By Sr. M. Rosanna Emenusiobi IHM (Ph.D)

The feminist authors claim that this clerical fear of women would perhaps not be so bad were it not accompanied by the active suppression of women. Thus, Rosemary Radford Ruether writes in her book, Sexism and God-Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology, that “women’s capacities for spiritual equality are (to be) postponed until they reach heaven and are to be earned only by the strictest subjugation to male power in Church and society.”

Ruether suggests that women are subjugated to men by their reproductive capacities:
Woman’s body – her reproductive processes – becomes owned by men, defined from a male point of view. Women are seen as reproducing children and producing cooked food and clothes for men. Men regard this work as beneath them and they see themselves dominating and controlling it from above. Woman then becomes both the mediator and the symbol of the domination of “lower” material processes by “higher” cultural (male) control.

Ruether further finds support for her arguments in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, who, she asserts, concludes that while women are defective and misbegotten in their individual nature, they contribute to the overall perfection of nature through their role in procreation. She summarises him: “it is for this and this alone that a separate female member of the human species has been created by God.”

Another radical Catholic feminist, Mary Daly, joins these women in critiquing the Catholic Church with her book The Church and the Second Sex. She states that those who see the Catholic Church as the enemy to securing equality between the sexes are in large part justified. She continues: … the Catholic Church appears to many as the last stronghold of anachronism and prejudice, refusing to adapt its structures to the condition of modern women, still preaching to them the passive virtues of obedience, submission, and meekness, while seeming to refuse or ignore the profound aspirations of half the human race to liberty and full personhood.

Daly deplores the Catholic Church for its patriarchal structure and accuses her of double standard in matters of sexuality. She claims that women have stricter norms in regard to sexual behaviour and are punished more severely in countries where Catholicism is the privileged religion. Furthermore, she sees the Church’s rejection of birth control as a direct proof of her denigrating view of women’s sexuality. For Daly, women are reduced “to the condition of biological beast”, enslaved in the patriarchal system to reproduce and nothing more.

For these Catholic feminists, the Church’s teaching on marriage and chastity are the means by which the men of the Church keep women in their place. A woman’s chastity is valued more than a man’s because it is her chastity that binds her to him. She is a disgrace and unworthy of male attention if she offends chastity through sexual sin. Women learn immediately to value premarital abstinence and fidelity within marriage. Once married, they learn that to be a good Christian woman is to obey their husbands. She is taught that she needs the protection of a man, be it her father while she is young, or her husband later in life. What baffles me is that these women fail to understand the nature of women’s sexuality (including theirs) and what could happen, even, fatally if women misuse their sexuality. We shall come back to this point later in this article.

Even secular feminists attack the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, marriage and chastity, accusing her and the Holy Scripture, John Chrysostom, Augustine, other Church Fathers, and the present day clergy who honour their writings – of relegating women to a secondary, instrumental role in faith and in society. For them, women suffer because of the perceived dangerous and sinful quality of their sexuality, and they suffer because of the Church’s patriarchal system. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir, makes such an argument in her revolutionary book, The Second Sex. She writes:

Patriarchal civilisation dedicated woman to chastity; it recognised more or less openly the right of the male to sexual freedom, while woman was restricted to marriage. The sexual act, if not sanctified by the code, by a sacrament, is for her, a fault, a fall, a defeat, a weakness; she should defend her virtue, her honour; if she “yields,” if she “falls,” she is scorned; whereas any blame visited upon her conqueror is mixed with admiration.

Beauvoir sees this as “double standard” in matters of sexual behaviour and proffers the remedy by inviting women to reject the stereotypical feminine virtues of modesty, docility, and chastity. In their place, femininity is redefined to look much like masculinity: if men are free to act upon their sexual desires, women’s liberation requires that women be allowed to do the same. She suggests as much in her concluding Chapter, “Towards Liberation: The Independent Woman”:

A woman who expends her energy, who has responsibilities, who knows how harsh is the struggle against the world’s opposition, needs – like the male – not only to satisfy her physical desires but also to enjoy the relaxation and diversion provided by agreeable sexual adventures.

The secular feminist message says that for a woman to exercise sexual self-control means that she is denying her desires and “repressing” her sexuality. If she experiences any guilt or hesitation over her sexual choices and behaviours, it is only because she still lives in a patriarchic society where gender stereotypes continue to prevent women from exercising and pursuing their inner desires.

These ideas about sex and femininity first entered cultural consciousness about half a century ago, yet they remain a powerful force behind the sexual conduct and norms of today. Regrettably, young women are told to separate their heart from their body. Don’t get emotionally involved; don’t harbour any hope for the future. To become attached to or dependent upon a man is a sign of weakness. Rather, women should engage in sex for the “sheer pleasure of it”. It does not matter who the man is or whether both man and woman care for each other – so long as there is mutual consent, women should just relax and enjoy themselves!

Obviously, sentiments such as these, fuel women’s participation in the “hook-up” culture and co-habitation, where “anything goes” in one’s sexual choices. Such a culture treats sex and relationships casually, disconnected from love and commitment. This culture, for instance, continues to produce “baby mamas and baby papas” today, especially in the entertainment industry. Think of such behaviours in our country, Nigeria!

Before posing some pertinent and soul-searching questions regarding the foregoing feminist claims, I would like to state again that the Church has never taught different sexual behaviours for men and women as these feminists allege. She calls “all Christi’s faithful” to a life of chastity and holiness “in keeping with their particular states of life”: young people, the married, celibates, singles, including those who feel they are born “homosexuals”.

Are these Catholic and secular feminists correct? Are Catholic traditional teachings on sex just another way to exert power over women and make them ashamed of their sexuality and their bodies? The response to these forms the nexus of the next part.

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