It’s been a terrible, horrible spring for social conservatives.
We’re used to the Republican establishment being embarrassed of us. I’ve long thought that it does more harm than good for Congressmen to threaten to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood, not from any ideological objection to the services they provide, but just out of a desire to balance the budget. The only message this gets across is that no respectable person would question what Planned Parenthood does. To take another example, everybody, I think, realizes how pointless it is to have a religious liberty bill that doesn’t allow private persons to discriminate against gays, when the whole point was to protect us from being punished for continuing to recognize (“discriminate”) the difference between real and fake marriages, even when the state fails to do so. As I said, the fact that respectable conservatives don’t like us is nothing new.
It is new to see activists and leaders of culture war organizations betray their embarrassment over the core beliefs of their movements. The whole point of the pro-life movement is that abortion should be criminalized. But now the pro-life movement is rushing to reassure us that they would never want women who procure abortions to be tried for criminal activity. It’s like they’re screaming, “We didn’t mean it! Please don’t take us seriously!” I don’t see how anyone can take the pro-life movement seriously after this. Why should anyone even consider our arguments when passionate pro-lifers act as if they don’t believe them, act as if the ultimate goal of the movement (beyond minor harassments of the abortion industry) is something shameful, something we would not like the public to consider. One way or another, we’ve lost at least a generation.
Has anyone estimated the damage done by the fact that, when American Catholic organizations started being pressured to pay for their employees’ contraceptives, the bishops didn’t dare go public with an actual argument that contraception is sinful, that no one should be paying for it, but instead argued for “religious freedom”, practically admitting that they have no reason for their beliefs (perhaps even that the Church’s teaching is not what they privately believe)?
Sexual morality is not the center of Christianity, but it is the current center of Christianity’s conflict with militant modernity. That the Pope cannot bring himself to say that unreformed adulterers are living even in venial sin is a devastating blow to our morale and credibility. Just as in the pro-life “women are the second victims” rhetoric, it’s not what is said that’s so damning, but the cringe that’s so visible behind it. That the Church teaches and has always taught that marriage is indissoluble, not as an ideal but as a universal law, is a source of embarrassment, something to be hidden away and qualified as much as possible.
It is, of course, true that people are often not fully culpable for their acts. Often they act with imperfect knowledge; always they act under pressure, and sometimes the pressure is so strong that their consent to their own acts really is questionable. And yet, these observations are manifestly not used in a consistent way. Has Pope Francis ever fretted over whether gossipers, extortionists, rapists, racists, or immigration restrictionists are really responsible for their sins (real or imagined)? Do pro-lifers think that murderers of all other categories should be automatically assumed to have not consented to their deeds? No, it’s only the popular sins, and only when perpetrated by protected groups one is not allowed to criticize, for which consent is to be automatically presumed absent. If I steal a woman’s purse, everyone assumes I consent to my own act. If instead of mugging her, I ditch my wife and run off with this other woman, then suddenly the concern shifts exclusively to my mental state, and all sorts of subjective factors make it impossible to assess my degree of culpability. One could engage in this discussion about subjective states, arguing against pro-lifers and the Church that people really are choosing wicked things, but this argument is only worthwhile if our opponents really believe what they’re saying. The fact that consent is assumed for some sins and assumed absent for others gives us reason to doubt this. In terms of the objective and subjective components of sin, illicit sexual activity is no different from illicit economic activity and illicit violent activity.
As I keep pointing out, the new excuse-making for adultery merely follows the logic the Church has already embraced in questioning the validity of most marriages in order to make annulment easier. Consent, it seems, is impossible for mere mortals. From this it follows that we cannot marry, but also that we cannot seriously sin. It seems that modern Catholics regard this as good news. Not such good news that we’d want to apply it to areas other than sex, though.
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