It's risky to question the new orthodoxies. But two sharp-witted dissenters are doing just that
Amy Coney Barrett is a distinguished law professor at the University of Notre Dame. She’s also a White House nominee to the Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals. In confirmation hearings on September 6, Democratic senators repeatedly raised thinly veiled questions about Barrett’s suitability to serve as a federal judge because of her Catholic faith – as if her religion somehow made her sub-rational or instinctively biased on matters of the law.
The day’s signature line came from Democrat Dianne Feinstein. The senator told Barrett that she worried that “dogma lives loudly in you” – this, from a person whose own dogmatic decibel level on abortion “rights” could shatter glass.
The offending senators drew heavy criticism: two editorials in the Wall Street Journal, an open letter from the president of Princeton University, anger from scores of columnists and legal scholars, and a burst of scornfully humorous T-shirts, headbands and coffees mugs with the slogan “The dogma lives loudly in me.” But as vulgar as the behaviour of Feinstein and her colleagues was, it did serve a pedagogical purpose. Senate hearings are a form of theatre. The play is a means of moral instruction. The lesson Ms Barrett received from Democratic senators on September 6 is simple. Dissent from progressive cultural orthodoxies will be shamed and punished.
America is the offspring of a mixed marriage, a child of Protestant and Enlightenment imaginations. So it’s no surprise that anti-Catholic prejudice has a long pedigree in the United States. But as Sohrab Ahmari noted in the New York Times, the latest episode with Amy Barrett is part of a new and much wider “repressive turn” among Western liberals – a turn not merely moralising in its own perverse way, but quite intentionally inquisitional. The target today is not just the Catholic Church but the whole framework of biblical moral thought and its public influence. And the weapon of choice is the issue of sex.
Why sex? Writers as different as Augusto Del Noce and Wilhelm Reich noticed decades ago that US culture suffers from peculiar contradictions on matters of sex rooted in its Puritan heritage. And that weakness can be used. Here’s an example.
American Evangelical Protestants make up the nation’s largest, if loosely connected, religious group; a group that has often made its views felt in the public square on disputed moral issues. On August 29, a group of prominent Evangelical scholars and pastors – including respected public voices like Russell Moore – issued the Nashville Statement, a public text dealing mainly with issues related to sexuality. It’s worth reading in the original, rather than reading about it. Nothing in the document is shocking or belligerent. On the contrary: in its preamble and 14 articles, the text simply reaffirms historic biblical beliefs about marriage, chastity and the nature of human sexuality. Critics might question its timing or structure or wording or things it omitted. Some Evangelicals have done so. In a normal time, though, the statement would be a non-story.
But we don’t live in a normal time. We live in the midst of a culture war. A methodical effort is now playing out in the American mass media to recast biblical truths as a form of “hate”, to reshape public opinion away from those biblical truths, and to silence anyone who stays faithful to Christian teaching on matters of sexual behaviour, sexual identity, family and marriage. The message is simple: conform to the new herd dogmas or enjoy the consequences. Which explains the river of elite contempt that was quickly poured out on the Nashville Statement.
Happily, three days after the statement, Cardinal Robert Sarah approached some of the same issues from a Catholic perspective in the Wall Street Journal. Sarah stressed that “to love someone as Christ loves us means to love that person in the truth.” Sexuality is a gift from God with beauty and purpose. Within marriage, sexual intimacy is a source of unity, joy and new life. At the same time, Scripture is clear about the destructive nature of promiscuity in any form. The call to chastity applies to all persons, in all circumstances, whatever their state of life or sexual inclinations.
Sarah especially noted that “In her teaching about homosexuality, the Church guides her followers by distinguishing their identities from their attractions and actions.” Persons deserve respect and understanding as children of God. But “same-sex relations [are] gravely sinful and harmful to the well-being of those who partake in them. People who identify as members of the LGBT community are owed this truth in charity, especially from clergy who speak on behalf of the Church.”
In other words, we need to speak the truth with love. Truth without love becomes a weapon. But no real love, no authentic mercy, can exist divorced from speaking the truth.
The point is this: God exists. His Creation has a natural order. Our sexuality is part of that life-giving order. Sooner or later, nature defeats ideology. It doesn’t matter how strong or widely shared or persuasive a bad system of ideas might seem to be. It will always lose. The trouble, as we learned in the last century, is that foolish and perverse thinking can take a long time to die. And it can ruin countless lives and poison whole societies in the process.
Sex intimately informs our idea of what and who we are as human beings. Sexual behaviour and relationships are never purely private matters. They always have social implications and consequences. The dysfunctions in our current attitudes toward sex thus amount to a kind of mental virus, a flight from reason and common sense.
There’s plenty of evidence for what I’ve just said, and it’s worth examining. I’ll recommend two excellent places to start. In fact, both are “must-reads”.
The first resource is Ashley McGuire, a founding editor of altFem Magazine (altfemmag.com), and one of the most gifted young writers, cultural critics and lecturers in the United States. She’s also a wife and mother, and she brings all these skills to bear in Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery), published earlier this year.
The title is impish, and McGuire writes with style, energy and sardonic irony. She starts from the premise that “Somehow, it has become a violation of the accepted code of conduct to suggest that men and women are different, and to act accordingly.” Then she proves it with a news tour of the cultural front lines – documenting one vivid, factual example after another of our current delusions about sex and gender, and the human debris they leave in their wake.
The second resource is Mark Regnerus. Professor Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, is well acquainted with today’s new sex orthodoxies, and the cost of questioning them. Sexual behaviour is among his fields of study. Unhappily for him, his work has challenged the progressive groupthink of many of his colleagues. As a result, he’s been the target of sustained, ugly (but unsuccessful) personal and professional attacks.
Regnerus’s latest book is Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Monogamy (Oxford University Press). It’s an important, well-written, deeply absorbing piece of scholarship on the modern mating market – vital reading for anyone who wants to understand the dynamics of current American sexual behaviours, with the hard social research Regnerus provides to back up his conclusions. Anyone in marriage and family ministry, or the adult formation of men and women – including priests and bishops – would do well to have a working knowledge of this text.
Writing nearly 50 years ago in The Dialectic of Sex, the American feminist Shulamith Firestone prophetically argued the need “to question, not just all of Western culture, but the organisation of culture itself, and further, even the very organisation of nature”. Political firefights like the Amy Barrett nomination are important in their own right as matters of religious liberty.
But it’s good to remember that they’re merely skirmishes in a much more fundamental, ongoing war over the direction of society, the “nature” of nature, and the identity and dignity of the human person. To put it simply: a lot more is in play than a seat on the US federal bench.
The Most Rev Charles J Chaput, OFM Cap, is Archbishop of Philadelphia. This is an extended version of an article that first appeared at catholicphilly.com