Friday, June 8, 2012

Theology of the Body: Contraception, Complementarianism, and Misogyny

The following post is part of Rachel Held Evan's series on mutuality. It explores the relationship between Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, the (re)birth of gender complementarianism and "New Catholic Feminism," contraception, and the Catholic denunciation of feminism and gender equality.

Many Catholics were still upset about Humanae Vitae, the encyclical written by Pope Paul VI that reaffirmed the Church's teachings against contraception, when Pope John Paul II became pope in 1978. There were whispers, however, that the new pope was more progressive and would adopt a different position on contraception than his predecessor. Pope John Paul II quickly made it clear that he would do no such thing. Instead, he devoted his pontificate to the theme of human sexuality and the condemnation of what he called the “culture of death.” This culture of death was portrayed as a modern phenomenon where people committed grave sins against humanity, including contraception, abortion, and euthanasia.[1] In an attempt to transform the culture of death and the modern view of human sexuality (they were often seen as intrinsically linked), Pope John Paul II devoted almost all of his Wednesday general audiences from 1979-1984 to lectures on the subject of human love and sexuality, which today are known as his Theology of the Body.
The thematic goal of Theology of the Body is to transform the current culture of death into a culture of life through marital spirituality and sexuality. The pope devotes a great deal of attention to marital sex and propagates a theology that is, in its essence, the very antithesis of Saint Augustine’s. This theology is grounded in a belief that marital sex is not only licit, but also holy and sacramental. Pope John Paul II uses elaborate metaphors to convey his argument, repeatedly comparing sexual intercourse to Catholic rituals and theological concepts. He states that marriage “signifies the relationship between Christ and His Church” and that the conjugal act, “the giving of each other freely” mirrors the redemptive act of Christ’s crucifixion.[2] He also contends that marriage reflects the Trinity, “an inscrutable communion of [three] Persons” that is fully realized in their sexual union. In this way, marriage constitutes a "primordial sacrament," a sign that communicates the mystery of God's Trinitarian life through husband and wife.[3]          
            After firmly establishing his lyrical approbation of marital sex, Pope John Paul II devoted his last fifteen lectures to explaining and promoting the values propagated in Humanae Vitae and the Church’s position on contraception. Continuing with his metaphor of sex as a sacrament, he proclaims:

As ministers of a sacrament which is constituted by consent and perfected by conjugal union, man and woman are called to express that mysterious language of their bodies in all the truth which is proper to it…According to the criterion of this truth, which should be expressed in the language of the body, the conjugal act signifies not only love, but also potential fecundity. Therefore it cannot be deprived of its full and adequate significance by artificial means. In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act. The one is activated together with the other and in a certain sense the one by means of the other. This is what the Encyclical teaches (cf. HV 12). Therefore, in such a case the conjugal act, deprived of its interior truth because it is artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love.[4]

Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is thus obviously derived from and dependent on Humanae Vitae’s rejection of contraception. However, while Theology of the Body is often criticized for being simply another reiteration of Humanae Vitae, Pope John Paul II’s rhetoric is decidedly unique. His theology focuses, more than ever before in Catholic history, on the positive aspects of marital sexuality. He builds a new Catholic sexual ethic, one that does not simply forbid contraception on theological grounds, but links rejection of contraception to spiritual and marital fulfillment.
            This connection, and the sexual ethic espoused in Theology of the Body, has had a profound effect on how Catholics think about contraception. The book has achieved an almost cult-like status in contemporary Catholic culture, and its popularity has only blossomed over the past ten years. Countless interpretations have been preached in sermons, printed in books, broadcast on Catholic television, and discussed in church groups. Its effect is, therefore, far reaching and has dramatically changed the Catholic culture of contraception from dissent at the time of Humanae Vitae to acceptance of the doctrine as an infallible truth; agreeing with the Church’s position on contraception has become a central aspect of Catholic identity.
Feminist Backlash
            The construction of gender found in Humanae Vitae and elaborately propagated in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body relies heavily on the ideas of gender complementarity. This idea, that the spiritual and physical fulfillment of men and women is derived from their complementary interaction, forms the very basis for the Catholic sexual ethic that has developed since Vatican II and Pope John Paul II’s pontificate.
John Paul II’s first few lectures in his Theology of the Body seem to have been greatly influenced by feminist dialogue on the distinction between gender and biological sex. He departs, however, from feminist thought with his “discourse on difference,” the idea that God did not just create male and female, but man and woman; two distinctly separate genders with unique and divinely proscribed attributes.[5] He writes, for example, in a 1995 letter addressed specifically to Catholic women:

Woman complements man, just as man complements woman: Men and women are complementary. Womanhood expresses the “human” as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way…Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the “masculine” and the “feminine” that the “human” finds full realization.”[6]

Thus, just as Humanae Vitae contends that sexual pleasure and procreation are intrinsically linked in conjugal sex, John Paul II propagates that neither gender can be defined or exist independently from the other.[7]
Proponents of this construction of male and female believe that gender is determined exclusively on the basis of biological sexual characteristics and physical sexual capacities.[8] Womanhood and women’s bodies are viewed as intrinsically linked to motherhood, the purpose for which God created woman. Pope John Paul II elaborates that:

The woman’s body, in its typical expression of femininity and creative love, becomes, like the Garden of Eden, the place of the conception of new man. In her womb, the conceived man assumes his specific human aspect before being born.  In giving birth, therefore, woman is fully aware of the mystery of creation, which is renewed in human generation.[9]

While this metaphor of childbearing women as God-like creators has potentially positive implications for an increased social appreciation of women’s roles as mothers, it also has potentially dangerous implications when motherhood is not simply one element of being a woman, and is rather ascribed as its essential defining feature.[10]
Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, with its explicit connection between motherhood and womanhood, thus reinforces traditional gender roles. Its latent suggestion is that Catholic women should embrace their roles as mothers, and devote their time and energy to their family. As a result, the question of contraception and its high use among Catholics is frequently blamed on feminism. Rhetoric against contraception in Catholic circles tends to be accompanied by a denouncement of a culture where women have joined the workforce and lost or compromised their roles as wife and mother. It manifests its misogynist undertones by frequently blaming contraceptive use on women’s “selfish” ambitions to leave the home and have a career in the public sphere. A woman featured on a Catholic website exemplifies this type of discourse when she describes the beginning of the destruction of marital sexuality:

The sexual revolution screamed for women to get a job, to take control of their bodies, to have control over their sexual reproduction. When a woman responded to the sexual revolution with an attitude that her body was specifically hers to give or keep, all else became secondary. Most specifically, this attitude ended up in the marriage bed where a woman was now "expected" to withhold herself even if it was just to make a statement. It was all about "her" and not about "them." Women would refuse sex consistently because they were “too tired” from work. They were now "in charge" of everything and men were on their way to paying the price for whatever role they may or may not have had in the repression of women. Emasculation began in full.[11]

The association between emasculation and female independence, including a woman’s entry into the workforce, reveals the belief that women need to remain home as mothers and subservient to men to maintain God’s intended gender balance. Furthermore, the connection between emasculation and women’s physical control of their bodies and sexual reproduction affirms the assumption that contraception gives women too much power, autonomy, and authority within their marriage. 
            The misogyny conveyed in much of the anti-contraceptive literature only increases when there is a distinction between the different forms of contraception. Unlike the 1960s, when condoms and coitus interruptus were usually thought to be more sinful than the Pill, the contemporary Catholic Church increasingly views use of the Pill as a far graver sin. The Pill is even portrayed as the physical and spiritual equivalent of an abortion. Due to the fact that the Pill, by its medical nature, is a feminized phenomenon, this rhetoric tends to focus on a demonization of women. The supposition that women are somehow more responsible and more sinful because of contraception is averred in a sermon which, after citing that most Catholics, both male and female, have used some form of contraception, bemoans the fact that:

The parish problem can be summed up with the realization that any one of those fertile-years women distributors [of Holy Communion] may be saying "The Body of Christ" at the same time that her Pill is destroying the life of a new human being within her uterus. I think that's obscene, but that's the way it is in the Church in America today.[12]

This priest’s statement thus equates the Pill with abortion and makes no reference to the male Eucharistic ministers who have potentially used contraception. Moreover, this priest clearly wishes to restrict women’s already very limited access to participation in the Church’s liturgy on the grounds that they could possibly be using contraception, an argument that could and has also been used in recent discussions on women’s ordination. The so-called feminist backlash occurring in the Church today, therefore, where women are increasingly portrayed as excessively sinful and selfish, being denied access to the hierarchy, and encouraged to return home as mothers is clearly linked to the issue of contraception and the gender roles portrayed and valued in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. 

[1] For more on the “Culture of Death,” see Charles E. Curran, The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005).
[2] Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body, “Marital Love Reflects God’s Love for His People” and  “Marriage Sacrament an Effective Sign of God’s Saving Power,” July 28 1982 and December 1, 1982, Eternal Word Television Network, (accessed March 26, 2009).
[3]Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body, November 14, 1979 quoted in an article by Christopher West, Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Catholic Education Resource Center, (accessed March 23, 2009).
[4] Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body, “Church’s Position on the Transmission of Life,” August 22, 1984, Eternal Word Television Network, (accessed March 23, 2009).
[5] Michele Dillon, Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith, and Power (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 74-76. Although Dillon did not necessarily coin the term “discourse on difference,” her analysis greatly shaped my understanding of it.  
[6] Aline H. Kalbian, Sexing the Church: Gender, Power, and Ethics in Contemporary Catholicism (Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press, 2005), 100.
[7] Kalbian Sexing the Church, 96.
[8] Kalbian, Sexing the Church, 106 and 97.
[9] John Paul II, Theology of the Body, “Mystery of Woman Revealed in Motherhood,” March 12, 1980, Eternal Word Television Network, (accessed March 28, 2009).
[10] Kalbian, Sexing the Church, 107.
[11] Cheryl Dickow, “Sex and the Married Women,” Catholic Education Resource Center, (accessed March 20, 2009).
[12] John F. Kippley, “Casti Connubbii: 60 Years Later, More Relevant than Ever,”Eternal Word Television Network, (accessed March 20, 2009).


  1. Good essay! I've found in a lot of the literature I've had to read lately though my school, that there is also the mindset among the Catholic Feminist community (the pro-TOB type) that there are essentially two camps of women: those who guard their purity and womanhood for their marriage, and those who "take their cues from Jerry Springer and Glamour Magazine." That's a quote from a "feminist" Catholic book I was browsing a couple of days ago.

    I think the reason why many people find TOB persuasive is because they simultaneously believe in that dichotomy. If that dichotomy were true, and I truly had to choose between the a "Jerry Springer" life and the JPII life, I'd probably go with JPII. But obviously, this division of the orthodox Catholic lifestyle and the teeming cesspool rest of us is utterly false. Speaking from an Opus Dei Catholic educational environment, I know that this is the crux of their faith-formation of students: the girls have a choice to be respectable young ladies OR fall into the pit of a subhuman lifestyle aka, "contemporary culture." It's extremely persuasive to the girls, unfortunately.


    1. Good point! It is the madonna/whore complex. They leave no room for teaching about healthy unmarried sexuality (or even feminism), so you're either following TOB or you're a harlot!

      I also find it problematic how much proponents of TOB use language of "damage." I remember priests talking about how it could be harder to be "good" if you come from a "damaged home." One even told me that personally, since I had grown up with a single mother. I told him if he cared anything about healthy relationships, he would understand that sometimes two-parent homes are the "damaged ones" and single parents are awesome. There's also all that rhetoric about being broken and damaged once you have sex and lose your virginity. Looking back, I think that rhetoric is ridiculous. But I remember being young and finding it very persuasive and hurtful. I don't think any young girl wants to be called broken or damaged.

  2. I struggle with this as a Catholic, not because the Church says "no" to almost anything related to sexuality, but because in some ways, I do think that there is a fuller sense of sexuality and intimacy without barriers (e.g. condoms). I don't necessarily feel that way about the Pill, but M and I do want to educate ourselves more on NFP -- even if for the sake of it to just know, and not necessarily to practice it.

    1. I think there are good aspects of NFP. I like the idea of it being all natural, for example. And it never hurts to educate oneself about multiple family planning options! But I think it is is highly problematic to have men force that form of contraception on me, without letting me make my own decisions about what works for me, my partner, and my body. I obviously worry about the connection between NFP, anti-contraceptive sentiments, and rigid gender dichotomies that define women as mothers and for their ability to give birth.

      I also think we should be careful about saying what sexual acts or ways of having sex lead to a fuller sense of intimacy. A focus on penile-vaginal sex, for example, has led many to label homosexual sex "not real" or "not as good" as heterosexual sex. It creates a hierarchy and can marginalize many. We see this both with LGBTQ but also in Catholic rhetoric, when a couple who for whatever reason doesn't want children but can't use NFP or the pill uses a condom, and they're told repeatedly that they aren't having a sexually fulfilled life or that they're somehow inferior to other married couples.

  3. Consider this analysis of John Paul II's theology of the body:

    See also the following on theology of gender:

    God bless,