In an essay that recycles old anti-Catholic clichés, Robert Tracinski writes in The Federalist that the current crisis in the Catholic Church is the “wreckage” of the church’s “doomed war on human nature.” This war, which he says the church wages by suppressing both human sexuality and private judgement, has resulted in “sideways” sexuality and robotic obedience to preying priests among the church’s clergy and laity.
A self-proclaimed neutral observer of sectarian affairs, Tracinski instead takes the side of human nature and argues that Catholics should abandon their doomed war and embrace the principles of the Enlightenment. (Never mind the guillotine and the Terror, dear Catholics, that was just a few French philosophes getting “a little carried away.”)
The first front in the church’s war on human nature is its attempt to suppress human sexuality. Since Augustine, argues Tracinski, who apparently read an article in The New Yorker, the Catholic church has taught that sexual desire is “inherently evil” and that sexual intercourse a “necessary evil.”
What the church actually teaches is quite different. The Catholic church teaches that sexual desire is in itself neither good nor evil. It’s evil if it’s disordered, but isn’t so inherently. Lust, for example, is a form of disordered sexual desire and is evil. But properly ordered sexual desire within a marriage is good, healthy, and encouraged.
What Tracinski identifies as the suppression of sexual desire is actually the church’s call for chastity. Chastity, which requires the recognition of one’s sexuality and mastery of one’s sexual desires, is a virtue that along with the other virtues form the foundation of human freedom: “Either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.”
It’s not clear what alternative to chastity Tracinski favors. He surely isn’t arguing that any suppression of sexual desire is bad, for every individual and all societies suppress, to some extent, sexual desire. Imagine for a moment what your life would be like if you indulged every sexual desire whenever and however strongly it was felt.
We also broadly agree on repressing some forms of sexuality, such as child molestation. That’s what this very scandal is about, in fact. Surely Tracinski doesn’t think it’s bad to repress that kind of sexual desire.
Yet in Tracinski’s view, when one tries to repress sexuality, “it tends to come out sideways.” I ask again: What’s the alternative? He lambasts the church by writing that “those who have no concept of a healthy sexuality will tend to develop an unhealthy sexuality. Hence the concentration within the church hierarchy of men with a sexual preference for children and teenage boys.”
I can only assume that Tracinski favors some modern, popular version of human sexuality. It strikes me that the problem of pedophilia within the church wouldn’t decrease if we lived according to the modern view of “healthy sexuality,” but that pedophilia would in fact increase inside the church and in society in general. Is there any doubt that’s where the culture is headed?
The difficultly then is not the suppression of sexual desire, but if, when, and to what extent we ought to suppress or encourage it. Although normal and natural to feel sexual desire, there are inordinate sexual desires and well-ordered desires, and to act upon sexual desire is another matter altogether.
The answer to whether one should act on a desire cannot be found in the desire itself, for it is the desire we’re judging. Sexual desire, like the many other instincts men and women feel, will demand we obey it. But all desires, impulses, and instincts demand obedience. In fact, if many are felt simultaneously, each will independently demand its own satisfaction above the others.
The plain truth is that we bring something else to the table when we judge our desires and decide whether to act upon them. That “something else” is a value judgement based on our faith, tradition, societal norms, and, ultimately, practical reason and the natural law.
Contrary to Tracinski’s argument, the Catholic church is not at war with reason or private judgement. In fact, the church has always recognized the role of reason in moral judgement. Catholic theologians have consistently upheld the view that “good is the first thing to fall within the apprehension of practical reason.”
Like Aristotle before him, Aquinas taught that when we act we do so “for the sake of an end, which has the character of a good.” Thus “the first precept of law is that good ought to be done and pursued and that evil ought to be avoided.” This is the foundation of natural law, which the Catholic church teaches is “present in the heart of each man and established by reason.”
It is therefore in a particularly condescending way that Tracinski introduces the supposed second front of the Tracinski War. He explains that human nature “includes the ability to reason,” and that “everyone senses, on some level, that we have to do this for ourselves,” as if Catholics, and particularly Catholics who read The Federalist, don’t understand this.
A more fundamental issue exists below the surface of the essay’s polemic appeal. In his essay, Tracinski points out that he’s an atheist. He then makes a plea for Catholics to embrace the Enlightenment, arguing that reason must reign supreme in human affairs. But where does reason come from, in his view? If there is no God, by what natural process was reason the result?
His atheism undermines Tracinski’s faith in reason. It’s thus with an unreflective air that he tells us that when we judge the Catholic church or its members, “You would have to weigh the evidence, consider the arguments, look at the alternative courses of action—in a word, you would have to use reason, just like the rest of us out here in the secular world.”
The means and methods of the secular world, complete with its alternative view of human sexuality, are not the answer for the church, as an institution or as a body of believers. Human reason is a participation in the divine, but it’s not infallible. It’s the faith, tradition, and institutions of our forebears that contain the hard-won wisdom of the species.
In the end, Tracinski denies God, exalts abstract reason, and tears down the repositories of wisdom. In doing so, he’s simply another foot solider in the real war on human nature.