I’ve been having lots of weird, really vibrant dreams (I usually don’t dream or don’t remember my dreams or they’re really dull.) The latest was that I was going to make a birth pilgrimage where I would be walking in silence across country to the place where I would give birth. My face was going to be veiled because in the dream women’s faces become plasticized and cartoonish during pregnancy. I was walking with a woman who I was supposed to pretend was my grandmother, even though she wasn’t, and the entire thing was a weird mish-mash of cultural detritus: the veils were Muslim, the “grandmother” was dedicating the quest to some pantheistic lightning god, and to make things look good the anthropology department that was sponsoring the pilgrimage had decided they needed someone high profile to walk with us – so they’d gotten St. Augustine. The only problem being that St. Augustine is dead, and therefore was just an empty chair with a bowl-full of clover sitting in front of it.
There were all of these weird dinners at the University to celebrate this and various other projects of the department, in which I was expected to follow precise protocols. Failure to do so meant that I didn’t get my strawberries, which bothered me because I was actually hungry and legit needed to eat good food. Also, they’d supplied a “traditional birthing herb” that I could add to my food, but nobody had bothered to research it beyond the fact that it was traditionally used in birthing and when I read the label it turned out it was an emetic. The congratulations were all very superficial, and while they wanted to televise our project nobody really wanted to talk about it.
So I’ve been thinking about this dream, and I think that it’s basically my subconscious wrestling with the lack of an adequate anthropology of the pregnant and birthing woman within Catholic theology. Giving birth – the capacity of the human body to produce a new living being – is the theoretical centre of our sexual morality and yet there’s a kind of weird and uncomfortable silence surrounding it. On the one hand pregnancy and birth are often placed on a pedestal, but on the other there’s a tendency to shrink back from the biological realities involved.
Tradition tells us, for example, that Mary laboured without pain and that miraculously the process of giving birth had so little impact on her body that even her hymen was preserved intact. This idealized birth is one in which the physical exactions of labour and delivery are entirely absent – yet it is the only birth that is treated with any regularity in the theological canon.
Male reproduction, of course, is treated in great detail. We’re told with sometimes weird and obsessive precision how, and when, and under what circumstances a man is supposed to spill his seed – but then everything that happens after that kind of gets swept up in these vague generalizations: words like “generosity,” “fecundity” and “procreation” that completely abstract the reality of the female body and its processes out of the equation. So extreme is the phallocentric thrust of this approach that the term “procreative act” does not refer to conception and gestation, which take place within the female body, but rather to the act of a male ejaculating in a “procreative type” way.
The pregnant and birthing body thus becomes a sort of glaring and embarrassing lacuna in the account of sexual morality; highly honoured in theory, but rarely discussed in any concrete sense.
A big part of the problem, of course, stems from the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of the orthodox Catholic theological tradition is dominated by celibate men – men who don’t even have the experience of living with a pregnant wife or being present at a birth. The few women who have been admitted into the canon are, for the most part, virgins. This means that, at best, theological engagement with birth and pregnancy takes place on the basis of second and third hand reporting, or (worse) purely theoretical speculation.
This would be okay if it weren’t for the fact that males who write about sexual morality often seem to be uncomfortable with discussions of the concrete details of reproduction from a feminine perspective. As a woman who writes about sex and theology, I more or less take it for granted that I am going to hear a lot about the male perspective, and that this will involve be exposed to discussions of spontaneous erections, wet dreams, blue balls and other biological inconveniences of male sexuality.
The reverse assumption is not, however, true. If a male theologian is uncomfortable with discussions of the biological aspects of birth and pregnancy he will find it very easy to simply avoid these subjects. The discourse is formed in such a way that it’s quite possible to spend an entire career thinking and writing about human sexuality and the moral imperatives involved in the procreative act without ever having to to concern oneself with dilating cervixes, prolapsed uteri or retained products of conception.
This is severely problematic, first of all because it means that Catholic sexual discourse tends to focus on lust as the primarily obstacle to living out Catholic sexual morality. The desire to get off is generally treated with greater precision, greater concern, and greater frequency than the desire to avoid the potentially perilous rigors of childbirth.
Humanae Vitae, for example, discusses the problems of self-mastery and of man’s objectification of women in some detail but glosses over physical threats to a woman’s health as a result of pregnancy, referring only to “difficulties” which men and women might face. Love and Responsibility does at least address concerns particular to women, but conflates the fear of pregnancy with a lack of generosity and a neurotic fear of having a child. Neither text deals adequately with the rational fear that a woman might have of leaving her children orphan when repeated pregnancies involve significant risks to her health.
The failure to address the physical costs of pregnancy seems, to me, to be an extension of a larger silence surrounding female reproduction after conception.
Even John Paul II, who is generally much better about representing women’s experience than most of his predecessors, gives relatively scant attention to this aspect of human embodiment. In Theology of the Body the word “pregnant” appears only once – in a metaphor referring to a text that is “pregnant” with meaning. “Pregnancy” does not appear at all. “Birth” is slightly better represented: there are a couple of places where the text refers tangentially to some of the biblical passages that would be relevant to a theology of the pregnant body, and there is a single paragraph (21:6) which provides a possible first step towards the formulation of such a theology. However, the pregnant body is never given anything like the intensive analysis that we get in respect to male concupiscence or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom.
In general, the canon deals with birth and pregnancy almost exclusively in terms of the morality of avoiding or terminating. So long as the fundamental point is the rejection of contraception or abortion, the pregnant state is lauded, praised, valued. But as soon conception has been acheived and the child in the womb accepted, the pregnant, labouring, birthing and nursing female body disappears.