One advantage that old-fashioned Catholic sexul morality has over modern sexual ethics is that it’s easier and less demanding. “How can this be”, you say, “since we always thought the opposite was true–that the Catholic code is strict and the modern code permissive.” You think that only because nobody really considers what’s involved in the modern code.
Let’s take a concrete example. Suppose I’m sitting in my chair one evening, thinking reactionary thoughts about how I’m going to oppress my peasants tomorrow. My wife passes by, and I notice how cute she looks in that nightgown. I feel a stirring in my loins and realize that, yes, I would really like to engage in the marital embrace. Is it moral, though? How can I decide?
Well, that’s what ethical systems are for, right? Suppose there are two of them in my moral universe. One is the Catholic system, by which I mean what most people think of as the Catholic system–a bunch of precise rules I have to follow. This system gives me a checklist. Are you married to her? Check. Is she willing? Check. You’re not using birth control, are you? Check. You’re going to put your seed in the procreatively correct place, right? Check. Her getting pregnant wouldn’t be a disaster, right? Check. You don’t have any STDs? Check. All the checks are in the correct columns, so I can go for it with an entirely free consciousness.
The other morality available to me is the modern one, the one that insists that my first system is too simplistic, too legalistic. There are no fixed rules about when sex is or isn’t moral. The only criteria are that my act must be “respectful, non-exploitative, full of mutuality and self-giving love for the Other”. (Moderns like to capitalize the “o” in “other”–I kid you not.) No fixed rules = anything goes, right? Not if we take this system seriously (which nobody does; that’s why it’s so popular). Am I sure that it’s respect for my wife as a person, rather than her physical allure, that’s motivating me? Am I really pursuing her good and not my own pleasure? In the rule-based system, I can know that I’m properly respecting my wife by looking at my actions. I provide for her; I show her affection; I’m never abusive; I’ve been faithful, etc. For the modern view, this doesn’t prove anything. Acts have no intrinsic meaning; they only mean what our mental states make them mean. I can kill people out of pity; I can spare their lives out of spite–only the pity and the spite matter, not the act itself. So the only thing left I have to determine my righteousness is to examine my feelings. Am I having loving, respectful feelings while my eyes drink in her corporeal charms? During the act itself, will I be thinking to myself, “What I really admire is her intelligence!” This might seem unlikely, but I could probably put such thoughts into my head. Ah, but then it might not be genuine. How do I know these respectful, loving, unselfish thoughts aren’t just an act I’m putting on to hide my true, carnal motives from myself? I can’t, of course. People are very good at disguising their true motivations from themselves. The fact is, there’s no way that I could ever know that the requirements of the modern ethical system are satisfied. If people were seriously determined to follow it, the human race would die out.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that when a little while back Pope John Paul II tried to improve Catholic sexual morality by combining the two systems (rules and feelings), the resulting system–his “theology of the body”–turned out to be insanely difficult. The theology of the body affirms that I can commit adultery with my own wife, even if there’s no contraception and she’s willing and eager, if my motives aren’t sufficiently pure. Now, ordinarily, a man engaging in coitus isn’t going to be thinking to himself, “What a jolly good metaphor for Christ and His Church this is!” But even if I do make sure to make a few mental nods to Christ and the Trinity during the conjugal act, that’s never going to have much to do with why I’m doing it.
No, modern rule-free sexual morality is too demanding for me.
Filed under: Catholic doctrine, Forgotten Virtues, Sex, The Dark and Terrible Springtime of Vatican II | Leave a comment »