- The Catholic Thing - https://www.thecatholicthing.org -

Catholics & Pagans: Then & Now

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 [1] 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 [2], 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’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.