In the midst of a general audience in the Vatican last October, Pope John Paul II said: "If a man gazes on his wife lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The statement caused an immediate sensation. Reconsidered, though, it may have been one of the Pope's more enlightened pronouncements on women and sex. John Paul had simply insisted that, in conjugal relations, a woman is the equal of a man—a subject, not an object, of sex. That is an attitude that has not flourished in the Church historically; nor does it today.
A misogynistic prejudice has pervaded the Church's moral thought down through the ages, based on the incident of Eve as the temptress in Genesis, and confirmed by the Stoic rhetoric in which the early Christian thinkers were trained. It reflected the Platonic conviction that man's proper activity was contemplation. Churchmen from Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century to Jerome and John Chrysostom in the fifth delighted in denigrating womanhood as the source of the human race's downfall.
While attributing mankind's woes to the lubricious enticements of woman, preachers with awe-inspiring inconsistency harped upon a wife's rendering the conjugal debt contracted in marriage by giving her husband the sole use of her body. That the contract worked both ways was also on the books, but little attention was paid to this consideration because it was taken for granted that the sex act had been created for the man's convenience. Most women in the Christian tradition were taught that there was something distasteful about sex. They had to submit to their husband's advances with some regularity to keep peace in the household and beget children. Few Christian wives, even the educated ones, had any idea that, biologically, the sex act was made for the woman. Fewer still seem to have achieved the earthy wisdom of the Wyf of Bathe, who said:
In wyfhode i wil use myn instrument
As frely as my maker hath me it sent,
If i be dangerous, God give me sowre
Myn housband shall have it at eve and at mowre
When that him lis com forth and pay his dette.
St. Paul's injunction "Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church" was interpreted in a mystical sense, divorced from any connection with conjugal affection and coital satisfaction. Despite the heavy use of sexual imagery throughout the Old Testament to describe the relations between Yahweh and his chosen people, Christian exegetes avoided the Canticle of Canticles as mysteriously salacious, or interpreted it in such a fashion that it reinforced a propensity for sexual asceticism in conjugal relations. This puritanical tendency infected Christian thinking from the late second century until shortly before Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Traditional teaching on sexuality had been reduced in most preconciliar moral textbooks to the inhuman prescription: "It is grievously sinful in the unmarried deliberately to procure or to accept even the mildest degree of true venereal pleasure; secondly, it is equally sinful to think, say or do anything with the intention of arousing even the smallest degree of this pleasure..."