Apologetics: How the ‘Sexual Revolution’ Ruined Everything
For art, film, music, books, or TV shows to have an impact in our culture, it is almost a necessity for them to be sexually explicit. This year has seen the monumental rise of of ‘Normal People,’ a TV series that has the entire country and beyond tuned in to watch a pair teenagers having sex. Then there’s WAP, a song by former stripper Cardi B, that opens with the line: ‘There’s some whores in this house.’ And due to Covid-19 restrictions, the HSE has promoted ‘phone sex’ as a healthy alternative, given that most young people, supposedly, are already used to sending nude photos to each other. Anyone who raises an eyebrow at any of the above is liable
to be ridiculed, laughed at and swiftly dismissed as a sexually repressed prude.
However, the relaxed moral norms of today come at a much greater cost than advertised. It has been said that since our abandonment of Christian values, we have traded a world where nothing is permitted but everything is forgiven, for a world where everything is permitted but nothing is forgiven. After the introduction of reliable birth control in the 60s, it seemed like people were now free to do what they wanted, when they wanted. We were never going to have to put up with finger-wagging moralists again.
Fast forward half a century, and the opposite has happened. Sexual encounters have been divided almost entirely into two distinct categories: casual or criminal. The former type brings with it a total disregard for the true purpose of sexuality within a relationship; the latter brings a set of rules, regulations and taboos the 1950s could not have dreamed about.
For example, most major college campuses in Ireland have in the last few years set up periods in the calendar for ‘Sexual Health Awareness and Guidelines,’ or ‘SHAG Week.’ These weeks usually occur at the start of the academic year, when new students arrive amid a flurry of handouts about STDs. When students arrive on campus they are handed free contraception and are simultaneously instructed to attend consent classes, which are increasingly becoming compulsory in an effort to educate young boys out of rape and sexual assault. Here is the paradox in action: ‘We encourage you to use these condoms in the next week or so, yet suspect that you are a potential sex offender until we teach you otherwise.’
This paradox stems from the obvious fact that all sexual encounters are not morally permissible. The old line was drawn at the unambiguous pillar of marriage; the new line is drawn at the flimsy post of consent. The flimsiness is laid out on the Planned Parenthood website1: underage people can’t consent, intoxicated people can’t consent, consent for one thing never means consent for another, consent is never implied, consent can be withdrawn at any time, etc. If consent is absent, the encounter immediately jumps across no-man’s land, from the casual to the criminal. All notions of unspoken romance, no matter how hopeless, have been abandoned. In its place we now have state-sponsored ads showing a young, very uncomfortable man having his shoulders messaged by a middle-aged woman, under the banner ‘enough is enough’2. It is little wonder that in 2020, sexual activity among young people is at an all time low3.
The modern world wants all expressions of sexuality to be completely shame-free, yet all sexual misconduct to be brutally punished. It is these hot and cold winds that have created the unstoppable tornado of ‘sexual misconduct allegations’ that we read on a daily basis. A pursuit of excessive ‘mercy’ is followed closely by a pursuit of excessive ‘justice.’
So, what does Church teaching have to say to this mess? The commandments on sexual morality are clear. The Lord himself tells us that we should neither commit nor think about adultery. In the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), Jesus reiterated and even strengthened the laws governing sexuality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church assures us: ‘The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely’ (2380). The Church emphasises the integration of sexuality within the person. In this way, sexuality becomes a unified force driving us towards the good, as opposed to a barrage of temptations leading us to disintergration. God’s plan for sexuality occupies the hollowed-out middle ground of today’s casual/criminal paradox. It protects the sanctity of sexuality, while acknowledging its great risks. The heart of that divine plan is that the expression of sexuality belongs within the context of marriage and must be open to the possibility of new life. Everything else is off the cards.
That puts us in quite a tough spot. How can we respond to this seemingly impossible call? It’s safe to say that we do not live in a culture that plans to revert to any form of biblical chastity any time soon. Furthermore, Church teaching on sexuality is arguably as unpopular within our individual selves as believers, as it is in the broader culture. Human nature being what it is, this can apply even to faithful Catholics. The only way out of the moral meltdown is for us to take, as individuals, the first steps in moving toward a fully integrated view of sexuality. This means changing our outlook and refusing to model ourselves on the world around us.
During the repeal campaign of 2018, I heard some prominent repealers citing John 8, the parable of the adulterous woman who was presented to Jesus to be stoned for her sin. Apparently this parable is evidence that Jesus wasn’t too bothered about old taboos around adultery. But on closer inspection, it’s clear that by saying, ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone,’ Jesus upheld the law with one hand, and with the other reminded the accusers where the law came from. Jesus does not brush over or ignore the woman’s wrongdoing. He acknowledges her sin, and forgives her.
G.K. Chesterton observed that people thought it would be easier to forgive sins if there were no sins to forgive4. We can all slip into the tendency to ignore some or all of our sins, to say: ‘I’m not as bad as him or her,’ or: ‘I’m basically a good person.’ We need to work against this, by recognising when we miss the mark. This implies a recognition of the mark itself in the first place. The truth is the truth, whether or not we live up to it.
Ultimately, sin is death. This is not news to Catholics. Abortion is the natural consequence of removing sexuality from the confines of marriage and disregarding its purpose. Once that ball starts rolling there is no stopping it, and we should not shy away from that fact. We must change our hearts first and our actions will follow.
Easier said than done! Thankfully, Jesus came neither to ignore our sins nor to condemn us on account of them. He came to forgive us, and to sacrifice himself for us. He offers us freedom, and a concrete way out if we are brave enough to take it, especially in the sacrament of reconciliation. Judging the faults of others and assuming we will be automatically forgiven for our own transgressions makes us feel good in the short term, but it only adds insult to injury. In the Lord’s eyes, which is the greater sin: breaking one of his laws and genuinely seeking forgiveness through repentance, or looking him in the eye and telling him that he need not have taken up the cross for us?
3 Ueda P, Mercer CH, Ghaznavi C, Herbenick D. Trends in Frequency of Sexual Activity and Number of Sexual Partners Among Adults Aged 18 to 44 Years in the US, 2000-2018. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(6):e203833. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.3833
4 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy pp. 35
Oisín Walsh is the assistant to the editor of Intercom,
and communications assistant in the Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth