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Moral Theologist Says Sex Helps Cultivate Virtues


The Christian tradition has tended to look at sex objectively, and to frequently align it with denial, and even sin, an expert in moral theology said on Oct. 16. But in the 21st century, a more subjective reading of sex and sexuality better fits the times, she said.

“Most magisterial teaching on sex only addresses the sex acts . . . traditional Christian tenets of sex include a lot of don’ts,” said Lisa Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D., assistant professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkley.

“In some ways, it is a burdensome tradition,” she said. “What made a certain kind of sense in the 13th century doesn’t apply anymore. Maybe instead of looking around the barnyard for what sex is for, we need to look more deeply into our own hearts and begin to employ the sciences that didn’t exist in that time—psychology and sociology—and understand that there’s a deep human need for sex.”

Fullam argued that the traditional virtue ethics that emphasize character, such as self-care, justice, fidelity and prudence, are applicable to sexual ethics. Such virtues are, she said, a specific expression of being the best human being possible.

Excellent sex, she said, includes an appeal to incarnation, the ability for intimacy and an eye for insight.

“We are not spirits trapped in matter,” Fullam said. “We are incarnate beings, and that feel for incarnation calls us to be the best bodies we can be . . . sex brings us more than any other experience into our bodily nature.

“Some strands of Christian tradition tend to see celibacy as the ultimate way to be a Christian, but since God created us as sexual beings, the burden of proof is [really]on sexual abstinence, rather than on ‘How do you justify sex?’” Fullam added.

At the same time, Fullam admitted that today there is a “crisis of intimacy and a commoditization of sex” that suggests that, perhaps, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, toward a “rupture” of Christian values.

“We’ve leapt to casual hookups, a [youth]culture in which there is casual sex,” Fullam said. “Traditional ethicists might say they are violating sex, but I wonder if there is a Christian standpoint that could suggest, instead, that they are not asking enough of sex.”

Fullam advocated exploring the “spiritual resonance” of sex. The same virtues that affect one’s sexual life also affect one’s prayer life. “We need to be able to say to God whatever we want, and to know that we will be received . . . this is the height of prayer,” she said. “I wonder if in our sexual relationships we aren’t imitating our relationship with God, who says,

‘It’s you I want to be loved by, tenderly and forever.’ What is more powerful?”

Fullam’s talk, “Excellent Sex: Virtues for a Christian Ethics of Sexuality,” was sponsored by the Office of Mission and Ministry, Department of Theology and the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.


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