Is “Sexual Immorality” a Useful Concept?

The expression “sexual immorality” seems overly contentious to people today. To say someone has acted immorally is usually to say he’s acted in a way that’s morally repellent. But most people don’t feel that way about non-standard sexual activity. It’s not fornication, adultery, or sodomy that leaders of thought consider repellent, but the pharisaical judgmentalism (so they consider it) of those who view such things as seriously and categorically wrong.

That view has made a great deal of progress within the Church. Jesus startled His followers by His rigorist views on marriage, not to mention His warnings about what He evidently considered the great sin of adultery-in-thought. It seems then that the current view would make Him a judgmental Pharisee. Such a conclusion wouldn’t be surprising in Richard Dawkins, but it’s remarkable how many Catholics, even high churchmen, seem inclined toward the understandings that lie behind it. They find it unacceptable to say that an inclination toward sexual sin is “intrinsically disordered,” and view the continuing disapproval of such things in some places a strange cultural taboo that rational people ignore.

The issue of sexual morality is often mixed up today with the issue of respect and acceptance. Many pious people say that nothing should lead to a loss of those things. We are all sinners and all children of God. None of us can claim to be more, and none should be viewed as less, so we should all be accepted, loved, and respected. The conclusion is that people in “irregular situations” should be treated equally and supported in their difficulties, for example by emphasizing whatever positive values may be implicit in their relationships and removing disciplinary sanctions such as exclusion from holy communion.

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As stated, the principle of nonjudgmentalism is either not meant seriously or not thought through. Whatever its value in settings such as the relation between a spiritual advisor and one seeking counseling, it’s clearly unrealistic to make comprehensive unconditional acceptance a first principle of social life in general. The principle has no special connection to sex, and people who insist on it there ignore it elsewhere. No one thinks it pharisaical, for example, to exclude Mafiosi from holy communion no matter how lenient Jesus sometimes seemed toward the peddlers of vice and brutal corrupt extortioners of His day, the prostitutes and publicans, or how many positive values are implicit in Mafia enterprise, decisiveness, and mutual loyalty.

The reason, of course, is that Mafia crimes, unlike sexual sins, are generally taken seriously today. Social respect is driven by ideals of life. We have more respect for people who live by our idea of a good society than those who reject and undermine it. If Bob’s social ideal involves networks of stable families, sexual irregularities violate that ideal, and those involved in them lose respect in his eyes. If Bill’s ideal puts individual autonomy first, then distaste for nontraditional connections is an attack on something he thinks we should all accept and support, so he’ll look down on Bob as a bigot.

It makes no sense to claim Bill is more tolerant than Bob, or more accepting of others and so more truly in line with the Gospel, when both think less of some people because of their outlook and actions. We should hope, of course, that both moderate their distaste for others by remembering what we all lack and what we all have in common. To insist though that everything suggesting a negative attitude be eradicated, in the case of people who habitually violate what are accepted as basic principles of good social order, is to insist on abolishing all sanctions backing such an order. And that can’t possibly be a top item on our moral to-do list.

So even without regard to religious standards, but simply from a rational human perspective, the question remains whether sexual conduct traditionally considered immoral interferes with realizing whatever ideal of life is most in accord with man’s nature and good. If such conduct does interfere with human flourishing, it would be better if people were aware of the problem, tried to avoid adding to it, encouraged others to do the same, disapproved of violations, and one way or another demonstrated their disapproval.

People today want to say the answer to that question is no. Freedom is best, so everyone should be free to work out his own pattern as long as there’s consent. The issue is often presented as if the question were whether there’s some sharply-defined list of behaviors that suit everyone, so that any deviation leads to obvious disaster for all involved. If that’s the issue then the obvious answer is cuique suum, to each his own, and after all these years people today have finally gotten it right.

The matter is not an individual affair, though, any more than standards regarding theft and fraud are. If property were simply an individual affair, then such standards would be an attempt to restrict acquisitive behavior to a narrow list of options that are supposed to suit everyone and invariably lead to the best results no matter what the circumstances. No one thinks that’s the way to understand rules relating to property though, so why should it be right for sex?

Sex is intrinsically a social matter, even more so than property, since it bears more deeply and directly on our relation to others. In particular, it deals with them as objects of personal desire and as partners in physical intimacy and fundamental arrangements like family life. It is therefore basic to our relation to those to whom we are closest and owe the strongest obligations, and through them to the larger society and the human past and future.

Human beings, like epic poems, the global economy, living cells, and other extremely complex systems, function in some ways and not others. Sex, as a fundamental aspect of human life, also has a particular nature and way of functioning. Like food, clothing, shelter, language, and government, the patterns to which it gives rise have a cultural as well as simply natural aspect. The former specifies the particulars that are needed so (if all goes well) there can be a definite system that works reliably and well, and recognizes both the demands of nature—e.g., the connection between sex and babies, and babies’ need to be brought up—and other human realities and aspirations.

Even from a strictly human and rational perspective, those cultural aspects need to be settled and made authoritative so we can rely on them. We don’t invent them for ourselves any more than we invent our own language, system of manners, or form of government. They are intertwined with shared understandings of the most fundamental, enduring, and pervasive human realities: man and woman, birth and death, life and family. That ties them further to enduring features of human life, and makes them even more necessary and more difficult to change productively.

How could a principle of consent and writing your own ticket possibly be the right approach for dealing with such a situation? The idea that it could shows an absolutely fundamental misconception of human life. It treats man as nonsocial, mistaking him for a beast, machine, or god. The most striking feature of current disputes relating to sex is therefore the hopeless unreality of the progressivist viewpoint. Whatever its adherents are talking about, it’s not human beings as they are. Actual human beings need to live in a functional social world, and such a world exists through standards governing basic features of life, which obviously include sex.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts the Ten Commandments monument outside the Texas state capitol in Austin.

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