Adding Context to Women, Sexuality, and the Church

By: Helen Alvaré

April 4, 2013

The Church in the World: Secular Morality and the Challenge of Gender

Professor Casanova’s recent Berkley Center Lecture and commentary could not be more timely. In myriad venues—legislatures, courts, the United Nations, and Internet blogs, to name a few—claims about the scope of religious freedom and about the contents of sexual morality and women’s freedom pit religious persons and institutions against some women’s rights and abortion rights groups.

Professor Casanova is distressed at what he perceives is the Catholic Church’s failure to negotiate altered landscapes respecting women’s equality and freedom. His concerns are three: the sex abuse crisis, the male priesthood, and the gap between sacred and secular notions of sexuality morality.

Turning first to the matter of clerical sex, Casanova rightly observes how this episode (the abuse and its mishandling) has reduced the credibility of some bishops and dioceses. I would agree with Casanova that it is not possible to overstate the incongruity between the scandal and the Church’s position on the importance of getting sexual and family behaviors right. Furthermore, the lack of transparency conveyed an “us versus them,” or “us without them,” mentality as between clergy and laity.

Professor Casanova is not crystal clear regarding how the scandal specifically diminishes the Church’s bona fides regarding women. Perhaps he is implying that the Church is harder on women by opposing contraception and abortion (positions declared “anti-woman” by some feminists), than it is on abusive male clerics.

Unfortunately for the important question—how to harmonize religious freedom and social participation, with the norm of women’s equality and freedom—Professor Casanova’s observations about women’s ordination and sexual morality are not as well-informed as his observations about the abuse crisis. It is difficult briefly to address his sweeping claims, but I will try in two themes.

The first theme is Professor Casanova’s stepping regularly outside his area of expertise. He claims specifically to speak as a sociologist, and to be unqualified theologically, yet makes more than a few theological claims. Of course, twenty-first century Americans, Catholic or not, will have a very difficult time understanding the male priesthood; but Casanova’s thin theological treatment, and his failure to present both sides accurately, won’t clarify. Once this theological question is broached, for example, at the very least, the works of Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, (previously a leading voice favoring women’s ordination) would have to be considered. Regarding Casanova’s drawing lines between lamentable developments in sexual morality, and acceptable ones—according to the principle of the sensus fidelium, and the practice of reading the “signs of the times”—a reader is entitled to a great deal more complete and more nuanced information about both of these theological subjects.

On the matter of women and equality and sexual morality, it is unclear when Professor Casanova is castigating the Church for failing to affirm women’s dignity and equality, and when he is suggesting that they reverse specific tenets of sexual morality. It is my educated guess that he is doing both. He claims that the Church offers only an “uncritical defense of a traditional form of societal culture.” This demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of the substantial body of theology produced not only by John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the subject, but also by self-described “new feminist” theologians within the Catholic Church. I will address this a bit more under the second theme.

Professor Casanova implies dark sexist motivations for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). He wrongly summarizes its theological basis as LCWR’s “sins of omission” (perhaps echoing the secular press’ reports that a lack of pro-life activism doomed the LCWR?) without attending to the written “doctrinal assessment” issued by the CDF. But that document clearly identified ecclesiological, anthropological, sacramental, and other doctrinal problems evident within the LCWR. One might better summarize the critique in Pope Francis’s words about the dangers of the Catholic Church becoming indistinguishable from a “compassionate NGO.” It is also true that the LCWR has been reluctant or worse on the abortion question (in a PBS interview following the assessment, its representative could not bring herself to affirm that killing the unborn is wrong), but that is not what occupied the vast majority of the report.

The second theme of my response overlaps with the first: the lack of attention to important texts relevant to his claims. Often, in fact, Casanova appears more attuned to popular accounts regarding the faith. A very troubling example is his complaint that the Church has failed to “address theologically” the gender question, and has instead “content[ed] itself with reaffirming traditional teachings” which “fail to come to terms” with “radical social transformation and with the signs of the times.”

Here he fails to mention John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem, nor his groundbreaking Letter to Women, nor then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s On the Collaboration of Men and Women (a CDF document), let alone the publications or website or conferences of the Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (disclosure: I am a consultant), nor the dozens of Catholic websites and blogs hosting Catholic women’s robust conversation on the meaning of being a Catholic woman today. On the “signs of the times, “ he never mentions the robust sociological, psychological, and economic literature indicating the “immiseration” of women in a relationship market where the sacredness and “price” of sex have plummeted due to the normalization of contraception and abortion. Humanae Vitae prophesied this nearly exactly.

Professor Casanova is certainly correct that the Church has spoken often about sexual morality. My experience as a woman who often bridges the Church and the world, however, would caution Professor Casanova against labeling this phenomenon “obsessive.” Spend a day with me at the United Nations watching as a fundamentally good document on women is infused by wealthy Western nations with dozens of unrelated references to sexual rights and code words for abortion. Then watch the Holy See’s attempts to return the document to its original purposes, and to achieve recognition of the sovereignty of pro-life nations. Or spend a day with the press officers at a diocese or national bishops' conference watching as they try to launch news about their efforts regarding migrants, or the poor, and get little to no press response.

I do not mean to be overly sensitive. But questions about women, sexual morality, and the Catholic Church have figured prominently over the last 26 years of my career; it is difficult to see them treated piecemeal, and without the proper sources and contexts.

At the same time, I don’t disagree with Professor Casanova that the Church has a difficult row to hoe in this world on the matter of women. Our teachings are caricatured, not studied, and the gap between our sexual morality and the world’s is growing. One terrific response would be for the Church to become a model to the world of “complementarity” —a prominent aspect of Catholic teaching about the equality of women and men. Already, women are rendering dispositive service to the Church. More are needed, however, not to satisfy a secular measure or “quota,” but to bring women’s gifts to the table in the spirit of service, which should characterize both male and female contributions. Without more such women, it would be all too easy for every level of the Church to fail to “see” and “know” what women can see and know with somewhat more ease. It would be all too easy to fall into the patterns etched into our two-sexed humanity by original sin—domination and subjection.

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