Monday, 6 June 2011

Traditional Catholic theology on gender and sexuality

In this post, I want to sum up the conclusions that I have arrived at in my series of posts on issues of gender and sexuality in the Christian and Catholic tradition from the New Testament to the period prior to Vatican II.

The response to gender

Historically, Christian and Catholic attitudes towards gender have been shaped by two quite different sentiments, with different emphases being placed on each at different times.

1.  Men and women are held to be equal in the sight of God.  Salvation was offered to women on the same terms as men, and both sexes were bound by essentially the same religious duties and commandments.  The tradition recognised numerous female figures of veneration, including the Virgin Mary, women saints and women characters from the Bible.

2.  Men and women are held to be unequal by virtue of having different characteristics and roles.  Men held authority both in the home and in public arenas, and women were required to submit to them, though not in a servile and unconditional manner.  The male sex was held to be ultimately superior to the female.  A wife obtained financial support and social status from her husband, and her own proper domain was that of housekeeping, childbearing and domesticity.

The response to sexuality

The Christian, and specifically the Catholic, response to human sexuality has historically proceeded on the basis of three fundamental ideas. 

1.  Celibacy is held to be superior to sexual activity.

This was formalised by the Council of Trent: "If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema."

Origins - Jesus appears to have been unmarried and is quoted as speaking favourably of celibacy.  St Paul explicitly recommended celibacy over marriage, and similar sentiments are found from the early patristic period onwards.  They appear to have drawn on two other currents of thought which exalted the spirit over the flesh and which became entwined with Christianity: Greek philosophy (Platonism, Stoicism) and Gnosticism.

Consequences - i. An attitude towards sexuality developed that was ambivalent if not disapproving.  It was said that there was no sex in heaven.  Marriage was seen as something of a concession, and married couples were advised to be restrained in their sex lives (indeed, they could agree not to have sex at all).
ii. Virginity was linked with spiritual leadership (particularly from the 4th century), a development that culminated in mandatory clerical celibacy in the West. 

2.  It is recognised that sex can and should be given a place within marriage (and not elsewhere).

Origins - The legitimacy of marriage was always accepted, and the New Testament compares the marital relationship to that of Christ and the church.  This was consistent with the outlook of Judaism, in which sex in marriage is a commandment of God and there is no real tradition of religious celibacy.  It was also broadly consistent with the practices of Graeco-Roman society (except in relation to divorce).  The other side of the coin was that sex outside marriage (fornication, adultery) was forbidden.  This too followed Jewish tradition, as well as echoing the sentiment that sex is something problematic that requires regulation.

Consequences - i. Marriage became the church's principal response to human sexuality, and the mutual agreement to have sex with each other came to be seen by theologians as the essence of the marriage contract.  Marriage was seen as an honourable state and as one of the seven sacraments instituted by God.  Marital sex came to be accepted as being in principle a good thing, even if celibacy was spiritually preferable.
ii. Following St Paul, it was held that each spouse was bound to have sex when the other requested it (the 'marriage debt').  This was a serious obligation, though certain exceptions were recognised.
iii. Sexual activity outside marriage was not permitted, and major efforts were made to prevent it (just as marriage itself was seen as a means of minimising the possibility of other sexual sins).  This included the development of approved courtship practices and other prescriptive behavioural norms. 

3.  It is held that sex has specific purposes, the most important of which is procreation.

Origins - This idea goes back at least to the early patristic period.  It seems to have had two sources.  First, there is the obvious biological link between sex and conception, from which it seems to have been inferred that sexual activity which was not in some sense open to conception represented a violation of the natural order and hence of the will of God.  Second, the ambivalence towards sex noted above seems to have militated in favour of limiting the contexts in which sex was approved of.  The other recognised, legitimate purposes of sex included to provide an outlet for the spouses' sexual desires and to foster love between them.

Consequences - Theologians and the church monitored and laid down rules for sex within marriage.  The best known example of this is the prohibition on contraception, which continues to be affirmed by conservative Catholic theologians today.