What is the Synod on the Family really about? At First Things, R.R. Reno suggests an answer: "the underlying issue is Catholicism’s relation to the sexual revolution." Reno ranges widely in the article, and while I don’t want to simplify his position, this passage stands out as a useful summary of it:
The Church is the only major institution in the West that has not accepted the sexual revolution. The official resistance provides an important witness, even when combined with widespread accommodation in practice. The sexual revolution has a ruthless quality. It allows no dissent. The mere suggestion of teaching chastity to fifteen-year-olds in school is enough to unleash furious denunciations. That the Church has not allowed herself to be dictated to and intimidated by the sexual revolution inspires.
Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism. Even among people who transgress, the resistance reassures. We’ve deregulated a great deal of personal life. Who, today, needs permission? Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural.
I think it’s possible to bracket, if for a moment, whatever particular disagreements I might have with Reno and ponder the above as a style of thinking. Consider the abstract quality of the term “sexual revolution”: It stands in for concrete issues like divorced and remarried Catholics’ ability to take Communion, or the roles women are permitted to have in the church. It removes the human element from all these situations. (Reno briefly mentions divorced Catholics and gay culture, and gestures at "the sexual free-for-all" unleashed by the sexual revolution, but largely avoids particulars, at least in this article.) The sexual revolution is invoked almost as a monolith we must either accept or reject; the effect is to obscure the particular realities Catholics are facing with a shorthand code for moral chaos, perversion, and hedonism.
This especially matters because it is in the actual lives of those who faced longstanding discrimination that we see the sexual revoluton's complexity—and its necessity.
Can we really look back over the last few decades and be unmoved by the (at least partial) redress of the genuine injustices women and LGBT people faced, to take two prominent examples? And can we really disentangle all that from the “sexual revolution”? Here’s how I’ve argued this point in the past:
Sexual modernity has made many people, even traditional Christians, more attentive to the ways in which gay people and women...suffered in previous eras. Traditional Christians themselves, even when holding the doctrinal line, often understand these matters in ways quite different than they did just a few decades ago, showing more sympathy and humaneness than in the past. I would go so far as to say that Christians have been taught, through the changes brought by modern life, how to be more genuinely loving and decent in these areas than they have been in the past.
If you don’t think the proper response to a gay son or lesbian daughter coming out is reparative therapy, you are living in a decisively post-Stonewall world, and differ drastically from what many Christians believed not long ago; if your daughter grows up to be an engineer, she’s benefited from feminism—indeed, it would be fair to assert she's benefited if she goes to college at all, or even takes it seriously as an option. Such examples could be multiplied, of course. It takes only a minimal survey of the recent past to know how significantly the prospects for many women and sexual minorities have changed for the better. It is exasperating for these discussions to proceed as if none of this has happened, and to notice the lack of curiosity as to why and how it did.
None of this amounts to a Whig view of history or a lazy progressivism that uncritically embraces the shiny and new. Gains can be accompanied by losses; “solving” a problem often creates a new, different one. Excess and hurt can be found alongside real breakthroughs. But that is my point: Both are present, and it’s misguided to pretend otherwise.
The task of genuine Christian discernment in these matters is to sift through the gains and losses of the sexual revolution rather than dismiss it in one swoop and reply only with a steadfast no. Christians, and the church, must be able to distinguish between learning from history and experience and simply being fashionable. There really is a difference.
The wrong reason to defend Church teaching and the status quo is because it proves strategically helpful. When Reno writes, “Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism,” you can see that the concern is not for the coherence of what that encyclical teaches, but its ideological usefulness. When he also asserts, "Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural," I confess to wondering why "inconvenient and countercultural" seem to matter more than standing for the truth.
Total rejection and uncritical praise both bind you to the spirit of the age; intransigence apart from discernment, apart from reading the signs of the times, still takes it cues from the merely contemporary. Such a conservatism shades into reaction, moved more by fear than hope, mustering only doomed rear-guard campaigns as a response to the genuine perplexities of modern life.
In his opening homily at the Synod on Monday, Pope Francis spoke of a “Church that journeys together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God.” That posture of critical openness, of believing the realities we experience might actually teach us something, finds its negation in Reno’s no. It all reminds me of a line from a favorite novel of mine, found in a letter written by an aging minister to his son: "Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense."