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The Female Body in Catholic Theology: Menstruation, Reproduction, and Autonomy

  • Doris M. Kieser (a1)

Female bodies as sexual and reproductive are subject to much scrutiny in Western societies and the church. Mysteriously missing from discourses related to such scrutiny is the reality of menstruation and its place in theology and females’ lives. From within a feminist theological perspective, this article aims to recover menstruation and menstrual awareness, and to advocate for the positive possibilities of widespread recognition and acceptance of, and engagement with, these realities to advance female presence in sexual theology and related discourses. In engaging contemporary social discussions, Jewish and Christian histories of menstruation, contemporary sexual theologies, and varied feminist theologies, this article proposes a robust view of menstruation in the sexual lives of faithful females.

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1 Although there are obvious and worthy explorations to be undertaken regarding menstrual blood, the blood of Christ, and the blood of violence, such exploration is peripheral to this particular discussion. For perspectives on these issues, see Beattie Tina, God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (London: Continuum, 2002), 1998 ; De Troyer Kristin, Herbert Judith A., Johnson Judith Ann, and Korte Anne-Marie, eds., Wholly Woman, Holy Blood: A Feminist Critique of Purity and Impurity (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003); Branham Joan R., “Bloody Women and Bloody Spaces,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 30, no. 4 (2002): 1522 .

2 Institute for Reproductive Health, Georgetown University,

3 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 92, a. 1. The influence of this perception of females in the Catholic theological tradition is outlined and critiqued by Kalbian Aline H., Sex, Violence, and Justice: Contraception and the Catholic Church (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014), 3036 .

4 Palley Howard A., “Canadian Abortion Policy: National Policy and the Impact of Federalism and Political Implementation on Access to Services,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 36, no. 4 (2006): 570,

5 Ibid., 566–71. Witness also the public regulation of female bodies in the Canadian Assisted Human Reproduction Act, 2004 S.C. 2004, c. 2, current to September 27, 2016,

6 American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2007).

7 As an example, consider the Purity Ball, wherein a girl pledges her sexual purity to her father until she marries. See “What Is a Purity Ball?,” Generations of Light Ministry,

8 Regarding “slut-shaming,” the parlance in popular discourse is as contentious as the practice. See Urban Dictionary, s.v. “slut-shaming,”

9 There seems no equivalent derogatory word for males who simply engage in sexual behavior; dictionaries tend to associate “slut” specifically with females, e.g., Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “slut” (n), The term “fuck boy” for males, although also derogatory, does not denote simple sexual activity so much as a male engaging in manipulative, noncommittal, and generally misogynistic sexual behaviors. See Urban Dictionary, s.v. “fuck boy” (n),

10 Valenti Jessica, The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2009).

11 Brad Pitt, “Photo of Angelina Jolie Breastfeeding,” W Magazine, November 2008, cover,; Annie Reneau, “What's Hard about Covering Up to Breastfeed?,” ScaryMommy (blog),; Amber Hinds, “Why I'm Glad Someone Told Me to Stop Breastfeeding in Public,” Huffington Post, April 17, 2013,

12 Hanna Rosin, “The Case against Breastfeeding,” Atlantic Monthly, April 2009,; Kate Evans, “The Case for Breastfeeding Is Clear,” The Guardian, July 5, 2010,

13 Wright Anne L., “The Rise of Breastfeeding in the United States,” Pediatric Clinics of North America 48, no. 1 (2001): 112 ; Starbird Ellen H., “Comparison of Influences on Breastfeeding Initiation of Firstborn Children, 1960–69 vs. 1970–79,” Social Sciences Medicine 33, no. 5 (1991): 627–34.

14 Lina Esco, “Facebook Wages War on the Nipple,” Huffington Post, June 10, 2014,; “Free the Nipple,” Facebook,

15 In the marketplace: Emma Johnson, “Can These Panties Disrupt the $15 Billion Feminine Hygiene Market?,” Forbes, May 28, 2015,; Stephanie Levitz, “Conservatives Remove Federal Tax on Feminine Hygiene Products as of July 1,” The Globe and Mail, May 28, 2015, I contrast the term “feminine hygiene” with “menstrual hygiene,” a more globally focused concern for sanitary menstrual supplies (e.g., reusable and/or inexpensive pads, menstrual cups) that are safe for women, culturally appropriate, and environmentally sustainable. For example, see the Menstrual Hygiene Movement,

16 Roberts Tomi-Ann, Goldenberg Jamie L., Power Cathleen, and Pyszcznski Tom, “‘Feminine Protection’: The Effects of Menstruation on Attitudes toward Women,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 26 (2002): 131–39.

17 For example, the Kimberly-Clark campaign for Kotex products: U by Kotex,

18 A current example of response to this phenomenon is the Robin Danielson Bill in the United States, proposed legislation to study the health effects of menstrual products, which would require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research whether menstrual hygiene products that contain dioxin, synthetic fibers, and other chemical additives like chlorine and fragrances pose health risks to users. This bill is named after Robin Danielson, who died of toxic shock syndrome in 1998. It was introduced to the House of Representatives (for the tenth time) on March 26, 2015, and was subsequently referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Health, on March 27, 2015. Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Product Safety Act of 2015, H.R. 1708, 114th Congress,

19 For a popular, nonreligious example of this construction, see Valenti, The Purity Myth. For a feminist theological example of this construction, see Harrison Beverly Wildung, Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983).

20 Grosz Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 192210 ; Chrisler Joan C., “Leaks, Lumps, and Lines: Stigma and Leaky Bodies,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 35, no. 2 (2011): 202–14, doi:10.1177/0361684310397698 .

21 For depictions of (not arguments for) this perspective, see Berger Teresa, Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy's Past (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 97109 .

22 American Academy of Pediatrics and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “Menstruation in Girls and Adolescents: Using the Menstrual Cycle as a Vital Sign,” Pediatrics 118, no. 5 (2006): 2245–50, doi:10.1542/peds.2006-2481 .

23 Johnston-Robledo Ingrid, Barnack Jessica, and Wares Stephanie, “‘Kiss Your Period Goodbye’: Menstrual Suppression in the Popular Press,” Sex Roles 54 (2006): 353–60, doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9007-1 .

24 Ott Kate M., “From Politics to Theology: Responding to Roman Catholic Ecclesial Control of Reproductive Ethics,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 30, no. 1 (2014): 138–47.

25 Although the issue is important, I refrain here from commenting on perceptions of family planning as either natural or unnatural/artificial.

26 Such methods include the Standard Days Method, Two-Day Mucus Method, Billings Ovulation Method, Sympto-Thermal Method, and the Creighton Model. The phrase “natural family planning” is problematic insofar as it assumes that persons following these methods are planning a family. Other monikers include “fertility awareness” and “menstrual awareness,” which imply more focus on female sexual health for the life span, than on planning a family.

27 This number is in contrast to the 98 percent inaccurately extrapolated widely in the media from Jones Rachel K. and Dreweke Joerg, Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2011), a report based on the 2006–8 National Survey of Family Growth in the United States.

28 Hoerster Katherine D., Chrisler Joan C., and Rose Jennifer Gorman, “Attitudes toward and Experience with Menstruation in the US and India,” Women & Health 38, no. 3 (2003): 7795, doi:10.1300/J013v38n03_06 .

29 All references to Judeo-Christian Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

30 Milgrom Jacob, “The Dynamics of Purity in the Priestly System,” in Purity and Holiness: The Heritage of Leviticus, ed. Poorthuis Marcel J. H. M. and Schwartz Joshua (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 2932 ; Baruch J. Schwartz, “Israel's Holiness,” ibid., 47–59.

31 Harrington Hannah, The Purity Texts (New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 712 .

32 Mikveh is variously spelled miqveh, mikvah, and miqvah. When citing other sources, I will adhere to the author's spelling. When employing the term myself, I will use mikveh.

33 Meacham Tirzah (leBeit Yoreh), “An Abbreviated History of the Development of the Jewish Menstrual Laws,” in Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, ed. Wasserfall Rahel R. (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1999), 23.

34 See Cohen Shaye, “Menstruants and the Sacred in Judaism and Christianity,” in Women's History and Ancient History, ed. Pomeroy Sarah B. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 273–99. For a consideration of the rabbinic texts regarding reasoning for the continued practice of mikveh after the destruction of the Second Temple, see Fonrobert Charlotte Elisheva, Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

35 Naomi Marmon, “Reflections on Contemporary Miqveh Practice,” in Wasserfall, Women and Water, 232–54. Regarding niddah, see Wasserfall, 265; Kathleen O'Grady, “The Semantics of Taboo: Menstrual Prohibitions in the Hebrew Bible,” in De Troyer et al., Wholly Woman, Holy Blood, 15–17.

36 Steinburg Pamela, “Renewal,” in Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, ed. Slonim Rikvah (New York: Urim, 2006), 221–23.

37 Polak-Sahm Varda, The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of Mikveh (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 58124 .

38 Sybelle Trigoboff, “Going to the Mikvah (at My Age!),” in Slonim, Total Immersion, 211–14.

39 Polak-Sahm, House of Secrets, 211–22. Ritual immersion/mikveh is also a universal practice in conversion to Judaism.

40 Matt 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:42-48.

41 Kazen Thomas, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010), 127–64.

42 Ibid., 132–38.

43 Ibid., 136 and 138, respectively.

44 For example, see Fonrobert's reading of centuries of Christian and contemporary feminist Christian biblical scholarship of this passage as anti-Semitic: Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity, 186–98.

45 Dionysius of Alexandria, Ep. ad Basilidem 2; English translation: The Epistle to Bishop Basilides, in Fathers of the Third Century, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ANF 6, 96, quoted in Berger, Gender Differences, 102. Again, for contrast, see Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity, 166–98.

46 Noted in Pope Gregory the Great's response to Bishop Augustine of Canterbury ca. 600 CE, in Bede's A History of the English Church and People, rev. ed., trans. Sherley-Price Leo, rev. Latham R. E. (Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1968), bk. 1, c. 27, q. VIII. For a contrary reading of Gregory's response to Augustine, see Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity, 196.

47 Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity, 192–96.

48 Brown Peter, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 145–46.

49 Wood Charles T., “The Doctor's Dilemma: Sin, Salvation, and the Menstrual Cycle in Medieval Thought,” Speculum 56, no. 4 (1981): 710–27; Rob Meens, “‘A Relic of Superstition’: Bodily Impurity and the Church from Gregory the Great to the Twelfth-Century Decretists,” in Poorthuis and Schwartz, Purity and Holiness, 281–93, at 283–84.

50 Berger, Gender Differences, 104–7, 95–126.

51 Castelli Elizabeth, “Virginity and Its Meaning for Women's Sexuality in Early Christianity,” Journal of Feminist Study in Religion 2, no. 1 (1989): 6188 ; Brown, The Body and Society, 428–47.

52 Berger, Gender Differences, 103.

53 By the early Middle Ages, the church penitentials had strictly circumscribed marital sexual activity to reflect the church's emphasis on the procreative aspect of sex: Brundage James, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 154–64, esp. 162.

54 Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society, 155–56.

55 First articulated in Pope Paul VI, Encyclical, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968,, wherein Pope Paul addresses the advent of hormonal birth control in the midst of global population concerns, shifting gender roles, sexual liberation, and the rise of technology in the Western world.

56 Subsequently fleshed out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Donum Vitae, February 22, 1987,; and updated again by the CDF in Dignitas Personae, June 20, 2008, These two documents address rapidly developing technologies and treatments in reproductive sciences, maintaining the inseparability of unity and procreation in marital sexual intercourse, and both documents attend to the anthropological, doctrinal, moral, and pastoral issues at stake.

57 Paul Pope John II, The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1997): a collection of Wednesday sermons delivered by John Paul in his early papacy (1979–84).

58 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, March 25, 1995, §§12–14,

59 Cahill Lisa Sowle, Between the Sexes: Foundations for a Christian Ethics of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 139–54.

60 Salzman Todd A. and Lawler Michael G., The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008); specifically regarding personalism, 66–68.

61 Ibid., 124–61.

62 For example, Berger, Gender Differences; Reuther Rosemary Radford, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983); Trible Phyllis, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); Fiorenza Elisabeth Schüssler, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1990).

63 Farley Margaret, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2006).

64 Traina Cristina L. H., Feminist Ethics and Natural Law: The End of Anathemas (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999).

65 Farley, Just Love, 218–20.

66 Ott, “From Politics to Theology,” 138–47.

67 Kissling Elizabeth Arveda, “Pills, Periods, and Postfeminism: The New Politics of Marketing Birth Control,” Feminist Media Studies 13, no. 3 (2013): 490504 ,; Andrist Linda C., “The Implications of Objectification Theory for Women's Health: Menstrual Suppression and ‘Maternal Request’ Cesarean Delivery,” Health Care for Women International 29 (2008): 551–65, doi:10.1080/07399330801949616 .

68 Johnston-Robledo et al., “‘Kiss Your Period Goodbye,’” 353–55.

69 Use of Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCs), such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and subdermal hormonal implants, has increased among American females ages 15–24 from 1.5 percent in 2002 to 5.0 percent in 2011–13 ( Branum Amy M. and Jones Jo, “Trends in Long-Acting Reversible Contraception Use among U.S. Women Aged 15–44,” NCHS Data Brief, no. 188 [Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2015]). Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the use of LARCs remains low, particularly among younger adolescent females (6.5 percent at 15–17 years; 7.6 percent at 18–19 years) ( Romero Lisa et al. ., “Vital Signs: Trends in Use of Long-Acting Reversible Contraception among Teens Aged 15–19 Years Seeking Contraceptive Services—United States, 2005–2013,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) 641, no. 13 [April 10, 2015]: 36369 ,

70 Coutinho Elsimar M. and Segal Sheldon J., Is Menstruation Obsolete? (New York: Oxford University, 1999).

71 Jones Laura, “Anthropological Fantasies in the Debate over Cycle-Stopping Contraception,” Women's Studies 40 (2011): 127–48, doi:10.1080/00497878.2011.537983 ; Andrist, “The Implications of Objectification Theory,” 551–65.

72 Johnston-Robledo Ingrid, Sheffield Kristin, Voigt Jacqueline, and Wilcox-Constantine Jennifer, “Reproductive Shame: Self-Objectification and Young Women's Attitudes toward Their Reproductive Functioning,” Women & Health 46, no. 1 (2007): 2539, doi:10.1300/J013v46n01_03 ; Schooler Deborah, Ward L. Monique, Merriwether Ann, and Caruthers Allison S., “Cycles of Shame: Menstrual Shame, Body Shame, and Sexual Decision-Making,” Journal of Sex Research 42, no. 4 (2005): 324–34.

73 “Reproductive Health Initiative,” World Health Organization,; “Sexual and Reproductive Health,” United Nations Population Fund,

74 Schooler et al., “Cycles of Shame,” 324–34.

75 The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research (SMCR), “The Menstrual Cycle: A Feminist Lifespan Perspective,” Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, SMCR is an interdisciplinary group of global researchers of menstrual and reproductive health. Its mission is to be a multifaceted resource for policy-makers, students, researchers, and practitioners ( The Institute for Reproductive Health's early work focused on fertility awareness and natural family planning methods to expand family planning choices. Currently, their work includes mobilizing technology for reproductive health, gender equality, adolescent body literacy, and fertility awareness, and scaling up pilot projects to meet unmet family planning needs. The work of the institute serves thirty countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Philippines, primarily with traditionally underserved populations. Institute for Reproductive Health, Georgetown University,

76 I do not suppose menstrual and fertility awareness to be superior methods of birth regulation, knowing their vast limitations for many females/couples. Rather, I promote the broad health and well-being facilitated by menstrual awareness. That it might serve as a bridge between female agency and church teaching regarding birth control is a fortuitous side effect of my proposal.

77 For example, Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, August 15, 1988 (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988).

78 Chrisler, “Leaks, Lumps, and Lines,” 202–14; Johnston-Robledo et al., “Reproductive Shame,” 25–39; Schooler et al., “Cycles of Shame,” 324–34.

79 For example, Roberts et al., “‘Feminine Protection,’” 131–39.

80 Brown, The Body and Society, 145–46; Brown Peter, “The Notion of Virginity in the Early Church,” in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, ed. McGinn Bernard, Meyendorff John, and Leclerq Jean (New York: Crossroad, 1985), 427–43.

81 Berger, Gender Differences, 109–26.

82 A delightful exception is Hildegard of Bingen's straightforward (if not completely accurate) account of monthly menses and reproduction: Holistic Healing (Causae et Curae), trans. of German text Patrick Madigan (1994), trans. of Latin text Manfred Pawlik (1989) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994), 9195 .

83 Berger, Gender Differences, 98–109; Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Hart Mother Columba and Bishop Jane (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), bk. 1, vision 2 (Creation and the Fall), §§20–22. Some Orthodox churches continue practices excluding females based upon menstrual and reproductive timing. Depending upon the church, diocese, and cultural context, women refrain from receiving communion while menstruating, among other ritual prohibitions. These practices are not universal in Orthodox churches. See Larin Vassa, “What Is ‘Ritual Im/Purity’ and Why?,” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 52, nos. 3–4 (2008): 275–92.

84 Johnson Elizabeth A., Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum, 2003), 4770 .

85 Berger, Gender Differences, 100.

86 Isaiah's prophecy, 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” and its inclusion in Matthew's Gospel, 1:22-23.

87 Berger, Gender Differences, 105–9.

88 There currently exist multiple means of charting one's menstrual cycle, including paper charts, counting beads, and phone applications. See and In today's technological climate, the phone apps are proving successful among adolescents, where cell phones are ever present. See (All links are from the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University.)

89 Again, such attention to ritual or sacramental recognition of menarche would require that diverse females be prominent in discussions, development, and formulation of theology and church teaching to that effect.

90 Of sexually active female teens aged 15–19 identified in the 2006–10 United States National Survey of Family Growth, 85.6 percent (male = 92.5 percent) typically use some method of birth control. Only 11 percent of females (males = 3.4 percent) used one of a collection of “other methods,” including withdrawal, sterilization, IUD, female condom, diaphragm, cervical cap, spermicidal foam, jelly, cream, or suppository, sponge, calendar rhythm method, and “other” methods. Condoms were most frequently used (52 percent; male = 74.7 percent), followed by the pill (30.5 percent; male = 39 percent). Martinez Gladys, Copen Casey E., and Abma Joyce C., “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth,” National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Health Stat. 23, no. 31 (2011): 711 , 32–34.

91 Kissling, “Pills, Periods, and Postfeminism.”

92 Johnston-Robledo et al., “Reproductive Shame,” 25–39; Schooler et al., “Cycles of Shame,” 324–34.

93 Jones and Dreweke, Countering Conventional Wisdom.

94 Johnston-Robledo et al., “‘Kiss Your Period Goodbye,’” 353–60.

95 Jarvis Bianca, “No to the Flow: Rejecting Feminine Norms and the Reproductive Imperative through Menstrual Suppression,” in The Moral Panics of Sexuality, ed. Fahs Breanne, Dudy Mary L., and Stage Sarah (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 205–25.

96 Consider the so-called female Viagra, Flibanserin. Touted as a means of leveling the gender playing field of sexual satisfaction, Flibanserin offers little to no evidence of efficacy in improving female sexual desire. Neither does the pathologizing of female sexual libido meet with universal acceptance. Jaspers Loes et al. ., “Efficacy and Safety of Flibanserin for the Treatment of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder in Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” JAMA Internal Medicine 174, no. 4 (2016): 453–62, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.8565 . Also, advertising Flibanserin as the female equivalent of Viagra is disingenuous. Viagra functions physiologically to counter erectile dysfunction in males and is taken as needed. Flibanserin is effectually a failed antidepressant medication (i.e., not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration) that is marketed as targeting female lack of sexual desire. However, it actually targets some causes of low libido in women (e.g., exhaustion, anxiety, and depression) and is taken daily. Studies suggest that its risks outweigh its potential benefits. See Woloshin Steven and Schwartz Lisa M., “US Food and Drug Administration Approval of Flibanserin: Even the Score Does Not Add Up,” JAMA Internal Medicine 176, no. 4 (2016): 439–42, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.0073 ; Moynihan Roy, “Evening the Score on Sex Drugs: Feminist Movement or Marketing Masquerade?,” British Medical Journal 349 (2014): g6246, doi:10.1136/bmj.g6246 .

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