A metaphor to accompany the essay
The Touchstone of Sex.


Andrew Szebenyi S.J.
Le Moyne College, Syracuse.
August, 2004








We were born on a clearing in the woods surrounded by the virgin forest. We knew that we have to walk a long way to God. The forest had its rules. To use deer runs was always desirable, but we had to look out not to lose the direction as we went. For this reason, some deer runs had to be rejected, some used. Most of them had to be wisely corrected. After a very long march we came to the edge of the forest on high grounds. Before us was a vast grassy plain and on the horizon we could see a range of high mountains. The rules of the forest had to be changed, because there were no deer runs to follow, and we could see now where we were going. What remained the same was the direction and the need for progress. Then when we reached the mountains we had to learn new rules of safety and ways to find the best climb and the ways to correct the changes in direction certain necessary detours produced. When we reached the top of the first mountain we realized that there were many others ahead of us. The weather was harsher and less predictable than in the forest. Care, the skills of climbing, and planning ahead were important. When we finally conquered the last mountain range, before us was a lush forest of palm trees in the valley, and there was the ocean. We had to cross the ocean and that required lot of preparation. It was a new ball game altogether with new rules. The direction and strength of the wind, the need for provisions and a great deal of trust in God’s providence were virtues of the day. In all these different phases of our journey the ways we had to resolve problems, and the rules of safety established through experience changed a great deal. What remained always the same were the need to keep going and the need to maintain the correct direction.

Some among us would not give up certain rules, which were so very useful in the forest but quite inadequate on the mountains. They said that these rules served us well and they must be perpetuated. These rules represent the natural law, they said. They were the conservatives. They maintained that changes are immoral because they are contrary to the long established rules. They maintained that human nature is that of the forest. To this Karl Rahner said: Something that has been historically stable for a long time because a set of long prevailing circumstances does not necessarily mean that it is part of human nature. Then there were some liberals among us who relished in the new situations and loved changes. Unfortunately sometimes they wanted to change some basic principles as well, effecting matters of progress and direction. The wise ones realized what is essentially not to be changed and what is that needs adaptive effort and daringly proposed new functional rules in all new situations. They were not afraid to change certain rules which became dysfunctional because of the changed circumstances. Unfortunately, they were condemned by the traditionals who happened to be in power. That impasse caused a great deal of damage, loss of credibility right and left, and a lot of misery and unhappiness and confusion. All this meant that the doctrinal and the pastoral became widely separated from one another, and so the “shoe just did not fit the foot”. the conservatives wanted to modify the foot. The liberals wanted to get rid of the shoe. The wise ones were trying to adjust the shoe to the needs of the foot, and thus reduce the damaging gap between the doctrinal and the pastoral. They were condemned by the conservatives and ridiculed by the liberals.

This is the scenario that characterizes the conflicts in sexual ethics today. Conditions and circumstances change as time goes on. What is constant is the need for respect for life in all situations. The ways this respect must be expressed, however, are not the same today as they had been through the previous centuries. In the past we had to maximize reproductive success for the sake of survival. Today we have to use reproductive restraint for the same reason. The rules of the past must be changed to the needs of the present. The doctrinal shoe must fit the foot to be pastorally functional.

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