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Spring Books

God’s design for generous love

by Evelyn E. Whitehead and James D. Whitehead
Crossroad, 188 pages, $19.95


The best justification for religion I ever heard was that religion functions to give meaning to ordinary things and to perfect our love in the face of death. This book touches both of those fronts: It summarizes and evaluates the meanings given to various sexualities by Catholic tradition; it supports the new ways of talking about sex coming from the grassroots; and it advances the reader’s willingness to love in the absurd situation of knowing at the outset that separation is inevitable.

While the Whiteheads give the complexity and ambiguity of the religious tradition its due, and acknowledge our cultural inheritance regarding sex, they have an original focus. The noteworthy theme of this book is that the corporate body of Christians has experience and wisdom regarding the sexuality of Christians -- a wisdom that has not been formulated or captured in the documents of official teaching. The play on words is evident already in the title. “Body” here means the communal body, the mystical body, not just the individual sensual body. The purpose of the book is to “draw out and make public the sense of the faithful about Christians and their sexuality.” The “truth” about sexuality is that the life of Jesus challenges all, married and unmarried, to “a more than genital love, a larger than biological family, a fruitfulness that goes beyond fecundity.”

While the theological basis of the sensus fidelium is assumed rather than demonstrated, the explicit application of that principle to sexuality is long overdue to give doctrinal value to the reflection of Christians. Why must the same book be written over and over? Why do the conclusions of credible, but non-clerical, Christian thinkers not accumulate to consensus? When will we learn to build on previous insights rather than simply restate them? Lay people thinking about their sexuality are certainly instances of faith seeking understanding.

To be true to their goal the authors draw on sometimes-lengthy quotes from associates and former workshop participants. It gives the analysis a feeling of immediacy, even though the sources are too random and too infrequent to ground the book’s conclusions. What the authors have done quite brilliantly is to make concise the conclusions of a multiplicity of theological writers and thinkers on these matters and to mold them into what might be considered a “consensus.” It is something that needed doing, something without which we will always be starting over in our thinking and never building on what has been established. The Whiteheads claim “authority” for their marriage, and suggest that every lifestyle is in effect “authored” by those who live it, and can claim such as its authorization. My hope is that such insights will provide the starting point for the next round of offerings on sexuality and religion.

While a book cannot convey the lively dialogue that produces a contemporary and practical spirituality of sexuality, the authors invite the reader to participate by means of a reflective exercise at the end of each chapter. The writings of other scholars are acknowledged, not as source but as “also available.” The effect is for the reader to see the links between her personal journey of faith and the emerging sense of the faithful. Especially on mat-ters of sex, Christians are bedeviled by the few and flawed exchanges of information. This book can perhaps be more effective than a discussion group to give those who are reluctant to talk openly about these matters a sense of not being alone. One of the best pieces is a letter from a father to his son about masturbation. Rarely is the truth told about the topic of self-pleasuring. This chapter on pleasure is “must” reading for Catholic teens, their parents and their grandparents.

Wisdom of the Body is built upon the authors’ earlier distinction between vocation and lifestyle (“Conscience allows us to make choices about our lifestyle … in fidelity to our deepening sense of vocation”). The discussions on singleness, gay partnership and married life respect these lives as a “gift to the church, signs of the diversity of God’s design for generous love. For the vast majority of Christians, gay and straight, chastity describes the quality of our sexual loving, not a commitment of sexual abstinence.” I gave the chapter on celibacy to a priest friend who is an educator of priests. He found it honest and direct and above average in content, but pointed out two omissions: the tendency of many to fill the void left by celibacy with hobbies and pastimes, and the inadequacy of rectories to provide a sense of family or community for the priests who live there.

My least favorite chapters were those on gender. There is not comparable treatment of the issues facing men and women regarding femininity and masculinity. The chapter “Faces of the Feminine” works from the archetypes -- maiden, mother and wise woman. The treatment of masculinity relies on the language of scripts. The masculine scripts are external and transferable, while the feminine “faces” are implied to be essential and biologically based. Scripts show us how to act; maiden and mother are ways of being. In contrast to the impression of conciseness as briskness of pace, in this chapter the brevity seems to betray conventional thinking.

A helpful bibliography is provided. I know publishers don’t like to do so for popular books, but I, for one, miss references to particular chapters and page numbers when the work of others is discussed.

I have always envied those people who can sit quietly through a meeting, and then, at the end, sum up what has been said and get credit for the best ideas. To its credit, this book documents the state of the art of Catholics’ public thinking about sexuality. It is not only worth your time; it deserves wide distribution. Send a copy to every pastor and parish leader you know. It can arrive just in time for Easter.

Joan H. Timmerman is emeritus professor of theology at the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minn. and author of Sexuality and Spiritual Growth (Crossroad).

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003