Quick Hitter on Christian Realism

I've talked before about the idea of "Christian Realism." The premise here is that Christianity, properly understood, describes the world as it actually is.  As a result, if there is some empirical claim made on behalf of Christianity, and that claim proves to be wrong, then our understanding of Christianity is flawed.  The solution is not to reject Christianity, nor to put our fingers in our ears and pretend that we don't hear the fact that is inconsistent with our empirical claim; the solution is to go back to the drawing board and rethink our empirical presuppositions.  After all, as Aquinas said,“[a]ll that is true, by whomsoever it has been said, has its origin in the Spirit.”

Christian Realism is a real problem with regard to Catholicism and sexual issues.  A good example of the problem can be seen in this piece by Lisa Duffy.  Here's the key quote:

When sex is experienced outside of marriage, there is no freedom or innocence; it’s all about receiving pleasure. This is how a lover becomes a user; where the giving of the gift turns into taking an object and using it for self-gratification. Under these circumstances, a woman is not giving her body as a gift to the man or vice versa; she is using his body for her own pleasure, and he uses hers for his. When you explain this to an adolescent or a teenager, it’s really striking how easily this clicks for them.

It's important to see that Duffy's (and, by extension, Theology of the Body's) claim is not, at least primarily, a moral claim--"you should not have sex outside of marriage, or you should not treat other people as an object."  Instead, it is fundamentally an empirical claim--"if you have sex outside of marriage, you will be treating the other as an object."  Under this view, sex outside of marriage has certain inherent qualities, regardless of the context or the particular circumstances of the people involved.  Two people who are having sex outside of marriage have no way of structuring a relationship that is not exploitative.  That's the claim being made.

Here's the thing--either that's true or it is not.  In principle, if you are able to find a relationship in which two non-married people have a relationship characterized by "freedom" and "innocence," or something other than receiving pleasure, then a core claim made by Theology of the Body is falsified.  We should be able to look around at the relationships around us and see if we can find any counter-examples that falsify the claim.  And if we find such counter-examples, it would not be a rejection of Catholic morality per se, but a rejection of a description of the world that is used to justify (at least since JP II) a moral position.

 As everyone knows, there are many people who are stepping up to testify that they are in non-marital relationships (or, in the case of LGBT couples, non-marital according the Church's definition) that do not fit the claims made by Theology of the Body advocates.  This leaves three possibilities (1) these couples are lying, and they know that their relationships are secretly exploitative and pleasure-based; (2) these couples are in the midst of some sort of "false consciousness"--i.e., they think their relationships are mutual, but on some level they are mistaken; or (3) these couples are right, and the premises undergirding Theology of the Body are mistaken.

Option #1 is incoherent, particularly in light of the other claims Theology of the Body advocates make about the broader culture surrounding sex.  Take, for example, my friends Neil and Mike who are getting married this summer.  As a gay couple, per Theology of the Body, their relationship by definition is exclusively about giving and receiving pleasure, as opposed to mutuality and self-sacrifice.  And, further per Theology of the Body, the broader culture cheers the pursuit of pleasure and denigrates mutuality and self-sacrifice.  If so, what possible motivation would Neil and Mike have in pretending their relationship is about anything other than pleasure?  It seems like they are doing an enormous amount of work to keep up a facade that the culture sees as purposeless.  Why bother going through the charade, unless they actually believed what they were saying?

Option #2 drifts directly into the kind of otherwordliness I've mentioned before.  Saying, "I know you believe that your own experience is X, but it actually is Y," creates an impermeable bubble of solipsism.  Neil and Mike will never be able to prove to someone like Lisa Duffy that they are not mistaken about the nature of their relationship, nor will Duffy ever be able to convince Neil and Mike they they are deluded, so we appear to be at an unresolvable stalemate.  Moreover, as James Alison points out, "our subjectivity is an objective fact about us."  In other words, if two people believe that their relationship is about mutually and self-sacrifice, and act accordingly, in what sense is it meaningful that (allegedly) on some philosophical level that it is no so?

Duffy tries to fend off these sorts of objections with citations to how terrible the state of relationships are.  Sigh. . . we've been over this ground before here, and again here, and also here, and our friend Frank Strong has covered this ground on multiple occasions.  The empirical evidence simply does not say what the Theology of the Body crowd wants it to say; it just doesn't.

Catholicism is not like joining a club, where you agree to accept a certain set of essentially arbitrary rules in order to get the secret handshake.  Nor has Catholicism ever accepted the Calvinist position that Christianity ultimately boils down to Divine Command Ethics--"God says we need to do X, and we can never understand or derive any meaning or rationale behind those rules other than 'God says so,' so shut up and do what God says."  But there are consequences of being "universal" (as the name implies), and one of those consequences is that we must take seriously the world as it really is. And if we learn that something we thought was true is not in fact true, then we have to take that seriously and go back to the drawing board.  That's what it means to be Catholic.      


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