Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Promiscuity Ethic versus the Chastity Ethic

The battle today over the shape of marriage and family in the Western world is not really between pro- and anti-same sex marriage. It is actually between advocates of two mutually exclusive and competing versions of sexual ethics: the promiscuity ethic and the chastity ethic.

The chastity ethic is the traditional and Christian view that holds that sex is for marriage and marriage is an inter-generational institution for the raising of children and the disciplining of immature and selfish individuals toward the goals of maturity and mutual service. As such this vision of marriage forms the foundation for a society of free people who do not require support, indoctrination and heavy-handed direction in the details of life from the government and a class of professional planners and social engineers.

The promiscuity ethic is a 20th century phenomenon that holds that people should have sexual relations freely with anyone at all as desire dictates, rather than being constrained by the limits imposed by life-long, exclusive marriage relationships. The promiscuity ethic views all requirements for sexual self-discipline as "repression," which is basically the myth that you will die without sex. This ethic produces people who live in a perpetual state of adolescence and who are incapable of restraining their appetites and governing themselves. So accompanying the extreme hedonistic individualism of this ethic is an openness to the "nanny state" or "welfare state," which encroaches on the natural rights and responsibilities of the family in order to bring order into the chaos produced by permissiveness and personal irresponsibility. So the state begins to support children financially, determine how they will be educated, lay down detailed rules for how they will be entertained, indoctrinated and disciplined (or more likely not disciplined).

Now, there have been times in Western civilization when family life and sexual morality have broken down in ways similar to the present time, as for example in 18th century England or revolutionary France. But the novelty of our time is that such family breakdown, increased petty vices and crime, high suicide rates, public indecency and indolence is heralded by the deep thinkers of our intellectual and chattering classes as "progressivism in action."

The promiscuity ethic is seen in two main effects: no-fault, casual divorce and same sex marriage. Behind these two major social revolutions lie a view of sexuality as a trivial thing that we share in common with the animals. Young people are assumed to become sexually active at puberty and remain sexually active throughout their lives regardless of marital status. Sex is seen as being "like taking a drink of water," that is, as a natural function no more personal than eating or defecating.

It always was Christianity that has held a high view of sexuality, viewing it as something personal and human, something not reducible to a mere bodily function. Christians believe that sex reveals something of the nature of God when it is practiced with chastity and self-control. The total giving of the self to another and the union of two persons in matrimony is seen as imaging the Triune God, as Genesis 1 teaches. Any society that holds a high view of marriage will attain a level of humanistic values that other societies never can attain. The Christian influence on society in this regard is extremely valuable.

The chastity ethic holds that sexual self-control is possible because persons are created in God's image as rational and moral creatures capable of making choices. The virtue of chastity allows the person to make a gift of the self to the other in such a way as to join the other in a joint pursuit of a common good, that is, children and family. The virtue of chastity is necessary all through life because to be committed to one's husband or wife in the project of marriage, including child-rearing, will mean giving up sexual gratification for varying periods of time due to the exingencies of life.

The virtue of chastity makes sexual union a personal union, rather than a mutual use of one another's bodies for gratification. Such a personal union is not closed in upon itself, but is open to the transmission of life, which means more than we usually think of as procreation. It means the raising, education and nurture of children in the faith so that they come to a personal, mature, Christian faith of their own and eventually marry and establish Christian families of their own. This is a life-long, inter-generational project and not something fleeting, temporary or reversible. Immersion in such a project is a school of character and an aid to sanctification. It is also a witness to the reality and nature of God.

Divorce destroys the permanence necessary to marriage as an inter-generational project. Same sex marriage is inherently non-procreative. Both are ordered to the fulfillment of the desires of the individual, rather than to procreation. Therefore both ultimately destroy marriage in the traditional sense and trivialize sexuality. Promiscuity is essentially the trivialization of sex. The sexual revolution of the last 40 years is doomed to self-destruct eventually, just as certainly as was the Soviet Union, and for similar reasons; both are built on a flawed anthropology. Human beings were made for better and the human spirit will eventually rebel against trivialization and de-personalization.

Christianity has few gifts more precious, beneficial and profoundly humanizing to offer the wider society. For the Church to conform to the increasingly nihilistic, hedonistic, individualism of the late modern West, instead of maintaining this counter-cultural witness, is tragic. It is nothing less than a failure to be salt and light in the world and a failure to seek the peace of the city in which we are exiled. The task of the Church is conservative insofar as we are speaking about conserving the family as the bedrock of society and the institution that civilizes citizens and humanizes life in the world. For those who pay close attention to the witness of the Church in this area, the Gospel of Jesus Christ will appear clearly as Christians live the Christian life out in the context of sex, marriage, children, and family. "You are the light of the world." (Matt. 5:14)


Halden said...

I'll only raise one question here, a serious one, not an attempt to promote any saber-rattling. You say:

"For those who pay close attention to the witness of the Church in this area, the Gospel of Jesus Christ will appear clearly as Christians live the Christian life out in the context of sex, marriage, children, and family."What about singles? Singleness (understood in the context of celibacy) has always been a fundamental part of the Christian witness, and it seems to me that it is the life of singleness, just as much if not more so than marriage that has come to be understood perversely in our culture.

Craig Carter said...

I'll accept the question as a serious one. See the next post.