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The conclusion of this book moves through the various layers of intervention that it has advanced, situating these arguments in the context of present-day discussions about sex, Catholicism and history. The material in the book suggests there was indeed a rupture in the relationship between sex and Christianity in the post-war decades, but rather than being simply about an emancipation from the confines of ‘traditional’ religious subjugation, a deeper, conceptual separation between the religious and the sexual opened up in decades after the war. This chapter considers how the changes described in the book relate to contemporary issues about sex and Catholicism within the Church and beyond. It reflects on the emergence of the child abuse scandals, and how this has been placed in a trajectory with the prohibitions of Humanae Vitae. It ultimately outlines the significance of the book for historians of sex, religion and social change.

in The Pope and the pill

Early life is treated as both a life-cycle stage which Catholic women lived through as well as a subject which has been debated, defined and understood by different individuals and institutions. The chapter begins with a discussion of the sexual education that was available to Catholic women in the post-war decades. The second section looks at the way ideas of gender shaped Catholic women’s experience of courtship and sexuality. It explores the way they made sense of their early sexual desires – how expectations of ‘pious femininity’ affected their thoughts and actions. The final section moves on to consider the how psychoanalytical interpretations of childhood and religion affected the interviewees’ approach to parenting. It deconstructs the infantilism hypothesis which has gained currency in the post-war decades – the idea that religious belief is merely a product of childhood indoctrination.

in The Pope and the pill
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This chapter introduces the central arguments that the book presents in relation to sex, religion and memory. It opens with an extract from an interview: an emotional account of a Catholic women explaining how ‘the sexual revolution let the cork out of the bottle’ on her beliefs about sex and contraception. This quotation is used as a springboard from which to introduce the overarching themes and issues of the study – the link between sexual and religious change in personal and collective life stories, the role of the interview in providing a space for these stories to be told and the implications these changing stories held for the way individuals made sense of their existence. The chapter traces the development of debates about sex, gender and body within the Catholic community during the twentieth century. It shows how the sex lives of Catholic women, as well as the histories of both sex and religion more broadly, have generally been interpreted through the lens of ‘power’. The interviewees’ testimonies encourage historians to look beyond traditional, top down narratives of shifting power relations. The chapter argues that sex and religion became re-categorised along material lines in the post-war decades. The final subsection of the chapter outlines how and why the book is structured as it is, with chapters reversing the chronology of the Catholic women’s lives.

in The Pope and the pill
Sex, Catholicism and women in post-war England

On 25 July 1968, Pope Paul VI shook the world. His encyclical letter Humanae Vitae rejected widespread calls to permit use of the contraceptive pill and deemed artificial contraception ‘intrinsically evil’. The Catholic Church is now commonly identified as the antagonist in a story of sixties sexual revolution – a stubborn stone resisting the stream of sex-positive modernity. There has been little consideration of how Catholic women themselves experienced this period of cultural upheaval. This book is about the sexual and religious lives of Catholic women in post-war England. It uses original oral history material to uncover the way Catholic women negotiated spiritual and sexual demands at a moment when the two increasingly seemed at odds with one another. The book also examines the public pronouncements and secretive internal documents of the central Catholic Church, offering a ground-breaking new explanation of the Pope’s decision to prohibit the pill. The materials gathered here provide a fresh perspective on the idea that ‘sex killed God’, reframing dominant approaches to the histories of sex, religion and modernity. The memories of Catholic women help us understand why religious belief does not structure the lives of most English men and women today in the way it did at the close of the Second World War, why sex holds a place of such significance in our modern culture, and crucially, how these two developments related to one another. The book will be essential reading for not only scholars of sexuality, religion, gender and oral history, but anyone interested in post-war social change.

Early marriage is defined as the years between marital engagement and the end of childrearing. The interviewees’ memories of early marriage were defined by a tension between the physical desires of sexuality and the transcendent codes of religious beliefs. The most pointed example of this was in attempting to grapple with Natural Family Planning (NFP) – the only form of birth regulation endorsed by the Church. The second section of this chapter uses the interviewees’ testimony alongside contemporaneous letters sent from newly married Catholics to doctors and Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC) counsellors to reconstruct Catholic women’s everyday experience of using NFP. It offers an insight into the range of creative tactics that Catholic women used when trying to abstain from intercourse, including masturbation, oral and anal sex, prayer and positioning large teddy bears as bedtime barriers. The chapter also addresses the understanding of female sexuality that was constructed by the CMAC.

in The Pope and the pill

This chapter explores the sexual experiences of Catholic women during ‘later marriage’ – broadly defined as the years of sexual activity that came after the daily demands of childrearing had diminished. The parameters of this life-cycle stage varied from person to person, but generally ran from the interviewees’ mid-thirties to sixties for those married in the immediate post-war years, beginning a little later for those married after the 1960s. It explores how and why ‘liberal’ Catholic women rejected the Pope’s prohibition of the pill, uncovering how these decisions were underpinned by a re-categorisation of the religious and the sexual. The memories of Catholic women indicate that that it was often not until the busyness of early marriage had diminished that they had the time and space to consider these decisions. The chapter also examines ‘orthodox’ Catholic women’s critique of the concept of ‘female emancipation’. The chapter moves on to explore Catholic women’s changing views of the Church’s moral authority in matters of sex.

in The Pope and the pill

This chapter discusses the sources, methods and approach that are used in the book. It begins by outlining the significance of the ‘personal’ for the study. I speak about my own religious, sexual and familial background and the effect this has had on the project. I argue that an open, reflexive approach places the reader in a privileged position from which to evaluate the testimony of the interviewees. A new Catholic-feminist methodology is advanced which emphasises the need to take Catholic women seriously as authors of their own life stories. The chapter then moves on to offer important information about the way the oral history material was gathered. In this section of the chapter, how the interviewees were recruited, the interview process and the question of ‘representivity’ are addressed. It argues that rather than seeing the subjective nature of spoken testimony as a limitation, it is this very attribute which can help reframe understandings of ‘the personal’ within Catholicism.

in The Pope and the pill
Islamic exorcism and psychiatry: a film monograph

What is it like to be a Muslim possessed by a jinn spirit? How do you find refuge from madness and evil spirits in a place like Denmark?

As elsewhere in Europe and North America, Danish Muslims have become hypervisible through intensive state monitoring, surveillance, and media coverage. Yet their religion remains poorly understood and is frequently identified by politicians, commentators, and even healthcare specialists as the underlying invisible cause of ‘integration problems’.

Over several years Christian Suhr followed Muslim patients being treated in a Danish mosque and in a psychiatric hospital. With this book and award-winning film he provides a unique account of the invisible dynamics of possession and psychosis, and an analysis of how the bodies and souls of Muslim patients are shaped by the conflicting demands of Islam and the psychiatric institutions of European nation-states.

The book reveals how both psychiatric and Islamic healing work not only to produce relief from pain, but also entail an ethical transformation of the patient and the cultivation of religious and secular values through the experience of pain. Creatively exploring the analytic possibilities provided by the use of a camera, both text and film show how disruptive ritual techniques are used in healing to destabilise individual perceptions and experiences of agency, so as to allow patients to submit to the invisible powers of psychotropic medicine or God.

The fifth chapter explores the sacrifices expected from patients in both systems of treatment. Taking the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son as a model for healing, the chapter analyses the ways in which patients – through leaps of faith – dismantle those parts within themselves perceived by the healer as the core of their suffering: psychotic delusions, jinn, or the desires of what in Islamic theology is referred to as the lower self. In conclusion it is argued that self-sacrifice of this kind enables the patients to submit to their treatment, and thereby to be reinstated as moral and healthy subjects in the structural order implied by the two systems of healing: biomedicine and Salafi-oriented interpretations of Islam. The chapter expands on the analysis of the scenes from the accompanying film presented in Chapter 4, but also explores additional scenes of the interaction between patients and psychiatrists.

in Descending with angels

Chapter four takes a further step into the specific healing interactions between Muslim patients, psychiatrists, and Quranic healers by analysing how the Islamic and psychiatric treatments that are shown in the accompanying film depend on an oscillation between making visible and keeping invisible – between giving a tangible visual form to the suffering of patients and to possible paths for their healing, and yet simultaneously disabling and dismantling other possible visualisations. Iconoclastic practices in both psychiatric healthcare and Islamic exorcism are related to the issue of faith in healing and the necessity of doubt in order to attain faith. The widely disputed notion of ‘patient’ is of key importance. In contrast to recent user-oriented and holistic approaches in psychiatry, as well as a number of studies in medical anthropology that tend to emphasise healing as an effect of human self-creativity, the issue in the treatments the author studied was not framed in terms of how to gain agency; rather, the main concern was ‘how to become a patient’, which involved the surrender of individual agency in favour of allowing something else to do the work of healing.

in Descending with angels