Bravely Searching for a Spirituality of Sexual Intimacy

A Search for Married Spirituality

By Marysia (22 November 2013)

MarysiaThis is an edited version of my contribution to the book Women Experiencing Church: A Documentation of Alienation (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing Paperback, 1991). Not much has changed [since I first wrote], except that for 30 years of marriage now read 50.

I have been married for more than thirty years. Looking back, I can see that during that time I have become a different person. This is normal, we grow and develop. But I have something other than development in mind. I shall try to look back at the person I had been, and follow the process of change in my understanding of the Church’s teaching on what concerns most of its members, that is on marriage.

I met my husband when we were still young. We were both very religious. We could not to marry yet, but we knew that if we did get married, it would be to one another.

During my convent schooldays I had read that greatest mistake one could make was not to be a saint. But, since God had brought us together, He must have wanted us to look for sanctity through one another. So we set out to look for sanctity in marriage. The method seemed obvious. If we looked to the Church for guidance, we could never go wrong!

Still in our teens, we read Casti Connubii together. We accepted the encyclical’s outright condemnation of artificial birth control. Surely we were intelligent and knew enough about the female cycles to use the calendar, or so called ‘rhythm method’ to control the number and the spacing of children. However, in spite of this self-imposed discipline, within a month I was pregnant. Our third daughter was born three and a half years after the first. Clearly this could not go on. We obviously needed more and better information and found it, at last, at the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, who introduced us to the temperature method. We breathed more freely. The discipline began to show results, or rather lack of them. But there was no question of conceiving a child intentionally; we had to leave room for emergencies.

These are common experiences. Such case histories have been described countless times in connection with Humanae Vitae and in other discussions before and since. But the question of birth regulation, since it affects women so intimately, clearly shows the callous attitude of the official Church. A handful of celibate old men, wielding power, make inhuman rules for others, even though Christ had warned them against putting burdens on other people’s backs.

We survived. Many marriages broke under the strain of trying to follow that teaching, which resulted in either too many children or in a damaged relationship! Moreover, when a marriage broke up under such strains, the victims were branded as sinners.

In our Family Group someone asked a priest to give reasons for the ban on contraception. He glibly replied: “I hope you don’t mind if I change the question, and talk about divorce, which is also forbidden”. We listened in amazement as he answered the unasked question. “But that refers to marriages which are failing” we replied. “All marriages are affected by the ruling on contraception, and the more the couple love one another the more they suffer”.

I led a discussion on sanctity in marriage – our ultimate goal – and realised that there were no married saints. Men were canonised for reasons unconnected to their state in life. Women had to be “virgins”, “widows” or “martyrs”. I thought innocently that the Church had through oversight not noticed the heroic virtues practised by married people. Nobody knew enough to contradict me, and show the true reason for that imbalance.

While I was confined to the suburbs with the babies, My husband continued extra-mural lectures on moral theology at the Newman Association and sat the exam. Writing about the role of sexual intercourse in marriage he disagreed with St. Augustine, placing what he called “togetherness” first. He failed the exam, but we were glad to know that he had expressed what we both thought.

We joined a local discussion group known as “The Mob”. There I first heard the opinion, that the Church tried to force religious forms of spirituality on married people. We needed a married spirituality, and would have to create it ourselves. This was a revelation. At last I stopped hankering after the glories of the Easter Liturgy when small children had to come first, or feeling guilty about not getting to church more often. The clergy were adept at requesting a “come hither” Christianity, manifested in frequent church attendance. Now I saw it as irrelevant to my life.

Then I read “The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought” by D. S. Bailey and became aware of the misogyny of the early Fathers, of Augustine’s contention that sexual intercourse in marriage was at least venially sinful, and only acceptable as a means of procreation. That man’s reaction against his misspent youth and his resulting imbalance on sexual matters has weighed heavily on the Church, which still has not shaken itself free from it. Augustine lurks under many of the reasons advanced against women priests. A married Anglican Bishop, Dr. Graham Leonard, revealed his own subconscious and that of many other clerics, saying that if he saw a woman at the altar, his first reaction would be to take her in his arms. What can one expect, therefore, of celibate clergy?

The depths of the nonsense to which the Fathers descended, are shown by St. Jerome’s opinion, that the Jewish patriarchs would have preferred to fulfil God’s promise of expanding into a great nation without sex.. Woman was equated with sex, sex with evil. A woman could only achieve sanctity if she became male, suppressed her womanhood. The early Fathers would have created a better world than God had done. Burdened with this bias against half the human race, the Church in the Middle Ages forbade intercourse before receiving the Eucharist, and discouraged it in Lent, on Fridays, on the eves of Holidays and at countless other times. And I had set out to find sanctity in marriage, by relying on the Church’s guidance!

Bailey’s book was the first of many. Why had I not known the history of the doctrine of marriage in the early Church? The nonsense has never been repudiated. Church’s teaching was no more correct now, than it had been in those early ages. It was still permeated with Manicheism from the time of Augustine. Some changes have taken place, and no-one would dare to express quite the same crude opinions to-day, but the changes were resisted all the time by a celibate clerical establishment. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors declared : “Whosoever should maintain that the celibate state is not higher than the married state – let him be anathema!” The establishment fought a rearguard action at every step, giving way only under pressure from undeniable reality.

I re-examined the Church’s teaching on subjects which affected my life as a woman and as a partner in a marriage. This re-examination was soon followed by the far greater one, that of the Second Vatican Council. We welcomed it as a long overdue rethinking of the Church’s teachings in many fields, including the one in which we had more experience than did the Council Fathers.

I am not talking only of birth control, but also of the disregard by the official Church of personal values, whether within marriage or within other relationships. The fact that a woman’s interests had to be sacrificed to the bringing up of a numerous family did not worry the law givers. If her conceptions, like Eve’s, were multiplied, that was the reason for her existence. St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Were it not for procreation, another man would be always of more help to a man than a woman.”

It was unimportant if children had not enough room in the home for privacy,. Poverty was a virtue. Some of our friends accepted overcrowded conditions as the consequence of their Catholic life-style. One heard of children sleeping two to a bed. But our parish priest was building a presbytery in which each of the three curates had a bedroom and a sitting room. So civilised!

Which came first: compulsory celibacy or impersonal attitudes to other human beings? Perhaps they reinforced one another. A priest wrote in the Catholic Herald, that he did without sex altogether, so married people could do it for a time. For him, obviously, sex was impersonal. A bishop regretted that he was not allowed to have intercourse with a woman, if only once, “to see what it was like”. Those representatives of the Church talked of marriage, while seeing sexuality in the same light as do adolescent boys. Yet they were grown men, and they aspired to be our teachers and pastors.

The history of the teaching of Second Vatican Council and after on sex and marriage is well known — the reservation of judgement to the Pope, the papal commission on birth control, the scandalous disregard of its findings, the bombshell of Humanae Vitae. But by then the inadequacy of the teaching Church to pronounce on marriage was transparent. As the understanding of the role of conscience deepened, the teaching was taken as only one aspect of the problem. The encyclical had a chance of dying a natural death.

Yet Humanae Vitae was a bombshell. The free and open discussions in our house were heard by our children. A friend had shown my eight year old a photograph of Paul VI, the Pope. Barbara looked dubious: “Mummy and Daddy don’t like him much just now!” – she commented.

This is a personal account of my relationship with the official Church, but my experiences mean little in isolation. The clerics whom I have met were individuals, some better, some worse. I had ceased to expect guidance and wisdom from the clergy. What is important is how the Church institution has weighed over my life and the lives of others. I do not take the institution sufficiently seriously any more to suffer from it. But the institution is still putting burdens on people’s backs, and we should fight for principles not only when they affect ourselves.

Some post-hysterectomy or post-menopause women, who in the past had reached the end of their endurance, have since become “experts on natural family planning”, and give an exposé of the Billings method of determining the time of ovulation. Now there is better knowledge, they say, it’s easier. Of course it is — for them. But I refuse to accept that method, or any other, as the panacea, though it is an improvement on earlier knowledge. I also refuse to accept the right of clerics to immerse themselves with cold abstraction in questions of female physiology. They like doing that, and it has nothing to do with them.

John Paul II went far beyond Humanae Vitae in his condemnation of birth control. I have corresponded with women in Poland who were unable to make the safe period work, badly instructed, not knowing where to turn. They tried to be faithful, but when asking for bread had been given stones. They were conditioned to think that the Church has to go on with the teaching, and if they cannot adhere to it, it is their fault. Often they accept the dichotomy — on the one hand the ideal proclaimed by the Church, on the other undeniable reality. They live in this state of inner division – somehow.

A priest from Poland, an “expert” on marriage visited our family group. He blamed the apparent confusion of the present teaching on birth control on priests. who irresponsibly began to talk of a change, which was not possible.

On the contrary, I said, those priests listened to married couples about the realities of their lives together, became convinced by that witness and had the courage to side with the people.

He was shocked. He had probably never before been contradicted, especially by a woman.

We know that any priest who has spoken publicly against Humanae Vitae is unlikely to become a bishop. Soon the teaching Church will consist entirely of “yes-men”. Instead of being shepherds to their flock, they will be sheep. But those sheep will lead.

It would be so much easier if we were sheep, both for us and for the bishops. But we are thinking women and men. The bishops appear to realise it, since occasionally they request the opinion of the “laity” on matters connected with marriage. They want to know our experience. After all, if they have asked, perhaps they really want to know, so giving them the benefit of the doubt, I reply.

Expressing the views of the groups to which I belong, I repeat that until they recognise the prominence of the problem of birth control in married people’s lives, their expressions of sympathy and pastoral concern will sound hollow. We have written to the bishops repeatedly: at the time of the National Pastoral Congress, Synod on the Family, Extraordinary Synod marking the twenty years since the Council, Synod on the Laity. But our efforts came to nothing. Cardinal Hume said during the Synod on the Family that many couples who use contraception lead good Catholic lives, but shrunk away from the consequences of his judgement. He set out to “repaint the road signs”, to make the teaching more acceptable, as if our acceptance or rejection of the Vatican line depended on its presentation, and not on the truth or otherwise of the teaching. This implies that we are ignorant, that we have not thought, prayed and suffered for years, finally becoming convinced of the fallacy of putting technique before personal encounter and rule before love. It implies that we wait for a lead from the clergy, a lead from the blind – as, on the subject of marriage they are blind. Christ said to the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but you say `we see’, therefore your guilt remains”. I have never heard a sermon on this subject.

I may not have found a form of married spirituality, but I have discarded the ballast of centuries. I know that marriage is not merely “allowed” by God (since Christ attended the marriage feast at Cana he probably approved of it !)– but created by Him, so that men and women may have the best means of growing in their capacity to love.

Marriage exists for procreation only at the lowest level. The first “good” of marriage is love. The bond exists in the physical, mental and spiritual spheres, and to weaken it knowingly is a sin against marriage and against God. Any rule concerning the conduct of the couple must be subjected to the primacy of love.

It took me years to discard the weight of mistrust and prohibitions which accompanied the idea of Christian marriage only a generation ago. Next generations may perhaps begin at this point, and work towards the creation of a positive married spirituality, which is still lacking in the Church.

November 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm

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