Problems of Family and Sexual Ethics in the Debate between Christianity and Western Secular Civilization

Speech of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev at the World Public Forum "Dialogue of Civilizations", Havana, Cuba, March 27-30, 2005.

One of the questions touched upon in the course of the contemporary debate between the religious tradition and secular ‘Post-Christian’ humanism is that of the moral norms which should condition the person’s sexual behaviour. Secularism is waging a systematic war against the notions of marriage and the family formed over the centuries, proposing instead its own concept of sexual relations that are very far removed from the traditional understanding. We will now examine several aspects of family ethics, sexual behaviour and the relationship between the sexes as examples of the results to which the rejection of traditional values leads in this extremely important area of human existence.

Let us now examine the question of how the rejection of traditional values impacts human morality. As an example we shall look at several aspects of family ethics, sexual behaviour and the relationship between the sexes.

In all traditional religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, there exists the notion of marriage as a divinely-established union between a man and a woman. Christianity insists on the uniqueness of marriage and the principle of its indissolubility, viewing divorce as a sin (although there are a number of exceptions to this rule). In the Orthodox tradition marriage is viewed as a life-long union of spouses, strengthened not only by physical, but also by spiritual intimacy. The head of the family, according to the teaching of St Paul, is the husband: he must love his wife as Christ loves His Church, while she must obey her husband as the Church obeys Christ (Eph. 5:22-23; Col. 3:18).

In these words there is, of course, no talk about the despotism of the husband or the enslavement of the wife, but of the primacy of responsibility, care and love. It should also not be forgotten that all Christians are called to mutual submission in the fear of God (Eph. 5:21). Therefore, ‘neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God’ (1 Cor. 11:11-12. The Bases of the Social Conception of the Russian Orthodox Church X, 5).

The Orthodox Church condemns all forms of fornication, adultery and marital infidelity, as well as prostitution and promiscuity. At the same time, in spite of widespread belief to the contrary, the Church ‘by no means calls on its members to shun the body or sexual intimacy as such, for physical relations between a man and a woman are blessed by God in marriage, where they become a source of the continuation of the human race and express chaste love, total community and the “unity of souls and bodies” of the spouses.’ According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church,

the transformation of these relations, which are pure and worthy according to God’s plan, as well as of the body itself into an object of degrading exploitation and trade aimed at the receiving of egoistic, impersonal, loveless and distorted satisfaction, deserve condemnation. For this very reason the Church invariably condemns prostitution and the propagation of so-called ‘free love,’ which completely separate physical intimacy from personal and spiritual community, from self-sacrifice and the complete responsibility of each partner for the other, which are possible only in life-long marital fidelity (Ibid. X, 6).

According to the Orthodox understanding, an essential element of the marital union and the fruit of the love between man and wife are children, the birth and upbringing of which are one of the main goals of marriage (Ibid. X, 3-4). The absence of children in the Old Testament was viewed as a punishment from above, while the presence of them in the family was considered God’s blessing: ‘Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward’ (Ps. 127:3). In accordance with this view the Orthodox Church considers the freely-willed rejection of childbirth and the artificial termination of pregnancy inadmissible. As the equivalent of murder, abortion is unequivocally condemned by the Church, which insists on the personal responsibility of all who take part in this act: the woman, the man (in the case of his consent) and the doctor (Ibid. XII, 2). The use of contraceptives is also inadmissible. However, in this respect the Orthodox Church applies a differentiated approach, distinguishing contraceptives with abortive effects from those which do not terminate the life of an embryo: the former are equated with abortion, the latter are not (Ibid. XII, 2).

On the basis of Holy Scripture and Tradition the Church condemns homosexual relations, seeing in them the vicious distortion of man’s God-created nature (XII, 9). In this point, as well as in other aforementioned points the Orthodox teaching does not essentially differ from that of the Roman Catholic Church. The only exception perhaps is the idea of the primacy of the husband in the family, which in contemporary Catholic documents seems to be avoided.

Like the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church also insists on the uniqueness and indissolubility of the marital bond (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana/Washington D.C., 2000, paragraph 2364), as well as on the inadmissibility of divorce, which is declared a ‘grave offence against the natural law’ (Ibid. 2384). It also speaks of the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life (Ibid. 2363). Fertility in marriage is a gift of God: ‘Called to give life, spouses share in the creative power and fatherhood of God’ (Ibid. 2367). Birth control is admissible if it is applied with the use of natural methods, e.g. abstinence (Ibid. 2368-2370), but the use of contraceptives is inadmissible (Ibid. 2370). Abortion, qualified as a grave crime against human life, is categorically condemned (2270-2275).

The Catholic Church recognizes sexuality as a ‘source of joy and pleasure’ (Ibid. 2362), although it stresses that it is ‘ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion’ (Ibid. 2360). Any manifestations of sexual activity outside of marriage, including adultery (Ibid. 2380-2381), fornication, prostitution and rape (Ibid. 2353-2356), are considered by the Catholic Church to be unacceptable and sinful. The Catholic Church distinguishes between homosexual acts, which are ‘acts of grave depravity’ that under no circumstances can be approved, and homosexual tendencies, which can be congenital and not determined by the person’s free choice. According to Catholic doctrine, people who tend toward homosexuality ‘are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection’ (2357-2359).

Until the second half of the twentieth century the norms mentioned above were considered generally accepted in the majority of Western countries. However, the ‘sexual revolution’ which followed the Second World War and the outbreak of the feminist movement in the 1960s led to a radical transformation of family and sexual ethics. The avalanche-like liberalization of legislation concerning morality began and continues to this very day. The monumental social break with the past, unprecedented in scale and brought about by the sexual revolution, affected practically all Western countries. In less than half a century the traditional notions of the family and sex were overturned, making way for ‘progressive’ norms based on the liberal world-view. Not only did this radically change the entire face of Western civilization, but it also created an unbridgeable gulf between it and those civilizations in which traditional family and sexual ethics continue to be adhered to.

First the thesis of the equality between men and women was proclaimed. By itself this thesis does not give rise to objection when speaking of political, cultural and social equality, of women’s rights to work, participate in the life of society, governmental organs, etc. Problems arose when, as a result of the conquests of the sexual revolution and the feminist movement, a certain natural balance between man and woman in the family was disrupted. In particular, the idea of motherhood was undermined, and the notion of the husband as the ‘bread-winner’ with the main duty of providing for the family materially was destroyed. After this occurred both the man and woman became equally occupied with the realization of their professional potential, and both began to bear the burden of financial responsibility for the family. However, when the woman’s energies are directed toward her career and the earning of money, her possibilities of bearing and rearing children are drastically reduced. This is one of the reasons for the decrease in the number of families with many children, the increase in the number of childless couples and families with one or two children, as well as the overall decrease in births in the majority of Western countries during recent decades.

During the sexual revolution the idea of the uniqueness and indissolubility of the marital union underwent desecration. The ideology of the revolution declared the institution of indissoluble marriage to be outdated, reactionary, founded on social and economic oppression and not adapted to the natural human desire to receive maximum sexual satisfaction (Cf. Wilhelm Reich, Die sexuelle Revolution, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1982, S. 55-56). The principle of ‘free love’ was proclaimed, which allowed for the freedom of sexual relations outside the marital union, the unlimited number of sexual partners, the rights to adultery, pre-marital sexual relations and divorce. The hedonistic principle of the satisfaction of sexual desires was pitted against the traditional ideals of marital fidelity and chastity as definitive for the sexual behaviour of the individual. This mindset, actively inculcated by the mass media and educational institutions, led to a sharp increase in the number of divorces, which also brought about a worsening of the demographic crisis that had begun to strike the countries of the West.

In defending the so-called ‘reproductive rights’ of women, the sexual revolution worked out a program of ‘family planning’ and the widespread introduction of contraceptives to the masses. A ‘scientific’ substantiation of these programs was offered, based on the thesis of the overpopulation of the planet and the lack of natural resources. From the beginning of the 1960s the use of birth control pills became widespread, and their use grew exponentially: in America alone, where these pills appeared in 1960, 6 per cent of the women were already using them three years after their appearance, while ten years later this number reached 43 per cent (Patrick Buchanan, The Death of the West, p.26). At the present moment the use of contraceptives is a generally accepted norm in the West.

The sexual revolution dealt a powerful blow to the traditional notion of the right of each person, including the newly-born baby, to life. A world-wide campaign to legalize abortion was unleashed. It is well-known that the first country to legalize abortion was the Soviet Union, where this occurred in 1920. In the Soviet Union the legalization of abortion was just one of the points of a programme to overturn traditional values and inculcate atheistic ones into the population. In the Western countries, where the influence of traditional values held on somewhat longer, the legalization of abortion became possible only as a result of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. From this time until the beginning of the 1990s abortion was legalized in the majority of Western countries, including Great Britain (1967), Finland (1970), Denmark (1973), USA (1973), Austria (1974), France (1975), Sweden (1975), Italy (1978), Norway (1979), the Netherlands (1981), Greece (1986), Czechoslovakia (1987), Bulgaria (1990), Romania (1990), Albania (1991), Belgium (1991), Germany (1993) and Hungary (1993). Today abortion is officially prohibited only in countries where the influence of the Catholic Church is still strong, namely in Ireland, Poland, Spain, Portugal and Malta. But will this prohibition keep up for long? We should note that Poland is a unique example of a country where legislation on abortion was toughened in 1993 under the influence of the Church, while in the rest of the countries mentioned above it changed exclusively in favour of liberalization.

One of the ‘accomplishments’ of the sexual revolution was the change of the traditionally negative attitude toward homosexual relations and other forms of sexuality which until recently were considered sexual deviations (e.g. bisexuality, transsexuality). This change is the result of well-planned action taken over the course of many years by advocates of the rights of sexual minorities to win over popular opinion and liberalize legislation in the area of sexual ethics. In each country events have unfolded according to the same scenario. First advocates for the rights of sexual minorities call for tolerance toward their lifestyle, and then obtain the legalization of homosexuality at the legislative level. This is followed by the battle for the full equality of homosexual unions with heterosexual ones and the recognition of the former as equal to marriage, with all the ramifications (including the payment of state subsidies and privileges usually granted to married heterosexual couples). Finally, homosexual couples manage to win the right to adopt and rear children. In various Western countries this process has taken place with varying degrees of speed, but nevertheless with the same, clearly visible general tendency toward the abolishment of all prohibitions and limitations in the area of sexuality. For the time being there remains one final frontier: the official sanctioning of the seduction of minors has not yet been given. But will activists of sexual freedom have to wait long to overcome this last hurdle?

I would like to stress that modern traditional Christianity in no way demands the renewal of repressions against members of sexual minorities and does not call for discrimination against them. However, the Church resists attempts to present a sinful tendency as a norm and opposes all means of propagating homosexuality (The Bases of the Social Conception of the Russian Orthodox Church XII, 9). A large number of examples bear witness to the fact that in societies where the propagation of homosexuality is forbidden, this phenomenon, although it may exist, does not reach mass proportions (as in the case of Islamic countries).

On the other hand, in places where the systematic propagation of homosexuality is carried out, this phenomenon acquires a mass character. Today in the West the rules of political correctness forbid any criticism of homosexuality, while its propagation through the mass media and the school system is encouraged and welcomed. The inculcation of a positive image of ‘homosexual love’ is one of the ideological paradigms of modern Western civilization, while the abolishment of ‘discriminatory’ laws concerning sexual minorities is demanded of all countries wishing to enter the ‘civilized community.’ These tendencies cannot but cause serious concern among traditional Churches.

What have been the effects of the sexual revolution in the Western countries? What were the results of the rejection of traditional values and their replacement by liberal norms among the peoples of Europe, America and other developed countries? What did the changes in legislation in the area of sexual ethics lead to and what will be the effects of a further liberalization in the future?

More and more people are coming to the understanding that the results of the sexual revolution, which brought about an unprecedented demographic crisis, have turned out to be catastrophic and devastating for all of Western civilization. This conviction is shared today not only by religious leaders, but also by many social activists and politicians – first and foremost by those with conservative convictions. In his book with the characteristic title The Death of the West, American politician Patrick Buchanan calls the homo occidentalis an ‘endangered species.’ He writes:

As a growing population has long been a mark of healthy nations and rising civilizations, falling populations have been a sign of nations and civilizations in decline. If that holds true, Western civilization, power and wealth aside, is in critical condition… As late as 1960, European people, including Americans, Australians and Canadians, numbered 750 million, one-fourth of the 3 billion people alive… While world population had doubled to six billion in forty years, the European peoples had stopped reproducing. Their populations had begun to stagnate and, in many countries, had already begun to fall. Of Europe's forty-seven nations, only one, Muslim Albania, was, by 2000, maintaining a birthrate sufficient to keep it alive indefinitely. Europe had begun to die. The prognosis is grim. Between 2000 and 2050, world population will grow by more than three billion to over nine billion people, but this 50 percent increase in global population will come entirely in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as one hundred million people of European stock vanish from the earth. In 1960, people of European ancestry were one-fourth of the world's population; in 2000, they were one-sixth; in 2050, they will be one-tenth. These are the statistics of a vanishing race. A growing awareness of what they portend has induced a sense of foreboding, even panic, in Europe… If the present fertility rates hold, Europe's population will decline to 207 million by the end of the twenty-first century, less than 30 percent of today’s. The cradle of Western civilization will have become its grave (Patrick Buchanan. The Death of the West, pp. 11-13).

‘Irony of ironies,’ exclaims Buchanan. ‘Today, an aging, dying Christian West is pressing the Third World and the Islamic world to accept contraception, abortion, and sterilization as the West has done. But why should they enter a suicide pact with us when they stand to inherit the earth when we are gone?’ (Ibid., p. 48). These words are by no means a reflection of a populist leader’s demagoguery dictated by the political situation, but a conclusion based on statistical data and objective scholarly prognoses.

In his book Buchanan shows that the collapse of the institution of marriage and marital fertility, the triumph of promiscuity, the sharply rising number of divorces, the legalization of abortion, the widespread use of contraception and the liberalization of sexual ethics are all very closely linked with the West’s rejection of traditional moral norms formulated by the religious world-view. The ‘cultural revolution’ of the second half of the twentieth century, which undermined the foundations of traditional morality, directed the Western mind away from Christian values – self-sacrifice, altruism and faithfulness – and toward militant secular individualism, which has brought Western civilization to the brink of destruction. Buchanan concludes: ‘Only a social counterrevolution or a religious awakening can turn the West around before a falling birthrate closes off the last exit ramp and brings down the curtain on Western Man’s long-running play’ (Ibid., p.47).