Friday, May 17, 2019

Notes on Adriano Oliva's Amours: L'Église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels — On Sexual Relations Between Women as Less Sinful Than Sodomy

As a footnote to what I posted yesterday regarding Adriano Oliva's book Amours: L'Église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels (Paris: Cerf, 2015) and its discussion of Aquinas' views regarding the sacrament of marriage, I'd like to offer  you the passage above as a reminder of some aspects of Aquinas' worldview that affect his understanding of sexuality, gender, and marriage. I offer this passage from pp. 78-9 of Adriano's book both as a footnote to the discussion of his theology of marriage, and as a prelude to his discussion of homosexuality, on which I'll focus in my next posting (or two) about his book.

A loose translation/paraphrase of the paragraph at the head of the posting:

One will note that sexual relations between women were regarded by the medievals as less gravely sinful than sodomy, since the role of women vis-a-vis reproduction was regarded as primarily passive, while the male role was seen as active, since semen was considered the active principle of sexual generation. In the case of males, not only masturbation and sodomy but also nocturnal emissions, even when not sought or directly caused, were seen as sinful, because they wasted the male seed. As these insights should tell us, both the biological understanding of human sexuality in the medieval world and its sociocultural presuppositions were profoundly different from our own.

What's interesting to note about this medieval fixation (rooted in the biological assumptions of Aristotle) on the male role in sexual life and what happens to semen in sexual activity is how deeply entrenched this fixation remains to this day in much Catholic thinking about human sexuality — even when the fixation runs sub rosa under that thinking. There is an underlying assumption that sodomy is the worst of all sins, the unthinkable and unspeakable sin, because it wastes male seed — and what women do with each other is less important to think about, since women contribute to the generation of new life only passively, in this medieval (but still alive) schema.

At the same time, many of those promoting the obssessive focus on male homosexuality — and the loud condemnation of male homosexual acts and relationships — no longer remember that the same worldview from which that focus springs saw masturbation and even nocturnal seminal emission, even when this happened involuntarily, as gravely evil. For the very same reason that it saw male homosexual acts as gravely evil….

As historian Diarmaid MacCulloch notes in his study The Reformation (NY: Penguin, 2003),

The Christian understanding of the roles of women and men in reproduction were also much influenced by the pre-Christian Aristotle, who presented the act of procreation as depending entirely on male seed. A man's semen contained the entire foetus in embryo: so anything which stopped male seed from doing its job was an act of murder— anything, from masturbation to contraception to same-sex sexual relations. The idea was taken up by the second-century Christian teacher Clement of Alexandria, and it has become deeply embedded in the Christian moral tradition, lying behind many of the pronouncements of the modern Roman Catholic church on sexuality (p. 610). 

It's all about the semen.

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