Note on Catholic sex surveys

Say you poll a bunch of Catholics about marriage and sex and find that the vast majority of them don’t believe what the Church says about it. Is this a failure of catechesis? Is it even a widespread rejection of the teaching on chastity? Sed contra: if you polled the same Catholics about the evils of racial prejudice or drunk driving, you’d probably see the same vast majorities supporting what the Church teaches (cf. ccc 1934 or 2290) but no one would take this as proving the success of catechesis or a widespread acceptance of Catholic teaching. It’s a coincidence. Church teaching on prejudice and drunkenness just happens to coincide with the beliefs of the world in the same way that it just happens to differ from them in other areas, and the success or failure of catechesis has nothing to do with it.

The supposed rejection of sexual beliefs is really just a point of difference that the Church has with a vaster unified moral system that is not named. We miss something when we blame the Church for lack of catechesis: the people she is talking at are following a different voice, regardless of whether it agrees or disagrees with what she is saying. Their attendance at Church – and even their acceptance of catechesis – is itself just as much a command from this other voice as the one that makes them reject chastity or accept the evils of drunk driving. In fact, their acceptance of various Church teachings might well be more offensive to God than their rejection of others, for the same reason that loving a woman for an ulterior motive is more offensive to her than simply not caring for her at all.

One insight that is never mined in the modern metaphor of the “cafeteria Catholic” is that one can only pick and choose in light of some standard, and this standard is the true morality one is following. Like all moralities, it is rigid an uncompromising on fundamental tenets, and it demands not only orthopraxis but right belief, though it hides this rigidity behind the mask of being reasonable or even “just the way things are”.



  1. September 7, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    This is a very insightful reflection. I was reading this evening (now it’s evening in my country) about the report of the pre-synodal debate in Switzerland, and the ‘Gemeinsame Tagung’; it is a question of sociology of the knowledge, and it also has to have an ecclesiological meaning, the disapproval apart.

  2. thenyssan said,

    September 7, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    Nicely articulated. I closed the academic year with Humanae Vitae as is my wont, which all but concedes this very point after laying down the teaching on artificial contraception. I think it is HV 18, where HH delivers the understatement of the century, “It is to be expected that not all will receive this teaching easily.” What I like is his reason, and I hammer this point as my last words to my students after several years together.

    The world killed Jesus. I’m not sure I’ve thought or taught about that enough.

    • September 7, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      A Jewish woman told me a story once (she thought it was in the Mishnah somewhere) that at the beginning of time God assembled all the nations at Zion and showed them the commandments. All the nations started bargaining with God, saying they’d accept this one, but they’d only accept that one in a certain sense, and that other other one they couldn’t accept at all, etc. But the Jews came forward and said “We won’t accept any of them!” and the Lord said “You shall be my people”.

      For a long time I thought the moral of the story was that God was a God of mercy and demanded that his people be maximally fit for it; but without abandoning that I’ve come to see that the Jews gave the only honest response: all moral codes are absolute, and so anything one relates to in a pick-and-choose fashion cannot be what is moral to him. Like James says, whoever breaks one law breaks them all – the sense might be that to break the law at all presupposes that one has already placed himself outside of it, and so into the context of a separate morality.

  3. David T said,

    September 8, 2015 at 5:52 am

    I think you are right that the widespread rejection of Catholic teaching indicates that these people are following a different voice – but they don’t think so. They think they are following Christ just fine. And when you never hear homilies like the one you give here at Mass, and you see bishops shaking hands with and back-slapping “Catholic” politicians who publicly and vociferously reject the pro-life teaching of the Church, it is very easy for the ordinary Catholic to get the idea that following Catholic sexual teaching isn’t strictly necessary – more like guidelines as Capt. Jack Sparrow would say. And that is a failure of the Church, the failure to speak with a voice powerful and distinctive enough so that the person’s true relationship to Christ and the Church is revealed, most especially to himself. Instead the Church seems to have gotten the idea that it is more “pastoral” to not puncture the lies people tell themselves about their true spiritual condition.

    • September 8, 2015 at 9:32 am

      I suppose the simplest resolution to our disagreement would be empirical: if we found a diocese with a bishop that preached sexual ethics (Lincoln? Peoria?) we could compare his relevant poll numbers to some other diocese. My prediction is that the numbers won’t look any different. People who want a Bishop to preach chastity are usually pretty close to it already; those who aren’t will hear the Bishop as a right-winger or traditionalist that they have to suffer though until the pope appoints someone better. Some people might come to chastity through his preaching, others might leave the Church over it, others might come to chastity precisely because no one preaches it (maybe because they needed to find it themselves but would resent being told to do it, etc.) but I predict the diocesan-wide numbers would be pretty much the same.

      A deeper problem is that Bishops are part of the world and so share in all the characteristic blindnesses of their age. “The world” isn’t restricted to only acting on the consciences of the laity. Bishops arise because they are good at politics, and no one would expect someone who was good at politics to be a lover of truth, as Plato explains in Republic VI. In this sense it might be true that if the bishop preached chastity, people would practice it, but both the antecedent and consequent are impossible.

      • thenyssan said,

        September 8, 2015 at 9:44 am

        I also think of this historically. Pick a historically “Catholic-rich” society, be it apostolic, medieval, renaissance, etc. Each of them will have their distinctly worldly vice(s), like adultery in renaissance Italy or what have you. I guess you could use that to disqualify a society as “Catholic-rich” but, like James suggests here, I’m pretty sure that will disqualify all of them. St. Paul wasn’t railing about fornication as an abstraction or as a problem for future societies. He was railing against Corinthian Christians!

        Secondarily, I think it would be a little bit insane to claim that renaissance Italy was “Catholic-rich.” But that’s another topic.

      • David T said,

        September 8, 2015 at 6:26 pm

        My point isn’t that people would become chaste if the bishops preached chastity. It’s that they might be brought to understand that they are in fact listening to a different voice than Christ by dissenting from Church teaching. JPII was excellent in making this clear, especially in encyclicals like Veritatis Splendor. If someone leaves the Church because he comes to understand that following Christ must involve the attempt to be chaste, and they find that unacceptable, an advance has been made because at least they have come to understand themselves.

        Surely the bishops are part of the world, but if they are only part of the world, like any other bureaucrat, then the Church isn’t what it claims to be, is it?

      • September 8, 2015 at 8:33 pm

        Okay. So the goal is not change in behavior but consciousness-raising. This is a more modest goal but I think it still has the same problem: it requires people to see a bishop preaching chastity as a moral authority and not just a “far right” or “conservative” figure, or some out-of-touch celibate. It’s not my experience that people care what the bishop says. The US Bishops had a nation-wide condemnation of Obergefell, but I didn’t detect any affect on consciousness raising.

        I don’t think I understand the Church’s claims about her episcopacy in the same way you seem to. You seem to think she argues for some sort of moral excellence – prudence, courage, etc.

        But I don’t want my main point to get lost in this: it’s not a failure of catechesis. If I had to venture a positive account, I think it’s more the Church’s loss of the levers of propaganda, mob-control, elite opinion and the arts. The problem is that the Church is left with only catechesis, moral example, and the homes of believers. They’re left having to talk people into being good whereas the world can use TV shows, shaming, their gatekeeping power, pop-music, etc.

      • dmt117 said,

        September 8, 2015 at 9:00 pm

        If consciousness-raising, as you put it, is impossible, then why speak at all? You write of this “different voice” as though it has an unconquerable grip on the person. What of Grace? Are not all things possible with God? Surely the point of preaching the Gospel is that it can, at least sometimes, break through this deeper morality which someone is following – especially as that morality must be false insofar as it contradicts the Gospel.

        Bishops are part of the world, yes. I still maintain that if they are only part of the world, if when they act as bishops they are not also accompanied by grace, the Church is not who she claims to be anyway and we should be done with her.

  4. Curio said,

    September 8, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    It’s true – the acceptance of drunk driving as “evil” doesn’t point to any particular catechetical success. But on our modern suppositions, we can make sense of this truth with or without the Church. We see it as intelligible.

    Catholics who dissent from the Church’s teaching on matters of sexual ethics can almost never find the teaching intelligible. And no one likes to follow arbitrary rules. On this score it is a failure of catechesis.

  5. Peter said,

    September 8, 2015 at 11:02 pm

    Church teaching on prejudice and drunkenness just happens to coincide with the beliefs of the world in the same way that it just happens to differ from them in other areas

    Surely the relevant question here is why does the Church oppose prejudice, and why does the world oppose it? I wouldn’t take it for granted that the world and the church are necessarily following different voices: it may be that the world and the church think prejudice is wrong for the same reason. One of the characteristics of natural law is supposed to be that it can be understood without theological underpinnings.

    On the other hand, the fact that HV is not intelligible outside of a Catholic context suggests that this teaching is not supported by natural law.

    • Crude said,

      September 9, 2015 at 6:24 am

      On the other hand, the fact that HV is not intelligible outside of a Catholic context suggests that this teaching is not supported by natural law.

      HV is entirely intelligible outside of a Catholic context, insofar as the teachings about sex go. Intelligibility just doesn’t mean acceptance. It doesn’t even mean, automatically, understanding. Chemistry is intelligible too, but most people are entirely ignorant of it, and would probably casually reject some aspects of it.

      • Peter said,

        September 9, 2015 at 7:52 pm

        By “intelligible” I don’t mean acceptance, I mean the possibility of rational acceptance. In practise, HV is only accepted by people who accept ecclesiastical infallibility. Sure one can say it is still intelligible in the sense that one could accept that if the Church is infallible then HV by definition can’t be wrong, but it is not intelligible in the sense that HV could be accepted on its own merits absent the Church. It is like the Jehovah’s Witnesses teaching on blood transfusion: it isn’t something that could make sense to people in significant numbers who are not JW.

        This is in contrast with the teaching on abortion, which is accepted by people of many religions as well as atheists. The Church’s opposition to abortion is intelligible, in a way that the teaching on contraception is not. That is why, even if it is not popular, it has much broader acceptance than HV.

      • Ian said,

        September 9, 2015 at 10:29 pm

        Hi Peter,

        It seems to me that you are taking too parochial a view of things. Prior to the 20th century, plenty of non-Catholics rejected contraception as well.

      • Crude said,

        September 10, 2015 at 7:44 am

        By “intelligible” I don’t mean acceptance, I mean the possibility of rational acceptance. In practise, HV is only accepted by people who accept ecclesiastical infallibility.

        Historically, that’s not the case at all. In the modern sense, 17% of Catholics believe it’s a sin to use contraception. 10% of the general public does. Not the biggest numbers, but it strikes down the claim about ‘ecclesiastical infallibility’.

        If I told you that, seeing as ~50% of the population (including a chunk of non-religious) rejected evolutionary theory in the US, would you consider that good evidence that evolutionary theory didn’t have strong evidence behind it and it was quite rational to utterly reject or be agnostic about?

  6. thenyssan said,

    September 9, 2015 at 6:48 am

    Way to go James. Follow up with a post on lying and torture, and you will REALLY get the bees swarming around here. 🙂

    • September 9, 2015 at 9:31 am

      Being tone-deaf to self-promotion, I think I’ll write about relations next.

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