Editor's Note: This editorial is in the Oct. 30 print edition, which went to press on Oct. 20.
“The human body includes right from the beginning … the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift — and by means of this gift fulfills the meaning of his being and existence,” states Pope St. John Paul II in his catechetical masterwork known as the theology of the body.
Ponder these words for a moment. Then consider how the sexual revolution has transformed the human body into an icon of selfishness, clothed in the rhetoric of personal autonomy. For many, the demands of sexual fulfillment overrule the right to life of the unborn child, marriage vows pledging fidelity, and a child’s deep yearning for a stable home. Further, we have seen that the breaking of marital and sexual taboos has consequences well beyond the struggles of individual families. A hypersexualized mass culture that celebrates the human body as a tool for gratification — a pleasure machine that can be used and abused at will — fights for our attention and threatens to colonize our imaginations. Reality television shows, the pornography industry and celebrity activists tap into the wellspring of sexual titillation to drive their engagement with viewers, consumers and voters. The cultural downfall includes “the vulgarization of popular culture and entertainment, which has so deeply wounded our politics that they’ve become another form of reality TV, producing a spectacle that should shame us into a collective examination of conscience as consumers,” observed George Weigel in a column in the journal First Things.
Why, then, are we so disconcerted by the coarsening effect of our wider culture on our political culture? Did we expect our national leaders to be virtuous, while popular celebrities flaunt their sexual prowess and college students press for taxpayer-subsidized birth control?
The lowest point in the campaign season arrived in the final weeks before the election, when social media and cable news sites broadcast an 11-year-old video that captured Donald Trump’s lewd, graphic remarks and suggested he may have forced himself on women. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton came under fire from a group of women who charged that she had enabled Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct before and during the time he served as commander in chief and was impeached by Congress in 1998 for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a young intern.
The dispiriting spectacle has created a moral conundrum for many Catholics and Christians and a dawning awareness that politics as usual — a new batch of presidential candidates in the pipeline for the 2020 presidential election, the tweaking of political alliances and the lowering of our expectations for our president — won’t suffice. We need to attack the cultural rot at the heart of our badly limping republic.
The moral and spiritual revolution our country desperately needs won’t begin in the corridors of power, but in our churches. The doomsayers will say that it is too late for rebuilding and that people of faith must choose between accommodating the status quo and retreating to the margins. Many Catholics in the United States still retain the assimilationist mindset of previous immigrant generations that struggled to find a place, and so they fear what the path of countercultural witness could mean.
For courage — and much-needed perspective — we look to Pope St. John Paul. During his pontificate, he offered two plans for personal and cultural transformation. First, the theology of the body presented a holistic vision of Christian life based on the truth that God created man to experience real love through a free, unconditional and reciprocal gift of self to the other, culminating in the union of a husband and wife.
Sin has damaged our ability to love with a clean heart, but Christ makes it possible to recover the full beauty and purpose of the human body. John Paul asked the faithful to ponder God’s plan for the human person, revealed through salvation history: the creation of Adam and Eve in the divine Trinitarian image; man’s disobedience in the Fall that unleashes selfishness; and, finally, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom who redeems the body as he receives his bride, the Church. While his catechesis on human sexuality offered a path for the liberation of the human body from sins against chastity, John Paul also presented his plan for the liberation of his homeland from Soviet rule and the totalitarian lie. In a series of visits to his native land in the first decade of his pontificate, he challenged his countrymen to reclaim their freedom and dignity as children of God.
The precondition of political freedom was the development of personal responsibility and the honing of virtues that allow democratic societies to blossom. It was a time to create spaces that nurtured the experience of freedom. In this way, Poles could begin to “act” as if they were free, in order to end the pattern of self-censorship and moral passivity that sustained the regime. The Pope called on the Holy Spirit to “renew” the face of his native Poland and spark what has been called a “revolution of conscience.” Man, he said, “cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is, nor what his vocation is, nor what his final end is … without Christ.”
His words challenged the core of communist ideology, which constituted itself as a rival to Christianity. Here in America, we confront another rival to Christianity: sexual orthodoxies that have promised liberation through the rejection of biblical teachings on life and marriage. This new adversary now seeks to obliterate the male-female binary, once understood to reflect an underlying biological reality, as well as the will of the Creator, who made them “male and female.” While the rise of these orthodoxies is cause for alarm, we can’t forget that they mask a deep heartache at the core of our culture.
John Paul’s parallel initiatives — a holistic vision of life that offers a path to real human fulfillment and so recovers the true dignity and meaning of the body and a revolution of conscience that places Christ and personal responsibility at its center — offer a blueprint for the moral and spiritual transformation that will make a healthy political culture possible. We pray that John Paul’s words will provide the inspiration for our urgent mission: the “transformation of the human person’s conscience and attitudes … such as to express and realize the value of the body and sex according to the Creator’s original plan.”