Christian Sexual Ethics and Injustice Against Women

A Case of Collusion?

From New Directions in Sexual Ethics by Kevin T. Kelly, Geoffrey Chapman, 1998, Ch. 3

Readers in the developing world might feel that my first chapter had the air of criticizing their culture from a stance of presumed superiority. To counteract that danger, I would like to begin this chapter by showing how Christianity itself grew up in a highly patriarchal cultural milieu and absorbed a patriarchal mind-set into much of its lifestyle, structures and theology. In fact, some even claim that missionary Christianity, far from combating patriarchy in the developing world, actually increased its influence and thereby aggravated the situation still further. Though there are some hopeful signs that things might be changing, it cannot be denied that the legacy of patriarchy is still with us in the Church – and in Western society as a whole.


In his book The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (London, Faber & Faber, 1988), Peter Brown offers a thoroughly researched and highly acclaimed over-view of the development of attitudes towards sexuality in the early Christian centuries. The picture he paints embodies the kind of complexity one would expect in the development of thought and practice of the newly formed Christian Church as it takes root in different localities and interacts with a variety of philosophical and religious interpretations of the place of sexuality in human life. Naturally, how women fit into this picture is a major feature of his study. Here, too, the picture is complex and far from monochrome. The background which provides the starting-point for his study is very revealing:

In the second century A.D., a young man of the privileged classes of the Roman Empire grew up looking at the world from a position of unchallenged dominance. Women, slaves, and barbarians were unalterably different from him and inferior to him. The most obtrusive polarity of all, that between himself and women, was explained to him in terms of a hierarchy based upon nature itself, (p. 9)

Brown’s account of the biological base on which this attitude of male dominance over women was founded is even more startling:

Biologically, the doctrine said, males were those fetuses who had realized their full potential. They had amassed a decisive surplus of ‘heat’ and fervent ‘vital spirit’ in the early stages of their coagulation in the womb. The hot ejaculation of male seed proved this: ‘For it is the semen, when possessed of vitality, which makes us men, hot, well-braced in limbs, heavy, well-voiced, spirited, strong to think and act.’

Women, by contrast, were failed males. The precious vital heat had not come to them in sufficient quantities in the womb. Their lack of heat made them more soft, more liquid, more clammy-cold, altogether more formless than were men. Periodic menstruation showed that their bodies could not burn up the heavy surpluses that coagulated within them. (pp. 9-10)

Brown comments that these assertions ‘had already been made for over half a millennium by this time, and they would continue to be made until this century. They effectively confined women to a lower place than men in an irrefutable, “natural” hierarchy’ (p. 10). Moreover, they also helped to explain homophobia in men, since male heat ‘unless actively mobilised, might cool, leading even a man to approach the state of a woman’ (p. 10). In such a view of the sexual differentiation, for a man to become ‘womanish’ would be a much-feared form of regression.

This was the thought-world into which early Christianity began to insert itself. While it rejected the male sexual licence which was one possible consequence of such thinking, it took for granted its view of the natural dominance of men over women. Facing the challenge of the Gospel against this background led to a variety of personal and community lifestyles among Christians. Some, like the second-century Gnostic, Valentinus, were so strongly dismissive of women that they portrayed the redemption of women as consisting in their virtually becoming men.

By and large, during the first two centuries the main body of the Church was family based. Naturally, the model of the family here was the patriarchal one accepted in the culture of the time. This would also have been in keeping with the Jewish origins of these Christian communities. It seems to have been only in more radical groups that women had a status on a par with men even if, as with the followers of Valentinus, this was based on their becoming honorary men of a kind. The more settled Christian communities were more likely to follow the rabbinical attitude according to which ‘to teach Torah to one’s daughter was tantamount to teaching her immorality’ (p. 118) and ‘it is better to burn Torah than allow a woman to handle it’ (p. 145).

The picture changed in the third and fourth centuries, initially through the influence of Origen. His writings, along with those of other bishops and clergy of the period, have left their mark on Christian tradition. With them celibacy began to offer the model for Christian living. At first, this simply meant post-marital celibacy after one’s partner had died. However, it quickly turned into a mystique of virginity, understanding it as a single-minded commitment to the Kingdom. Marriage was tolerated as a sin-infected second-best but not a way of life which befitted Church leaders. Paradoxically, in some ways this pro-celibacy attitude helped to promote the equality of women. For instance, the status accorded to post-marriage celibacy gave some wealthy widows the opportunity to gain great influence and play a prominent role in the life of the Christian community. Likewise, the growing attachment to virginity enabled some girls to find an identity for themselves other than the serving role of wife and mother. Nevertheless, within a patriarchal Church, virginity for young women was largely seen from the angle of their not providing a temptation to men. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that when the bishops met at Elvira around 303 a quarter of their decisions were about increased control over the conduct of women in the community.

This concern of the bishops was fully in line with the accepted wisdom that part of the God-given role of men was to control the conduct of women. Women by their nature were called to be naturally submissive to men. This was seen as a basic principle of Church order. This view of women led some to such an extreme as to assert that women were made in the image of men, not of God. That was why the possibility of their being priests was dismissed as ‘absurd’ by some writers. Evidence of this position is found in the very influential fourth-century commentary on 1 Corinthians by an anonymous Roman priest, commonly referred to as Ambrosiaster:

‘Women should keep silence in the church’. In an earlier passage Paul has ordered that women should be veiled in church. Now he explains that unless they are quiet and reserved, there is no purpose in their being veiled. For, if the image of God is man, and not woman, and if she is subject to man on account of natural law, how much more in church should she be submissive. . . . Although woman is one flesh with man, there are two reasons why she is, nevertheless, ordered to be submissive: first, because she originated from man; and. secondly because through her sin entered the world, (quoted in R. Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1976, pp. 92-3)

Against such a background it is understandable that the kind of lifestyle advocated by Eustathius, for a time guide to Basil the Great, was felt to pose a subversive threat to society and the Church since, as Brown notes, it ‘denied the subjection of women’ (The Body and Society, p. 288). The law quickly moved against practices which were seen to contradict what were considered to be natural symbols of women’s subservience to men:

Women gained their equality by shaving their heads. With the removal of the ‘natural veil’ of long hair, so the bishops claimed, women were encouraged to throw off the sign ‘which God gave to every woman as a reminder of her subjection, thus annulling, as it were, the ordinance of subjection.’ As late as 390, Imperial laws threatened to depose any bishop who allowed such women into his church; for ‘under the inspiration of their ascetic persuasion (such women acted) against the laws human and divine’. (Brown, pp. 288-9)

Within marriage, too, the subordination of women was firmly in place. For John Chrysostom what mattered most was the right ordering of hierarchical relationship within the family. This is a far cry from a relationship based on mutuality and equality between husband and wife:

The successful running of a Christian household . . . assumed the dominance of the male within the family, of the husband over his wife, and of the father over his children. By successfully absorbing the young wife into his household, the husband would cut her off from the alluring ‘vainglory’ of civic life. Gently, but firmly, she was to be moulded, ‘like wax’, by her husband. (Brown, p. 312)

Although prior to his ‘conversion’, the younger Augustine was for eighteen years faithful to his concubine who bore him a son, Adeodatus (literally, ‘the God-given one’), his general attitude to women and their place in marriage and the family seems to imply that women precisely as women are not equal to men. For instance, he states very categorically that he can sec no reason other than procreation for God’s making women since they are so obviously inferior to men and hence are dispensable in every other respect. His justification for the separate existence of women as distinct from men is seen as a purely functional one:

If woman has not been made to help man by bearing children, what other kind of help can she give? Not manual labour, since men are better at that than women; nor for company when a man is feeling lonely; another man is much better company and you can have a much more worthwhile conversation with a man than with a woman; not even for the sake of having people who, because naturally submissive to men, are willing to obey orders -when obeying orders is needed, men have shown they can do that just as well as women. So honestly, the only reason 1 can see why God made women is to bear children. (De Gen, ad litt, IX, n. 5)

Moreover, since women provoke the disturbance of sexual arousal in men, Augustine sees them as occasions of sin precisely because of their female sexuality. Hence, even their functionality as channels of procreation is not morally neutral. They cause sexual passion to be aroused in men with the consequent loss of rational control over the body. This is dehumanizing for a man, since it lowers him to the level of brute creation. The power of sin is obviously in operation in such a tragic event and woman is the occasion of this sin. Clearly, this is far from a belief in the full and equal dignity of women. Moreover, Augustine also locates the presence of sin in women not just in their bodily sexuality but also in the disruption of their natural subservience to men. This point is made clearly by the Australian theologian, Kim Power, in her penetrating study on Augustine’s attitude to women, Veiled Desire: Augustine’s Writing on Women (London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1995):

When it came to gender relations, Augustine perceived women as inferior and subservient to men, even before the Fall, but he argued that then this subordination would have been a bond of love, a kind of benevolent despotism where men would lead in love and women would love to obey. Since the Fall, this inherent concord is problematic. Spouses may still serve each other with love, but male domination is mandatory to prevent the increase of corruption and sin. Given his overriding assumptions concerning order, the implication here is that female autonomy, as well as female leadership, has a corrupting effect and would inevitably lead to disorder, (p. 33)

Nevertheless, there is considerable ambiguity, even inconsistency perhaps, in the thought and feelings of Augustine on this topic. At times, he extols the depth of friendship that can exist between men and women, although in marriage he seems to think that this is only achieved through the couple’s growing beyond the genital dimension of their relationship. Also, he has a great respect and love for his mother, Monica, and is deeply impressed by the spiritual insights she offers in conversation to himself and his learned male friends.

Many writers have given ample proof that this belief in the inferiority of women and its practical implications for family, Church and society continued down through the centuries right to our own day. It was still alive when I was at seminary in the 1950s. The textbook of moral theology which I studied as part of my preparation for priestly ordination contained the following statement:

The reason why a woman cannot receive holy orders is because the clerical state demands a certain superiority since it involves ruling the faithful; whereas a woman by her very nature is inferior to man and subject to him. (H. Noldin, Summa Theologiae Moralis, vol III, De Sacramenlis, Barcelona, Herder, 27th edn, 1951, n. 465)

As will be seen later in the chapter, one of the theological arguments given by the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for rejecting the possibility of women being ordained to the priestly ministry is that, ‘in the light of what is specific to being male and female’, only men can be an ‘icon’ of Christ. As many theologians, male and female, have pointed out, this line of argument seems to locate the Incarnation in the maleness of Christ rather than in his humanity. Perhaps deep in the Church’s unconscious memory, there is still a remnant both of Ambrosiaster’s conviction that it is men and not women who really image God and of the fear that right order would be threatened if women were to share equally in ministry and authority in the Church! If that woundedness exists deep in the Church’s subconscious memory, the Spirit is surely calling the Church to a healing of memories through women’s growing awareness of their full human dignity and through this being acknowledged as one of the ‘signs of the times’ in our day.

In the next part of this chapter I would like to explore how some recent statements of John Paul II can be seen as signs of hope which could offer a positive contribution towards this healing of memories. However, there is still a long way to go as I hope to show in the final part of this chapter. Responding to the challenge of a ‘reconstruction’ of gender relationships in the Church needs more than inspiring words. Structural injustice cannot be remedied without radical structural change.


In a number of statements in 1995 in connection with the United Nations’ 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, Pope John Paul II committed himself to a public recognition of the ‘pro-women’ moral imperative of our age. For instance, in his message of 26 May 1995 to the UN Conference presented to its Secretary General, Mrs Gertrude Mongella (text in Briefing, 17 August 1995, pp. 16-18), he states:

Solutions to the issues and problems raised at the conference, if they are to be honest and permanent, cannot but be based on the recognition of the inherent, inalienable dignity of women, and the himportance of women’s presence and participation in all aspects of social life. (n. 2, italics as in text)

The Pope also acknowledges that for the full dignity of women to be given true recognition at a practical level, structural changes will need to be made within society:

Profound changes are needed in the attitudes and organisation of society in order to facilitate the participation of women in public life, while at the same time providing for the special obligations of women and men with regard to their families. In some cases changes have also to be made to render it possible for women to have access to property and to the management of their assets. (n.5)

This leads the Pope to insist that ‘greater efforts are needed to eliminate discrimination against women in areas that include education, health care and employment’ (n. 6). He also denounces ”the terrible exploitation of women and girls which exists in every part of the world’ (n. 7) and singles out for special mention the sexual exploitation of women. A striking passage in the Pope’s message states that the full recognition of the equal dignity of women and men will not be properly respected unless its financial implications are faced. He even suggests that a deregulated free-market economy is more likely to exploit women rather than to promote their true equality:

Women’s greater presence in the work force, in public life, and generally in the decision-making processes guiding society, on an equal basis with men, will continue to be problematic as long as the costs continue to burden the private sector … In the perspective of uncontrolled free-market policies there is little hope that women will be able to overcome the obstacles on their path. (n. 8)

jWhat is particularly significant for the issues under consideration in this chapter is the Pope’s advertence to ‘social and cultural conditioning’ which, he says, ‘does not permit women to become aware of their own dignity, with drastic consequences for the proper balance of society and with continuing pain and despair on the part of so many women’ (n. 8). The Pope’s point about social conditioning denying women access to the appreciation of their own dignity is taken up by Professor Mary Ann Glendon, Head of the Holy See’s Delegation, in her opening address at Beijing (text in Briefing., 19 October 1995, pp. 16-19). She applauds the draft Platform of Action for its commitment ‘to free women at last from the unfair burdens of cultural conditioning that have so often prevented them even from becoming conscious of their own ‘dignity’ (n, 1).

Professor Glendon’s point about the enormous harm suffered by women as a result of cultural conditioning is made even more forcefully in the Pope’s Letter to Women issued on the 29 June 1995 (text in The Tablet, 15 July 1995, pp. 917-19). There he acknowledges that the Church has played a part in this ‘anti-woman’ cultural conditioning and actually offers a public apology for it:

Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity. Certainly it is no easy task to assign the blame for this, considering the many kinds of cultural conditioning which down the centuries have shaped ways of thinking and acting. And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision, (n. 3)

After a deeply felt and obviously well-meant but slightly patronizing series of ‘thank you’s to women in various walks of life, the remainder of the first half of the letter constitutes a very powerful statement of the full and equal dignity of women and an impassioned denunciation of the ways in which women’s dignity continues to be violated today. A few quotations should amply demonstrate the strong ‘pro-women’ character of this section of the letter:

There is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic state. This is a matter of justice but also of necessity, (n. 4)

How can we not mention the long and degrading history, albeit often an ‘underground’ history, of violence against women in the area of sexuality? At the threshold of the third millennium we cannot remain indifferent and resigned before this phenomenon. The time has come to condemn vigorously the types of sexual violence which frequently have women for their object and to pass laws which effectively defend them from such violence. Nor can we fail, in the name of respect due to the human person, to condemn the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality and corrupts even very young girls into letting their bodies be used for profit, (n. 5)

Similar points, are made by Professor Glendon in her Beijing opening address:

Women must be guaranteed measures of economic and social security which reflect their equal dignity, their equal rights to ownership of property and access to credit and resources. The effective contribution of women’s work to economic security and social well-being is often greater than that of men. (Briefing, p. 17)

The majority of those who today live in abject poverty are women and children. Efforts must be strengthened to eliminate all those cultural and legal obstacles which impair the economic security of women . . . No part of the world is without its scandal of poverty which strikes women most. . . The ‘feminisation of poverty’ must be of concern to all women. Its social, political and economic roots must be addressed, (p. 18)

Concerned women must take the lead in the fight against societal practices which facilitate the irresponsibility of men while stigmatising women, and against a vast industry that extracts its profits from the very bodies of women, while at the same time purporting to be their liberators . . . More must be done to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation, (p. 19)

Noting the attitude of Jesus Christ himself who ‘transcended the norms of his own culture and treated women with openness, respect, Acceptance and tenderness’, the Pope puts a challenging question before the whole Church at the end of the second millennium: ‘How much of his message has been heard and acted upon?’ By referring to this moment in history, ‘at the end of this millennium’, the Pope seems to be making his own the conviction of Paul VI that one of the major ‘signs of the times’ for our day is the growing consciousness among women of their full and equal dignity as human persons and the move-ment among them to break free from attitudes, beliefs and practices which explicitly or implicitly contradict this dignity. The Pope seems to saying that if we want to hear the message of Christ for our day we lust listen respectfully to what these inspired women are saying and recognize the action of God’s Spirit at work in their movement for liberation.

There is a growing conviction among many Christians, including many theologians, that ‘the time of AIDS’ is a kairos time, a defining moment. This challenging insight seems to have originated with the Irish theologian, Enda McDonagh, a member of the Caritas Internationalis AIDS Task Force. He has explored its implications in numerous talks across the world and in various articles he has written (cf. ‘Theology in a time of AIDS’, in Irish Theological Quarterly, 1994, pp. 81-99 and reprinted in his Faith in Fragments, Maynooth Bicentenary Series, Dublin, Columba Press, 1996, chap. 11). Understanding the present as a kairos moment in a theological sense means seeing it as a time in which we are being offered the opportunity to play our part in one of God’s mighty wonders. In the context of what the Pope has said, I would suggest that there is a convergence of two impulses of the Spirit taking place here. We are living in ‘a time of AIDS’ and we are also living in ‘a time of women’. Though each of these kairos moments may contain its own specific challenge and opportunity nevertheless, there is a considerable overlap between them.

This seems to be particularly true in the realm of Christian sexual ethics. I believe that we cannot really hear the challenge to sexual ethics found in ‘the time of AIDS’ unless there is the full participation of women in this interpretative listening process. It is as though the experience-based theological reflection of women is fashioning a clearer lens enabling the Church to see what needs to be done. In other words, if we were not living in an age in which God’s Spirit is speaking in new ways through the voices of women interpreting their own experience, the Church might not be able to interpret accurately what God’s Spirit is saying in ‘the time of AIDS’. To be more specific, in so far as theology, including moral theology, is still dominated by men and moral teaching is formulated and articulated almost exclusively by men, male theologians and the men invested with episcopal teaching authority must listen to the voices of women interpreting their own experience. Moreover, women must have a full and equal role in the deliberations arising out of this process. Today it is the critical analysis of women rather than the solutions of men which must be listened to. This is not an abdication of theological integrity or teaching authority. It is simply responding to a movement of God’s Spirit enabling the Church to be more truly itself through empowering women and men equally to reflect more truly in their lives the relational God in whose image we are all created.


The Pope’s letter to Women provoked a variety of reactions among women. A selection of these are found in The Tablet, 15 July 1995, pp. 920-1. Some, like Pat Jones, were encouraged by the letter’s general tone, its acknowledgement of the harm done to women by social conditioning, its willingness to apologize for the Church’s part in this and the sign it gives that ‘the Church is reaching for a new language and a deeper dialogue about men and women, and our social] and personal relationships’. Others, like Pia Buxton, were more muted in their welcome, pointing out the pain and confusion caused by fact that ‘the Church’s teaching may be experienced as contradictory and at variance with its practice’.

Understandably, many women were saddened, some even angered, by the Pope’s insistence once again on the notion of ‘ontological complementarity’ to explain the gender differentiation between men and women. Clearly, much of the Pope’s letter could only have been written as a result of his careful listening to the voices of women articulating their experiences of oppression. Hence, women theologians found it difficult to understand how, on this particular point, he seemed unable to hear what they were saying in the light of their own experience and that of their sisters.

By incorporating the notion of ‘ontological complementarity’ into his theology, the Pope is choosing one particular view among many in the area of gender analysis. Moreover, it is a view which is rejected by the majority of women theologians since it does not correspond to their own experience and that of most other women. The theory of ‘ontological complementarity’ maintains that the distinction between men and women has been so designed by God that they complement each other, not just in their genital sexual faculties but also in their minds and hearts and in the particular qualities and skills they bring to life, and specifically to family life. In other words, it necessarily predisposes men and women to mutually complementary roles within marriage and family life in such a way that this role-predisposition is an intrinsic part of their personal identity and will always influence their behaviour, even if they never actually undertake this role. In practice, this would mean that the thinking and behaviour of women will be strongly coloured by their predisposition to motherhood. As we have already seen, Christian tradition has interpreted the roles of father and mother through a patriarchal-coloured lens.

Kim Power makes this point very powerfully in her above-mentioned study of Augustine:

In recent decades, religious attitudes to women, encoded in canonical texts, have been made more conscious and overt in the debates over the liturgical participation and ordination of women. From these it has become clear that although the Catechisms might proclaim that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, this is not necessarily interpreted as applying to men and women in the same way . . .

The ontological inferiority of women found in the ancient texts has been supplanted by the argument from complementarity. Woman is now equal but different, and the difference determines her destiny and her subordination . . .

Both ancient and modern writings appeal to a biological determinism to legitimate the structures of power in heterosexual social relations. In both, the explanation of woman’s nature is totally male-defined, that is, androcentric. Androcentrism is any mode of thinking, understanding or expression which is formed almost exclusively by male experience and understanding and which identifies male experience with ‘human’ experience. (Veiled Desire, p. 4)

The ‘ontological complementarity’ interpretation highlights certain specific aspects of gender difference, as popularly envisaged by many people today, and endows these different characteristics with a timeless and unchanging character. They are presented as constituting the ‘essence’ of being a man or a woman. As we have already noted, the trouble with this position is that it overlooks the fact that our gender difference as we experience it today is the product of the process of social construction down through the ages. This makes it impossible for us to isolate out any particular factors as pertaining to the timeless essence of being a man or a woman. Ultimately, the ‘ontological complementarity’ position is oppressive and deterministic since it implies that we cannot examine critically whether the gender roles we receive as given today are not, in fact, the end-product of an ongoing process of social construction and therefore open to further transformation in the light of what is in keeping with the dignity of human persons.

Women theologians do not deny the obvious fact that men and women are different. However, they are saying that the ‘ontological complementarity’ view put forward by the Pope and shared uncritically by many Christians is not a true interpretation of reality since it oversimplifies the complexity of the phenomenon of gender differentiation. For most women theologians the Pope’s position is an instance of the kind of ‘unicausal’ reductionist approach criticized by Elaine Graham for failing to do justice to the multidimensional factors at play (cf. supra, p. 35). Moreover, it seems to imply that the very heart of being a woman lies in her being complementary to man. This comes perilously close to a definition based on deficiency. It seems to suggest that to be a woman is to be someone designed to complement men and needing the complementarity of men for completion. Of course, the same objection can be raised about defining men in this way. Women theologians are not denying that complementarity is an aspect of being a woman or a man but they are claiming that it does not get to the heart of what it means to be a woman – or a man, for that matter.

Moreover, in practice the ontological complementarity approach unconsciously tends to collude in the kind of oppression the Pope has been denouncing so vehemently. In this way, it can constitute an obstacle to the genuine liberation of women which the Pope sees as a Gospel imperative for our day.

Many women also reacted against the way the Pope used the notion of ‘ontological complementarity’ to rule out the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood. He argued that their exclusion was based on ‘the “iconic” complementarity of male and female roles’ (Letter to Women, n. 11). Although the main thrust of his argument is that Christ only ordained men and the Church must follow his example, nevertheless, he seems to suggest that, in so doing, Christ and his Church are conforming to the natural or ontological order of ‘what is specific to being male and female’. For instance, he teaches that ‘Christ . . . entrusted only to men the task of being an “icon” of his countenance as “shepherd” and “bridegroom” of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood’. However, he prepares the ground for this assertion by stating that ‘the presence of a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity is not the result of an arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female’ (n. 11). Hence, there seems some ambiguity in the Pope’s claim that the ineligibility of women for the priesthood is based on ‘Christ’s free and sovereign choice’.

Furthermore, there is a certain inconsistency in the Pope’s stance on ‘ontological complementarity’. He rightly observes that ‘we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent’ and that ‘in every lime and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women’. However, if that is true, it follows that no element in gender differentiation as currently operating can be regarded as immune from this historical conditioning. That means that if we are to subject this historical conditioning to critical appraisal, we will need to introduce some kind of external bench-mark to act as our criterion of evaluation. That is precisely what the Pope does when he appeals to ‘respect due to the human person’ in order to criticize our contemporary culture for its exploitation of women. However, the inconsistency in his position, as noted by women theologians, is that he fails to apply that same criterion to the specific factors of gender differentiation which he isolates out as constituting the essence of being a woman. In real life, women actually experience the effects of this ‘ontological complementarity’ approach as oppressive and contradictory to their dignity as human persons. That is why they would challenge the Pope with his own words:

one can also appreciate that the presence of a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity is not the result of an arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female. (Letter to Women, n. 11, in The Tablet, 15 July 1995, p. 919)

Most women theologians claim that the teaching of the Pope on the complementary roles which he sees as specific to men and women is, in their personal experience as women, ‘prejudicial to women’. They regard it as ‘an arbitrary imposition’. And, in the case of the exclusion of women from the ministerial priesthood, this ‘arbitrary imposition’ is even given the ultimate seal of divine approval by suggesting that it is grounded in ‘Christ’s free and sovereign choice’.

A discussion of the ordination of women might seem out of place in a book exploring new directions in sexual ethics in the light of the AIDS pandemic. However, I hope the above analysis shows that the exclusion of women from the priesthood seerns to be linked to the kind of mind-set which we saw in Chapter One to be at odds with the full and equal dignity of women and, as such, undergirding cultural attitudes and practices which leave women very exposed to HIV infection.


Since sexual ethics is about being true to who we are as sexual persons, this means that at certain moments in history its focus will be much more on liberation from sexually oppressive structures and behaviour than on formulating universal norms. The ‘time of AIDS’ and the ‘time of women’ together constitute such a moment. That is why I am arguing that the focus of a Christian sexual ethic for today will be mainly on liberating women – and men – from the oppressive and dehumanizing influence of everything that goes to make up patriarchy. As we have seen, one of those things is heterosexuality, understood in the sense of ‘ontological complementarity’. Patriarchy needs heterosexuality as one of its building blocks. The sexes need to be clearly distinct if the superiority of men over women is to operate effectively.

The way this critical analysis seems to have come about among some women is through reflecting upon their experience of sexual relationships. They have come to realize that what most women have been looking for has been a deep and enduring personal relationship, lived out in a spirit of mutuality and equality. What many women have, in fact, experienced has been a relationship based on power, exploitation and manipulation. Very often they have felt they have been ‘used’, either for pleasure or for procreation. Their experience of marriage has frequently been that of being ‘owned’ by their husband. As we have seen, this notion has a long history and is still very much alive, though more blatant in some cultures than in others.

Reflecting on their own experience has led many women to become aware that where they most fully experience equality and mutuality in a relationship is with one or other of their women friends. Their best friend is actually another woman. Elizabeth Stuart notes that ‘in the 1987 Hite Report on Women and Love, a staggering 87 per cent of married women and 95 per cent of single women claimed that they had their deepest emotional relationship with a woman friend’ (Just Good Friends, p. 97). For the most part, though these women have a deep and affectionate love for each other, they do not feel any desire to give this love any kind of genital expression. Nevertheless, reflecting on this experience has raised serious questions for them in the field of sexual ethics. Why do they enjoy an equal and mutual relationship with a woman friend when they do not relate to their husbands in the same way? Is this saying something about the male-female sexual (i.e. heterosexual) relationship? Are the intrinsic dynamics of that relationship necessarily bound up with notions of domination and conquest on the one hand, and submission and manipulation on the other?

Women theologians refuse to answer ‘Yes’ to this last question. Even if this is how many heterosexual relationships operate, they would claim that this need not necessarily be the case. This oppressive model of heterosexuality is a social construction and, as such, it is open to reconstruction. Such liberating reconstruction is part of the practical agenda arising from Christian feminist theology. Moreover, these women theologians would refuse to answer ‘Yes’ to that same question on theological grounds as well. As Christians we believe we are relational persons created in the image of a relational God. Hence, they would argue that our model for relationship is essentially one of mutuality and interdependence between persons who are equal, though distinct and unique.

Although the way into this Christian feminist critique has been gthrough rejecting the sexual oppression of women in all its ramifications, it eventually arrives at a point where it is challenging Christian sexual ethics to be truer to its real theological foundations. Christian sexual ethics has been too uncritical in its acceptance of heterosexuality as its basic starting-point. It has too readily assumed that the only truly human sexual relationship is that between a man and a woman. Any sexual relationship deviating from that norm is a deviant relationship, with ‘deviant’ here meaning ethically deviant in the sense of contradicting what it means to be truly human and not merely socially deviant in the sense of being a minority behaviour. What many women theologians are suggesting is that we need to explore whether, theologically, what might be morally deviant is heterosexuality itself, at least in some of the ways it is currently lived out and embodied in our different cultures and institutions. Clearly, this issue is also one of major concern to gay theologians too. However, it would only confuse the discussion if I introduced their experience-based reflections at this juncture. The following chapter will examine their thinking in more detail.

This long discussion of heterosexuality as a social construct might seem light-years removed from the plight of many of the women affected by HIV/AIDS mentioned in the first part of this essay. However, a little reflection will show that they are intimately connected.

In Chapter One we saw how it is the inferior status of these women which has left them prey to HIV/AIDS. This inferior status is not due to any personal deficiency in them as individuals. It is due to the fact that they are women and that, in their cultures, women are regarded as second-class citizens. They are subject to sexual and economic subordination. This is patriarchy in action. The precise form this sexual and economic subordination takes needs to be examined critically in each culture. How precisely women are viewed as different from men may well vary from culture to culture, but the common thread linking them all seems to be that what makes women different also makes them inferior. Hence, they are subordinate to men and subject to them. This has practical implications in those areas of life where women and men come into contact with each other – marriage, family school, work-place, medicine, politics and, of course, religion. I say ‘and, of course, religion’ because religion normally seems to play an important role in legitimating this system of gender differentiation. In some way or other religion tends to interpret it as ‘divinely ordained’. Alison Webster makes a thought-provoking observation in this connection: ‘When a particular ideal is labelled “God-given” the immediate effect is to discourage exploration of its origin and rationale. We are diverted from asking crucial questions about whose interests are served by it’ (Found Wanting: Women, Christianity and Sexuality, London, Cassell, 1995, p. 42).

The theory of social construction in general, but particularly its application to gender differentiation, can provide the key to open the prison door of a culture which is experienced by women as oppressive, It enables women to see their oppression as the result of history rather than of destiny. And since history is formed by human hands, it can also be re-formed by human hands.

The seed of hope sown by this transition from destiny to social construction can be brought to life by the insight that liberating engagement with the process of social construction actually is a response to the will of God as made known to us today. In other words, what is ‘divinely ordained’ is not something static and unalterable, namely, heterosexuality in the oppressive ways in which it is currently experienced by many women. Rather, what is ‘divinely ordained’ is the dynamic and liberating mission of reconstructing gender relations in a way which is more in keeping with the human dignity of every human person. Moreover, increasingly it is becoming appreciated that patriarchy in its various guises is dehumanizing for men as well as for women. Since we are relational beings through and through, men’s relationship with women will not be the enriching experience it can be if it is distorted by false notions of male superiority and female inferiority or by denying each other the freedom to break out of socially constructed gender roles. Hence, the transformative practice of liberating cultures from their oppressive patriarchal dimension is as much the concern of men as it is of women. Professor Mary Ann Glendon, Head of the Holy See’s Delegation to the 1995 Beijing UN Conference on Women, began her opening address by stressing her delegation’s belief that the outcome of such a transformation of society will be of enormous benefit to all:

The historical oppression of women has deprived the human race of untold resources. Recognition of the equality in dignity and fundamental rights of women and men, and guaranteeing access by all women to the full exercise of those rights will have far-reaching consequences and will liberate enormous reserves of intelligence and energy sorely needed in a world that is groaning for peace and justice, (n. 1. in Briefing 19 October 1995, p. 16)

She returns to the same point at the end of her address when she says that ‘the freer women are to share their gifts with society, and to assume leadership in society, the better are the prospects for the entire human community to progress in wisdom, justice and dignified living’ (n. 4, Briefing, p. 19).


One of the points I have been arguing in this chapter is that sexual ethics is about more than specific norms for sexual behaviour. Much more fundamentally it is about dismantling the cultural conditioning which, in the words of John Paul II, ‘has prevented women from truly being themselves and has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity’ (Letter to Women, n. 3). I believe the Pope gives very high priority to this task which he sees as being bound up with ‘fidelity to the Gospel vision’ (loc. cit.). In other words, for him this is an essential part of the Good News of the Gospel.

As we have already seen, the Pope is wedded to the notion of ‘ontological complementarity’. In no way does he see this as violating the equal dignity of women. I believe that, if he did, he would change his view immediately. However, at present, he seems unable to hear women theologians telling him that, in practice, the kind of ‘ontological complementarity’ he espouses is experienced by them as oppressive and fails to do justice to their true dignity as human persons. Though he does not see it this way at present, it might be part of that cultural conditioning for which the Pope, in his Letter to Women, is prepared, on behalf of the Church, to accept ‘objective blame’ and say ‘I am truly sorry’.

The Pope’s version of ‘ontological complementarity’ differs somewhat from that held in the early Church and in subsequent centuries. However, it still needs to be looked at with a critical eye. An understanding of the process of social construction helps us appreciate that gender differentiation is simply part of a wider and much more complex pattern of social relationships. This comes out even in the way the structures of the Church operate. In practice, maintaining the inadmissibility of women to the ministerial priesthood has had the result that, for the most part, women have been marginalized when it comes to important levels of decision-making in the Church. This has been true at all levels of the Church’s life. In practice, the inadmissibility of women to ordination involves also, for the most part, the inadmissibility of women to the exercise of power and leadership in the Church.

It would seem, therefore, that on this issue, at least, the Church in its own internal life and structures needs to be counter-cultural. Both the Pope and Professor Mary Ann Glendon have strongly challenged the nations of the world to set in motion radical changes to combat injustice against women. Sadly, with only minimal re-wording, those same challenges could legitimately be made to the Church with regard to its own internal life and structures. For instance, in his message to Mrs Mongella for the Beijing conference the Pope spoke of ‘the importance of women’s presence and participation in all aspects of social life’ (n. 2, cf. Briefing, 17 August 1995, p. 16) and shared his belief that ‘when women are able fully to share their gifts with the whole community., the very way in which society understands and organises itself is improved’ (n. 5. Briefing, p. 17). Earlier, in his Letter to Women, he had stressed the ‘urgent need (for women) to achieve equality in every area’ (n. 4). Moreover, in her opening address at Beijing, Professor Glendon voiced the Holy See’s support for ‘the right of women to effectively enjoy equal opportunities and conditions with men in the workplace as well as in the decision-making structures of society, especially as they affect women themselves’ (n. 2).

All these statements are immensely important and constitute a radical challenge to society to transform its oppressive approach to gender differentiation. That is all the more reason why these same statements should also be heard as a radical challenge to the Church itself to undertake a similar reform within its own life and structures.

One hopeful sign that this is beginning to be recognized among men in the Church can be seen in the 14th Decree, ‘Jesuits and the situation of women in Church and civil society’, of the 34th Congregation of the Jesuits held in Rome, January-March, 1995. After analysing the situation, this decree states:

(9) We Jesuits first ask God for the grace of conversion. We have been part of a civil and ecclesial tradition that has offended against women. And, like many men, we have a tendency to convince ourselves that there is no problem. However unwittingly, we have often contributed to a form of clericalism which has reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction. By making this declaration we wish to react personally and collectively, and do what we can to change this regrettable situation, (n. 369)

A little later it offers some specific ways forward:

(12) In the first place, we invite all Jesuits to listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women. Many women feel that men simply do not listen to them. There is no substitute for such listening. More than anything else it will bring about change. Unless we listen, any action we may take in this area, no matter how well intentioned, is likely to bypass the real concerns of women and to confirm male condescension and reinforce male dominance. Listening, in a spirit of partnership and equality, is the most practical response we can make and is the foundation for our mutual partnership to reform unjust structures.

(13) Second, we invite all Jesuits, as individuals and through their institutions, to align themselves in solidarity with women. The practical ways of doing this will vary from place to place and from culture to culture, but many examples corne readily to mind:

  1. explicit teaching of the essential equality of women and men in Jesuit ministries, especially in schools, colleges and universities;
  2. support for liberation movements which oppose the exploitation of women and encourage their entry into political and social life;
  3. specific attention to the phenomenon of violence against women;
  4. appropriate presence of women in Jesuit ministries and institutions., not excluding the ministry of formation;
  5. genuine involvement of women in consultation and decision-making in our Jesuit ministries;
  6. respectful cooperation with our female colleagues in shared projects
  7. use of appropriately inclusive language in speech and official documents;
  8. promotion of the education of women and, in particular, the elimination of all forms of illegitimate discrimination between boys and girls in the education process.

(Documents of the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Saint Louis, Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995, pp. 174—6)

I cannot help thinking that the log-jam in the Church is located in its stance on ‘ontological complementarity’ and in the powerful way this is symbolized in its teaching on the inadmissibility of women for priestly ordination. There may or may not be many women in the Church who believe they are called to this form of ministry That is beside the point for our present discussion. The real point is that, in this ‘time of women’, the inadmissibility of women to the ministerial priesthood should only be presented as belonging to the deposit of faith if it can be shown to be an integral and essential element of the Gospel which has consistently been heard and experienced as ‘good news’ by women down through the ages. I believe that the opposite has been the case. Far from being an integral element of the ‘good news’ it seems more like part of that cultural conditioning down the centuries which the Pope refers to as ‘an obstacle to the progress of women’.

Despite recent set-backs to positive movement here, I believe that the Church as a whole, and Pope John Paul II in particular, are moving in a forward direction. A few weeks before the Beijing Conference, the Pope made an impassioned appeal to the whole Church to enhance the role of women in its own internal life:

Today I appeal to the whole Church community to be willing to feminine participation in every way in its internal life . . .

The 1987 Synod on the laity expressed precisely this need and asked that ‘without discrimination women should be participants in the life of the Church and also in consultation and the process of coming to decisions’. (Propositio 47; cf. Chnstifideles laid, n. 51)

To a large extent, it is a question of making full use of the ample room for a lay and feminine presence recognised by the Church’s law. I am thinking, for example of theological teaching, the forms of liturgical ministry permitted, including service at the altar, pastoral and administrative councils, Diocesan Synods and Particular Councils, various ecclesial institutions, curias, and ecclesiastical tribunals, many pastoral activities, including the new forms of participation in the care of parishes when there is a shortage of clergy, except for those tasks that belong properly to the priest. (L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 6 September 1995, p. 1)

It was this address of the Pope that prompted the editor of the National Catholic Reporter to suggest some concrete steps which the Pope himself could take to promote this process. In addition to appointing women to head some of Vatican Curia congregations, the editor suggests that the Pope might name some women members to the College of Cardinals, a suggestion also made by Maureen MacGlashan, the British Ambassador to the Holy See (cf. Annabel Miller, ‘Women in the Vatican’, in The Tablet, 29 March/2 April 1997, pp. 428-30 at p. 430). The National Catholic Reporter editor points out that the only official function of the college is to elect the next pope and argues that ‘no longer should Catholic women be voiceless in the choice of the person to lead their church’. Such a step would pose no theological eproblem and would only require a minor change in some recent canons in Church law:

Making a woman a cardinal at a time when women cannot be priests would seem to be an impossibility. But not so. There is precedent for lay cardinals, although they have all been men. Lay cardinals were common during the Renaissance. The last cardinal who was not a priest at the time of his appointment was Giacomo Antonelli, a church deacon and secretary of state to Pope Pius IX. He died in 1876. (National Catholic Reporter, 15 September 1995, p. 24)

A further comment by the same editor pin-points the relevance of this suggestion to the theme of this book: ‘No modern pope has made issues of sexual morality and gender more central to church orthodoxy. This is all the more reason for Catholic women to be involved in decisions related to these and other matters.

Not so long ago, in order to stand up for their basic social, economic and political rights women had to disregard those who told them that what they were doing was a sin. Such women have received great praise from the Pope in his Letter to Women:

I cannot fail to express my admiration for those women of good will who have devoted their lives to defending the dignity of womanhood by fighting for their basic social, economic and political rights, demonstrating courageous initiative at a time when this was considered extremely inappropriate, the sign of a lack of feminity, a manifestation of exhibitionism, and even a sin. (n. 6, in The Tablet, 15 July 1995, p. 918

The Pope here implies that these women were right to disregard those who told them that what they were doing was sinful. Perhaps women today who disregard the reply of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and continue believing in and working for the ordination of women will be similarly praised by some future Pope!

More than 40,000 women from all over the world converged on Beijing for the 1995 UN 4th World Conference on Women. Its Platform for Action statement constitutes a very comprehensive check-list of the kind of action that needs to be taken to ensure that the full equality of women becomes a reality at every level of society in our world. As such, it offers some extremely important suggestions for the agenda of building God’s Kingdom in our world today (cf. Joan Chittister, Beyond Beijing: The Next Step for Women, Kansas City, Sheed & Ward, 1996). Consequently, if Christian Churches are to be attentive to God’s eword as it is spoken to us today, they must study this Beijing statement very carefully. Although its moral imperatives are directed specifically to governments, they also have important implications for Christian Churches and their members. We have already seen that, in the light of the global situation with regard to the status of women and the tragedy and injustice resulting from this with regard to HIV/AIDS, a guiding principle for Christian sexual ethics at this moment in time should be that the Church must be pro-women before it is pro-marriage. Maybe the Beijing statement can help to put some flesh and blood on that principle. For instance, perhaps no Christian Church should issue any further statement about marriage or sexual ethics until it has first produced a down-to-earth practical statement committing itself to what John Paul II describes as ‘setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination’ and explicitly considering the implications of the Beijing Platform for Action for its own life. Obviously, such a statement would lack all credibility if women members of the Church were not allowed to collaborate in a major way in its production.

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