The counter-culture pendulum

In the 1960s Simone de Beauvoir was at the heart of the counter-culture of that age. As the Pope reminded us in his pre-Christmas address she advanced the then-radical view that one is not born a woman, but one becomes so – that sex was no longer an element of nature but a social role people chose for themselves. Her theory applied quid pro quo to men. She, with her boyfriend, Jean-Paul Sartre, were the icons of the sexual revolution.

Fifty years later who is the leader of the new counter-culture in the West? Pope Benedict XVI is the answer. In a half-century the cultural pendulum has swung so far in the direction of Simone de Beauvoir’s view that we can now look at a routine questionnaire from an agency as commonplace as Stockport Council in Manchester and find a question asking “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned with at birth?”

In the 1950s and ‘60s the killing of babies in the womb was a crime, an offence against the person in the legislation of most Western countries. A map of the world then, showing where a child in the womb was considered to be a human being, is a radically different one form a similar map today. The international uproar reflected in media across the globe in the aftermath of the death of Savita Halappavanar in an Irish hospital last November – where it was alleged, without any reliable evidence, that she died because she was refused an abortion – was an astounding snapshot of the cultural and moral change which has taken place. With a total disregard for the facts of the case – and for the truth that Ireland’s maternity hospitals are among the safest places in the world for both mothers and children –  the country was branded a pariah among the nations for its refusal to buy into a culture which legislates for the wanton destruction of human life in the womb. But ever there now, its PC-conscious political establishment seems determined to go with the flow and succumb to the concerted pressure for the international media, the UN, the EU – and Hilary Clinton.

Add to this the gradual acceptance of homosexual activity as just one more mode of sexual expression, along with the knock-on effect this is having on definitions of family and marriage, and you see that the social and cultural conventions of Western society have experienced a seismic shift. And who stands firm in the face of this? The Catholic Church and its moral leaders of the past 50 years – Pope Pau VI whose encyclical Humanae Vitae affirmed the anthropologically and moral foundations of its teaching on the nature and purpose of human sexuality; Pope John Paul II whose 27 years of tireless teaching and pastoral activity reaffirmed and developed the culture of life; and now Pope Benedict XVI whom only the blind – and there are multitudes of them – will not acknowledge as the leading public intellectual of our time.

All of them have done so in the face of near constant opposition from the spokespersons of the new conventional wisdom. Furthermore, Pope Benedict now does so in the face of triumphant cries of victory from the forces opposing this teaching. It might seem that the scheme laid out by Mammon for a new post-paradise world in John Milton’ Paradise Lost has come to pass as the Masters of this world seek to turn the desert of relativism into some kind of Heaven.

As he our darkness, cannot we his Light
Imitate when we please? This Desart soile
Wants not her hidden lustre;
Nor want we skill or Art, from whence to raise
Magnificence; and what can Heav’n shew more?

But Pope Benedict is having none of it. He knows that those “Gemms and Gold” are disastrous illusions.  Recognising that at the heart of the new rebellion against God there is fundamentally a rebellion against man himself, he focused in that pre-Christmas address on the fear of commitment to anyone other than “self” in the modern world. Rhetorically he asked questions about the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment which today is at the very heart of the cultural and moral divide in the West and which have has so much bearing on the threatened destruction of marriage and the family.

“Can one bind oneself for a lifetime?” He asked. “Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for?

“Man’s refusal to make any commitment – which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child – essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.”

“In the fight for the family, the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question,” the Pope said in his address . “The question of the family … is the question of what it means to be a man, and what it is necessary to do to be true men,” he said.

The craziness of gender theory, craziness of the kind exemplified in the thinking of those Stockport councillors, is central to the craziness which is seeking to redefine marriage. But it is a mere by- product of the attempt to redefine human nature itself.

The Pope spoke of the “falseness” of gender theories and drew on the wisdom of France’s chief Rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, who has spoken out against gay marriage. “Bernheim”, he said, “has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper.”

The Pope supports Bernheim’s thesis that up to  now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, but that it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. For him this is exemplified in de Beauvoir’s infamous dictum: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient).

These words, outrageous when they were uttered and seen as such by the vast majority, are now no longer so. Anything professed to the contrary is now done so at one’s peril. To get evidence of that all you have to do is to survey the international media uproar in response to the Pope’s address.

De Beauvoir’s dictum has laid “the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality,” the Pope said.  “According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.

“The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves…”

“The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation.

“Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.”

France’s parliament is to debate the government-backed “marriage for all” bill early next year. With President Francois Hollande’s Socialists enjoying a strong majority, the bill is expected to pass despite opposition from the right and religious groups. In Britain the Conservative Party is getting itself tied up in knots over the issue as it leads Parliament into a vote on the which with unquestioned backing across the house it will inevitably win. The Administration in the US is driving the country in the same direction while in Ireland the political establishment has clearly bought into the same political consensus.

Meanwhile the Catholic Church, now truly counter-cultural, stands firmly by its teaching on the right to life, on human sexuality generally, on marriage and the family. It did so two thousand years ago, it has had to do so many times in the intervening centuries and it now has to do so again. That it might find itself doing so in a wilderness, surrounded by Mammon’s false “Heaven” on earth, will not deter it. That again would be nothing new.

3 thoughts on “The counter-culture pendulum

  1. lamehousewife

    Thank you for the thought-provoking piece. I understand the trouble you have with de Beauvoir. You have given me much to consider, and this is why: I have had the troubling experience of late with the denial of academic freedom in my graduate studies. It seems the current secular thought has become so dogmatized that they are willing to use censorship to keep Christian thought (even philosophers who were Christian) out of the academic forum. And for some reason, I have used de Beauvoir as a resource. It is not that I enjoyed her Ethics of Ambiguity, but she has a couple of good quotes in her book that undermine the current secular trend, to deny academic freedom and to censor history. I also think that she left the door open enough to at least continue the conversation because she aimed at authentic freedom, even though she herself was not sure what that meant. She was also very wary of any sort of “humanism” that would throw out important historical figures and their important contributions. I am confronted with an academic environment that is becoming increasingly unable to understand reasonable premises and has no historical context for any historical figure, but academia does know de Beauvoir, so I try to find ways to speak to them in terms that they understand. Her thoughts on existence and essence can be interpreted another way, too, especially if a person is searching for authentic. Thank you again and God bless…

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