Why Sex Became so Important to the Modern Churches

Privatization and domestication of Christianity

To read medieval compilations of canon law, or the writings of Aquinas, or papal documents relating to the investiture struggle, is to be reminded just how wide-ranging the

Western church's sphere of interest and influence once was. What differentiated the medieval church from the early church and the modern church was its lively ideal of Christendom - of what Ernst Troeltsch refers to as "an internally uniform Christian civilization" (Troeltsch 1931: 201). Where the early church had tended to see itself as "ecclesia," a religious body of perfect holiness called out of the world and differentiated from it, the medieval church sought to extend its control not only over culture but the whole sociopolitical realm as well. Today the Christendom ideal has no living force, for the conditions of modernity rendered its realization impossible - even in the United States of America. Indeed, it is possible to characterize modernity as the revolutionary overturning of the Christendom ideal, a revolution which has seen social, political, and economic power gradually wrested from the church in a series of both bloody and bloodless revolutions.

From a situation in which it exercised extensive control over government, the economy, law, education, health, and welfare, Christianity in the modern West has been reduced to one in which its sphere of influence grows ever smaller. Yet the churches have not surrendered power without a struggle, and this struggle has not been wholly ineffectual. Nostalgic remnants of political power remain, most obviously in the few remaining state churches in Europe. In Europe some denominations also retain influence in the educational sphere, chiefly by maintaining church schools. In Europe and America denominational and ecumenical boards of social responsibility continue to issue reports on issues as diverse as nuclear deterrence and global capitalism, albeit in diminishing volume. Yet the only realm besides the purely religious one in which Christianity can still claim something like a monopoly of power is that of private life and family life.1

As the modern churches' other spheres of influence diminished, their efforts to control the domestic sphere intensified. On this topic, uniquely, the churches in the modern world could not only speak, but could expect to be heard and even obeyed. To be able to exercise power over individuals' private and domestic lives has been a major compensation for institutions which have seen their power in other spheres decline so significantly. For one thing, the family is the context in which the next generation is both born and formed, and it continues to have a major educational role even in modern times. For another, control over intimate life is a very real form of control, for it involves control of the deepest of bodily and emotional pleasures and desires - control of eros, no less. As the family grew in significance as "a haven in a heartless world," so this power became the more significant (Lasch 1977). To be able to control the sphere in which men and women invested the greater part of their hopes and energies, not to mention their finances, is to have power indeed. It is to control the sphere most important in the construction of men's and (particularly) women's identity. By insinuating itself into the bedroom, churches were in effect disallowing the one thing many moderns sought in the domestic realm, namely privacy and freedom from control. What more intense form of control could there be than such public control over "private" life?

The power that the modern church exercised through its colonization of the domestic sphere impacted more forcefully on women than on men. The creation of the modern family, and the division of men and women into two "sexes" with different characteristics, went hand in hand with the increasingly rigid demarcation of public and private spheres which was a defining feature of industrialization.2 This development was associated with the growth of jobs in industry and the professions which took men away from the home, and with an increasing affluence which made it possible for women (particularly of the new middle classes) to stay at home and occupy themselves with "genteel," non-paid tasks.3

Some have gone so far as to argue that the "free" labor of women in the domestic sphere, together with that of mostly female domestic servants who were supported at subsistence-level, was a necessary condition of the rise of industrial capitalism (see, for example, McClintock 1995).

As Christianity lost power in the "public" world and consolidated it within the increasingly important "private" realm, so it inevitably "domesticized" and "feminized."4 Instead of being located in the public world of male power, the church was gradually relocated in the realm of women and domesticity. For women, increasingly excluded from the public realm, the gain was considerable. From the nineteenth century onwards the Christian churches increasingly affirmed and dignified women in their domestic roles and conferred upon them the highest of symbolic statuses - that of God's most blessed and chosen servants. What is more, it offered an escape from the otherwise suffocating constraints of the domestic sphere by providing alternative but complementary social spaces that would not otherwise have been available to them.5 The worshipping church itself was the most important and obvious of these spaces, but a rapidly growing number of nineteenth-century societies and associations and movements opened up still more opportunities for women. They included temperance movements, home-visiting educational and uplift programs, charitable initiatives, and missionary societies. Many allowed women to escape the home (albeit temporarily), to take on a measure of administrative and organizational responsibility, and to at least sniff the air of public power (see, for example, Ginzberg 1990). These gains were particularly important for middle-class women, and often reinforced an emerging class hierarchy Working-class women could gain from feminization as well, not least through the domestication of their menfolk.

The gains which domestication and feminization brought the church were significant. Most importantly, they counteracted the congregational decline which might otherwise have accompanied such processes as social differentiation. Indeed Callum Brown goes so far as to argue that the creation of a "salvation economy" centered on women is the single most important factor in explaining the massive impact of Christianity within Western societies from the 1800 through to the 1960s (C. Brown 2001). Quite simply, women sustained the church: the commitment of the most active was unstinting, and their labor was free. Yet feminization also resulted in a loss of status for the churches and for the clergymen who still retained organizational power within them, and there was also the ever-present danger that men would become alienated from the churches - a worry which clergymen addressed periodically through attempts to make Christianity more "muscular" (whether by way of movements like the boy scouts, church-sponsored to football teams, or by the self-conscious selection of "manly" bishops).6 Whilst men did continue to attend church, there is some evidence that it was increasingly women-folk who dictated their church-going practice (C. Brown 2001: 192).

Reactionary identity and the creation of a counter-culture

As Western Christianity became structurally identified with women, families, and the home in industrial societies, so sex inevitably became a focus of concern. The church's concern was not merely with sex-acts, but with sexual conduct more generally, and so with the whole structuring of relations between the sexes. Marriage, the family, and the heterosexual economy were viewed as part of the natural and/or God-given order of things. Sex must be understood and embodied within this context. It was seen to be "ordered" rather than disorderly when it took place within the married relationship and was oriented to procreation and the building up of family life, rather than to pleasure. In the vast majority of churches, sexuality was also said - or quietly assumed - to be ordered when the male took the active and the female the more passive role, both in desire and its consummation.

So influential were these ideas in shaping the ideals of modern Western society that for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they were not regarded as reactionary or counter-cultural. Far from it. American Protestantism, for example, tended to think of itself and its sexual ethic as at the vanguard of modern progress and civilization. Yet shifts in social and sexual mores allied to broader socio-economic changes and medical/technological developments - most notably the invention of ever more reliable forms of contraception - gradually meant that merely by standing still the churches came to seem increasingly out of step with the spirit of the age. As a result the churches' teachings on sexuality had come to stand out as a more distinctive defining feature of their identities by the latter part of the twentieth century than had previously been the case. Far from making them more hesitant about speaking out on issues of sexuality, the evidence seems to suggest that this development has had the opposite effect. Many churches have actively embraced the fact that their identities have become bound up with what is now perceived as a reactionary sexual stance, and to have "reacted" more as a result. Here is an area, many seem to have felt, where Christian witness to "the world" can and should be heard. Thus it is surely no coincidence that Christian campaigning on sexual issues dates from the 1920s and intensifies after the 1960s, for these dates reflect the points at which shifts in Western opinion on these issues began and intensified. Sexual conservativism did not merely mark Christians off from the "secular" world, however, it also marked them off from one another. As mainline Protestant denominations gradually accommodated such practices as contraception and even abortion in the course of the twentieth century, so Roman Catholicism and more conservative forms of Protestantism increasingly identified themselves over and against such "liberalism" by their robust defense of a "traditional" sexual ethic.7

The recent history of Roman Catholic teaching on contraception offers a powerful illustration of these points. Until the end of the nineteenth century, there was little that was distinctive about Catholic opposition to contraception. If we take North America as our context, we find discussion of the alleged evils of contraception abroad in society long before the Catholic Church had attained an important public voice (indeed, one of the arguments against contraception was that it would lead to the overwhelming of white Protestant America by immigrant Catholic families). Yet the situation changed dramatically in the twentieth century Movements in favor of birth control began in America in the 1910s and had gained wide support by the inter-war period; by the 1960s "family planning" was so uncon-tentious that its promotion had become an official part of American foreign policy. Whilst the American Catholic hierarchy had long opposed birth control, it was not until after the 1910s that it made a more public issue of it, becoming the central organized opponent of the pro-birth control movement (see Burns 1999). This opposition redoubled in the face of a liberalization of the Protestant stance on the issue, and it is telling that opposition gained papal support from Pius XI's Casti Connubii, which is itself thought to have been written in reaction to the 1929 Lambeth Conference's approval of contraception within the context of marriages oriented to procreation. Even more significant, given the increasingly wide acceptance of birth-control and the pill after the 1960s, was Pope Paul VI's reaffirmation of the ban on contraception in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Though the document was greeted with shock by many caught up in the modernizing spirit of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the teaching of Humanae Vitae, signaling out contraception and abortion as major symptoms of the "culture of death" with which he believed the church to be sur-rounded.8 He also prohibited the discussion of women's ordination, condemned homosexual acts as "intrinsically disordered," and upheld a "traditional" Christian view of the family within which women should assume their God-given role as wives and mothers. One might go so far as to say that in defending the identity of the Catholic Church against liberalism of both Protestant and secular varieties, Pope John Paul II took his defining stand upon the issue of sexuality. The identification between the two is now so close that a change in Catholic sexual policy would threaten the very identity of the church.

A heritage of sexual concern

Modern Christian churches' focus upon sexuality in the defense and consolidation of threatened power and identity cannot, however, be viewed as merely opportunistic, for concern with the control of sexuality has been central to the internal logic of Christianity from early times. Thus modernity has served as a context which has had the effect of activating this part of the Christian legacy with renewed force. This is not to deny the newness of many aspects of this development (see below), nor to underplay the importance of individual choices, nor even to suggest that the churches could not have taken a very different direction had their leaders chosen to do so. It is merely to recognize that the churches' claim to be reasserting "traditional" teachings has significant historical foundation.

Without wishing to rehearse that history here it is interesting to note that in some ways the churches' position in the modern world represents a return to Christianity's earliest mode of social existence. For the first three centuries of its life the "early church" (in actual fact a number of different competing forms of Christian community) had little or no political, economic, or military power. In Michael Mann's characterization, the only power it possessed was "ideological" (Mann 1986). It could not buy, force, or command allegiance, but grew by winning hearts and minds. It was not imposed from above, but grew from below, and it operated not at the level of primary but of intermediate associations, most notably the family Just as the family had supplied the chief metaphor in Jesus' teaching (God as "Abba," human beings as his children, these children the brothers and sisters of one another, and all bound by the bonds of intimate love), so the early churches were formed on the model of families bound by spiritual bonds. In some cases this was subversive of the biological family, since the ecclesia offered an alternative "higher" (ascetic) family under the authority of a Father God, but the emerging "orthodox" and "catholic" tradition -articulated in the writings of men like Augustine - sought to head off this possibility by affirming the mutually reinforcing value of both the church and the domestic unit. Good Christians were also good wives, mothers, fathers, daughters etc., to such an extent that church and family could each supply the hierarchically ordered model of the other. In this way Christianity served not only to legitimate the patriarchal family, but to strengthen its institutional importance, and to gradually root out alternative forms of patterned intimate relationship.

Thus a great deal of the early success of Christianity may be accounted for by its ability to (a) give intense ethico-religious meaning, order and significance to the domestic sphere (b), to appeal thereby to all those - including women - who inhabited it, and (c) to use the family as a chief means for the production and reproduction of Christians and Christianity. This is not to underestimate the significance of the ascetic ideal in early Christianity, but to point out that the "winning" form of Christianity was that which accommodated and defended the family, and allowed householders as well as ascetics to entertain the hope of ultimate salvation. Such "catholic," "orthodox" Christianity managed to establish a delicate balance between the ascetic and familial ideals, by endorsing the family yet identifying the "highest" form of human existence with "spiritual" fatherhood and "spiritual" sonship. The figures of God "the Father," Christ "the Son" and Mary "the virgin mother" had the potential both to legitimate patriarchal family relationships on earth, and to subvert them in favor of a higher, sexless, ideal. As we will see below, the general effect of the Reformation was to exalt the ideal of patriarchal family life, and to give more dignity to the domestic role of women. This tendency was intensified by the pressures of industrialization, discussed above, which saw the "one sex" model which had prevailed in Christianity until that time (where true humanity/divinity is male, and the female state a falling away from this higher identity), to the "two sex" model in which men and women were viewed as two separate and distinct "sexes" with their own unique value - though with the male still dominant. In these ways Christian concern with sex managed to keep step with the unfolding history of sex and gender in the West, and to play a key role in the regulation of sex and gender relations right through to the modern period.

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