Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church
By Uta Ranke-Heinemann
Review Author: Celia Wolf-Devine
Uta Ranke-Heinemann addresses a number of issues that merit intelligent discussion, such as the impact priestly celibacy may have had on attitudes toward sexuality, women, and marriage, and the way in which Marian doctrines, such as Mary’s perpetual virginity, have been used to reinforce Manichean tendencies. However, the reader who turns to this book (an international bestseller now out in paperback) in search of such intelligent discussion will be frustrated and disappointed. The author, a Catholic theologian, has had some painful experiences with the Church hierarchy and the administration at Germany’s University of Essen. Having no information apart from her own very sketchy report, I find it impossible to be sure what the real issues were, but the result of all this is an explosion of anger. And anger out of control does not make for intelligent discussion of anything.
A book of this sort raises interesting questions about the ethics of intellectual life. These questions arise for ideologically motivated scholarship in general, but especially for the author, because of her consistently sneering and venomous tone. Charity and love of truth are two virtues essential for a scholar. Ranke-Heinemann manifests here a lack of both, and this would make it difficult to engage in any sort of dialogue with her.
Charity requires that the scholar attempt to see the good as well as the bad in a differing position, to understand another writer’s intentions in light of his or her broader commitments and fact-based beliefs, and to seek common ground. The principle underlying this is something like: “Be merciful, since you yourself are in need of mercy.” Ranke Heinemann’s violations of the principle of charity virtually leap to meet the eye on almost every page, to such a degree that any but the most virulent anti-Catholic would be made uncomfortable. I would find her book painful to read if she were attacking my worst enemy.
By love of truth I mean not a sort of factional use of certain “truths” as a club, but a disposition to seek a more adequate understanding of the subject in question. Mere mudslinging is of no value unless the slinger is forthcoming with some positive suggestions. Unfortunately, Ranke-Heinemann shows no evidence of having given serious thought to working out a coherent and tenable position of her own.
Consider one of her main themes, the question of what our attitude toward pleasure, and particularly sexual pleasure, should be. She believes hatred of pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, pervades Christianity, in particular Catholicism, and that this poisons Catholic attitudes toward marriage, motherhood, and women. Certainly there have been such jaundiced Catholics, although the Church holds no monopoly on sexual neurosis. Negative attitudes toward sexuality crop up in all sorts of places, from Tibetan Buddhism to Woody Allen movies. But let us agree that a neurotic hatred of pleasure is bad. So where do we go from here?
Distinctions need to be drawn, for example, between sexual pleasure and lust. Ranke-Heinemann confuses the two, and reads condemnations of lust as condemnations of sexual pleasure. But in fact there is much unexplored common ground between, say, the Pope’s condemning the man who has lust for his wife, and the feminists who condemn male sexual selfishness and marital rape. Does she mean to hold that every pursuit of sexual pleasure is acceptable? Where does she draws lines and why? How about marital rape, sado-masochism, pornography, child molestation, or bestiality? She seems to think that if we can only get rid of the idea that sexual pleasure is bad, then all problems will disappear. Thinking in black and white (Manichean?) terms, she ignores the subtle and complex ways people have understood sexuality. She just sees bad guys (the Church under the rule of celibate priests) who allegedly view sexual pleasure as evil, and good guys who see it as good. But sexuality is a deep and multiform phenomenon that lends itself to all sorts of uses, ranging from expressing the highest and noblest love to being a tool of manipulation and degradation of oneself and others.
Her section on abortion focuses almost exclusively on extreme (and rare) cases where the mother will die unless the child is killed. She subjects the reader to horror stories and takes no position of her own on when abortion is or is not permissible. She throws a hodgepodge of such stories (accompanied by sneering asides) at the reader, and then just rants for a few pages.
Her overall view, insofar as one can read it between the lines, appears totally superficial. She seems to think that if pleasure-hating celibates would keep their noses out of other people’s bedrooms, and if we’d just realize that God is love, all problems would disappear. She says: “The prescriptions of celibate purity derive from the Stone Age of religious consciousness. They grew out of the awe at the unapproachably numinous or the fearsome divine. In the Gospel of God’s love they make no sense.” Her idea of God is thus one-dimensional — all compassion, closeness, and understanding, and no transcendence, majesty, or judgment. The phrase in the Melkite liturgy where the people pray “for a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ” is totally alien to her sensibility. To be sure, constant cowering in fear is hardly desirable, and religious education which emphasizes law to the exclusion of love distorts Christianity. But to emphasize love without law and make God our cuddly teddy bear is equally a distortion. And “love” is not a magic wand that dissolves all problems and relieves us of the obligation to use our minds.
Ranke-Heinemann’s scholarship is extremely uneven. There are no footnotes; references are done in a very confusing manner and some of them are incomplete; and controversial statements sometimes drop out of the sky with no support at all. Her anger prevents her from putting her thoughts in order; she writes like someone with a bee in her bonnet. She is capable of textual analysis, and she sometimes attempts to provide reasons for her interpretations, which at least deserve a hearing from biblical scholars. But even here her work is vitiated by her tendency to overlook passages that conflict with her interpretation and to allow no room for legitimate disagreements about the translations of various terms.
Another major flaw is that she makes no attempt to distinguish the degrees of authority that attach to the ecclesial statements she quotes, and is blind to the difference between doctrine and discipline. Priestly celibacy is, after all, a matter of discipline, not doctrine.
In sum, Ranke-Heinemann’s purposes are purely negative — venting anger and providing ammunition for people disaffected from the Church. She is not interested in being fair or entering into dialogue. This is particularly disappointing, because the issues she is discussing need intelligent discussion. That there has been a persistent Manichean tendency within the Church is something many have noted, including such staunch Catholics as Christopher Derrick. But we cannot identify the Church’s position on sexuality with a Manichean horror of the flesh, since there is also a far more positive attitude in Christianity — and at its deepest level, starting from the doctrine of creation. And whether the Church ought to require celibacy of priests, or whether this practice has bad effects on the way priests view women which outweigh whatever goods can be attained by it, is, in my mind, a serious question that should be intelligently considered. Too bad Ranke-Heinemann’s book does not provide an occasion to do so.
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