By Dr Anthony Esolen
The Adam Smith Institute bills itself as a non-profit that “work[s] to promote free market, neoliberal ideas through research, publishing, media outreach, and education.” Fr. James Martin, SJ, bills himself as a Catholic priest. The Adam Smith Institute, or one of its chapters, recently issued a call to action, because a movement was mounting to “take away your porn.” Fr. Martin recently suggested that, since the Bible was wrong about slavery, we might wonder whether it was also wrong about sodomy—which, he conceded, it condemns.
It’s easy to spot the faulty reasoning here. The Adam Smith Institute begs the question with the possessive adjective “your.” Somewhere in the ideology of free markets or the Constitution—perhaps lurking in an umbra or penumbra—is the right to produce or gape at what in more earthy days used to be called smut. Fr. Martin, for his part, draws a wholly unwarranted conclusion. Even if we suppose that the Bible is silent about one wrong, this would hardly justify us in rejecting it where it is not silent about another, especially when reasons are given for the condemnation. In the Torah, sodomy is linked with other unnatural or abominable practices, such as bestiality and incest. In Romans, it is linked with the corrupted and carnal imagination of fallen man, resulting in the depths of the irrational: idolatry.
The Bible is in fact not silent about slavery either—that practice which was for the Hebrews what welfare or imprisonment is for us. The Old Testament is at most ambivalent toward it, hedging it with laws to mitigate the harm. Then Jesus turns the matter inside out, saying that whoever would be greatest must become the slave of all the rest. The point that I would like to make is that, despite what Fr. Martin believes—his political or theological liberalism and his advocacy of social justice—his position on sexual matters is, in two important respects, like the Adam Smith Institute’s position on pornography. It is not a meeting of the extremes but a deep common identity underlying a superficial difference. The first respect is individualism: an incorrect view of what it means to be a person, and a thin understanding of human society. The second respect is a common result of the first. It is gnosticism, or nihilism in mystic garb.
Let me explain. Many people argue for their favorite means of sexual release by refusing to argue at all. They say that what they do in their bedrooms is their own business, and that is the end of it. It is almost the last liberty that our contemporary liberal believes in, the liberty of the zipper. We should not overlook what I believe is one cause of this last point of contact between the liberal and the libertarian.
Yet it is hard to imagine anything more social in its effects, and more determinative of what kind of a society we will have, than our customs and laws regarding sex, marriage, and the raising of children. For sex results in children. Have we forgotten this? Catholic teachings regarding sex and Catholic teachings regarding society are the lungs of one body. Sexual morality is for the protection and promotion of the natural (biological) family, and of adoptive families that affirm the natural by exemplar. The family is both the cradle of society and one of the great ends for which we form societies in the first place. So it is nonsense to say that right and wrong as regards sex are ours to determine for ourselves. Those laws and customs form a language we all must use. We cannot have a private language.
❧I am old enough to remember that the sexual revolution was sold as more than liberation. Its heralds sang of peace and joy and harmony. No one with any historical awareness should have bought into it. Sexually loose societies tend to be nasty and violent. We have only to look at aristocratic Rome in the days when Juvenal sharpened his pen with fire. Dionysus is a dangerous god. In our case, reality struck with astonishing speed. On the very heels of the sexual revolution, songs themselves grew sour—songs of violent desire, disillusionment, and despair.
It is fifty years later, and marriage is in free-fall; two out of five children in the United States are born out of wedlock; relations between the sexes are marked by rancor, suspicion, and ingratitude; millions of children are swallowed up in the black hole of pornography, which is now all too easily accessible; popular culture—mass entertainment—is coarse and without hope; babies are snuffed out in the womb, to the cheers of millions; and now we are witnessing child abuse on a grand scale with the chemical and surgical mutilation of healthy children, whom sick adults have coaxed and groomed. In these circumstances, Fr. Martin, careless of the terrible harm already done, wants to stamp with his nihil obstat the biological and anthropological absurdity of pseudogamous relations. Some of us are trying to clean up after the earthquake, and here comes Fr. Martin dumping gasoline into the river.
He does so, perhaps, not with an evil will, but because he does not or will not see that it is impossible to have a society that promotes and protects the family and that does not take issue with fornication, let alone sodomy. Among the poorer classes, fornication has sometimes been the tacitly acknowledged prelude to marriage; at the appropriate time, out comes the shotgun, and down the aisle walks the bride, before the belly has gotten big. However, this conditional tolerance of a bad thing is not like our current amorality, our slovenly and sentimental notion that where sex is concerned, what feels right for me is right for me, as long as my partner (or partners) consents, and especially if I invoke that shape-shifter called “love.”
The members of the Adam Smith Institute no doubt agree with Fr. Martin. They are utilitarians at heart, and utilitarians do not think well beyond the specific action. They do not see that the action may imply a new principle, and that the new principle will change the language for everyone as well as the moral environment. We all use the same words, and we all breathe the same air. Every sin against sexual morality is an attack upon the stability, the goodness, and the beauty of a society. Every such sin ultimately has a child for its victim.
The evidence is all around us. Why do the sexual libertarians not see it? It is, I think, for the same reason that they do not see the beauty of male and female. For the new gnostic, the material world has no moral value: it is merely stuff to manipulate. I do not believe that Fr. Martin would say this about rivers and forests and the animals that live there, but when it comes to the staggering glory of the sexes in human form—the sexes as bearing markedly distinct and yet complementary instantiations of the divine image—he, like the Adam Smith pornophiles, cannot truly be alive to it. The playboy is not the man who is oversensitive to the beauty of woman; he is the man who is half numb to it. If you truly understand what the male sex is, you see it in its being for woman: the seed of new life has no purpose other than to make fertile the egg in the woman’s womb. It is a miracle, wondrously effectual and beautiful. We can imagine the male’s misuse of himself only in the way we can imagine using a painting by Rembrandt for a doormat or putting a harlot’s grin on a statue of the Virgin Mother. We “imagine” it, as a thoughtless developer might imagine great tracts of land denuded of their trees, with streams clotted up and rocks ground to rubble. It is a dis-imagining, a de-formation, a reduction to mere matter, and matter is for the will to do with what it pleases.
No lover of dogs sees in Fido a “real” cat lurking somewhere in Fido’s consciousness. If you got caught pumping Fido up with a brew of feline blood and secretions, you would soon see the inside of a jail, for we still perceive canine reality. Human reality, not so much; masculine and feminine reality, hardly at all. We do to a child what we would not do to a dog. It is a step from there to seeing the whole material world as meaningless. Things are no longer signs of a transcendent Creator, and things are not even things, distinct and shining. Things are now social constructs, as arbitrary as the sounds we use to utter their names. Sex, male and female, is no longer something obvious, sharp, clear, and winsome: it has fallen into the abysm of the self-fashioned ego. I am what I say I am, which means, if we strip away the flash, that I am nothing. I “feel” that I am a man or a woman as I determine, against the public and obvious testimony of my body. Nor am I embarrassed by my incoherence and absurdity, because the whole world is incoherent and absurd.
And the earth opens from under our feet. At what point will the madness hit bottom? At no point—not when the principle of reality is denied. The collapse continues, and what was inconceivable yesterday will be conceivable today and celebrated tomorrow. You had better celebrate, too, or watch out. God alone can save us—God, the ultimate reality.