Progressives love to denounce Christian sexual ethics. But does secular liberalism have any answers?
‘I’m a bit wet,” Jacob Rees-Mogg once told the Catholic Herald, and his ITV interview yesterday – for all the outrage which followed it – was a fairly mild performance. He said, for instance, that there is “no question” of abortion law changing, even though most Britons would prefer tighter restrictions. Rees-Mogg’s answer on marriage, meanwhile, was a bit odd: marriage is heterosexual by its very nature, not just because the Church considers some marriages to be sacramental.
Still, I’m sure every Catholic will want to tell Rees-Mogg (in tribute to his own style) Gratias agimus tibi, for bravely defending some neglected truths: that babies should be safe in the womb, and that the state has no right to redefine marriage. What was more interesting – as with the rage against Tim Farron – was the depth of subsequent anger at the “bigot” Rees-Mogg and his “utterly abhorrent” opinions.
Considering all the truly evil things which happen in this country – workers paid pitiful wages to make their employers rich, addicts exploited by vampiric drug-dealers, the daily cruelty towards the elderly – it is strange that people get so furious about politicians saying that yes, since you ask, they wouldn’t seek to change the law, but as a theoretical matter, they aren’t wholly on board with the modern progressive beliefs about sex.
One reason for the rage, I think, is insecurity. Secular liberalism loves to shout about how Christian sexual ethics are wrong; but secular liberals are far less confident when it comes to their own positive beliefs. Whatever can be said about Catholic teaching, there are at least various well-elaborated philosophical justifications for it; and it does provide a clear rule of life. But as the liberal commentator Damon Linker admits, the liberal sexual ethic amounts to little more than the vague wish: “As long as no one gets hurt…” This can hardly address the complexity of human experience – both its nobility and its tawdriness. Liberalism has thrown away (in Linker’s phrase) the “binding standards of human flourishing and degradation” which Christianity once provided. And without them, it struggles to answer the difficult questions of sexual morality.
Is pornography a wholesome habit? Should we be worried about sexting in schools? Are incest, bestiality and polygamy OK? When is adultery immoral? Which European nations have the correct age of consent (it varies from 14 to 18)? The liberal principles of “Be responsible”, “Respect others”, etc., just seem inadequate.
Liberalism is equally uneasy when it comes to abortion: progressive thinkers cannot agree whether ending a life is legitimate before 24 weeks, after 24 weeks, or after childbirth; they cannot decide whether abortion on grounds of disability or sex is acceptable.
Such questions must lie somewhere in the mind of every thinking progressive. The longer they go unanswered, the more these outbursts of fury at Christians like Jacob Rees-Mogg look like a sign of weakness rather than strength.