Why should idea of staying chaste provoke wave of shock and awe?
Published 28/02/2014 | 02:30
Pure in Heart's message is that sex belongs in the ultimate emotional and relational context – marriage
It's a rare enough thing to live in a time when an old morality is turned exactly on its head with the result that what was once considered good is now considered bad and vice versa.
Nowhere is this effect stronger than in the realm of sexual morality. A previous generation would have been horrified at the idea of sex educationalists going into schools to teach teenagers how to put on a condom or to pass out free condoms.
Today, the idea that a group would go into schools with the message that you should wait until you're married before you have sex is more likely to cause the horrified reaction.
There is a Catholic organisation called Pure in Heart which goes into schools around the country with exactly this message and it has indeed been causing a horrified reaction over the last couple of weeks, in the media and on the internet at any rate.
To put it mildly, the idea that sex should wait until you're married is now radically countercultural whereas a few decades ago it was almost universally accepted.
People usually react in one of three ways to something that is genuinely countercultural.
The majority will simply dismiss the idea and not spare a further second's thought on it.
A minority might actually be intrigued and want to hear more. Another minority will react with complete fury precisely because they fear some people might be intrigued by this never-before-explained idea. They will seek to ban it.
This, of course, amounts to a call that Catholic groups teaching Catholic sexual morality should be banned from Catholic or any other schools, a rather extravagant proposition when you think about it.
It would make a whole lot more sense to ban non-Catholic groups from Catholic schools if what they teach is at odds with Catholic morality.
In fact, there is almost no pressure at all on Catholic schools to ban such groups – hence the 'how to wear a condom' lessons that sometimes take place – but there is now quite clearly a campaign to stop Catholic groups coming into Catholic schools to teach about chastity, and specifically to stop Pure in Heart.
The two basic objections to Pure in Heart – and to any chastity group indeed – are that their philosophy is offensive and unrealistic.
It's offensive because it is at the very least implicitly judgmental. The basic message, the critics say, is that unless you wait until you're married before you have sex you are somehow immoral.
It's unrealistic because who in this day and age is going to delay having sex until they're married?
But furthermore the message is dangerous, insist the critics, because it is also anti-contraception. If teenagers don't learn how to use contraceptives, they will be more likely to become pregnant or contract an STI.
Is the Pure in Heart message offensive by definition? In fact, in the final analysis, the only way to avoid giving any possible offence to anyone is to never attach morality to sex. We've gone a long way towards doing that already by reducing sexual morality to the basic principle that 'anything goes between consenting adults'.
If you even amend that to 'anything goes between consenting adults so long as you're in love', you're already 'judging' lots of people because lots of people who have sex don't care for one another in the slightest. But whatever about teaching teenagers that they should wait until they're married before they should have sex, don't parents want their children taught some kind of sexual morality that goes beyond the 'anything goes between consenting adults' line? Do they really want their teenagers to completely detach sex from any kind of relational or moral context? I doubt it. Pure in Heart's message is simply that sex belongs in the ultimate emotional and relational context, namely marriage.
Is this message 'unrealistic'? If it is, it's because our social and moral norms have changed so drastically that even those who do want to wait until they're married will often have a very hard time finding a partner who is also willing to wait.
One reason Pure in Heart exists is to tell those who want to wait that there is an organisation of like-minded young people out there who believe in the same things that they do. And indeed out there in the real world there are some people who do still wait until they're married and do manage to meet someone who feels the same way.
What about Pure in Heart's message about contraception? Again, it comes down to this; do Catholics have a right to teach the Catholic Church's message about contraception in Catholic schools?
Just as there are still some people who do actually wait until they are married before they have sex, so too there are people who don't use artificial contraception and successfully use natural forms of family planning instead. Is this message also so outrageous that teenagers must not hear it from inside the four walls of a classroom?
The single most cherished value of modern, liberal societies is choice. If we are really committed to choice, then we ought to be much more tolerant of the choice to marry before you have sex and be a lot more willing to let teenagers hear about this choice. Only a small minority might listen to the message, but they ought to be given that chance. (Full disclosure – the Iona Institute and Pure in Heart work in the same building but are in no way affiliated.)