- Ehe, Liebe und Sexualität im Christentum: Von den Anfängen bis heute by Arnold Angenendt
A German priest with a distinguished career in early medieval religious and liturgical history, Arnold Angenendt is now devoting his retirement, it seems, to producing volumes showing how history (especially Christian/Catholic history) is relevant to issues facing the Church and western society today. One of these is Ehe, Liebe und Sexualität (Marriage, Love, and Sexuality in Christianity: From the Beginning to Today). The work of Angenendt could be compared to that of popular Catholic historians or moral theologians who want to reflect on history, but it is to be distinguished from pure popular history or theology, for Angenendt is a genuine historian who knows his sources and how to use them. Angenendt provides a model for those serious scholars who wish to make a turn to a more popular genre and for those scholars of faith who wish to see their academic work have some impact on the broader Christian community.
Angenendt covers a remarkable amount of material. The majority of the book is a treatment of issues of marriage, love, and sexuality in historical sequence from ancient Greece and Rome up until today. He chooses certain issues in particular on which to focus, including perceptions of and protections for women, conceptualizations of the marital relationship, notions of sexual pollution in cultic situations, and sexual sins (in the Christian tradition) such as homosexuality and masturbation. Prior to his historical treatment, however, Angenendt utilizes recent statistics, often from UNICEF reports, to illuminate the global situation. For the western reader, some of these statistics are disturbing. Instances of rape, arranged marriages of minors, female circumcision, murders of first wives to allow marriage of a second, and killings of someone, often the widow, to accompany a man to his grave—all these shock the western and Christian sensibility. That is precisely Angenendt's point. He wants to argue that such practices shock and disturb us because of Christianity's influences in the realm of love, sexuality, and gender. [End Page 796]
Christianity does not get off the hook in Angenendt's account. He recognizes problems and inconsistencies, which he puts forward even in his chapters on the Bible and early Christianity, maintaining a disparity between the Old Testament's Edenic portrayal of the equality of the sexes and a notion of male headship to which women must be submissive. His account of the medieval period unveils numerous ambiguities and tensions. On the one hand, the period affirmed consent as the basis of marriage, thus making the woman an equal partner in agreeing to a marriage; on the other, women were often subject to familial economic concerns. On the one hand, the Church denounced spousal abuse and protected women from brutality; on the other, many husbands treated their wives poorly. The point for Angenendt, however, is that Christianity did affirm the equality the sexes and conceived of marriage as a partnership; the point is that, when given the chance, the Christian Church did protect women from savage husbands. What Angenendt wants his readers to understand is how unusual such a situation is in the history of the world.
While historians expert in each era will undoubtedly find things to criticize (I found some in his treatment of the high medieval period), overall this book offers a historically-grounded work to appreciate Christianity's contribution to gender equality and a notion of marriage as a partnership with the relationship of the spouses at its core. It also offers Catholics a historical perspective to think through difficult questions in the Roman Church today, such as celibate priests, birth control, and the participation of those in second marriages in communion.