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On both sides of the Atlantic, we are witnessing a concerted attack on Christianity and on the institution that the Church deems the fundamental cell of society, namely the family founded on the marriage of a man and a woman. In the US, Archbishop Chaput and other bishops have reacted strongly to the “contraception mandate”–the plans of the Obama administration to force Catholic agencies indirectly to fund contraception and abortion services. In the UK, the High Court ruled “unlawful” the practice of local town councils to open their meetings with a prayer. A government scheme permits girls as young as 13 to receive secret contraceptive implants at school without the knowledge of their parents. Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned against the movement to legalize assisted suicide or euthanasia as representing a disastrous shift in the “moral and spiritual atmosphere”. In both the US and UK, where homosexual unions are increasingly regarded as normal, pressure is growing for the right to homosexual “marriage”, contrary to the dictionary definition as well as the longstanding universal tradition that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman, ultimately for the sake of offspring. (The question of offspring has been blurred by the development of IVF and surrogacy, and the question of same-sex unions by gender “reassignment”, whether by legal decree or by surgery.) See Christian Concern for these and other relevant news stories.

All of this is predictable, and has indeed been predicted for some time (along with various disastrous outcomes) by many cultural observers. Of course, one can become unpopular by referring to a “slippery slope”, but no other metaphor seems more appropriate in this situation. Once we have left the “level ground” of common sense on these matters, there is nowhere to go but down, and in a world where every handhold is rapidly demolished the speed of our descent can only increase. Common sense, here, is defined not only by the universal and perennial principles of an ordered society, but by the philosophy of natural law and virtues that underpinned that consensus, based on the intrinsic connection of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Critics naturally object that the cultural conservatives jumble all kinds of different issues together in their diatribes (as I have done in my opening paragraph). But there is a reason all these things are connected, and to help us see this more clearly I want to recommend two books in particular. The historical trajectory of our civilization is admirably described in a major work by the historian Glenn W. Olsen, The Turn to Transcendence. (Olsen is also the author of a recent book on the history of homosexuality from the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies which I hope to review on another occasion.) Finally, the philosophical and intellectual critique of the “culture of death” is laid out in David L. Schindler’s long-awaited new book, Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God, in which the author claims that “Reality at root is a matter of love and love is a matter of order, a bearer of a ‘word’ or ‘logic’ that presupposes an ordering intelligence.” Modernity, by contrast, looks on love as “at best a matter of piety or good will, and not as the basic stuff that makes our lives and the things of the world real, the basic order of our lives and of all things.”

These two books take the intellectual battle with the new atheism and creeping secularism to a whole new level. And for those who find David Schindler’s work hard to get a handle on, there is now a good introduction to his thought by a range of other writers called Being Holy In the World.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with the gracious permission of the author, this essay originally appeared in Beauty in Education. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Certain aspects of religious liberty have been restricted in the USA for a long time. Mormons were prevented from practicing polygymy; Jehovah witnesses were required to take their children to a doctor when sick, in spite of their religious belief that modern medicine was non-biblical. More recently, ultra-orthodox jews, who had a contract with the City of New York to provide a bus line running through their neighborhood, were required to not force women to the back of the bus (they believe in the separation of the sexes).

    We all know that if everyone disobeyed laws regularly because the laws invalidated religious belief, we would no longer have a society.

  2. I'm not sure what your point is here. Do you think that polygamy is a good thing, and should be tolerated? Or serial polygamy, with no fault anything? Or the exact opposite, allowing people to kill their children, either by abortion or denying reasonable treatment? And this is somehow equal to putting women on the back of a bus? I find this quite weird, or perhaps, unless you can explain it to me, perverse. Is religious liberty really, as you seem to define it, the basis of society? Help me out here, I am not trying to put words in your mouth.

  3. The problem here rests with what the left regards as consciousness. The old liberal presumption that tolerance and individual freedom, particularly the freedom of association, mean that a variety of religious and social practices would be protected under law finds itself challenged by the Marxist canard that people engaged in religious practices are not making conscious choices, but rather acting on tue basis of convention and implied coercion on the part of families and communities.

    This is certainly the reasoning behind the French ban on religious head coverings for muslim women. Theargument is that these women are not making conscious choices, and that since the enlightening mechanisms of state education have not freed them of ther chains, the law must at least coerce enlightened practices.

    I, however, find myself to feel much as Montaigne did when ironically comparing the cannibalism of African tribes to peculiarly European vices. A case in point:

    It is true that many African and Muslim nations permit polygamy, but they also prescribe the death penalty for marital infidelity. Thus, in theory, a man may satisfy even the most gluttonous sexual appetite and fantasy provided that he oblige himself to care unto the death for each and every one of his lovers, making of them wives rather than mistresses.

    In contrast, western practice is such that a man may be unfaithful to his wife, he may divorce her for whatever reason, and not only does the law not punish him, not only does society not shun him, but he may actually walk away from the divorce with a large share of his wife's property, and he can count on the sympathy of his colleagues and culture. Thus western law encourages broken families, leaves infidelity unpunished, and makes divorce easy, treating the marriage vow as nothing more than ceremonial icing on the cake.

    So, which practice is more abhorent to morality? As a Catholic I believe that love is so intimate a matter that a marriage can only exist between two people, because it is impossible to love more than one woman with the same vast depth. It seems that even in polygamist marriages, the husband usually has a favorite wife, but regardless, it seems to me on grounds both rational and spiritual that marriage is between one man an done woman. I will not elaborate the argumemt here because it is beside the point.

    The point, however, is that if we accept a world of imperfection and inquire as to which regime appears to have a greater part of the truth to it, I cannot help but consider that the polygamist Africans and Muslims at least understand marriage as not merely an invitation to sexual pleasure, but as a great familial obligation. Meanwhile, western regimes have made of marriage such a mockery, that I heard a proponent of gay marriage argue recently in the Polish parliament that one reason the measure is necessary is so that homosexuals "could have the right to divorce."

    What once was a tragic accident of fate, a matter of shame, an ignoble act, is now elevated in the west as not merely a norm, but a human right. People are now supposed to be married only to get divorced, it's one of the things you do in life – get married, have children, betray your wife, divorce her. Par for the course. And by golly, the gays must also have the right to recieve legal sanction for their seperations! Nowhere in western law is divorce punished, nowhere is the destruction of families punished. Perhaps the Islamic death penalty for infidelity is dranconian, but western culture seems to celebrate infidelity, which is rather dranconian as well.

  4. Peter Strzelecki Rieth, you are right to point out that the lack of social consequence in Western divorce is a grave injustice. However, it is wrong to weigh two faulty systems against one another when you have already indicated the obvious alternative: There should be penalty to divorce in Western society. Indeed, I believe that not only should getting divorced require a great deal of effort, followed by penalty of denial of future marriage (for as long as both remain alive); but that even entering into such a union should require a great deal of effort and counseling before the two are permitted to wed. Then, by the time the marriage ceremony is performed, it actually means something to the couple.

  5. "Perhaps the Islamic death penalty for infidelity is dranconian…" –

    What do you mean, "Perhaps"?

    I understand the general point, though. But as to "penalty" for divorce, I think it does not make sense in the modern notion of marriage. I mean, why do people marry nowadays? In the Muslim world (and the Eastern societies in general), marriage is much more than "love"– it is a contract involving the engaged's parents and has to do more with property and status than with a free choice based on mutual affection. Of course they have stricter rules in this case. But in the West, one is not supposed to marry according to this sort of interests — and feelings naturally change with time. So do you want to punish the spouses for looking for a divorce? OK, but then you have to change the entire cultural definition of marriage that has been the norm for one or two centuries. Not a very conservative endeavor, I presume.

    As I see it, Western people are not duly prepared to marry. And no, I don't agree that they have ever been in the past — women had little choice, parents interfered a lot (or chose their husband as they pleased), men knew that fidelity was very relative for themselves and women had no ideia about what sex was (try to read Peter Gay's books on the "Burgeois Experience", especially The Education of the Senses). The Western tradition on this point is terrible, and no discourse about beautiful ideals will change the point. Marriages lasted longer, but simply because there was no option (besides, on average the population life expectancy was much shorter). What we need is some new kind of family education, but that should be done in positive ways, not by laws punishing divorcees. It is very unfair to punish them for not being able to maintain a status they were never really educated enough to maintain (unless we count romantic movies as "education", a very dubious thesis).

  6. Societies are social constructs. When two people agree to form a mutual relationship, whether it be for business intersts, or familial interests, the relationship is between those parties, the state is only the arbitrator if these contracts “fail” mutuality, as the two parties disagree.

    Because of the intimate/personal nature of relationships, is it anyone’s business whether a particular relationship meets certain outside “standards”? Religious institutions might judge that a relationship is not ‘biblical’ however that is intpreted. Another outside authority might deem a relationship “co-dependent” , but why are outside authorities more valued or important than the two parties that hae agreed?

    Equality is mutuality, not in outcomes of materiality, or functions/roles within contracts. Transparency, communication and agreement are the material of healthy relationships, whether business, or personal.

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