Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic Gender Moralism and Cultural Chauvinism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 25, 2011

Bro. Rex Anthony Norris of the Little Portion Hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine was kind enough to send us the text of a letter to the editor he found in the August 9th issue of Christian Century. I cannot recommend the magazine as a guide to faith of any sort, but it does occasionally include sound articles by believing Catholics, such as the Jesuit Edward T. Oakes.

Anyway, this particular letter to the editor was written as a very negative response to one of Fr. Oakes’ articles about the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. The title of the article—“Irreducible Faith”—gives you a pretty good idea of what an oppositional response would look like. But the letter is such a rich representation of a type that I wish to comment on it extensively here and, since I am using it as a representative of a type, there is no need to cite the writer’s name. Here is the text in full:

Edward Oakes's dutiful exposition of Joseph Ratzinger's theology notwithstanding ("Irreducible faith," July 12), the classical Christology of Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—effectively reduces the normative scope of the incarnation to the establishment of male privilege. While the pope may speak some of the right words in the face of secular relativism, what Europe and the rest of the world actually hear and see is the narrowing of historic Christianity to exclusivist obsessions with women and homosexuals. As William James once said, by their fruits, not their roots, you will know them.
Luther and the Reformers said that being church required only the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments. As a young Lutheran pastor in the 1960s, I joined those who called Lutheranism a confessing movement within the Church Catholic and looked for the day when we would reattach ourselves to the more encompassing Christian truth of which Rome was the custodian. That impulse is now inconceivable. As we see in the Anglican communion today, the driving motivation for rejoining Rome is a devotion to its gender moralism.
In the patristic period, the marks of the church were one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and the Reformation added gospel and sacramental celebration. The only marks that really count in defining the Catholic Church today, everywhere in the world, are the exclusion of homosexuals and the fear of the dangerous sexuality of women. Benedict's learned theology has done nothing to reassert the power of the gospel to a skeptical Europe and everything to convince those contemplating a new Pascalian wager not to bother.


A blog entry currently listed on the Christian Century website carries the provocative title, “Are atheists basically just like liberal believers?”. In light of this letter, one can see why the question is raised, though it is a deliberate response to the complaint of “conservative” Christians (as in conserving the Faith, one presumes) that “liberal” Christians (as in liberating oneself from the Faith, perhaps) are just like atheists. Very often, though, there is a difference between liberal Christians and atheists, in that liberal Christians—let’s call them Modernists for clarity—are less honest.

I am not speaking politically in this use of the world “liberal”, but philosophically, referring to a position which has been identified and condemned in significant papal declarations. The defining mark of the liberal Christian or Modernist is that he believes religious meaning is culturally determined, and so he reinterprets the Christian Faith continuously in light of how it is received by the culture. This creates insurmountable logical problems which are generally unacknowledged, because there are a wide variety of cultures and sub-cultures to choose from. Not surprisingly, the Modernist chooses the dominant culture, or what we might call the most worldly culture in his own era. Thus, like the modern atheist, he ends up with a belief system that makes no demands which can cut across the grain of his own subconscious desire to run with the winners. But unlike the atheist, he is able to coat his worldview with a consoling religious patina.

It is very much a “having one’s cake and eating it too” thing. And if the letter to the editor reproduced above does not reflect a purely cultural religion, then I don’t know what does.

What Europe Sees and Hears

It is a claim with a truly marvelous sweep to assert that “what Europe and the rest of the world actually hear and see” (that is, when they encounter irreducible faith, or orthodoxy) “is the narrowing of historic Christianity to exclusivist obsessions with women and homosexuals.” But of course it is only modern Western culture that is newly obsessed with women and homosexuals. Historic Christianity has changed little in either regard. This is so true, in fact, that it is absolutely impossible to see the continued restriction of the priesthood to males, along with the continued teaching that homosexual behavior is immoral, as a “narrowing” of what Christianity has represented in the past. Might it not be that Western culture in the past simply did not take exception to Christianity on these points?

But “what Europe sees and hears”, as with what we ourselves see and hear, is in large part culturally conditioned. I may stand on a street corner in the eighteenth century, for example, and proclaim that homosexual behavior is sinful and that women are to be, in some fairly deep and nuanced interpersonal sense, submissive to their husbands, who are called to lay down their lives for their wives. Passersby will either applaud or yawn on hearing these two pieces of old news that everybody has long since acknowledged. But if I do the same thing in the 21st century, passersby will use the very evidence of their eyes and ears to prove that I am intolerably bigoted, hating gays and women with an intensity which borders on the criminal.

Now let us note immediately that, at the most important level, the Christian is not to concern himself with “what Europe sees and hears”, at least not in the sense that he would betray the message of Christ in order to get a better reception. Naturally he must attempt to find ways to get the message through, and in this secondary sense his concern is legitimate. Beyond that, a misplaced concern about “what Europe sees and hears” is the catalyst for liberal Christianity, for Modernism, for arranging our beliefs according to the convenient standard of their popularity among Those Who Matter.

I doubt this is typically a fully conscious process. It is simply the habit of a mind and a will that have never disciplined themselves to seek truth. It is not as if most people say to themselves, “Aha, I see that the culture index shows three of the ideas in my inventory to have fallen below the general acceptability level, so today I’ll exchange those ideas for the latest models.” No, such people simply absorb ideas unthinkingly from the surrounding culture with the unspoken assumption that these ideas are always right. They don’t even realize how often they change their views. The important thing is that culture, no matter how changeable, is their fixed point. They instinctively judge their religion against it, rather than the other way around.

The Sacramental System

When you engage such culture-bound Christians in conversation, you will inevitably hear them express notions in related areas which would, if carefully examined, appear patently absurd even under their own wavering lights. So it is that our current letter writer reveals himself to have been a Lutheran pastor, and he makes the astonishing assertion that “the Reformation added gospel and sacramental celebration” to the marks of the Church. One sees where he is going with “gospel celebration”; this is clean out of sola scriptura. But sacramental celebration? Come now.

Instead, it was the very mark of the Protestant Reformers that they despised the sacramental system of the Catholic Church as, in the main, a series of useless “works” performed as “priest craft” and designed to keep Christians from knowing the true gospel. Luther’s theology of human nature pictures the depravity of the human person as something which Christ covers with a sort of cloak, refusing to look at the underlying rot once the Christian has accepted salvation. This is the very opposite of the sacramental principle, exemplified in the Incarnation itself, in which nature is impenetrated and perfected by specific, concrete encounters with grace. In a sacramental system, the Christian’s true being is not hidden from God’s eyes as we would shade our own eyes from seeing a leper, but rather his human nature is perfected as he grows into “the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).

If the logic of the underlying theology is not sufficient to make the point, it is a commonplace of religious history that the Protestants eliminated Confession, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders; turned Communion into a symbol (though it is true that Lutherans alone are supposed to believe in something called consubstantiation); abandoned the binding character of sacramental Marriage; reduced Confirmation to a sort of rite of maturity; and in some cases so mistrusted Baptism as to deny its efficacy when applied to infants.

The breaking of the Catholic sacramental system in the 16th century brought in its train a considerable, long-term cultural shift. The idea of transforming the surrounding culture as a key task in building the Kingdom of God was similarly vitiated. The impenetration of matter represented by Catholic achievement in the arts declined. The sense of mystery, and with it the sense of wonder, disappeared. Nature was reduced to a mere book with a plain text. And as the sweeping Catholic vision of reality, all drawn from the sacramental principle, drained away, we were left with the isolated Protestant believer—part of an aggregate but never of a Church, let alone the Mystical Body—protesting that he believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and so, despite the surrounding desolation, including the desolation of his own nature, he was Saved.

Saying that the Reformation added “sacramental celebration” to the marks of the Church (never mind that authentic marks cannot be “added” by man) makes exactly as much sense as saying Christianity has been reduced to “exclusivist obsessions with women and homosexuals.” It reverses reality. Even more important, the inability of a religion without sacramental vision to create and maintain an authentically Christian culture leads inexorably to another reversal—to the dominance of culture over religion.

Gender Moralism

Just as those who deny reality must use parts of it to argue their denial, and just as those who deny the natural law invariably appeal to portions of it which they still accept, so to do religious unbelievers (or unreligious believers) invariably employ theological terms in an effort to retain the spiritual high ground. And so our letter writer damns the Church for “gender moralism”. This term “moralism” is particularly interesting in that it refers to the practice of morality for its own sake, that is, without reference to religion or an underlying spirituality. When a particular point of view is dismissed as mere moralism, it means it is a hollow shell, lacking authentic spiritual underpinnings.

The use of the term fits our current case perfectly. Liberal Christians—again, this is not a political designation, for I mean Modernists, or all those who derive their religious beliefs from the dominant culture, changing them frequently as so many pious sentiments—liberal Christians like our letter writer, if I might speak frankly, always reek of spiritual superiority. The assumption of spiritual superiority is their hallmark. Others are trapped by outworn dogma, archaic prejudice, close-minded selfishness or culpable ignorance—but not they!

And so we are assured that “the only marks that really count in defining the Catholic Church today, everywhere in the world, are the exclusion of homosexuals and the fear of the dangerous sexuality of women.” Of course even this silly point is hopelessly misstated, and not only because of its now familiar breathtaking sweep. As a matter of fact, the Church does not exclude homosexuals, or those with homosexual inclinations. She merely teaches what she has always taught, that homosexual inclinations are disordered and that homosexual acts are immoral, and that as a matter of pastoral wisdom those with a significantly disordered sexuality should not be accepted as candidates for the priesthood.

Nor has the Church ever expressed a fear of the dangerous sexuality of women. To the contrary, she has always been a great liberator of women from cultural prejudice, beginning with the ancient pagan world and continuing into the present, where she works against our own culture’s treatment of women as sexual objects. In addition to recognizing the wonderful role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she has elevated women in both the married and the virginal states, unleashing great numbers of them in religious communities down through the ages—without once fearing that an army of nuns would seduce the world.

Nonetheless, one can see what the writer is attempting to say, and again one wonders whether his real point conveys as much about the Catholic Church, which has not changed essentially in either of these matters, as about “what Europe sees and hears.” Still, if it weren’t stated so negatively, one could easily admit that one of several motivations for reunion with Rome is “a devotion to its gender moralism”. Those in other communions, who for years and perhaps centuries could not see any fundamental failure on the part of those communions, may well conclude otherwise when the bodies in which they claim membership attempt to create priestesses and marry gays—two actions, by the way, which also strike at the heart of the sacraments they claim to represent.

Clearly we must focus on the general complaint, and not on the particulars, for there is no particular complaint that will bear scrutiny. Does the writer complain because the Church has changed her teaching? Surely the teaching has not changed. Does he complain because recent popes have reiterated the Church’s teaching? Surely they rightly perceive a present conflict with large cultural trends. Does he complain because Pope Benedict XVI has reduced “the normative scope of the incarnation to the establishment of male privilege”? Nobody could possibly know what this means without particular examples, which would again establish that nothing has been “reduced” at all in comparison with past ages of the Faith.

Ah, but the real complaint against Rome is precisely the general one; it is the complaint about “devotion to its gender moralism”. In other words, we face a perennial complaint against a particular moral code in favor of a superior and more enlightened spirituality. Rome’s liberal Christian critics earnestly desire that this enlightened spirituality should engender a moral reform, so that the behavioral tenets of the Church can no longer be dismissed as mere moralism, but will instead partake of “the glorious liberty of the children of”, wait for it, the Surrounding Culture (cf. Rom 8:21).

It always comes down to this, does it not? Some teaching of Christianity or the Church is proclaimed to be obviously wrong not because of any particular argument from Revelation but solely because it is obvious to Those Who Matter that it is wrong. Everybody knows it. The Church becomes a horror and a byword for continuing to proclaim what “everybody knows” is false. And most people go along with the criticism because, after all, it really does seem obvious, now that we’re in whatever decade we’ve recently come into, and now that we would have to stop our ears not to hear on every side that something New and Different is true. Clearly, Christianity and the Church have some serious catching up to do. Again.

So here lie committed Catholics, flat on our ancient backs, left behind once more, and all because of what “Europe sees and hears”. I am convinced we need a handy way to describe this distressingly frequent phenomenon, a label which can help us think things through more clearly. Just to be useful, I’ve deliberately included such a word in the title of this essay. It means “exaggerated belief in the supremacy of one's nation, class, caste, or group”—or, perhaps better, “exaggerated belief in the supremacy of one’s culture.” Let’s call it chauvinism.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 08, 2011 11:45 AM ET USA

    I don't know about the rest of you, but I read widely within the Church and don't think that our teaching obsesses on subjugating women or castigating homosexuals. It makes me wonder about the people who accuse her of doing so.

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Aug. 27, 2011 11:49 PM ET USA

    The writer seems to imply that if Pope Benedict were to revise Church teaching on homosexuality and the ordination of women Europe and the rest of the world would praise the courage and wisdom of the pope. In fairness to the writer, unlike the Protestant denominations which are grounded in Sacred Scripture the Catholic Church is also rooted in Tradition, hierarchy and the magisterium from which it draws its wisdom and guidance. It is bound to adhere to the moral law not the dominant culture.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 27, 2011 1:06 PM ET USA

    I have ever found amusing the skirt-pulling-up of those who are so shy about the use of the word SEX, preferring the irrelevant word "gender". I have often wondered who in the human species will fall into the neuter category. As Dr. Mirus rightly notes, it is an effort to take the moral high ground. It smacks of Mrs. Grundy.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Aug. 26, 2011 5:38 PM ET USA

    The difficulty is truth. The Roman Catholic Church is responsible for the Canon of the New Testament. History demonstrates this FACT. Under what criteria of the Cathoic Church is changing the texts of the bible acceptable? I understand Luther did just this - changed some and removed other text. (I suppose this is a slippry slope to launch an argument.) "Oh it doesn't work so just throw the baby out with the bath". ...where is the logic? Oh, and how come noboby messes with the Old Testament???

  • Posted by: - Aug. 26, 2011 1:21 PM ET USA

    Great analysis, sir. You've really nailed the heart of the problem with this sort of thinking: it judges revelation by the culture, rather than the culture by revelation. And its unexpressed foundational premise is that there is no revelation, or rather, revelation is transmitted via the dominant culture. The logical consequence to this belief is that revelation is in a constant state of flux.