Has Human Nature changed? Did humans never, before today, suffer from sexual temptation? Are Fornication, Adultery, Sodomy, problems only of our own unique and spectacularly sui generis age? What did the New Testament writers mean when they talked about porneia, moikheia, malakia? Is there something crashingly new about the capacity or incapacity of modern human beings (whether with or without Grace) to resist temptation? What is supposed to be so different about our groins and minds compared with the groins and minds of every other human generation since the Fall? What has so privileged us that we are (apparently) free to claim exemption from the Divine Commands, entolai, which were considered to bind former generations since the dawn of history?
What is different about our age; what does set it apart from all previous ages?
Not, surely, human sexual organs or the human minds which have to cope with them. The only change is the spread of the curse, the heresy, of thinking that humans have a Right to Autonomy, free from obligations to God or even to the age-old genetic and social inheritance of our long history as a species; "free", in S Paul's terrifying phrase, "from Righteousness". In other words, the amoral individualistic wickedness of the Enlightenment Chicken is at last come home to roost and to befoul its roosting place. And it is phenomenally dirty.
You will remember C S Lewis's fictional snapshot (1943) of an atheist 'freethinker', a Professor Churchwood, "an old dear. All his lectures were devoted to proving the impossibility of ethics, though in private life he'd walked ten miles rather than leave a penny debt unpaid. But all the same ... was there a single doctrine practised at Belbury* which hadn't been preached by some lecturer at Edgestow? Oh, of course, they never thought that anyone would act on their theories! No one was more astonished than they when what they'd been talking about for years suddenly took on reality. But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognisable, but their own. ... Trahison des clercs. None of us is quite innocent."
And try putting that together with blessed Edward Bouverie Pusey's perceptive and prophetic analysis in the 1830s (unpublished Papers in the archives of Pusey House): "We must bend our minds and conform them to the teaching of Holy Scripture, or men will end in bending Holy Scripture to their own minds, and when it will not bend, will part with it. For a time a person or a generation may go on with this discrepancy unsettled; and a person of strong faith will go on to the end undisturbed, satisfied on this or any other point, that there is some way of settling it, though he knows not of it, yet ... for a Church, wherein men of every sort are gathered, it is a dangerous state to take a direction in any respect varying from Holy Scripture."
And finally, from Dorothy Leigh Sayers, an Anglican scholar whose genius is insufficiently recognised or remembered, in a paper she read at Oxford in 1947: "Right down to the nineteenth century, our public affairs were mostly managed, and our books and journals were for the most part written, by people brought up in homes, and trained in places, where [the Scholastic] tradition was still alive in the memory and almost in the blood. Just so, many people today who are atheist or agnostic in religion, are governed in their conduct by a code of Christian ethics which is so rooted that it never occurs to them to question it. But one cannot live on capital for ever. However firmly a tradition is rooted, if it is never watered, though it dies hard, yet in the end it dies."
That is precisely where we have got to now. We woz warned.
Pusey is forgotten; Lewis has been safely neutered into a writer of kiddie fantasies; Sayers into a yet another of all those female manufacturers of whodunnits. And the Smoke of Satan is still puffing through that widening crack into the Catholic Church herself. We need all those brilliant and incisive Anglican prophets redivivi.
*The first syllable ('Bel' is, I presume, a LXX/Vg transcription of Ba'al) indicates the significance of this fictional placename.
Spot on as so often. I have lost count of the occasions when those who might be labelled 'liberal left' have criticised our Prime Minister for fathering children by several different women, often blissfully unaware of their own hypocrisy (one, amongst the most vociferous, has a son by a married man). My response mirrors what you say here, that Mr Johnson's progenital history should be the cause of rejoicing amongst liberals - his 'complicated family' being a exemplar for the sort of behaviours championed by their ilk for the past 60 years.
What insightful, wise entry---full of truth and melancholy light (melancholy because we are living in the detritus that these great men and women foresaw). On side comment about an issue that continues to perplex me: why is it that these great, wise Anglican thinkers never brought in their personal lives an end to the Henrician schism? And, connected to that, why is it that so many Catholics, blessed as they are with the True Faith and ostensibly with communion with the great Apostolic See of Peter, are so blind to these truths and so dumb is defending them?
Reading what you have written here, father, motivated me to reread a chapter of the Oxford History of Christianity, edited by John McManners. Chapter 10, “The Christian Conscience” was written by Basil Mitchell, Nolloth Professor of Philosophy of the Christian Religion, and Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford.
Mitchell claimed that in our era a revolt against Christian conceptions in sexual ethics was a revolt against widespread hypocrisy, against double standards for men and women, and against the subordination of marriage to the interests of property. Often it was a plea for a more deeply personal conception of erotic love, involving its own more flexible and sensitive sexual ethic, in which what mattered was the authenticity of the love expressed........there is too much, for example, that is doubtfully Christian in the institution of marriage as accepted in Europe until recent times, especially in its subordination of women and its close association with property rights; and the treatment of “deviants” in the past has been too harsh and hypocritical to be contemplated with an easy conscience......
Mitchell later goes on to articulate and summarise the views of Christians who opposed Humanae Vitae : Could matters of physiological detail be so crucial in a relationship as intensely personal as marriage? The alternative approach was to emphasize the personal aspect of sexuality in general and the “unitive” function of marriage......in this way the actual experience of the faithful in their married lives could be bought effectively into the reckoning.
Mitchell again: “This appeal to personal experience endorsed one of the leading themes of the modern period, going back at least to the beginnings of the romantic movement, and it is hard not to acknowledge it as a permanent advance in human awareness.”
So, has human nature changed? Rereading this chapter I think perhaps Mitchell is claiming that people in the West in the modern era, since the beginnings of the romantic movement, are in some ways different people compared to people in earlier eras.
It often amazes me, when reading articles and books by modern Christians, how many Christians in our era seem so strongly influenced by Hegel, Marx and Foucault in that they believe that all ideas and concepts (including Catholic beliefs and morality- including sexual morality) must primarily be looked at and regarded historically, as embedded in ways of life; as never timeless and unchanging, but embodied in societies and institutions, in historical realities that change.
Loath should one be to criticise our reverend Host, and one who is member of a once-great Catholic university, and a credit to its heritage.
Yet, one cannot rid oneself of the suspicion that he indulges in a rather romantic view of past generations, and one which ill-becomes him, learned as he is in the religious history of this realm.
In that little volume with which many are familiar, “Mementoes (sic) of the Martyrs and Confessors of England and Wales” (Burnes and Oates 1962, a revised edition of the original of 1910), we read for today - Bl John Almond - thus - “ Ever smiling, he protested he died chaste, not through his own ability or worthiness but by Christ’s special grace-this for the benefit of of a doctor of divinity who was present and declared the thing impossible.”
Nihil sub sole novum. How traditional our modern politicians, churchmen and commentators are - positively the successors of the Protestant Divines.
But let us not romanticise the past. Evil has ever been with us, and the old disguises come out again and again, like a school play. For in so doing we make more difficult the journey to holiness of our fellow men.
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