Whose Diapers? Whence Rationality?

So I guess Pope Francis said that the Church’s “catechesis on sex is still in diapers.”  People have asked me what I think of that.  My honest reply is, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what that means, any more than I know what it meant when that woman at Stanford asked, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” When I read that, I thought to myself:  Well, judging from the popularity of juice, I take it a lot of people think the juice is worth the squeeze.  It seemed a little like asking, “Is the fruit worth the harvest?”  The obvious answer would be, yes.

 But after a lot of years of having people make dramatic statements like this, and me saying, “What does that mean?” and the speaker rolling his eyes as though to say, “You just don’t get it” (which is fair enough because, clearly, I don’t), I have come to the painful conclusion that these statements just aren’t meant for me.

So, for example, when someone says that the Church’s catechesis on sex “is still in diapers,” I wonder, why? Is it because the present situation of sex in the world is really crappy, and the Church is continually having to clean up the poop and replace it with a clean diaper?  Well, that’s sort of true.  It’s an odd way of putting it, I suppose, but not wrong.

It would be a little like St. Paul telling the Corinthians: “I gave you milk to drink, not meat; for you were not able as yet. But neither indeed are you now able; for you are yet carnal.”  In other words, because you are so “carnal,” you’re like children, and we have to treat you like children.  When you grow up, we can start giving you adult food. For now, we have to cut your food up into little pieces, and you still fling it everywhere. Again, that’s not entirely untrue, but maybe a little harsh.  I’m not saying that’s what Francis meant, though, because, as I already admitted, I don’t know what he meant.

Since the Church’s teaching on sex is over two thousand years old, it would make just as much sense to say that the Church’s teaching on sex has “finally entered puberty,” or, being so old, “is getting gray and soon expects to lose its teeth.” Perhaps, because it is so old, it has gained wisdom from experience.  Each statement is suggestive, but none makes an argument.

But seeing as how the Church’s teaching on sexual morality is over two thousand years old (including its prohibition of contraception), it would be strange to call it “young” in any ordinary sense of the word.


The mistake is a little like when people used to criticize Pope John Paul II’s teachings on sex and the “theology of the body” by saying that he was still “stuck in the Dark Ages.”  Those teachings were based on a fairly sophisticated phenomenological philosophy.  I study the Middle Ages, and I can assure you, there was nothing like it in the “Dark Ages.”  I encounter this all the time: people who spout off about how ignorant the Church’s teachings are even though they themselves are ignorant of what the Church’s teachings are.  They haven’t read anything.

So too, if you have a fourth-grade understanding of your faith and advanced levels of training in science, medicine, law, economics, or business, what do you suppose will dominate your thinking?  In a pinch, people go with what they know.  And if “what you know” is advanced sociology, psychology, or biology, clearly those things will dominate your thinking, especially if you have a fourth-grade understanding of your faith.

Then, when someone mentions “Church teaching, you will probably cut them off and say something like, “The Church’s teachings are just childish.  We’re talking about something serious now.”  Well, if you have a child’s understanding of the faith, then of course it will seem “childish,” especially when it is up against the the kind of “serious” thinking you get in advanced science, law, medicine, and business.

All that would be bad enough. But often, when you try to show such people some serious theological arguments from the text of Aquinas or Augustine or Pope St. John Paul II they say, “Oh, that’s intellectual and doctrinal.  The faith should be pastoral.  It’s about feelings and about accompanying people where they are.”  Yes, fine, but how do you know “where they are” if both you and they are ignorant about human nature and thus have become, as Walker Percy warns, “Lost in the Cosmos”?  And where do you accompany them to if you have no idea what human flourishing is?  It doesn’t help to “accompany” an alcoholic to the bar.

It seems more than a little unfair to insist that the Church’s teaching be infantile and then complain that it’s childish.

But there is yet another problem. The same theology of creation undergirds both the Church’s teaching on sexual matters and the Church’s teachings on things like the universal destination of material goods, respect for the environment, and a host of other principles of Catholic social justice.  You can’t undermine the one and still have the resources to support the other.

You can’t insist we must “protect nature and the natural order” when it comes to the environment and then throw nature out the window when it comes to human sexual relationships. You can’t say that old-growth forests are intrinsically meaningful and then insist that what we do with the human body isn’t.  You can’t insist we save baby whales and then allow people to kill baby humans in the womb.  Well, you can’t unless you’re a big baby who just wants what you want apart from any logic or consistency.

Pope St. John Paul II understood all this and expressed it clearly. It’s all there in his encyclicals. Don’t pastors and prelates read anymore?


*Image: Paradise (from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1490-1510 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]. From the Prado: “When he initially embarked on the work, Bosch included the Creation of Eve on the left panel, but in a second phase he replaced it with God presenting Eve to Adam. This very uncommon subject was associated with the institution of marriage.”

You may also enjoy:

+Michael Novak’s The Shocking Turnaround on Humanae Vitae

Mary Eberstadt’s Five Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, Part I

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.