Seeds of Destruction

The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) said that every civilization (but the final one) contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.  And this explains how history moves forward.  A), a fine civilization, eventually self-destructs and is succeeded by B), an even finer civilization; then B self-destructs and is succeeded by C), a still finer thing; and so on until mankind finally arrives at the best of all possible civilizations, which will not self-destruct.

Karl Marx (1818-83) was a kind of anti-Hegel Hegelian; rejecting some parts of Hegel while keeping others.  One part he retained was the “seeds of destruction” notion.  According to Marx, capitalism, a fine thing in some ways and a bad thing in others, necessarily creates the proletariat (the urban working class); and it is the proletariat that is the seed of capitalist destruction. In time the proletariat becomes large, well organized, and immensely powerful – more powerful than the capitalist class that called it into existence.  The proletarians will then make a revolution, overthrow the capitalists, abolish private property, and create a utopian society that is communist, classless, prosperous, and fully democratic.  Human history has a happy ending.

Could a latter-day Hegel make an argument that Christianity contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction?  I think so.  In fact, this is exactly the argument that the LGBT movement is making.  They are not making it precisely in the form of an argument.  They don’t cite Hegel or Marx.  They don’t offer a syllogism intended to convince a disinterested bystander that Christianity will self-destruct.  But they act and argue on the assumption that Christianity contains within itself the seed of its own destruction – and that this developed seed is now in the process of destroying Christianity.

But what is this seed of destruction?  It is caritas, or agape, or love of neighbor.

A half-century ago, Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal clergyman and a professor at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA,  wrote a theological best seller titled Situation Ethics: the New Morality. Fletcher argued that Christianity, which at first glance seems to have many commandments, really has only one: Love your neighbor; always do the loving thing. The ethic of Christianity is an ethic of love.

This sometimes means, said Fletcher, that in order to obey the supreme moral law, the law of love, we will have to break the lesser laws.  In an appendix to his book, Fletcher offers a few cases to illustrate his thesis.

One of them is about a German woman who at the end of World War II was arrested by the Russians and put in a prison camp in Ukraine.  Meanwhile back in Berlin her husband and children were distraught at not being able to find her.  She learned about their distress.  She understood that one way of getting released from the camp, so that she could return to her family, was to get pregnant.  So she asked a friendly prison guard to impregnate her.  Which he did.  (Whether he did this in a spirit of Christian charity, or in some other spirit, Fletcher doesn’t tell us.)


She was consequently released and returned to her family, who were happy to welcome not just her but her pending new baby.  This woman violated the commandment against adultery, but she did so in order to obey the higher commandment of love – love in this case for her husband and children.

In Fletcher’s view, there is in principle no rule of Christian morality that is exceptionless; no rule that cannot be lovingly violated in some circumstances.  You could, for example, murder your mother if by so doing you’d save 10,000 lives. (This is my example, not Fletcher’s.) Fletcher could say in response to this matricide example, “Don’t be silly.  The situation will never arise in which you can save 10,000 people by murdering your mother.  Your example is purely hypothetical.”  Probably, that’s true.  But if the situation were to arise, Fletcher – if he meant to be consistent – would have to say that murdering your mother would be the Christian thing to do.

The idea is this: that in Christianity “Love your neighbor,” being the supreme commandment, trumps all other commandments, e.g., “Don’t steal,” “Don’t lie,” “Don’t commit adultery,” “Don’t murder,” “Don’t commit abortion,” and “Don’t engage in gay or lesbian sex.”

Decades ago the LGBT movement began telling sad stories of homosexual persons who were “born that way” and who wanted two fundamental human rights: to be “who they really are” and to marry the persons they love.  We were told to feel compassion for these persons, suffering under a cultural regime of homophobia.  We had to be kind.  And if we were Christians, we ought to show love for our homosexual neighbors by saying in effect, “On this matter (homosexuality) our religion has been wrong for 2,000 years.”

In liberal Protestant churches (though not in conservative Protestant churches), ancient Biblical and Christian strictures against homosexual conduct have been openly repudiated. Practicing gays and lesbians have been ordained.

Among Catholic young persons, there is a great deal of open repudiation of the traditional Christian teaching about homosexuality; ask almost any Catholic college student.  Yet among our clerical class (priests and bishops) there has been virtually no open repudiation.  Good news? Not exactly, for there has been much implicit repudiation.  If the old proverb is true when it says that “silence gives consent,” then our clerical class has, by its almost unbroken silence about homosexuality, given its consent as American society has drifted more and more in the direction of believing that homosexuality is a good thing.

It should be needless to say that whoever repudiates the ancient Christian teaching on homosexuality repudiates Christianity itself.  A misunderstood idea of “love your neighbor” – or perhaps I should say a sentimentalized version of the idea – is ruining Catholicism in the USA.  We have to remember that the commandment to “love” doesn’t nullify the ban on homosexual behavior. It explains it.


*Image: The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by Jules-Joseph-Augustin Laurens, c. 1880 [Musée Des Beaux-Arts, Orleans, France]

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.