The church, women, and the cult of virginity, Part II

It seems virginity is popular. Of all my post-Christmas posts, my little reflection on ‘The church, women, and the cult of virginity’ has got the biggest response. No surprise, I suppose, since anything to do with sex attracts attention. But I think a better explanation for its popularity is that people agree with what I wrote. The Catholic Church’s seeming fixation with sex, and with female virginity, resonates with a lot of readers. This obsession is fundamentally about the exercise (by celibate males) of power and control. Think about the ‘churching’ of new mothers, a type of ritual purification women had to go through shortly after childbirth. Think about the shame and shaming of unmarried mothers and how so many of these women were treated in the not so recent past, while the men involved suffered no major repercussions. Women were ‘fallen,’ men were not. It wasn’t just a church obsession but a societal one too.

Confession has been used for a similar purpose. In some places it still is. Asking intrusive questions, seeking intimate details, about what a penitent did or did not do, or what the penitent thought or did not think, was a method of control. It was and is an abuse of a beautiful sacrament. It is extraordinary how many (primarily) older people are crippled with scruples or worried about ‘bad thoughts’ or minor infractions which occurred long ago but that continue to torment them. In church teaching and preaching, there was a negative attitude toward sex and sexuality. Sex within marriage was understood as something functional, mechanical, cold; an activity to be endured rather than enjoyed. Sex, and anything to do with it, was dirty. And so any expression of sexual intimacy induced tremendous feelings of guilt.

But sex is good and our sexuality used constructively is a beautiful thing. Our sexuality is a gift from God and so is something wonderful. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis writes about the ‘joy’ of love.

The ‘MeToo’ movement is about women demanding respect. It is insisting that (powerful) men treat women and their bodies with the dignity that is their right. That we need a movement such as MeToo in the 21st century is sad. That the church needs to examine its language about sex and sexual morality is also not only necessary but urgent.

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Gillette’s new ad is a statement about Christian values of love and respect. How could anyone be outraged by that?

Gillette, the razor company, released a new television ad this week that has generated lots of controversy. The ad isn’t another version of the shirtless man, gazing into a mirror, face covered in lather, as he shaves himself fresh and handsome for the day ahead, to the old jingle “The best a man can get.”

This ad adopts a radically different approach. There is no shirtless man in front of a mirror. Instead, through a series of different scenes, it provokes viewers to take on issues including sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour and toxic masculinity, praising those who’ve abandoned “the same old excuses” for such behaviour in the past.

It is Gillette’s response to the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged women to speak out against sexual exploitation in a way they never had before.

Instead of “The best a man can get” line, the new ad challenges, “Is this the best a man can get?” The ad encourages its audience to reflect on what masculinity means, and how a man should see himself.

Many viewers were thrilled with its message of tolerance and respect. But others were outraged by what they saw as another example of political correctness gone mad. They claimed, in the words of Piers Morgan, that the ad is stating that men are bad and masculinity is a bad thing, that it is a shameless exercise in man-shaming and emasculating men.

But what I saw is a beautiful ad with a powerful message. It’s not attacking men or masculinity. It’s attacking toxic behaviour, the kind that leads to intimidation and violence, and women being afraid to be out alone at night. It’s challenging the kind of behaviour nobody – male or female – should engage in.

It’s extraordinary how so many people managed to get offended by the ad. And how the outrage came from the same predictable sources – the right-wing, the traditionalists, the Jordan Peterson fans, the Trumpsters, those who see liberal conspiracies everywhere.

Look at the ad and see if you’re offended. And if you are, then ask yourself why.

It reminds us to think about how we see and relate to each other. How we touch others can be positive or negative. It can build up or knock down; be constructive or destructive, life-enhancing or life-diminishing.

It reminds us that we can touch someone with a warm hug or we can touch them with a slap or a beating. “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union,” Pope Francis writes in The Joy of Love. And, of course, this doesn’t just happen within marriage.

It reminds us that we can touch someone with a word of encouragement or acceptance or love. Or we can touch someone with a word of contempt or anger or abuse. Bullying in schools and the workplace is a major problem, made worse by social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And we know what bullying can do.

The Gillette ad is a statement about Christian values of love and respect.

Why should anyone be outraged about that?

Virgin on the ridiculous – the church, women and the cult of virginity

I have been wondering about the extraordinary emphasis the church places on virginity.

Belief that Mary was a virgin at the time she conceived Jesus is a core article of faith. Her virginity has been celebrated in Christian tradition and in the prayers of the church since its foundation. Countless hymns have been composed to honour the virgin.

That is all well and good. But sometimes it seems to me that the church goes on about it a bit too much, as if the words Mary and virgin, like love and marriage or Trump and controversy, cannot be separated. The liturgy of the church almost always refers to the mother of Jesus as Virgin Mary or Blessed Virgin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and other teaching instruments do the same. Mary has been accorded many wonderful titles – Mother of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Victories, Queen of Heaven – but Blessed Virgin trumps them all.

For many people, this obsession with virginity is off-putting. It’s as if the church is stating that sex is bad and our virginity is what we should hold onto, if it’s not too late already.

The cult of virginity doesn’t stop with Mary. It extends to female saints, too.

In the liturgical calendar, which lists the feast days of the church’s year, a striking distinction exists between almost all the female saints and their male counterparts. With few exceptions, female saints are classified as Virgin.

The great Catherine of Siena is described first as Virgin, and only second as Doctor of the Church, even though the latter is one of the highest accolades a saint can receive. St Agatha is listed first as Virgin and then as Martyr, even though martyrdom ranks in the top category of saint. Poor St Scholastica is listed simply as Virgin.

In each case, whether she was religious or lay, the saint’s virginity is considered at least as significant as her martyrdom or her zeal, or even her status as doctor of the church.

The same doesn’t apply to men. Nowhere in the liturgical calendar is a male saint described as virgin. Depending on the individual, he is listed as Priest/Bishop/ Pope/ Religious/Missionary/Martyr/Apostle/Doctor of the Church, or a combination of these, but never as Virgin. Even if he took a vow of chastity and never had sex in his life, he is never called virgin.

This may be because the word virgin has traditionally been applied to women who haven’t had sexual intercourse.

It’s true, too, that the veneration of virginity is not a Catholic invention. It goes back to ancient Rome and the cult of the vestal virgin. Mankind – a better word here than humankind – has always placed virgins on pedestals.

But is it appropriate for the church of today to have a similar obsession? To champion virginity – as opposed, say, to chastity, which is a different thing – seems not only sexist but also to claim it as the ideal state over and above all others.

What does this say to women (and men) who are not virgins? What does it say to married women, widows, the divorced, and all those who have experienced sexual intimacy at the deepest level?

What does it say about the church and its relationship with sex?

Of course, virginity is fine for those who choose it, and purity is wonderful, and consecrated chastity is noble, but so also and equally is the married state and parenthood and the single life.

Christians honour Mary, the mother of Jesus, not because of her perpetual virginity but because of the unique role she played in the story of salvation. Her ‘yes’ to God’s plan for her is incalculably more important than whether she ever had sex.

So also with the other women saints. How they lived the Gospel is what makes them saints. Their fidelity to their baptismal promises is what makes them saints. Whether they kept their virginity is far less significant than that they were true followers of Jesus.