A local parish is hosting a lecture series on the Sexual Revolution. With lecture titles such as “From Contraception to Abortion on Demand,” “The ‘Free Love’ Revolution,” and “Homosexual Ideology,” you don’t actually need to attend. If you’ve attended any of the hundreds of Christian talks with roughly equivalent titles, you already know the perspectives, narratives, and take-always.
And yet, I suspect people will go. People always go. When I’ve attended such events, those in attendance usually weren’t interested so much in learning something new as they were in getting additional confirmation for what they already believed to be true. The lessons known and confirmed have been these: Sexual Revolution bad, homosexuality bad, contemporary ‘marriage’ wrong, all getting badder and wronger by the year. Attendees are given clever responses to the claims of “secular people” that, when deployed, will do nothing to actually change the minds of or provoke reconsideration by those “secular people.” But the Christians will feel good when they deploy these responses.
To be fair, I have attended Sexual Revolution Narrative events and been pleasantly surprised by fresh takes, unusual expertise that sheds a unique light on an issue, and a genuine concern for dialogue. As an attorney, I tend to enjoy learning about emerging legal issues and issues that may not be obvious at first glance. One can have hope for this coming lecture series. But in the past, pleasant surprise has been the exception proving the rule.
Christian narratives about the effects of the Sexual Revolution are important. We need to understand the Sexual Revolution not only through a historical lens but also through anthropological and theological lenses. What strikes me as problematic about the ongoing mode of engagement with the sorts of lectures I’m describing, however, is that their primary effect is often to stir up the passions. They get conservative Christians riled up about how bad “the culture” is, and they get progressive Christians riled up about how “closed-minded” certain Christians are. Even if the speakers drop medical or theological quotations into PowerPoint slides, these can be the most notable effects. Lectures like these can be the Miracle Gro of emotivism. In a way, the lectures produce problems similar to those they diagnose.
A diagnosed problem for the Sexual Revolution, from this Catholic perspective, is that it separates sexual intercourse from the fullness of communion: it attempts to limit sexual intercourse to the self-affirmation of the parties at the given moment, without any care to the long-term consequences and full fruitful relationality. These sorts of lectures and the ensuing conversations of attendees with “secular persons” often do the same. They separate verbal intercourse from true communion, giving the speaker self-gratification in spilling their insides onto the world while caring little to none about the receiver’s openness to this, except insofar as it forces a position upon them. This happens apart from a true relationship and is something all at once (ironically) akin to masturbation, sexual violence, and in vitro fertilization.
Another problem is the autopsy, the diagnosis itself. When these lectures have a “what went wrong” narrative, they’re usually doing an autopsy on a body that died and was examined forty years ago. The autopsy on that body has the narrative: “These events led up to the Sexual Revolution, we got the Sexual Revolution, and then there were STI’s, abortion, and divorce, and that’s how we got this dead body.”
Certainly, we still get casualties of the Sexual Revolution today. But rather than digging into the new contexts for these bodies, the mode of engagement is as if the narrators shove the new body off the table, stick the old one on top of it, perform the same autopsy from 1980, and then declare a pre-scripted Cause of Death for the body that’s now on the floor. Further, they’re using the methods and instruments of forty years ago, rather than considering whether what we have developed and learned in the intervening years may have revealed some past misdiagnoses.
I think the issue of homosexuality (the issue which, admittedly, I am constantly writing about) can help clarify. Some argue that “gay rights” once primarily meant gay men being able to have sex whenever and with whomever they chose, rather than following the sexual ethic of the Church, and that this led to HIV, AIDS, and death. Gay men have died as a result of sexual promiscuity. The AIDS crisis beginning in the 1980’s is a historical event. But gay people today die prematurely for many reasons. For example, today’s gay people dying from suicide have more complicated stories: they’re not only bound up with narrow post-Sexual Revolution narratives about what it means to be “true” to yourself, but also usually with unjust discrimination that makes them question their dignity, “conversion therapy” which at times has amounted to abuse, and an inability to see a future in Christian communities which seem to do everything they can to shove young people into marriage. Yet, every time a gay person commits suicide, one narrative that pops up in Christian circles is: they identified with their desires, following “the world,” and this is the Cause of Death.
The problem with this narrative is that it’s ridiculous to everyone except certain Christians. So when it’s brought forward, it confirms for those Christians what they already want to believe, and it elicits the ire and eye rolls of everyone else. So it does nothing to provoke either thoughtfulness or self-critique from either side. It adds nothing new. It’s a simplified narrative that demands a simple acceptance or rejection, rather than the sort of complex narrative one would expect for an actual human life and death. It’s a biography written in a sentence by someone who’s never met the deceased. I’m horrified at the thought that, were the deceased me, many would write me off with that one sentence. I’m not absolving the Sexual Revolution of all responsibility. But there is much more to say.
And this is why I tend to avoid lectures like those. But I’ll try to be open to being pleasantly surprised.
A note on “Homosexual Ideology”
The lecture title most relevant to me is “Homosexual Ideology.” I’m familiar with the speaker. I do think she is someone who wants to engage issues related to homosexuality well. It’s possible she will present a thoughtful lecture that considers not only homosexual “ideology” but also homosexual persons.
Nonetheless, I’m skeptical for similar reasons I would be skeptical of attending a lecture titled “Catholic Ideology.” Implicit in the title is the suggestion that there is something intellectually problematic and inhumane about Catholicism. As a Catholic, I would enter a lecture assuming that I will experience some hostility towards this part of myself.
I identify as a gay man. For many Catholics, the preferred term to identify me would be “homosexual.” So when I read the title, “Homosexual Ideology,” I assume that the lecture will involve hostility towards me, towards my way of viewing and experiencing the world. These sorts of lecture titles presume that there are not diverse ideologies among Catholics and homosexual persons, but, rather, that there is a monolithic ideology which we must identify and be prepared to combat. I’m led to believe that I am not wanted or welcomed at those lectures, and that attendees will be given tools so that they can work against my “ideology.”
If my secular place of work hosted a lecture titled, “Catholic Ideology,” I would go to the organizers and explain that such a lecture is alienating to my company’s Catholic employees, and that it’s an inappropriate and overly simplistic way to frame a discussion on Catholicism. I would be shocked if my secular employer ever hosted a lecture with that title. But I’m not shocked by this parish’s choice for the lecture title, because I think that my secular employer cares more about Catholics than this parish cares about gay people. The assumption at my place of work is that Catholics would be involved in conversations related to Catholicism (in fact, there have been lectures on faith at my place of work, with the heavy involvement of people of faith–I’ve spoken on a panel about being Catholic). But none of the lectures at this parish appear to have the direct involvement of any of the people they’re talking about, which might explain why we’re presented with such a monolithic condemnatory framing. Catholics aren’t learning the lesson we’ve learned too late when responding to clergy abuse survivors: if you’re going to talk and make decisions about people, you really should have them directly involved in the process, ideally in a position of significant influence.
If you are a friend who attends this lecture, I encourage you to listen in this way: replace “homosexual” with “Chris Damian.” I am a homosexual. I have beliefs and goals and, according to the Church, rights. We are actual people. I think Catholics often forget this. Replace the title with “Chris Damian Ideology.” Replace every reference in the lecture to “homosexual agenda” or “gay rights” with “Chris Damian agenda” or “Chris Damian’s rights”. Ask yourself: Does this sound like Chris Damian? You’ll get a better sense of how I experience these sorts of lectures. You’ll get a better sense of why I feel like I have to keep reminding people that I’m here. You’ll get a better sense of why I feel that the only gay people many Catholics are interested in are gay people they can combat in public forums.
I want to engage the Church well as a gay man. I want people to be able to engage me well. I want to belong in the Church. I want to be spoken with and not just about. So I’m disheartened by this title. I’m disheartened by this parish. And I’m disheartened by a lack of considerations how those who will be talked about might experience the way it’s framed. This is not how you encourage gay people to live up to the Church’s calling. This is not how you bring in converts. This is not how you get your detractors to reconsider their positions.
This is how you keep me out of your parish. We can do better.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.