Fr. Jack Gallagher says there is a crisis in Catholic teaching on sexual ethics.

Fr. Jack Gallagher says there is a crisis in Catholic teaching on sexual ethics.

January 16, 2012

Western Catholic Reporter

In the eyes of Father Jack Gallagher, sociologists have proven Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage right.

"Study after study," says Gallagher, shows that the ideal place for children to be raised is with their two birth parents.

"It's astounding to me that the empirical evidence is so clear," he says. "I thought there would be general evidence in favour of the Catholic teaching. On point after point, the sociologists have simply proven it true."

Gallagher, one of Canada's leading Catholic moral theologians, said in researching his recent book, Human Sexuality and Christian Marriage: An Ethical Study, he read or reviewed roughly 500 articles and several books on the topic written by sociologists.

Oddly, those findings come at a time when he says many Catholics have lost confidence in the Church's teaching on sexuality and, as a result, have also lost confidence in the Church itself.

"Where do we get a context which will again make the Catholic teaching meaningful?" he asks.

Gallagher said his new book has been well received by other moral theologians who see it as an important contribution to the understanding of sex and marriage. It also has an imprimatur from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston. What it does not have is a traditional publisher.

The Basilian priest was turned down by a company that had published an earlier work of his as well as several other publishers. So he turned to the Internet.

Human Sexuality and Christian Marriage is now available free online thanks to the University of St. Thomas in Houston. The easiest way to locate it is simply by googling the title of the book.

Even religious book publishing is now being dictated by commercial concerns, Gallagher says. But it has been remarkably easy to get the book posted online. The main thing lacking is the publicity that a traditional publisher would provide. He won't get any royalties either, but that would only amount to a couple of thousand dollars, little reward for the thousands of hours that went into writing the Human Sexuality and Christian Marriage.

In his book, Gallagher argues that there is a crisis in Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. Catholics have undergone a rapid change in their attitudes to issues such as artificial contraception and cohabitation.

Crucial to the breakdown has been a divide between sex and procreation. When spousal sex loses its procreative meaning, marriage too will lose its link with procreation, he argues.

The breaking of that link has been key to the upsurge in family breakdown.


Modern sexual ethics has focused on the individual and failed to respect the social dimension of sex and marriage emphasized in traditional Catholic moral theology, he said in an interview.

Fr. Jack Gallagher

Basilian Father Jack Gallagher, 78, has long been a leading Canadian Catholic voice on bioethics and moral theology.

He has been president of Edmonton's Newman Theological College, director of the Cardinal Carter Centre for Bioethics in Toronto and superior of his religious order, the Basilian Fathers.

For decades, Gallagher has taught moral theology at various universities, including St. Joseph's College of the University of Alberta, St. Michael's University College in Toronto and St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas.

He is also the author of The Basis for Christian Ethics, published by Paulist Press (1985).

Whenever society needs something to be done effectively, it establishes an institution. For the procreation and education of children, that institution is marriage, Gallagher says.

If sexuality takes on a meaning that is non-marital or not related to procreation, marriage has lost a fundamental purpose.

Sociological studies have conclusively shown the higher incidence of marriage breakdown among couples who live together before marriage, he says. They have also shown that children raised in single-parent families where one spouse has died do much better in life than those raised in families where one parent has left the relationship.

Why is that?

Gallagher says marriage breakdown shows that at least one parent had only a conditional attachment to the children. "That shakes (the children) to the foundation. The primary bond in their life has turned out to be insecure."

In the early 1960s, sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a U.S. senator, maintained that the cause of inner city ghettoes was family breakdown.

At the time, Gallagher notes, roughly 50 per cent of children in black families were being raised by single parents. Now, that percentage is true of the U.S. population as a whole.


"What was seen by Moynihan as a crisis in a minority group has now become the norm for the whole society and therefore we don't see any problem with it."

An underclass is being created of a whole population that does not, he says, have the character development to work well in a complex, demanding society.

Gallagher goes on to maintain that once a pattern of family breakdown is entrenched in a society, it will tend to perpetuate itself. Children raised in divorced families are much more prone to divorce their spouses when they marry.

The Roman Empire, he says, was conquered by the Germanic tribes precisely because its family structure broke down.

So then, is Western society on an inevitable downward spiral?

"It can be turned around," Gallagher says. But the Church must take seriously its obligation to evangelize the culture. "The Church must evangelize or it dies."

Turning again to Aquinas, he says the Church must help people to develop virtues without laying burdens on people.

Our psyches are formed through such means as reflection on the lives of the saints, symbols such as the sacraments, good literature and parents' conversations with their children. "There are dozens of ways a culture forms our habits."


In the early 20th century, all of Western Europe was run by anti-clerical governments, he says. The movements for Christian Democracy and Catholic Action brought people together in small groups to analyze their lives and their social situations.

Out of those movements came the post-Second World War leaders who helped to reconstruct Europe.

However, the evangelization process, Gallagher says, is not a few leaders and many followers; it is a movement of the community.

Today, a similar movement could be based in parishes and emphasize the ways to build stronger families. It doesn't all need to focus on sexual ethics, although a proper understanding of sexuality is part of that, he says.

Letter to the Editor - 01/30/12