Prof’s book on sex, marriage creates space for dialogue
By Glen Argan
Western Catholic Reporter
EDMONTON (CCN) — One of the most frequently asked questions in Paul Flaman’s recently released book, Sex, Love and Marriage, is “What do you think?”
It’s a different approach for a Catholic textbook on sexual and marital morality, one that cuts against the widespread belief that the church wants to dictate moral precepts to an increasingly rebellious or uninterested public.
Flaman, soon to be raised to the level of a full professor of theology at the University of Alberta’s St. Joseph’s College, says the book developed out of more than 30 years of teaching undergraduate students on the topics of sex, love and marriage.
While some of those students are practising Catholics, others are non-practising, others are members of other Christian churches while still others are atheists or have never set foot in a church.
Flaman hears a wide spectrum of views, including many with which he disagrees. “It’s good to be informed (of different views) and understand where these people are coming from.”
In the classroom, he emphasizes the Golden Rule – treat others the way you would like to be treated. “If a student expresses a view that I don’t agree with, I think about how I would like to be treated if I sincerely held that view myself.”
He has also taught his course online, a medium where students are encouraged to discuss each others’ opinions. The debate is often free flowing.
“I think that’s wonderful – that open, honest dialogue.”
In Flaman’s book, his respect for opposing points of view comes across in spades.
Each chapter begins with a list of questions that will be discussed so that the reader can formulate their view before reading the arguments Flaman presents.
Perhaps it is his openness to dialogue that has led some students to change their views on the moral issues he discusses both in class and through the 350 pages of Sex, Love and Marriage.
“Some students come to agree a lot more or even whole-heartedly with church teaching,” he says.
Flaman tells of one male Protestant student who moved to the Catholic view on many issues, including that of natural family planning. “He was sold on it.” The student then went off to try to convince his fiancée of the Catholic view.
In another class, a female student found some of the material upsetting. He learned that she had had an abortion and invited her to come and talk with him about the experience.
“I was so glad that happened during the course,” he said, noting that in some cases he only hears students’ negative views through the anonymous student evaluations at the conclusion of the course. That leaves him with no opportunity to thrash out the issue with the student.
In its 15 chapters, Sex, Love and Marriage covers the waterfront of issues on those topics, always in a readable, non-confrontational manner which is faithful to Catholic teaching.
Flaman offers tips for choosing a marriage partner, church teaching on homosexuality, celibacy, forgiveness, pornography, sexual abuse, gender roles and chastity.
On chastity, he discusses how it is important for married people as well as for singles. Church teaching on marital chastity is sparse, except for prohibitions on adultery, lust, pornography, contraception and sterilization.
Some students believe that chastity means waiting until marriage before having sex and, after that, anything goes, he says. “Which is not the case.”
“The virtue of chastity is not about arbitrary rules, but it’s about loving God.” If one does love God with his or her whole mind, heart and strength, they will want to please God. That will include seeking to understand God’s design for sexuality and respecting that design in one’s actions.
A husband may not be lustful or view pornography, but can still fail to be sensitive and loving toward his wife. “I would say that’s a violation or failing to love properly.”
Likewise, unreasonably abstaining from sex or being unreasonably demanding about it can also be failures to love properly, he says.
Love is what it all boils down to. Jesus, he says, relates all morality to the command to love — to love God and love one’s neighbour as oneself; to love as Jesus loved. “That’s the most positive way we can live.”
Likewise, God loves us and that love does not destroy what is natural. Rather, it can heal, elevate and ennoble human goods such as friendship and sexuality. “God’s love heals our love of selfishness and disordered attachments that get in the way of our happiness.”
As well as his undergraduate university students, Flaman has taught variations of his course to seminarians, those preparing for the permanent diaconate and in parishes. Each audience comes with its own set of questions. In the fall, he will offer a course at Newman Theological College, which he expects will be comprised of mostly seminarians.
Sex, Love and Marriage is published by Justin Press of Ottawa and can be ordered through local bookstores.