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Redeeming flesh : portrayals of women and sexuality in the work of four contemporary Catholic novelists Baldwin, Ruth Margaret Anne

Abstract

The last half of the twentieth century has seen a rapid increase in the process of secularization in both Britain and America, and this trend is nowhere more clearly evident than in the widespread relaxation of sexual mores. Within the Catholic Church a tension has arisen between liberal Catholics who argue for the right of Catholics to act according to the dictates of individual conscience, and traditionalists who champion the absolute moral authority of the Church. Liberal Catholics emphasize the Thomist view in which the flesh and its desires are seen as part of God's creation and, therefore, intrinsically good, while conservative Catholics lean toward an Augustinian/Jansenist view which equates sexual desire with the fallen nature of humankind. There has also been a great deal of unrest among Catholic women regarding continuing misogynistic tendencies within the male-dominated Church. This study focuses upon portrayals of women and sexuality in selected novels by four representative contemporary Catholic novelists, David Lodge, Mary Gordon, Piers Paul Read, and Anne Redmon. In their fiction, these writers pursue moral questions related to sexuality which preoccupy contemporary Catholics, reflecting in their work the empirical struggle of Catholics to reconcile Church law with their individual needs and desires. In their ratio to each other, these novelists represent in microcosm the spectrum of opinion among lay Catholics regarding sexual morality. Liberals David Lodge and Mary Gordon affirm in their fiction the goodness of the body and its desires, while Piers Paul Read argues for the orthodox view that the flesh must be rigidly controlled in the interests of spiritual health. Anne Redmon explores issues of women and sexuality without entering the debate between liberal and conservative Catholics. As this study makes clear, the contemporary Catholic novel provides an experientially based context for moral reflection on sexual behaviour parallel to and often in tension with the traditional teaching of the Church. The recent Catholic novel has also provided an important site for the exploration of women's sexual needs, desires, and moral thinking against the background of an all-male hierarchical Church, which has largely been silent in this area.

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