Sex, Eschatology, and Everyday Life


Devon, PA.  I have contended that the two most vocal sources of outrage at Pope Benedict XVI’s remark about the deleterious role of condoms in Africa did not in fact have the African AIDS pandemic much on their mind.  The most formal denunciations came from the bureaucrats of administered society (particularly in once-Catholic Belgium!), who see condoms as a technological solution to what they view as a merely technological (social-engineering) problem: the consequences of fornication and the proliferation of sexual partners in contemporary western society.

More profane and demotic-and even more technocratically informed-young persons throughout the West ridiculed the Pope’s presumption to teach them about the ethics of self-giving (love) and self-government (temperance), even as, on the surface of things, he had done no such (perfectly fitting) thing.  Regarding the latter, I observed that the viciousness and irreverence of their attacks stemmed largely from an all too comprehensible source:

 family units have come to appear impediments to happiness rather than its condition of possibility, because they are largely unchosen entities whose obligations impose “unjust” restrictions on the kind of “individual self-cultivation” that liberal society preserves as the sole terrain for human action.  Sexual activity stands out, above all, as the one field of freedom, “expression,” and choice left to most persons in managed society, because, removed from its natural context and function, it seems to allow great pleasure with potentially no social cost.

 I intend such words as a specifically directed criticism and lament, of course, but as one that acknowledges simultaneously a basic truth about human societies-as opposed merely to contemporary liberal administered society.  In the lives of most human beings, the private sphere of the family affords the one sphere where the individual person can act meaningfully if not freely.  What is unique about our society is that this domestic or familial sphere has lost much of its uniqueness, its privilege, and its stability.  Whereas it had once provided a place where human emotion and activity most reliably, if modestly, found its meaning, it has long since begun to appear restrictive.  As one instance of what Tocqueville called “secondary institutions,” the family appears an unfounded authority whose position between the positive control of the State and the equal-freedom of the individual damns it as, respectively, irrationally inefficient and irrationally oppressive.  This restrictiveness has come over the years to seem even more outrageous thanks to our society’s ever-accelerating appreciation of only the kind of meaning that the individual can generate for himself through his unhindered freedom to satisfy his independently cultivated appetites.

As such, the error of which I accuse such young people is not their desperate search for a kind of action that confirms their lives as in some sense meaningful, much less for a kind of free action that affirms their particular dignity as persons capable of choosing the good (Cf. Mark Shiffman’s “The Human Meaning of Property”).  Such action has precisely been one of the traditional causes of the family sphere as a place of fulfillment and contentment for most people-even if, as Hannah Arendt frequently emphasized, it was never the place of those most elevated and lasting kinds of action that human beings always-even in spite of their egalitarian principles-recognize as true excellence.  But these young people-sitting alone at their computer, clacking a few keys of instantly published indignation and ordering a batch of condoms whose wrappers have received the imprint of the Pope’s benevolent moniker-these young people represent a grave misfortune in the history of the private sphere.

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