Recently two more controversies have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States. First, the Vatican has attacked American nuns for caring too much about social justice and feminism, and not spending enough energy fighting to abolish women's reproductive rights or spreading hate against gays and lesbians. Second, it was reported that Cardinal Timothy Dolan paid off priests accused of raping children while heading up the Church in Milwaukee. In my mind, the efforts to rein in Catholic women while covering up the massive scope of child rape by priests have their roots in the Church's twisted views on human sexuality.
To better understand the issue of sexuality in Church history I turned to German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann's best-selling 1990 book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church (Peter Heinegg's translation of Eunuchen für das Himmelreich). In this study Dr. Ranke-Heinemann displays her vast knowledge and meticulous scholarship in examining the origins of Church doctrine concerning priestly celibacy, the cult of female virginity, and the Church's war on women with respect to contraception, abortion rights, and prohibition of ordination to the priesthood for women.
The Church doctrine of priestly celibacy is founded on the notion that Jesus himself was celibate and valued sexual abstinence among his followers. Dr. Ranke-Heinemann debunks this as a willful distortion of the Gospels. Nowhere does Jesus mention celibacy, and he was hardly an ascetic when it came to human relations. In fact, there is some evidence that Jesus may have married. In any event, the apostles had wives, which the Church conveniently transformed to sisters and cousins as the doctrine of celibacy took hold, just as Jesus' brothers and sisters - mentioned in Matthew and Luke - were transformed by the Church into cousins in order to uphold the myth of Mary's perpetual virginity.
Jesus was surrounded by women; indeed his dealings with women were deemed scandalous and inappropriate for the time. To Ranke-Heinemann Jesus was "the first and practically the last friend women had in the Church":
"His openness to women, the respect he showed them, was replaced after his death, on the part of male church officials, by a peculiar mixture of repressed fear, mistrust, and arrogance."
Even so, marriage among priests was common and tolerated until 1139 AD, when the Church imposed celibacy. One of the things the Catholic Church did in their attempt to enforce celibacy onto their clergy was to label the wives of priests as 'concubines', 'whores' and 'adulteresses'. One archbishop had the priest's wives thrown into prison or deported. Another bishop instructed the law to 'thrust its way into the rectories, fetch out the concubines, publicly whip them, and place them under arrest'. And things only got worse. If women were found in the house of a priest who weren't relatives, and this could be as innocent as a housekeeper or cook, they were to be sold into slavery by the bishop. (There was a sick echo of this in the 1950s, when the Catholic Church in the Netherlands ordered the castration of the young male victims of rape by priests - for having "tempted" them into sin.)
Much of Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven documents the suppression of women by the celibate Church hierarchy. Dr. Ranke-Heinemann finally reaches the sad conclusion:
"Recently Catholic moral theology has lost much of its prestige. With its contrived elaborations it stands today, practically speaking, facing the ash-heap. It is a folly that poses as religion and invokes the name of God, but has distorted the consciences of countless people. It has burdened them with hairsplitting nonsense and has tired to train them to be moral acrobats, instead of making them more human and kinder to their fellow men and women. In the name of a supernatural world that is alien and hostile to humanity it has oppressed the nature and naturalness of people, which like an overstretched bow, inevitably had to break. Its theology is no theology, and its morality is no morality. It has come to grief on its own stupidity. "
I do disagree that that the Church is entirely hostile to human sexuality. In his First Encyclical Deus Caritas est Pope Benedict XVI movingly wrote about the centrality of eros in human experience, although it is a tragedy that he would deny this experience to the clergy. Also, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven was published before the full, global, scope of the Church child sex abuse scandal was known. A sequel would trace the origins of the child rape epidemic among priests back to doctirne of priestly celibacy. The pyschologist and former priest Eugen Drewermann touches on this in his 1989 book Kleriker:Psychogramm eines Ideals (a book that should be also be translated into English). To me, the child rape scandal, and its systematic coverup that persists even today, exposes the Catholic Church as a criminal enterprise, and its doctrines as harmful to all of humanity. It is therefore baffling and depressing that the Church - though diminished and discredited - still has power in the United States to influence public policy.