|Quite a few Catholic women are still worried about their periods. These are the kinds of questions they ask:
Is menstruation a sin?
Does the flow of blood make a woman unclean?
Does the Bible not teach that a woman should not enter Church if she is in her menstual cycle?
May I receive holy communion when I am in my period?
When I have my ‘menses’, may I enter the sanctuary and read from the pulpit?
Can I be baptised during menstruation?
In the face of so many lasting misunderstandings let it be clearly stated that, according to our Catholic belief, menstruation is a meaningful bodily function that does not in any way involve sin. A woman who is in her monthly period is, in God’s sight as holy and sacred as always, and the menstrual cycle should in no way prevent her from visiting a Church, attending Mass, receiving communion or any other sacrament.
I will now explain the reasons why this is so.
Why was the monthly ‘flow of blood’ considered a problem in the past?
Ancient cultural ignorance.
When human beings were still hunter-gatherers, menstruation went largely unnoticed. In settled, agricultural societies however, the monthly ‘flow of blood’ became a problem. Because of the absence of proper protective clothing at the time, it would make things ‘dirty’ in people’s houses. People did not understand the reason for it. So women were segregated from the family’s dwelling until the period was over. Menstrual blood became a taboo.
“Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze, and causes a horrible smell to fill the air. Dogs who taste the blood become mad, and their bite becomes poisonous as in rabies. The Dead Sea, thick with salt, cannot be drawn asunder except by a thread soaked in the poisonous fluid of the menstruous blood. A thread from an infected dress is sufficient. Linen, touched by the woman while boiling and washing it in water, turns black. So magical is the power of women during their monthly periods that they say that hailstorms and whirlwinds are driven away if menstrual fluid is exposed to the flashes of lightning” from Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), Natural History, book 28, ch. 23, 78-80; book 7, ch. 65.
The same kind of taboo was taken over by the Hebrews in the Old Testament. The Book of Leviticus (15,19-30) contained detailed prescriptions on the segregation and ‘cleansing’ of menstruating women.
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Although there were exceptions, such as a beautiful text in the 3rd-century Didascalia and guidance by Pope Gregory I, in 601 AD, Christians slid back into the old pagan prejudices. Because of menstruation, women were barred from attending church services, from receiving holy communion or from being admitted to the priestly ministry. Extensive documentation here. See also the article by Ute Ranke-Heinemann on Female Blood.
These prejudices were due to a lack of adequate facilities for personal hygiene and an appalling ignorance of the human body.
So how should we judge menstruation?
1. The physical facts
Menstruation is a normal function of a woman’s body. Every month, the womb is lined with nutritious tissue to receive the release of an ovum and to be prepared for the ovum to be fertilised with male sperm. When this does not happen, the lining is discarded which results in a flow of material rich in blood. It is part of the wonderful system by which a woman’s body is able to conceive children and bring them to birth.
Like any other discharge of the body, neglect can lead to problems. We should wash ourselves thoroughly and take other preventive measures. This is just a question of physical hygiene.
From a moral point of view there is no question of the menstrual flow of blood making the woman ‘unclean’. We may compare this to bodily sweat, which is another discharge. The body produces sweat to cool the body down. Sweat does not make us unclean in a moral sense of the term. Of course, if we neglect washing ourselves, the sweat becomes really dirty. But physical discharges do not make us sinful, less holy or less worthy of being in church.
2. The religious angle
The taboos surrounding menstruation that arose in Jewish and Christian tradition should be firmly discarded.
After a long discussion with the Rabbis of his time on questions of ritual cleanliness (see Mark 7,1-13), Jesus clearly taught his disciples that the only things that make us unclean are sins which proceed from the evil intentions of the heart. No external, physical realities can make us ‘unclean’ in God’s eyes.
Jesus said: “It is from within, from people’s hearts, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within (the heart). They make a person unclean” (Mark 7,14-23).