I begin by asserting a principle that, if one troubles to read Scripture, the encyclicals of the popes, and the decrees of ecumenical councils, is simply unassailable. It is this: There is an inner identity between Catholic teaching on sex and Catholic teaching on the society.
Pope Leo XIII is quite clear on these matters. “The family,” he writes in Sapientiae christianae, “may be regarded as the cradle of civil society, and it is in great measure within the circle of family life that the destiny of the State is fostered.” Why should this be so? It is not, in Catholic thought, simply because families produce children. It is rather dependent upon the nature and meaning of the marital act itself.
When a man and a woman give their bodies to one another, their very nakedness testifies that it is a total gift. It is strange, this inherent meaning of the bodily relation. It is of no use to say, “The act means what we take it to mean.” That cannot be. If we do not intend the total gift, nevertheless we have to pretend that we intend it, if but for a few minutes, merely to perform the act itself. And we do pretend it. We reveal ourselves to one another in our nakedness, which proclaims, “This is what I am,” and, in the very vulnerability of the act, in our release, we declare, “This is all that I have, I hold nothing back.” No doubt, we can imagine ourselves into passion, or we can pretend, while in the throes of a genuine passion, that it means only what it means for the fleeting moment — as if we were creatures without memory, and as if the act itself were of the moment.
But it is not, and we know it. It is the principal action whereby a man and a woman cooperate in the providential design of God for the human race. When the man and the woman, or a boy and a girl, commit their bodies to one another in this fashion, they make “one flesh,” and not only for the moment. They know, regardless of how hard they may try to forget it, that they are doing what their own parents did, and their parents before them. They are doing what brought them into being. And they are doing what, by its nature, is meant to bring new generations into being. Yes, they may try to thwart that result, just as they may try to feign passion while secretly pondering ways to extricate themselves from the entanglement, or as they may try to separate the pleasure of the act and its emotional intensity from the biological meaning of the act. None of that matters. The liar knows, somewhere in his heart, that he is lying. So do the unmarried people playing house with one another. They are doing something that unites human beings across the sexes and across the generations. It is social and not merely private.
To pretend otherwise is to introduce into the relations between men and women, into family life, and ultimately into all social relations a corrosive and enslaving notion of autonomy. Those who are apt to shrug at fornication, which is a kind of false marriage with inbuilt divorce, should consider what Pope Leo, in Arcanum Divinae, has to say about something we take even more lightly, divorce itself: “When the Christian religion is rejected and repudiated, marriage sinks of necessity into the slavery of man’s vicious nature and vile passions, and finds but little protection in the help of natural goodness. A very torrent of evil has flowed from this source, not only into private families, but also into States.”
The lie, that sexual intercourse is a private matter between two people, and that fornication and divorce, with their approval of dissolution in both senses of the word — loose living, and the dissolving of a bond — is of no social consequence, is based upon an antipathy toward those now unfashionable virtues that make society possible in the first place. So Pope Leo: “Very many, imbued with the maxims of a false philosophy and corrupted in morals, judge nothing so unbearable as submission and obedience; and strive with all their might to bring about that not only individual men, but families also, nay indeed, human society itself, may in haughty pride despise the sovereignty of God.” Lest we think that such a society can survive, the pope, heir to millennia of history of pagan and Christian civilizations, says most forthrightly, “Nothing has power to lay waste families and destroy the mainstay of kingdoms as the corruption of morals.”
That, for Pope Leo, is no broad generalization, but a conclusion based upon a shrewd reading of history and insight into the heart of man. Sexual sin is essentially disruptive. People who cannot form those societies called families will either end up living in chaos or will have to be managed by an ambitious and totalitarian state. Decades before Aldous Huxley satirized the soulless pursuit of infertile sexual pleasure, Pope Leo in Humanum Genus wrote that, since “no one is accustomed to obey crafty and clever men so submissively as those whose soul is weakened and broken down by the domination of the passions,” the statists of his time determined that “the multitude should be satiated with a boundless licence of vice,” so that they “would easily come under their power and authority for any acts of daring.”
In his brilliant analysis of family-hating academicians, Utopia Against the Family, Bryce Christensen says essentially the same thing: “Claiming that they are merely freeing people from an outmoded morality, modern political activists often use the rhetoric of liberation as a solvent for weakening personal commitment to families, so creating a mass of rootless individuals unable to resist the absolute claims of the utopian state.”
The implication is that to uphold sexual virtue is to uphold the possibility of a coherent society, and not as the result of a long and tenuous train of causes. Rather, there can no more be a genuine society without strong and stable families than there can be a human body without bones. And those strong families cannot be built upon the quicksand of individual passions, shifting from time to time, nor upon the serpentine meanderings of the lie. I cannot make a habit of uttering, with my body, the lie that I give my all, now and forever, without that lie becoming also a habit of being: without my becoming the sort of person who may not be telling lies at the moment, but who reserves to himself the right to tell them again when it becomes convenient.
Even the right to hold property, in Pope Leo’s thinking, is to be upheld not principally because it conduces to the pleasure or the autonomy of the individual holding it, but because, without it, the family could not exist. If we choose, we may remain virgins and hold property as individuals; but all the more is it our right to hold property if we are the heads of families. To read Pope Leo’s groundbreaking encyclical on the social movements of his day, Rerum Novarum, is to be in the presence of someone who does not reduce all human questions to those of partisan politics, and who emphatically does not believe in the ultimacy of the State. Consider this passage:
No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage, ordained by God’s authority from the beginning, Increase and multiply. Hence we have the family; the “society” of a man’s house — a society limited indeed in numbers, but no less a true “society,” anterior to every kind of State or nation, invested with rights and duties of its own, totally independent of the civil community.
By that last phrase, the pope does not, as I read him, mean to suggest that families are islands of solipsism. Instead he is insisting that the family enjoys a priority over the state; that the state, in a sense, is the creation of the family, and not the other way around. Hence the family possesses rights that the state does not confer upon it but must recognize and defer to: “The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household, is a great and pernicious error,” for “paternal authority can neither be abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself.”
Once we see the inner coherence of Catholic teaching on sex and the proper ordering of goods in society, we begin to suspect that the incoherence recommended by some among us — that we can have any kind of real society, just or otherwise, based upon sexual license — rests upon a mass of confusion and lies. Everything, we see, is related. So, if you are talking to me about the economy, which is in Greek the “law of the household,” and you are not talking about mother and father and children; or if you are talking to me about poverty of income, but not about moral destitution; or if you are talking to me about sexual ethics, and not about marriage and time and eternity; then you are not talking to me as a Catholic, but as someone who has forgotten that God’s laws are not so easily separable one from another. You may try out your nostrums with the simpleminded, or with members of Congress, but not to anyone who has actually read what our authorities have to say.