Christopher West: the end of civilisation?

08 Oct 2008

By The Record

It is clear, based on our culture’s rampant rates of sexual promiscuity, divorce, cohabitation, out of wedlock births and the ease with which the homosexual lifestyle is being embraced in the media, school systems and legislation that our nation is in desperate need of re-education in the nature, meaning, and purpose of marriage.


Civilised?: A photographer takes a photo of Amy and Jenelle Ferhart after their civil marriage ceremony at the San Diego City and County Administration Building in San Diego – an example of what Christopher West says redefines not just marriage but civilisation. Photo: CNS


What is marriage? This column marks the first of a series in which we will explore this crucial question.
What happens to a society when it fails to understand what marriage is? Songs often pop into my head when I’m trying to make a point, and right now I’m hearing R.E.M.: “It’s the end of the world as we know it . . .” (together, everyone, shout: “Leonard Bernstein!”).
Okay, I’ve returned from my 80s flashback. In all seriousness, redefine marriage and you redefine civilisation at its root. What is the root of civilisation? Pope John Paul II put it this way: “(The) shared life of men and women … makes up the pure and simple guiding thread of existence.
Human life is by its nature ‘co-educational’ and its dignity as well as its balance depend at every moment of history and in every place of geographical longitude and latitude on ‘who’ she shall be for him and he for her” (TOB 43:7).
The sexual relationship — and by that I mean the relationship of man to woman and woman to man, the relationship between the sexes — is the foundation stone of life itself.
All human relationships are the fruit of this root. This is why John Paul wrote elsewhere that it’s “an illusion to think we can build a true culture of human life if we do not . . . accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and their close inter-connection” (Evangelium Vitae, 97). Let’s try to bring this into sharper focus. To put it more bluntly, at the root of civilisation is the civilise-ation of the sexual urge. The sexual urge is one of the most potent forces on the planet.
When properly oriented, it builds up and edifies. When disoriented, it tears down and destroys.
In other words, when this root is “civilised,” the fruit is “civilisation” — well ordered human relationships working together for the common good.
But when this root (the sexual urge) is not properly civilised, well… I’m hearing R.E.M. again in my head.
What does it mean to “civilise” the sexual urge? Among other definitions of the word, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) says that one is civil who shows “high-minded and self-sacrificing behaviour.”
One is civil who shows “courteous attentiveness, especially to women.” And — I’m not making this up — one is civil who observes “the forms required by good breeding.”
Throughout the ages, in virtually every culture known to man, the relationship that results from the proper civilise-ation of the sexual urge has been called marriage.
So, when we ask the question “what is marriage?” we should ask ourselves: What form of human relationship most civilises the sexual urge?
In other words, what kind of sexually active relationships show “high-minded and self-sacrificing behaviour”? What kind of sexually active relationships show “courteous attentiveness, especially to women”? What kind of sexually active relationships observe “the forms required by good breeding”?
I offer the following not to scandalise nor offend, but some things must be said in times of great crisis: Does sodomy civilise the sexual urge? Does it build up or destroy? Does it serve the common good?
These are questions that must be asked. Can a man marry a man?  Can a woman marry a woman? Can a man simultaneously marry several women, or a woman several men?
Can a man simultaneously marry several men, or a woman several women? Can a man marry his sister or his mother? His brother or his father? Can humans marry animals? (Does anyone remember my column on the woman who reportedly “married” a dolphin?)
All of these questions are now on the table in our culture. They cannot be properly answered unless we first know what marriage is.
As Catholics, we have an incredibly rich body of teaching to draw from in order to understand the nature, meaning, and purpose of marriage.
We’ll begin unfolding that teaching in the next column.