In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pope John Paul II presented to the world his work on the Theology of the Body, with particular reference to the theological significance of sexuality. Christopher West interpreted this for laypeople, to make the teaching more accessible. He wrote one book called Good News about sex and marriage and then a briefer introduction called Theology of the Body for beginners. It is this introductory book (revised edition) that I have just read, following a discussion I had over sexuality education in a Catholic school.
As a practising Catholic, a feminist advocate, and an emerging critical academic in the humanities, I find that there are often tensions between my values and those of the Catholic Church, particularly around gender issues. Further, as a parent I am concerned about the teaching that my children receive. Therefore I welcome the opportunity to investigate more fully the specific teaching of the Church with regards to sexuality and marriage, and to consider how this matches with my values. This book by Christopher West does indeed do for me what it sets out to do, and that is, it presents John Paul II’s theological reflections in a way that I can understand. There is much in John Paul’s and the Church’s teaching that I agree with, for example the emphasis on human dignity, sexual intercourse as an expression of love – not lust – which involves mutual self-donation, and the idea that God is made visible through the body not in spite of it. Our human bodies are beautiful, meaningful and something to be nurtured and used for God’s purposes.
That said, there are also things that concern me with this book, partly because of the way the book is written and partly because of the Church’s teaching which I feel should be questioned. I realise this second concern puts me on difficult ground, as the Church’s teaching is considered an objective ‘truth’ that should not be questioned, certainly not by someone such as me. However, as West explains in his book, rather than presenting the Theology of the Body as an absolute doctrine that must be followed, John Paul II invites us to “reflect honestly on [our] own experience of life to see if it confirms his proposals” (West, 2004, p. 15). It is from that perspective that I am offering this reflection.
Christopher West acknowledges that in interpreting John Paul’s work, he does so from his own perspective. This perspective is undeniably male. It is a book written by a man, interpreting another man’s work, and it speaks to men. Men are the default whilst women are included (or excluded) as the Other, the extra that needs explaining. This comes through in West’s use of language. John Paul was writing in the 1970s and as was customary then he used gender exclusive language, continually referring to humankind using “man” and the generic pronoun “he”. There have been many studies done that show that the use of man in this generic sense leads to readers visualising males and women are effectively excluded (see Koziar, 2009 and Stout & Dasgupta, 2011 for examples of such studies). There is now widespread awareness of the effects of such gender-exclusive language yet West, writing in the 2000s, makes no apology for his continued use of this style of language.
Further, when West is not using the generic term “man”, he uses the phrases “men and women” or “male and female” always in that order. Given that he does make use of the phrase “women and men”, one can assume that he feels the order is significant or at least it is of no consequence that the man always comes first. Work around the use of binaries such as “men and women” have shown that there is a psychological effect in the minds of readers: the first item of the binary is implicitly seen as superior and better than the second item (see the Wikipedia article on binary opposition as a starting point).
Another example of language that makes me feel excluded because I am a female reader is the discussion on the imagery within the Song of Songs in Chapter 7. West and Pope John Paul see that the metaphors contained in this biblical book hold the key to understanding “the mystery of the woman”. West explains that the metaphors of “garden closed” and “fountain sealed” expresses the “whole personal dignity of the female sex” (p. 98). I fail to see why this applies only to women, and why the woman is a mystery and the man is not – unless you see it solely from the point of view of a man. As a woman, I don’t feel that I need an introduction to myself, nor do I see myself as a mystery.
The second concern I have relates less to West’s style of writing, and more with the teaching of the Church. Again, it is the language used that promotes an exclusion of women, despite the attempt to promote the opposite. For me it is particularly important to be careful around the language that is used to explain this teaching to teenagers, where conceptual understanding based around finely nuanced language is hard to achieve. The two areas of West’s book I want to address is the explanation of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and the extensive use made of the Bride and Bridegroom analogy to equate spousal love and the relationship between Christ and the Church.
St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 5:21-32 contains the phrase “Wives, submit to your husbands” and West directly addresses this to explain how it can be seen in light of our modern world. He does so by first suggesting that St Paul was using the language (of submission within marriage) that was common in his time, 2000 years ago, but he gave it a new meaning for Christians (p. 81). This meaning West paraphrases as “Wives, allow your husbands to serve you” (p. 84). West further says that power, control and domination are the wrong paradigms to use in this context (p. 84). It is appropriate that West discusses and interprets St Paul’s view in this book, but I do not see this as an appropriate discussion to use with teenagers. We should be taking a leaf from St Paul and using the language common for our time – which is generally not the language of “submission within marriage” unless you live in a closed community such as Gloriavale in the South Island of New Zealand. By introducing “submission” we are introducing a new concept to the discussion around marriage and I do not think this should be a starting point in our schools.
The problem I see with introducing “submission” is that it has a set meaning in most people’s minds, and teenagers are likely to use the most common meaning. Introducing “submission” and then trying to give it a new, nuanced meaning is complicated and likely to be unsuccessful in the longer term. It is more likely that the main message the teenagers will remember is that wives should be submissive, in the common meaning of that word. Further, although West says that power, control and domination are the wrong paradigms for marriage, the word “submission” is rooted in those paradigms. If one truly wants to teach people of our times that marriage is about reciprocal self-giving, then “submission” is the wrong place to start. Other language – mutuality, reciprocity, self-donation/giving – has implications of a more positive nature.
Such language supports my firm belief, one which I think is upheld by the teaching of the Catholic Church, that women and men are equal partners in a marriage. Both have the right and the responsibility to give and receive love. Therefore I have an issue with the extensive use of the Bride and Bridegroom analogy to explain the similarities between spousal relationship and that of Christ and the Church. In this analogy, Christ is the “Bridegroom” who “marries the Church” and the Church is taken in this instance to include both men and women. Similarly, the analogy goes, in a Catholic marriage the man must image Christ as he marries his bride who images the Church. The husband is the initiator of the loving gift, the Christ; the wife is the receiver, the Church. The analogy is used to explain, in human terms, the great love of God. However, it is also used to reinforce gender differentiation within marriage: because male-female spousal love is taken to image the Christ-Church relationship in a set way, therefore male-female roles for spouses are pre-determined. This becomes a circular argument.
An analogy works as an explanation because it takes a concept known to the listeners and links the similarity. In this example, it is the listeners’ knowledge of the relationship of the bride and the bridegroom that is being invoked. However, I would suggest that our view of that relationship has changed over the last two thousand years. In the cultural milieu in which the writers of the New Testament lived, it would have been taken for granted that the woman bride is passive and the man bridegroom is active, and that the bridegroom is the dominant partner in the relationship and therefore has to be reminded to use this power wisely. In today’s world, despite the sexism that still exists, there is more of a view that women and men will have a marriage relationship based on equal status, and where gender roles within the relationship can be more fluid. Language which equates the husband, but not the wife, to Christ works against this view. The analogy invokes unequal power relationships. At the very least, if we would like the equal status view of marriage to be the dominant paradigm, then the language with which we talk about marriage should reflect this. I would like to suggest that it is time we came up with a better, more appropriate analogy for our cultures and times, especially when we are teaching our young people about the responsibilities and rewards of marriage.
To return to John Paul II’s invitation to compare his teaching with my own life experience, I find that there is much in the teaching that I agree with, especially relating to marriage as a mutual self-donation of spouses to each other. What I disagree with is the language, especially within the cultural metaphors and analogies used, which contradicts the message of gender equality. We need to find new analogies and use different language to express love in ways that break free from the paradigms of power, control and domination.