Catholic sexual liberation: A rerun way too late

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 19, 2018

First Things editor R. R. Reno gets things right almost as often as I do (and with a consistently richer mix of public awareness and erudition). In this month’s issue, he editorialized about the new Catholic rush to accompany those who are committed to lifestyles which give the lie to Catholic teachings on sexuality, including the permanence of marriage. (This is one of his “Public Square” commentaries for April; you will find it by scrolling down to the subtitle “A Late-Night Rerun”.)

As Reno explains, “I’ve seen this movie before”, most notably in the collapse of main-line Protestantism in the face of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, as one church after another moved publicly to embrace moral liberation on demand. In contrast, Reno points out, the Catholic Church did not openly follow this path, preferring instead to accommodate privately and quietly without appearing to challenge the natural law. Now, of course, the question is whether this accommodation will become public, even if not definitive, under Pope Francis.

Reno deftly skewers the double-think which characterizes the justification of sexual urges and all of their related moral consequences. He has already seen it in the Protestant theology of Paul Tillich, “the master of dialectics that allowed him to say that rejecting ‘moralism’ is true obedience, and doubt is true faith.” Thus “an Italian priest who is part of the Francis team said that there are times when Catholic principles of responsible parenthood positively require the use of artificial means of contraception.” And, if you will excuse the frank language:

Soon enough, I predict, Fr. James Martin will argue that anal sex is in fact the truest fulfillment of Catholic teaching on sexuality, because it involves a selfless sacrifice of the fertility of the sexual act for the sake of love’s transcendent aim.

This captures the reigning logic perfectly.

The good news is that Reno believes the surrounding conditions are changing rapidly. While Protestants in the 1960s were discussing a brave new world in which sexual liberation was naively expected to contribute substantially to human happiness, this trend has “lost its youthful allure. It retains public authority…[b]ut many, perhaps most, experience our dominant culture of sexual permission as toxic.” This is not just wishful moral thinking; the author provides some telling examples.

Reno believes that Catholic leaders who persistently denigrate “doctors of the law” (for supposedly promoting “an infantile, rule-based approach to the moral life in a ‘world come of age’”) are far too late to the party, pale imitations of their Protestant forbears who did the same two generations ago—just before all but slipping out of existence.

Hence his telling conclusion:

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Church’s diplomatic corps promoted an Ostpolitik, a strategy of accommodation to Eastern Block Communist governments….which they assumed would be a permanent, irreversible force of world history. Today, we’re seeing something similar with respect to the sexual revolution. Just as it’s losing its allure, church officials are formulating an Erospolitik. It’s an endeavor worthy of Eugène Ionesco.

Don’t know Ionesco? French playwright, 1909-1994, known for Theatre of the Absurd.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: iprayiam5731 - Apr. 21, 2018 10:14 PM ET USA

    That quote about Fr. Martin is plain detraction and seriously harms an otherwise good and important piece. Don't misunderstand, I am no fan of Fr. Martin and I understand all the reservations about what he is doing. But, on the heels of a piece where he said he would never argue against Catholic dogma on the issue, this is not a charitable interpretation, which he is morally owed, even if with open skepticism. Please reconsider your inclusion of this quote.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Apr. 20, 2018 4:20 PM ET USA

    Those who persistently denigrate "doctors of the law" appear to be very popular, and I so not see too many Catholics defending the "doctors of the law." Thus, I am not very optimistic, the party still appears to me to be going on full steam ahead.

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 20, 2018 6:41 AM ET USA

    I am not as optimistic as Reno. Sodomy is not just an idea, it is also an addiction and a social habit, which shapes ALL thought and emotion. In the USSR, 1% were the masters and 99% were slaves, but over half of the slaves had the insight and emotional resources to cast off their chains when given the opportunity. Sex addiction poses a different challenge, because the master and slave are in the same person; for most addicts, liberation comes only in the grave.