Sex & Christianity

How Has the Moral Landscape Changed?

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. “Faith and the sacraments are no longer understood as the basis of the moral life, but as duties to be carried out, as truths that we must believe, and as means to help us fulfill these moral obligations.”

Now one could have this kind of clerically driven reform, powered by fear of damnation and hence moralism, and the code around which this crystallizes could nevertheless take different forms. The central issues could be questions of charity versus aggression, anger, vengeance; or a central vector could be the issue of sexual purity. In the event, both were present, but there was a surprisingly strong emphasis on the sexual. The emphasis shifted in this direction with the Catholic Counter-Reformation. It is not that sins of aggression, violence, and injustice were neglected. On the contrary. It is just that the code—the definition of what it is to get to the starting line—was extremely rigid on sexual matters. There were mortal sins in the other dimensions as well (for instance, murder), and there were many in the domain of church rules (such as skipping Mass); but you could go quite far in being unjust and hard-hearted in your dealings with subordinates and others without incurring the automatic exclusion you incur by sexual license. Sexual deviation, and not listening to the church, seemed to be the major domains where automatic excluders lurked.

Sexual purity, along with obedience, were therefore given extraordinary salience. Hence the tremendous and (as it seems to us) disproportionate fuss that clergy made in nineteenth-century France about banning dancing, cleaning up folk festivals, and the like. Young people were refused Communion, or absolution, unless they gave these things up altogether. The concern with this issue appears at certain moments obsessive. I can’t pretend to be able to explain it, but perhaps a couple of considerations can put it in context. The first is the pacification of modern society—the fact that the level of everyday domestic violence caused by brigands, feuds, rebellions, clan rivalries, and the like declined between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries. As violence and anger became less overwhelming realities of life, the attention could shift toward purity. The second is the obvious point that sexual abstinence was a central fact of life for a celibate clergy. It is perhaps not surprising that they made a lot of it.

In any case, it was clearly fated that this combination of clerical reform from the top, moralism, and repression of sexual life would come into conflict with developing modernity. The emphasis on individual responsibility and freedom would eventually run athwart the claims of clerical control. And the post-Romantic reactions against the disciplines of modernity, the attempts to rehabilitate the body and the life of feeling, would eventually fuel a reaction against sexual repression.

These tensions were already evident before the mid-twentieth century. There had been a decline in religious practice among men from the late eighteenth century on. One common explanation for this invokes images of male pride and dignity. But we might also come at the same phenomenon from another direction, stressing that this more rigid sexual code directly attacked certain common male practices, particularly the rowdy lifestyle of young men. And perhaps more profoundly, it seems that the combination of sexual repression and clerical control, as it was felt in the practice of confession, drove men away. Clerical control went against their sense of independence, but this became doubly intolerable when the control took the form of opening up the most reserved and intimate facet of their lives. Hence the immense resistance to confession, at just about any period, and the attempt to confess, if one had to, not to one’s own curé but to a visiting mission priest to whom one was unknown. This tension drove many men out of the confessional—and eventually out of the church. As Ralph Gibson writes in A Social History of French Catholicism: “Unable to take Communion, and angry at the prying of the clergy, they increasingly abandoned the church.”

In order better to understand the gap in outlook here, it might be useful to review some of the features of the sexual revolution that took place in the twentieth century. It too has a prehistory. We might even stretch this history out over centuries and take as our starting point certain medieval Catholic teachings that looked askance at sexual pleasure, even among married couples in the process of procreation. Over against this, thinkers of the Protestant Reformation rehabilitated married love as a good of its own. The “mutual comfort” that marriage gave included sexual intercourse, which was given a positive evaluation by this phrase. But sex still had its primary goal in procreation. “Unnatural” acts were those that broke with any procreative purpose. For these reasons, and because they could lead us away from a centering of our lives on God, the sensual or erotic side of love was considered dangerous and questionable.

An analogous view was very strong in the Victorian era, in both England and America. Sex was meant to bond the couple. Sex was healthy, and hence pleasure was attached to it, but pleasure shouldn’t be its main object. Yet the framework in which this understanding stood was very different. It was, of course, still considered a Christian doctrine. But it was also, and mainly, justified in terms of science. Medical experts and their ideas of health were at least as important as divines with their notions about God’s will. We can see here a further development of a crucial turn in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the equation of God’s will for us with the reigning conception of human flourishing. God designs nature, and he does so with our good in mind. His will can therefore be read off this design. By putting ourselves in tune with nature’s benign functioning, we are following his will. Locke argues this way in his Treatises of Civil Government. With the advance of science, this opens the way for a naturalization, or medicalization, of sexual ethics, without any sense that this is somehow displacing faith.

But the background assumptions are very different. For the Puritan, the right ordering of our sexual lives can only come with grace and sanctification. It is not something available to the ordinary, nondeviant or nondepraved person. By contrast, the medicalized view offers us a picture of health as something attainable by the average person, barring some defect in nature or depraved training. The point where the demands of the good and our sexual lives meet should be right here in everyday life, and not at the end of a transformation that takes us beyond ordinary flourishing. Thus the medicalizing nineteenth century needed an explanation for why normal sexual fulfillment was not very widespread, although this need could be hidden by the reticence and cover-up that surrounded the lives of the respectable. But when the issue was faced, a lot of weight was put on depraved training (evident in immigrants, natives of colonies, the working classes, etc.) and, more ominously, on supposed differences of race. There were certain “degenerate types” and certain inferior races.

We are still living with the consequences of this identification of virtue—and even sanctity—with health, the three together opposed to vice, sickness, and sin. For one thing, it can generate the negative moral aura that surrounds sickness, the notion that those who suffer from cancer, say, are somehow themselves to blame. The healthy feel a morally tinged goodness, and the sick a vice-tainted badness. We are very far from the older Christian perception of illness as a locus of suffering that brings Christ close to the sick, and hence also to the rest of us.

There is also a crucial difference between health as conceived by modern medicine and the older (and I think deeper) notions of virtue. In the case of health, what is required for the fullness of excellence is split in two. There is a knowledge component and a practice component, and these may reside in quite different people. The health expert may be leading the most “unhealthy” life, without ceasing to be an expert. The dutiful patient, who (we hope) is brimming with health, does not need to understand why his regime is a good one. We are in a different universe from that of, say, Aristotelian ethics, where a concept like phronesis, or practical wisdom, doesn’t allow us to separate a knowledge component from the practice of virtue. The separation becomes possible with modern science, construed as knowledge of an objectified domain—as, for example, in contemporary Western medicine.

In modern culture the recourse to objectified scientific knowledge begins to take over ethics. According to the utilitarian viewpoint, for example, the knowledge or expertise necessary to make the calculus that will reveal the right action is quite unconnected from one’s own motivation in relation to the good. It is the kind of knowledge that could permit the bad person to do harm just as much as it permits the well-disposed person to do good. It goes without saying that this emphasis on objectified expertise over moral insight is the charter for new and more powerful forms of paternalism in our world. Who dares argue with “science,” whether delivered by doctors, psychiatrists, or visiting economists from the IMF telling you to slash health care in order to achieve fiscal “balance”?

But then, at the turn of the twentieth century, “science” itself began to break the alliance with religion. For thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and Edward Carpenter, sexual gratification was either itself good, or at least seen as a virtually unstoppable force. This fed into a counterculture, some strands of which saw sexuality as a form of Dionysian release from discipline and repression. Around the beginning of the century, all this came together with new social conditions, mainly in cities, where young people could pair off without supervision. In the 1920s young people, particularly women, enjoyed a new kind of freedom, which took the form of a sensuality unconnected to marriage or procreation. This new freedom involved, first, a hesitant lifting of the age-old denigration of sensuality (at least in white, middle-class circles) and, second, a hesitant affirmation of women’s desire (often denied in the high-Victorian period), and of their right to seek pleasure as well. Such pleasure was, of course, still fraught with danger, since women would bear the brunt of any negative consequences of pregnancy.

If we fast-forward to the 1960s, we have to take account of new social factors: women in the work force, the contraceptive revolution, and others. But my interest here is to articulate the ethical changes of this time rather than to enumerate their causes. What were the main strands of this revolution? There was indeed a strand that was characterized by a supposedly worldly-wise hedonism, the one associated with Playboy. But the main ones associated with the movements of students and young people were fourfold: (1) the rehabilitation, continued from the 1920s, of sensuality as a good in itself; (2) the continued affirmation of the equality of the sexes, and in particular the expression of a new ideal in which men and women come together as partners freed of their gender roles; (3) a widespread sense of Dionysian, even “transgressive” sex as liberating; and (4) a new conception of one’s sexuality as an essential part of one’s identity, which not only gave an additional meaning to sexual liberation, but also became the basis for gay liberation and the emancipation of a whole host of previously condemned forms of sexual life. The sexual revolution, then, was moved by a complex of moral ideas in which discovering one’s authentic identity and demanding that it be recognized was connected to the goal of equality, the rehabilitation of the body and sensuality, and the overcoming of the divisions between mind and body, reason and feeling. We cannot treat it simply as an outbreak of hedonism.

Of course, the fact that the sexual revolution was motivated by a single interconnected ideal did nothing to guarantee that the ideal would be realized. The hard discontinuities and dilemmas that beset human sexual life, and that most ethics tend to ignore or downplay, had to assert themselves: the impossibility of integrating the Dionysian into a continuing way of life, the difficulty of containing the sensual within a continuing intimate relation, the impossibility of escaping gender roles altogether, and the great obstacles to redefining them, at least in the short run. Not to mention that the celebration of sexual release could generate new ways in which men could objectify and exploit women. A lot of people discovered the hard way that there were dangers as well as liberation in throwing over the codes of their parents.

Still, we have to recognize that the moral landscape has changed. People who have been through the upheaval have to find forms that allow for long-term loving relations between equal partners who will in many cases also want to become parents and bring up their children in love and security. But these can’t be simply identical to the codes of the past, insofar as they were connected with the denigration of sexuality, horror at the Dionysian, fixed gender roles, or a refusal to discuss identity issues. It is a tragedy that the codes that churches want to urge on people still (at least seem to) suffer from one or more—and sometimes all—of these defects.

The inability is made the more irremediable by the unfortunate fusion of Christian sexual ethics with certain models of the “natural,” even in the medical sense. This not only makes them hard to redefine; it also hides from view how contingent and questionable this fusion is, how little it can be justified as intrinsically and essentially Christian. The power of this fused vision to put people off is at its greatest in our age of authenticity, with a widespread popular culture in which individual self-realization and sexual fulfillment are interwoven.

The irony is that this alienation began to take place just when so many of the features of the earlier Catholic reform were called into question at Vatican II: there clericalism, moralism, and the primacy of fear were all largely repudiated. Other elements of the earlier reform were less clearly addressed. It’s not clear that the full negative consequences of the drive to reform itself, with its constant attempt to purge popular religion of its “unchristian” elements, were properly understood. Certain attempts at reform in Latin America, after Vatican II and in its spirit, like those around “liberation theology,” seem to have repeated the old pattern of clerical heavy-handedness, depreciating and banning popular cults, and alienating many of the faithful, some of whom—ironically—have turned to Protestant churches in the region, which have a greater place for the miraculous and the festive than the progressive “liberators” had. A strange turn of events, which would surprise Calvin, were he to return! As to the issue of sexual morality, attempts to review this, in the question of birth control, were abandoned in a fit of clerical nerves about the authority of the church.

The Vatican’s present position seems to want to retain the most rigid moralism in the sexual field, relaxing nothing of the rules, with the result that people with “irregular” sexual lives are (supposed to be) automatically denied the sacraments, while as-yet-unconvicted mafiosi, not to speak of unrepentant latifundistas in the third world, and Roman aristocrats with enough clout to wangle an “annulment” find no bar.

But however incomplete and hesitantly followed the turns taken at Vatican II, it has clearly relativized the old top-down, one-size-fits-all model of reform. It has opened a field in which you don’t have to be deeply read in the history of the church to see that the dominant spiritual fashion of recent centuries is not normative. Which is not to say that this whole spirituality, aspiring to a full devotion to God, and fueled by abnegation and a strong image of sexual purity, is to be in turn condemned. It is clear that there have been and are today celibate vocations that are spiritually fertile, and many of these turn centrally on aspirations to sexual abstinence and purity. It would just repeat the mistake of the Protestant reformers to turn around and depreciate these.

The fateful feature of the early-modern Catholic Counter-Reformation, which erects such a barrier between the church and contemporary society, is not its animating spirituality: our world is if anything drowned in exalted images of sexual fulfillment and needs to hear about paths of renunciation. The deviation was to make this take on sexuality mandatory for everyone, through a moralistic code that made a certain kind of purity a necessary condition for relating to God through the sacraments. There are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either the Vatican rule-makers or the secularist ideologies have yet imagined. And yet this shouldn’t be so hard to grasp. Even during those centuries when the reform outlook dominated pastoral policy, there were always other paths present, represented sometimes by the most prominent figures, including (to remain with the French Catholic Reformation) St. Francis de Sales and Fénelon, not to speak of Pascal, who, though he gave comfort to the fear-mongers, offered an incomparably deeper vision.

But as long as this monolithic image dominates the scene, the Christian message as expressed and embodied by the Catholic Church will not be easy to hear in wide zones of the contemporary world. But then, these are not very hospitable to a narrow secularism either.


This essay is adapted from A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, published by Harvard University Press. © 2007 by Charles Taylor. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Funding for this essay was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.


Related: The Sting of Death, by Charles Taylor
Modernity & Belief, Peter Steinfels's review of A Secular Age

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About the Author

Charles Taylor is professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University and winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize for Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. Among his many books are Sources of the Self and The Ethics of Authenticity.

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