Many of the Catholic Church’s teachings are vilified in both the high and popular cultures, but none more than its doctrines concerning marriage and sexuality. Time and again, the Church’s views on sex are characterized as puritanical, life denying and hopelessly outdated — holdovers from the Bronze Age. Above all, critics pillory the Church for setting unreasonable limits to the sexual freedom of contemporary people. Church leaders, who defend traditional sexual morality, are parodied as versions of Dana Carvey’s “church lady” — fussy, accusatory, secretly perverse and sex-obsessed.
Given the ruminations of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, one might have thought that the absolute limit of scientistic arrogance had been reached. But think again. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, was quoted in a recent news article asserting that “science” is on the verge of providing a complete understanding of the universe — an explication, it goes without saying, that precludes the antiquated notion of God altogether. Before addressing the God issue specifically, let me make a simple observation. Though the sciences might be able to explain the chemical make-up of pages and ink, they will never be able to reveal the meaning of a book; and though they might make sense of the biology of the human body, they will never tell us why a human act is moral or immoral; and though they might disclose the cellular structure of oil and canvas, they will never determine why a painting is beautiful. And this is not because “science” is for the moment insufficiently developed, it is because the scientific method cannot, even in principle, explore such matters, which belong to a qualitatively different category of being than the proper subject matter of the sciences. The claim that “science” could ever provide a total understanding of reality as a whole overlooks the rather glaring fact that meaning, truth, beauty, morality, purpose, etc., are all ingredients in “the universe.”
I have to confess that I don’t care much for the speeches delivered at national political conventions. Even the most modest attempts at eloquence produce moistened eyes, and even the most banal observations are invariably met with thunderous applause. I think that Bill Clinton’s speech at this year’s Democratic gathering was interrupted by rapturous ovations approximately every twenty seconds, making it fifteen minutes longer than the former President’s notoriously lengthy address at the 1988 convention. Also, the television reporters unfailingly characterize the bloviations of any nominee as “the speech of his life.” We’re an awfully long way from the Gettysburg Address, which was delivered in the course of a few minutes and met mostly with puzzlement, but managed to simultaneously be deeply rational and truly poetic. But what bothers me most about convention speakers is how they appeal to their uncritically partisan audiences precisely by caricaturing their opponents’ positions.
I first came across the term “hookup culture” in Leonard Sax’s thought provoking and disturbing 2005 book, Why Gender Matters
. But the phenomenon itself I found beautifully depicted in a novel published a year earlier: Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons
. As Sax specifies, the hookup mentality—prevalent among even some very young people but especially among university students—dictates that casual sexual encounters involving absolutely no expectation of relationship, or even psychological engagement, are perfectly acceptable. Sax, a psychiatrist specializing in family therapy, learned of the hookup world from the veritable army of young women suffering from depression and anxiety who were streaming to his office. And through the figure of Charlotte Simmons—an innocent girl from North Carolina who utterly lost her way morally and psychologically at a prestigious university where casual sex and drugs were far more important than learning—Wolfe showed the debilitating effects of this self-absorbed and hedonistic culture.
For many on the left, Paul Ryan is a menace, the very embodiment of cold, indifferent Republicanism, and for many on the right, he is a knight in shining armor, a God-fearing advocate of a principled conservatism. Mitt Romney’s choice of Ryan as running mate has already triggered the worst kind of exaggerated hoo-hah on both sides of the political debate. What is most interesting, from my perspective, is that Ryan, a devout Catholic, has claimed the social doctrine of the Church as the principal inspiration for his policies. Whether you stand with “First Things” and affirm that such a claim is coherent or with “Commonweal” and affirm that it is absurd, Ryan’s assertion prompts a healthy thinking-through of Catholic social teaching in the present economic and political context.