For Christians, as for everyone else, the topic of sexual ethics is today one of widespread confusion, contention, and uncertainty. In this essay I propose to deal with the specific question of the kinds of promises and undertakings people ought to make when they engage in sexual relations. But I want to do so in a way designed as much to bring into focus the reasons Christian people seem unable to make much progress in the current debate as to defend my own position. I will put forward three theses, each of which is intended to reveal the anatomy of the arguments now being employed in the debate over sexual ethics.


My first thesis is that progress will not be made in the current debate until people become more aware than they now are of the fact that Christians are divided both among and within themselves not only by differing views of the specific promises and undertakings that ought to accompany sexual relations, but also by two views of the relation between promises and undertakings themselves. The two views are roughly as follows. Those of a more “traditional” bent are inclined to say that a sexual relationship is, in a moral sense, appropriate only within an undertaking the terms of which are “ordained” by God and in accord with right reason. This undertaking has a moral claim upon people prior to any particular intentions, promises, or undertakings on their part. On this view, undertakings precede promises in the sense that what one may rightly undertake is a moral precondition for any promises that rightly may be made. Those of a more “liberal” frame of mind reverse the moral order of undertaking and promise. They hold that our undertakings are the result of, rather than the precondition for, the promises we make. On this view, what we undertake issues from what we promise, and what we promise issues from what, for one reason or another, we decide upon as the best course of action “all things considered.” In this case, undertakings issue from the choices and agreements of autonomous individuals, and the moral constraints that apply to the promises they might make do not derive from an undertaking given but from the need to preserve from harm and loss of liberty other makers of promises. An illustration may help clarify the differences between these perspectives. A most useful one is the marriage ceremony found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This rite, which gives expression to the position of the Church of England concerning the matters under discussion, contains an exhortation that rather clearly states “the causes for which matrimony was ordained.” These are:

First.. for the procreation of Children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name . . . Secondly, . . . for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body . . . Thirdly, . . . for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
Two things about this list are of particular significance for present purposes. The first is that the “ends,” “goods,” or “causes” of marriage are not dependent upon the particular intentions, choices, and promises of the parties involved. In the case of marriage, promises do not determine undertakings, hut undertakings promises. We may assume that the rite implies something rather similar about sexual relations. Nevertheless, the second thing to note is that though the “causes” for marriage are clearly stated, those for making sexual relations an aspect of marriage are at best implied. Indeed, the only “cause” for sexual relationships given even indirect expression is the procreation of children. This also is the only good of sex suggested by the homily adopted by the Church of England as an explanation of the estate of marriage. These observations force one to ask a rather disturbing question. Does it turn out that the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer (and so also the Church of England) is that procreation is the only “cause” for which sexual relations were ordained by God and consequently the only justifiable sexual good one may rightly promise to pursue? If one adopts a method similar to that of a “strict constructionist” in the field of constitutional law, one is forced to say that such is indeed the position of both the Church of England and of the other churches of the Anglican Communion who still use this or a similar rite (as well, of course, as of non-Anglican Christians who hold comparable views). One need not, however, interpret the Book of Common Prayer as a strict constructionist would. There are at least two considerations that cast doubt upon the aptness of a strict construction. The first is that one of the purposes of the rite adopted by the Church of England at the time of the Reformation was, in Massey Shepherd, Jr.’s formulation, to “check ‘the excessive admiration of celibacy’ that characterized the medieval Church in its view of marriage ‘as merely a condescension to weakness.’“ The second is that, in many writings roughly contemporary with the rite of 1662, a connection is made not only between sex and procreation but also between sexual relations and the good of marital union. In Holy Living, for example, Jeremy Taylor speaks of sexual appetite and its place within marriage in this way:
In their [husbands’ and wives’] permissions and license [for sexual intercourse], they must be sure to observe the order of nature and the ends of God. He is an ill husband, that uses his wife as a man treats a harlot, having no other end but pleasure. Concerning which our best rule is, that although in this, as in eating and drinking, there is an appetite to be satisfied, which cannot be done without pleasing that desire, yet since that desire and satisfaction was intended by nature for other ends, they should never be separate from those ends, but always be joined with all or one of those ends, with a desire of children, or to avoid fornication, or to lighten and ease the cares and sadnesses of household affairs, or to endear each other; but never with a purpose, either in act or desire, to separate the sensuality from these ends which hallow it.
Taylor’s text, coupled with what we know about the intentions of those who framed the Prayer Book rite, suggests that a relation between sex and marital union was at least a part of the mind of the Church of England at the time the rite of 1662 was framed. The rite can, therefore, sensibly be taken to mean that, by solemn vow, each couple entering the estate of marriage agrees at the same time to certain sexual undertakings. These are ordained as aspects of that estate (and they are unity, procreation, and perhaps even the cultivation of a certain sort of well-being). These undertakings are the “causes” of sexual relations within marriage, and are, consequently, demanded of married people by the purposes of God. They are sexual undertakings that have priority over particular promises and are meant to predetermine the sorts of (sexual) promises one may rightly make. The implications that the rite of 1662 may contain for marital and sexual relations have been presented in such detail because (on either a strict or loose construction of the text) the ethical content of this rite is so far removed from the moral notions most people now hold. Yet despite the great differences between the moral views prevalent in the seventeenth century and those characteristic of the present era, the claim is often made that Western Europe and North America continue to work within the same moral tradition that characterized that now distant period. In their recent discussion of casuistry, Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin seek to establish just such a continuity.
The discriminations and distinctions embodied in the current sexual morality of Western Europe and North America do not represent any radical break with earlier moral considerations and attitudes. Rather, they reflect changes in the “qualifications,” “exceptions,” and “rebuttals” to which older rules are regarded as now subject. Nothing at the heart of the so-called sexual revolution, for instance, weakens traditional moral objections to sexual relationships that are unloving and exploitive, or to promiscuity that is divorced from true human affection. Indeed, in its constructive aspects the rethinking of sexual morality and family life over the last thirty or forty years has no more broken with earlier traditions of moral reflection than the debate about nuclear weapons has cut us off from all the experience embodied in the traditional analysis of the preconditions for a just war. Rather, it refines a traditional analysis of sexuality and family life further, in the light of new developments in society, technology, and psychology.
The position of Jonsen and Toulmin is a common one. It is, however, false. The truth of the matter is that present views both of the relation between promises and undertakings and of the specific promises and undertakings appropriate for people involved in a sexual relation represent a very different moral tradition”one in which what one undertakes results from what one promises rather than one in which what one promises ought to be determined by what one may rightly undertake. This view of moral relations, like that of Jeremy Taylor, comes also from the seventeenth century, but represents a new departure in moral thought. It originated in the contractarian moral philosophy of Hobbes and Locke rather than in the reforming theological culture of the Church of England. The very wording of Jonsen and Toulmin’s account of the development of the tradition displays a discontinuity of moral tradition rather than the continuity they claim. “Traditional objections” to the sorts of illicit sexual relationships of which they speak are not, as they suggest, that such relations are “unloving,” “exploitive,” and “divorced from true human affection.” The traditional objection is that illicit sexual relations are ones divorced from their appointed ends, goods, or causes and as such are both contrary to God’s will and right reason. For example, as the quotation above clearly indicates, though Jeremy Taylor certainly believed that sexual relations between husbands and wives ought to be loving, non-exploitive, and linked with true human affection, he did not believe the presence of these emotions and intentions to be sufficient in and of themselves to justify a sexual relation. Justification could come only on the basis of the “ends for which these relations exist,” and these ends are not designated by sovereign human choice but by divine ordination. The defining characteristic of the second and more “liberal” point of view sketched above is precisely that the “ends” for which these relations exist are not given by God. Rather they issue from the choices of those who, for various reasons, enter them. To my knowledge, no official liturgy yet exists that gives expression to this point of view, but there are many ad hoc and unofficial ones that do. There is, furthermore, an unofficial “magisterium” of theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, that has for some years now been persistent in its statement and defense. John Giles Milhaven spoke for many when he said:
Love is no longer basically a trusting submission that searches out God’s universal laws for human behavior and institutions . . . . Rather, the new trend sees God leaving it completely (emphasis added) up to [man] as to how things turn out. Christian “love,” therefore, comes to mean that a [man] takes from God into [his] own hands all (emphasis added) responsibility for what happens. It is up to [him], not God, to figure out what will be good for those concerned and how this good can be realized, just as it is up to him, not God, to act and make the good a reality.
This is certainly the position we associate with Hobbes and Locke, and it is just this point of view that informs the two most influential statements of the second opinion to have appeared to date in North America. One is Human Sexuality, a study prepared for the Catholic Theological Society of America by Anthony Kosnick, et al., and the other is Embodiment, a book by James Nelson. The CTSA report argues that moral judgments are to be made about sexual relations on the basis of one “basic principle” and seven “values.” The basic principle is “creative growth toward integration.” Kosnick and his collaborators seek to give this rather vaguely defined principle more specific content by means of the seven values that are served when a sexual relation is indeed morally licit. Sexual relations serve these values if they are “self-liberating,” “other-enriching,” “honest,” “faithful,” “socially responsible,” “life-serving,” and “joyous.” One need not pause long over either the basic principle or the seven values to grasp their meaning. Sexual relations are justified on the basis of their contribution to the growth of the parties involved, and this growth is measured by the extent to which it liberates and enriches their lives. Exactly what it is that “liberates” and “enriches” one does not know. That which is “life-serving” is clearly relative to the peculiarities of the parties involved. The purposes lovers rightly pursue are the ones they themselves judge to be in their own best interests. Accordingly, moral license for a sexual relation issues from what produces good from the perspective of particular sets of lovers. Moral constraints are generated only by factors that might do harm by retarding growth, inflicting harm, or limiting the freedom of others. The same thing can be said of the argument presented by James Nelson, though his basic principle is less obviously “self-actualizationist” than the one found in the CTSA report. The basic principle is “love” understood as “communion” rather than “growth toward integration.” Loving communion is implemented by various sorts of linguistic expression. Sexual relations constitute one of the most effective and powerful forms of speech lovers have available to them. As a form of communion-initiating and-sustaining conversation, sexual relations may be judged in a moral sense, according to Nelson, on the basis of several more specific “principles for sexual morality.” The most important of these are (1) that (no matter what one’s gender or sexual orientation might be) “physical expression of one’s sexuality . . . ought to be appropriate to the level of loving commitment present in that relationship,” and (2) that “genital sexual expression should be evaluated in regard to motivations, intentions, the nature of the act itself, and the consequences of the act.” The acceptable motive for a sexual relation is love, even though one is not told how to determine when a loving motive warrants sexual expression. If it does, however, the acceptable intention must be that “each genital act should aim at human fulfillment and wholeness.” Fulfillment and wholeness involve emotional sustenance, healing, and growth for the parties involved. Acceptable acts are, in turn, ones that are not “loveless,” which is to say “coercive, debasing to the other’s sensitivities, utterly impersonal, (or) obsessed solely by physical gratification . . . . “ Taking account of consequences involves both taking responsibility for them and weighing them. Taking responsibility implies “responsibility to the ongoing relationship and its particular commitments and promises” (emphasis added). Weighing consequences means taking account of “probable effects for the wider community” in that no act is to “diminish the love and justice by which human community must exist.” Even this brief summary of Nelson’s proposal makes three things plain. The first is that the good of “communion” breaks down during the course of Nelson’s discussion of specific principles and becomes instead the good of self-actualization. Communion, it turns out, is not the end but the means to the more basic good of “fulfillment” and “wholeness” for individuals. When it comes to what we are “aiming at” in a given act, “communion” drops out of sight (and along with it any idea of a common good) and personal growth takes its place. The second thing made plain is that, as agents pursue the goods they perceive best for them, undertakings succeed promises. Promises and commitments are explicitly said to vary with differing relations. Within relationships, the particular promises made spring from the particular intentions of individuals and define the undertakings that are to follow. The third unavoidable observation is that restraints upon promises and undertakings are grounded in what will do harm to or limit the liberty of other promisers. Thus, Nelson finds it “extremely difficult to label whole classes of acts as inherently right or wrong” (because any act might produce some good for some particular agent), but he is prepared to say that sexual acts which prove in particular circumstances to be either coercive, debasing, or impersonal to the parties involved are wrong. It should be clear by now that in the current debate over sexual ethics we are dealing not only with two views of the particular promises and undertakings sexual relations might involve, but also with two very different views of the nature of the moral life. These two views have created what Professor William Werpehowski of Villanova University has aptly called “the pathos of Christian ethics today.” In the course of an extraordinarily sensitive discussion of abortion, Werpehowski says this:
Yet the pathos of Christian ethics today is the difficulty of preserving an account of [the] goods of human relationship against their collapse into the desires or interests of autonomous individuals. Because there is so little consensus in liberal American society on the goods that fulfill persons apart from that of self-determining choice, there tends to be little sympathy with or understanding of the notion that persons flourish in and through patterns of relationship that are themselves taken to be normative.
Werpehowski’s remarks capture the fundamental issue that underlies the current debate over sexual ethics among Christians. The comparison drawn above brings this fundamental issue to light, but it also makes it possible to present with greater intelligibility the different views of the particular undertakings and promises that champions of the two positions say are involved in sexual relations. For those who still hold to a view like the one contained in the rite of 1662, sexual relations are to be undertaken only by men and women who have entered as well upon the larger undertaking of marriage. Both the wider undertaking of marriage and the more narrow one of sexual relations involve an extensive and intensive form of unity and, God willing, the procreation of children. The matter of these undertakings is not a matter of choice. The only choice one has is whether or not to enter upon them in the first place. The promises by which people effect their choices to marry require that they not only share but also unite both their sexually differentiated lives and bodies and their worldly goods. They further promise, because they seek in their union a mutual society, to stay with this undertaking until parted by death, to involve themselves with no other person in a similar undertaking, and to show care for one another in all aspects of their union. On this view, the particular good of the parties involved in the undertaking of marriage is to be found within and subordinated to the common good constituted by the marital union itself. The content of promises and undertakings thought appropriate for sexual relations in more “contemporary” moral thinking differs markedly from those just described. The specific promises most frequently mentioned are “commitment,” “vulnerability,” and “care.” These promises give expression to the “personal” character revisionists of the traditional ethic demand of a licit sexual relation. They serve also to protect the parties from abuse. Nevertheless, the particular purposes for which a couple might commit themselves one to another are open for negotiation as are their reasons for their being vulnerable and showing care. Furthermore, the more traditional promises of permanence and fidelity are variously treated within the context of these revisionist proposals. Some (usually when seeking to justify sexual relations between single men and single women) insist upon fidelity but not permanence. Others (usually when seeking to create some moral space for sexual relations that are normally termed adulterous) insist upon permanence but not fidelity. Others (usually when seeking to establish the morally licit character of sexual relations between gay men) believe that commitment, vulnerability, and care do not require either of the above promises. Still others (usually when arguing for the propriety of sexual relations between lesbian women) speak of the desirability of both permanence and fidelity. The varying treatment of fidelity and permanence received at the hands of “the new reformers” indicates clearly that the undertakings entered upon in each of these forms of relationship may (rightly) vary greatly from relation to relation. The particular undertakings involved issue from promises either made or implied, and these in turn give expression to private intentions known and shared by the parties involved. For the new reformers, particular good is not subordinate to common good. The reverse is rather the case. Furthermore, according to the new reformers, within a sexual relation of whatever sort, intentions, promises, and undertakings are (rightly) limited only by what may harm other autonomous agents or may decrease their liberty. Now the sorts of things the protagonists in this struggle are apt to say in response to one another are well known. Defenders of the traditional view are eager to point out that “commitment,” “vulnerability,” and “care,” as presented by the new reformers, are, when compared to the commitment, vulnerability, and care implied by marriage, quite limited in content. Traditionalists point out, further, that the new reformers make a division in principle between the sexual and marital goods of unity and procreation and thereby make licit forms of “love making” that have no necessary connection with “baby making” (and vice versa). Traditionalists also note that if the new reformers, as is usual, extend their arguments so as to include sexual relations between people of the same sex, they at the same time erase the moral significance for sexual relations of the gender-related differences between men and women. In response, the new reformers are quick to point out that the traditional ethic has plunged people into precipitous and disastrous marriages. They note that it takes no account of the fact that in the present era an extraordinarily long period of time elapses between the onset of puberty and the age when marriage is possible and appropriate. They remind their hearers that there are now an extremely large number of permanently single people and that these people are sexual beings. They go on to point out that sexual relationships are “natural” to human beings as such and that it is wrong, and in most instances harmful, to deny anyone the good of such a relation. These arguments and counterarguments are well known, but in the present debate the two sides rarely respond to the points their adversaries are trying to make. In America today, sexual ethics serves as an arena for political struggle rather than for moral debate. In this struggle, the two sides deliberately talk past each other, and, in so doing, make appeal to slogans designed to catch the public eye and get people marching on behalf of their point of view.


Let me try to intrude a moral debate into the present political struggle by proposing a second thesis which, one hopes, will further expose the anatomy of the arguments characteristic of the contesting parties. The second thesis is simply that the views of the new reformers have increasing appeal because they fit so well with contemporary notions about the nature of the “self.” What are these notions of “self”? Charles Taylor has made a convincing case in Sources of the Self for saying that there are three assumptions that, in combination, constitute the modern view. The first is that selves are not defined by their status and role in society, but by an inwardness that gives each self depths that distinguish it from other selves. The second assumption is that the self finds its proper arena for activity in “everyday life.” For a meaningful existence, selves do not require a special social location, or the mythical landscape of heroes, or the heavenly one of saints. The third assumption is that each self has certain abilities or powers, and that the point of everyday life is to discover these powers and develop them in and through the activities of daily living. It is through plumbing the depths of the self and developing its powers in the course of daily living that the satisfactions of life come. Accompanying these collective representations are three moral notions that both direct and limit the self’s activities. The first is benevolence. Each person ought to act in as generous fashion as possible not only in relation to those close by but also in relation to all other selves. The second is equal justice. Each self has dignity and as such should be accorded certain rights that protect that dignity and allow the self to pursue its good without undue impediment. The third is the elimination of suffering. The moral world of the self is one that rules out suffering as an inevitable and, on occasion, even a useful part of life. Already the “fit” between the views of the new reformers and contemporary notions of the “self” begins to appear. If the additional assumption is made that “sexuality” in some way defines the inner depths of the self, and if “sexuality” is a quality that gives character and resonance to the powers and abilities moral agents are to discover, develop, and exercise, then, ceteris paribus, it is immediately appealing to say that sexual relations ought to be pried loose from anything like an “order” that prescribes for them goods that are not matters of choice or that denies some people access to these relations ab initio. Propositions like these seem neither benevolent nor just and they most certainly cause suffering. At a minimum, the traditional ethic, given our present social climate, produces a keenly felt insufficiency in those who are not involved in a sexual relation. In circumstances such as these, one easily assumes that one’s life is wanting in a basic good, and for this reason alone, it makes no moral sense to most people today to say that whole classes of people who through no fault of their own either cannot or ought not to marry ought also to abstain from sexual intercourse. Precisely these assumptions about “sexuality” are the ones Michel Foucault says accompany present-day notions about the “self.” In the first volume of his three-volume The History of Sexuality, Foucault notes that “sexuality” is a word that now serves a purpose like the word “soul” did in the Middle Ages. In that period, people believed that one’s “soul” united the various aspects of human identity and gave significance to that identity. Today, the word “sexuality” serves a similar function. Accordingly, “sexuality,” “self,” and “identity” are so closely linked by present usage that at times they virtually merge one with another. In the light of these observations, it is easy to understand why more and more people believe that to deny a sexual relation to oneself or another simply on the basis of marital status and/or sexual orientation is in fact to deny the “self” in a destructive and morally insupportable way. It will not have escaped the notice of most readers that the ideas about promises and undertakings and those about the nature of the self which serve as the foundation for the position of the new reformers are precisely those upon which modern political society is founded. The point of social relations has become the pursuit of private life plans. This pursuit is limited only by the principles of no harm and no coercion. In short, it appears that the ideas about “self,” “promises,” and “undertakings” that, since the seventeenth century, have become increasingly dominant in the political realm have at the same time seeped into the more intimate spheres of life.


W hat then ought one to conclude about the spread of these ideas from the public to the private realm? The third thesis of this essay is that their appearance in life’s more intimate spheres should be counted as both a gain and a loss, and that the argument about sexual ethics will not progress until note is taken of both. The problem with traditional sexual ethics is that they often take too little account of persons. Men and women are too frequently simply submerged into undertakings. As a counter to this tendency, the appearance of a sexual self within Western consciousness is an important moral event. To have recognized that we are sexual selves, related in freedom to our ends, with depths to plumb, powers to be used and developed, and that we (all) can do these things in the course of everyday life is in fact a giant moral leap forward. The strength of the position of the new reformers is that it recognizes the good of this step. The problem with their view is that it fails to recognize that a sexual self, liberated from any notion of undertakings that have a moral claim upon it prior to any of its particular intentions and choices, has no satisfactory way to make moral judgments about what it intends and what it chooses. It can only follow the prompting of its own depths, and so must appear like a dog chasing its own tail. Like the political self, the sexual self of modern consciousness appoints its own ends. No longer need it search out “God’s universal laws,” those divinely appointed undertakings through which human beings come to know their good and, by acting accordingly, grow up into the nature God intends for them. Rather, it is up to the autonomous self to “figure out what will be good for those concerned and how this good can be realized, just as it is up to [him], not God, to act and make the good a reality.” Differentiation understood in this way can only mean that the most insistent prompting of the self always is taken as definitive of the self’s true nature and good. The self’s depths are used to judge the self’s depths, and this can hardly be a satisfactory position. To take this sort of view is to adopt the very dubious proposition that if one has desires and inclinations powerfully presented, if they portend no harm, and if they imply no coercion, then one’s desires and intentions, by virtue of the strength of their presentation, are both “natural” and “good.” There is another problem with the new reformers’ view of promises and undertakings, and it is that their limited extent and duration place in jeopardy the “wholeness” and “fulfillment” a sexual relation is supposed to procure. Because promises and undertakings are so closely linked in their minds with personal fulfillment and individual circumstances, both promises and undertakings may be limited (on occasion severely) in their extent and duration. Indeed, the view that sexual relations need only be “limited engagements” is central to their position. Limitation of one’s commitment, vulnerability, and care is essential because the peculiar nature of each sexual self may demand limits if it is to pursue successfully its particular sexual good. It is obvious that the liberty of individuals to pursue private good is the major moral concern of the new reformers, and in this respect their sexual ethic can be seen as a variety of the contractarian social ethic now increasingly characteristic of political society. I have tried to suggest that the moral gain of this view ought not to be dismissed. Nevertheless, the difficulty with the view of promises and undertakings implicit in the position of the new reformers is that the limitations they place upon the commitment, openness, and care promised and undertaken within a sexual relation are the very factors that most often compromise the personal wholeness and fulfillment people seek by making commitments, being open, and caring for another’s well-being in the first place. In short, a strong case can be made for saying that as both the common good of society and the particular good of citizens is now threatened by political voluntarism, so also both the common and the particular good of lovers is threatened by the voluntaristic and limited nature of the promises and undertakings that typically accompany sexual relations. In fact, despite a strong climate of opinion to the contrary, it is sensible to argue that, in both the public square and the bedroom, the traditional view that “persons flourish in and through patterns of relationship that are themselves taken to be normative” is in fact true, and that, in respect to its teaching about the undertakings and promises that ought to accompany a sexual (or political) relation, the church would do well to seek to preserve “an account of the goods of human relationship against their collapse into the desires or interests of autonomous individuals,” and in so doing face rather than turn away from “the pathos of Christian ethics today.”
Philip Turner is Professor of Christian Ethics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.