The following is an excerpt from Archbishop Chaput's new book, Strangers in a Strange Land.
To borrow a thought from C. S. Lewis, the human person is a kind of “amphibian”—a creature made by God for both this world and the next, a fusion of spirit and flesh that gives the body special dignity. The rightly ordered joy of our senses in this world—the scent of spring, warm rain in the summer, the music of Mozart or Beethoven, the face of a beloved—is a foretaste of the glory God made for all of us to share, when we one day stand in his presence.
The crime of the modern sexual regime is that it robs Eros of its meaning and love of its grandeur. It’s a lie. It’s a theft. It makes us small and ignoble. A young adult friend of mine complained recently that many of her age-cohort peers don’t have romances, passions, or lovers. They have relationships. Lewis’s devil Screwtape would probably feel her pain. He yearned for the taste of a really great adulterer—a Renaissance libertine of character and spirit, capable of sinning heroically—instead of the cramped souls of the modern age, almost too insubstantial and pathetic to be worth damning.
The point of course is to be a great saint, to love greatly, rightly, and with passion, until we burn ourselves up in service to God and to others. Our wholeness, our integrity, depends on the health of our friendship with God. It was he who fashioned us from the dust. It was he who breathed his life into our bodies. So when we ignore God’s Word, we violate our own identity. Pornography, cohabiting, adultery—all these things push us away from God. They also inflict on us a kind of self-mutilation, as we sever what we do with our bodies from our true selves.
And what about chastity? It’s a basic truth of Christian discipleship. And it does not mean, “Sorry, no sex for you.” Rather, God asks us to live our sexuality virtuously according to our calling. For some this means celibacy, setting aside marriage for love of the larger family of the Church and a different form of fertility in service. For most people, though, in most times, it means sexual intimacy within marriage.
As the philosopher Roger Scruton puts it, “A society based on agape [selfless love] alone is all very well, but it will not reproduce itself: nor will it produce the crucial relation—that between parent and child—which is the basis on which we can begin to understand our relation to God. Hence, the redemption of the erotic lies at the heart of every viable social order.”
Of course, very few couples—at least the ones I know—fall in love to redeem the erotic or build a viable social order. They have other motives. But the end result is the same: By its nature, human erotic love is ordered to creating and raising new life, and to the mutual joy and support of a man and woman vowed in a covenant of love.
But what do words like “vow” and “covenant of love” actually mean beyond routine expressions of piety?
Again, from Scruton: “[A] vow is a self-dedication, a gift of oneself”—open-ended in its commitment to a shared destiny between parties. “A vow of marriage creates an existential tie, not a set of specifiable obligations.” And it’s these irreversible ties, which can’t be revoked, that hold marriages, families, communities, and societies together over time. They’re the sinews of a genuinely human world, connecting the past with the present, and the present with the future. Thus they’re different in kind, not merely in degree, from a contract or a negotiated deal. “[The] world of vows is a world of sacred things, in which holy and indefeasible obligations stand athwart our lives and command us along certain paths,” whether we find it convenient at the moment or not.
The paradox of Christian faith is this: It affirms the importance of every individual, no matter how weak or disabled. God loves each of us uniquely and infinitely. But our faith also binds us in a network of mutual obligations to others. God made us not just for ourselves. He also made us for others.
In this, our beliefs directly oppose a growing dimension of American economic life. The nature of that life, says the Lutheran theologian Daniel M. Bell Jr., may be disguised by its remaining biblical residue. But in practice, it “encourages us to view others in terms of how they can serve our self-interested projects.” Other people “become commodities themselves— mere bodies to be exploited and consumed, and then discarded”:
As a consequence, marriages are viewed as (short-term) contracts subject to a cost/benefit analysis, children become consumer goods or accessories, family bonds are weakened and our bodies are treated like so many raw materials to be mined and exploited for manufacture and pleasure. Those individuals rendered worthless as producers and commodities by obsolescence—the old and infirm—are discarded (warehoused or euthanized) and the nonproductive poor (the homeless, the unemployed, the irresponsible, the incompetent) are viewed as a threat.
In current American experience, true to Bell’s words, marriage often resembles a real estate transaction. Two autonomous individuals enter into a limited liability partnership that can easily be dissolved. Children serve as the various shared properties. And in such a world, an unplanned, unwanted unborn child is clearly the most annoying kind of drain on the emotional profits.
A friend with a taste for the moral wisdom of fairy tales likes to remind me, these days, of H. G. Wells’s great fable The Time Machine. The story is simple. A man invents a time machine. He rides it eight hundred thousand years into the future. He finds an astonishing world of peace, plenty, and perfectly manicured luxury. The resident humans—the beautiful (if somewhat brainless) Eloi—spend their days in eating, chattering, playing, and having innocent sex.
When the sun goes down, a different agenda applies. From the tunnels under the earth come the once-human managers of this paradise, the Morlocks. They’re ugly. They’re hungry. And they have a special fondness for Eloi.
We can draw whatever lessons we like. It’s just a story. But what we do in the world, how we live and how we love (or misuse love)—these things always have consequences. And they always emerge from the past to pay a visit. Choices don’t stay buried.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is archbishop of Philadelphia.