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Sex and gender roles in the Roman Catholic Church have been the subject of both intrigue and controversy throughout the Church's history. The cultural influence of the Catholic Church has been vast, particularly upon western society. Christian concepts, introduced into evangelized societies worldwide by the Church, had a significant impact on established cultural views of sex and gender roles. Human sacrifice, slavery, infanticide and polygamy practiced by cultures such as those of the Roman Empire, Europe, Latin America and parts of Africa came to an end through Church evangelization efforts. Historians note that Catholic missionaries, popes and religious were among the leaders in campaigns against slavery, an institution that has existed in almost every culture and often included sexual slavery of women. Christianity affected the status of women in evangelized cultures like the Roman Empire by condemning infanticide (female infanticide was more common), divorce, incest, polygamy and marital infidelity of both men and women. Some critics say the Church and teachings by St. Paul, the Fathers of the Church and Scholastic theologians perpetuated a notion that female inferiority was divinely ordained, even though official Church teaching considers women and men to be equal, different, and complementary.
Sexual practices of these cultures were affected by the Christian concept of male, female equality. The sexual act, according to the Church, is sacred within the context of the marital relationship that reflects a complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman, one that precludes the polygamy and concubinage common to cultures before the arrival of Christianity. The equality of men and women reflected in the Church teaching that the sexes are meant by divine design to be different and complementary, each having equal dignity and made in the image of God, was also a countercultural concept.
- 1 Historical overview
- 2 Official Church teaching on marital love and sexual issues
- 3 Priesthood, religious life, celibacy
- 4 Role of women
- 5 Spiritual affection
- 6 Notes
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Bibliography
Social structures at the dawn of Christianity in the Roman Empire held that women were inferior to men intellectually and physically and were "naturally dependent". Athenian women were legally classified as children regardless of age and were the "legal property of some man at all stages in her life." Women in the Roman Empire had limited legal rights and could not enter professions. Female infanticide and abortion were practiced by all classes. In family life, men, not women, could have "lovers, prostitutes and concubines" and it was not rare for pagan women to be married before the age of puberty and then forced to consummate the marriage with her often much older husband. Husbands, not wives, could divorce at any time simply by telling the wife to leave. The spread of Christianity changed women's lives in many ways by requiring a man to have only one wife and keep her for life, condemning the infidelity of men as well as women and doing away with marriage of prepubescent girls. Because Christianity outlawed infanticide and because women were more likely than men to convert, there were soon more Christian women than men whereas the opposite was true among pagans.
During the Middle Ages, sexual activity was regulated very differently from now. The medieval Catholic Church regulated sex and all matters relating to sex very carefully, and often imposed harsh penances to punish wrong doers. Penances varied according to severity of the act committed, and also according to who committed the exploit. Most of the regulations were based on what the church considered sexual sins. However, due to the knowledge that people would inherently commit these sins, the church set up a system to absolve one’s sins, although enforcement sometimes wavered.
Most of the sins the Catholic Church tried to fight against were based on their interpretation of the Bible, and surprisingly, many are still considered sins today, although they do not carry the same weight as they did in the Middle Ages. The church defined sin as a violation of any law of God, the Bible, or the church. Common sexual sins were premarital sex, adultery, masturbation, homosexuality, and bestiality. Many influential members of the church saw sex and other pleasurable experiences as evil and a source of sin, unless meant for procreation. Also, any non vaginal sex (oral, anal) in a non missionary position was frequently seen as sinful. The church considered masturbation a sin against nature because the guilty party was acting as both a man and woman. Also, law required clerics to avoid any sort of sexually tinged entertainment. However, canon law did allow sex in a marriage, as long as it intended to procreate and not just provide pleasure, even though some saw sex, even in marriage, as sinful and impure. Procreation caused no sin according to the church, as did having sex with a spouse in order to not commit adultery. Adultery, homosexuality, and masturbation were all seen as sins by the church; therefore, they also called for the vast regulation. The church also went to great lengths to control sexual practice by married couples.
Sexual regulation by the church accounted for a great amount of literature and time. The church saw regulation as necessary to maintain the welfare of society. Canon law banned premarital sex, lust, masturbation, adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, and any sort of sex outside of marriage. Adultery was broken up into various categories by the Statutes of Angers: prostitution and simple fornication, adultery, defloration of virgins, intercourse with nuns, incest, homosexuality, and incidental matters relating to sex such as looks, desires, touches, embraces, and kisses. Adultery was typically grounds for divorce for a man if his wife fornicated with another, but adultery was not seen as a crime, just as a sin. Prostitution, although within the category of fornication, was less concrete in the law. Because the medieval canon law originated as an “offshoot of moral theology” but also drew from Roman law, it contributed both legal and moral concepts to canonistic writing. This split influence caused the treatment of prostitution to be more complex. Prostitution, although sinful, was tolerated. Without the availability of a prostitute, men could be lead to commit a different Anger: defloration of a virgin. It was better to tolerate prostitution with all of its associated evils, than to risk the perils which would follow the successful elimination of the harlot form society. The church recognized sex as a natural inclination related to original sin, so sexual desires could not be ignored as a reality. Although the law attempted to strictly regulate prostitution, whorehouses abounded disguised as bathhouses or operated in secret within hotels and private residences. “Outside the official public brothels, prostitution in the public bathhouses, the inns and the taverns was common knowledge and was tolerated. Much of the church’s efforts were put toward controlling what was going on sexually in a marriage, especially regarding when a married couple could have sex. Sex was not allowed during pregnancy or menstruation, after a child birth, on Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday, during each of the three Lents, feast days, quarterly ember days, or before communion. The church also denounced “unnatural” sexual relations between those of the same sex and also married couples. Also, upon marrying, a couple could not enter a church for thirty days.
Due to human nature and the belief that all men sin (Romans 3:23), the Catholic Church provided means to absolve one’s sexual sins, so that they may become pure again. By applying penance to sin, the church gave people a way out. Penance was composed of 3 parts: interior sorrow, oral confession, and satisfaction through deeds. Because not all sexual sins are public, a private confession sufficed to declare one guilt free. Penances varied in length depending on what sin was committed. Adultery called for anywhere from 1 year to 15 years, depending on the confessors judgment of the sin. Adultery between two unmarried people called for a much lighter penance than that with a cleric, and even worse was fornication outside of a marriage. A 100 day penance would typically be given for one who confessed to masturbating for the first time, whereas a year would be given for a repeat offender. Also, because sex in marriage solely for pleasure was prohibited, married couples had to pray frequently for these “daily sins.” 
Although the church developed very strict regulations on sexual activity that needed to be carried out to sustain the institutional and psychological structure of the Middle Ages, it had a hard time properly enforcing these regulations. Most violations occurred in the privacy of the bedroom, so the only witnesses to the sin were the guilty parties themselves, and they did not usually confess to such crimes. Also, the problem was widespread. Not only did the common people deviate from the rules, but the clerics themselves did not follow their own laws. In order to convict, accusation was required, and people didn’t usually have enough proof to back up an accusation, as law basically required a confession, and there was always a chance that if there was not enough proof, the accuser would be charged with false accusations. Even though the system was not foolproof, the church did produce a large number of institutions to inform the public of the law of sexual practice, and also had an extensive system of courts to deal with sexual misbehavior.
Sexual offenses were punished in a variety of ways during the Middle Ages. There were numerous prosecutions for adultery, fornication, and other sexual offenses, but fornication was the most frequently prosecuted. Fornication was seen as a serious sin and a canonical crime  and those convicted were required to “pay fines and court costs,”  and they were often subject to public humiliation. Public humiliation ranged from public confessions and requesting the forgiveness of the community (often by kneeling at the entrance of a church and begging those who entered for mercy), to public whippings in the churchyard or marketplace, to being paraded around the church “bare-chested and bearing a lighted candle before Sunday Mass”. Some offenders were made to wear special clothes while others were flogged. Numerous offenders had to fast or abstain from meat, wine, and sex for a set period of time. Other "punishments [ranged] from the cutting off of hair and pillory to prison and expulsion." Those convicted of more serious sexual offenses were subject to removal from office, confinement in a monastery, or a forced pilgrimage.
Not all punishments were equal; punishments for sexual crimes differed between genders and social classes. When convicted of adultery, it was more likely that males would be fined in church courts rather than publicly flogged like the convicted females. However, when the males began to be more strictly punished, the punishment for females also became more severe. While males were now publicly whipped, females had their heads shaved  and were subject to expulsion from their homes, separation from their children, and the confiscation of their dowry. The wounds of the male would heal over time, but the woman was reduced to “penury”. She would often be forced to live in poverty for the remainder of her life. In one case, a woman was accused of sleeping around and was ordered to rid herself of guilt in front of seven witnesses. Her male counterpart, however, was subject to no punishment whatsoever. When a woman of a higher social status was convicted of the same crime, she was not required to purge herself of her guilt in front of any witnesses. The woman of a higher social class was allowed to repent in private. Common prostitutes of the time period were banned from churches, but there was little to no prosecution of their “male clientele”. However, the priests of the higher classes were punished most severely for sexual crimes. They were stripped of their rank, position, and income. The wife and children of the priest were thrown out of their house, and the priests could be thrown in a monastery for the remainder of their lives while their wife and kids were enslaved.
It was women, primarily Amerindian Christian converts who became the primary supporters of the Church. Slavery and human sacrifice were both part of Latin American culture before the Europeans arrived. Spanish conquerors enslaved and sexually abused Indian women on a regular basis. Indian slavery was first abolished by Pope Paul III in the 1537 bull Sublimis Deus which confirmed that "their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans" and they should neither be robbed nor turned into slaves. While the Spanish military was known for its ill-treatment of Amerindian men and women, Catholic missionaries are credited with championing all efforts to initiate protective laws for the Indians and fought against their enslavement.
The missionaries in Latin America felt that the Indians tolerated too much nudity and required them to wear clothes if they lived at the missions. Common Indian sexual practices such as premarital sex, adultery, polygamy, and incest were quickly deemed immoral by the missionaries and prohibited with mixed results. Indians who did not agree to these new rules either left the missions or actively rebelled. Women's roles were sometimes reduced to exclude positions previously enjoyed by women in religious ceremonies or society.
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By and large the largest obstacle to evangelization of African people was the rampant practice of polygamy among the various populations. Africa was initially evangelized by Catholic monks of medieval Europe, and then by both Protestants and Catholics from the seventeenth century onward. Each of these evangelizing groups complained "incessantly" about African marriage customs.
Official Church teaching on marital love and sexual issues
According to the Church, humans are sexual beings whose sexual identity extends beyond the body to the mind and soul. The sexes are meant by divine design to be different and complementary, each having equal dignity and made in the image of God. The sexual act is sacred within the context of the marital relationship that reflects a complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman. Sexual sins thus violate not just the body but the person's whole being. In his 1995 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II reflected on this concept by stating,
"After all, young people are always searching for the beauty in love. They want their love to be beautiful. If they give in to weakness, following the models of behavior that can rightly be considered a 'scandal in the contemporary world' (and these are, unfortunately, widely diffused models), in the depths of their hearts they still desire a beautiful and pure love. This is as true of boys as it is of girls. Ultimately, they know that only God can give them this love. As a result, they are willing to follow Christ, without caring about the sacrifices this may entail.
The Catholic Church teaches that human life and human sexuality are inseparable. Because Catholics believe God created human beings in his own image and likeness and that he found everything he created to be "very good," the Church teaches that human body and sex must likewise be good. The Church considers the expression of love between husband and wife to be an elevated form of human activity, joining as it does, husband and wife in complete mutual self-giving, and opening their relationship to new life. “The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, ‘noble and worthy.’” In cases in which sexual expression is sought outside sacramental marriage, or in which the procreative function of sexual expression within marriage is deliberately frustrated (i.e., artificial contraception is used), the Catholic Church expresses grave moral concern.
The Church teaches that sexual intercourse has a purpose; and that outside marriage it is contrary to its purpose. According to the catechism, "conjugal love ... aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul" since the marriage bond is to be a sign of the love between God and humanity.
Vocation to chastity
Church teaching on the sixth commandment includes a discussion on chastity. The Catechism calls it a "moral virtue ... a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort." Because the Church sees sex as more than just a physical act but rather one that affects both body and soul, it teaches that chastity is a virtue all people are called to acquire. It is defined as the inner unity of a person's "bodily and spiritual being" that successfully integrates a person's sexuality with his or her "entire human nature". To acquire this virtue one is encouraged to enter into the "long and exacting work" of self-mastery that is helped by friendships, God's grace, maturity and education "that respects the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life." The Catechism categorizes violations of the sixth commandment into two categories: "offenses against chastity" and "offenses against the dignity of marriage".
Offenses against chastity
- Lust: the Church teaches that sexual pleasure is good and created by God who meant for spouses to "experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit." Lust does not mean sexual pleasure as such, nor the delight in it, nor the desire for it in its right context. Lust is the desire for sex that seeks the pleasure of it apart from its intended purpose of procreation and the uniting of man and woman, body and soul, in mutual self-donation.
- Masturbation is considered sinful for the same reasons as lust but is a step above lust in that it now involves a physical act instead of just a mental one.
- Fornication is the sexual union of an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. This is considered contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality because it is not ordered to the good of spouses or the generation and education of children.
- Pornography ranks yet higher on the scale in gravity of sinfulness because it is considered a perversion of the sexual act which is intended for distribution to third parties for viewing.
- Prostitution is sinful for both the prostitute and the customer; it reduces a person to an instrument of sexual pleasure, violating human dignity and harming society as well. The gravity of the sinfulness is less for prostitutes who are forced into the act by destitution, blackmail or social pressure.
- Rape is an intrinsically evil act that can cause grave damage to the victim for life.
- Incest, or "rape of children by parents or other adult relatives" or "those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them" is considered the most heinous of sexual sins.
Love of husband and wife
Spousal love, according to Church teaching, is meant to achieve an unbroken, twofold end: union of husband and wife as well as transmission of life. The unitive aspect includes a person's whole being that calls spouses to grow in love and fidelity "so that they are no longer two but one flesh". The sacrament of matrimony is viewed as God's sealing of spousal consent to the gift of themselves to each other. Church teaching on the marital state requires spousal acceptance of each other's failures and faults and the recognition that the "call to holiness in marriage" is one that requires a process of spiritual growth and conversion that can last throughout life.
Fecundity of marriage, sexual pleasure, birth control
Throughout Church history, various Catholic thinkers have offered differing opinions on sexual pleasure. Some saw it as sinful, while others disagreed. There was no formal Church position in the matter until the 1546 Council of Trent decided that "concupiscence" invited sin but was "not formally sinful in itself". In 1679, Pope Innocent XI also weighed in by condemning "marital sex exercised for pleasure alone". The Church position on sexual activity can be summarized as: "sexual activity belongs only in marriage as an expression of total self–giving and union, and always open to the possibility of new life." Sexual acts in marriage are considered "noble and honorable" and are meant to be enjoyed with "joy and gratitude".
The existence of artificial methods of birth control predates Christianity; the Catholic Church as well as all Christian denominations condemned artificial methods of birth control throughout their respective histories. This began to change in the 20th century when the Church of England became the first to accept the practice in 1930. The Catholic Church responded to this new development by issuing the papal encyclical Casti Connubii on 31 December 1930. The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae is a reaffirmation of the Catholic Church's traditional view of marriage and marital relations and a continued condemnation of artificial birth control.
The Church encourages large families and sees this as a blessing. It also recognizes that responsible parenthood sometimes calls for reasonable spacing or limiting of births and thus considers natural family planning as morally acceptable but rejects all methods of artificial contraception. The Church rejects all forms of artificial insemination and fertilization because such techniques divorce the sexual act from the creation of a child. The Catechism states, "A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift …'the supreme gift of marriage'".
Rejecting Church support for natural family planning as a viable form of birth control, some Church members and non-members criticize Church teachings that oppose artificial birth control as contributing to overpopulation, and poverty. The Church's rejection of the use of condoms is especially criticized with respect to countries where the incidence of AIDS and HIV has reached epidemic proportions. The Church maintains that in countries like Kenya and Uganda, where behavioral changes are encouraged alongside condom use, greater progress in controlling the disease has been made than in those countries solely promoting condoms.
Priesthood, religious life, celibacy
In the Catholic Church, only men may become ordained clergy through the sacrament of Holy Orders, as bishops, priests or deacons. (see Catholic Church hierarchy) All clergy who are bishops form the College of Bishops and are considered the successors of the apostles.[note 1]
The Church practice of celibacy is based on Jesus' example and his teaching as given in Matthew 19:11–12 as well as the writings of St. Paul, who spoke of the advantages celibacy allowed a man in serving the Lord. Celibacy was "held in high esteem" from the Church's beginnings. It is considered a kind of spiritual marriage with Christ, a concept further popularized by the early Christian theologian Origen. Clerical celibacy began to be demanded in the 4th century, including papal decretals beginning with Pope Siricius. In the 11th century, mandatory celibacy was enforced as part of efforts to reform the medieval church.
The Catholic view is that since the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus were all male, only men may be ordained in the Catholic Church. While some consider this to be evidence of a discriminatory attitude toward women, the Church believes that Jesus called women to different yet equally important vocations in Church ministry. Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter Christifideles Laici, states that women have specific vocations reserved only for the female sex, and are equally called to be disciples of Jesus. This belief in different and complementary roles between men and women is exemplified in Pope Paul VI's statement "If the witness of the Apostles founds the Church, the witness of women contributes greatly towards nourishing the faith of Christian communities".
Role of women
Official Church teaching considers women and men to be equal, different, and "complementary". A special role and devotion is accorded to Jesus' mother Mary as "nurturing mother" of Christ and the Church. Marian devotion has been a central theme of Catholic art and motherhood and family are given a sacred status in church teachings. Conversely, the role of Eve in the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden affected the development of a Western notion of woman as "temptress". Unusually for his epoch, Jesus preached to men and women alike. Early church father Saint Paul preached of equality of the sexes through Jesus, but appears to have also set limits as to a woman's role in the church. Based on a reading of the Gospels that Christ only selected male Apostles, the church does not ordain women to the priesthood (see above). Nevertheless throughout history, women have achieved significant influence in the running of Catholic institutions - particularly in hospitals and schooling, through religious orders of nuns or sisters like the Benedictines, Dominicans, Loreto Sisters, Sisters of Mercy, Little Sisters of the Poor, Josephites, and Missionaries of Charity.
Spiritual affection has long been documented in various lives of the saints. Biographies of Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Martin de Porres, Joseph of Cupertino and many others include episodes of spiritual affection witnessed both by others who knew the saint or confessed by the saints themselves in their own writings. In Saint Teresa's Life for instance, she describes what has become known as the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa:
"It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. During the days that this lasted, I went about as if beside myself. I wished to see, or speak with, no one, but only to cherish my pain, which was to me a greater bliss than all created things could give me. I was in this state from time to time, whenever it was our Lord's pleasure to throw me into those deep trances, which I could not prevent even when I was in the company of others, and which, to my deep vexation, came to be publicly known."
- Only bishops can administer the sacrament of Holy Orders; and, in the Latin Rite, Confirmation is ordinarily reserved to them. Bishops are responsible for teaching and governing the faithful of their diocese, sharing these duties with the priests and deacons who serve under them. Only priests and bishops may celebrate the Eucharist and administer the sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick. They and deacons may preach, teach, baptize, witness marriages and conduct funeral services. Baptism is normally performed by clergy but is the only sacrament that may be administered in emergencies by any Catholic or even a non-Christian "who has the intention of baptizing according to the belief of the Catholic Church". Married men may become deacons, but only celibate men can ordinarily be ordained as priests in the Latin Rite. Married clergymen who have converted to the Church from other denominations are sometimes exempted from this rule. The Eastern Catholic Churches ordain both celibate and married men. All rites of the Catholic Church maintain the ancient tradition that marriage is not allowed after ordination. Men with transitory homosexual leanings may be ordained deacons following three years of prayer and chastity, but homosexual men who are sexually active, or those who have deeply rooted homosexual tendencies cannot be ordained.
- USCCB, p. 405, quote: "The sixth commandment summons spouses to practice permanent and exclusive fidelity to one another. Emotional and sexual fidelity are essential to the commitment made in the marriage covenant. God established marriage as a reflection of his fidelity to us."
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