Catholic Priest, Nun Stray from Traditional Church Teachings

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times
Downloaded April 28, 2003

Sister Fran Ferder and Father John Heagle have spent decades listening to stories of joy and sorrow, of lives shared or shattered, of sexuality that was joyful or destructive.

Now the two controversial counselors - known in Roman Catholic Church circles for their work dealing with issues regarding sexuality, and either heralded or reviled for their stances on the church's teachings on it - have written a book shaped by those stories.

In "Tender Fires: The Spiritual Promise of Sexuality" (Crossroad Publishing; $16.95), Ferder and Heagle present their vision of healthy sexuality and of what church and society can do to encourage it. They do so at a time the Catholic Church is struggling to deal with issues of sexuality, beset by a major sexual-abuse scandal involving clergy and a society that seems at odds with church teachings on sexuality.

What Ferder, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and Heagle, a diocesan priest, propose is a new way for society and the Judeo-Christian church to view sexuality. They would like to see sexuality defined as not just genital behavior but as energy for relationships.

They hope the church will turn from identifying sexual sin as illicit genital pleasure to identifying it as the violation of persons. They would like the church to regard reverence in relationships, rather than sexual abstinence, as the hallmark of the highest holiness and healthiness. And they want the church, and society at large, to stop thinking of sex and spirituality as separate.

"Both culture and religion reduce sexuality to genital behavior," Ferder says. "Churches warn us against behavior that's against the rules. And culture titillates us with behavior that's against the rules. Neither church nor culture emphasize the sacredness of relationships and the discipline, time and energy it takes to do that well."

Ferder, a licensed clinical psychologist, and Heagle, a licensed psychotherapist, have spent decades counseling clergy, laypeople and others at Therapy and Renewal Associates (TARA), a counseling center in the Seattle area. They teach at Seattle University and conduct workshops dealing with intimacy and sexuality around the country.

Their vision of sexuality, they say, comes from years of experience listening to people's stories about how important relationships - or the lack of them - are.

It's a way of approaching sexuality that they say may have helped prevent some of the sexual abuse by clergy that is plaguing the Catholic Church.

"What we're saying is that clergy abuse of minors and clergy sexual malpractice with adults are symptoms having to do with a larger pathology in the system," Ferder says. "The temptation is to look at the crisis and scandal rather than the malfunction that spawned it."

One underlying issue, they contend, is how the church views sexuality. The rigid Catholic seminary system of decades ago, in which sexuality was not discussed or was frowned upon, may have contributed to today's sex-abuse crisis, they say.

"When rules are emphasized over and above relationships and people are not taught to be aware of their feelings and integrate their sexual feelings, those feelings go sideways," Ferder says.

They contend current Judeo-Christian teachings continue to emphasize rules, with a view of sexual sin as "private pelvic pleasure that's against the rules," Ferder says. But "we see sexual sin as violation of persons, commitments and relationships. When sexual relationships are wrong or sinful, it's not because it's pleasurable but because it hurts someone, violates someone."

For some, Ferder and Heagle's teachings amount to heresy.

"Most of their work is usually viewed as problematic from the Catholic standpoint in that it undermines specific Catholic teachings on matters," says Peter Miller, president of Northwest Laity for Truth, a nonprofit organization of conservative Catholics in Western Washington that has about 1,000 individuals on its mailing list.

"They spread dissent and heresy and undermine the church on a number of issues from sexual conduct to women's ordination to authority and structure within the church."

Many conservative Catholics say it was society's loosening morals, beginning around the 1960s, that have contributed to today's sexual-abuse crisis. "Perhaps if seminaries became drastically more rigid in the '50s or '60s, then a case could be made that they were an underlying cause; but that wasn't the reality of the situation," Miller says.

Furthermore, he contends, "the charge is not that these priests didn't know the teachings of the church or were given improper formation but that they knowingly and openly embraced the sexual and moral society revolution that occurred in the '60s and '70s."

Ferder and Heagle say people don't realize the church's stances on issues can change. The church didn't fully condemn slavery until about 300 years ago, they say. It's time, the two contend, for the church to update its theology on sexuality.

The two counselors say they are not straying from church teachings, but "trying to go back to its core values rather than surface control of behavior," Heagle says. Lost in the current debate, he says, is the biblical value of justice in relationships.

"Christianity calls us to be open to people's experience. People's stories of loving need to be taken seriously by the Judeo-Christian tradition."


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