 show clearly the consequences of this theory of human sexuality. These conclusions either dissociate themselves from or directly contradict Catholic teaching as consistently proposed by moral theologians and as taught by the Church’s Magisterium. The intention expressed in the Preface — “The fifth chapter...attempts to provide information and! assistance for leaders in pastoral ministry to help them form and guide consciences in this area according to the mind of Jesus” — is sadly unfulfilled, indeed, even reversed.

The authors nearly always find a way to allow for integrative growth through the neglect or destruction of some intrinsic element of sexual morality, particularly its procreative ordination. And if some forms of sexual conduct are disapproved, it is only because of the supposed absence, generally expressed in the form of a doubt, of “human integration” (as in swinging, mate-swapping, bestiality), and not because these actions are opposed to the nature of human sexuality. When some action is considered completely immoral, it is never for intrinsic reasons, on the basis of objective finality, but only because the authors happen not to see, for their part, any way of making it so for some human integration. This subjection of theological and scientific arguments to evaluation by criteria primarily derived from one’s present experience of what is human or less than human gives rise to a relativism in human conduct which recognizes no absolute values. Given these criteria, it is small wonder that this book pays such scant attention to the documents of the Church’s Magisterium, whose clear teaching and helpful norms of morality in the area of human sexuality it often openly contradicts.