Sex, Eschatology, and Everyday Life

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.

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