The Poisonous Fumes of the Sexual Revolution
How the Church has suffered from breathing in cultural trends.
Father was uncomfortable as he stepped into the pulpit before Mass with a letter from our bishop, Stephen Biegler. The bishop, he said, directed every priest in Wyoming to read the letter publicly and to insert copies into church bulletins.
“This week,” the letter began, “I sent out a Press Release about credible allegations of sexual abuse by [retired] Bishop [Joseph] Hart.” A district attorney investigated Bishop Hart in 2002 and concluded there was no evidence to support allegations of the homosexual abuse of boys. But rumors of guilt continued to swirl. Then new, believable evidence surfaced.
The Sexual Revolution: Then and Now
Before moving to Wyoming, I worked in Washington, DC. Being in Catholic circles there, I had met retired Washington prelate, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He is another octogenarian who is alleged to have preyed on young men interested in the priesthood.
“And another one bites the dust” and the Church and her witness in the world takes two more hits.
In his 2002 book, The Courage to Be Catholic, George Weigel addressed the clergy sexual abuse crisis. He noted that in the days after the Second Vatican Council, the Church was urged to “open its windows to the modern world.” This would allow greater dialogue and better evangelization.
“What these Catholic leaders failed to notice at the time,” Weigel wrote, “and some Catholic leaders refuse to acknowledge today — is that the Catholic Church opened its windows just as the modern, western world was barreling into a dark tunnel full of poisonous fumes.”
And, of course, many of those poisonous fumes were the sweet, seductive, intoxicating fumes of the sexual revolution.
While it may be hard to believe today, even as late as 2002, there were respected voices advocating sex between adults and minors. They especially pushed for it between men and boys.
In a 1996 article, “Pedophilia Chic,” scholar Mary Eberstadt took note of this. “For even as citizens around the country have sought new ways of keeping [pedophiles] cordoned off from the rest of us,” she wrote, “and even as the public rhetoric about protecting America’s children has reached deafening levels, a number of enlightened voices have been raised in defense of giving pedophilia itself a second look.”
Carried With the Tide
We’ve pulled back from the brink (at least for a moment). But the trajectory was and remains clear. “If it feels good, do it” means just that. And why should children and teenagers be left out of the fun?
That some clergy — Catholic and other — were, in the 1980s and ‘90s, carried along by the cultural drift should come as no surprise.
What does come as a surprise is that some clergy still believe they can affirm parts of the sexual revolution. They endorse contraception, divorce and remarriage, pre-marriage cohabitation, homosexuality and think they won’t be poisoned by the whole thing.
The bedrock of a traditional view of sexuality — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — is that sex is ordered to procreation. Thus marriage — the permanent relationship between one man and one woman — is ordered to having and rearing children. This isn’t just a Christian idea. Through time and across the globe this has been so.
What about adultery, fornication, polygamy, homosexuality, et al? These have always been around, but they were recognized as disordered, as outside the norm proper to human flourishing.
The sexual revolution changed all that. Its bedrock is the view that sexuality is ordered to pleasure. Insofar as that’s true, there really is no order. Pleasure is a feeling and thus feelings, not reason, call all the shots. And mere feelings, unlike reason, are infinitely malleable.
Retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed it perfectly in his 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. “At the heart of liberty,” he wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In defending the “right” to abortion, Kennedy defended the idea that there is no transcendent order. So everyone gets to make up his or her own. And if there is no order — this is critical — there can be no disorder.
In the Wake of Destruction
That thinking has filtered into our churches and has destroyed many. Beyond that it leaves us all vulnerable to what George Weigel, at the end of his book, calls “The Iron Law of Christianity and Modernity.”
“Christian communities that maintain their doctrinal identity and moral boundaries flourish in the modern world; Christian communities that fudge doctrine and morals decay,” Weigel says.
The evidence is clear. The fallout is all around us. If we lack the courage to be Christian and to defend the truth about sexuality, marriage, and children, decay will set in. Wrongheaded ideas about sexuality will poison us all. And sad letters will continue to be read from our pulpits. If at that point we will still care.