Women on the verge of a new sexual revolution

I just finished reading Erika Bachiochi's new anthology "Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching," which is a much-needed answer, written by a number of gifted women, to feminist claims that the Church and its teachings are anti-sex and anti-women. It's written in an accessible way and available at a reasonable price.

Full disclosure: A number of the authors, Erika Bachiochi, the editor herself; Laura Garcia, author of the introductory chapter on authentic freedom and equality in difference; and the male co-author of the chapter on Church teaching on infertility treatment, Dr. Paul Carpentier, are friends of mine. I wouldn't hold that against them, but neither does it affect my judgment that this book would make a perfect stocking-stuffer -- and not just for women. As Jesuit Father Paul McNellis blurbed on the back cover, "It should be required reading for every son, brother, fiance, husband, father, seminarian, and priest." (That about covers the male universe...)

The book deals with the controversial subjects of abortion, pre-marital sex, marriage, contraception, infertility, the male priesthood, the relationship between Catholic sexual and social teaching, male/female equality in difference, and balancing work and family. The teachings of the Catholic Church, as articulated by the popes, Vatican II and the bishops and bishops conference, are generally well-known, but usually perceived in the media and in the university as a series of negative commands, "Thou shalt nots," that stifle human and indeed female freedom. A number of prominent feminist voices are quoted to that effect. For example, Rosemary Radford Ruether writes, "Only by remedying these views of sexuality and women can progress be made on developing more adequate teachings that will liberalize Church policies on celibacy, divorce, homosexuality, contraception, and abortion."

We are accustomed, of course, to hearing the Catholic hierarchy, pope and bishops, reiterate these teachings. In that regard, we are fortunate to have in Pope Benedict XVI, and locally in Cardinal Seán O'Malley, articulate and thoughtful, positive and indeed inspiring, preachers and teachers on these and other subjects rooted in the Gospel. What is needed, though, is the actual living out of these guideposts on the highway of life, guardrails that help us live happy and ultimately fulfilling lives. For that, people need to see them as positive and true, and recognize them as necessary expressions of everybody's vocation to love and be loved.

That is where these women's voices are indispensable. They speak from a layperson's perspective, and they are convincing witnesses. The editor, for example, explains that "As a young child and a teen, I both witnessed and then lived a life diametrically opposed to Catholic Church teaching on sex and marriage. Concentrating on Women's Studies early in college, I identified with a radical feminist contingent and was adamantly anti-Catholic." Her "long and painful road" back to Catholicism was "borne of experiences and insights...confirmed by intense intellectual study."

They speak from their experience, answering the older feminist critique head-on and with piercing honesty. Far from being anti-women and anti-sex, the Church has a rich and positive understanding of women and sex. Mary, the Virgin of Nazareth and the Mother of God, is our greatest saint, more exalted even than the angels. Marriage is a sacrament in which men and women are equal partners for life. Sex within marriage, the conjugal and nuptial act, is truly sacramental, expressive of the intimate union of Christ and the Church.

Even priestly ordination, the sacrament whereby only men are allowed to share in Christ's ministerial priesthood, is sacramental and thus symbolic of Jesus Christ as a sign or "icon." As Sister Sara Butler says, "The priest...is not just the bearer of certain functions; he also participates in the sacramental sign that refers believers to events or mysteries in the economy of salvation. If only a male can be ordained to the priesthood, his sexual identity clearly must have some relevance for the constitution of the 'sign.' The fact that 'the Word became flesh' as a male is taken to be theologically significant... Christ identifies himself as the Bridegroom and establishes the New Covenant in his blood, laying down his life for love of the Church, his Bride."

This is a far cry from Samuel Johnson's remark to James Boswell, who recorded: "I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: 'Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.'" It may well be that women can preach as well as men, but they cannot represent Jesus Christ sacramentally: Jesus, though he was God, was a real man and thus really male.

Read this book, and you will realize that we are on the verge of a new sexual revolution which celebrates women and men in their radical equality as well as their sexual difference, and views sex not as a meaningless form of recreation akin to binging on Cheetos (which I realize has its attractions), but rather as something sacred and holy.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.