I suspect this will be a controversial post.
Nevertheless, I believe there is a good motivation behind what follows, as it comes from a genuine desire to explore “the moral and spiritual dignity of human beings”—taught by the Catechism of the Catholic Church—in collision and contrast with some popular values of contemporary society. It is, however, only a thinking through, not a treatise or proclamation. I share it in the hope that it might be of some productive value to those who decide to read and contemplate the ideas presented. Whether that hope will be realized is a matter of your choice in receiving it (or not).
This entry began as a response to a prompt for a Formation course in Catholic Moral Principles. As a result, its content both depends upon and presumes a moral perspective grounded in the teachings of the Catholic Church. If you do not hold and are not willing to entertain this perspective, I suggest you stop reading now and save yourself some aggravation.
“So called moral permissiveness rests on an erroneous conception of human freedom.” (CCC 2526)
In the modern world, and in the United States perhaps more than anywhere else, we have elevated an idea of “freedom” to near-divine status. In itself, this need not be cause for concern but the particular “freedom” we cherish seems to be based entirely on each individual being permitted to do as she or he sees fit. Our political rhetoric (on both sides of the party fence) is built around notions of being “free” that mean an almost completely unbounded, self-determined freedom from governmental restraint, freedom from social interference or obligation, and freedom to pursue personal ‘happiness’ without regard to the “common good.” This sort of freedom, the story goes, will ‘naturally’ lead to a harmonious society because if each pursues his own happiness, then all will be happy. The presumption that is often included with this outlook is that ‘happiness’ of this sort is, of course, synonymous with “virtue.” As a result, we have a culture that is not only pervaded [and perverted] “moral permissiveness” but even celebrates and rewards it.
None of this, however, is “human freedom” according to Church teaching:
“Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” (CCC 2339)
In this brief statement, the “pursuit of happiness” under the guise just discussed is exposed as a disorder and decadence. It is little wonder that with every new acquisition, every new “right”, every new iPhone and so on…, we soon find ourselves dissatisfied and unhappily scurrying for the next, the new, the certain-to-fulfill-us-this-time whatever. We have insisted on the right to be ‘masters of ourselves’ without taking the responsibility of first seeking “self-mastery.” Thus dominated by passions, we become only unhappy.
“When the Apostle says, ‘You have been washed and sanctified’, he speaks of a change for the better; bringing, not exemption from concupiscence [non posse peccare], which is impossible in this life, but FREEDOM from obedience to it, a thing which can happen in a good life.” (St. Augustine, Against Julian the Pelagian)
As St. Augustine notes for us here, what truly binds us and prevents our “freedom” is sin. The Catechism echoes this sentiment:
“The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin.’” (CCC 1733)
Our unhappiness consists precisely in this “abuse of freedom” and the “slavery of sin” to which it leads. The ‘freedom’ celebrated in our culture inverts the teaching of the Catechism by attempting to assert that ‘the freer one is, the more good one becomes.’ By what measure can we judge the lie of our modern ‘prophets’ of cultural permissiveness?
“You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.” (Mt. 6:16-17)
“Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.” (CCC 2333)
Cultural sensibilities and tastes change over time, and the Church acknowledges that the forms modesty takes can vary among cultures (CCC 2524). Men in petticoat breeches, high-heels, makeup, and wigs were not “transgender” in the 17thand 18th centuries, they were gentlemen and dignitaries (even the papal robes of Pope Innocent X were rather frilly and dress-like). Perhaps such fashions will return to Western culture again someday [though I doubt my feet could take it] but, in the meantime, what we currently call “gender non-conformity” may be as simple as a matter of mistimed taste (either too early or too late) and not necessarily a “dysphoria” in need of ‘treatment’ by way of indulgence.
My point here is that one can be “modest” without being entirely in step with the cultural fashion or expectations of their ‘gender’—though this is finally only possible precisely because “sexual identity” is not a fungible property. Man and woman are each other’s complements; we have no need for a tertium quid constructed by appending “trans-” to either of these.
And yet, we have adjudged ourselves better arbiters of identity than God—and have done so, lest we forget, in the name of freedom and in pursuit of happiness—by giving and revering new and more exciting sexual identities. The mass media circus surrounding Caitlyn Jenner and the concurrent, almost violent silencing of any “transphobic” dissenting voices marks a new stage of this cultural decadence. Worse yet, since the celebration of transsexuality was not enough to make us “happy,” and the conveyance of ‘bravery’ awards on transsexuals did not make us “happy” [because, as noted, all of this is looking for happiness in the wrong direction], we have begun pharmacologically and surgically interfering with the development of pre-pubescent children.
This latest trend should not surprise us though, since we medicate and surgically alter everything that impedes our ‘free’ pursuit of ‘happiness.’ What else is technological advancement for, if not to make us feel better? And besides, how can it be bad if it’s “scientifically proven”?
“It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications.” (CCC 2294)
No, that we’ve lost sight of this truth offered by the Catechism should not surprise us; what is surprising, however, is the source to which I turn to reinforce the point:
“One has promoted science during the last centuries partly because it was through science that one hoped best to understand God’s goodness and wisdom […]; partly because one believed in the absolute usefulness of knowledge […]; and partly because one believed that in science one had and loved something selfless, harmless, self-sufficient, and truly innocent in which the evil drives of humanity had no part at all […] – in sum, because of three errors.” (Nietzsche, Die fröliche Wissenschaft, §37)
That’s right, it’s Nietzsche and he’s completely on point. The pursuit and development of what we call science today was initially spurred by our desire to know the Creator by examining creation. The error Nietzsche notes was when we began to think that such examination would lead to the “best” understanding of “God’s goodness and wisdom,” for (as the Catholic perspective holds) the best understanding of God comes through the revealed Word. More surprising, though, is Nietzsche’s direct reflection of CCC 2294 when he notes that it is an error to think that science is free from the “evil drives of humanity” (which we would call “concupiscence”).
And these same errors contributed to the development of a culture that has come to a woeful state:
“The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.” (Nietzsche, “Preface,” Die fröliche Wissenschaft, §3)
One’s life is a mistake, born into the wrong body, ‘born this way’: Continually dissatisfied, frustrated, and sad because “life itself has become a problem”…but life, as the Catholic knows, is a gift—a gift accompanied by the aids to the moral rectitude that leads to the true happiness offered to us by God through Christ.
III. Contemporary Culture is an Attack on Church Teaching
“Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is ‘an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.’” (CCC 2344)
“Christian purity requires a purification of the social climate. It requires of the communications media that their presentations show concern for respect and restraint. Purity of heart brings freedom from widespread eroticism and avoids entertainment inclined to voyeurism and illusion.” (CCC 2525)
I don’t know that these citations need comment. If you think they do, channel-surf Lifetime, Bravo, and E! for a couple hours and then tell me if you don’t see the problem. What I want to end on is a reason why our social climate is as it is…
“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! […] The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us?” (Nietzsche, Die fröliche Wissenschaft, §125)
The section is much longer than that but I’m betting many haven’t seen even this much of the context of Nietzsche’s most infamous quote. It is not a happy, triumphant, or proudly ‘atheistic’ statement he’s making. It’s a social diagnosis with a chilling prognosis—
“‘God is dead’ [means] that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable […] and, now that this faith has been undermined, [our entire morality] must collapse because it was built on this faith, leaned on it, had grown into it.” (Nietzsche, Die fröliche Wissenschaft, §343)
Even Nietzsche—the darling demon of high-school “atheists” [most of them aren’t really, by the way, they’re just trying to be rebellious and/or annoy you]—understood that morality relies on faith in God and that modern values are evidence that we live in a culture of unbelief. He wasn’t wrong and I think we do well to take his statements, shocking though they may be, to heart. We live in a culture which not only attacks Church teaching but which has been bleeding belief in God for centuries. God is dead to our neighbors but we know they are wrong; to open their eyes, we must be living signs of the Truth.
God lives, Christ is risen,
and our hearts and lives must
attest to the Resurrection
in order to
affect a resurrection of faith
in our culture.