Church's idealisation of sexuality may be root of abuse

Tue, Nov 3, 2009, 00:00

RITE AND REASON:THE RECENT papal encyclical Caritas in Veritateis in many ways a wise and insightful reflection on the economic crisis. However, given the scandal created by the Ryan report, the people of Ireland may have good reasons for refusing to engage with a papal encyclical, even if it addresses a different scandal that has devastated so many of their lives.

But I wonder if Caritas in Veritateinadvertently reveals some of the problems inherent in the modern church’s teaching about human sexuality in a way that sheds some light on the conditions that allow a hidden culture of sexual abuse to take root. Caritas in Veritaterisks presenting a utopian ideal in its representation of marriage and the family, and this is part of the problem we have to address if the church is to become more effective and trustworthy in its ministries and teachings.

For much of its history, Catholicism has viewed all human sexuality with suspicion, with sex in marriage being acceptable only if its main purpose was procreation.

That attitude changed in the mid-20th century and, although openness to conception remains a sine qua non of sexual love, modern papal teachings acknowledge that married sex is good even when it has no procreative capacity.

But the pendulum has swung so far that we are now confronted with a romantic fantasy about marriage and the family that results in a naive and, I believe, dangerous attitude to sexuality.

The problem with high ideals is that they often fail to distinguish between the good, the not so good and the downright bad, so that everything short of perfection stands equally condemned.

Consciences that have been shaped by such moral absolutism may be unable to differentiate between the ordinary muddle of more or less healthy sexuality, and levels of sexual dysfunction that result in abusive and predatory behaviour.

At the level of priestly formation, if priests are not helped to understand and accept the complexity of their own and other people’s sexuality, a minority may end up trapped in a culture of loathing and contempt for sexual bodies and, for some, it may be a small step to visiting ever more extreme abuses on bodies that arouse sexual desire.

Caritas in Veritaterefers to “the beauty of marriage and the family”; it affirms Humanae Vitae and it repeatedly condemns abortion. When it discusses concerns on population growth, it does so by warning about the dangers of under-population.

It makes no mention of HIV/ Aids and it is silent on questions of maternal mortality and women’s reproductive health, despite the fact that an estimated 536,000 women die every year from causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth, 99 per cent of them in developing countries. These are startling omissions.

This apparent indifference to the suffering of sexual bodies (fertile women and those who have HIV/Aids) has deep roots, and there may be hidden connections between a culture of sexual abuse and a culture of sexual idealisation.

Pope Benedict fails to take seriously the complex realities and sometimes the tragic failures of marriage and family life, and he makes no acknowledgment of the difficult decisions that often confront us in the areas of reproduction and sexuality. I doubt if Josef Fritzl’s daughter would agree with his reference to “the primary competence of the family in the area of sexuality”.

If the church seeks to avoid further sex abuse scandals, then it urgently needs to reconsider its theology of human sexuality. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says St Paul. That may be true, but in the area of sexuality some sins are worse than others, and until the church acknowledges that, we shall remain trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea when it comes to Catholicism and sex.

Dr Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University, London, and director of the Catholic weekly, the Tablet. She will give a lecture on the subject of this article at St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, in Dublin on Thursday, November 5th, at 8pm