FEBRUARY 4, 2020
Back in 2014, I wrote a book called Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity. I spoke not as an interpreter of Scripture or of the teachings of the Church. My arguments were based on observation, logic, history, anthropology, and culture. As far as I know, no Catholic on the left has taken them up. My arguments included analyses of what we have already done wrong and why, and predictions as to what must happen if we yield to the lures of Sodom.
Opponents at that time fell into two groups. By far the larger of the two predicted that nothing would happen. The re-definition of marriage would only extend to a relatively small number of couples a good that was available to everyone else, and that would be no less available to them for being so extended. A development unprecedented in human history, involving any society’s most important institution, would have no effect upon the common good. The second group consisted of a small number of theorists and activists who had sought the change in order to destroy the institution, which they saw as atavistic, patriarchal, and resistant to the ambitions of progressive politicians who for our own good would oversee and direct all that we otherwise do, from the womb to the grave.
We should listen to what our opponents say when they are speaking to one another, rather than to their easy marks among journalists, television audiences, school teachers, little children reading cartoon propaganda, and women riffling through the pages of Cosmopolitan. When they tell us they want to destroy, we should take them at their word. Still, intentions do not imply results. So I would like to revisit my arguments, one by one, and show that observation, logic, history, anthropology, and culture were more reliable than indifference, sentimentality, and wishful hoping.
The first argument was thus: We must not give the sexual revolution the force of irrevocable law. Implicit in the argument were two claims, one as to historical fact (though anthropology and logic can show why we should have expected it), and one as to moral logic: the sexual revolution was a calamity; Sodom implies the sexual revolution.
First things first. The sexual revolution was a calamity—and the calamity continues. It is based upon a deliberate ignoring of what is real. We can see as much in a variety of ways. People talk as if sexual congress properly speaking were not essentially the child-making act. Indeed that is its sole biological purpose. The child is not an accident. It is what you get when everything is working as it should. Contraception is not medical, because it does not remediate. It shields against no communicable disease. It cures no disease already caught. It heals no limb. It restores no function to an organ. The problem is not that the organs are not working, but that they are, all too well. A healthy reproductive system is exactly what the contraceptors do not want, at least not in the instant.
But this severs the act from its fullest human meaning. It is no longer the act whereby every single person has been brought into the world. It is not what fathers and mothers do but only what people with this bodily makeup do with people of that other bodily makeup, because of the powerful feelings the act expresses or arouses or imitates. The man’s seed is no longer seed, but lubricant. The father—the man who in the act stands as the exemplar of a father, even if the act happens not to result in a child—is not a father, but a tool-bearer. The mother—the woman who in the act stands as the exemplar of a mother—is not a mother, but another tool-bearer. The meaning of what they do is wholly subjective and therefore uncertain. If “love” is its motive, that love can shift or fade or vanish. But even if it does not, neither the man nor the woman will find it easy to place their actions in the context of grandparents and parents, sisters and brothers, or aunts and uncles and cousins. The act is existentially truncated.
Catholics of the left, above all, should understand how deeply antisocial the doctrine of laissez-faire is when it is applied to what ought to be the cement of every social relation. The old understanding of sexual intercourse was relentlessly realistic. Every tenet of sexual morality derives from the reality of the act. But if we deny the reality, if we pretend that it is not what it is, then those other social relations will fray in turn. The force is reductive, and it bears upon us all. “Who does not know at least one family,” I wrote, “whose children require an essay merely to describe who under their roof is related to whom, and how?” Nor will they be able to tell how long they will remain related to one another by law, or how long they can expect even to know one another.
I have called the sexual revolution the Lonely Revolution. It must have been so. Its premises are those of individuals regarding their frictions with other individuals. It was to have delivered us peace and happiness and freedom from outdated moral laws. It delivered instead exactly what Shakespeare could have shown, as I wrote:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust.
“Yes,” says the heretic, “but we are arguing for love, not lust.” Sorry, but the distinctions are by no means easy to draw in the heat of passion. We human beings have a remarkable capacity for self-deception. This is why clear laws are so necessary and so salutary. You can fool yourself into thinking you are in love, but you cannot fool yourself into thinking that you have been married. These clear laws channeled sexual desire into the fruitful haven of marriage. The absence of clarity leaves everyone uncertain, and, as marriage recedes, many a young person will not only take lust for love, but will take determination—the determination that we must feel something, anything, just to fend off the loneliness of this world—for lust.
Reader, when was the last time you saw, outside of the shelter of a Christian school, a boy and a girl holding hands as they walked across a field? Imagine asking that sentence in your grandparents’ time. People would have looked at you as if you had dropped down from Mars. It would have been like asking, When was the last time somebody had seen a dozen children playing pick-up ball in a back yard or a vacant lot. Yesterday? An hour ago? But those questions are related, are they not? The world in which fornication is the rule is a harsh and unforgiving one. The boy and girl—outside of that shelter—cannot hold hands without giving everyone the sign that they are in bed with one another, and so they do not do it. The boy does not ask the girl on a date, because that too implies the bed.
We have given them no healthy ways to grow in confidence with one another, no healthy ways of sexual innocence developing alongside sexual maturity. The young people who keep the moral law are therefore lonely, often intensely so, and their friends who do not keep the law are often lonelier still. For as there is nothing so lonesome as being in a crowd of laughing people who do not really enjoy the company, so there is nothing so dispiriting as knowingly going through the motions of married love with someone whom you will almost certainly leave.
If the Catholic says, “Many sins are worse than these,” I will surely agree, as I concede that it is worse to be shot in the head than to catch pneumonia. But pneumonia can kill, too. When millions were dying of the Spanish flu a hundred years ago, it was no wisdom to say that rabies was more deadly. The sexual revolution is destroying lives by the millions, right before our eyes, and has corrupted the culture beyond what the worst pessimists ever imagined. And, in this situation, are we to believe that Sodom is the answer? The Church has the answers if she would but heed them and preach them forthrightly. These answers are available to anyone using natural reason. Let them who have eyes open them.
Image: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin
Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. 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).