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Those Catechized By Pagans

A reader — a conservative Christian intellectual — passes this on to me, saying it’s pretty much his view of the gay marriage controversy. The author of the passage below is not my reader, but rather a Catholic named Paul Griffiths (who was quoted here):

It is a widely accepted norm of moral theology that the Church should not expect the civil law of a secular state to approximate in every particular the content of the moral law, stricto sensu. Prudential judgment about what the Church should advocate is needed in every particular case of divergence between the two. Relevant to such judgment is consideration of the degree to which what the Church teaches on the matter is likely to prove comprehensible to the locals. In the America of our day, it is about as difficult (or as easy) to make what the Church teaches about marriage comprehensible and convincing (the latter more difficult than the former) to the educated locals as it is to make the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence so.

If that empirical claim is right… , then the conclusion strongly suggested by it is that the Church should not, at the moment, oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions. Those who have undergone a profoundly pagan catechesis on these questions will believe and behave as pagans do; it would be good for them and for the Church if the Church were not to attempt to constrain them by advocating positions in public policy based upon the view that what she teaches resonates in all human hearts—because it doesn’t, true though it is.

What the pagans need on this matter is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

This brought to mind something I read earlier this week, and which deepened both my understanding of why we are at this point in our culture, and my pessimism. My brother-in-law discovered a large trove of letters my late sister wrote to him in 1986, when he was off at military training, and she was preparing for her senior year of high school. The letters are a gold mine of detail about what it was like to be a teenager in our small town in the mid-1980s. Ruthie, my sister, did not offer much reflection on events in town, but mostly kept Mike updated on news from within the teenage community, which was his community too (Mike is one year older than Ruthie).

Having read those letters, one thing that stands out to me is how widespread sexual activity was among the so-called “good kids” of that time. Ruthie didn’t pass judgment, at least not in the letters (and truth to tell, I doubt very much that she passed judgment at all). Her letters aren’t gossipy in tone; they only tell of friends who had become pregnant in high school, or who were dealing with the aftermath of teen pregnancy, or who were afraid that they were pregnant, or were going to get pregnant. The dispassionate nature of her voice gives these statements more weight; you can tell from the context that she’s not scandalized by them or unnerved by them. She’s simply passing on news of what’s going on among their social set.

The thing that I notice is the lack of moral anxiety over all this. Mind you, one has to be careful not to overinterpret the correspondence of one person. Still, the impression I’m left with after having read these 150 or so letters is that teenagers in my town back then worried a lot about the practical consequences of the sex they were having — pregnancy, mostly — but not much about whether or not God cared, or if they were doing something that violates the moral law. The presence of guilt is entirely absent from these accounts. My guess is that if Ruthie’s friends and acquaintances were struggling with guilt, she would have mentioned it; all she mentions is that these people worry about pregnancy, or, to a lesser degree, what happens if their parents find out that they’re having sex.

These were middle-class kids who were by and large churchgoers (or who at least would have identified as Christian), living in a socially conservative town in the Reagan era. I, at the time, wouldn’t have called myself a Christian, or much of one, and wrestled intensely with doubt. I was two years older than the kids in my sister’s class, was not sexually active, but thought about the moral meaning of sexuality a lot — this, even though I called myself a secular liberal. Reading my sister’s letters made me think that my experience of sex and sexuality among teenagers of my generation — my intellectualizing it — was really marginal. Again, it would be wrong to draw sweeping conclusions from reading the letters of one person, but I have to admit that sociological portrait I’ve discerned from her accounts of teen life in our town back then would go a long way toward explaining why younger people don’t much care about gay marriage.

Where was the church? Why didn’t the kids of my generation who identify as Christians have a Christian understanding of sexual morality? The eerie thing about these letters is that they didn’t seem to even understand it enough to consciously reject it. Sex was just one of those things that people did. I was not raised as a consistent churchgoer, so I am an unreliable witness on this matter. But I very much doubt that there was any meaningful countercultural teaching from any church in town against the “pagan catechesis” of popular culture. As my regular readers know, I came to Christianity as an adult in the Roman Catholic faith, and was greatly edified and converted by the Church’s moral teachings, including on sex and sexuality. But I had to search them out. It is entirely possible to grow up as a churchgoing Catholic in America today and remain almost entirely ignorant of what the Catholic Church teaches on sex and sexuality. I know this because I’ve had many, many conversations with cradle Catholics who are clueless. And I am quite sure that this experience is true across all churches and denominations.

Interestingly, my wife’s experience was quite different. She was raised in a Baptist church in Dallas, one that did not shy away from talking bluntly about sex and the Christian faith. Those kids were told, “Don’t do it before marriage, and don’t even think about it!” As she tells it, that was the whole of their instruction on the topic, and that rigid approach came with plenty of its own problems.

The point I’m trying to make is that if we are living in a post-Christian culture on sexual morality — and we clearly are — then we Christians have a lot to answer for regarding the loss of the faith, its vision, and its moral authority. We, our parents, and our grandparents took so much for granted, and failed to propose, much less live out, a compelling alternative to the “profoundly pagan catechesis” in which our young were raised. I remember well being instructed as a 24 year old in the Catholic faith, at a university chapel (this was 1991). Months into the instruction, I remember lying on my back in the student center, the lights off, as a nun led us in a “guided meditation.” That’s when it became clear to me that all of us in that class were going to join the Church without having the slightest idea of what that meant, or what was expected of us, except to have good feelings about ourselves. I walked out.

To be sure, it is wrong to imagine that there was some golden age of Christian belief and practice, when everything harmonized. That’s not what I’m saying. My contention is that young people don’t understand the Christian vision for sex and marriage because they have not been taught it, either by instruction or example, in a way that provides a clear and attractive contrast to the pagan catechesis. I don’t bring any of this up to provide an occasion for Christian self-loathing about our failures in the past. That is only useful insofar as it provides us insight for how to go forward.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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