Despite boasting one-fifth of the world’s population, the Catholic Church is by no means a “popular” institution. Classical teachings on abortion, premarital sex, divorce, and especially contraception are thought by many — both outside the Church and within — to reek of old-fashioned ideas of sex at best and, at worst, patriarchal views of women. The reservation of the priesthood to men, for its part, is often simply regarded as male chauvinism. These Church teachings lead many to wonder how any self-respecting woman (or woman-loving man) can stay and pray within the Catholic Church.
One could assume that many ordinary Catholics dispensed with the teachings on sex and marriage during the turbulent 1960s for the simple reason that these teachings are difficult to live — that they require, for some of us, a degree of self-control and selflessness that is beyond ordinary means.
But history reveals another force at work as well. For just as the world was coming to believe that there was more intrinsic value to sex than procreation, and that there is more to being a woman than birthing and nurturing children, the Church, too, was articulating a more nuanced understanding of human sexuality and the nature of women. A substantial number of vocal theologians believed that such development of doctrine was a sure sign that, at long last, the Church would “modernize” its teachings on abortion, sex, and marriage — and on the priesthood as well.
This hoped-for view prevailed among progressive-minded academics and activists to such an extent that the Church was ill-prepared to handle their immediate protest of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical reaffirming the Church’s prohibition of contraception. Almost overnight, Catholics, whether in the pews or in the seminaries, received the strong impression from dissident theologians (through the mouthpiece of the media and the lecterns of the Catholic colleges at which they taught) that the Church was wrong about its teaching on contraception — and perhaps about much else when it came to human sexuality. The only responsible thing for a thoughtful Catholic to do, according to these academics, was to ignore Church teachings and “follow one’s conscience.”
To be fair, the Church did give these theologians a foothold for their views in the Vatican’s modern reconsideration of sex and women. While the Church had always prioritized the procreative, or “baby-making,” aspect of conjugal sex, buttressed by theological treatises that derided sexual pleasure even within marriage, she began to draw much more attention to the unitive, or lovemaking, aspect of marriage in the modern period.
Similarly, the Church’s views on the nature of women also shifted. Increased papal attention just prior to the Second Vatican Council to the dignity and equality of women was ratified in the Council’s denunciation of sexual discrimination and support for greater recognition of the rights of women. In the wake of these changes, many waited with bated breath for the Church to dismantle restrictions on abortion, contraception, divorce, and sex outside of marriage, and to clear the way for a married priesthood open to women.
But no change came — or has come in the decades since. Indeed, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have taken every opportunity to reaffirm the Church’s constant teaching on abortion, sex outside of marriage, divorce, contraception, and the priesthood. They have done this even as they continue to articulate, and rearticulate in new ways, the Church’s modern recognition of the dual purposes of sexuality and of women’s fundamental equality with men.
John Paul II has been called John Paul the Great in part because he began the difficult task of reexamining and rearticulating biblical truths and Church teaching in light of modern philosophical insights into the human person and human experience, foremost among them freedom and equality. John Paul’s theology of the body, and the “new feminism” he championed, have afforded many intellectually curious Catholics a strong theoretical explanation for many truths of the faith that have been challenged in recent decades, especially those concerning sexuality and the role of women in the Church and in the world.
And yet, despite the rich theological explanation of these controversial topics in recent years, as well as a vibrant orthodox faith practiced by many John Paul II-inspired young Catholics, the Church continues to be perceived as anti-woman and anti-sex, sometimes virulently so. It’s as though some inside (and outside) the Church cannot fathom how the Catholic Church can so appreciate the dignity of women and the beauty of sex, and yet still stand firm in her views on abortion, sex, marriage, and the priesthood. For many, a deep disconnect remains between the Church’s new, modern emphasis on equality and freedom and her continued adherence to traditional teachings.
A practical, pro-woman defense of these controversial teachings is required to bridge the gap. As the late and beloved Elizabeth Fox-Genovese wrote: “A viable new feminism must directly confront the realm of practice . . . the real terrain of struggle . . . for most women understand their lives within [that] context” (Women in Christ). Ordinary Catholics (and non-Catholics alike) need to understand, in non-theological terms, why self-respecting women and women-loving men can faithfully live these controversial Church teachings in the modern world.
Abundant empirical evidence now exists that corroborates Church teaching on sex and marriage: straying from such teaching harms women, while embracing it helps women to flourish. John Paul II supplied the theology. Secular researchers substantiated it in practice. It’s now up to us to boldly proclaim it.
This essay is an excerpt from Women, Sex & the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching, now available from Pauline Books & Media.