A Modern Dissenter's Theology of Sexuality:
Moral Theologian Richard C. Sparks, C.S.P.


The sad and tragic history of sex education in Catholic schools continues to plague the Church in our day as we can see only too glaringly in the sex education controversies that continue in American and Canadian dioceses. Much of the blame for the horrendous scandal of classroom sex education in Catholic schools has to be placed on the shoulders of dissenting priests, religious, and laity serving as "periti" to American bishops who sadly allowed themselves to be duped into accepting an educational structure and pedagogy totally at odds with the pedagogy of the saints engaged in the moral formation of youth. Nothing else can explain the appearance of such unfortunate "pastoral" documents as the 1981 USCC document "Education in Human Sexuality" and the USCC-NCCB November 1990 "Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning" wherein bishops appeared to give a further sanction to the raunchy sex initiation programs already in place in all too many dioceses. These programs have aroused the most bitter, divisive and disruptive controversies and caused thousands of Catholic parents to leave a shrinking Catholic school system, which had betrayed its catechetical mission to parents and children.

It is time to return to November 1990 and the U.S. Bishops Advisory Committee which helped prepare their ill-fated "pastoral," "Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning." Four bishops led the Task Force preparing the document: Chairman of the Task Force, Bishop William Newman, Auxiliary of Baltimore; Bishop James T. McHugh, then Bishop of Camden, NJ, and well-known as the "Father of Catholic Sex Education in Catholic Schools"; Bishop Thomas Welsh, formerly of Allentown; and Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, at that time Auxiliary of Scranton, PA. What remains fascinating to recall is that the names of the 20 other members of the Advisory Committee, priests, religious and laity - have never been released to this day! When Auxiliary Bishop of New York Austin B. Vaughn, on the floor of the Bishops' Conference which was debating the document, asked for the names of the other 20 members (some of whom he suspected to be dissenters from Magisterial teaching), he was refused. Nevertheless, there are always leaks, as we know only too well from Washingtonian politics. We have known for some time that among the 20 there were such names as Fr. John Forliti (who had 5 different sex education programs in Catholic schools), his friend Fr. Richard Sparks, an Associate Editor of Paulist Press (a Press which has distributed many books furthering dissent against Catholic teachings), and sex educator Colleen Kelly Mast whose "Sex Respect" sex education program was already in many Catholic schools. All these programs had caused controversies in dioceses and were opposed by parents seeking to avoid the contamination of their schools by the sex education virus.

Both Fr. John Forliti and Fr. Richard Sparks were known dissenters against "Humanae Vitae" and the Church's teaching on contraception. It is important to note Paulist Fr. Richard C. Sparks' 1996 book "Contemporary Christian Morality: Real Questions, Candid Answers", published by Crossroads Publishing Co. - a leading organ of dissent in the Church (and with close ties to another leading organ of dissent, the National Catholic Reporter). A study of this book enables readers to gauge once again the inroads that dissenting priests have made in attempting to overturn the sexual morality of the Catholic Church. The book is called a " pastorally oriented guide" and "a classic book for adult education and educated adults." The blurb on the book features a photo of Fr. Sparks in suit and tie (much like his ideological mentors Fr. Charles E. Curran and Fr. Richard P. McBrien), and states:

Richard C. Sparks, C.S.P., is a moral theologian, popular speaker, and author of award-winning book on bioethics and the handicapped newborn, "To Treat or Not To Treat".
He is an ethical consultant to several hospitals, and has taught Christian ethics at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, St. Paul Seminary, and at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

A favorable review in the National Catholic Reporter declared Fr. Sparks to be:

"a compelling speaker and a deep thinker [who] asks and answers l00 questions for those who would have the abundant life promised by Jesus. He asserts that Christian morality is not just about an individual facing life's fundamental choices, but about the community called church living, loving and keeping commitments." (8/9/96)

More light is thrown upon Fr. Sparks' concept of "Church-community" by his remarks delivered at a Los Angeles Religious Education Conference in early 1997, which featured many dissenters from Catholic doctrines. In his talk, notably on "conscience" (the favorite playground of moral theologians who are dissenters), Fr. Sparks gave his pitch on "moral decision-making" much as he did in his book subtitled "Real Questions, Candid Answers." And, indeed, he was quite candid in his talk as in his book, avoiding key issues of right and wrong by presenting the views of several different "factions" including the Catholic Church (which in his book is termed a "denomination"). In various addresses given at the Conference and reported in the press, Sparks stated that he opposed burdening teenagers with principles of sexual morality, because this would cause internal conflicts, leading to a 'dysfunctional' way of life and an unhealthy image of God as a 'strict judge or moody tyrant.' He also stated that people should "never malign the sincerity of pro-choice or pro-euthanasia people" because these are "complex issues."

In speaking of a healthy image of God and God's covenant of love, he warned that we shouldn't teach that sins such as fornication might be the cause of people's damnation because "the cost is too high. It leads to a dysfunctional life. Who we are is more important than what we do." He then displayed a view graph from his "triple-font theory" from his book "Contemporary Christian Morality: Real Questions, Candid Responses" in which he stated that sex outside of marriage is always immoral but the question of whether it is a "sin" is determined in consultation with a priest, spiritual adviser, or trusted friend. Some actions, such as rape, murder, incest, and child abuse, are clear-cut evils, he admitted, but not all individual acts are. "So don't be afraid of moral complexity." "Moral complexity," he asserted, is not the same as moral relativism. If one dissents from Church teaching, the catechetical setting is not the place to tout that dissent, Sparks cautioned. He concluded that he is a child of the '60's and mentioned the blasphemous pop musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" as the type of entertainment that could touch the heart as well as the head.

In "moral theologian" and "expert in sexuality" Fr. Richard Sparks, we have a dissenter from the Magisterial teaching of the Church who reveals himself to be a clever advocate of the "ethics of compromise" first ably championed by Fr. Charles E. Curran. Whereas, however, Fr. Curran honestly and candidly made clear he openly rejected the idea of absolute morality, blatantly denied that there was intrinsic right and wrong (i.e., that some actions are always right or always wrong), Fr. Sparks tries to distance himself from formal dissenters from Catholic moral teachings by a "middle-of-the road" ethics of compromise and complexity. He chooses to take the middle of the road between formal dissent and a firm uncompromising adherence to the Church's authentic moral teaching. It is a neither Yes or No stance - one that permits exceptions to Catholic teaching on contraception, divorce, fornication, and homosexuality. It is a hopeless position, since it allows for dissent by dissenting theologians and laity, and places him in the same camp as the formal dissenters he recommends in the bibliography of his book: such dissenters as Richard P. McBrien, Kenneth Overberg, S.J., James and Evelyn Whitehead, and James Hanigan.

He describes his book as "a book about Christian morality, and not solely its Roman Catholic expression."
The "morality" he presents in his book stands between "the more restrictive Catholic approach" and "the more accepting Christian stance" found in other Christian traditions.

It's a clever dodge perpetrated in his pages:

  • the Catholic Church teaches such and such as part of its tradition ...
  • but other traditions say....

With Sparks there is always "Another school of thought" that has to be taken into account before giving assent to Catholic teachings. Indeed, this is a strange "theologian" writing. He professes to write:

  • "as a member of the Catholic branch of the Church and as an ordained priest in that tradition": "... I will frequently present the teachings of my denomination." (page xviii).
  • Earlier on page xviii, he wrote, "I come to this venture ... as a Christian, a member of the Catholic branch of the church."
  • On page 23 he refers to "the Body of Christ, or the Church with its various denominations and churches."

He openly contradicts the teaching of "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" with his registering sympathy for the false theory of serious sin that would not be mortal!

Many suggest that dividing all sin into only two levels of gravity - mortal and venial - is an insufficient distinction that is too cut-and-dried. Some have suggested expanding the levels to include a middle category of serious sins, between the extremes of venial and mortal (page 13).

For our specialist in the "ethics of compromise" it is not surprising that he is adverse to traditional Catholic morality's focus on "the morality of specific actions" as leading to "a special emphasis on the negative." He pushes the distinction between the objective and subjective factors in committing an immoral action (as all know, there can be a mitigation of culpability and guilt) to the point of stating: "Declaring an action objectively immoral is not identical to calling it sinful." For Fr. Sparks, the complexity of the situation a person can find himself in, actually prevents any action from being labelled "sinful," which is quite contrary to the truth. For any immoral action is indeed sinful as contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate supernatural end of man - and this regardless of the lack of personal guilt by the person committing the offense against the Law of God. This diminishing of the sense of sin by a moral theologian can be and is disastrous when dealing with the sexual sphere, and lies at the heart of his and others' dissent against Catholic moral teachings that has become so widespread in our time. Moral theologians of the stamp of Fr. Sparks have no difficulty, therefore, in dulling consciences with alternative moral choices so that "in rare cases one might feel obliged to take a stand contrary to the church's present position" (page 6). Dissent is as applicable to Catholics as to those of other churches. After identifying the Magisterium of the Catholic Church as made up of the pope and bishops collectively, our author declares that "church members owe a special degree of respect to their church's leaders and their official decrees" (page 24). The greatest degree of respect that can be given to the Church's moral pronouncements is, of course, obedience, the "obedience of faith" - but our author ignores that!

Fr. Sparks thus accuses the Church of a repressive view of sexuality and having a "negative" attitude about the gravity of sexual sins. His accusations are unacceptable inasmuch as they constitute caricatures of the truth. He writes that:

Almost every human relationship has a sexual dimension.... We are inherently and abidingly sexual beings from the womb to the tomb.... Sexuality and its accompanying feelings, fantasies, and urges are one sign that we are alive, healthy, and embodied, the way God intended us to be. These are not inherently "bad feelings" or "dirty thoughts" as some of us were taught in the confessional practices of a bygone era. (pages 61-62).

Let us see where his liberal, broad and mistaken notion of sexuality leads him. How about the "sin of fornication?" Fr. Sparks answers:

While that language is not altogether incorrect, I find the term "fornication" offensive to many and, in some instances, too simplistic or loaded a term for the complexity of the situation and the subjective sincerity of many of the couples involved. No. That does not mean I'm defending sex outside of marriage. It's just that there seem to be degrees of moral difference between a couple making love within days prior to their wedding vows and a prostitute or gigolo selling sexual services to a customer and two teenagers groping their way through a puppy-love sexual encounter in the backseat of a car. All are instances of sex outside of marriage. According to the Christian tradition each act is objectively wrong, though each has its own distinct situational features. I'm not convinced that the somewhat cold term "fornication" describes accurately or with sufficient nuance the almost married couple or the naively premature teen encounter. (page 64).

Fr. Sparks does not like "moral labelling" or the "seeking [of] some neat and largely pejorative label to drop on all instances of pre-marital or non-marital sex" (page 65).

One can forgive readers for not understanding or accepting the new "pastoral care" of such moral theologians as Fr. Sparks who proceed to salve the consciences of fornicators and adulterers. Taking notice of the "official teaching of the Church," he proceeds to apply his "ethics of compromise" by sanctioning dissent against the teaching of the Church:

  • on contraception ( pages 67-69);
  • on homosexuality (pages 77-81);
  • and on divorce (pages 139-141).

In each case his "holistic" treatment of these key moral issues leads him to a shameful betrayal of the Church's doctrine and fatally subverts the teaching of divine revelation. What should be absolutely clear at this point is that Fr. Sparks' "ethics of compromise" or what he has termed "contextual ethics" or "situational ethics" results in shredding the fabric of Catholic sexual ethics. It tears it to pieces. Defending himself from being an outright "relativist" (because he says he does teach that there are absolute norms of morality), and praising himself for his "sophisticated" moral decision- making, he makes it impossible to apply such norms to many human acts - especially those sexual acts which are the subject of the most passionate controversy. Relativism is alive and well in his book on "Contemporary Christian Morality." True morality as the way to holiness and salvation is muted by Fr. Sparks whose relativism results in a blurring of moral virtue and moral vice, and in the impression that mortal sin is not that serious at all. It would appear that the salvation of one's soul is not really dependent upon observance of the concrete content of the moral life as set forth in the teaching of the Catholic Church. As Pope John Paul II has observed: "They are not faithful to the Church's teaching when they believe that they can justify as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law" (Veritatis Splendor, n. 76).

The fundamental problem with Fr. Sparks' understanding of sexuality (and with the bishops' document "Human Sexuality: a Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning") is that it fails to focus on human sexuality as something which is ordained, and therefore reserved, for the expression and embodiment of spousal love. Clearly expressed in Fr. Sparks' book is the false notion that one has a right to sexual expression, even if care is taken to qualify that the "expression of sexuality" must be "mature" and "creative." Even where dissenters like Fr. Sparks profess to accept the Church's teaching which excludes genital sex outside of marriage, they promote the expression of sexual feelings, thereby reinterpreting the very meaning of chastity.

It is important that Catholics recover the correct meaning of chastity in a culture saturated with sexual suggestiveness and open public expression of lust. As philosopher Dr. Damian Fedoryka has emphasized:

"Chastity involves an attitude towards our sexuality, which includes maintaining a reverent distance from it, of refusing to embrace or express sexuality. For it is one's spouse that one is called to embrace, not one's sexuality; and it is one's love that is to be expressed, not one's sexuality.

Sexual feelings are legitimate as a consequence and a part of turning to one's spouse for his or her sake. If one does not have a spouse, or cannot turn to the spouse in the spousal act, one must keep a distance from sexual feelings if they arise; one must free oneself from them if one has yielded. The reason for this is that when one indulges in, pursues and immerses oneself in one's sexual feelings, he turns towards himself, and away from the spouse who then becomes a means (rather than an end)".

(Dr. Damian Fedoryka
in "Topics for Catholics", vol. 1, no. 4, 1993)

This Catholic perspective on sexuality is difficult for today's liberals and dissenters who still call themselves Catholics but it is the timeless message of the Church's Confessors, Fathers, Doctors, and ascetics who understood the lesson of the Cross, the meaning of self-discipline, bodily mortification, sacrifice, and the meaning of "dying unto oneself' to "live in Christ."

Terrible damage has been done to the Church's teaching on sexual morality, and the understanding of the virtues of chastity and modesty by dissenting moral theologians who have collaborated in sanctioning classroom sex education in the Catholic schools and in fostering the climate of moral permissiveness affecting our public schools and American society in general. Such moral theologians should be called to account by our bishops and removed from all positions of influence.


Since the above address was delivered to a Seton Home Schooling Conferences at St. Therese Catholic Church in Alhambra, CA, Fr. Richard Sparks was again invited as one of the featured speakers for the huge April 2000 Los Angeles' Religious Education Congress attended by 18,000 religious educators active in Catholic schools and parishes nation-wide. Fr. Sparks joined other dissenters such as Sr. Barbara Fiand, SSND; Sr. Fran Ferder; Fr. Thomas Sweetser, S.J.; Fr. Richard Rohr; Fr. Patrick Brennan; Dr. Dolores Hayes; Dolores Curran, and many others engaged in more than 200 talks and workshops, many of which involved an assault on the Church's traditional beliefs and practices. Those in attendance were subjected to a veritable barrage of Modernist psycho-babble and newspeak.

In his address "Human Sexuality Education: Where Are We, Where Are We Going?" Fr. Sparks reviewed the history of Catholic sex education in Catholic schools and parishes, beginning in the 1950s, through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, and into the new Millennium. He registered his fervent approval for the pioneering roles of Benziger (it was "No. 1"), Sadlier, Silver-Burdette, and Wm. C. Brown (now Brown-Roa) publishing companies in promoting comprehensive programs in human sexuality for the curricula of Catholic elementary and secondary schools. He heaped special praise on the outrageous "New Creation" program which sparked parental protests nation-wide which reached the attention of the Pontifical Council for the Family (slurred by Sparks as "a second-tier Vatican bureaucracy") and various Roman Congregations. The Pontifical Council for the Family's magnificent document (The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality) that was issued in December 1995 to safeguard parental rights in sexual education and to prevent the perversion of chastity education into what has become all too common in both public and parochial schools was scored as "a more negatively written document" - one more suitable for backward countries like Poland. Fr. Sparks lamented the growing opposition of Catholic parents to school sex education programs which has frightened pastors, cooled their ardor for promoting such programs, and which has forced publishers "to put out new series that are tamer - no body-parts pictures in books. Let's take away the things that people take pot shots at." Sex education controversies he declared to be "very political and nasty." Paying his usual lip-service to parental rights, Fr. Sparks left no doubt that to his mind - and that of the bishops who supported the flawed November 1990 NCCB document "Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning," parents had no choice but to accept the innovative principle of sexuality education in formal school settings and to be encouraged to have their children informed and formed as "sexual beings." He admitted that parents had the right to keep their children out of sex education programs, but had "no right to say 'not in my school'." The Bishops' November 1990 document was relied on to discredit parental protests at classroom-curriculum school programs of sexual instruction: "We respect parental rights, but the tail can't wag the dog."

The November 1990 NCCB document, interestingly, was praised for its flabby treatment of masturbation, art and pornography, and HIV-AIDS. Fr. Sparks did not appear pleased, however, with the document's continuing to mention "the unitive-procreative stuff in our tradition." Later, he made reference to the need to be "responsible about contraception." In one of his quips that brought a roar from his audience of Catholic religious educators, he joked about masturbation: "That's lonely husbands whose wives won't do it." Fr. Sparks had much to say about a positive education in sexuality and attempted to distinguish between "sexuality education" and "sex education": "if you say 'sex education,' your mouth should be washed out with soap. It's 'sexuality education'." [Fr. Sparks did not inform his audience that both Pope John Paul II and the Pontifical Council for the Family have used the terminology of "sex education."] It was "relationship education" in which he, Fr. Sparks, was engaged. His own relationship to the Church was perhaps highlighted with yet another of his humorous quips: "I'm Catholic; I feel guilty about everything." However, our priest-pedagogue expressed no guilt at engaging in many sexually inappropriate remarks which offend modesty and chastity. For all his insistence that his cherished "sexuality education" "did not have to do with genitals," "with penises and vaginas," his smutty jokes conveyed an obsession with the act of sexual intercourse. To the repeated laughter of his mixed audience of Catholic educators, Fr. Sparks declared, "Let's not talk about 'doing it'... My 'c' fits into your 'd'." To more laughter, he titillated the married people in his audience:

  • "You are being very chaste if you like to do it a lot."
  • "If you like to do it from the shower curtain, that's your business."
  • "... or on a kitchen table, I don't care."

Speaking for himself as "a celibate," "in relationship as a single person," Fr. Sparks noted it would be appropriate for him "to hold a woman's hand across the table," but he "shouldn't end up on a couch with her between my legs."

In conclusion, it should be evident that professional sex educator Fr. Richard Sparks typifies in his own person the disastrous effects of a secularized sex education process (with its anti-supernatural and unchaste ethos) that has contaminated priests, religious and laity and who, in turn, have involved themselves in corrupting the morals of Catholic youth in the Church's own educational institutions. As of today, Fr. Richard Sparks is busily promoting a new controversial "Growing in Love" sex education program for Catholic schools. Published by Harcourt-Religion, "Growing in Love" is a grades k-8 school series with separate texts for students, teachers and parents, and with Rev. Richard Sparks as a major consultant.

This article was first published in "Social Justice Review" issue of May/June 2001
Mr. James Likoudis is the President Emeritus of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF)