– The Catholic Church and Sexuality. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, (trans. Peter Heinegg), Doubleday 1990. Penguin 1991.
Theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann is no stranger to controversy having been removed from her academic chair at the University of Essen for her interpretation of Mary’s Virgin Birth in a theological fashion as opposed to a biological one. In the book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven (first published in 1990), she continues to provoke, causing us to question the attitude of the Catholic church to sexuality through the ages.
Tackling familiar themes from an historical standpoint, she traces church sexual teaching from the earliest Christian times right up to the current thinking of the late twentieth century. Weaving her way back through history, she proves that the church’s stance on contraception can be laid firmly at the door of the first century stoics, that celibacy had its foundation in the pagan tradition and the St. Augustine is the architect of a fifteen hundred year long anxiety about sex and an enduring hostility to it.
Throughout the book the author reiterates time and time again the church’s disapproval of pleasure and its continued linking of sex with sin. She criticises the church for reducing Jesus to ‘the listless and lust-hating Christ of the bedroom inspectors and conjugal police’, and through its obsession with so called impurity, diluting the message of Christianity i.e. the love of God.
This is a scholarly work. Every statement is rigorously researched and backed up by an impressive number of references to earlier theological writings. Indeed, so extensive and meticulous are these that at times one can find them intrusive in the building up of her case. There is hardly a sentence that is not followed by a bracketed reference and one finds oneself wishing the author could write in a less restrained way.
In terms of commentary, she exercises a certain restraint too, merely stating her arguments as proven from her research. However, she does permit herself to forcibly express opinions on issues which are obviously of importance to her. She is outraged that celibacy has had a higher value than marriage and that virginity has been the prized state. She pursues in depth, the issue of Mariology and bemoans the fact that the concept of the Virgin Birth has essentially robbed Mary of her motherhood. She feels that a metaphorical interpretation gives more dignity.
Indeed, it is when she discusses the position of women in the church that she becomes most forceful and one can sense her outrage at the negative attitude to women which prevailed through the ages and at the linking of impurity with conception and childbirth. Here again she points out how far the church has travelled away from its roots. Jesus was no misogynist. In fact, the author says he is the first and practically the last friend that women have had in the church.
This book, while essential reading for the student of theology, is also a must for anyone curious to find out how modern church thinking on sexuality has evolved. While the author is critical of the church on many fronts, one gets the feeling that she is trying to get the church to face up to its responsibilities. She decries the state of Catholic moral theology and urges the church to confront the modern world. At a time when the church is in crisis Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven provides much food for thought and is a positive contribution to the current debate.