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A Golden Opportunity Lost

Viewed from the outside it seems that when a revolution sweeps a country – for instance, the French Jacobin Revolution, the Russian Communist Revolution, the German Nazi Revolution – nearly everybody in the country is on board. Enthusiasm for the revolution is almost universal.

But this isn’t so.  In the cases just mentioned, great multitudes of Frenchmen, Russians, and Germans were not on board.  They hated what was happening.  For the most part, though, they were intimidated by the party of the revolution, a party in control of the police, the army, the mob, and all the organs of propaganda.  The anti-revolution party was unorganized and lacking in both resources and leadership.

When the modern sexual revolution swept America in the 1960s and 1970s, American Catholicism, it seems to me, missed a golden opportunity.  (I myself didn’t realize this at the time.  Far from it.  Only in retrospect, as I became much older and a little bit wiser, did I come to this realization.)

Beginning in the 1960s, half of America went mad in its enthusiasm for sexual freedom. And Catholics, having become good Americans, went along with this madness.  But not all Americans went mad, and neither did all Catholics.  From east to west, from north to south, millions of Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, felt that this enthusiasm for sexual freedom was crazy, and a very dangerous craziness at that.

But these dissenters tended to be quiet.  They were a silent majority – or if not quite a majority at least a very numerous minority.  They realized that their pro-chastity leanings were very unfashionable.  And this embarrassed them.  They realized that if they were to speak up they would be laughed at.

And as time went by they realized that they would be not only ridiculed but censured – as being anti-woman and anti-gay.  They would be condemned as sexist and homophobic and (beginning just the other day) as transphobic; as bigots and haters.  And so they held their peace.

The leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States (and by “leaders” I mean bishops and priests, for ours is and always has been a cleric-led religion) could have spoken out for these people, could have been their great representative – whether they were Catholics or non-Catholics.  Our clerical leaders could have put themselves at the head of the sexual counter-revolution.

For the most part, they did not; they too were embarrassed.  And this failure to speak out often and emphatically against sexual freedom was the missed “golden opportunity” mentioned above.

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Of course, there was no official repeal of the traditional Catholic bans on fornication, unmarried cohabitation, divorce, marital contraception, adultery, and homosexual practice.  And to some notable extent the Church’s leaders made it clear that the Church disapproved of abortion; but even with regard to abortion, they didn’t make nearly as much noise as they might have.

Instead our leaders, with here and there some notable and noble exceptions (I am thinking for example of Fr. Frank Pavone), adopted an attitude of, “Let’s not talk about this.  Let’s pretend we don’t know what’s happening.”

By way of justification for their silence, they said things like this to themselves.

  • “Jesus promised that his Church will always endure.”
  • “We survived the Reformation, the French Revolution, Communism, and Nazism, not to mention two World Wars. We’ll survive the sexual revolution too.”
  • “If we speak about sex matters we’ll irritate ten parishioners for every one we edify.”
  • “Everybody knows what the Church teaches about sexual morality. No need for me to bore my people with reiteration.”
  • “Annoyed parishioners will reduce their contributions, both monetary and otherwise, to the parish.”
  • “Rich Catholic contributors to the diocese will think I’m a trouble-making bishop.”
  • “Some annoyed parishioners will write to the bishop telling him that I’m being uncharitable; and the bishop will tell me to cool it.”
  • “Young people will be so annoyed that they will abandon the faith.”
  • “Ditto for women who have had abortions.”
  • “Ditto for gays and lesbians and their relatives.”

No doubt a strong and unambiguous emphasis on Catholic sexual values would have driven many people out of the Church, people more attuned to the values of American secularism/atheism than to the values of Jesus Christ.  But the vacancies caused by these losses might well have been replenished, and more than replenished, by the millions of hitherto non-Catholics who would have streamed into the Church when they discovered that the Catholic Church was giving voice to their own negative feelings about the sexual revolution.

“I’m not alone in my doubts as to the merits of sexual license,” people would have said.  “I’m not alone in my disgust.  The ancient and honorable Roman Catholic Church agrees with me.”

Even now, sixty years or so after the beginning of the sexual revolution in America, there may still be time for America’s Catholic clergy to place themselves at the head of the counter-revolution.  Despite the fact that pro-revolution people control most of the command posts of American culture – I mean: journalism, social media, the entertainment industry, our leading colleges and universities, most of our public schools, one of our two great political parties, and all the liberal Protestant denominations – there are still millions and millions of Americans who, after witnessing the untold misery it has wrought, hate the ongoing sexual revolution.  They yearn for adequate leadership.

The Catholic Church could offer this leadership if it had clerical leaders who were up to the task.  I fear, however, that for the most part our leaders don’t realize that their task at the present day is to be crusaders for Christ – warriors against sexual freedom and other byproducts of modern-day atheism.  They seem to think their job is to mind the store until Jesus returns.

The ancient Stoics identified something they called “the lazy fallacy.”  This is the mentality that says, “Since everything is in God’s hands, I can sit back and relax.”

We can’t.

 

*Image: The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries), c. 1495–1505 [The MET Cloisters, New York]

David Carlin

David Carlin is a 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.