The Catholic Thing
Catholics & Pagans: Then & Now Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Friday, 11 June 2010

While out on a stroll one evening, David is utterly seized with the beauty of the married Bathsheba. He takes her as his own and then arranges to have her husband Uriah killed in battle.  These events are described in Chapter 11 of the second book of Samuel, which ends with a simple one-liner: “But what David had done displeased Yahweh.”  

In the preceding chapter, great battles with staggering human costs are mentioned; David oversees the killing of 40,000 men. Forty thousand!  In the wake of all this bloodshed, why would an isolated instance of adultery be singled out for reproach? Of course, it also involved murderous scheming. Still, the reverse generally holds true these days: a single casualty in battle is often met with stern media disapproval, while thousands upon thousands of “illicit” encounters go unremarked – or are even glamorized. Isn’t that the whole point of Sex and the City? (For TCT readers who do not follow popular culture, this is the title of a TV series and, now, two movies about four promiscuous women.)  

Sensitivity to the tragedy of war is a defining characteristic of our present age. So long as it does not amount to blind pacifism (or the growing Western unwillingness to confront evil), such sensitivity is a welcome kind of progress.

Insensitivity to the breakdown of the family and to the destructiveness of the “hook-up” culture, on the other hand, is a sure sign of moral regress.  This modern day inversion of ethical sensibilities is reminiscent of Mary Eberstadt’s observation that choices about food and diet now assume weighty moral significance, whereas the previously recognized moral weight of sexual decisions has all but been expunged from modern consciousness.

Today’s behavioral patterns are simply unimaginable without the revolutionary invention – fifty years ago – of the birth control pill. Its advocates herald it as the sine qua non of progress – though technical progress is of course not synonymous with moral progress.

But just how far have we regressed? Comparisons to previous eras can of course be tricky; nonetheless, the late British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe felt that Catholics today are confronted with a more hostile cultural environment than the one faced by the early Christians – at least when it comes to the issue of sexuality. 

Talk of hostility from the surrounding culture might sound overstated when, for example, the present composition of the Supreme Court suggests that Catholics exercise positions of influence in contemporary society.   But Anscombe was right to highlight the chasm between the Christian vision and the modern vision of sexuality – even if a great percentage of Catholics themselves now believe and behave in much the same way as everyone else. She wrote way back in 1972: 

But the quarrel is far greater between Christianity and the present-day heathen, post Christian, morality that has sprung up as a result of contraception. In one word: Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be.

The fact that we are worse off today (in this central aspect of human existence) than the early Christians may not be readily perceptible – even if personal heartache, family breakdown, and social discord seem more palpable by the day. But how many of us perceive, as we go about our daily lives, that the twentieth century was the bloodiest of all?

Our present historical predicament, dire as it is, nonetheless reminds us that we are not alone, that many Christians have gone before us, among them saints and martyrs. It also reassures us that just because we might be in the minority again today (and mediocre at best ourselves) does not mean that we are wrong.

In fact our times are plainly marked, even if some eyes prefer not to see, not only by pill-induced family disintegration, disease, and population implosion, but also by a disturbing commodification of female sexuality that characterized the pagan world. The resurgence of human trafficking, ubiquitous pornography, and the rise of the lucrative infertility industry’s marketing of young women’s eggs are but a few ugly features of our post-Christian brave new world. (Author Melanie Phillips reports, incidentally, that Britain now has a “Pagan Police Association” which has even been granted approval to observe its own holidays.)

Human nature has not changed in the last twenty centuries despite some great and hard-won achievements. Any “progress” still to come will not eliminate the human proclivity towards selfishness and destruction. This is why constant engagement with culture is part of the Christian vocation.

The early Christians ventured contra mundum (against the ways of the world) into uncharted territory. Anscombe felt that “the Catholic Christian badge now again means separation, even for such poor mediocrities, from what the unchristian world in the West approves and professes.” Separation does not mean isolation from other people or the culture at large; it does mean recognizing the “colossal strain” that exists today, as in ancient times, “between heathen morality and Christian morality.” 

The hope and the liberation only the Gospel can provide is needed as much today as ever before. People long, deep down, for an alternative even if they appear to be set in their ways and their ideas. “Seek dialogue”, Pope Benedict recently exhorted in Portugal, but since some truly are set in their ways, “be ready for martyrdom.”

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin D. Irala, M.D., the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, available now from the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
Straw Men
written by Tom, June 11, 2010
I agree that Catholics need to be engaged in culture and I am grateful for the Anscombe quotes you provided. The problem is that you employ straw men as your pagan interlocuters which are inconsistent with the reality of culture. You say that advocates of birth-control "herald the pill as the sina qua non of progress." That is simply untrue. If you are going to engage culture, you need an accurate understanding of it. It is very easy to hyperbolize and demonize your intellectual opponents, but it will do nothing for your cause if you avoid the truth.
God Save Us
written by Willie, June 11, 2010
Very good piece! Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice!
Tom demonstrates the strategy of the left when confronted by truth
written by Jacob, June 11, 2010

Tom if you're going to accuse someone of not supporting his position, it's always wise to support your position!

You seem like a hermit when you say that the other side of the culture wars doesn't idolize birth control, whether it be the regular "pill", morning after, or abortion.
All of their politics are built around their "truth" that a women's right to murder trumps the life of what her actions have created.

Go look at every social statistic from the last ten years if you want proof that the hook up culture is dominating the Western world and leading towards its demise at least in its current form.
written by Christian, June 11, 2010
"Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be."

Pithy and memorable.

I agree with Jacob. The West is obsessed with sex in its non-procreative capacities, and thus is also obsessed with contraception, and its thug handmaiden, abortion.
Avoiding martyrdom
written by Lee Gilbert, June 11, 2010
To me it is very telling that we challenge the culture on its annihilation of millions of unborn, but are very unwilling to challenge the sexual morality that drives the abortion culture. Oh we have official positions about contraception, fornication, pornography and immodesty- the elements that create hypersexuality in which the abortion culture flourishes- but we dare not oppose them with the same dedication and implacability that we bring to the pro-life cause. I think we sense that is where real martyrdom awaits. Are we going to picket the strip clubs, the pornography outlets, or create banners that say, "Have one more child" and hold them up at busy intersections? Prolife is at least respectable, but hitting at the heart of hypersexualism would be "extreme" and very dangerous. Am I wrong?
Just wondering
written by Quaecumque Vera, June 12, 2010
I am just wondering why the Catholic Thing so easily recognizes paganism in relation to sexuality but is silent when it comes to paganism and economic relations. Pornography, contraceptives and all the rest are pervasive because they pay and our civilization, the regime of capitalism, has the pursuit of Mammon as its highest aim. Interestingly, Jesus had more to say about money being a spiritual liability than just about anything else his teachings covered.
Wonderful Essay
written by Deacon Dana, June 12, 2010
I had just posted some related comments on my blog when I came across Mr. Hanley's essay. It's an insightful piece and much better written than my online scribblings. It needs wide dissemination and I have included links to it from my blog.

Catholic Thing is one of my daily doses of sanity. Thank you.

God's peace...
written by George Sim Johnston, June 12, 2010
Tom is entirely mistaken: All sorts of glowing predictions were made when the Pill was introcuded: That it would make marriages happier (the divorce rate shot up); that it would reduce the demand for abortion (ditto); that it would free women (who ended up the losers of the sexual revolution). The best prognosticator turned out to be Pope Paul VI in sec. 17 of Humanae Vitae
Eden in every age
written by debby, June 12, 2010
when i was a little girl, i would wonder what if adam & eve had rejected satan's apple? what would LIFE be like? now i am so old! & i think that the temptation in Eden is offered in each age in it's turn. our age has the "apple" of "choice." "choice" over which sex to marry, who to have sex with, how to avoid all consequences of any behavior. here's a clue: if it doesn't promote life, it's from the enemy of life. RUN! FLEE THE OCCASION OF SIN! and BRING LIFE WITH YOU IN EVERY SINGLE ARENA YOU ENTER. Yes, be a radical Catholic who is not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ! for within it, and there ALONE, is life, freedom, love. He is everything we need. and this world desperately needs to know. Tell the school teachers, the moms at the bus stop, the dads at little league, that lady in the supermarket. pray as you pass Strip Lounges for OUR LADY to bring them to Her Son & restore the dignity the enemy has stolen! ask God to give you opportunities to spread His Gospel & you will be amazed! say "GOD BLESS YOU"-even when people don't sneeze- instead of Good-bye and see what happens. people are dying for what we have!
Anscombe was great
written by Vincent, June 12, 2010
Thank you for this interesting perspective. Anscombe was great. CS Lewis could have told you that - after their famous debate at Oxford. By one story he ended up concentrating on his fiction writing afterwards

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