[ Return to Discussion Board ]
    How the Church contributed to "the sexual revolution"
    Posted by BrianC on October 13, 2003, 12:54 am

Dear all, this is a response to the specific question Credo put to me down the board (see link below) on how I reach the conclusion that the Catholic Church contributed to the overswing of the pendulum in sexual mores and behaviours in Western society.

With pleasure, Credo. I did actually outline it somewhere in another post in the last 24 hours but it was in the course of explaining something else so I'll try and state it here as a standalone proposition.

Most people (ie thinking, intelligent people who study these sort of things) would agree that there was a massive social revolution in the Western world that got underway in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The causes of this were undoubtedly complex but two of the broad factors at work were the post-World War prosperity which really had started to flow down through all the social classes in the Western world by that stage. Allied to this was the baby boomer generation. The massive explosion in the population at the conclusion of the War as men returned home and people started having families again. I was part of that generation as I was born in 1948.

Our parents had gone through the most horrific war in human history and still fresh in their memories were the stories from around the dinner table of their parents' experiences in not only the Great Depression of the 1930s but also the First World War. Collectively, as a result of their experiences they had made a decision "our children are never going to have to go through what we and our parents went through". My generation had a dream run. We had education lavished on us like it had never been lavished on anyone in human history before. I was the first person in my wider family, probably since we were descended from Adam and Eve to have the privilege of a university education. It was in the early sixties that my generation began to become sexually active and we had been given enormous freedom (at least compared to previous generations) by our parents. They were trying to create "a better world" and they gave all of us ‚ their children ‚ great encouragement to do likewise. Out of this complex flow of sociological factors was born the so-called "sexual revolution".

It is not my contention that the sexual revolution was caused by the Church. The pendulum had already started swinging from all the other factors I have just mentioned. Two other factors that were feeding the particular aspects of the so-called sexual revolution were (a) better medical knowledge about contraception and, in particular, the development of the oral contraceptive pill and (b) women had suddenly discovered for themselves a completely different understanding of their own sexuality that was completely different to what most women (their mother's generation) had had. Women now felt they could enjoy sex in much the same way that men had been able to since the dawn of time. Before the invention of reliable contraception women carried enormous worry every time their husband demanded his conjugal rights. For the man it was over in five minutes. The woman had to wait a month and worry if she was pregnant or not and, if she was, that single five minute act had charted the course of her life for at least 21 years and possibly even longer. Now women were largely freed from that worry and they began to enjoy the pleasurable side of sex every bit as much as men did.

So far I've been writing about what was going on in general society, not particularly in the Catholic Church and within Catholic families. I'll talk about that specifically in a while. For the moment though I would just share the observation that Catholics generally shared in what I have described so far but with the added benefit that it was in the 1960s, and certainly in Australia, that Catholics ceased thinking of themselves as second-class citizens ‚ the hewers of wood, carriers of parcels and general dogsbodies to the White Anglo-Saxon Squattocracy that had virtually ruled this nation since the arrival of the first Europeans. We were beginning to take our place with pride in Australian society just like everyone else. As you can imagine, it was a heady mix. Both generally in what was going on in society in general and for us Catholics in particular.

The whole climate of that time was enormous optimism right throughout the Western world. It is true that the Cold War and Russia was a bit of a dampener but that didn't affect the ordinary person in the street too much except perhaps for the big scare of the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s. At around this time also the ingenuity of the Japanese people began to impact on the West with a massive explosion in access to consumer goods and labour saving devices. Along with that came increased leisure time. We really did think the world was our oyster and there was nothing to stop anything we wanted to do. This was the time when man first landed on the moon and realised the possibility of being able to explore other parts of the solar system and out into deep space.

Now let's look at the specifically Catholic factors. In the early 1960s, and quite out of the blue, this Pontiff came along called John XXIII. He was already an old man and he was thought to be some kind of interim appointment. Totally against what anybody was expecting he called this thing called a Vatican Council ‚ most of us had never heard what one of them was ‚ and he said he was going to "freshen up the Church" and bring its thinking up to date with all the other developments that had been going on in society. Can you imagine how the ordinary Catholics in the street felt? Initially they walked around liked stunned mullets I suppose because nothing like this have happened in the living memory history of the Church. Then, as the idea sunk in and the Council became a reality there was enormous enthusiasm for Vatican II. Amongst the laity and amongst the religious. We sort of began to factor it in with this other great mood of optimism and joy we'd been experiencing of the world being our oyster. We really did have a feeling that "God is on our side" and the world was entering a new beautiful period of "peace, love and mungbeans" as Amanda McKenna would describe it.

Catholics only had one little problem compared to anyone else. We couldn't bonk like they could and enjoy all the sexual liberation that had begun to go on. My wife and I got married when I was in my final year at university in 1969 and, along with quite a number of my peers we would not be afraid to admit that we basically got married so that we could go and bonk our brains out like everyone else was now doing. I am sure if someone studied the statistics of that period of Catholic university students that the average age of marriage would have been 3, 4 or 5 years lower than the general average for society. If you didn't do that you either had to ignore this aspect of Catholic teaching or do it and put up with a guilty conscience. Then in 1965 Pope John Paul announced he was setting up a special commission to look into the whole matter of artificial contraception. More surprising still is that for the first time in the entire history of the Church he appointed lay people, including married couples to this commission. Unfortunately Pope John XXIII did not live to see the work of that commission completed and you can read George Weigelís overview of what then occurred in those previous references I have given from his biography of PJPII. [Link to Excerpt on Humanae Vitae and Excerpt on The Theology of the Body]

Let's go back to the wider secular picture for a paragraph. If you were watching ABC television earlier this evening you would have seen the first episode of the rock music history program "Love is in the Air". It captured brilliantly the mood of the 1960s. It really was an absolutely beautiful time to be growing into an adult in. By the same token there were also some cracks beginning to show in the whole picture. New social problems were beginning to emerge like drugs and some kinds of anti-social and anti-authority behaviour – even forms of anarchy and nihilism. What I am trying to point to here is that the social revolution was already overheated or, to put it another way, we (society) had not only redressed all the repression that had been caused by the Great Depression and the two World Wars but the social pendulum had begun to overswing into behaviours and thinking patterns that, in the long run would be unsustainable.

Now we can get to answer your question, Credo: How did the Catholic Church contribute to the overswing of the pendulum?

In 1965 the Second Vatican Council ended. I was in my final year of secondary school. The Catholic world was still waiting on the outcome of the work being undertaken by this commission Pope John XXIII had set up into the matter of contraception.

Meanwhile though Pope John had died and Pope Paul VI took over. This had actually happened before the end of the Vatican Council. There was though an enormous sense of optimism right throughout the Church in the Western world where, for the first time in history, ordinary Catholics probably had some understanding of what was going on in Rome because of all the publicity from the Vatican Council. The optimism was that the Church would approve artificial contraception and give Catholics access to the same sort of sexual freedoms that the rest of the world had been enjoying for nearly a decade.

In October 1968 Pope Paul VI dropped his bombshell. It literally was like a bombshell. There was almost immediately a massive defection from the Church by many married people ‚ and also by many religious who also were all buoyed with this great feeling of optimism and hope. It is difficult to convey what a sense of disappointment Humanae Vitae was to everyone. A few months ago if you happened to watch the episode of Brides of Christ where Humanae Vitae was discussed you would have even heard the Bishop express deep disappointment at the decision. I think that small scene captured the whole mood of the Catholic Church in 1968 in an exquisitely poignant way – even the Bishops were disappointed even though the ruling on contraception did not mean a scrap of difference as far as their personal sexuality was concerned. A large proportion of the children of these people today make up the present parent generation sending their children to Catholic schools but who do not practice themselves. The decision was totally, totally unexpected right up virtually until the announcement was made.

Now my argument is, and I am pretty sure this is also the argument that PJP and George Weigel are talking about in that sentence that I quoted ["When he was elected to the papacy, Karol Wojtyla knew that the Church's last effort to address the sexual revolution and its relationship to the moral life, Pope Paul's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, had been a pastoral and catechetical failureóhowever correct he thought it was on the specific question of the morally appropriate means of regulating fertility." See Witness to Hope excerpt here.]. Had the Church managed the communication in a different way I do not believe there would have been the massive shock that was inflicted on the Church in 1968. There would not have been the massive falling away of loyalty to the Church and the contribution that this made to sexual behaviours and thinking that took place without restraint. The proportion of the Catholic population who actively practised their religion had been falling since the 1950s. It had been about 56% and higher in the 1950s. The decline had partially stabilised because of Vatican II but the publication of Humanae Vitae "opened the floodgates" to people leaving the active practice of their faith such was the scale of disappointment experienced by ordinary Catholics, and particularly married Catholics. Many of those that did stay went through enormous trauma with their consciences and many of them just disobeyed this ruling of the Church and started using contraception ‚ sometimes with the blessing of their priests in private consultation.

As I wrote in the other post where I was discussing this: it is arguable that had PJP been the one in charge and he been able to do what he wanted to do ‚ which was explain better why artificial contraception (ac) was a theological no-no ‚ the damage would have been a lot less. Not as many would have left. This would not have contributed to the numbers of those who were providing extra energy for the pendulum to swing further in the direction of lack of restraint in all sexual behaviours. I actually do not believe even PJPII's solution would have been enough though and I accept that that is a matter of personal opinion. I do agree it would have lessened the overswing of the pendulum ‚ and that is basically what George Weigel argues. As you know if you have followed the long discussion Maggie and I had a month or so ago, I am also simply not convinced by Pope John Paul's theological arguments on the matter of ac. Neither do a lot of other ordinary married Catholics seem to be convinced by them even when they have studied The Theology of the Body.

Back to finish my argument. I think there was one other way in which the Church ended up contributing to the overswing of the pendulum and an unleashing of far greater sexual licentiousness than need have occurred.

Another important factor of what had been generally going on in the 1960s was a massive social re-evaluation of the individual person's relationship to authority figures. Our parents, in a sense, had loosened the apron strings and we had gone on and applied this to other symbolic authority figures in our lives ‚ like the government, like our relationships with our teachers, our relationship to policemen and any person who wore a uniform. In a sense there was this feeling in the air that people didn't need these "nannies" in their lives anymore. All you needed to do was "make love not war". Do you understand now the enormous symbolism of John Lennon's and Yoko Ono's act of going to bed for a whole year?

Now this is where, in hindsight, we can see the Church was really dumb. She had been dumb enough by effectively shooing out half her practising congregations to join the sexual revolution. That just added the weight of numbers to the overswing of the pendulum.

What she was doing here was effectively setting herself up as a counter symbol of authoritarianism and she became the laughing stock of the world. I believe it was at this point that the media began to deliberately start poking fun at the Church and at Catholics ‚ but in a totally different way to what had happened earlier in the century when Catholics were treated as second-class citizens in an economic and social sense. I also believe, and argue, that it was at this point that masses of people on the outside who until then basically couldn't have cared what the Catholic Church or the Pope thought about anything started to actually engage in activities to deliberately, as it were, give the big two-fingered salute to the Catholic Church and everything she had to say about human sexuality. We began to see public demonstrations in such places as the gay and lesbian mardi gra which were directly targeting and designed to send up the values of the Church. Similarly there were satirical television programs and all sorts of stuff slipped into otherwise innocuous soapies that all had the effect of (a) mocking the Catholic Church and (b) encouraged people to mock the Catholic Church by deliberately engaging in activities that made the more conservative Catholics start glowing red and busting their boilers.

That behaviour is still engaged in today and not only with Catholics. People do love seeing rednecks bust their boilers. Do you know who the favourite friend of the gay and lesbian community in Australia is? It is the Reverend Fred Nile. He cannot see that but they can and they literally do love having him around. It makes their work a million times easier than it otherwise would have been. Their second best friend is the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly the commercial sex industry literally love having the Rev Fred Nile and the Catholic Church around. Between them Fred and the Catholic Church probably contribute more to the profits of the people running this industry than all of the millions they spend on paid advertising each year.

This is where I would agree with some of what James is saying in his observation that some secular media organisations and journalists have an agenda. The agenda basically is "show us ya tits luv and shuv another one up the arse of the Catholic Church and all these neanderthals in society". If you want to curb that sort of behaviour you do not pour oil on the troubled waters or stoke up the fires that are fuelling it. You learn to moderate your own communication behaviours and persuade other people ‚ rather than try to lecture them about what naughty little boys and girls they are.

Do you understand my perspective now? All this talk about "upholding the truth" that the neanderthals go on about is all codswallop. They have confused the pursuit of truth with a complex set of behaviours where they are trying to provide some noble explanation to their behaviour of grasping for security and certitudes in their lives against the sense they have that Soddam and Gomorah are closing in all around them.

[ Return to Discussion Board ]