Iconoclasm and the Sexual Revolution

Today’s lesson is on how to turn Catholics into semi-Catholics and non-Catholics.
If you would like to destroy a prevailing system of beliefs and values, there are two ways of doing it: Persecution is one way, seduction the other. In the century or so following the start of the Protestant Reformation, persecution often proved effective. Catholic regimes persecuted Protestants, Protestant regimes persecuted Catholics, and Protestants of one kind persecuted Protestants of another kind. England in the 16th century gives us striking examples of all these varieties of persecution. Henry VIII persecuted both Catholics and Protestants who did not adhere to his kind of Protestantism. Edward VI (or rather, the handlers and manipulators of this boy king) persecuted Catholics. Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary” — sometimes described as the only queen to be named after a drink) persecuted Protestants. Queen Elizabeth persecuted Catholics and Puritans.
But persecution is no longer fashionable — at least, persecution of the outright or downright type no longer is. Yet unless there is a great reversal of current trends, approval of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is likely to become greater in America as those of the older generation (cranky old men like myself) die off and are replaced by the exceedingly tolerant people who are now young. When almost everybody agrees that homosexuality is just fine and that same-sex marriage is a lovely thing, there will probably be a very mild persecution — hardly distinguishable from discrimination — of old-fashioned Christians who disagree with this. Mostly the persecution will be informal; that is, it will come in the form of a public opinion that is scornful and contemptuous of that irritating fraction of the population, Christians of the traditional type. But a certain amount of mild persecution will come from government. For instance, now and then a Christian schoolteacher will be fired because he or she let slip a word of disapproval for same-sex marriage.
Nonetheless, the age of persecution is over — at least in our part of the world, and at least (probably) for a few centuries. Persecution being ruled out, then, if you wish to destroy a system of beliefs and values, you’ll have to do it by means of the alternative option: seduction. What this means in practice is that you’ll have to provide the followers of the older system something that (a) they very much want but (b) the older system cannot provide.
Consider as an example the iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Roman (Byzantine) Empire had in the seventh century lost vast amounts of territory in Western Asia and North Africa to the Muslim Arabs. By the opening of the eighth century, the empire controlled no portion of Africa, and in Asia controlled only Asia Minor (corresponding to modern Turkey). The religion of Islam had a strong taboo against images, especially sacred images. It was profoundly blasphemous to represent God in an image, and by extension it was blasphemous to represent Mohammed or anything or anyone else that was holy.
Many Christians in the eastern part of Asia Minor — that is, the part of the Roman Empire that was immediately adjacent to the Islamic realm, and therefore most likely to receive cultural impressions from the world of Islam — came to feel that Christianity was made imperfect by its abundance of holy images (icons). The iconoclasm movement, a movement endorsed and even mandated by a number of emperors, gave these Islam-influenced Christians something that Catholic-Orthodox Christianity could not give them. Iconoclasm, in other words, seduced them.
Why could Orthodox-Catholic Christianity not accommodate these Christians who didn’t like icons? For two reasons: One, Christianity was a strongly traditional religion, and one of its greatest traditions was the display of holy icons, especially icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. For another, if Jesus Christ was what Christianity said He was, namely the God-man, then the man Jesus was Himself an image or religious icon of God. If Jesus in the flesh represented God, weren’t we in a sense imitating Jesus when we made images of Him, His mother, and His saints?
If Catholics of the eighth century could be seduced by iconoclasm, what seduces them today? The answer is sex — but let me hasten to add that I don’t mean sexual sin. Sexual sin has been around forever, and while it has seduced many Catholics from, say, their marriage vows, rarely has it seduced them from their religion. Often has it done quite the opposite. Having sinned, we seek God’s forgiveness, and this has been found through our Catholic religion.
No, it isn’t sexual sin that seduces today’s Catholics. What seduces them is the idea that many things once believed to be sinful are not really so. Those Catholics in the eighth century who lived close to the land of Islam came to believe that icons were bad. Likewise, those Catholics who today live close to the culture of secularism — and who doesn’t live close to it? — come to believe that Catholicism is wrong, either entirely so or partially so, in its condemnation of all manner of sex-connected sins: fornication, unmarried cohabitation, abortion, homosexuality, and so on.
I don’t mean that today’s Catholics necessarily wish to engage in these activities. There are vast numbers of Catholics who would not dream of having an abortion or living together before marriage who are nonetheless reluctant to disapprove of these things. They might disapprove for themselves personally, but they don’t want to disapprove of them for others.
These Catholics are seduced by sex, yes. But even more, they are seduced by the idea of sexual tolerance. To be sexually tolerant seems to be so much more up-to-date, so much more enlightened, indeed so much more Christian (for didn’t Christ tell us, “Judge not, that ye may not be judged”?). How like the eighth century, when being an iconoclast seemed so much more up-to-date, so much more tolerant, and so much more Christian.

By

David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion" and "The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America." Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

  • Joshua

    I think I shall have to disagree. I don’t think it is sexual tolerance, but pride, that has seduced Christians. It is the oldest sin, the sin committed by Adam and Eve when they bit the apple so that they might have knowledge of good and evil.

    And now in our individualistic, freedom-loving society, it is once again pride that is our downfall. Our pride in our own moral compasses has led us to reject the teaching of our church. It is our pride that says that we are good people who are therefore incapable of serious sin tells us that what we do can’t really be wrong, so it must be the church in error. That same pride in our fellow man and the pride that says we ‘love’ them says that practicing homosexuals, women who have had abortions, divorcees, fornicators, and all manner of ‘sinners’ makes the claim that these are also good people who don’t commit serious sin and therefore the church is wrong. And the pride that we will not cast the first stone and we cannot become hypocrites if we allow everything wraps up our tolerance of sin and despising of moral authority in a neat little package.

    Knowing good and evil is not enough to be a god. We must decide good and evil. And when we can discard church morality in favor of individual morality, we become gods. And we take pride in that.

  • Michael

    Can it really be so bad? Most of our churches don’t have confessionals anymore and we never hear sermons on sexual or other sins. Well maybe on the sin of not being liberal enough in our politics but that is about it. We know that our Catholicism only requires of us that we care about those who are downtrodden and pretty much anything we do is okay in the eyes of our loving God who has guaranteed the salvation of pretty much everybody except for truly evil people like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

    So, getting it on outside of marriage can’t really be a sin can it? It is just an expression of love and as we all know, God IS love. Hell may not even really exist (how could a loving God punish us forever?) and certainly there is no devil. He is just a metaphor for the truly evil in some of us, like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

  • Andy

    Can it really be so bad? Most of our churches don’t have confessionals anymore and we never hear sermons on sexual or other sins. Well maybe on the sin of not being liberal enough in our politics but that is about it. We know that our Catholicism only requires of us that we care about those who are downtrodden and pretty much anything we do is okay in the eyes of our loving God who has guaranteed the salvation of pretty much everybody except for truly evil people like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

    So, getting it on outside of marriage can’t really be a sin can it? It is just an expression of love and as we all know, God IS love. Hell may not even really exist (how could a loving God punish us forever?) and certainly there is no devil. He is just a metaphor for the truly evil in some of us, like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

    Sorry; I know it doesn’t carry well over the internet, but this is a joke, right?

  • Bill Sr.

    Although I agree with Joshua that pride is probably the most lethal of all sins which mankind is capable of in any age and certainly is

  • VR

    I must agree with Joshua on the pride part, but I cannot agree that we have an individualistic, freedom loving society anymore. What I see instead is a society of lemmings, marching in lockstep to whatever politically correct idea is currently the norm,afraid to utter an unpopular opinion, and content to let the government erode our liberties and attempt to squelch those of conscience who take the more difficult road of being true to God and one’s conscience. That, I think is what the “land of the free” has become and is proud of it.

  • Ender

    They might disapprove for themselves personally, but they don’t want to disapprove of them for others.

    I think this comment describes the problem and I wonder if much of this attitude is a result of the clergy’s response (or more accurately non response) to Humanae Vitae. If priests don’t condemn contraception how can we, and if contraception is a personal choice that one can legitimately make despite what the Church teaches (which it surely must be if the clergy doesn’t condemn it) then it must also be true that we are free to accept or reject other doctrines as well, but if we are free to choose then so is everyone else therefore how can we condemn anyone else’s behavior?

    Obviously this conclusion is wrong but it easy to see how appealing the logic is, especially to those looking to justify their use of contraception, which (if the polls are right) includes upwards of 80% of married Catholics. In this case the pot won’t call the kettle black because the pot doesn’t want to believe it is black as well.

  • Cindy

    The way for evil to flourish is for the just man to say and do nothing. It is evil to be lukewarm and complacent. St John the Baptist told Herod that it was wrong for him to have relations with his brother

  • Jacques

    “You are the Salt of the Earth” said Jesus (I, you, we are …)
    Currently the Salt of the Earth have lost its taste (read: no longer believes in the Church’s fundamental truths) and is destined to be trampled by the people in the street (read: destined to Hell).
    Does this mean that:
    1/ The fundamentals the Church taught for 19 centuries regarding sex are wrong in the times being?
    2/ Hell no longer exists?

    The Virgin in Fatima said that HELL EXISTS and showed it to the 3 children who were much scared.
    Sex outside the marriage is a SIN: In another apparition, Mary said that sexual sinners are the majority in Hell.

    Don’t listen to these post VAT II wishy washy priests and return to the Church’s fundamentals. Like St Augustine said: When you are disturbed and in trouble, come back to the Church’s TRADITION.
    For example I recommend you to read the life of St John Mary Vianney, the “cur

  • pete
  • Sue

    Can it really be so bad? Most of our churches don’t have confessionals anymore and we never hear sermons on sexual or other sins. Well maybe on the sin of not being liberal enough in our politics but that is about it. We know that our Catholicism only requires of us that we care about those who are downtrodden and pretty much anything we do is okay in the eyes of our loving God who has guaranteed the salvation of pretty much everybody except for truly evil people like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

    So, getting it on outside of marriage can’t really be a sin can it? It is just an expression of love and as we all know, God IS love. Hell may not even really exist (how could a loving God punish us forever?) and certainly there is no devil. He is just a metaphor for the truly evil in some of us, like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

    Sorry; I know it doesn’t carry well over the internet, but this is a joke, right?

    It is this mind set that cripples our faith.

  • Victor

    Like a rock hitting a windshield, the introduction of personal interpretation of Christian truths by Luther heavily fractured, but did not break Christianity.

    Once personal interpretation of what is “right and wrong” was accepted at a theological level, then “seduction” by anything, not just sex, was, is, and will be, fairly easy to do.

    The ultimate source of our current day problems is the dirty little fact that Protestantism is really an *unconscious* form of Atheism with a nice Christian veneer.

    So, it looks upright, and we all know extremely devout Believers, but the fact is, at the core, is the idea that *I* will tell God what His Truths mean, not the other way around (i.e. the Catholic method).

    Therefore, even though both the author and the first poster (Joshua) appear to disagree on the surface, they are really saying the same thing: We either serve God as He wishes, or we don’t. And, if we don’t because we find “XYZ” activity to be “good” because we’ve convinced ourselves that it is good, because we can interpret as we like, off we go then.

    And, of course, as more and more Christain belief is “interpreted away”, what is left is…Atheism.

    The cracks in the windshield are still spreading, and although they may not be as big and shocking as the original blow that started all this, they will run their course unless the windshield is repaired.

  • Tyler

    I’m fairly certain Michael intended this as satire. And rather well-done satire it is.

    Can it really be so bad? Most of our churches don’t have confessionals anymore and we never hear sermons on sexual or other sins. Well maybe on the sin of not being liberal enough in our politics but that is about it. We know that our Catholicism only requires of us that we care about those who are downtrodden and pretty much anything we do is okay in the eyes of our loving God who has guaranteed the salvation of pretty much everybody except for truly evil people like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

    So, getting it on outside of marriage can’t really be a sin can it? It is just an expression of love and as we all know, God IS love. Hell may not even really exist (how could a loving God punish us forever?) and certainly there is no devil. He is just a metaphor for the truly evil in some of us, like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

  • Sarah

    In Massachusetts I tried to collect signatures to have the question of same sex marriage put on the ballot for a vote.

    The advocates of same sex marriage did not want this matter to come to a vote because they knew if people were allowed to vote on the issue it would never become law (just like in California).

    I thought, “This will be easy. Within a 50 mile radius north of Boston where I live there are 100s of Catholic churches.” This area is comprised mostly of decendents of Irish, Italians, Polish, French and Portuguese Catholics.

    Being a daily communicant I went to daily Mass in many of those churches to collect signature from what I thought was the most conservative portion of Catholic culture.

    I COULDN’T HAVE BEEN MORE WRONG. What I discovered in amongst these people who receive the Body and Blood of our Lord every day is there are now 2 Catholics. The rather simple minded, old fashioned, intolerant Catholics (such as myself) and the educated, loving, tolerant, God doesn’t mean that, Catholic “Lite” Catholics who believe:

    Can it really be so bad? Most of our churches don’t have confessionals anymore and we never hear sermons on sexual or other sins. Well maybe on the sin of not being liberal enough in our politics but that is about it. We know that our Catholicism only requires of us that we care about those who are downtrodden and pretty much anything we do is okay in the eyes of our loving God who has guaranteed the salvation of pretty much everybody except for truly evil people like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

    So, getting it on outside of marriage can’t really be a sin can it? It is just an expression of love and as we all know, God IS love. Hell may not even really exist (how could a loving God punish us forever?) and certainly there is no devil. He is just a metaphor for the truly evil in some of us, like Hitler, and well…Nazis.

  • Mike

    Don’t wory, The Lord shall soon send a purification and mass culling to the earth to clean out the pollution.

  • Caitlin

    Victor, this is an astute observation. I had not thought of it that way. Thank you!

  • kjd

    The true seduction today is relativism: “It might be wrong for me, but right for my neighbor. How can I know?” This leads to the new Gospel of Tolerance. Tolerance sounds like a fine virtue — “judge not lest you be judged.”

    Once you accept the fact there is no absolute “truth,” the Catholic Church does look like a bully. So, as good Americans, we will go to Mass on Sundays, and maybe on weekdays, but vote for “tolerant” policies like abortion and same-sex marriage. As modern Catholics, we might follow the Church’s teachings in our own lives, but give everyone else (including our children) the freedom to do otherwise.

    In defense of today’s Catholics, however, I might point out that post-Vatican II religious education was practically non-existent.

  • Mike

    It seems to me that the Roman Catholic Church — or at least those who write its Magisterium — are seduced by a lot of pride. They may flatter themselves that they possess the “sure charism of truth,” whatever that might mean, but it seems clear enough that as Aquinas teaches us, a human body makes decisions as an integrated, body-and-soul whole; the head cannot make decisions without the arm or the eye, as Paul explained. Yet the Roman Catholic Church, with its hierarchical and sacerdotal structure, seems to believe that the head can make decisions even when the arm or eye screams out in pain. It might be worth plucking out your eye if it makes you sin, but first you need the full consultation as a complete person.

    So it is with the Body of Christ. The great sin of pride of the Roman Church was when it arrogated power that properly belonged to all Christians — or at least all bishops — to a single bishop.

    And so the pride of the Roman Church becomes like the pride of the Judaizing Legalist Party that appears in Acts and that Paul criticizes in Romans. It presses the law of circumcision on our bodies, instead of our hearts. Just as Peter slowly discovered that circumcision was not necessary, and Paul provided the relevant theology in Romans, so the Roman Church must eventually come to terms with the idea that its pride in authority and overconfidence in its reason blinds it to the love that comes through the movements of the Spirit.

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