Teaching Sexuality and Religion

Editor's note from Paul: After reading this, also check out the companion piece reflecting further on this post, over at Tenured Radical.

Janine Giordano Drake

It all started this past May with an email composed by an undergraduate student in “Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought,” a course offered in the Religious Studies department at the University of Illinois. The student forwarded to the department chair an email about utilitarianism and Natural Law that his instructor, Catholic theologian Kenneth Howell, sent to the class during the term.
Howell’s letter, reprinted here, explained why Catholic Natural Law doctrine maintained that sexuality must not be separated from procreation, and did bleed into some preachiness. Howell argued that because anatomical differences between men and women were part of the “real” world, sexual morality ought not be governed by utilitarian ethics but by the "inherent meaning" of the act. Explained Howell, “Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology. Human sexuality is inherently unitive and procreative. If we encourage sexual relations that violate this basic meaning, we will end up denying something essential about our humanity, about our feminine and masculine nature."
This student, whose letter is republished here, complained to the Department Chair of Religious Studies that the professor was encouraging and expecting students to apply (Catholic) Natural Moral Law as their understanding of natural law. "I didn't go to Notre Dame for a reason," he signed. The professor's email to his students, also apprehended by the local newspaper, did claim that "none of what I have said here depends upon religion," alongside an unqualified encouragement to apply (Catholic) Natural Moral Law within their own adult thinking. The complaint went public in a longer story published by the paper. "Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” penned the student. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation."
Professor Howell's adjunct position was not renewed. The questions around here, however, abound. Did this Catholic theologian go beyond the boundaries set by most professors in bleeding his personal opinions and encouragements into his teaching? Did he foster a chilly climate or outrightly uncomfortable teaching environment for GLBT students and their allies? Do Religious Studies professors have to be more careful about not encouraging their point of view than, say, Marxist historians?

The most common question I have been asked, however, has been perhaps the most telling: "Do Catholics really think that? Is he really representing Catholicism?" Of course many people "born Catholic" are raising these questions, so that answer depends really depends how you define Catholics. For my research, I have been reading lots lately on religious attitudes toward birth control in the early twentieth century. Kathleen Tobin's American Religious Debate about Birth Control, 1906-1937, remains one of my favorite books I have read all year. Following Jews, Catholics and Protestants, she explores year by year the transitions that made possible Jews and Protestants' qualified acceptance of birth control technologies, and Catholics' ardent rejection of the separation between procreation and sexuality. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, both Jews and Protestants began to see marriage more about fostering a relationship than raising a family. She excellently chronicles Sanger's long debates with Catholic authorities, not only in ink but literally in her quest for public forums to discuss and distribute birth control information. Leslie Woodcock Tentler's Catholics and Contraception is another excellent source, for her exploration of church teaching alongside patterns among clergy captures the day-to-day Catholic experience as it related to sexuality and family planning.

Even though these and other excellent resources exist for historians and the general public, I can't say I haven't been surprised, and a little disappointed, by how little attention many historians invest invest in understanding this Catholic position, even if they will later refute it as oppressive. Elaine Tyler May's storied new book, America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation makes no mention of this Catholic theology of the body at all. Perhaps even more disappointing, she makes no mention of the Catholic priest John Ryan, member of the National Catholic War Council and writer of the Bishops' Plan for Social Reconstruction, who fought against birth control because he thought it encouraged employers to continue to deprive workers of a living, family wage. One account of this is here.

Many other issues than "women's freedoms" animated debates over access to reproductive technologies throughout the twentieth century. Sure, poor women's freedoms were the most important concern that birth control advocates wanted to discuss, but middle class families overwhelmingly had access to, and made use of, the technologies faster than working class families. Many Catholic men and women, overwhelming working class, said no to the technologies out of religious conscience and political conviction, and we can only imagine that some of them truly believed that "sex control" (through various versions of the Rhythm Method and later Natural Family Planning) was much preferable to contraceptives. But these men and women are left out of May's account.

May simply notes the disappointment of many Catholics, especially Dr. John Rock a pill developer, when they found that Vatican II did not approve the pill. She writes, "A solid Republican for most of his life and no fan of sexual experimentation outside of marriage, Rock, along with many other Catholics, held that contraception was sometimes medically necessary and often personally desirable as a means to maintain happy marriages and well-planned families" (122). Does any Catholic's thoughts, no matter how informed of Catholic doctrine, qualify as a "Catholic opinion"? She goes on, "Rock believed that married couples should have as many children as they could support but that contraception was important for those who could not afford large families." Rock represented a real shift in Catholic attitudes toward reproductive technologies, and his is an important story to tell, even and especially because he was Catholic. However, May's elision of the religious debates surrounding the pill, especially those that questioned who benefited most from smaller working class families, oversimplifies this unqualified story of "liberation." By suppressing the intellectual history of Catholic conscience in this matter, Catholic doctrine appears to be little more than patriarchal dogma.

Teaching sexuality in a Religious Studies class dedicated to Catholicism is hard. Teaching it at a land grant institution in the 50 year anniversary of the pill may be harder. There are surely better and worse ways to do this, but I would say that it really needs to be done.

For a longer version of this piece, go here.


Kathryn Lofton said…
Thank you very much for directing us to this, Janine. This situation is fascinating (sad, frustrating, messy), and replete with useful branches for our course discussions (I think the posted reader comments to all three texts could outline an entire seminar in the study of religion!). I know I'll be teaching it as a case in my own lecture course on religion and sexuality class this fall --

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