The Catholic hierarchy’s problem with sex: An obsolete understanding of the differences between men and women

By Jeanne Follman, Chicago in LaCroix, Sept 2018. This is a three-part series exploring the Catholic hierarchy’s problem with sex.

Part I looks at the Church’s outmoded understanding of the biological basis of sex itself, and what that means for beliefs about the differences between men and women. Part II compares the Church’s view of men and women with the way we used to think about race, and describes it as an ideology. Part III shows how Church teachings based on this view of men and women contradict other longstanding moral teachings of the Church, and have not been received by the faithful.

It’s not just the crisis of sexual abuse and cover up, which is ghastly enough. If we think back over the span of time since Vatican II, almost every divisive controversy within the Catholic Church has been about sex.

Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae kicked it off by declaring the use of artificial contraception a mortal sin. That ban generated enormous dissension among the faithful, clergy, and theologians, and even among many bishops.

It quieted down after a while, with the tacit agreement between the parties that the faithful and the clergy would ignore the ban and the bishops would ignore them ignoring it.

Sex still roils the Church today: insurance coverage of contraception; mandatory priestly celibacy; homosexuality and gay marriage; the ordination of women; cohabitation before marriage.

The fight over the reception of the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried has generated threats of schism.

The Synods of Bishops in 2014-2015 and the recent World Meeting of Families all ended up getting stuck on sex. The Catholic hierarchy simply can’t stop litigating who should have sex with whom, and how they should have it.

Yet when it comes to sex, the institutional Church regularly behaves in a way that is either painfully hapless or tragically destructive. Why is this so?

The failure in dealing with sex is driven by a host of things, including enforced priestly celibacy, a clerical culture, and an autocratic governance structure that expects obedience and rewards secrecy.

This is especially true of the crisis of sexual abuse and coverup. But underlying it all is an outmoded understanding of the biological basis of sex itself, and what that means for the differences between men and women.

This understanding affects not only its teachings, but ultimately the way in which the Church governs itself and behaves in the world, so it is well worth illuminating.

The Feminine Genius

Pope Francis has always admired women, even describing us as having a special “feminine genius” that men do not share.

He expressed it like this when he spoke to the Union of Superiors General in May 2016: “… women look at life through their own eyes and we men cannot look at it in this way. The way of viewing a problem, of seeing things, is different in a woman compared to a man. They must be complementary, and in consultations it is important that there are women.”

As flattering as such an attitude may be, what comes along with it is a bit more fraught.

In Church teaching on the subject, the feminine genius is defined by four key attributes. Women have a receptive nature, both biologically as they are built to receive new life, as well as spiritually.

They are sensitive, and are able to see the deepest needs of the heart. They are generous, and available to meet the needs of the surrounding community, and they are maternal, both within the individual family and among the whole human family.

The feminine genius of women nurturing children, one child at a time, can change the face of society.

The pope sees this feminine genius as a matter of ecclesiology – the theology of the Church itself, its nature and structure.

As Pope Francis explains, “In Catholic ecclesiology there are two dimensions to think about, the Petrine dimension, which is from the Apostle Peter and the Apostolic College, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops, as well as the Marian dimension, which is the feminine dimension of the Church.”

The Petrine dimension includes Peter and the apostles, and the roles of priests and bishops building and maintaining the life of the Church.

The Marian or feminine dimension includes the maternal work of bearing and raising children. This exercises the feminine genius and should be generalized to society so that women can humanize its structures and make society more homelike.

This view of men and women as innately different and complementary is foundational in the Church’s concept of itself and its response to the world.

The idea that men and women are innately different and complementary underpins its view of marriage as a partnership between a man and a woman as the root of the family; it is seen as a God-given certainty in an uncertain time, with the Church as the last bulwark against an encroaching secular West that seeks to blur sexual identities.

Since sex is proper only within the bounds of marriage and only if it is always open to procreation, birth control and sex outside of marriage are morally wrong.

Since male-female complementarity is essential to marriage, homosexual acts are disordered, and any attempts to make same-sex unions the equivalent of marriage are also wrong because they disregard the essential nature of an institution established by God.

And since men make up the Petrine dimension of the Church and women the Marian dimension, ordination to the priesthood (and thus Church governance) is reserved only to men.

The question is, is this an accurate way for the Church to think about men and women?

Obviously, it’s hard to argue with the fact that men and women in general are different. That’s a no-brainer.

In fact, much of feminist thought is taken up with identifying the ways in which sex affects how we see and interact with the world, and understanding and experiencing those different perspectives.

The groundbreaking 1982 book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development by Carol Gilligan is a classic example of this. Of course, men and women are different. That’s not the issue.

The issue is that in Church teachings, men and women must be different, must all be different, and their immutable, complementary differences must go on to define and constrain what each individual is obligated to do, as well as that from which each is excluded.

Men to one side, women to the other, each with their own innate sexual essence. And therein lies the problem.

We’ve seen this business of innate difference before, back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in how we used to think of race.

In Part II, we’ll explore how the Church’s view of the innate differences between men and women is eerily similar to the old, now-debunked understanding of race, and show that it is in fact an ideology.

Jeanne Follman is the author of When the Enlightenment Hit the Neighborhoods: The Waning of the Catholic Tradition — and Hope for Its Future.

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