Dogma that's had its day: Michele Roberts finds nothing for women in a new 700-page guide to sin written by celibate men

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THE CATECHISM I knew as a child aged 11 studying in confirmation class was a small blue booklet whose questions and answers we chanted aloud just as we did our tables. The parish priest popped in to our classroom in the convent school to make sure we had got it right. 'Who made you?' 'God made me.' 'Why did God make you?' 'To know, love and serve him in this life and to be happy with him forever in the next.' Simple certainties dulled by repetition. I don't remember ever being required to discuss the sing-song faith I professed.

Then came the Ecumenical Council, called Vatican II, the gales of change sweeping through the Church, blowing away repressive traditions in favour of renewal. Some called it the work of the Holy Spirit, others feared it as revolution. The Church tried to engage with the modern world, to support the oppressed, to imagine a theology which could celebrate and include lay virtues. Formerly heretical questions about the goodness of sex, the potential of women, the contribution of homosexuals, and the injustice of labour laws began to be asked, though perhaps not in Rome.

Now we have a new catechism which distances itself from these developments. I say 'we' even though I lost my faith, easily, more than 20 years ago for the simple feminist reason that I could no longer bear sitting in silence listening to male priests telling me how to feel and think. I think now, it was easier to be that child of 11 with her small blue booklet and boring certainties. This new compendium of the faith weighs in at nearly 700 pages and employs appeals to reason and understanding to persuade the Catholic reader that the priestly authorities do have a hotline to Him Up There. This is theology of the scholastic, classifying, nit-picking and ultimately tub-thumping kind. If you don't agree with it, that just proves how deluded and corrupted you are - and it's your own fault. Sin, you see, is your willed decision, your choice to turn away from God. It's quite difficult to argue against nearly 700 pages of rhetorical statements which pretend to be arguments for your own good.

I was certainly reminded, reading through this tome, of the hectoring voice of the parish priest of my childhood, who was convinced he spoke for God and took his time telling us why. Only now I am a fast aggressive reader who can skip pages; I didn't learn that at convent school.

This new catechism, the apparently much-needed update of the last one, produced in the 16th century, implacably reinstates theology as a run-through of fixed ideological positions masquerading as eternal verities. In the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, theology flirted with poetry, psychoanalysis, political jargon, even with feminism. But now we're back to what the good guys always knew was true and was best for us.

Take, for example, the symbolic meaning of Christ's death on the cross. The new theology suggested that the Crucifixion provided an image of a God who was putting patriarchy to death, who was the God of the second chance, the God of the damaged, the oppressed, the weak, those who are broken and make mistakes, those who cannot be macho and don't want to be. The new catechism takes us back to the traditional doctrine of the Atonement: we, as human beings, are in our nature so fallen, so evil, so alienated, that God had to put his son on the cross to rescue us. I repudiate this doctrine with all my heart, as one that damages and stunts children's moral, psychological and emotional growth. What a start in life, to grow up believing, as I did, that you are responsible for Christ's agonising death. A double burden of guilt if you are female, since we all know the gender of the one lusting after food and knowledge in the garden of Eden, so setting in motion the whole sorry caravan of blame and self-hate.

Sin is necessary to the writers of this catechism, perhaps because if their readers can be convinced of their sinfulness they will be equally persuaded of their need for priestly advice. Goodness and virtue are discussed in vague terms such as 'charity' or 'growth towards perfection', but sin takes up quite a few column inches. Sin itself, if you believe in a personal God, is well defined as a loss of that God, a turning away from him (the guys have repudiated all feminine language for their Supreme Person), but the list of ways to turn away makes fascinating reading. It's hard not to think of a sin supermarket, where you pick 'n' mix the sins that attract. I'd agree, for example, that rape qualifies as a sin, and child abuse too; but I cannot agree that homosexuality should be listed next to rape, that incest be put on the same level as two unmarried people having a love affair. Only one sex act qualifies as good: sex between married partners intending to procreate. It's laughable that the fantasies of celibate men should prescribe the sexual behaviour of women, who are the ones that bear the babies and are often left holding them.

These earnest clerics heartily disapprove of fantasy and consider pornography a sin: since not only does it voyeuristically reveal intimate acts best kept secret but it seduces us to prefer illusion to reality. What is the attitude of the Church to sex if not illusion? Celibate guys are notoriously idealistic about sex, assuring us that every encounter is about total giving of the self, total spiritual growth. What about comic sex? What if you don't come? Is that a sin? Certainly, coming too often seems to constitute a sin. Why should God not enjoy the thought of Her creatures coming and laughing?

The Catholic Church, it has to be said, had a bad start on sex: the state of scientific knowledge of the day was against it. If you don't know the role of female ovulation in conception, it was easier to imagine a masculine god who did everything all by himself. The Virgin was a flower-bed in which he planted his seed; thus women cannot be actively creative and procreative; thus there is no need for God to be Mother too.

The new catechism implicitly repeats all this. Becoming a parent involves the chance, it solemnly intones, to share in the Fatherhood of God. Imagine a woman in labour crying out: now at last I experience the Fatherhood of God] It doesn't quite work. But the catechism struggles on, saying Man as though it were a neutral word like 'umbrella' to cover both sexes. Woman, here, is a wife, a helper and support to man. That's it, ladies. Now please get back to cleaning the church, and remember, if you have a paid job, that strikes are often sinful and profits necessary.

Abortion, of course, according to this view, cannot even be discussed as a necessary evil: it constitutes a crime against this God with no understanding of the complexity of human relationships, their power imbalances and yearnings, with no appreciation whatsoever of the unpredictability of the unconscious, the fact that we are not solely rational, responsible and in control. Where the new theology tried to come to terms with this, to understand how painful and difficult it is to accept ourselves as forever good-and-bad, dark-and-light, the new catechism slams us back into the simplistic thinking that comforted me as an 11-year-old. It will disappoint generations of Catholics who had begun to dare to work out their own morality, to listen to their own hearts alone and in community.

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