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Contraception and Gender Equality in the Catholic Church

"A wife must have 10 or 12 children and her husband should decide how many. If we gave women a choice, they'd never have children and that would be a sin." Afghan elder interviewed by The Guardian, 4 Nov 2015.
“A wife must have 10 or 12 children and her husband should decide how many. If we gave women a choice, they’d never have children and that would be a sin.” Afghan elder interviewed by The Guardian, 4 Nov 2015.

The UN-hosted launch of our Catholic Scholars’ Statement on the Ethics of Using Contraceptives was a success: it generated a lot of publicity for the Wijngaards Institute, and has put us firmly on the map.

Why the attention to the issue of contraceptives, given the Institute’s research has long focused primarily on the issue of women’s ordination? There are several reasons, many of which have to do with the fact that the papal prohibition to use contraceptives affects disproportionately Catholic women in the developing world, and to an extent which is far from trivial. Those reason will be the object of another blog entry.

Here I want to concentrate on the link between the magisterial arguments on issues to do with sexual ethics – including those behind the absolute prohibition against “artificial” contraceptives – and those to do with the exclusion of women from ordination.

Indeed, both set of arguments are related as different expressions of the same patriarchal and misogynistic streak, an essential part of which has to do with fear of/contempt for women’s sexuality, and the desire to control and confine it. This desire for control may not always be made as explicit as in the quote from the Afghan elder highlighted in the image above, but it is there.

There is arguably a link between a mistaken understanding of the purpose of human sexuality – and specifically women’s sexuality – and a mistaken notion of women’s primary role in church and society.

The papal teaching on sexuality can be summarised in one core belief: that human sexuality is first and foremost for procreation. For women, this translates into an insistence that, because of their nature, their primary vocation is motherhood. Women are excluded from the priesthood, but this is somewhat justified because they have motherhood as their own exclusive privilege and distinctive task.

According to the book of Genesis (2:24), the purpose of sex and marriage is first and foremost companionship and love. As bible scholars have long noticed, procreation is mentioned only after the “companionship/love” purpose of marriage and sexual union; moreover, it is presented as a blessing, rather than as a command: a difference which is subtle but absolutely crucial. It entails that companionship and love, as the primary purposes of marriage and sexual union, are good independently of whether or not the couple are intentionally “open to procreation” every time they make love. Yet, the latter is precisely the axiom at the heart of the current papal prohibition of using “artificial” contraceptives for family planning.

Now, the emphasis on being “open to procreation” has consequences for the role of women in the Catholic Church. In his 1988 encyclical “Mulieris Dignitatem – On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” Pope John Paul II wrote that “Motherhood involves a special communication with the mystery of life [which] gives rise to an attitude towards human beings […] which profoundly marks the woman’s personality” (par. 18).

Some years later, in his 1995 Letter to Women, John Paul II further observed that in being “mothers, sisters, and co-workers in the apostolate,” women provide that “help” which “according to the Book of Genesis, [they] are called to give to men” (par. 10), although he also stressed that such help must be “mutual” (par. 7).

In other words, women’s distinctive capacity for nurturing and self-giving finds a prominent expression in being “helpers” to men, “companions” in marriage, and “mothers” – biologically, and/or spiritually, by their distinctive capacity for self-giving.

How is this linked to the arguments against the ordination of women? In theory, the primary argument to exclude women from ordained ministry is of a different kind than the one used to ban “artificial” contraceptives for family planning. The prohibition of ordaining women is justified on the basis that women cannot represent Jesus’ biological maleness; in contrast, the central tenet of the absolute prohibition against “artificial” contraceptives for family planning is that each and every act of sexual intercourse must always be open to procreation.

However, both prohibitions are reinforced by a common belief, namely the papal ideal of womanhood as centred around “motherhood” (although, as noted, non-biological “spiritual” motherhood is also praised). This ideal undergirds both prohibitions: women, the Vatican rhetoric goes, are best employed in roles where their distinctive capacity for “motherhood” and self-giving – both biological and spiritual – can shine the most. Somehow, that would both exclude the ordained ministry, and suggest that their most “natural” and befitting role is as (wives and) mothers.

Conversely, if sex need not always be for procreation, then it is not only the prohibition on using “artificial” contraceptives that falls. Rather, that principle will make it more difficult to emphasise women’s biological capacity for giving birth as the primary vocation they should strive for. In turn, that will make it much more difficult to argue that the preeminence and beauty of such a primary vocation excludes women from being ordained.

Thus the bans on contraceptives and on women priests respectively are linked, in their own perverse way. They are both part of papal teaching’s integrated if ultimately incorrect understanding of women’s nature and role in the church and society. Challenging any aspect of this grand vision will fasten the reform of such a misconception. And you can rest assured that the Wijngaards Institute will continue to do so.