John F. Kavanaugh

The day after Arnold Schwarzenegger announced to Jay Leno and the world that he was running for governor of Californiatoughest decision since getting a bikini wax in 1978Andrew Sullivan, erstwhile conservative Catholic who supported the war in Iraq and considers leaving the church over gay marriage, interrupted a vacation from his blog work on the Internet with the words AH-NULD! Yay. A pro-gay, pro-choice, hard-ass Republican.

That paragraph alone should give anyone pause to think: about the trivialization of politics in the United States, about the meaningless of being labeled a Democrat or Republican, about the beautiful world of pro-choice sex and pro-choice war.

Sex and war. On that particular day, warring over sex was bigger than sexing up the war, mired as we were in the boring matters of ending what we started when we took over Iraq. Jerry Springer, who specializes in domestic sexual wars, sadly told us that his message would not be heard, so he would not run for office. A loss to the Republic. At least Larry Flynt is staying in the California race with the slogan The Smut Peddler Who Cares.

What really dominated the news that week, however, was a five-minute, three-word appearance by Kobe Bryant before a judge. Cable news nets spent hours in preparation for this little vignette and lingered over Kobe’s exit with the fans cheering him on. On Hardball that night it was the Big Story. At least Bryant had earlier admitted that he betrayed his wife as an adulterer, even though he could say, I’m innocent. He, too, knows that the only arbiter of innocence and guilt in this country is not conscience, but court. Court means the real thing. Money. Media.

A close second was the war over sex in the Episcopal Church. A divorced, sexually active homosexual was seeking, not forgiveness, but a bishopric. Once elected, he noted, God is doing a new thing.

Really? Well sure, something new is being done, but one might be more humble in not attributing it to God. One could argue that most moral catastrophies in the world were orchestrated by people doing their own thing while enlisting God for the cause.

Although God indeed wills our happiness, that will is not necessarily manifest in the fierceness of our needs. Nor is God’s will evident when we deeply, earnestly and endlessly want something. If we think that is the case, then it is merely our own will and desire that determine what we ought to do. With God on Our Side, the old song goes, whether in war or sex or money too.

Sexual ethics is particularly interesting these days because many people think ethics has nothing to do with sex. This is a strange phenomenon, to say the least. It is claimed that sex (except for extreme cases that themselves are being challenged by extremists) is a private matter. But all morality is private in crucial ways, and one’s use of sexuality is surely indicative of the kind of person one is. If you claim that sin and grace have nothing to do with your sexual life, you are either lying or fooling yourself.

The church has had something to do with this situation. In the 1950’s (and who knows how many decades or centuries before then), sexual matters seemed to be the only things that counted ethically. Sex was so important that there was supposedly no small matter in it. No venial sins here. As opposed to greed, vanity, covetousness and hate, in sex there was only grave matter. As a youth, I myself heard a proud statement by a devoted father at a public meeting that he would rather have my daughter come home dead than pregnant out of wedlock.

This enthronement of sex as the reigning moral realm was disastrous. All issues of justice, generosity, racial and other hatreds paled by comparison. To make matters worse, when the sexual revolution came and Humanae Vitae was published (a document I consider prophetic), many failed to distinguish issues of sexuality from issues of terminating human life. As a result, the very ground of ethics suffered an earthquake. (I think, as an aside, that some of the more heinous examples of clergy sexual abuse were part of that earthquake. The same might be said of the distressingly high incidence of Catholic acceptance of abortion.)

Today we are in the midst of a war between people who think sex is the only arena for evil and those who think sex is the only arena beyond any moral evaluation.

Both are wrong. Sex is an intrinsic part of our identity. As such, it is the arena of grace and sin, of narcissism and generosity, of egocentrism and holiness. Heterosexuals and homosexuals face this in different ways. But by and large, they deny it.

I believe that the received wisdom of the Scriptures, the lives of the saints, the teaching of wise ancestors, the mysteries of the sacraments and the cold-sounding Magisterium of the church must inform our consciences in matter of sexuality. If we reject the teaching, we reject the church.

What is more difficult is to apply this principle to every arena of our lives: our use of power and money, our relationships, our refusal to forgive, our cherishing of resentments, our waging of wars. Often, in these cases, it is claimed that the Gospels are unrealistic or outdated. It certainly happens when we ignore the law of Christ in matters of money and power. So it is with those who wish to suppress all sexual moral imperatives as well.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.