There are good arguments for traditional Christian sexual morality (CSM), but even so it’s fallen out of favor. Many in the Church have given up on it, saying it’s at most an ideal no one can be held to. What would be needed to bring it back and make it effective?
A complete answer seems out of reach, but to begin we should look at some of the arguments and see why they’re not enough.
First, there is the authority of perennial Church teaching. It seems unlikely we’ll do better inventing our own, so why not stick with it? Also, compared to current approaches CSM looks a lot like other traditional views, especially reflective of philosophical views like Plato’s. That tendency would be hard to understand if general human experience weren’t behind it.
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A more analytical approach is based on social utility. How we deal with sex is basic to how we live. But if so then some ways of dealing with it will work out better for people generally. Sex has to do with fundamental human connections, so the choice can’t be simply an individual matter. A general system of standards is needed for people to rely on.
That system ought to promote human well-being as much as possible. Trends in family life—divorce, illegitimacy, and so on—indicate the current system doesn’t do that. The role of sex in pop culture and advertising, not to mention recent disclosures of bad conduct by prominent men, shows how it lends itself to manipulation and abuse when it’s accepted that you can do with it what you want. And without standards beyond consent it’s likely to wander off and become disordered and compulsive. That makes people miserable.
In comparison, CSM has obvious advantages. It favors loyalty and respect directly, by forbidding betrayal and predation. And it promotes stable two-parent families. Such families offer the best setting for raising children, provide a center of responsibility and mutual loyalty that dignifies everyday life, and establish an authority prior to the state in which ordinary people participate fully. The personal, social, and political benefits are obvious.
Any system of sexual customs and standards that supports family life effectively is going to emphasize feminine sexual restraint while taking into account sexual differences. Otherwise, how do you define the obligations between the sexes in a stable, concrete, and realistic way, and keep the man attached to the woman and her children?
What’s notable about CSM, and distinguishes it from Muslim standards, Greek, Roman, and premodern Jewish standards, and informal worldly standards in general, is that it imposes the same restraints on both sexes. Sexual differences may play a role in courtship and the customary division of labor, but they don’t mean differences in strict obligation. That’s good for women and children, since it makes men less likely to stray. But it’s also good for men generally, since it makes their wives more likely to trust them and reduces competition from higher-status men.
Another type of argument might be called expressive or integrity-based. Sexual relations are different from other human connections because they involve intense physical desire for another person. That desire is not only physical, since it wants reciprocity. So it aspires to a union that arises from intense common experience in which each party is focused on the other. Other feelings surrounding sexual relations support that union and make it open-ended.
The results can be overwhelming. Hence lovers’ expressions like “this is for always,” and “this is bigger than both of us,” or more concretely the Elizabethan and modern French use of “die” (or “petit mort”) to refer to sexual climax. These experiences line up with the natural function of sexual relations, which is the union of a man and woman to create new life, together with an enduring cooperative setting—the natural family—in which that life can develop.
With that in mind, violations of CSM violate the experience and natural function of sexuality, which aspires toward an enduring union of two persons open to new life. Since normally functional societies must support such unions, they also violate loyalties and expectations necessary for such a society. But man is social, and sexual relations are intensely expressive. It follows that violations are in a basic sense not honest. They involve denial of what the situation intrinsically aspires to and expresses.
It’s evident, then, that CSM promotes personal integrity, makes basic features of life better for almost everyone, and provides crucial political benefits.
Even so, people reject it. They take the arguments seriously enough to become angry when someone raises them but not enough to agree let alone change how they live. If they respond it is to dismiss them. They deny the practical benefits of CSM, and say that tradition is tyrannical and personal integrity can’t support social standards because experiences and conceptions of integrity vary so widely. Arguments over such points can go on endlessly.
For most people the biggest objection is that CSM seems unrealistic and even oppressive because it’s so much at odds with impulse and habit. Many add that conduct that seems impossible to change shouldn’t be condemned, because it defines who people are. But these arguments would apply to any habitual practice. The question is, what standards promote the common good and good human relations? Where such standards are thought to exist and provide overall benefits, violations or even incorrigible violators don’t show they should be done away with.
A difficulty that keeps people from taking that response seriously is that CSM doesn’t fit the technological view of rationality now accepted. On that view people decide what they want and organize the physical and social world to get it. So if people have sexual impulses they should go ahead and follow them, as long as they get consent and unwanted consequences like pregnancy and disease can be avoided.
On such a view standards based on tradition, authority, personal and emotional integrity, and the benefits of customs that promote durable human bonds don’t make a lot of sense. “Integrity” means “follow your heart without regard to tradition and authority,” or so it is thought, while attempts to promote customs that tell people to act irrationally (as rationality is now understood) by not going for what they want, can’t possibly end up helping them.
A further problem is that people don’t often change how they live because of arguments. Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum. When we look at the arguments we can see why. Even if accepted, arguments based on tradition and authority or on abstract civic-mindedness seem too external to take hold on us. And arguments based on fidelity to experience and the natural functioning of human life seem too personal and subjective. All such arguments give way in the face of strong impulses. Aquinas notes that “lust gives rise to blindness of mind,” and Shakespeare’s Prospero concludes that “the strongest oaths are straw to the fire i’ the blood.”
To overcome that basic human problem CSM must somehow take hold on how we think about ourselves and what we do. So one thing needed for it to be effective is an idea of rational action that includes acting in accordance with what we are and rightly aspire to be as well as what gets us what we want.
In addition, CSM must be tied to personal and social identity: to our identity as male and female, husband and wife, members of the communities to which we are attached. We have to understand violating it as a violation of all those things that degrades what we are and puts us at odds with who we want to be.
In other words, we won’t have a worthwhile sexual morality, or in the long run a tolerable society, unless we bring identitarian essentialism back into sexual matters. The idea of course is violently at odds with everything respectable people now believe. It’s sexist, homophobic, and transphobic, or so people would now say. But that reaction only demonstrates that current understandings are wrong on the most fundamental human issues, and there’s no hope for a better society unless those understandings are radically changed.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Café Kiss” painted by Ron Hicks.