Sex, Eschatology, and Everyday Life

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


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.

The family unit no longer affords them a field of meaning, and so they locate it not so much within themselves as within their erratic wills.  The family becomes itself a burden-insofar as it remains anything significant at all-and they reject its role as a place of meaning in order to enter a placeless consumer universe, where the most instinctual desires can seek out their immediate fulfillment unrestrained.  In their lives, freedom from unelected and binding secondary institutions is closely tied to the reward of an all too literal form of “free love,” and so, consequently, the condom and like paraphernalia take on an instrumental and symbolic weight they would not otherwise attain.  Sex has become, again, their one field of individual action, the one place where the evisceration of meaning everywhere else in society is compensated by an experience that can never entirely be deprived of meaning and satisfaction so long as one still has a functioning nervous system.

The Catholic Church has always recognized the priority and unique centrality of the life of the family centered on marriage, and has no less appreciated that ancient questions of sexuality and modern questions of artificial contraception must be addressed in the context of family life.  She has proven herself particularly concerned to speak out in its defense during the last two centuries, as the “modern” family has come into being-which is a polite way of saying as the real historical character of the family has experienced, at first, a delightful softening of bonds, followed by a slow asphyxiation in the loose hands of mobility, markets, and the modern state.

This careful attention to the family as the context in which marriage and reproduction must be addressed is evident enough in the major and most “maligned” encyclicals of the last century, namely, Leo XIII’s Arcanum, Pius XI’s Casti Conubii, and, above all, Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.  Underscoring this conviction that the family is the sole context in which these vital moral and social questions can be understood, passages in these encyclicals as well as in the justly celebrated encyclical on labor, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, indicate that the sanctity and the priority of the family is the context in which the entire structure of society must be addressed as well.  We cannot understand labor, industry, and law, if we do not see how they are directed to the end of supporting the life of the family.

One discovers in reading these teaching-documents that the routinely iterated assumption that Church doctrine on contraception is merely a backward and ignorant assertion of power over the lives of autonomous individuals makes no sense whatever.  However, even within the Catholic Church, the necessary political and moral vision these documents ratify has been misunderstood.  If the advocates of artificial contraception have painted the Catholic Church as a benighted Scarlet Lady bent upon maintaining power by spoiling their fun and enslaving them to their natural fertility, even those who to some degree support these teachings have inadvertently adopted a similar or obverse understanding.

For those who reject Church teaching outright, her pronouncements on contraception seem a power grab, while, for those who accept it, these same pronouncements appear in a particularly modern guise as the benevolent version of a “power grab,” a declaration grounded in fideism: faith in Church authority as the Mystical Body of Christ provides the basis for her instructions, and those instructions are, in turn, the product of merely theological reflection on the nature of religious faith rather than a more modest but practical reflection on the demands of everyday life.

A surprising example of this fidestic acceptance that is won despite assumptions of real impracticality appears in the late writings of the great Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Few persons in the last century reflected with such profundity or at so great a length on the vast structures of cultural and Ecclesial life as did von Balthasar.  Most of his readers would insist that we are many years still from taking the full measure of his achievement or its implications.  And yet, some moments in his vast oeuvres seem to reveal a man so committed to reflecting on what he conceived as the nuptial mysteries of the Church (and, indeed, of all intellectual activity) that he failed to take much interest in the nuptials of nuptials, as it were-that is, in the natural philosophically intelligible realities that the official neo-Scholasticism he sought to transcend had addressed so doggedly.  Discussing the internal dialogue that bears fruit in Church teaching, von Balthasar observes

 A [Magisterium, or Church Teaching Authority] decision that is justifiable for those whose love is alive might be impractical for the lukewarm or otherwise defective masses; on the other hand, a decision made to suit these latter could seriously endanger the balance of the Church’s eschatological response, the ideal of those who love.

 If the object of this passage-“those who love”-refers to those with vocations to holy orders, and particularly to the religious orders whose members surrender their lives to the contemplation of God’s love, this it is uncontroversial.  Catholic tradition rightly recognizes the perceptible hierarchies that inform human life, and therefore emphasizes that the term “order” in regards to religious life refers specifically to those who by special vocation might spend their lives in the presence of God in a difficult, privileged, and sustained way.  They submit to an order (a rule), they occupy a particular place in the order of the Society of the Church, and their lives are ordered more fully to the perfect end to which all persons nonetheless by their nature are directed.

But von Balthasar’s language even here indicates its application beyond the confines of “certain men” called to the vita contemplativa, and does so in a troubling manner.  Who are the “lukewarm or otherwise defective masses”?  Is not the laity, which constitutes the great numerical mass of the Church, in some sense “lukewarm”?  And are not all Christians in that refuge of sinners, the Church, “defective”?  More importantly, would it not be for those unilluminated by the light of constant devotion that particular teaching decisions need to import the greatest practical obligation?  To these queries one adds the more troubling observation that creating a division between practical, that is, everyday, life and eschatology is one that it has generally been the virtue of the Church to avoid.  Von Balthasar intends by “eschatological response,” of course, the moral conclusions one draws in recognizing that the whole Church is finally-ultimately-called to the pure union of love with God.  How might those who love live in light of this ultimate Last Thing?  Not, he implies, in the same fashion as those whose horizon is constrained entirely within the practical because they are merely “lukewarm.”  What he suggests, in other words, is that theological reflection might lead to conclusions for those who would love perfectly, but might not be competent to provide instruction for everyone else.

The example with which von Balthasar follows answers these questions in a problematic way that intervenes precisely in the contentions over the Church’s teaching on marriage and contraception:

 This is the impasse (where a single solution is expected) such as the Pope encountered when he issued the much-maligned encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He opted for the ideal of the small, loving, devoted company and so unleashed a storm of indignation among the mass of people both inside and outside the Church.  He made this option despite the majority of his panel of advisors and despite the sociological contraindications.  It may be that he deliberately disregarded important factors that should have been taken into account, but this has not been proved.  The crucial difficulty in his decision . . . [was that] the Pope was burdening and binding the consciences of married Catholics in an issue that had serious consequences . . . It is probably the form rather than the content that needs to be criticized.  It might have been sufficient to point to the ideal as a “normative goal” to satisfy the objective, eschatological emphasis of the Christian concept of selfless and self-renouncing love, the personal ideal of the committed, while at the same time both stimulating and reassuring those who were either too unable or too perplexed to follow this course.  For who does not see the devastation created in the sexual area by the separation of pleasure from the risk of self-giving, as well as the tremendous weight of sociological arguments on the other side?

 This divagation distorts beyond recognition the traditional hierarchy of vocations proclaimed by the Church.  Some aspects of moral and devotional life really might be a “personal ideal” that most Catholics can fail to meet without in the least calling into question their virtue or obedience to the good.  Recall Chaucer’s awe-striking voluptuary, the Wife of Bath.  The widow of five husbands and looking for a sixth (whom she is well-schooled, she tells us, to please), the Wife recounts that the perfect life of devotion is that of the religious, and that virginity may offer a particular perfection to many, but that Christ and St. Paul both advise most of us to marry.  Perfection is not identical with devout, everyday goodness:

 Virginitee is greet perfeccion,

And continence eek with devocion,

And lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I.

But Crist, that of perfeccion is welle,

Bad nat eery wight he sholde go selle

Al that he hadde, and gyve it to the poore,

And in swich wise folwe hyn and his foore.

He spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly;

 Abstention from the natural goodness of marriage and procreation may be integral to that higher good of the life spent betrothed to God; that truly is a life wholly ordered to the “eschatological emphasis” of the devout life.  But, as I shall observe, Christian marriage is hardly disconnected from that emphasis–even if it is less purely ordered to it because of its simultaneous ordering to the present, practical goods of our present life on earth.

Von Balthasar seems to effect a much more radical break between the two than ever would the Wife of Bath, who, of course, confesses her sensual imperfections while on pilgrimage to Canterbury.  Her fertility and amorousness are unrepentantly tied up with her eschatological identity as a pilgrim en route to God.  Her example, scandalous though it may appear, is not that of a disobedient or “lukewarm” Catholic; rather she is exemplary in the laudatory sense of what G.K. Chesterton celebrated as the genius of Catholicism: its rich everyday devotion to the goodness of the gift of being.

In a misguided effort to sympathize with the weakness of human nature, von Balthasar potentially constricts the membership of the Church in a manner typical of Protestant sects but at variance with the Church’s self-understanding as universal.  In his fascinating but schematically flawed survey, Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians, Fergus Kerr, O.P. makes a disturbing observation about von Balthasar’s other comments on Humane Vitae:

 only Catholic Christians have much chance of understanding the challenging doctrine taught by successive popes, and, among them, he concludes, perhaps only the minority of married couples who practice the asceticism required by following the various natural methods can fully understand.  In other words, only those couples who have this understanding of human fertility and practise this asceticism are truly Catholic.

 This clarifies the implications of von Balthasar’s claim that Paul VI, in his encyclical, elected for “the ideal of the small, loving, devoted company.”  The decades since Vatican II have shown the Catholic Church (in America) largely disintegrating into the great legions of suburban Catholics who attend Mass but live and think like their Protestant-and, for that matter, “unchurched”-neighbors in every other way.  Few of them have failed to be “truly Catholic” in the sense of having grappled with the Church’s teachings and found them wanting or too demanding.  Rather, they have simply lost the sensibility that aided them to see those teachings as embedded in a whole way of life, and so, consequently, they appear to be the declarations from a less than intelligibile oracle whose authority seems itself entirely unintelligible in the context of modern personal, sexual, and individualistic autonomy (I have written, however inadequately, of this phenomenon in the “Death of Catholic Culture”  and the “Life of Catholic Culture“).  Such Catholics do not disobey so much as scratch their heads, say, “Sounds tough!,” and go back to their game show.

Von Balthasar was in one sense correct, therefore; while the greater number of Catholics have moved through indifference and disbelief away from the teaching Church, even if many of them participate still in the Church that Prays, a small number of Catholic laity have achieved a level of devotion and obedience that transcends-sometimes in fervor, sometimes in beauty, sometimes in intellect-what was typical when the Church could hope to be visibly universal, to beget Christendom, rather than a wee company.  But this constriction of “true Catholicity” to the few seems itself profoundly un-Catholic; while capturing well the sacrifices, isolation, scrupulosity, trials, humiliations, joys, and loves of those who have seen and internalized the eschatological call of the Church, it cuts adrift the fundamentally practical, human, and humane goodness of Catholic tradition.  And so, it effectively despairs of that tradition’s great genius.  Sexual morality and the life of the family for the pious Catholic cannot be annexed into the orders of religious life, as if it were a vocation for some married persons and something else for others.  Rather, sexual morality is not commensurable to a Benedictine rule that simply facilitates a rare life of perfection.  If it is to be morality at all, it must speak of norms appropriate to persons living in the world, and must be binding upon those persons precisely because they are persons rather than because they are a peculiar grade of devout persons.

And so, above all, von Balthasar seems to misinterpret the Church’s great concern for the support, vitality, and centrality of marriage and the family to its life and the life of civil society.  He transforms a tradition, rooted in the practical questions that all human persons confront and intended to inform how society as a whole has been historically and ought to be structured, into one that appears more and more like the rarified province of speculative theology.  No, not just that, but the province of a speculative theology descending exclusively from of the ether of eschatological, as opposed to all other, concerns.

Casti Connubii, Pius XI’s encyclical on Christian Marriage, does not outline a series of ideals that the pious Catholic might aspire to live.  Pius teaches us what natural reason and the Church tradition alike guide us to see as the normal challenges and responsibilities of married couples and their families.  Drawing directly on St. Augustine’s ancient defense of marriage in the face of certain Christian claims that only the celibate life was “eschatologically” good, Pius observes that marriage is at once a natural, rational, and divine institution.  Far from being a way of life indifferent to the pilgrimage of the Christian toward his God, marriage and the family are among the natural conditions that make that journey possible.

Consequently, Pius and Augustine catalog the three fruits of marriage that give it social and religious purpose: the production and rearing of offspring, the inviolate stability of conjugal faith, and the sacrament of marriage itself (Casti Connubii 10).  Most human beings, as the Wife of Bath reminds us, are not called to the celibate perfection of the religious life, but rather to the vocation of marriage.  Marriage is the means by which families come into being through its creation of a permanent bond of faithfulness and exclusivity between the spouses.  This bond normally leads to the conception and raising of offspring-which is itself the primary blessing of marriage.  In the eyes of nature, of natural law, any violation of faithfulness in marriage and any attempt to frustrate its natural generative power is a grave sin (56).

Pius was acutely aware of the various scientific and anthropological efforts to “denaturalize” monogamy and fertility-to claim them as conventional rather than natural, as incidental rather than central.  He simply refuses the claim: the human reason can discern in nature and history norms and laws that institute marriage as an exclusive, inviolate, and fruitful union.  Marriage is, in this respect, a natural blessing precisely because these are the things most human beings need in order to live their lives well-in order to flourish.  As such, the condemnation of artificial contraception is not an extraordinary demand sufferable only by them who would be perfect.  “Let no one be so rash,” proclaimed the Bishops at Trent, “that there are precepts of God impossible for the just to observe.  God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you” (61).

Fidelity and fruitfulness may appear extraordinary demands on the modern person.  Pius insists, to the contrary, that these are as normal and natural demands as those of eating, grooming, and-in the long run-dying.  We moderns have made them appear more demanding than they are through a relativistic cultural-constructionist anthropology (49); assertions of individual autonomy over one’s body-including a “right” to refuse its natural ends (71)-and of the more particular autonomy of the woman who must be liberated from the natural hierarchy of marital relations in which her inexorable obligations when she becomes a wife and mother trap her (75); the reduction of marriage to a temporary, open, and companionate arrangement (51); and, most terrifying of all, the rise of statism and the suggestion that civil authority and eugenic concerns can abrogate the natural path of most persons to marriage (68-69), or can render the natural family the exclusive properly of the “civil sphere” (79).

Such innovations may make marriage and the family seem a superannuated institution in the modern world, and so many will be tempted to dispense with or reorder them, Pius says.  But rather, they are the centerpiece, the cornerstone, of society, and so the modern world must be itself reordered to accommodate them.  Hence, Pius recalls Leo XIII’s demand, on behalf of the modern worker, for what we generally refer to as a “living wage.”  “To deny this, or to make light of what is equitable,” he writes, “is a grave injustice and is placed among the greatest sins by Holy Writ; nor its it lawful to fix such a scanty wage as will  be insufficient for the upkeep of the family in the circumstances in which it is placed” (117).  The proscription of artificial contraception and the new evil of abortion are not incidental to, but intimately bound up with, Pius and Leo’s call for just social structures.  For, all three notions spring from their understanding that society is ordered to, even mere auxiliary to, the flourishing of marriage and the family.

When Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the modesty of his project was missed by many-even, it would seem, von Balthasar.  Far from binding the consciences of married couples to avoid artificial contraception, Paul simply reaffirmed with great specificity the proscription of contraception that was already in place and which flowed naturally from the design of marriage (8) and the responsibilities for parenthood intrinsic to it: “In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person” (10).  Deliberately frustrating that faculty will not just free the husband and wife from the responsibility of some or more children, it leads them to forget the reverence, care, and cultivation proper to their lives together as one of inviolate fidelity (17).

Far from appearing unnatural or perfectionist demands on the consciences of married couples, the refusal of artificial contraception merely reaffirms the natural care and cultivation proper to every human marriage, the natural centrality of marriage and the family to human life, and its foundational and unalterable position in respect to society.  One does not need a developed eschatological perspective to see this; one needs only to see the importance of the family and the importance of those things that make families fruitful and flourishing.  Joseph Pearce writes of the great economist E.F. Schumacher, that

 he was received into the Catholic Church on September 29, 1971, while he was in the midst of writing Small is Beautiful . . . he was deeply impressed by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humane Vitae, in which the Pope reaffirmed in unequivocal terms the Church’s belief in the sanctity of marriage and marital love.

 Schumacher championed the idea of self-limitation, and he knew that this necessary virtue is enshrined in the everyday realities of family life.  Families teach us to be selfless and to sacrifice ourselves for others.  It is these very virtues that are necessary for the practice of the economic and political virtues advocated in his work.

 Schumacher was led into the Church because he saw that she was the rare, practically the sole, defender of the virtues necessary for the happiness of the family and, therefore, the life of society.  Pius-following Augustine-preached, conversely, that the life of virtue in the family may become, through the sacrament of marriage, a means to the perfection of the Christian.  Far from allowing for a radical divide between, as it were, normal, everyday life and the life of the loving, devout company, Pius insisted that the responsibilities that come with a couple’s commitment to begetting and raising children, and to living a life of inviolate fidelity to each other, are themselves a means to their mutual perfection.  He even claims that

 This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense . . . be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.

From the viewpoint of the Mystical Body of Christ, this perfection is the third, highest blessing of marriage; it perpetuates not only of the human family on earth but also molds the spouse for eternal life.  The care necessary to live one’s life in accord with nature, fertility, and fidelity finally abets and serves the life of faith.  The refusal of artificial contraception is not simply one more legalistic imperative one must obey if one is to avoid the Church’s condemnation.  It is a specific, practical means to flourishing in this life and in the next.

Many of us would indeed take comfort were we to learn that the responsibility to remain open to children throughout marriage were just a noble, high ideal that only those who wish to live their marriage as the self-giving symbol of Christ’s own marriage to the Church need obey.  But that openness is, according the Church’s tradition and the light of natural reason, a practical one that informs the proper living of family life and the shape of social structures.  If it is a difficult road, it is not a difficult road only the saints can tread; it is, rather, a road of self-limitation, self-giving, and self-perfection itself natural to all persons and binding upon them.

Against these virtues the young technobrats protest, as they embarrass Pope Benedict by sending him condoms with his own face upon them (what an obscene and wasteful protest-even by the standards of the contraception-advocates).  Raised without seeing real marriages, and without belonging to families that fulfill their natural ends, they cannot conceive that the proscription of contraception rather than its prescription might be a great good.  It promises the means to a more responsible human economy, a more flourishing family life, and consequently a restoration and deepening of their own individual lives’ meaning and dignity.

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