Care for the Common Good Requires Sexual Morality

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Catholics who put themselves forward as advocates of social justice seem to behave as if the sexual teachings of the Church did not bear upon the issue at all. These Catholics are not wrong to care for the common good. The quality of their recommendation—whether it is mistaken or not—will depend upon what they recommend, and how, and under what circumstances. A man may want to prescribe a good diet for you, and still be mistaken in feeding you margarine and soybeans. They are certainly wrong if they believe that they can secure the common good when the societas domestica—the phrase is Leo XIII’s—is a ship with a fifty-foot hole in the hull. I am not saying that sexual morality is sufficient to secure the good of the family, speaking generally, and with specific attention to the poor and vulnerable. It is not sufficient. It is, however, necessary. Children need more than sunlight and fresh air. But they do need them.

So we come to the relationship of a right sexual morality to social justice. The former is insufficient to secure the latter. But it is a sine qua non.

Let us address specifics. It is now a matter of controversy, as our readers know, what the Church teaches about buggery. The Church teaches that buggery is wrong. What about the desire to engage in buggery? It’s a bad desire. It is a perversion of the proper use of the sexual power, and a corruption of friendship. It forms no part of the saint God wants you to be, no more than does an inclination to commit any other sin, sexual or otherwise. Sin vitiates, and the inclination to sin is at least a defect and a shortfall. Spiritually we walk like cripples and hunchbacks. But the shattered knee and the crooked back are nothing to celebrate. In a sense they are nothing at all: privations, tending to dissolution.

That buggery is wrong is not much of an insight. Moses need not have come down from the mountain to tell us so. Sexual morality is for the family. It is for the foundation, the promotion, and the protection of families, and families are natural societies, based upon the obvious division of the sexes, and, as Pope Leo affirms, anterior to all states. You cannot build a house upon sand. There must be solid earth or rock.

 

It is a contradiction in terms to suggest that one can have a private sexual morality, because sex by its very nature is social, as is morality. You can no more have your privilege in that regard than you can have a private language or a private culture. Sexual morality is biologically for the begetting and raising of children and for the protection of families and groups of families. That protection is enabled in large part by the teamwork of male groups, undistracted and unconfused by the eros of buggery, and formed to get difficult and dangerous things done; with all our sophisticated tools, we still depend ultimately upon construction workers, road crews, truckers, fishermen, farmers, miners, quarrymen, linemen, soldiers, lumberjacks, longshoremen, masons, and so forth, and this is true even of the well-paid feminist professor driving her man-made automobile powered by man-drilled petroleum products and shaped by man-mined metals over man-laid roads to teach in man-raised buildings about the wickedness of men who make her job possible.

I remember the day when I was thirteen and I knew that I had become potent. It did not occur to me to think, “This is for my pleasure.” How foolish, selfish, and inconsequential that thought would have been. I thought, “I can be a father.” That was the miracle. Every single feature of sexual morality bears upon the good of the family. Not this family or that, as if you could be an atom of will in your own moral universe. Again, the very premise of that fantasy is antisocial. Sexual morality is for the family, the biological family, the incarnate and fundamental thing.

Let us turn to something other than buggery. Incest, for example. The antisocial “Sexists” (the term is Fulton Sheen’s, meaning “those who believe that sexual license will deliver us from our miseries”) can no longer condemn incest (so long as it is between consenting adults who will not beget children) and remain consistent with their cheering for buggery. But the family cannot subsist unless eros is severely limited to husband and wife. Children must be protected from it. The intimate relations of brother and sister, parent and child, in act and in principle must be protected from it; incestuous eros cannot be countenanced, not even in supposition, and the desire to engage in it is a wicked desire.

Consider fornication. It is a way of life now, or a way of never quite living: pretending at marriage, but not marrying; begetting children casually, like dogs. I have heard both men and women say, in scorn of marriage, that there is no reason to buy the cow when you are getting the milk for nothing, or for buying the whole hog when all you want is the sausage. Such is our crudity and hardness of heart. But bad habits drive out the good, and the ubiquity of fornication leaves good young people lonely and exposes weak young people to all the evils of unrestrained eros—that “expense of spirit in a waste of shame”—with its inevitable emotional confusion and wreckage. Marriage has collapsed; what is good and right and ordinary has been rendered difficult and rare. Children, socially speaking, are, as it were, born in the middle of a field in winter, naked and squalling, unprotected by the house built by the father and the home formed by the mother, and at the mercy of the state and the unpredictable desires of his irresponsible and antisocial parents.

Shall we bring up adultery—Ehebruch, as they say well in German, the breach of the vow of nearness and intimacy? Or divorce, the plague of our time? The bottomless abyss of pornography? Even bigamy, now celebrated, with its tendency to confusion, rancor, and betrayal?

But people will speak against the truth saying that sexual morality must be a social “language” that applies to people generally, and that this morality must protect the family. The objections take these forms: First, it is said, sex is not only for procreation but for the “bonding” between man and woman. Second, we allow the elderly and the infertile to marry. Third, we should not deny the good of marriage to certain classes of people just because their feelings are out of the norm.

One by one, then. When the disciples ask Jesus for what cause a man might put away his woman (the words for “woman” and “wife” in both Hebrew and Greek are the same), he does not refer to the feelings of the parties concerned. Indeed, nowhere in Scripture does any judge, king, prophet, or apostle suggest that good and evil depend upon the vagaries of human wishes. Jesus does not say that divorce is permissible when the man and woman tire of one another. The reply to husband and wife who do not love one another is that they should get on with their duty—for even if feelings are not in our power, charity always is. But if we step back from the individual persons, we see that it is also for the sake of families and children that those powerful feelings between man and woman should exist in the first place. What else, in a general sense, should the attraction between man and woman be for? Fighting in wartime? Digging canals?

Friends—although not perhaps in the aftermath of sexism in the West, with its attendant alienation—bear strong feelings for one another. So might brothers and sisters. So might an aunt and a niece sharing a home. The feelings don’t make a marriage.

As for a man and woman who cannot feasibly beget children: they too affirm publicly the language of sex. They are exemplary causes for families; no one who looks at them can know that they cannot have children or could not once have had children. In modeling what is right and natural they participate in and promote the marital culture.

Finally, the law that recognizes biological and anthropological reality does not exclude anyone. John is not forbidden to marry. If he feels that there is some impediment in himself, that is his business; he may be mistaken about it at that. It is of no public concern. It warrants no privilege, no adjustment of law, and no attempt to deny reality or squeeze it or shave it to meet what John perceives as his emotional needs.

We return to the original question. What sexual morality best promotes the formation of stable families and protects them? What sexual expectations of both boys and girls, men and women, will result in child-rich marriages, enduring forever? It is no other than that which the Church has always affirmed, and that is that. Nor does it require divine revelation to see it. These things may be discovered by right reason.

And again, they have profound social consequences. If I were the leader of a group weighed down by bigotry and material poverty, I would insist all the more upon a clean and sharp sexual morality. The rich can afford their vices. The poor and despised cannot. I might promote chastity, continence, manliness in boys and womanliness in girls, no buggery, no fornication, no adultery, and no divorce, not because I am saintly, but because I want my people in one generation to be firmly placed in the middle class, and in two generations to be hiring the grandchildren of our former despisers to clean the toilets in our hotels. It is not the best reason in the world to be clean, but it does have this considerable advantage: The virtues work.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Happy Parents” painted by Jean-Eugène Buland in 1903.

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Northeast Catholic College. Dr Esolen has authored several 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).

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