The Tragedy of an Opportunity Missed

Whenever a great revolution transforms a nation – for example, the French Revolution that began in 1789, or the Russian Communist Revolution that began in 1917, or the German Nazi Revolution that began in 1933 – there will always be dissenters, people who are unwilling or unable to give their approval to the new state of affairs.

For the most part, these dissenters will be quiet about their dissent – otherwise, they might lose their jobs or their freedom or their lives.  Besides, the counter-revolutionary movement that they might be inclined to support will have few conspicuous leaders or none, for the leaders of the revolution will see to it that potential leaders of a counter-revolution will be shot or decapitated.

And so the revolution rolls on, and the impression is created that the masses of the people – whether French or Russian or German – are enthusiastic supporters of the revolution.  It is conceded that there are dissenters, so many dissenters in fact that the triumph of the revolution requires a great struggle against them, a struggle that will “liquidate” dissenters by the use of guillotines or concentration camps or gulags – or simply a bullet in the back of the head.

Those who dissent from the revolution learn to be quiet.   Their silence contributes greatly to the impression that almost everybody (especially all the smart and well-intentioned people) supports the revolution.

When the storm passes, those Frenchmen and Russians and Germans who disapproved of the revolution, hitherto timid, show their faces once again, and it turns out that they are far more numerous than we had supposed.  These famous revolutions, we now realize, never had anything close to unanimous support.

In the last 50 or 60 years in the United States we too have had a revolution – not a political revolution (though it has had a great impact on our politics), but a cultural or moral revolution: the so-called Sexual Revolution.  Beginning sometime in the 1960s, that decade when there was a generalized rebellion of young persons against the authority of older persons, sexual taboos that had been generally accepted for decades, if not centuries, were suddenly tossed out the window and replaced with a spirit of sexual permissiveness.


All of a sudden, premarital sex was fine, and so was unmarried cohabitation, and so was pornography, and so was unmarried motherhood, and so was easy divorce, and so was abortion, and so (after a bit of a delay) was homosexuality.  By the 1970s everybody, it seems, was on board.  Not just young persons who were sexually vigorous, but older persons well beyond their sexual heyday.

For instance, even the old men of the U.S. Supreme Court were on board, as 7 out of 9 of them demonstrated with their Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.  If the Court said that abortion, the most extreme product of the Sexual Revolution, was okay, it was by implication telling the nation that the entire Revolution was okay.

As in any revolution, there were dissenters from the Sexual Revolution, large numbers of persons who disapproved of the new regime of sexual freedom.  But they were relatively quiet – though not as quiet as dissenters in the French, Russian, and German revolutions, since in American no guns or gulags or guillotines were used to discourage dissent.  All the same, dissent has been effectively repressed by heaping scorn and ridicule and contempt on dissenters.  Think of how quiet dissenters were when we had a recent national celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month.

Further, there were no effective national leaders of a sexual counter-revolution.  There were some Evangelical Protestant ministers who offered strong resistance, but their influence didn’t extend much beyond their own sect. They were of little or no national influence.

Here, in my opinion, was a golden opportunity missed by the Catholic Church.  The sexual teachings and values of the Catholic religion are diametrically opposed to the teachings and values of the Sexual Revolution.  Catholic bishops and priests could have put themselves at the head of a sexual counter-revolution.  They were potentially its natural leaders.  And yet, with a very small number of honorable exceptions here and there, they decided on a policy of silence and accommodation.  As a result, the potential counter-revolution never took place.

Oh, we know the excuses offered – amazingly feeble excuses.  For example: “There is no need for us to shout from the rooftops in denunciation of sexual freedom.  Everybody knows what the Catholic Church teaches.”  They say this as if they are unaware that there is a distinction between pro forma teachings effective teachings.

It may be said in defense of our clerical leaders that they have been very clear in their opposition to one important aspect of the Sexual Revolution, namely abortion.  Still, they have offered little or no effective resistance when Catholic politicians – usually Democrats – openly pursue and promote pro-abortion policies; or when these politicians proclaim the moral heresy that there is nothing self-contradictory in being a pro-abortion Catholic.  Was a single one of these politicians ever excommunicated?  How many have ever been denied Communion?

In recent decades we’ve heard a lot about the “new evangelization.”  But history – or was it God’s Providence? – gave the Church a golden opportunity to spread its message and win converts by responding loudly and courageously to the Sexual Revolution.

Had the Catholic Church taken a very strong and very conspicuous stand against the Sexual Revolution, had it placed itself at the head of a sexual counter-revolution, it would, to be sure, have lost many of its lukewarm members, but who can doubt that it would have won great numbers of new members from among the tens of millions of Americans who dissent from the Sexual Revolution?  Besides, the Church is losing these lukewarm members anyway.  And the new converts would have been red-hot, the opposite of lukewarm.  One fervent Catholic probably makes up for ten tepid Catholics.

What a shame!  What a tragedy! – both for the Church and for the United States of America.


*Image: Destruction of the French Collossus by James Gillray, 1798 [British Museum, London]. Gillray’s print depicts the end of the French revolutionary regime (the Colossus) consequence of a British lightning bolt.

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s The American Exceptionalism Thing

Mary Eberstadt’s The Cross Amid the Crisis

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 and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.