Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls – Review

Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls: Embodied Flourishing by Doris M. Kieser. Toronto: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015. 221 p. $38.99 (Paperback).

Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls: Embodied Flourishing by Doris M. Kieser was published in 2015 as one of nine books currently available in the Studies in Women and Religion series by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. This book takes a revisionist approach to Roman Catholicism, seeking to align Catholic theology with a feminist worldview. Doris Kieser argues that Roman Catholic theology must acknowledge the importance of embodied experience in the human relationship with the divine, which includes a more comprehensive and positive discourse on human sexuality and pleasure. Kieser specifically focuses on how this discourse can impact the lives of adolescent females in a Western context. Through her advocacy for a positive representation of human embodiment, Kieser suggests that female adolescent sexual flourishing is a compatible, even necessary component to Roman Catholic theology, despite being previously excluded or discouraged within the tradition.

The book progresses thematically by chapter, defining and summarizing each component of Kieser’s argument, until the reader has all of the necessary tools to fully engage with the conclusions in the final chapter. The book begins with Kieser introducing herself and her project in an introductory chapter that serves as a detailed index to the rest of the book, containing Kieser’s goals, methodology, key terms and an outline of the material to come. The second chapter provides a helpful, if brief, philosophical and theological background of natural law, beginning with Thomas Aquinas. Kieser then moves into contemporary understandings of natural law, as well as criticisms of these views. In the third chapter Kieser expounds the framework that she will be using throughout the remainder of the book: feminist natural law as delineated by Cristina Traina. Traina’s theory allows for Kieser to remain within the Roman Catholic tradition without creating dissonance between the notions of adolescent female sexual flourishing and a Roman Catholic worldview; because Traina’s feminist natural law advocates for a common human telos of union with the divine, uniting this natural law with that of Thomas and contemporary Catholicism, as Kieser denotes in the previous chapter. The fourth chapter addresses sex, gender, and sexuality within Roman Catholic theology; with a specific focus on the traditional position of the female as complementary to the male. This ideology not only “others” women, but is also fundamentally non-Christian within Kieser’s theological understanding that the female body is made equally in the image of the divine. This chapter begins with an analysis of female embodiment in traditional theological discourse, looking particularly at the theology of the body presented by Pope John Paul II. It shifts into contemporary feminist scholarship that troubles these traditional understandings of female embodiment, centering on Judith Butler and poststructuralist feminist theory to deconstruct the very notions of sex and gender. This chapter locates this book within contemporary feminist dialogue, specifically within poststructuralist debates regarding the universal and/or the particular, and how these discussions can provide more insight into adolescent female sexual flourishing. Kieser presents a valuable, though condensed, version of this extremely relevant debate in contemporary feminist academia, and ultimately seeks a happy medium between the two extremes of the ideologies: a theology that recognizes individual oppressions within a Catholic framework that proposes a universal female embodiment. Chapter 5 explores developmental factors in adolescence from a Western perspective, highlighting gender construction and identity during this transitional and formative time, specifically how girls become women not physically (Chapter 6), but socially, within a heteronormative culture. The sixth chapter focuses on the physical and neural transitions typical of an adolescent experience in a female body, with specific dedication to the physical and social experience of menarche (first menstruation). Chapter 7 discusses the influences that can effect positive sexual flourishing for adolescent females, looking at how the theories Kieser has explored thus far play out in the lives of these individuals. A noteworthy element within this chapter is Kieser’s relatively lengthy discussion of female desire, which is a much needed conversation within this feminist paradigm of adolescent sexuality, and is a quite thought-provoking subsection in this chapter. Finally, the concluding chapter incorporates all of the previously discerned elements of sex, gender, feminist natural law, and female sexual flourishing within a Catholic theological structure. It is in this final chapter that Kieser explicitly shifts the Catholic theological discussion of sexuality from procreation to pleasure, and an engagement with the divine through human bodily pleasures. In so doing, Kieser provides a space for recognition of same-sex relationships, masturbation, the use of contraception, the importance of female orgasm, and other relevant and contentious issues within both feminist and Christian discourses.

Catholic Sexual Theology and Adolescent Girls: Embodied Flourishing engages with relevant feminist debates, and provides interesting nuances to traditional Catholic theology from within the tradition itself. Kieser’s impetus for writing this book is the lack of information on the subject of female sexuality within a Roman Catholic framework, and more specifically adolescent females and sexual flourishing. This book serves to open up a space for this dialogue, and to establish a Catholic theology that positively impacts and reflects the lived experiences of adolescent females in the Western world. In initiating this conversation however, Kieser must cover a vast amount of information, much of which, due to time and space constraints that she acknowledges, barely scratches the surface of many of the themes explored. Even with this absence of in-depth analysis to many of the topics, reading this book from cover to cover can be an intimidating project. The sheer volume of material, drawing on multiple disciplines like psychology, philosophy, gender studies, religious studies and others, can leave the reader feeling slightly overwhelmed. My recommendation is to instead use this text as a reference point for further study within any of the major themes represented. The structure of the book is conducive to this usage, with each chapter containing an introduction and summary, and convenient subheadings throughout. Kieser also frequently provides lists of authors for further reading, as well as helpful footnotes to define key terms, and expand on key ideologies. As such, this book is an excellent referential resource, as Kieser provides the reader with the tools to interact with her ideas on a deeper level through personal research. Overall the book is an enjoyable glimpse into many contemporary and relevant issues within both Christian and feminist dialogue, and is recommended for any reader interested in the fascinating relationship between these worldviews.

Laurel Andrew

McGill University and Concordia University



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