College panel reflects on views of sexuality in Catholicism, invites audience to change their perspective
Genevieve Coleman | Thursday, April 8, 2021
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article referred to the translation of the word “to know” in Genesis 19 as Jewish when the word is from Hebrew. The Observer regrets this error.
On Wednesday evening, Saint Mary’s hosted a virtual panel titled “Catholicism and Sex.“ The event was co-sponsored by the department of religious studies and Belles Supporting Belles.
Senior Meghan McNamara, vice president of Belles Supporting Belles, moderated the talk between religious studies professors Stacy Davis, Molly Gower and Jessica Coblentz.
Davis began her presentation, “The Bible Does Not Tell Me So: Sexuality Then and Now,“ by referencing the Church’s recent decree that the Vatican cannot bless same-sex unions.
Davis noted that Biblical evidence given by the Church to defend this stance did not include the passage from the Book of Leviticus that states a man cannot have sex with another man. She continued her talk by examining the passages from Genesis, Romans, First Corinthians and First Timothy provided by the Church.
Looking to Genesis 19 — a passage in which Lot welcomes two angels into his house and men surround it, wanting “to know them“ — Davis stated the word “to know“ in Hebrew has two meanings. The word can refer to recognizing a fact, but it can also mean having intercourse with someone.
Arguing that the latter definition is used by the crowd in this story, Davis overviewed why the passage could not be used to justify same-sex relationships or blessings.
“What [the crowd was] saying is because we do not literally know these men, we are going to know them in another way — what they were calling for is rape,“ she said. “And the reason we know that is because in the next verse, Lot says, ‘Look, these guys are in my house. They are my guests — here take my daughters and have sex with them.’ A whole other sidetrack, but the point is this is not a text about what we would call same-sex relationships. This is a text about a hospitality fail in which a bunch of men decide they want to rape some strangers.“
Reflecting on the merits of Roman 1, Davis noted Saint Paul’s words condemned idolatry rather than same-sex relationships.
“Paul is arguing that for those who do not accept the one true God — which for him is God through Jesus — people who worship idols will make mistakes in their sexual lives,“ Davis said. “And that for him, one of those mistakes, is that men will sleep with men and women will sleep with women … The issue is idolatry, from Paul’s perspective, same sex activity is a divine punishment for not worshiping God.“
When speaking about First Corinthians 6:10, Davis described how Paul listed the people who would not inherit the Kingdom of God. According to Davis, the word Sodomites — one of the groups referenced — can be translated from Greek to mean men who have sex with men.
However, Davis stated that there was “no other biblical context” for the word. In addition, she noted the significance of Paul not mentioning same-sex relationships between women.
“In ancient Judaism, the word for man was ‘the one who penetrates’ [and] the word for women was ‘the one who was penetrated’ so in Rabbinic tradition, there was much less concern about what women did with each other,“ she said. “Some rabbis argue that it was not really sex at all.“
Considering the final passage from First Timothy 1:10, Davis again recognized the lack of mention regarding homosexual relationships between women and reiterated her argument about the importance of this missing reference.
Davis concluded her discussion of these texts by comparing Biblical contexts to ones used today.
“In the world of the Bible, there was no concept of sexual orientation, so what people are talking about now, in terms of same-sex relationships [is] can we bless same-sex unions,“ she said. “If you’re looking to the Bible for a yes or no answer, you will not get it. because the Bible did not think of sexuality in terms of to whom are you attracted to.“
She also mentioned a petition signed by bishops and theologians who disagree with the logic used by the Church.
“The Bible, and depending upon where you think authority lies, Christianity itself can be compatible with diverse sexual orientations, and this is why a number of bishops and theologians have signed a petition and a document saying, ‘We do not agree with the CDF, because the argument is, unless we are prepared to say that people who are not straight, are somehow idolaters, there’s no biblical support’,“ Davis said.
Gower continued the conversation by speaking about how sex talk was used in the Middle Ages to describe one’s connection with God. She argued that people should not be ashamed of this language because it reveals a deep longing for God.
“Is it really so surprising that sometimes when people experience God, they feel opened and united?“ she said. “Why should we expect that knowing about God or knowing God would feel controlled and contained? What would it be like to imagine that the most basic longing — the thing we ache for most deeply is God, not sex?“
Gower then spoke about how medieval Christians related to the biblical text Song of Songs to describe their yearning for God.
“There are no signs that the author intended to depict any sort of experience other than human sexual love,“ Gower said. “Even so, or maybe for this reason, medieval Christians found a helpful source in the Song of Songs, they recognized in it their own yearning for God. They heard so much that was true about their search for God’s presence.“
Shifting gears, Gower focused on the alternative to sex talk — virginity talk.
Gower noted that virginity talk did not always focus on the body of an individual.
“In the second century, we see Christians, encouraged to pursue singleness of heart — to avoid a divided heart,“ she said. “Now this seems to have been, less about the virginity of an individual Christian person, and more about the loyalty of the church, the loyalty of the Christian community to God.“
Virginity was also seen as a courageous act, Gower said.
“Virginity could also stand for fearlessly facing down death,“ she said. “There was an idea that fear of death was what encouraged folks to marry and bear children, and so to resist married family life was to honestly confront death. And so, there was a kind of courageous attitude toward the ultimate.“
Reflecting on the literal and metaphorical contexts virginity has been given by medieval Christians, Gower concluded her presentation by suggesting modern believers could learn from the “expansive“ way virginity was considered.
Coblentz built off Gower’s representation by speaking about how Mary’s perfection due to her virginity often leads to negative stereotypes about women’s sexuality.
Considering the ideas of theologian Elizabeth Johnson, Coblentz reflected on how women “fall short“ of the Virgin Mary because they are born with original sin.
Coblentz connected the ideas of Mary’s perfection by virginity to the condemnation of female sexuality today.
“By this logic, all sexual women are judged negatively,“ she said. “To put it bluntly, we are either virgins or whores — pure sexless women or sluts.“
In addition, Coblentz recognized Black, Latina and Asian women are often over-sexualized because of structural racism when reflecting on the scholarship of Courtney Hall Lee.
“Because women’s bodies are negatively sexualized along racial lines, Hall Lee argues that Mary’s perpetual intact virginity stands in stark opposition to demeaned black bodies, and I would add the demeaned bodies of so many other women of color as well,” she said.
Coblentz asked the audience to redefine the positive ways Christians think of Mary’s holiness, especially her choice to remain a virgin.
“What is exemplary about Mary’s virginity is not the fact that she didn’t have sex, but rather the fact that she was attuned to her own unique sexuality and determined to live a life that honored it,“ she said.
She also considered Joseph as someone who “respected and accepted his wife’s sexual agency.“
Coblentz concluded the evening by inviting students to keep the conversation started by the panel going.
“This doesn’t have to be the end of our conversation about this,“ she said. “We love talking with you and sharing our expertise with you.“