Recently, at the height of Hurricane Monica, I had lunch with the editor of a national magazine, who, like me, is not happy that we now have to turn off news bulletins about the president of the United States if children are in the room. The rest of the electorate seemed to be enjoying the White House soaps immensely. As Clinton's approval rating shot toward 100%, I recalled Shakespeare's words about how “much wealth and peace” has strange effects on the body politic.
Pegging me as a Catholic intellectual, the editor asked: What is the bottom line on sexual immorality in high places? How would a theologian respond to the argument that it doesn't matter what an elected official does in private? In reply, I faxed him a few lines from the great Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper, who died recently at age 93. The editor thought them right on target, although a bit too rarefied to share with his large readership.
Here is what a great Catholic thinker has to say about the effects of sexual immorality on the human person:
“Since we nowadays think that all a man needs for acquisition of truth is to exert his brain more or less vigorously, and since we consider an ascetic approach to knowledge hardly sensible, we have lost the awareness of the close bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity. Thomas says that unchastity's first-born daughter is blindness of spirit … an impure, selfishly corrupted will-to-pleasure destroys both resoluteness of spirit and the ability of the psyche to listen in silent attention to the language of reality.”
In other words, what we do with our sex organs in private has more to do with who and what we are than we are likely to suppose.
Part of the problem is our culture's attitude toward the body. Most people today are sexual gnostics. What do I mean by this? I mean that they think of the body as a mere shell or appendage. They imagine that their real self is somewhere inside the body, the proverbial ghost inside a machine, and that what they do with their bodies doesn't make any difference. The body is a thing to be manipulated; it has no connection whatever with the deepest core of our being. This gnostic downgrading of the body is so basic to our contraceptive culture that we don't even notice it. And yet it explains many of our social and moral ills.
The Catholic Church offers a reading of the human person radically at variance with the gnostic one. To a large extent, we are what we do with our bodies. Which means that our spiritual welfare is intimately linked with our physical acts. And there is no deeper physical act than sex. Sex is not simply the functioning of a biological appetite. Rather, as Dietrich von Hildebrand puts it, sex is essentially deep. The whole person, body and soul, is involved. Which is why sexual promiscuity is hurtful in ways that other forms of sensual indulgence—gluttony, for example—can never be.
So, does it make a difference whether an elected official misbehaves sexually? Yes, it does. Do we impeach him (or her) for adultery? No, for a variety of prudential and constitutional reasons. Do we vote for him in the next election? Probably not.
Whatever Clinton's fate, there is no question that his presidency has been cordial to the cultural left and its baggage of sexual attitudes. When his adviser Dick Morris was caught doing weird things with a call girl, the response was that 85% of American husbands cheat on their wives. In Dick Morris's elitist world, that statistic may actually be true. The problem is that these people fervently believe that they know what is good for the rest of us.
The cultural left is yet another of G.K. Chesterton's prophecies come true: The next great heresy, he said, would be the outright rejection of morality by privileged elites going on a spree of polymorphous sex. The problem is that sexual misbehavior does not occur in an airtight compartment. It affects the whole person, turning him into something less than himself. Which is why there is no such thing as strictly private debauchery for a public official.
George Sim Johnston is a writer based in New York.