I have been rather astounded and amused at the controversy, indeed outright denial, surrounding Pope Emeritus Benedict’s recent essay which attributes a large portion of our current crisis in the Church to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. I react in this way simply because the evidence for the identification of the source of our “ill health” has been known for quite some time. It is a collection of empirically powerful and indisputable evidence that somehow has either been recognized and denied or has just been rather conveniently ignored at all ecclesial levels. In order to more clearly identify the multiple dimensions of the unhealthiness of our situation, let me draw a comparison to the situation of toxicity in our natural environment.
A substance is considered toxic when it is present over a period of time and in a place in the environment at a level that exceeds some predetermined standard for protection. Consider, for example, the aquatic environment: if a chemical is in water or in fish at a higher level than the standard established to reduce the possibility of disease, the chemical is said to be at a toxic level. Immediately questions arise: how did the chemical get to this level in the water or fish? What is the source of the chemical? Where did the health standard come from? What is the source of the standard? How defensible is the standard?
Let’s extend this to what makes something toxic. What makes an idea, a written or spoken word, a way of life, or a culture toxic? What leads to an intoxication? Toxicity appears when the effects from exposure are compared to a standard of expectation for the health—either physio-biological, psychological, or moral—of the given entity. If that comparison is found wanting, less than desirable, or otherwise unacceptable, the idea, word, or lifestyle is present at a “toxic” level. The toxicity of something is then first revealed in some impact, effect, manifestation, or behavior of a property that is initially seen as unacceptable.
Some six decades ago, in Minamata, Japan, some adults and children walked into the local health clinic, crippled and suffering from a most debilitating and lethal disease not seen before. The case of Minamata disease was then “discovered” and clearly was unacceptable in its effects. A link to the chemical methyl mercury was established and subsequently the disease was linked to the discharge of the chemical from a factory. The chemical waste was being diffused through the environment from the water, to the fish, and then to the human person. Although the effect was without doubt and clearly demonstrable in its impact, and although the linkage was established between cause and effect, multiple years would pass before final and definitive corrective action was taken.
We are now the Minamata Church. Our environment has received a highly toxic input many decades ago. The toxic idea that was discharged into our environment of the 1960s was very simple: sex without commitment is healthy, freeing, and fulfilling. How could anyone argue with that? If you are considering marriage, it would be beneficial to test out your relationship before launching into a contractual arrangement. Spend some time together. Test your sexual compatibility, and then make a decision. We have a term for this: it’s called fornication. Thus, the toxic thought released into our culture was that fornication is entirely acceptable and even beneficial. Prior to this time, the moral health standard for fornication was zero. That is, fornication, or sexual intercourse between a man and woman outside of marriage, was not acceptable and was not in any way justified by circumstances. Sexual relations outside of marriage was always taught as morally unacceptable, i.e., it was a level of toxicity that exceeded the Church’s standard.
As sexual mores changed, pre-marital sex between men and women, followed by relations between same-sex couples as well as adulterous relationships, were seen as inevitable and even justifiable for the good of the couple and the individual. The increase in what is euphemistically called cohabitation (i.e., “common law marriage” and “shacking up”), in same-sex relationships, and in adultery have been documented in any number of reports. What was once stigmatized is now simply accepted as more or less “normal.” This acceptance is a consequence of our inability to see any deleterious effects of “free sex.” Our traditional standard for determining the toxicity of moral behavior in the Church was founded on the act itself. The rationale for focusing on the act rather than effects was fundamentally based on millennia of experience observing the harm immoral behavior causes families and individuals. But in the 1960s, the toxic idea of healthy sex without commitment was based on the claim that there were no immediate ill effects from a man and a woman having sex, especially with the advent of the birth control pill.
Where can we see the toxic effects of the 1960s? The consequences of this sexual toxicity can readily be seen today as devastatingly serious and demonstrably evident in the decline of marriage in the Church. The decline in Catholic marriage in the U.S. from 1950 to today is more than 80 percent! If the health of the Church is measured at least in some sense by marriage, then our health has seriously deteriorated from this sexual toxicity that is crowding out the previous moral standard. Few want to contemplate the consequences of this decline in marriage.
The first effect of this decline is in the sacrament of baptism which has consequently declined some 40 percent. This is a most important effect of the toxic discharge since it represents the birth of new Christians. I have previously estimated the loss of Catholics from the Church that resulted from the toxic discharge of the 1960s. That loss over the period from 1950 to today is 10-20 million with serious declines beginning with the end of the Baby Boom in the mid-1960s. Furthermore, had the baptismal rate remained at 1950 levels, some additional 26 million children would have been brought to the font. These ecclesial effects of the release of a toxic message in the 1960s are thus not minimal, not marginal, but lethal to the Church in demographic decline.
The obvious consequence of sex outside of marriage can be illustrated by the following causal chain:
- The notion that sex outside of marriage is healthy becomes commonplace →
- Fornication, homosexual acts, and adultery on the rise →
- Decline in Church marriage →
- Decline in baptisms →
- Church population declines by millions of people.
Into the clinic of divine love, a crippled, diseased, and suffering Minamata Church has entered, desperately searching for a diagnosis and a healing. The toxicity is clearly demonstrable and the toxic source is readily identifiable. So why is there doubt that the sexual toxicity of the 1960s has any relevance to today’s sexual ambivalence in the Church? It is clear that the resistance to this analysis rests on two factors: the unwillingness to identify the source of our current sexual toxicity and the reluctance to close off that source by teaching Christian sexual ethics persuasively and with confidence. The wisdom of the Church’s moral standard becomes immediately apparent given what we know about toxic sexuality. But the conduit of this sexual toxicity continues to discharge today and there will be no hope of reducing the twisted and paralyzing realities of the suffering people of God if the source is not recognized and eliminated.