By Father Bernard O'Connor, OSFS
I have been teaching a freshmen philosophy class at DeSales University for over thirty-five years. It has been a long time since we have had a consensus on a moral absolute in the realm of human sexuality. I remember the 1960's when the culture started to dismantle the traditional rules. The media heralded this new adventure under the banners of personal freedom and gender equality. The intellectual elites provided a philosophy of radical skepticism and universal relativism. Scientists provided the technical means to separate human sexuality from the entanglements of procreation. American capitalism supplied the resources to develop entire new industries based upon recreational sex. This experiment blossomed. Sex was everywhere. One of the most complex and sacred of human experiences was now repackaged as a consumer product. It was stripped of its romantic adornments. It was raw.
Students across the land, of course, fell right in line with the culture. Sexual judgments became statements of personal taste. Some limitations lingered for a while. My students would say that sex was okay, if the people truly loved each other. But when I asked them who determined the quality of this 'love,' I discovered that it rested with the two individuals. If they thought that they were in love, then sex was a way of expressing this love. Whatever the person said was good was, in fact, good. When I asked about one person hurting another, they would look at me in a strange way. Initially, they felt that this might introduce a limit in their sexual world. But eventually they judged the sexual behavior to be okay, if both consented. They would say, "Father, it is not what I like, but if the two enjoy it, then it is okay by me."
As is always the case with relativism and subjectivism, the culture has been watching many cherished institutions disintegrate. With sex so pervasive in the atmosphere of human interchange, many of the finest accomplishments of civilization begin to rip apart. It is very difficult today for young people to articulate a notion of friendship, family, college, work, or recreation without references to sex. Advertising, entertainment, sports, dining, politics, vacationing, are now all aspects of a larger sex industry.
In the midst of this "anything goes" culture, however, we have now come upon a moral absolute: a Catholic priest should not sexually molest a minor. There are no ifs, ands, or buts. This is absolutely wrong. There is no recourse to questions about consent, mitigating circumstances, personal history, etc. All of the tools that made relativism and skepticism so palatable have been stripped away. It is just plain wrong, period. I agree totally with this judgment.
What I find strange, however, is the loneliness of this one moral absolute. Aren't there other instances of sacred commitments being broken? Aren't there other events where minors are abused? Aren't there other instances of using people for one's own pleasure? Aren't there cover-ups and denials present with other aspects of sexual misconduct?
It seems to me that if there is one moral absolute, then the world of relativism and skepticism comes to an end. If we have been able to make this one moral judgment that we know to be absolutely true, surely we can make others. We can discern our way amidst the complexities and ambiguities of the sexual world. There are actions that are clearly right and there are others that are wrong. No amount of subjective evasion can lessen this truth. It is now time to leave the lazy world of moral relativism. It is not very hard work to say, "Do what you want." It requires real effort, however, to articulate what is true. Let us get serious about this wonderful God-given gift of human sexuality. Surely it is not meant to be a recreational toy. We need leaders in government, civic life, religious traditions, media, entertainment, and business to enter a serious dialogue about the character of human life and love. Let us figure things out. We owe it to our young people to be able to make moral judgments that make sense in sexual matters. It is a noble project, worthy of our best efforts. Let us put down the remote control and go back to work.
Written by Father Bernard F. O'Connor,OSFS, president of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa.
Press Release: Sexual Morality by Rev. Bernard O'Connor, OSFS | Posted on: 12/4/2002
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