The Christian Sexual Revolution
The Truly Radical Revolution that Accompanied Christianity
“It is essential, therefore, that the values chosen and pursued in one’s life be true, because only true values can lead people to realize themselves fully, allowing them to be true to their nature. The truth of these values is to be found not by turning in on oneself but by opening oneself to apprehend that truth even at levels which transcend the person. This is an essential condition for us to become ourselves and to grow as mature, adult persons.”
— Fides et Ratio, Pope St. John Paul II, ¶25
By this point, even the most wild-eyed apologist for the sexual revolution can scarcely deny that something has gone terribly wrong. For the fourth year in a row, STD rates in the US are up. In fact, they’re at the highest level they’ve ever been. In 2017, gonorrhea rates soared 67%, chlamydia 21%, and syphilis 76%. The executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors thinks President Trump should declare that STDs are a “public health crisis.”
For some reason, when the hippies preached their gospel of free love, they never mentioned venereal disease. Neither did they mention the routine visits to the abortion clinic down the street to “take care of the problem,” or the massive amounts of synthetic hormones women would have to pump into their bodies to prevent the children for which their hearts are yearning, or the trillions of dollars spent on the divorces produced by an epidemic of infidelity.
I could go on. But what I have said is already more than enough to show that the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s has failed. Even a child can see that. Indeed, far too often it is precisely our children who do, when they are aborted en masse, or abandoned by their parents, too obsessed with their own fleeting “needs” to notice how the consequences of those needs redound upon the heads of their children.
What we desperately need now is a new sexual revolution; or rather, not a new revolution at all, but a reprisal of the original sexual revolution.
The Sexual Revolution: No Revolution at All
It is ironic that the sexual revolutionaries of the 60s ever convinced themselves they were doing something especially new. Viewed from the standpoint of the preceding centuries, yes, the sexual revolution appeared radical. Unheard of, however, it was not. Our historical memory is far too brief. Christians are often sneered at for wanting to “turn back the clock.” In reality, a great deal of what the sexual revolutionaries advocated turns out to be little more than a case of “turning back the clock” – with the same, predictable consequences.
As Dr. Benjamin Wiker observes in a recent article, radical sexual libertinism is scarcely an invention of liberated 20th century hippies: it was, in fact, the norm in many pre-Christian pagan societies. You can see it openly depicted in the pornographic wall paintings of the ancient Romans or read it in their literature. In some respects, in ancient Rome sexual liberation was even more complete: pedophilia, for instance, was not only not taboo, but encouraged, as were prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and even public sex (e.g. the public bacchanalia).
If anything deserves the title of the first sexual revolution, it was the truly radical revolution that accompanied the arrival of Christianity.
In the first place, the early Christians were sexual ascetics. They knew what the depraved aesthete does not know: that there are goods that transcend physical goods, and pleasures that are more pleasurable than bodily pleasures, and that these are the only goods and pleasures ultimately worth pursuing. The early Christians subordinated everything to the pursuit of spiritual goods, including happiness in the life to come. They did not reject sex as such (St. Paul is quite clear on that point), but they knew that without asceticism even sex soon loses its power to please, and worse.
This truth is far from obvious to the members of a dying, decadent society that has lost all sense of the spiritual. As Dr. Peter Kreeft writes, the sexual revolution of the 60s could not have happened “without the loss of true religion, the loss of spiritual joy, the loss of religious passion, the passionate love of God.” The human heart is infinitely restless. Through bitter failure, St. Augustine learned that the heart is restless until it rests in God. Without God, all we have is our restlessness. To fill it we often cast about for the best substitute for God we can find. Sex is frequently the first alternative we hit upon. And no wonder: sex is that overwhelmingly pleasurable experience by which, in this life, we are most intimately united with another person, in which we most completely overcome our individuality and rest in another. That is, sex is ecstatic.
Or rather, sex can be ecstatic. However, as the ancient Romans learned, and as the sexual revolutionaries of modernity have learned, the moment we make an end of sex – that is, we make sex an idol – is the moment sex turns on us. Sex untamed by asceticism becomes a devouring beast. Rather than transcending ourselves, we debase ourselves, and others. Hence the endemic sexual slavery, prostitution, infanticide, and exploitation of ancient Rome. Hence the disease, loneliness, divorce, abortion, and pornography of modernity.
In the second place, and more importantly, the Christians recaptured the two-fold purpose that God inscribed within the sexual act between husband and wife – that of union and procreation. The Christians had Genesis, and the teaching of Christ, and the writings of St. Paul to guide them. Each make clear that sex is not simply the exchange – or, worse yet, the taking – of pleasure. As great as the pleasure of sex may be, the pleasure turns out to be the least good part of sex. Better yet is the capacity for the conjugal act to draw a man and a woman (husband and wife) closer together in a bond of self-giving love – a love that is permanent and mutually enriching and fruitful.
Love, I say, and not lust – a rich, meaningful love that peels back the layers of our selfishness and allows another person into the depths of our heart, and vice versa. “Husbands,” says St. Paul, “should love their wives as their own bodies.” How different is this from the violent lust of the Roman aristocrat, unscrupulously using his sex slaves to satiate his insatiable appetites! And how different is this from the contemporary millennial, cruising the bars or his “dating” apps looking for a one-night stand – for a partner to scratch the itch of his desire. The pleasures of this deeper love are less frenetic and vehement than the purely physical pleasures of sex, and they require much in the way of self-sacrifice, but they speak to and satisfy the quieter, deeper cravings of our heart: for meaning and union.
But even better yet is the creative power of sex, which power is practically God-like, so much so that Christian theology views parents as “co-creators” of their children. To the Christian, the creative power of sex is not some peripheral quality of sex, but self-evidently intrinsic to it. To put aside, or ignore, this creative power is tantamount to pretending that drinking is not for quenching thirst or eating for nourishing the body. Furthermore, to reject sex’s creative potential is not freeing, but is rather to reject sex’s greatest gift of all – a new human being who is the symbol and fruit of the self-giving love of husband and wife. In ancient Rome, as in modern day Western society, this rejection was and is not only symbolic, but horrifically, murderously literal: in the widespread practice of infanticide and abortion.
The Likeness of God
It is hard for human beings in our fallen state to see beneath the surface of things. The pleasures of sex are self-evident to any who has experienced sexual desire. The layers of the meaning of sex, though perfectly accessible to the non-Christian, are less self-evident. Concupiscence blinds us. Christ, however, is the light that dispels the shadows. Pagan society labored in the shadows of concupiscence and sin. Christ showed ancient society a better path forward – one based upon the truth about the human person, and the high dignity of our destiny.
Thus, the “new sexual revolution” that I am advocating will not be transformative by simply “turning back the clock,” but by capturing what has always been true – man is a spiritual being made in the image of God. We see what God intended for his sons and daughters in Mary, the mother of Jesus. She, who was destined to be the Mother of God by the grace of her Immaculate Conception, was conceived without sin; therefore, she did not have consequences of original sin. Being spotless, she did not suffer the rupture and effects of concupiscence. Her intellect and will were united with the will of God. “Do whatever He tells you to do,” Mary says.
The immediate consequence of original sin is shame, which is manifested by Adam and Eve’s denial of Love as the source of creation. The serpent tempts them to accept that God is withholding Himself from them: “For God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] …you will be like God knowing good and evil.” — Gen 3:5
What is the implication revealed by the tempter? – God doesn’t want you to be like Him – God is not Love. If you want to be like God, you must grasp this likeness to God to possess it for yourself. This is a story that has a tragic ending. What is forgotten is that man and woman have already been freely given this most precious gift – the likeness to God.
A Revolution of Tenderness
Our youth and young adults are overwhelmed by a torrential onslaught of moral filth in all forms of media. Even their schools and institutions are not immune from instruction in promiscuity and perversion. The widespread propaganda in support of immorality – impurity, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce – signify an assault on family and life and the Christian understanding of the human person and human sexuality that is unparalleled since the days of ancient paganism.
The new sexual revolution I am advocating will be revolutionary only in the sense that someone who is walking precisely the opposite direction needs to be spun around, face-forward. Our culture is walking straight towards a cliff; in the past six decades, the bodies (both literal and figurative) have been piling up.
Most revolutions are loud, violent affairs. The communists preached the brotherhood of man, and we got the gulags. The sexual revolutionaries preached universal love, and we got STDs, AIDS, and abortion. However, the first, Christian, sexual revolution was a different kind of revolution. It was, to use a term coined by Pope Francis, a “revolution of tenderness.” It built – to use St. Pope John Paul II’s phrase – a “civilization of love.”
The violent, lustful deities of pagan Rome were gradually exorcised. Laws against pedophilia and sexual slavery were passed. The truth about human nature was inscribed in the structures of law and culture, eradicating the worst abuses, protecting the vulnerable, and creating the conditions for stable societies. In jettisoning all of this, the sexual revolutionaries of the 60s have simply re-opened Pandora’s Box, unleashing anew upon the world the myriad evils that Christian civilization had, at the cost of great effort, restrained.
Ultimately, however, as Dr. Peter Kreeft rightly observes, this new sexual revolution cannot even be a sexual revolution as such. It must, as it was in the early Church, be first and foremost a spiritual revolution.
“What then do we need to defeat this [sexual] revolution, which has brought about such immense destruction, and eventual death, to families, and eventually to society?” he writes. “Reason, logic, argument, science, facts, common sense, compromise, return to tradition – none of these are strong enough. What is strong enough? Only one thing. Nothing less than Jesus Christ will do.
“Why? Because the heart of the error of the Sexual Revolution is the identifying of love with sex. Christ undoes this fundamental confusion by showing us – not just telling us, but showing us – what love is.”
During the canonization of Maria Goretti in 1950, Pius XII spoke about her fortitude in safeguarding her purity and virginity. Even as a young girl of twelve confronted by evil, Maria understood the demands of living the life won for her in Christ Jesus. She was aware of the dangers and consequences. She remained vigilant to defend her chastity, preserving in prayer and entrusting her purity to the motherly love of Our Lady.
Over 500,000 people gathered around the Holy Father on this momentous occasion to celebrate the heroic witness and virtue of this young, poor farm girl. Recognizing the moral crisis of his day, prompted by the Holy Spirit, Pius XII prophetically challenged the young people and families gathered:
“Dearly beloved youth, young men and women, who are the special object of the love of Jesus and of us, tell me, are you resolved to resist firmly, with the help of divine grace, every attempt made to violate your chastity?
“You fathers and mothers, tell me—in the presence of this vast multitude, and before the image of this young virgin who by her inviolate candor has stolen your hearts…in the presence of her mother who educated her to martyrdom and who, as much as she felt the bitterness of the outrage, is now moved with emotion as she invokes her, tell me, are you ready to assume the solemn duty laid upon you to watch, as far as in you lies, over your sons and daughters, to preserve and defend them against so many dangers that surround them, and to keep them always far away from places where they might learn the practices of impiety and of moral perversion?”
His challenge rang true then as it rings true today!
Dr. Wiker and Dr. Kreeft beautifully and rightly pinpoint the transforming power of the Gospel. It changed how our world viewed sex, marriage and the meaning of life. The Culture of Death seeks to rob man of his inherent dignity and recreate him as a secular atheistic being. It reshapes his view of self, including his understanding of human sexuality. The world is starving for love. Human beings were made for love. This latest sexual revolution has drained sex of love, and practically all its transcendent meaning. The time is ripe for a revolution against the revolution, a revolution that will be kindled in the hearts and homes of every Christian and in turn set the world alight with love.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.