Why Private Sexual Vice is a Public Concern

One of the Holy Week events at my old school, Providence College, was a march in favor of a wide variety of sexual inclinations, all of them disordered by biological nature, and considered to be so also by the Catholic Church, which takes its lead in this regard from Scripture and from the doctrine taught by Saint Paul. For the invisible God is known by the visible things he has created; and in the beginning he made the human race male and female, each for one another. That is what Jesus implies when he obliterates the permission that Moses granted to the Hebrews because of the hardness of their hearts. The Hebrews of old could divorce, but Jesus says that “it was not so from the beginning,” that is, before the fall of man. “Therefore,” he says, citing the words of Genesis, “a man leaves his mother and father and cleaves unto his wife, and they two become one flesh.”

Before I get to what Jesus concludes from this verse, I wish to assert that he is not being poetical. It is rather a succinct way to describe what is physically and biologically the case. The man and the woman together in the congress of the sexes as such—we are not talking about kissing and embracing, or about acts of sexual mimicry, such as sodomy—form a one-flesh union for a clear and indispensable biological and human purpose. It is just as if, for an imaginary organism, you needed a male and a female to come together to breathe or to cleanse the blood. What we now know about that union is far more extensive and far more subtle than what people knew in Jesus’ time. We are not talking about accidental or arbitrary contiguity of organs, and if it were not for our desire not to see it, every biology textbook in the land would be reveling in the complexity, the manifold consequences, and the sheer beauty of it all. Check out what a botany textbook says about the subtle and intricate pollination of fruit trees. That, by comparison with the union of male and female human beings, is as a stick-figure drawn by a child to Michelangelo’s painting of Adam and Eve on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

We must deny the bond between Creator and creation if we deny that marriage has a created essence observable in the very structure of human physiology. Now then, because of what marriage essentially is, Jesus does as he always does with moral questions. He raises the bar, we might inadequately say. Just as he condemns lewdness when he says that a man who but looks at a woman with lust in his heart has committed adultery with her, he now rules out all means or reasons for a man’s “putting away his woman,” taking care to note, in Matthew’s account of it, that by “his woman” he means a wife properly speaking, since neither Greek nor Hebrew distinguishes verbally between “woman” and “wife,” as also not between “man” and “husband.” If you divorce your wife and marry another, you commit adultery.

Notice that Jesus does not refer to what any famous rabbi has said about it. As usual, and the people are struck by it, he teaches “with authority,” and that authority is not presumptuousness or pride, since he himself is the new law. He does not refer to any social custom. He is sublimely uninterested in what any human being may think about what he says. His only referent is the Father, who “made them male and female” in the beginning. His teaching is in perfect concord with what Saint Paul will say about what happens to the imagination of man after the fall. Then we get not only hard hearts but perverse minds to boot, so that man reduces God to the form of beasts, and reduces himself as a necessary consequence. “Their women,” says Paul, “exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” It is a form of idolatry, just as the divorce that Jesus now condemns was at best a sign of recalcitrance and at worst a rebellion against the Creator God.

All of this fits together. Nor need we limit ourselves to matters regarding the commandment against adultery. Jesus raises and transforms all of the commandments. It is absurd on the face of it to suppose that Jesus would demand holiness as regards telling the truth, or loving your enemies, or restraining your anger against your brother, or severing yourself from undue attachments to your possessions, but shrug away the entire realm of the sexual. What is Genesis but a saga of passions gone awry, including especially the sexual passion, leading to enmity, violence, treachery, and bloodshed? Remember Lot’s wife. Remember also Lot’s daughters, remember Lot’s fellow citizens, remember Cain and Abel, Lamech the murderer, Potiphar’s wife, the rape of Dinah and the treacherous vengeance of Simeon and Levi, the bed-trick with Leah, the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael, the jealousy of Jacob’s sons against their half-brother Joseph, the sons of God and the daughters of men, the incest between Judah and Tamar, Onan the seed-spiller, Noah’s nakedness exposed, and so on. Nor will it do to say that Jesus reserves his most severe condemnation for people who turn religion itself into a banner of pride, and that therefore the sexual sins are hardly to be considered sins at all. The bite of a cobra is worse than pneumonia, but pneumonia can kill you too. Or, to look at it from the other end, if a man’s harboring lust for a woman is a form of adultery, we need not ask about Sodom.

We see that what Catholics call the natural law is affirmed by what Saint Paul teaches about sexual immorality, and is affirmed, purified, and exalted by what Jesus teaches about divorce and the movements of the heart. Now, we may trust what Jesus says about the Father’s will “from the beginning,” or not. But if Jesus is telling us the truth, that truth will not be altered by what we think about it, no more than will the law of gravity be suspended because we want to play at Superman. A law, if it exists, works with sublime independence of human opinion, though the latter can mitigate our guilt when we violate the law. Mitigate the guilt, not necessarily the consequences.

Public Celebration of Private Sin
So I return to the march at Providence College, held with the strong support of the administration, and attended by the Vice President of Student Affairs. One of the young women I saw carried a sign that read, “Why do you care so much about my sex life?” I am embarrassed for her sake. Let me try to respond.

Young lady, I do not care at all about your “sex life,” a really ugly term, because I do not care about you, personally. I don’t know you. I’m not your confessor. I should care about you, though. If I were a better man, I would get in touch with you right away, because I would be concerned for your individual welfare. We really are dealing with matters of fact here. If what Jesus reveals about the Father’s will “from the beginning” is true, then to violate the Father’s intent would be like ingesting a poison, or cutting your hamstring with a knife. It has nothing to do with opinion. Those mushrooms will hurt you. Pretending otherwise does not alter the fact.

But you are doing far more than violating the sixth commandment. Everyone is a sinner. You are demanding that certain forms of violating that commandment be honored as rights to be protected, or even virtues to be celebrated. That then involves by necessity the whole community, and indeed it will, if you have your way, corrupt the community, just as would happen if the community accepted or celebrated any other principle that was utterly false and that involved a direct violation of the Creator’s will as expressed in his creation. We may think of the false principle that human beings may be owned as chattel, or that men may challenge one another to duels for the sake of honor, or that property does not belong to you if you cannot protect it, or that children may be slain for the convenience of the parents.

The principle that the young lady was advancing is inherently antisocial and absurd. It says that the act by which the human community regenerates itself is not any business of the human community. It says that the strongest passion in the human constitution, stronger than blood lust, may be indulged as a matter of moral indifference, so long as you remain on the lee side of rape. It says that the one arena of human behavior most constitutive of a culture, both as to its existence as a culture and as to its features, is strictly a private matter—as if the effects of this private matter, called “children,” were mere adventitious results, or private products, like tomatoes you grow in your garden for your own use.

What happens if you accept the principle? We see its results all around us. It was supposed to bring peace and harmony, once those “hang-ups” about sex were swept aside. Blessed Pope Paul VI predicted otherwise, and if he can be faulted for anything, as I’ve often said, it is for being insufficiently pessimistic. We live beside and in an open sewer. Half of our marriages end in divorce. We have fewer people getting married at all, yet biology calls nonetheless, and so forty percent of our children are born out of wedlock. The chaos batters against every family I know. We have a crisis of fatherlessness. Our mass entertainment is indescribably coarse. I do not want to know how many pornographic images will have passed before the eyes of the typical boy before he has ever given a girl a kiss. That is not to touch upon what happens to the girls because of it.

The result has not been harmony. It has been a Lonely Revolution. It is becoming a Revolution of Enmity: each sex blaming the other, “and of their fierce contest appeared no end.” We might also call it a Revolution of the Church for Sale. Why bother with Sunday Mass, when a roll in the hay with your partner is more fun—and when even the priests don’t seem really to believe in sin? But it is a miserable world, and this by the testimony of those who have defended it and promoted it. And so, young lady with the immoral sign, it is because we do not want to live near or in a sewer that we deny your principle.

I can say more. It isn’t just the sewer. It is the Great Thing you miss, because you have no idea that it can exist. That would be a world in which we sinners did acknowledge the moral law governing the relations between the sexes. Oh, it does not mean that everyone is a saint. It does mean that everyone has strong guard rails against going astray, and strong expectations that you can rely on to restrain the will of someone else who might tempt you. It means even more: it means that everyone has an ideal of purity and holiness to which to strive; and the very acknowledgment of the ideal will clear away plenty of space for mirth, innocent flirtation, and relations between the sexes that are characterized by gratitude, forbearance, forgiveness, and humility.

You cannot build a Catholic world upon a denial of the natural law. You cannot even have a half-decent pagan society if you build upon the principle of the Lonely Revolution. Providence College and other schools like it, Catholic and Protestant both, will have to decide more than whether they wish to be Christian. They will have to decide whether they wish to be sane.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia)

Anthony Esolen

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Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

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