By Sr. M. Rosanna Emenusiobi IHM (Ph.D)
Over the past few decades the sexual revolution and its advocates (that is – a social movement that challenges traditional codes of behaviour related to sexuality and interpersonal relationships) – have challenged the traditional understanding of human love and sexuality. Feminists, in particular, have been some of the staunchest supporters of sexual liberationist ideals. Indeed, secular and even Catholic feminists alike have viewed the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality as a means to oppress women and subject them to the Church’s patriarchal structure. These views prevail today as can be seen in the attacks against the Church both from within and beyond. But, contrary to this prevailing understanding, Church teachings on sex, love, and intimacy reveal a striking understanding of the meaning and power of sex, and of women’s sexuality in particular. In this article, we shall explore the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, with particular reference to sex, and demonstrate how this teaching is totally pro-woman, more so for catholic women.
The Church on Sex
Of all its moral teachings, the Catholic Church is perhaps most clear, and yet most misunderstood, in its teachings about sex. Simply put, the Church teaches that marriage between one man and one woman is the only moral context for sexual intimacy (especially sexual intercourse). This is because in marriage, and only in marriage, that a man and woman freely and willingly commit their entire lives to one another in mutual love and fidelity. For the Catholic, this lifelong union takes on a sacramental character: marriage is understood to signify the self-giving union between Christ and his Church. Sexual intercourse then becomes the natural and most fitting physical expression of this unique, marital relationship. Already, having vowed to share their lives together, a husband and wife consummate that vow by uniting as one flesh. The intimate nature of their physical union is appropriate to the intimate nature of their marital union. The Church esteems sex as beautiful and significant because of its role in consummating or completing the marital vows of husband and wife.
What is more, the sexual union of husband and wife shares in the creative power of God by bearing forth new human life. The non-contracepted sex between a husband and wife is good, regardless of whether or not it conceives new life, because the act completes and reconfirms their marital promises. However, the Church holds that it is particularly beautiful when their physical union takes on substantial form in a third person, their child. For the Church, then, sex has both a unitive and a procreative purposes. Marriage serves to protect the deep emotional bond that exits between a sexually intimate man and a woman. Further, the stability of a lifelong union provides the best context in which to raise children who may be borne of such intimacy. Thus, marriage is the only suitable, nurturing and stable environment in which both enjoy sexual intimacy and bring new life into the world.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, in regard to human sexuality, that “all the baptised are called to chastity”, and that they are to practice chastity in away suited to their state in life. For the married, this means fidelity (in mind and body) to one’s spouse. For the unmarried (men and women) it means “continence” – sexual abstinence. The Catechism lists offenses against chastity as lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, and rape. All of these offenses reduce and cheapen sex by making sexual pleasure the principal goal, to the exclusion of the greater unitive and procreative purposes of sex. These behaviours contradict the intimate, sacred, and truly personal nature of sex.
Unfortunately, this beautiful teaching is rejected today by the advocates of sexual liberation. Is sexual liberation really for the good of women? The following pages explores the purported “ women’s sexual liberation” and its consequences for women and their sexuality.
Sexual Liberation: Is It Really Pro-Woman?
An author, whom I have quoted severally in my articles, presents a research on feminists whose ideas have fuelled the current “sexual empowerment of women”. According to her, many feminists authors such as Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Mary Daly (all Catholics!), Simone de Beauvoir and others argue powerfully that the Catholic Church has been a source of women’s oppression throughout history. They rely heavily on some ancient Church documents that they believe still influence the Church today in her “oppressive” treatment of women and presenting them as “temptresses to run away from”. In her book, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, Ranke-Heinemann esteems Christ as being a “friend, of women, the first and practically the last friend women had in the Church!” Although Jesus’ disciples have followed him in many ways, they “have not followed him on this point”, she writes. She also cites a letter attributed to Pope Clement I (AD 96) that was very important in clerical education. The said letter instructs the men to “have nothing to do with women.” She further finds evidence for her arguments in the writings and lives of the Church Fathers such as John Chrysostom and Augustine. John Chrysostom in On the Priesthood, describes women as the “first and foremost” influence “that weakens the conscientiousness of the soul”. Augustine, points out, never spoke alone with a woman, not even his own sister or nieces. This “physically disturbed” behaviour, as she calls it, was later echoed in the Synod of Elvira, the fifth Synod of Orleans, and the Synod of Tours. These synods and similar ones taught that priests should not allow women, even close relatives, to stay in their houses. Ranke-Heinemann and other women today, takes great offense at these teachings. “To this day” she writes, “the Church’s celibates, believe that danger has a female face.”
(to be continued)