The German Ethics Council has recommended the decriminalization of incest between a brother and sister. The recommendation came after German and E.U. courts rejected various lawsuits from a Leipzig couple claiming that anti-incest laws criminalizing their relationship violate their human rights. The Ethics Council opined that the legal code is neither “well adapted to protecting taboos” nor suited to the task of “imposing moral standards or barriers.” Instead, the law should only protect “individuals” and “the social order” against grave threats. Neither is at stake in adult incest, the council reasoned, and therefore laws criminalizing sexual relations between an adult brother and sister violate the more fundamental right to “sexual self-determination.”
Well, there you go. Those ever-logical Germans have completed the syllogism. Major premise: We have a right to sexual self-determination limited only by the consent of our partners. Minor premise: Incestuous desires, like nearly all sexual desires, can be satisfied by consensual sex. Conclusion: Incest must be permitted.
After the European Court of Human Rights denied the incestuous couple’s claim that their rights were being violated by Germany’s anti-incest laws, Bundestag member Hans-Christian Ströbele of the Green party concluded: “Two grown people should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to have sex with each otherassuming, of course, that they love each other and it happens voluntarily and there is no form of dependency in the relationship.” Everything is permitted, as long as there is consent. But then there’s the caveat: “no form of dependency.” Does this mean a relationship involving a non-working partner should be forbidden, tending as it does to economic dependency?
Ströbele’s comment captures the ruthless individualism of today’s progressivism. We’re to limit choices only by the principle of consentexcept for ones that involve dependency. Guess which social institution involves minimal consent and maximal dependency. The family.
A subpoena was issued demanding that some pastors in Houston hand over sermons that address homosexuality, a local gay rights ordinance, or Annise Parker, the city’s openly lesbian mayor. One of the pastors commented, “This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking on the cultural issues of the day. The mayor would like to silence our voice. She’s a bully.”
When the story of the punitive subpoena broke, Mayor Parker expressed surprise. She did not authorize such an expansive demand for documents, she said. That’s true. Recently, Houston’s city council passed a gay rights ordinance. Some local pastors were part of an effort to put forward a petition to repeal the ordinance. A sufficient number of signatures were collected, but city officials disqualified enough of them to lower the count below the level needed to put it on November’s ballot. Petition backers litigated.
A big-time law firm took on the case to defend the city of Houston. It then used the usual shock-and-awe tactics of Big Law, which in this case meant subpoenas designed to beat the adversary into submission. Thus the insanely broad demand for all sermons, memos, and so forth that mention homosexuality, Parker, and so forth. In short, this is not a city-initiated fishing expedition. Instead, it’s a “how dare you challenge the Establishment” punch in the gut.
This, to my mind, signals a significant danger. Establishment institutions like Big Law are not politically accountable. There will be little to limit them as they apply themselves to punishing all dissent from the progressive regime of sexual liberation. Case in point: punitive political correctness at many universities leading them to revoke student-group status from Christian organizations that don’t comply with the latest “inclusive” regulations.
Facebook has announced that it will cover up to $20,000 of the cost of freezing the eggs of female employees. Apple says it will offer this coverage beginning in 2015. The rationale? Egg freezing lets women hit the snooze button on their biological clocks, allowing them to advance in their careers without feeling that they need to start families before they are thirty-five or forty. This is being hailed as a great advance for “diversity,” a portmanteau word that means “what comfortable progressives find appealing.” I see it as another plank in the have-it-all platform of today’s secular culture warriors.
Which reminds me of the observation a friend made about free pre-K education, something meant to be a signature achievement of our progressive mayor here in New York. “It’s not a pro-family policy,” my friend said. “It’s pro-career.”
On the editorial pages of the New York Times, novelist Silas House bemoaned homophobia in rural America. He adduces not a single instance in which a gay or lesbian person was denied service at a restaurant or accommodation at a hotel or suffered any other actual act of discrimination. Instead, the hurtful discrimination was to be found in the fact that Berea, Kentucky, near his hometown, failed to pass an ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. And it’s to be found in the conservative churches where biblical morality is still preached. The oppression comes from “constant fear of change, of difference, of losing votes.”
All this clarifies an important social fact: Supposedly bigoted America is in fact very concerned not to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and by and large it doesn’t. Which means that the “battle for equality” is almost entirely symbolic. By House’s way of thinking, the mere existence of people in society who think homosexual acts are sinful constitutes “homophobia” and therefore counts as discrimination and must be stamped out. I’m willing to wager that the city-council members in Berea sensed the totalitarian nature of this way of thinking, which may be why they decided not to pass an antidiscrimination ordinance to prevent things that aren’t actually happening.
George Weigel made exactly the right observation after the close of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the gathering of bishops in Rome in mid-October. “The 2014 Synod demonstrated the extraordinary self-confidence of bishops from dying local churches who nonetheless feel quite comfortable giving pastoral advice to local churches that are either thriving or holding their own. Many northern European bishops and theologians (and bishop-theologians) acted as if the blissful years when they set the agenda for the Church at Vatican II had returned. That these same bishops and theologians and bishop-theologians have presided over the collapse of western European Catholicism in the intervening five decades seemed not to matter to them in the slightest.”
In his regular column in the New York Times, Ross Douthat also reflected on the Extraordinary Synod, observing that, by any reasonable reading of events, one must conclude that Pope Francis wished to initiate a series of changes in the Church’s approach to sex and marriage. This risks contradicting settled Church teaching and has already sown confusion among those most committed to sustaining the Church’s witness during a time of institutional decline in the West. We don’t know the pope’s real intentions. His concluding address sought a balance of sorts. But next year’s synod may see a return of revisionists empowered by the pope, a possibility Douthat thinks we must be prepared to confront. “If he seems to be choosing the more dangerous pathif he moves to reassign potential critics in the hierarchy, if he seems to be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping changethen conservative Catholics will need a cleareyed understanding of the situation. They can certainly persist in the belief that God protects the church from self-contradiction. But they might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”
Sounds right to me. It’s rather silly to imagine that the Holy Father channels the divine in splendid isolation. He thinks and prays about what he sees and hears in the ongoing life of the Church. Pope Francis sees a pastoral failure in the Church. As I observed in this month’s “Public Square,” we’ve failed to speak convincingly about sex and marriage. What conclusion should church leaders draw? Is Catholicism too “conservative,” too removed and isolated from social and cultural realities that now shape the intimate lives of so many in the West? Hardly. The problem in large part is that we’re altogether too well assimilated. What we need is clear teaching that outlines an alternative to secular culture. Pope Francis needs to hear that.
The Kansas City Chiefs joined forces with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to offer non-denominational worship services at Arrowhead Stadium in advance of Sunday games that start at noon. Now Christian fans in that fine city can harmonize their greater loyalty to the Lord with their lesser (slightly, perhaps) loyalty to the Chiefs and partake in one of America’s great secular sacramentstailgating.
On September 2527, the Paradosis Center at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, hosted an ecumenical conference. For the most part, modern ecumenism involves face-to-face discussion about doctrinal topics. The idea is to clarify differences and discern areas of agreement. The Second Vatican Council encouraged this approach. The most important fruit has been the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It outlines an overlapping consensus between Catholics and Lutherans on one of the issues that triggered the Reformation.
This approach has run out of steam, and today the most fruitful ecumenism involves standing shoulder to shoulder in common witness in our secular age. The Paradosis conference, organized by Chad Raith, a religion and philosophy professor at JBU, fit into this model of ecumenism. The lectures, given by Evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox scholars, treated passages from the Gospel of John. Together we took on the daunting task of interpreting the Word of God. I gave expression to a bit of Catholic triumphalism in my lecture on John 17warranted by scripture (of course). There was some pushback (of course). It was an ecumenical discussion conducted with sideways glances as we did our exegetical work shoulder to shoulder.
Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., participated in the conference. At lunch, he suggested a modification of the WWJD mentality. Yes, yes, in the Christian life we should ask what Jesus would do. But when discussing theology, we should adopt the WWCCS mentality: What Would Cardinal Cajetan Say.
On September 29, more than twenty scholars and writers met in the First Things office to talk about the changing context for Christian witness in America. The consensus: Changes have not been for the better. We seem to be playing defense all the time: defending marriage, defending religious liberty, defending the legitimate role of faith in the intellectual life. It’s easy to be pessimistic about what Richard John Neuhaus liked to call the “American experiment.” But pessimism is not a plan or a program, the group agreed, and a retreat from public life isn’t an option, not just because committed Christians remain a very large portion of the population, but also because we have a duty to serve the common good. The day-long conversation was brought into focus by an essay by Michael Hanby, “The Civic Project of American Christianity,” along with responses by Rod Dreher and George Weigel. They will be published in a forthcoming issue.
Archbishop Charles Chaput delivered the 27th annual Erasmus Lecture on October 20. He observed that we must admit that the biblical vision of morality no longer exercises a leading role in shaping public opinion. In fact, in some circles it is rejected and deemed a source of bigotry and oppression. In response, he warned against defeatism and reminded us that in Christ we are given what we need. The beatitudes equip us for our journey as strangers in our beloved but increasingly strange land: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great.”
Archbishop Chaput’s lecture, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” will be published in a forthcoming issue. We also recorded the event. Go to firstthings.com/events, and you can watch him deliver the lecture.
We’re pleased to host Maureen Mullarkey’s blog on firstthings.com. We’re now doubly pleased to host an exhibition of her artwork here in the First Things office. Her exquisite collages are a visual banquet for book lovers. If you’re in Manhattan, do come by.
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Josiah Nelson and John Burd would like to form a ROFTERS group in the Los Angeles area. If you’d like to be a charter member, please contact them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.