January 30th 2016
In July last year, I attended a theology conference in Nairobi. A male theologian said that many Africans find it difficult to understand why westerners are more concerned to defend their right to have sex, than to defend African children’s rights to clean drinking water. Later, we women discussed this comment among ourselves. One religious sister said, ‘That’s true, but when our children have enough to eat and drink, then we’ll also be worried about sexual rights.’
Women are often inhibited from speaking in mixed groups but will offer words of wisdom when no men are present. This can be a particular problem in African cultures where sexual hierarchies are still deeply entrenched, but I have had similar experiences in board meetings and academic seminars in London. Women everywhere have a long way to go until we are taken as seriously as men – and when we do say something that men regard as important, we often find that a man will repeat it and get the credit for saying it in the first place!
However, the real reason I cite this exchange is because it is a good example of conflicting interpretations of rights which today threaten to undermine the whole vision of human rights. Much of this conflict stems from cultural differences between those whose understanding of rights is primarily communal and collective, and those who have a more individualistic understanding of rights vested in the autonomy and freedom of the person.
According to the Catholic moral tradition, there should be no such conflict. Human beings are essentially ‘social animals’, and that means that it would be a misunderstanding of the meaning of rights to think that the exercise of any legitimate individual right might be at the expense of the common good or might be an infringement of the rights of others. Yet we do not live in a world where individual and communal rights and responsibilities mesh seamlessly. In our postmodern cultures which combine the potentially homogenizing influence of globalization and the potentially fragmenting influence of cultural and religious plurality, it takes a great deal of negotiation and dialogue to arrive at viable solutions to questions of individual and communal rights – sometimes referred to as civil and political rights on the one hand, and social and economic rights on the other.
These potentially clashing concepts of rights come into sharp relief when the language of human rights is extended to include sexual rights. We saw in January 2016 how the Anglican primates agreed to impose temporary constraints on the powers of the Episcopal Church in the United States to represent the Anglican communion, because some African primates expressed concern about the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of LGBT partnerships and same-sex marriages. Another area of seemingly irreconcilable conflict is that which plays out in United Nations debates about women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. While many secular organisations and states seek to promote such rights, religious voices at the UN tend to oppose any such extension of the language of rights to include sexual rights. Although Pope Francis might have a moderating influence, the Holy See has in the past used its permanent observer status at the UN to resist any move to include sexual rights in international development policies, arguing that these are a mask for the promotion of homosexuality and abortion.
The need for open and informed ethical debate about these complex and conflicted issues is being crowded out by hostile polemics on both sides. The decision by the Anglican communion to temporarily curtail the powers of the Episcopal Church was greeted with outrage by some who saw it as a capitulation to homophobia, repression and persecution. Similarly, resistance to women’s sexual and reproductive rights is usually dismissed by feminist campaigners as an expression of religious patriarchy and misogyny.
There may be truth in both these perceptions, but cries of condemnation do little to help us to navigate the troubled terrain that constitutes our quest for shared values in an era of rapid global change. Modern communications technology means that we really have become a global village, but what kind of village is this? The growing gulf between rich and poor, the rise in various forms of religious and nationalist extremism, the promotion of war and militarism in international relations and their devastating impact on communities and families, all mean that our relationships are increasingly blighted by inequality, competition and violence fuelled by viciously opposing political, religious and economic ideologies.
Overcoming these forces of violence demands that we attempt to reach out to one another across sometimes deep differences rooted in our cultures, communities and personal narratives. Issues of sexuality and gender go to the very heart of identity and culture, and we should not be surprised that they generate passion on all sides. We cannot subdue that passion by the quasi-egalitarian gloss of modern liberalism. We have to go deeper than that, to understand why we care so deeply and so differently about these issues.
Our debates about sexual ethics must not become detached from our debates about social and economic justice. Sexual relationships are the loom upon which societies weave their institutions and values, not least because they are the context within which children are born and raised. It is surely no coincidence that societies facing economic and social crises are often most resistant to the promotion of sexual rights. When ‘things fall apart’, the preservation of traditional marital and domestic institutions might be seen as more important than the promotion of sexual rights, because they offer at least some form of stability and security. We cannot separate sex from society, and if we want sexual justice, we must also work for social and economic justice. However, might we discover a more creative way of discovering a shared ethos for these turbulent times?
Saint Thomas Aquinas reminds us that love of neighbour is inseparable from love of self, because we owe to our own bodies the love of charity that we owe to our neighbour (ST II-IIb 25:4). As we seek an ethical path through the brambles and briars of human sexuality, this is wise advice to follow. How do I love my own body with all its unruly desires and yearnings, its vulnerabilities and weaknesses, with the love I owe to my neighbour in need?
I began with that question about an African child’s right to clean water, but an adolescent child struggling with his or her sexuality, facing a lifetime of homophobia, stigmatization and shame, is also dying of thirst. When Jesus meets the woman at the well, his physical need for water is real, but her existential thirst for the water of life is no less real. To contrast the right to water with the right to sexual flourishing is to misunderstand the inseparable duality in union of the human body and soul. We need to nourish both, and that means attending to the thirst of the body for food, water and shelter, and the thirst of the soul for love, intimacy and relationality.
Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton in London.
 See Tina Beattie, ‘Whose Rights, Which Rights? – The United Nations, the Vatican, Gender and Sexual and Reproductive Rights’, Heythrop Journal, Vol. 55, Issue 6, 2014: pp. 979-1112; Doris Buss and Didi Herman, Globalizing Family Values: The Christian Right in International Politics (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).