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The Moral Codes Of Church And Its Views On Human Sexuality

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Hostility towards sexuality is a reality that spans in some form or another across all religions. In terms of Christianity, there is a hostility towards women and women’s sexuality and sexual relationships that do not fit into the accepted ideal of the christian church. Because human sexuality is one of the most basic aspects of human biology, it was something that was seen as needing to be controlled and regulated. There are many ways in which religion exercises control over human sexuality, beginning with the strict moral codes that are enforced upon it. Because it is seen as a means for reproduction only, the church ties the idea of sexuality to reproduction and leaves very little room for question. The churches strong stance on monogamous relationships and marriage is directly related to the idea that sex is for reproduction and not for pleasure.

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” (Ephesians 5:3)

One can argue that that control over sexuality is ultimately a display of power not only over the laity but within the institution itself. The strict celibacy regulations on the clergy is another way of the church executing control and communicating its views on sexuality. This essay will examine these views using reference from scripture, Foucault’s model of power and closely examine the Catholic Churches control over sexuality and women in ireland throughout the 19th century

The hostility towards sexuality can be drawn from interpretations from scripture. The story of creation and Adam and Eve can be seen as the foundation of the christian interpretation of sexuality and the structure for what is and is not acceptable. First and foremost, the fact that Adam was created first and Eve was subsequently made from the rib of Adam immediately puts woman as second to man. Adam and Eve were made in Gods image and therefore this should be taken as given that this is the way in which God intended the ‘family unit’ to begin with. She was seen as a companion for Adam to have dominion over, therefore validating women’s status as subservient to men.

When it comes to gender, the church has a long history of enforcing gender roles onto its followers. Theological orthodoxy and sexuality are dominant discourses that silence difference and conceal the implicit relationship between theological utterances and bodily acts. This domination is maintained by the symbolic system of monotheism, which secures a single theological truth and a dominant sexuality. (Bernauer and Carrette, 2005) A women’s role was to be morally sound and to submit to men in all areas. Scripture backs this up, for example, Paul’s words that women should not speak in church and if they had questions, they should ask their husbands. The lack of precedence of women in the Bible only serves to allow the church to continue to enforce this level of power even though it can be argued against, as the Bible is a product of its time period and there are countless passages in the Bible that cannot be adhered to in modern society.

In Christianity, not only is sexuality highly repressed and women placed in subservient positions to men, women’s sexuality above all else in this regard is presented as a threat to men. Eve was depicted as an evil temptress who gave into temptation and was responsible for the fall of mankind, hence the story of Adam and Eve is vital in maintaining this notion. When we say christian sexual ethics, it refers to the churches teachings and strong beliefs on what is and is not acceptable. In the book ‘Catholic sexual Ethics’ this is broken down stating “This tradition teaches now and has always taught that sexual union between a man and woman is good, indeed holy. It teaches now and has always taught, that the virtue of chastity is necessary for all persons, male and female, married and unmarried, so that they might fully have freedom of self possession and not be controlled by unworthy sexual desire.” It also goes on to point out which sorts of sexual activity are not in accordance with church teachings, stating the most obvious, fornication, adultery, contraception and sodomy, for instance. “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”(Hebrews 13:4)

Homosexuality has been a taboo issue in church history, stemming back to biblical times and still faces backlash and prejudice within the church and society itself today. Christian teachings deem same sex relationships as an inherently evil and against god’s will. The non-procreative aspect of these relationships is used to give strength to invalidating them. Essentially, if it does not fit into a heteronormative social structure it is wrong. Scripture is used heavily in these cases to implicate the wrong in these types of sexual relationships and condemning them outright. Some of most used are from Corinthians and Leviticus.

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men” (Corinthians 6:9)

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)

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One could say that the use of scripture for this argument is actually contradictory. While the message is clear, as mentioned earlier, the issue with taking scripture as infallible is linked with modernity. Leviticus 20:13, for example, homosexuality is an abomination, is used widely, however in most society the idea of people being put to death would horrify. Therefore applying bible passages to modern sexuality is no longer a strength as many aspects have to be ignored so it is a case now of choosing which can be used and which cannot. However, with modernity moving fast and changing social attitudes the church came under pressure to reevaluate some of its views and the strict guidelines that were placed on its followers. Thus came the second Vatican council where the outcome was a more relaxed approach to the laity in that they were seen as more of a part of the church as a community rather than a docile flock thats only role was to follow and obey. However, the churches stance on sexuality did not change much in regards to its views on women, contraception and gender roles to name a few.

French philosopher Michel Foucault discusses power and sexuality in the church at length. Control over sexuality is ultimately a display of power and is arguably the foundation of the hegemonic views of the church. In order to understand the acceptance of the Catholic Churches teachings, cultural views on sexuality and the desire to implement control over this, one must look at the foundation of these views.

Foucault’s theory of governemtality can also be applied to christian sexual ethics. Thought is important to the theory of governmentally in terms of how the collective circulation of thought can direct, reform and conduct. Therefore central to foucault’s theory of governmentality is the disciplinary power, i.e the Catholic Church, in this case. However, imperative to disciplinary power is that this power is productive, the the population reiterate what is circulated by the church and discipline themselves to fit into the narrative. Taking a closer look at Ireland, the 19th century had athe church had a particular power over women and their role in the family. French philosopher Michel Foucault discusses power and sexuality in the church at length. Foucault’s model of power

The Irish constitution states that mothers will not be obliged to work outside the home and this gives us a clear image of what the expectation of Irish women were. The government at the time aimed to emphasise morality and the ties to the Catholic Church. At the time, the government maintained control of the people by the use of censorship, the strict moral guidelines and a discrimination against women in the workplace. This may have been an informed decision on De Valera’s part to prolong the Church’s power over the family and in turn women. These events took place in a world in which women were beginning to hold more social and political power. This special relationship with the state gave the Catholic Church a way of maintaining control over Irish women and keeping them in the home.

In 19th century Ireland it was the Church who ruled on the the right way for society to behave. This is perhaps where the family moved from the seclusion of the private sphere to that of the public sphere, leaving it open to the strict ideologies of church teaching. It was this emphasis on morality that aided in the subordination of women and using mothers as a means of surveillance within the family. One could relate this example to the Foucauldian model of power and discipline. It was the mothers responsibility to make sure the family functioned in a obedient and upstanding way and that society could not have any means to criticize her for her poor leadership. ‘Whatever power an Irish mother had was mainly a moral power which was derived from and maintained through the church’(Inglis 1998) This is the reason for Irish conservatism and the notions held about what it was to be a good Catholic being so ingrained in State ideologies. ‘They had to be monitored and supervised within the house’- this role fell to the church. (Inglis 1998) It was principally priests and nuns who took on the role to supervise mothering, in particular, in the last century, ironic perhaps when these are the individuals that by definition would never experience marriage or sexuality first hand. It was through the control of sex that the church had the most power over women. They were sought to confess their sins on a regular basis, their sexual feelings, desires and activities a constant topic of confession. ‘It was through the control of sex that the modern Irish mother and family were first established.’(Inglis 1998) This is what Foucault would term productive power. The power of the disciplinary system at play is exercised through the women who the mechanism was ultimately designed to control.

When researching into the ambiguous relationship between the church and the family in Ireland one must be aware of the importance of the shift from regarding the family as a private entity to an issue of public concern and means of surveillance from church officials. Ireland is a unique example of this kind of intervention due to the church becoming so enshrined in ordinarily state governed bodies such as schools and hospitals etc. Women are taught to be passive and timid so as to inhibit any male attention and therefore deem herself impure but also to be trained to fulfil the only role optional for women at that time-to be a mother. The church used a number of mechanisms to control this influence over women but the main one was sex. It was something to be confined to the sanctity of marriage, primarily intended for reproduction. The church taught women nothing about their bodies or sex in general; they relied on the fact that many were frightened and innocent and were therefore unlikely to engage in any uncivilised behaviour. Crucially it’s the mother’s ties to the church by turning the mother from the object of surveillance to the surveyor that subjugated women. Women were pitted against other women and in order to defend themselves found fault with others and turned it into an issues of public morality. This is how the Foucauldian model of discipline is exercised, so that the mechanisms of discipline can be replaced, so that all who the mechanism is geared towards can serve the same function. This is how the Church succeeded in having their discourse about motherhood and women permeate through generations of Irish women and insure the morality of the family as an institution.

According to Tovey and Share, ‘the complexity of the religious symbolic (heaven and hell, good and evil) help to delineate the norms and values of society and how religious institutions and practices help to ensure adherence to those norms and values.’ (Tovey and Share, 2003:385) They go to define how religion establishes the boundary of a society, how it enforces to its members whose in and who’s out. On the same theme, O’Toole (Cited in Tovey and Share) states that ‘when it comes to belief in the existence of the soul, in life after death, in heaven, in prayer, the Irish score so much higher in surveys than the rest of us in the developed world as to seem not part of that world of all.’ Therefore one could assume that if the population of Ireland have a devout attitude towards morality the Church discourse about the expectation of women and their role in the morality of the family may have been another influence in the stagnation of women’s role.

In controlling sexuality, the church was cementing its notion on what the family should be.

In conclusion, it is essential when examining a social phenomenon that the historical prerequisites are highlighted in order to improve our understanding. In order to examine the Church’s influence on the role of women, the historical context needs to be set. The fact that Ireland was a British colony in the time leading up to the constitution meant that there was an effect on the development of the national revival. Therefore one could argue, as above, that the emphasis of the Church was in a bid to clearly demarcate what was Irish from what was British. Women’s exclusion from history has been highlighted due to their lack of social power and the historians favouring to include stories of the political and revolutionary heroes who banished the English and returned Ireland to its people. This essay has emphasised the Church’s involvement in the panoptic ‘productive power’ over women and its role in keeping them within the home, as with the state and Foucault’s Governmentality. Thus the power that the Church, the state and other influences had over women helped to keep them in their place, within the home.

In Ireland, the last decade has shown the extent in which public attitudes towards sexuality and accepting those that do not fall into the strict christian ideal has changed. Both the same sex marriage referendum and the abortion referendum have shed light on how modernity has given way to changing views. While the church remained strong in its opposition towards both, ultimately the

According to Christopher Derrick, the real significance of the difference between the traditional Catholic sexual morality and the amorality of the permissive society cannot be even vaguely appreciated if we remain on the level of morality (what is good as opposed to what is bad) it can only be apprehended on the level of religion (what is sacred as opposed to the profane). Religion, dealing with the sacred, concerns both God and Satan, love and hatred, whereas the profane is the realm of the indifferent. The moral codes proposed by the church and most secular philosophers respectively are based on two different understandings of the ultimate significance of sexuality. (Derrick 1982)


  1. Lawler, R., Boyle, J. and May, W. (1985). Catholic sexual ethics. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor.
  2. Moore, G. (1992). The body in context. London: SCM Press
  3. Bernauer, J. and Carrette, J. (2005). Michel Foucault and theology. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  4. Twomey, V. (2010). Moral theology after Humanae Vitae. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
  5. Christopher Derrrick sex and sacredness: a Catholic homage to Venus (San Francisco) 1982
  6. Inglis, T. (1998). Lessons in Irish sexuality. Dublin: University College Dublin Press
  7. Tovey, H. and Share, P. (2011). A sociology of Ireland. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan

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