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Searching for a New Sexual Ethic

November 3, 2012

In economics, we are often presented with a false dichotomy between capitalism and socialism. Just so, it seems to me, are we presented in debates over marriage and sexuality with a false dichotomy between Dan Savage and John Paul II.

Since I resurrected this blog last January, I’ve been searching for a sexual ethic at once at odds with orthodox Catholicism and the secular culture. Having spent the past 10 months in an ideological no man’s land, I have on occasion succumbed to self-doubt: is it really worth the effort or even possible to spell out an alternative to the tried-and-true orthodoxies of the Vatican, on the one hand, and post-sexual revolution America, on the other? In light of this nagging question, I was pleased and encouraged to read the following quotation from a contributor to the Oxford History of Christianity, which nicely encapsulates so much of what I have been trying to say:

There has in Western countries been a widespread rejection of traditional Christian standards, chiefly but not exclusively in the realm of sexual behaviour. This revolt has been associated with secular philosophies which stress personal authenticity and individual self-expression. That these philosophies are inadequate to the whole range of moral problems which beset the modern world is increasingly apparent to many reflective people. The churches, therefore, have an obligation, which non-believers expect them to acknowledge, to maintain and strengthen the Christian ethical tradition. It is a resource that the modern world cannot do without. But the churches are liable, in this situation, to adopt one or other of two alternatives, neither of which is satisfactory. The first is to reassert without qualification the ethical prescriptions which have been accepted in the recent past, without considering whether the underlying principles require fresh applications in the light of current knowledge, and to assert them, moreover, in an authoritative manner. This reinforces the modernist revolt which has fed upon the continuing repudiation of just this stereotype. The second alternative is to embrace the typical modern world-view in the one or other of its forms and interpret the Christian ethical tradition in terms of it. The first, conservative, approach fails as a rule to address itself to the problems in their full context and is insufficiently sensitive to the possibility that, because of the ossification of conventional teaching, genuinely Christian insights have sometimes had to flow through secular channels. The second, liberal, approach, fails in a different way to address the problems, because it identifies itself too closely with the very attitudes that have been largely responsible for creating them. What is needed is conservatives who are prepared to be critical of the tradition and liberals who are prepared to be critical of contemporary fashions.

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