An Alternative to Catholic Sexual Ethics?

The Catholic Church’s teachings regarding sexual congress, marriage, and the family are clear and coherent. If you disagree with one or another of them, you place in jeopardy the entire edifice. Fine, say many people who urge us to get with the times as regards—and here you may fill in your preferred form of divorce, that of sexual congress from marriage, of marriage from children, of husband and wife from one another, or of reason from the plain facts of biology and anthropology, not to mention the revealed word of God.

My question is simple. What coherent structure will you put in its place? What principles will be its foundation? How will those principles work themselves out?

Let me illustrate.

You have a twenty year old son in college. Call him Josh. He’s slender and well-formed, but not athletic. He’s always been a little on the quiet side. He’s lonely at school, and his roommates don’t help. He had a girl friend in high school, nothing serious. He is pimply and prone to sunburn.

One night Josh is alone in his room with Mike, a kid from one of his classes, who has been tagging along after him lately. Josh has been grateful for any distraction from feeling lonely. They’ve had a couple of beers, and have been horsing around, wrestling.

Then Mike makes the proposition.

My brethren on the Catholic Left, answer me. What is Josh supposed to do?

What are the possibilities?

“Do what you think is right, Josh.” But that recommendation is empty. On what basis is Josh supposed to judge? Is sodomy permissible or not? If it is, exactly what besides rape is not permissible? And why is it permissible? Josh is not asking you to confirm what he thinks. He is asking you what he should think.

“Follow your heart, Josh.” This is the sentimentalist’s version of the former. It too is empty. Scripture warns us that the heart of man is evil from his youth. It is a mass of tangled contradictions, love and indifference and hate, truth and lies, the candid and the sneaking. Know thyself, read the inscription at the temple of Delphi. Self-knowledge is the result of long habits of meditation and self-criticism. It is rare enough to be found among grown men and women. Josh is intelligent enough to beg you, “But what the heck do you mean, my heart? I’m asking you what I should feel, because most of the time I can hardly tell you what I do feel!”

“Josh, you should wait a while. Don’t do anything hasty.” Good sound worldly wisdom. But undue haste is an offense against prudence, not an offense against chastity. The advice ducks the question. It punts. Josh replies, “Wait, sure. How long? A week? A couple of months?” What’s it to be, my fellow Catholics? Give a principled response. Is sodomy all right after dinner and a movie? A couple of rap sessions? Experimentation with lesser offenses? And why? Why would it be wrong for Josh to capitulate on Monday, but not wrong for him on Saturday? Not imprudent, but morally wrong?

“Josh, it all depends on whether you are gay.” Does it, then? Brethren, you must be consistent here. Since you have ruled out all consideration of what is natural, you cannot construct one set of moral guidelines for people attracted to their own sex and another set for everybody else. That’s not even considering the real tar baby. If you say to Josh that if he is “gay,” he may go ahead with the sodomy as all gay men do, the more “conservative” among them delaying for periods of time that can be measured not by the year but by the day or the hour, then you must say the same to his sister Judy. She too may engage in casual sodomy with a boy she likes. She too may engage in casual fornication, which at least preserves the natural character of sexual congress.

Besides, what does that clause mean, “whether you are gay”? If Josh resists the proposition, he may survive this vulnerable time, meet a nice girl, and marry, after the ordinary way of nature. Then he will look back upon the incident with a rush of relief and gratitude, while never mentioning it to anybody. The question is not, “Josh, what are you?” but “Josh, what should you be, what should you work towards being? In what direction should you walk?” His future is not carved in stone. Do something evil once, and though the evil may disgust, the very thrill of evil may also attract, so that the second time—even though you may swear, “I’ll never do that again!”—is easier, then the third, and so forth. That is so for all of our bad habits, which we then may mistake for the nature we possessed all along.

“Josh, you shouldn’t do it, because you don’t know for certain whether you are gay, and until you are certain, you should shy away from this.” Sorry, but on what basis can you say that? You, Catholic Left, have denied any moral difference between sexual congress and sodomy. You cannot now give the slightest moral value to the God-ordained way of men and women. Besides, Josh is at a fork in the road. What will you say? Do not become gay, if you can help it, because that would be morally wrong? Why? And do not be one of the monkeys here, seeing no evil. Josh can find gay porn with a click or two. If he does find it, he will be aroused by it; that is inevitable. Should he?

Please do not say, “Porn is evil because it turns human beings into objects,” when that is one of the constant “delights” of the lives of gay men, the obsessive reduction of the male body to a thing or two. All gay men use porn. It is inextricable from the life, and you can hardly oppose it on the grounds of sexism if men use one another and delight in the use. So, why should Josh not put himself in the way of giving in when Mike, with more than words now, repeats the offer? I want moral reasons.

Where can you hide? “Josh, it is only right if you are committed to love one another.” Wonderful. I know what a vow before God and man is. I do not know what a vague “commitment” is, nor how you can be sure you’ve made one, or whether someone else has, or whether it admits of degrees or provisos, or whether it is indissoluble, or even why it should matter. Why should it matter, Catholics who presumably still believe in the moral law? What is it about masturbation that cries out, “Only if forever!”

For that is what ordinary sexual congress cries: forever. It’s the child-making thing. That’s what my parents taught me when I was twelve. Children transcend the moment. They dwell in human history. They come from generations past, and point towards generations to come. They have a right then to grow up within that seminary of history, the family. You cannot think of ordinary sexual congress without thinking of that time-transcending creature, the child. Oh, you can pretend not to think of it, but it is only a pretense. The pills and rubbers give you away.

What will you say now, Catholics who still read the Scriptures? “Josh, it would be all right, but first you must get married.” Peals of belly laughter from Seattle to Provincetown. Why? So he can wear a white suit? There is no marriage, but even if there could be one, who cares? We are looking at the sexualization of what should have been a healthy friendship between two young men. What can a pretend-marriage possibly add that would make right after the mock-wedding what had been wrong before it?

All right, my fellow Catholics, you have been waving the rainbow flag, undermining Josh’s common sense and his still developing masculinity. Mike is taken with him. But Josh meets a girl at church—he still goes to Mass. And he is covered with shame, for having behaved like less than a man. He wants to turn towards her. Because she actually obeys the Catechism, Josh knows that it will mean giving up his excitations.

On what grounds, Catholics progressing who knows where, on what grounds would you say that Josh should do what he must to root out that habit, so he can live an ordinary life, growing into the manliness required of him as a husband and father?

Some people say you don’t really care. Josh doesn’t trouble your mind. Your sympathy costs you nothing. If he does this, fine, and if he does that, fine, so long as he doesn’t go overboard in some flagrant way that would offend your sensibilities. Morality must be coherent and consistent. Etiquette needn’t be. You have no coherent moral vision as regards sex. Extend those pinkies.

How do you respond? What is the structure you build up, once the orthodox one has been torn down?


Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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