Deadlier sin of the maleTina Beatie
- 7 March 2009
Among the leading bankers that have brought the British economy to its knees there are no women. Could it be that the tendency to the sin of greed - as highlighted recently by the Pope - is primarily a male trait? If so, our assumptions of men's and women's sins are flawed
In a recent article in L'Osservatore Romano, the Pope's personal theologian, Mgr Wojciech Giertych, endorsed a theory by a 95-year-old Jesuit, Fr Roberto Busa, that men and women sin differently. Based on the Seven Deadly Sins, the list of men's sins includes lust at the top and greed at the bottom, while women's sins have pride at the top and sloth at the bottom. As usual when the Vatican says anything mildly controversial about sex, the news was greeted with a flurry of media interest. But in fact, it's not news at all, since feminist theologians have been writing about the gendering of sin for nearly 50 years.
In 1961, Valerie Saiving published an essay in which she appeals for greater awareness of the ways in which concepts of masculinity and femininity shape the ways in which we experience sin. Her article has had a formative influence on much feminist theology, and her theories have been developed and refined by two generations of female scholars. At first glance, Saiving's theory appears to contradict that of the Vatican. She writes that sins associated with femininity "have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as ‘pride' and ‘will-to-power'." Rather, women are likely to be guilty of "triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness"; of "inability to respect the boundaries of privacy; sentimentality, gossipy sociability, and mistrust of reason - in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self". Yet perhaps this is what Mgr Giertych means when he refers to "pride", since he cites as evidence the example of women Religious in convents, who "are often envious of each other over little things, but when the church bell rings, everyone goes to the chapel to sing vespers." Monks, on the other hand "aren't often interested in each other and, therefore, aren't jealous, but when the church bell rings, few take part in common prayer." Whatever else these anecdotes reveal, the behaviour of those nuns might suggest envy (which is second on the list of women's sins), but they seem far more to do with triviality and "gossipy sociability" than with pride.
Volumes have been written on the nature of women's sin, but there is still a failure among theologians to give focused attention to the nature and consequences of men's sins. Even the sins of the hierarchical Church - an exclusively male institution - have traditionally been referred to in feminised terms, with the imagery of whoredom and rampant female sexuality being used to describe the corruption of the earthly Church. In his reflection on sin, Mgr Giertych describes men's sins as "difficult", while women's are described as "dangerous". Moreover, he points out that, for Thomas Aquinas, pride, not lust, was the greatest danger to humanity. The implication is that women's sins are more dangerous and deadly than men's. If we are to avoid these stereotypes, we need to ask what masculine sin might look like, stripped of the excuse and the disguise of sexual temptation for which women are primarily to blame.
It is hardly surprising that a religious tradition that has viewed female sexuality with suspicion and fear has bred in the male Catholic psyche a profound sense of guilt associated with lust. Jesus said that a man who looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery, which might suggest that men would do well to keep women firmly out of sight as well as out of mind, just in case. But might Jesus have meant that nobody is in a position to judge on these matters, because so many men are in the same predicament? It is interesting to note in this time of Lent that Jesus' temptation in the wilderness did not include lusting fantasies of naked women. Rather, it involved the temptation to use his power solely in the service of his own desires and ambitions. In this time of economic crisis, that might be a good place to start to construct a theology of masculine sins. It's not about sex but about the abuse of power, although sexuality is often the most immediate and devastating way in which men seek to exercise such abusive power.
Instead of men kneeling in confessionals admitting to lust, maybe they should be encouraged to regard greed, which was bottom of the male list, as a more devastating and destructive sin. In this respect, it is interesting to note that Pope Benedict has recently suggested that there is a close connection between original sin and the greed that has created the current economic crisis. It is also notable that the credit crunch has been created by a profession that is almost exclusively male. In the line-up of failed bankers, not a single woman's name has appeared. Male greed has proven to be a murderous sin, destroying the livelihoods of millions, bringing down economies and social institutions and threatening starvation to the most vulnerable people on earth. Recent research at Cambridge University has revealed a connection between men's behaviour on the trading floors and their testosterone levels. Men with high testosterone levels are more willing to take financial risks, and that risk-taking boosts their testosterone levels even higher. The global economic crisis may be the result of a testosterone tornado sweeping through the banking world. There is also mounting evidence that business productivity and efficiency increase when women are involved in management and decision-making, and it has long been recognised by aid agencies that women invest money more responsibly, implement development projects more effectively and are more likely to yield a return on the investment than men. Many surveys have also shown that women in all societies tend to work longer hours than men, which is perhaps why "sloth" is not high on the list of women's sins.
For undoubtedly complex reasons, male sexual desire seems to be more immediate and spontaneous than female desire - more easily aroused and more easily satisfied. If this is an aspect of male physiology, rather than treating it as sinful, we should be asking how men can be helped to understand and express their sexuality without becoming trapped in a vortex of violent and insatiable desire, which wants more and more of everything - more sex, more money, more power, creating more and more helpless victims of rampant testosterone. There is Christian wisdom to be had on these questions, if only we were less obsessed with sex and more attentive to the subtle ways in which sin threads itself through our relationships and wreaks havoc with our personal, social and economic systems.
We have a long tradition that cautions against allowing passion to overwhelm reason. From Augustine to Aquinas and beyond, men have dealt with this wise insight by attempting to avoid passion altogether, which has meant avoiding women as far as possible. But in our post-conciliar Church, where priests rub knees with women in the confessional and it is no longer possible to disguise homosexual desire under the pretence of universally heterosexual celibacy either, men need to learn to cope differently with desire, passion and the biological effects of testosterone. The persistent belief that women are victims of their hormones and emotions while men are intrinsically more rational and in control is not true. We all have to juggle with the biological functions of our sex hormones and the desires and emotional effects they produce in us.
The fundamental challenge we face in all this is not directly mentioned in the list of the Seven Deadly Sins, but the lust for power and the violence associated with it may be the sin that fuels and drives all the rest. Men, conditioned by their religious culture and upbringing to view lust as their greatest sin, might fail to acknowledge that it is violence, not sex per se, which transforms healthy human desire into a malevolent and destructive lust for power and possession. A recent study revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily dressed women the same part of their brain is triggered into action as when they are preparing to use power tools. Rather than blaming the female body for this objectification and impulse to control, we need a different psychology and vocabulary of sin if we are to address these male responses to temptation. That means confronting the problem of violence and recognising its capacity to distort all human relationships, particularly in that most vulnerable and intimate aspect which is associated with sexual desire. Although the Catholic Church has since the Second Vatican Council been pragmatically pacifist in its consistent refusal to endorse war as a solution to conflict, the Church is still far more widely known for its moral absolutism on sexual issues than for its opposition to violence. That is partly because of distorted media reporting, but it is also because of the frequency with which the hierarchy pronounces on issues of sex and reproduction. Yet as we all know, Catholic social teaching has much more to offer. It offers a rich resource for condemning unjust social and economic structures and creating a more life-giving vision of society.
Aquinas argues that all sin is the consequence of distorted desire. No human being willingly desires evil, but when we fail to understand the nature of desire then we become prey to rampant and destructive obsessions. Only if we understand the primal nature of desire as that which directs our lives towards God, can we order and enjoy our other desires for the good things in life. But Aquinas also reminds us that we are animals, and we need to understand the nature of our species in order to flourish. Moreover, we are social animals, so our individual flourishing depends on the social environment in which we live. I suspect that, had Aquinas known about hormones, he would not have been surprised to discover that there is a biological connection between our hormones and our desires, so that there are physical as well as spiritual and psychological reasons for our behaviour. A male hormone, which is essential for sexual and procreative flourishing, has run amok in disordered concepts of masculinity. Projecting the blame for male sin onto the seductions of the female sex, the Church has taught men to view sex as a distraction from God and to value celibacy as a higher form of spirituality than marriage, with a corresponding failure to develop the capacity of male sexuality to express joy, love, vulnerability and relationality.
One could of course argue that the Catholic hierarchy provides a potentially rich alternative to such constructs of masculinity, being a community of men who have sacrificed the physical expression of their sexuality and wealth accumulation in order to dedicate themselves to a life of service and love. There is no doubt that this Catholic concept of masculinity can and does produce men of exceptional sensitivity and tenderness. However, the sex-abuse scandals suggest that there is a profoundly dysfunctional model of male sexuality operating in much of the Catholic priesthood.
The acknowledgement that sin is gendered is an opening step along a potentially rich path of exploration, scholarship and graced experience. So now, let's hear it from the women.