Sex & Christianity: How Has the Moral Landscape Changed?

By Taylor, Charles | Commonweal, September 28, 2007 | Go to article overview

Sex & Christianity: How Has the Moral Landscape Changed?

Taylor, Charles, Commonweal

The generations that have been formed in the cultural revolution of the 1960s are in some respects deeply alienated from a strong traditional model of Christian faith in the West. They are refractory to the sexual disciplines which were part of the good Christian life as understood, for instance, in the nineteenth-century Evangelical revivals in English-speaking countries. Indeed, the contemporary swing goes beyond just repudiating these very high standards.

Even the limitations that were accepted generally among traditional peasant communities--which many priests thought were terribly lax and which they were always trying to get to shape up--even these limitations have been set aside by large numbers of people in our society today. For instance, the clergy used to frown on premarital sex, and were concerned when couples came to be married already expecting a child. But these same peasant communities, although they thought it quite normal to try things out beforehand, particularly to be sure that they could have children, accepted that it was mandatory to confirm their union by a ceremony. Those who tried to step outside these limits were brought back into line by strong social pressure.

We have clearly stepped way beyond these limits today. Not only do people experiment widely before settling down as a stable couple, but they also form couples without ever marrying. In addition, they form, then break, then reform these relationships. There is something here deeply at odds with all forms of sexual ethic--be it folk tradition or Christian doctrine--that saw the stability of marriage as essential to social order. But there is more than this. Christians did see their faith as essential to civilizational order, but this was not the only source of the sexual ethic that has dominated modern Western Christianity. There were also strong images of spirituality that enshrined particular images of sexual purity. We can think of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, particularly in France, as an attempt to inculcate a deep, personal, devotion to God (through Christ or Mary) in everyone--an attempt, moreover, that was to be carried out mainly by the clergy, who would preach, persuade, cajole, push their charges toward this new, higher orientation. If we posit this as the goal, we can think of various ways in which one might try to achieve it. For example, heavy emphasis might be put on certain examples of sanctity, in the hope of awakening a desire to follow them. Or the major thrust might be to bring people by fear to shape up, at least minimally. Of course, both of these paths were tried, but the overwhelming weight fell on the negative one.

If the aim is not just to make certain forms of spirituality shine forth and draw as many people as possible to them--if the goal is really to make everybody over (or everybody who is not heading for damnation)--then perhaps the only way you can ever hope to produce this kind of mass movement is by leaning heavily on threat and fear. Once one goes this route, something else follows. The threat has to attach to very clearly defined failures. Do this, or else (damnation will follow). The "this" has to be clearly definable. In the context of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the relevant standard was the avoidance of mortal sin, or at least doing whatever is necessary to have these sins remitted.

What emerges from all this is what we might call "moralism"--that is, the crucial importance given to a certain code in our spiritual lives. We should all come closer to God, but a crucial stage on this road has to be the minimal conformity to the code. Without this, you aren't even at the starting line of this crucial journey. You are not in the game at all. This may not seem like an outlook easy to square with a reading of the New Testament, but it nevertheless achieved a kind of hegemony across broad reaches of the Christian church in the modern era. In Parler du salut (1967), Elisabeth Germain analyzes a representative catechism in wide use in the nineteenth century, and concludes that in this catechism morality takes precedence over everything and religion becomes its servant. …

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