The following is a preview segment of R. R. Reno's “The Public Square” from our upcoming November issue. Another segment can be found here.
A group of bishops from around the world gathers in Rome this week. The synod’s topic is the family. But the underlying issue is Catholicism’s relation to the sexual revolution. Catholics in the rich world have largely accommodated themselves to—even affirmed—it. Catholicism’s official stance, however, is one of opposition. Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical reiterating the Church’s condemnation of artificial means of contraception, epitomizes the rejection. The widespread dissent from this teaching, in both word and deed, epitomizes the acceptance. I don’t know the European situation well enough to say, but in America the only aspect of the sexual revolution that most Catholics have not accepted, at least in practice and at least in part, is abortion.
It’s not a secret that Northern European bishops, under German leadership, want the Church to reconsider her official resistance to the sexual revolution. The status of divorced Catholics who have remarried without receiving an annulment has become the symbolic issue. Revisionists want them to be able to receive Communion. This is part of a larger ambition. They want Catholicism to soften its adversarial stance and accommodate the sexual revolution. In one way or another, this includes a relaxation of the prohibition of artificial means of contraception, premarital sex, and cohabitation, and a modus vivendi with gay rights, and perhaps even a way to affirm gay unions.
Some German bishops have gone so far as to announce their independence. What the wider Church decides at the synod won’t be binding, they’ve suggested. As Cardinal Reinhard Marx has opined, it’s within the authority of the German bishops to “go down new paths.”
All this has added quite a bit of tension to the synod. Perhaps Pope Francis is sympathetic to the “new paths.” He hasn’t issued any statements that change the Church’s teaching, but his tone suggests a lack of interest in sustaining the resolute resistance of the last two pontificates. Francis seems dissatisfied with the ill-fitting combination of rigorous teaching and widespread nonconformity. What he envisions as an alternative is hard to discern. Perhaps he does not know. But he has encouraged “open discussion.”
In a certain sense I’m sympathetic with this dissatisfaction, if that’s the right word to describe the reason why Francis has allowed an atmosphere of uncertainty about church teaching to develop. When it comes to what people do and believe, the sexual revolution has triumphed, at least in the rich world. Many Catholics who are otherwise involved in church life use artificial means of contraception. They cohabit. They get divorced. They are increasingly sympathetic to social norms that affirm homosexual relations.
This lack of obedience to church teaching tempts many pastors to sideline controversial issues. American Catholicism has adopted an unofficial agreement between the leaders and the flock: We’ll ignore reality and not talk about what’s going on. This corrupts the pastors, creating a dishonest atmosphere of winks and nods. I can see why Francis would be unhappy with the status quo. It encourages hypocrisy.
Viewed from a different angle, however, Catholicism’s official refusal to kowtow to the sexual mores of our time has succeeded. The Church is the only major institution in the West that has not accepted the sexual revolution. The official resistance provides an important witness, even when combined with widespread accommodation in practice. The sexual revolution has a ruthless quality. It allows no dissent. The mere suggestion of teaching chastity to fifteen-year-olds in school is enough to unleash furious denunciations. That the Church has not allowed herself to be dictated to and intimidated by the sexual revolution inspires.
Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism. Even among people who transgress, the resistance reassures. We’ve deregulated a great deal of personal life. Who, today, needs permission? Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural.
We should not underestimate the appeal of this “no!” to the spirit of the age, even among those of us captive to it. Our society encourages us to hold small truths with great vigor. The taboo against smoking cigarettes is an obvious example. So are exaggerated forms of environmentalism. The intensity of this thin moralism testifies to the human desire for truths worthy of our devotion. All the more reason, therefore, to sustain substantive, reasoned moral teachings, even when society as a whole, and even Catholics, don’t accept them. It is more humanizing and less oppressive for a society to hold strong truths weakly, than for us to insist upon weak truths strongly. The former encourages moral ambitions that humble us, while the latter tends toward a smug, censorious, postmodern Puritanism.
The Church’s “no” to the sexual revolution also gives Catholicism credibility among those who suffer its triumphs. Say what you want about the failure of Catholic moral teaching, but it can’t be accused of encouraging the sexual free-for-all that can too easily lead to sexual assault and date rape. The same goes for the culture of divorce that’s so hard on kids, or the increase in out-of-wedlock births. As gay culture is fully normalized in our society, I predict frank reports of the psychological harms brought about by its unhappy, sometimes dark and perverse dimensions. The oppositional spirit of Humanae Vitae protects Catholicism from being discredited by a comfortable complicity with the sexual revolution.
Postmodern secular culture fixates on sex, making it the focal point of our cultural politics today. The Church needs to find its way in a world where public school administrations are more preoccupied with transgender rights than restoring a rigorous academic curriculum. The Church also needs to find a way to teach what she affirms in her official doctrines, something that hasn’t been happening very effectively for two generations. The way forward is not obvious.
In this time of discussion, I hope the bishops at the Synod on the Family remember the remarkable accomplishment of the last half century. To have resisted the imperial demands of the sexual revolution! To have dared dissent! That’s no mean achievement. Looking back, historians may identify this spirit of resistance as the most important contribution Catholicism makes to the twenty-first-century West’s post-Christian struggle to find its moral footing.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.