Faith in our Bodies

I will begin with an anecdote. A male friend of mine once visited a massage parlour. During the post-coital chat the girl told him about her strict Catholic upbringing. One day her devout aunt in County Clare found out what she did for a living and, to her niece’s astonishment, took it in her stride.

“You’ll go straight to Heaven” she said. “It’s a lovely thing to do. When I think of all the poor lonely men you provide a little comfort to, I know the Lord will surely reward you,”

I mention this little episode as it shows that not all those of deep religious faith are posturing moralisers and not all hostile to sex workers. It also shows the gap, frequently a chasm, between the official teaching of the Catholic Church and the practical common sense of ordinary believers.

Officially sex is only licit if it is between couples with a canonically valid marriage and then only if the act is open to the transmission of life. The list of prohibitions resulting from this view is very long and includes

Oral sex

Anal sex

Masturbation – male definitely (it spills seed) and probably female although I can find no definitive pronouncement on this.


Extra- or pre- marital sex

Sexual acts between people of the same gender

BDSM is a grey area on which moral theologians express divergent views but a majority reject it.

It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that it’s OK in your pyjamas and with the lights out but otherwise it’s probably a mortal sin.  There is no sense of sex as an expression of love for your partner, sex as enjoyment, sex as an act of self-expression. Ideally there would be no sex. I once heard a priest talk approvingly of a married couple who had decided to live together as brother and sister with separate bedrooms and, of course, no sex. This does not sit well with any theology of marriage known to me but shows how the fear of sex can tip over into doctrinal unorthodoxy.

In practice most Catholics ignore the teachings. I have no idea how many of the diminishing numbers of those who go to confession at all ever confess to taking the pill or using condoms but I suspect not many. If, then, the official teachings are ignored why worry about them?  The reason is, in my view, that the fear of sex is at the root of misogyny within the Church.  I have discussed Eve in a previous post so will say nothing further here except to point out the contrast between Eve, who had sex, and lost humanity its place in the garden of Eden and Mary, the new Eve, who was a Virgin.  A woman playing a key role in salvation history must necessarily be a sexless one.

For nearly a thousand years the priesthood has been celibate. Compulsory celibacy has proved either unworkable in practice (in many parts of Europe it was entirely normal until recent times for the village priest to have a concubine) or harmful as priests were forced to live out a celibacy that were not called to with consequences such as rape, sexual assault, gay mafias in seminaries and so on. It also contributed to the priesthood becoming a caste, men apart who protected their own interests at the expense of the ordinary faithful. The consequences of this have become all too clear in recent years.

Women found themselves, still find themselves, shut out, second class believers. Only men can be priests. I once heard a Bishop say that priests enjoyed the ‘special friendship’ of Christ. This is a theologically dubious proposition and dismissive of both lay men and women. It is however particularly dismissive of women. None of us, it seems, can be a ‘special friend’ of Christ. Another dangerous proposition is the one that priests on ordination are somehow ‘configured to Christ’ as if all believers are not called to be configured to Christ or as if Christ’s defining characteristic was his genitalia.

A look at scripture gives a different view. We can read how Christ’s most intimate circle included several women, read St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, the Christian community at Corinth whose leader was Chloe, a woman.  Today it is women who make up the bulk of Catholic congregations, it is women who remain faithful to Christ as men fall away or betray their vocations.

What of women religious? I know a number of nuns who live celibate lives to which they are called and they are an inspiration. A number of them are feminists. Sadly even women who don’t have sex cannot be trusted and under both Benedict and John Paul II there were Inquisition style investigations into female religious orders. The message is clear. Women who think for themselves are not welcome here.

Yet women have so much to contribute to making the Church a better place. Yes, we need women priests, but that is not the answer in itself. The role of lay people must be transformed, lay women and also lay men. Most of all, the Church needs a healthy attitude to sex. It needs to teach that sex is good, a gift from God and part of His plan. The only bad sex is that based on coercion or deceit.

What are the doctrinal implications? If we are to have a Church that welcomes women, celebrates sex, do we need to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary? Where does the doctrine of original sin fit? Original sin is, in effect, transmitted by the sexual act. Some theologians have already begun to question the basis for this doctrine. A fresh understanding of sin and sinfulness is long overdue.

Women’s bodies are the work of God. When we make love we are not temptresses luring men to perdition but beautiful human beings doing the work of the Lord. And when we go to Heaven, let’s look out for a sex worker from Birmingham leading the way.



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