Choosing Love & Making Life
Sex, Love, Marriage & the Culture of Death
by David Mills
I do not think many of those who argue so hard for abortion really like the idea of killing the unborn, though there are some, particularly among the sad, suffering fringes of radical feminism, whose hatred of life is so deep that it drives them to something near nihilism. The culture of death begins not in a love of death but in a culture of pseudo-life: in the desire for life and its fruits, but life sought in the wrong ways and usually with the wrong people.
In particular, it begins in man’s natural and universal desire for sexual connection, and in man’s insistence on making connections he is not allowed to make, which he makes mostly because the proper connections cost too much. Fallen men want life and its fruits because they are made in the image of Him who created life, but they want life and its fruits on their terms because they have rejected the ways He has said that life is to be found.
I am assuming here the traditional Christian understanding of marriage and of chastity, and that rejecting these things harms those who reject them and many other people as well. Other views of marriage, even those held by Christians who believe them to be “pastoral” adjustments needed to adapt Christianity’s ideals to the real world, are, I think, expressions of the culture of death.
The culture of death is not simply one in which babies are aborted and old people put to sleep like stray dogs. It is not just a culture that kills in obvious ways. It is one that kills life in much less obvious ways. It is one in which sexual life is willfully made sterile, not just of children but of all that grows from chastity, not least the home. The teenagers enjoying each other in a college dorm room, the man on a business trip picking up a woman at the bar, the woman reading Cosmopolitan, all advance the culture of death as surely as the abortionist.
Almost all of them want what life offers, but they do not want it in the way it is offered. They do not want to pay in the currency by which life and its fruits are bought. They try to steal the fruit, and that theft is the source of the culture of death. Abortion is only the fine you have to pay when you get caught stealing. Other penalties may be demanded of you as well—divorce, depression, loneliness, mistrust, and venereal diseases among them—and other people may have to pay them with you, not least your children.
The end of the culture of death is not the bright, happy world advertised in the movies and in the earnest articles of pro-choice journalists, in which sex is free and every child is a wanted child. It is not so much an emptier world, because so many fewer people live in it, though it is much emptier than it should be. It is a silent world, in which people live alienated from one another because they have not created life, because they have not loved each other by paying for life what life requires, but snatched what they wanted. There is no honor among thieves, and they cannot trust each other enough to form a community or make a culture of life, even the life they want.
However, as the line from Jurassic Park has it, “life will find a way.” Even in a culture of death, people strive for life. People who are only living together expect each other to be faithful; people who have slept around want to be married; people who have been divorced want a marriage that will last; homosexual people want to have children; women who have aborted their children regret the loss. Things are not as bad as they might be, because people strive for life, though in cases like these they strive partly in vain.
As I say, the culture of death begins in a real desire for life, for things that are undoubtedly good. Let me take an extreme case. It shows both how desperate people can be in their search for life and its fruits and what people will feel justified in doing once a few people are allowed to steal those fruits. It shows where the culture of death leads, even though many of that culture’s current apologists still describe it as if it were only a modification of the Christian vision for marriage—modified to allow fornication when young, divorce when older, and abortion when necessary, and even to offer marriage to homosexual people.
In one of his recent “Beliefs” columns in the Saturday New York Times, Peter Steinfels reported the creation of a group called Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness. They are, according to a report he quoted, “hoping to take their place beside the divorced, the intentionally single, gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people as fully accepted people.”
The report defined polyamory as “the philosophy and practice of loving or relating intimately to more than one person at a time with honesty and integrity.” It insisted that polyamory is not “swinging” or “cheating,” but something meaningful.
These poor people are just a little more advanced than our social contract allows just now, but I think they are sincere, or as sincere as fallen human beings are likely to be when thinking about their sexual desires. They want what life offers, in particular love and intimacy. But they do not want to pay for them by marriage for life to one person of the opposite sex and by never having sex again with anyone else.
They want to steal love and intimacy, by having sex with a lot of people without making an exclusive commitment to any of them. And they get love, of a sort, and intimacy, of a sort. But they also get sterility, and not just because some of their trysts may result in a baby being conceived and then aborted.
They do not have the fruitful life of marriage to someone to whom they are faithful, nor do they have the fruitful friendships with others that grow because the sexual possibilities have been removed by such a marriage. They do not have the fruitful disciplines of self-control, or the fruitful experience of conquering the passions, or the fruitful mind of the Christian moral teaching. They do not have the fruitful life of self-sacrifice. They have none of the fruits that one gets only through chastity.
They do not have life. They have sex, and most will have that less and less as they get older and less able to compete with younger bodies. Thieves tend to steal only the best things.
Thieves Keep Stealing
These extreme Unitarians also show us where the culture of death leads. It leads to something as sad and self-evidently delusory as polyamory because many thieves cannot stop stealing. The sexual liberal may disavow them, but he has no reason to. Even when one thief is satisfied with what he has stolen, some of his friends want more. How can he stop them, when his own pockets are filled with others’ things?
Sexual liberals still, as far as I can tell, believe in monogamy—of the temporary sort called “serial monogamy”—but they created the polyamorist Unitarians. The polyamorists may be greedier than others (or not), but they only want what sexual liberals promised everyone: sexual fulfillment as each person defines fulfillment for himself. Given what mainstream liberals believe about sex (a private mode of self-expression), individual autonomy (nearly absolute), the moral law (a cultural invention), and the ancient authorities (outgrown), polyamorists are right to demand of other liberals the right to “relate”—now there’s a euphemism—to more than one person at a time.
The average liberal may still believe in monogamy, but his belief that one ought to have sex only with someone to whom one is publicly committed is, on his own grounds, an irrational and perhaps superstitious clinging to a tradition and to social mores he does not believe in. Once you have become a sexual liberal, and replaced the do’s and don’ts of Christianity with some idea of sex as self-actualization, you cannot rationally resist anyone who wants to be more liberal than you are, and there will always be someone more liberal than you. Wherever you set the limit to liberation, someone else will see that limit as a barrier to be broken in defense of human freedom and fulfillment.
You want contraception, someone else wants easy divorce. You want easy divorce, someone else wants homosexual marriages. You want homosexual marriages, someone else wants threesomes. You want threesomes, someone else wants children. You want children, someone else wants cats. And his reasons for wanting cats will be just as good as yours for wanting contraception or easy divorce or homosexual marriages.
They will probably be the same reasons. He will explain that loving cats is part of “who I am,” even that God made him this way; and testify that he finds the relationship “fulfilling” and “life-giving”; and explain how much happier he is now that he can be open and honest about his desires; and argue that the relationship is “mutual” and private and does not hurt anyone else.
He will then assert that the rules against it are only cultural prejudices inherited from a primitive and ignorant age, in which sex was of sociological necessity tied to procreation, an idea of sex a new and deeper understanding of the continuum of human sexuality has disproved once and for all. And he will note that everything now said against his desire for cats was once said against contraception, divorce, and homosexuality, and that one form of non-procreative sex is morally pretty much the same as any other.
At some point, of course, most sexual liberals will say “But I do not want that!” (Though now that I think of it, I have not heard any sexual liberal condemn polyamory.) But nevertheless, the sexual liberal cannot say no to the man more daring than he. More daring, I mean, as the sexual liberal thinks it, though the rest of us would say “more depraved.”
He wants more sexual freedom for everyone. (“Freedom” means not so much the ability to do what one wants, but “the right to receive wide social approval for having sex with more than one person within a shorter period of time than hitherto allowed.” Thus the homosexuals’ feeling that they are oppressed though they can do in bed whatever they wish.) To say no to the man more daring than you, you must give a reason for saying no, and reasons have a way of ruling out many things you would like to keep ruled in.
A reason for saying no to threesomes may well turn out to be a reason for saying no to homosexual marriages, and a reason for saying no to homosexual marriages may well turn out to be a reason for saying no to easy divorce, and a reason for saying no to easy divorce may well turn out to be a reason for saying no to contraception, and then you are back in the sexual dark ages, simply because you said no to someone who wanted to do something of which you did not approve. Hence, you must never say no to any expansion of sexual freedom, even if you do not want to go so far yourself.
The sexual liberal cannot appeal to the Christian moral teaching to say that threesomes are wrong. He does not want to go there. He must try a pragmatic argument. He may say that threesomes will hurt any children they create, but someone else will point out that homosexual marriages and divorces will also hurt any children they have, and even that a contracepting marriage hurts children. He may disagree with them, but they can make as good an argument as he.
He may say that threesomes are unstable, but someone else will point out that the other relationships are as well. Every pragmatic argument he makes can be challenged as easily. He finds that he must accept threesomes to preserve homosexual marriages and easy divorces, and perhaps even contraception as well. It is too risky to say no.
The Appeal of Death
Most sexual liberals do not want real promiscuity, or at least they say they do not. They do not want people to have sex together as easily as they have coffee together. They want it to mean more to people than does their exchange of greetings as they pass in the hall. They want sex to be “special” and have tried to maintain some idea of sex as “special” while rejecting all the traditional moral limits that made it special in practice. They still want life, but they want it on their terms.
Of course, they cannot have it on their terms. They try to keep sex special by talking about it as “love” and “commitment” and “mutual fulfillment” and by setting some limits to its expression. They find that they cannot keep it “special” when they have rejected practical moral limits and replaced them with abstractions like “love” and “commitment” and “mutual fulfillment.” Too many people will feel mutually fulfilled if they enjoyed the romp. Too many will simply have as many loving and committed relationships as they can manage, till “special” means only “special to me at this time.”
From this, many people will begin to believe that sex is not special at all, or no more special than dinner at a mid-priced restaurant or any other pleasure requiring some effort and sacrifice but not much. The sexual liberal may keep talking about love, commitment, and mutual fulfillment, but the words will mean less and less, because people who live as he wants them to live will not have the sort of lives that give these words their deeper meanings. They will become accustomed to stealing and not even care greatly about the things they are stealing. They will be fully enculturated into the culture of death. They will not have even the life the sexual liberal wishes them to have.
Ironically, then, but perfectly predictably, the attempt to seize what life offers without paying the price life requires does not bring life or its fruits. Those who try to steal the fruits are like those fools in fairy tales who grab for jewels and find their hands full of sand. You cannot get them by stealing. They may be taken only by one who seeks them by the rules.
Others will resist the logic of theft, and try to stop stealing and to get what they want by the rules. If they have slept around, they finally marry someone to whom they intend to be faithful. They might succeed in being faithful—though they very well might not, because they have not trained themselves for faithfulness—but even if they do, they have left the marks of death in themselves and in all their partners, if only of sex cheapened because shared with too many, and they may also have had or caused abortions, raised the children without their father, had or spread disease, and so on.
As I said at the beginning, the culture of death brings death because it begins in a culture of pseudo-life. It does not begin in a love of death. The passion for legalized abortion does not begin in a love for dead babies, and it rarely reaches that stage. People want abortions only because they have already chosen death in a less obvious way.
In what they think is a transcendent sexual experience with someone they think they love, for example. This, they think, is life as it ought to be lived. They do not need to marry. But they are stealing, whatever they think they are doing, and they will not get all life offers from the thing they have stolen. This may be one reason couples who lived together before marriage divorce much more than those who did not.
Every act of the culture of death or pseudo-life first reaches for something like life, something that seems to give life, even if it is not quite the life traditionally desired. Contraception promises the married couple that their sex life will bring them closer together (better fulfill the unitive function of sex, as theologians put it) because it frees them from the fear or threat of conceiving children. It offers to increase emotional fruit by eliminating the possibility of physical fruit.
But what does it do in fact? It offers to make the feelings livelier by making the womb sterile, and it may do so, in a way. But it also makes their sexual union partial, dependent upon their holding back from each other something of themselves: their fertility, their ability together to create a new human soul. It makes their marriage partial and therefore dishonest. (I know many serious Christians find this a very difficult idea to accept—I thought it insane, at first—though it was until recently the universal Christian teaching, and to them I would recommend Elizabeth Anscombe’s short essay Contraception and Chastity as a beginning.)
You can find this impulse and this result—to take what life offers for what seem to you good reasons, but find that you do not have it after all—in all the acts of the culture of death, from contraception and easy divorce to homosexuality and polyamory. Even the polyamorists want, or think they want, only “intentional open long-term loving relationships.” They want something that looks to them like life. They get something that is in fact a type of death. Some will see that and look for life where it is to be found, and some will not.
I think this explains the success of the culture of death. The culture of death so affects our society because it is a culture of pseudo-life. It presents itself as bringing life, and bringing it on easy terms. Our society’s reigning ideals are all versions of the real fruits life offers, and in particular real, lasting, life-changing sexual connection. Think of the average PG-13 movie, in which promiscuous people suddenly find their life partner to whom (the audience is supposed to think) they will be faithful forever, though they had been unfaithful to dozens or hundreds of others before this.
Despite their previous affairs, their going to bed together, usually on very short acquaintance, is presented as if it were the wedding night of virgins. Their previous sexual experiences may have meant nothing to them, but this one is special. This one will last. This time they will be faithful till death do them part.
But they won’t, unless they are very lucky and unless they both repent and change. They have ignored the moral law too long to live by it now, and they have rejected it even in beginning this new relationship. They have taken what was not theirs to take (or to give), and they have not trained themselves to do anything but take. They have not trained themselves to give, which is to say, though “making love” they have not learned to love.
What will the hero do, if a speeding truck hits the heroine as she walks home after their night of passion, and leaves her with a shattered face and damaged brain? What will he do, if instead of giving him ecstatic, acrobatic nights, she needs him to feed her and dress her and wipe the drool from her chin and empty her bedpan? That may be the price life asks him for its fruits, and he is not likely to pay it if he could not pay the price of marrying her for the right to enjoy her body.
And ironically enough, the culture of death or pseudo-life fails even to deliver the sexual paradise it promises. It does not work very well even as erotic drama. It is not dramatic because it is not final or eternal, because it is not played for keeps. What does it really matter if the hero and heroine split up after their night together? They will only have other nights with other people.
The culture of life is the culture by which life and its fruits are sought by the rules life offers, in which they are not stolen but paid for. We see how different is the culture of life from the culture of death by how much more dramatic is the first. The culture of life is a life final and eternal, a life played for keeps.
In the wedding night of virgins we have the drama of the unveiling of something that has been kept secret and sacred till then, to be offered to one person only, then and forever. It is a dangerous offer, which may bring as much struggle and pain as pleasure, because one or the other may die or fall ill or waste away or even offer the secret and sacred thing to an outsider. The marriage may be wise or foolish, but in either case it is far more dramatic than the temporary affair of the hero and heroine who look deeply into each other’s eyes in one scene and land in bed the next.
In the nights of those who have long been married we have a different drama, or perhaps we have a later scene of the drama of the wedding night. It is the drama of something still kept secret and sacred but now given a home, and deepened by the fruit formed of the union: most of all the children now scattered sleeping around the house; but also by the house itself, made a home by the husband and wife together; by the flowers in the garden and the leftovers in the freezer; by the clean clothes folded and the dirty clothes waiting in baskets by the washer; by the crosses above the beds and the prayers said together every night since the first child was born; by the worn furniture and the ancient car never replaced because other things were needed more; by the long sleepless nights one stayed up with a sick child or the other worked to put food on the table.
All this may disappear, should the husband lose his job, a child die, the wife find her liver filled with cancer cells, and should the family fail in its response—should it choose the way of the culture of death. And even if things go well, still, after all these years, the husband and wife can give up or offer their shared and secret thing to an outsider. Always is failure a possibility. Always is marriage a drama.
The first fruit of living a culture of life is a new kind of life in which you find joy in living the life you have been given, even if it is not the life you chose. The first fruit of life lived as it is meant to be lived is a new kind of life, in which you become a different person—become, indeed, the sort of person who will be happy if you never get anything you want. You become the sort of person who ensures that the drama has a happy ending. Whatever the trials you face, whatever you suffer, your life gives life.
A priest I know told me about a very sick man and his wife he watched at a special Mass celebrated for couples who had been married a long time. He was sitting near the altar and looked out on the front row, where the sick and handicapped had been seated. The husband lay on a gurney, having suffered for years from a degenerative disease that left him able only to move his eyes.
His wife stood by him, and when the time came for the wives to renew their vows, she stood and took his hand and looked into his eyes as she renewed her vows to him. And then it was the husbands’ turn, and she took his hand and looked into his eyes as she spoke the words for him, and renewed his vows to her.
In this woman is the culture of death defeated. In her are life’s true fruits to be seen. She has paid for them in ways she did not expect when she married, but having paid, she can hold the hand of her husband and tell the world she loves him, and he loves her, though he cannot hold her hand nor speak a word.
G. E. M. Anscombe’s Contraception and Chastity can be found in Janet Smith, ed., Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader (Ignatius Press) and on the web (search for Anscombe + contraception).
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Choosing Love & Making Life” first appeared in the January/February 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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