As we have discussed on this blog before, the Western World seems to have embarked on a (failed) experiment, testing whether a culture can exist without a shared cultus. That, is to say whether a true and unifying vision that we call culture can really exist at all without something above and beyond it,  which unifies it and to which it must answer.

Unfortunately the word “cult”  has strongly negative connotations in English, referring to extremist forms of religious association. But the Latin word cultus refers to devotion and/or religious adoration to God or to a body of religious beliefs and vision. As such, it serves as the basis for culture and makes up the very heart of that word.

In America, and to some extent parts Europe, the cultus did not have to be so specific that it admitted only of a strict sectarian quality. It was enough that we had a basic agreement on the biblical vision of God and a general assent to what has been called the Judeo-Christian vision.

But having largely shed this premise, our culture has broken down into a series of increasingly isolated and warring sectors which have no real basis even for simple discussion, let alone some significant agreement.

In fact, many now refer to our culture as an “anti-culture” given the iconclastic shredding of most of what was once considered sacred and inviolable. Almost nothing in our “culture” has withstood the efforts of those who recklessly tear down and exultantly destroy any vestige of anything they consider to limit their freedom or raise doubts about their behavior. In a way, to the cultural iconoclasts, everything must go. And while it is true that individuals may possess this iconoclasm to a greater or lesser degree, collectively, the devastation is vast, and shows no signs of stopping.

I would like to comments on excerpts of an article recently published over at the American Conservative by Rod Dreher entitled: Sex After Christianity. In that article he details some of demise of culture that we have discussed here as well. He focuses especially on how and why the recasting of sex has been the pulling of the linchpin in culture. And while he focuses on the issue of same sex unions and how we have gotten here, since we have discussed that issue a lot already, I will here excerpt the sections of his article on the wider question of culture. But I do encourage you to read the whole article as it sheds a lot of light on the bizarre celebration of same-sex attraction in our culture and where it has come from and where it will lead.

As is the usual case I will present Mr Dreher’s remarks in bold, italic print, and my remarks in plain red text.

Is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?

The term linchpin refers to a pin inserted through the end of an axle to keep the wheel on. By extension it is something that holds the various elements of a complicated structure together. Sex, of course, is not the only element in a culture, but it is surely critical since it serves not only the future of any community or nation, but also rests at the heart of social order and the proper rearing and raising of the next generation.

Those who like to argue that “sex is no big deal” are simply living is a magical fantasy world. Of course sex is important, and getting it right is critical to the success of any culture. It also makes sense that if you want to quickly destroy a culture that distorting this mysterious and powerful force is a quick way to wreak havoc and bring down institutions. Properly understood and exercised in well ordered way, sex is a kind of glue that holds things together, that is meant to walk in harmony with love, loyalty, family ties, and the procreation that reaches into the future. Pull this linchpin and the wheels come off quickly. Welcome to decaying West.

Philip Rieff , author of the landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework….

Exactly. And note too how “moral demands” and the forbidding of certain things exist for the purpose of serving communal ends. The rather childish and prideful rejection of limits and the “nobody will tell me what to do or judge me” mentality does not stop to consider that limits are necessary for the true exercise of freedom. Absolute freedom is anarchy and chaos. But constructive freedom exists only within a range and with certain limits in place. I am free to communicate only if I and we  observe the limits of grammar. I am free to drive only if we all accept the rules of the road. 

Hence to “forbid” and to speak of moral limits or demands, while politically incorrect today, are necessary for there to be a culture. And, given the need for a culture to have a cultus, Christianity has had that role in our culture. Now, being kicked to the curb, there is little to fill the place left by the Christian vision. Things break down, power struggles ensue, litigious court battles become the daily fare.

The radical individualism of the West, and the generally selfish and egotistical mindset of many Moderns, has little time or appreciation for “communal purposes.” And to the degree we talk about this at all, it is in the boiler-plate socialist jargon of the “collective” rather than the communal. Socialist thinking transfers moral responsibility to the State and away from the individual. As such is it paradoxically individualistic as well, at least in its decadent Western expression. But I digress.

[R]enouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct…. Indeed, “sexual autonomy” is a kind of oxymoron. For, of its nature sex orients one to the other and to the third, since it is procreative. Of its very nature sex is about the other, and the third, indeed, the whole community since it is about the future of the community, Church and nation. 

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun. In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitative Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitative especially of slaves and women….Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

And excellent analysis here. Too often we Christians have simply allowed ourselves to be defined in terms of what we are against, rather than to insist that if we are “against” something it is for a greater good. In this case, the sexual ethic of Christianity exists to preserve the dignity of women, of the family, of marriage, of children, of the human body, and even of sex itself. We are FOR these things, not merely, in some puritanical sense, against sex.

Without these limits sex is too easily about exploitation and ends up being imposed by the powerful rather than in a mutual self-giving rooted in promise of stable, fruitful and faithful commitment we call Holy Matrimony. Without such loyalty and respect there can be little basis for social order, let alone culture.

Christianity encountered the Greco-Roman world that was breaking down on account of the violation of these insights. It took the rearticulation of these insights to refashion and restore the culture of the ancient world.

The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning…In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is….[This] established a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways….what culture must do [is] restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes. Excellent. George Gilder makes a similar point in his book Men and Marriage

[But], in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions. Usher in the iconoclasm of the West!

How this came to be is a complicated story….[but] gradually the West lost the sense that Christianity had much to do with civilizational order…. In the 20th century, casting off restrictive Christian ideals about sexuality became increasingly identified with health. By the 1960s, the conviction that sexual expression was healthy and good—the more of it, the better—and that sexual desire was intrinsic to one’s personal identity culminated in the sexual revolution, the animating spirit of which held that freedom and authenticity were to be found not in sexual withholding (the Christian view) but in sexual expression and assertion. That is how the modern American claims his freedom.

Yes, what a strange assertion of “health.” I have often heard Catholic teaching on sexuality referred to as “unhealthy” as repressive etc.

But it is so strange that such a sick culture speaks of my “health.” And I mean literal health. What the “healthy” sexual expression of the libertines ushers in is and explosion of STDs, AIDS, herpes, sterility, women on heavy doses of hormones, not to mention the outright death of children dismembered by abortion. And then there is the “unhealth” of broken families, higher divorce rates, single motherhood, teenage moms, addictive pornography, and all the social ills that explode on the scene through broken and malformed families.

Hmm…And I am ‘repressed’ and unhealthy? But try to raise this with a libertine and be prepared for either a blank stare or a diversionary tactic such as pointing to the sins of some clergy etc.

…Because it denies the possibility of communal knowledge of binding truths transcending the individual, the revolution cannot establish a stable social order.

Exactly my own point above and before on this blog. There can be no culture without the cultus that transcends the community and has a binding power. Without this, there “cannot” establish a culture, cannot establish a stable social order. Something from above and outside must order and focus a culture, and something we call God.

Our post-Christian culture, then, is an “anti-culture.”….The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling.

Yes, because it is iconoclastic, “culture” is actually an “anti-culture.” Note finally too our part in all this. We have failed to communicate our ideals in ways that are inwardly compelling. Hence the new evangelization, the need to repropose the gospel in new and more compelling ways.

Rod Dreher blogs at www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher.

Please take time to read the whole article, it is well worth the time: Sex After Christianity.

29 Responses

  1. Jennifer says:

    Yes, this sick culture dares to speak of health. I am glad to be living a life of chaste celibacy. :)

  2. Nick says:

    Hi there, the article was helpful and insightful. But could you please amend the 2nd last word on title to “an” instead of “and” :)

  3. Michael Petek says:

    Consider those truths of the Catholic religion and morality which the Church has set forth to be held definitively and which demand the adherence, not of faith, but of reason.

    Isn’t it time we demanded that dissent from these truths be judged to be sedition deserving of lifelong disqualification from public office in all cases, and deserving of punishment under the criminal law in what concerns the truth about human life, sexuality, reprocuction, marriage and the family? As a foreigner to your country (I’m British) it seems to me that the First Amendment needs to be re-evaluated.

  4. EJCM says:

    Msgr. I was born in the 1960’s and I am a member of the first generation to be taught about sexual “freedom” (as the song says “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”). Most everything previously taboo became repression and now it was “if it feels good to do it.” As a teenager and a young man I drank from the cup of sexual freedom but in the end it did not make me feel very happy nor free. By my thirties I was realizing the falsity of the message and when I found myself newly single I purposely set out to remain chaste. I did this without benefit of faith as at the time I was devoutly agnostic but something was beginning to open my eyes. Over the ensuing years I married, became Catholic and began to find a framework that was anti-anti-cultural yet brought me happiness and joy that the anti-culture never could. Now I look around me everywhere and I see the pervasiveness of the anti-culture as you put it. Sometimes I feel like someone who is now sober whilst everyone around me is intoxicated and see the incredible foolishness of their behaviour. It is a very sobering view indeed.

    • Michelle says:

      Dear EJMC,
      Such an excellent analogy! Thank you so much for sharing your journey, and your view now. From someone who had also taken the path of “freedom” and has found true freedom in the Way, the Truth, and the Life, now keeping my eyes on our Eternal Home.

    • Darren says:

      God has written His law into our hearts. His law tugs at us and a lot of us do not understand this when our society is going against Him. We feel confused and a lot of us end up blinded. Oh, how true, that “if it feels good, do it” has enslaved us. Those feelings are fleeting and just like drugs, they are a constant obsession. Just like drugs, they delude the mind and destroy.

      Your “benefit”, which is God’s graces, sounds like G.K. Chesterton when he wrote “Heretics” and “Orthodoxy” before he became Catholic. If you have not read him, I suggest reading “St. Francis of Assisi” first and some of his novels and detective fiction before tackling his philosophical or theological based books. They are mind boggling to those not versed in these areas as I found out.

      There is true freedom in the Catholic Church.

  5. David F says:

    The clarity of this defense of civilization and the general defense of marriage and reality has been heartening.

  6. Rick says:

    Dear Msgr. I must agree with Mr Dreher’s essay and all of your commentary. However, these do not mention an over-arching factor which inspires the anti-culture: demonic rage. Anger is the alpha and the omega of opposition. It begins with resentment of the commandments of the Father (I will not serve.), and it terminates in rage (I will destroy what you have created).

    • John says:

      Very true, Rick! Whenever i look at our society I always think of the saying by a Greek playwright: “Whom the gods would destroy, first they make mad.” It’s not only mad in the British English sense (insane), but also mad in the US English sense (angry, enraged). I see so much anger from people today who have nothing to be angry about (e.g. the feminists lunatices of Femen who attacked the Belgian archbishop a few days ago) that I can only ascribe to demonic possession. Scary and very, very sad!

  7. Anne says:

    Can you imagine the anxiety of loving parents who have to see our beloved children walking through this sick society?
    I was born in 1951 and I had almost minimal access to hedonism. It was rather easy to be good and a girl who “went all the way” in high school was regarded as rather shocking and a puzzlement. We wanted to be thought pretty, not “smoking hot.”
    Now, if you are not sexually active and a hottie you are an outlier. Just look at the Facebook pages of the average college student. The only thing too shocking to post are pictures of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin or comments about your amazing weekend with the joy of receiving Holy Communion. Now that would be outrageous!

    • DWiss says:

      Anne, this is very well said. I’m just a bit younger than you are, had similar experiences growing up, and I still have two daughters in high school. I never contrasted “pretty” with “smoking hot” for them the away you have done here, but I will. Thanks!

    • Cynthia W. says:

      Excellent observations, Anne. I’ve noticed that my teenage daughters and their friends seem to have no concept of “looking nice,” the way I did as a girl and do as a mid-40s adult. I put on a dress, shoes that hurt, and a little makeup to “look nice,” because that’s just what you did, when I grew up. You owed it to the people around you to show some respect for them and the occasion.

      Nowadays, there seems to be no middle ground between “dressed for yardwork” and “dressed for prostitution.”

  8. Thomas F. Gallagher says:

    Thanks, Monsignor, for your reflections, and especially for your firm defense of sexual morality. Is sexual continence somehow the linchpin of Christian social and cultural order? Of course it is. But it is also the linchpin of every civilization. No civilization can survive whose young people fail to learn to sublimate their sexual energy–to turn it into careful academic study, into reading in the evening for broad self-cultivation during their teenage years, into the drive that they need as they grow older to start a new career, open a business, take on a demanding course of study in college or university, subordinate their wild sexual urges to the need for chastity in marriage. The collapse of marriage, the drift of young people from one pleasure to another, the decline of our academic institutions–all these things are bound up with sexual energies, released like demons without any parental guidance that can direct young people to postpone instant gratification for the greater good. We Christians see this so much more clearly than our pagan neighbors do! But let’s be careful: the sublimation and control of sexual energy is characteristic of traditional societies all over the world, and is not confined to Christians. As far back as we can go in looking at early human societies, marriage became the norm because it had survival value: it nurtured the young, allowed fathers to avoid jealous rages against each other by knowing who their children were, regulated domestic disharmony by the institutionalization of marriage. It is quite true that sexual morality in the pagan culture of ancient Rome was dreadful–perhaps worse than our own–but not all pagan moral systems were destructive, and to argue that paganism is equal to sexual vice is to fall into a false anthropology, and especially a false Christian anthropology. If we want to present Christianity to a pagan world, and present it in a convincing way, we’ve got to get our anthropology straight.

    • Catharine says:

      No, please read the entire article again, “for sense” this time. The entire world was profoundly sexually degenerate and exploitative, esp. of slaves and women, at the time Jesus Christ came. Unwanted babies were simply “exposed” by tossing them into the street. The concept of sexual fidelity (even in marriage) was a total shock and novelty.
      Thank you for your article, Father. I was born in 1954, and I must say that I believe the enire world went mad shortly after the assassination of JFK. The amount of damage done to young persons in those days, when not only the secular culture, but also all-too-many priests and nuns, “rebellled” against traditional morality, cannot be overstated. It has been said that this rebellion against traditional morality, against traditional Catholic teaching, is now so ingrained ini the Catholic Church here in the USA that it is almost impossible to imagine the Church without it.
      There is a reprint of a very old book (c. 1873) available for free on the Internet called The Catholic Trumpet. In it, the author/compiler/editor states that Jesus told one saintly religious that when the women of a particular nation/culture become corrupted, that nation must die. It would appear that the USA has been there for going on 40 years now. Problem is, I don’t think any divine intervention is going to be necessary, as the foreseeable consequences of all of this “rebellion” and “sexual liberation” are going to continue to play themselves out. May Almighty God have mercy on us all!.

    • I think you might be over-interpreting the point. No need to think or say that every pagan culture was bad. The temporal context of the later days of the greco-roman world is the clear temporal framework of the article, not the pagan world in general.

  9. Sarah in WA says:

    There’s a related historical analysis I would recommend: “The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.” The work deals with the historical roots of the Western anti-culture, tracing it back to the Reformation era.

    Book review by Cardinal Charles Chaput here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/11/6902/

    Excerpt from the book review:

    “In some ways, Gregory’s book could be subtitled “the West’s crisis of faith and reason.” The Reformation—sincerely, zealously, and with the best intentions—unleashed centrifugal forces that undid the medieval synthesis of revelation and philosophy. Ever since, our culture has gone down one intellectual dead-end after another, romantically seeking a spiritual life free from authority and tradition, or rationalistically seeking truth as if human beings were autonomous and self-sufficient. The great Western marriage of faith and reason—the shared confidence that faith is personal but also communal, that reason isn’t against faith but extends it—that is what the Reformation cost us.”

  10. RichardGTC says:

    “The term linchpin refers to a pin inserted through the end of an axle to keep the wheel on.”—Mons. C. Pope. Thanks for explaining what a linchpin. Most of wouldn’t have bothered to google it.

    “A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework….”–R. Dreher. Most people don’t have an understanding of the term ‘metaphysical’ that is any different from Oprah Winfrey’s or Deepak Chopra’s.–that to say that most people don’t understand that what metaphysics is begins with an account of everyday reality.

    “Our post-Christian culture, then, is an “anti-culture.”….The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling.”–R. Dreher Well said.

    “To please those whose favor they need, people adopt ways that are indevout and offensive to God.”–St. Francis de Sales.

  11. Theologian says:

    One thing that so may assenting American Catholics miss: the Enlightenment, which Father calls “a basic agreement on the biblical vision of God and a general assent to what has been called the Judeo-Christian vision,” actually helped pave the way for the dissolution of Western culture. For this reason, the Enlightenment was actively opposed by the papacy from Gregory XVI to Leo XIII to Pius X. Even Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI could be biting in their critiques of the Enlightenment. It is ironic that so many contemporary American Catholics continue to miss this point and to buy into the Enlightenment worldview. Most likely, they do so because the Enlightenment made possible Catholic participation in modernity, particularly in the US context. And yes, the Enlightenment brought many “goods,” not the least of which was religious liberty. But it also brought a number of “bads,” as the popes constantly reminded us. For this reason, Pius X sounds more like a prophet than the lunatic he is often made out to be.

  12. Jim says:

    Over 30 years ago, Pope John Paul II told us that it is “indispensable and urgent that every person of good will should endeavor to save and foster the value and requirements of the family.” His “Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio” was a clear call to action.

    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio_en.html

  13. Dan says:

    I guess that’s why everyone harps on men to act like men in articles and don’t say anything about women “womanning” up.

  14. [...] Msgr. Charles Pope has a square that is different, though related: The West is no longer a culture; it has turn an [...]

  15. TeaPot562 says:

    if we attempt to retain a “civilization” based on sex outside marriage, as in the current culture, our future projects to be somewhat like Greece: fewer and fewer young adults, many old people trying to riot to “preserve” their government-paid pensions (Social Security, e.g.) when there are too few working people to pay the taxes to support them.
    So, geographically, this continent in 200 years, if populated by humans, will be mostly people whose women are willing to bear multiple children (Latter Day Saints?) or whose women are completely dominated by their husbands (Islam).
    Rejection of Christianity leads to God allowing us to reject the future of our children, if any.
    Lord, Have mercy.
    TeaPot562

  16. vincent apisa says:

    “We have failed to communicate our ideals in ways that are inwardly compelling.” (!?) I’ll say.

    Cartoon: two Christian martyrs are tied to stakes in the Coliseum. Lions ready to pounce. One turns to the other and says, “I think we have failed to communicate our ideals in ways that are inwardly compelling.”

    • Why the ridicule? It is a valid insight despite your hoi polloi dismissal of elevated language. Is there anything about the article that you liked? Or does it really all come down to the one line?

      • Vincent Apisa says:

        Great article. The sentence sounded wooden and bureaucratic. No offense intended, but the sentence struck me as the caption for a funny cartoon.

  17. Historian 762 says:

    Pepe Escobar published an opinion piece that parallels Dreher’s closely.
    You can find it here.
    Escobar’s piece says the Enlightenment is over and we are returning to a medieval period of Kings and serfs.

    I would suggest Pope Francis should lay plans now on reclaiming the Papal lands as soon as the opportunity presents itself! (Back to the Future!)

  18. R. Spanier says:

    It’s sadly true that many Christians have left their faith. But is there really “little to fill the place left by the Christian vision”? Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and other religious cultures in the West offer alternative visions. And what about Islam? It’s the fastest growing religion in the West and certainly has many boundaries on what it permits/forbids; calls for sharia law have already started in North America.

    So is our dis-unity grounded in a lack of culture or an overabundance of competing cultures?

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