Religion

The Deadly Myth of the "Consenting Adult"

Do we really have no responsibility to our fellow man so long as he has "consented"?

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May 29, 2013
Pope Francis and the Myth of the Consenting Adult Public Domain
The election of Pope Francis in 2013 briefly awakened the old, sterile debates about which economic system the Vatican might favor – the bloated socialist, state-directed systems prevalent in Europe, or the “neo-liberal,” market-driven system that prevailed throughout most of American history. Those who have used Pope Francis’s love for the poor to trash the market economy are doing something very common in media coverage of the Church: they are entirely missing the point.

Pope Francis’s statements on the tragic reality of extreme poverty in the developing world, and moral poverty in rich countries, were never intended as tea leaves for pundits to read in search of guidance for public policy. Yes, there are political implications to many Church teachings, but that is not why the Church teaches. You can deduce from the Christian call for chastity certain conclusions about how to regulate public media, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that every time the pope reasserts Church teaching on human sexuality that he is pushing for censorship laws. Your first reaction to a sermon ought not to be calling your congressman, but searching your heart.
 
Although the Church became entangled with government early on – namely, with the conversion of Constantine – it has never seen its primary duty as giving directives to kings, or telling citizens how to vote. That is, at best, a tertiary role the Church is sometimes forced to serve when the conscience of a polity has become so degraded that natural reason cannot do its job, so faith has to step in and plug the gaps. Classic examples include St. Ambrose’s rebuke of Theodosius for the massacre of unruly citizens; the Church in 16th-century Spain insisting that Indians in the New World were fully human and should not be enslaved; German bishops condemning Nazi euthanasia; and Pope John Paul II denouncing both Communist tyranny and the Western “culture of death.”
 
But these acts of political prophecy on the part of bishops and popes stand out because they are not the norm. It is the duty of laymen – statesmen and citizens – to inform their consciences with sound moral principles in order to form public policy. Religious believers and leaders must make sure that those principles are sound, and call out the culture when they are either perverted or ignored. That is what abolitionist Christians did in the 19th century, and civil rights leaders in the 20th. Such a movement in Poland brought down the Soviet bloc, ended the Cold War, and may have saved our species from a global nuclear war. So maybe – just maybe – people of faith deserve a hearing.
 
Indeed, the very name of the workers’ movement (Solidarity) that knocked down the first domino in Communist Europe was borrowed from Catholic social teaching’s term for the force that knits society together, that goads us to treat each other justly even when the government isn’t looking, that lubricates the highly efficient engine of the market economy with the oil of human kindness. Too often, especially in Europe (as Samuel Gregg documents), the word “solidarity” is cheapened into a synonym for socialism. It’s trotted out as a slogan every time the goldbricking workers of one country crave a subsidy from the thrifty taxpayers of another. But words like “justice,” “love,” and “freedom” are often perverted, too – that doesn’t mean we drown the baby in the bathwater.
 
The central principle of solidarity in practice is simple and timeless – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This ethical maxim, which Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, exists in some form in every culture on earth – as C. S. Lewis documented in The
The election of Pope Francis in 2013 briefly awakened the old, sterile debates about which economic system the Vatican might favor – the bloated socialist, state-directed systems prevalent in Europe, or the “neo-liberal,” market-driven system that prevailed throughout most of American history. Those who have used Pope Francis’s love for the poor to trash the market economy are doing something very common in media coverage of the Church: they are entirely missing the point.

Pope Francis’s statements on the tragic reality of extreme poverty in the developing world, and moral poverty in rich countries, were never intended as tea leaves for pundits to read in search of guidance for public policy. Yes, there are political implications to many Church teachings, but that is not why the Church teaches. You can deduce from the Christian call for chastity certain conclusions about how to regulate public media, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that every time the pope reasserts Church teaching on human sexuality that he is pushing for censorship laws. Your first reaction to a sermon ought not to be calling your congressman, but searching your heart.
 
Although the Church became entangled with government early on – namely, with the conversion of Constantine – it has never seen its primary duty as giving directives to kings, or telling citizens how to vote. That is, at best, a tertiary role the Church is sometimes forced to serve when the conscience of a polity has become so degraded that natural reason cannot do its job, so faith has to step in and plug the gaps. Classic examples include St. Ambrose’s rebuke of Theodosius for the massacre of unruly citizens; the Church in 16th-century Spain insisting that Indians in the New World were fully human and should not be enslaved; German bishops condemning Nazi euthanasia; and Pope John Paul II denouncing both Communist tyranny and the Western “culture of death.”
 
But these acts of political prophecy on the part of bishops and popes stand out because they are not the norm. It is the duty of laymen – statesmen and citizens – to inform their consciences with sound moral principles in order to form public policy. Religious believers and leaders must make sure that those principles are sound, and call out the culture when they are either perverted or ignored. That is what abolitionist Christians did in the 19th century, and civil rights leaders in the 20th. Such a movement in Poland brought down the Soviet bloc, ended the Cold War, and may have saved our species from a global nuclear war. So maybe – just maybe – people of faith deserve a hearing.
 
Indeed, the very name of the workers’ movement (Solidarity) that knocked down the first domino in Communist Europe was borrowed from Catholic social teaching’s term for the force that knits society together, that goads us to treat each other justly even when the government isn’t looking, that lubricates the highly efficient engine of the market economy with the oil of human kindness. Too often, especially in Europe (as Samuel Gregg documents), the word “solidarity” is cheapened into a synonym for socialism. It’s trotted out as a slogan every time the goldbricking workers of one country crave a subsidy from the thrifty taxpayers of another. But words like “justice,” “love,” and “freedom” are often perverted, too – that doesn’t mean we drown the baby in the bathwater.
 
The central principle of solidarity in practice is simple and timeless – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This ethical maxim, which Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, exists in some form in every culture on earth – as C. S. Lewis documented in The
Abolition of Man, where he called it the Tao. It is so ubiquitous that it’s easy for us to assume that it’s universally accepted – at least in theory – while far too rarely practiced.
 
But in fact, things are darker than that. We have another maxim, which crept into Western souls via “worldly philosophers” such as Machiavelli and Hobbes – the principle of the “consenting adult.” Any time someone uses this phrase, he is saying (under his breath) that none of us is the least bit responsible for each other. If folks make stupid choices, that’s not our problem. Even if we are the ones who tempted them to make such a choice – if we have exploited them personally, economically, or sexually – we are still scot-free: “She was a consenting adult;” “That schmuck should have known better,” we tell ourselves, and smirk.
 
Instead of an ethic that rests on reciprocity, on admitting the unique value of every person because he’s a fellow human, we treasure a heartless, pragmatic ethos that shrugs at suffering and confusion, a Darwinian willingness to pounce on our neighbor’s mistakes. So “consenting adults” work in sweatshops overseas making our iPads, or sweat before cameras enacting our porn, or wake up alone in the bed where we’ve left them when we were finished with our desires. No individual rights were violated, no crime was committed or contract broken – so the modern secular conscience has nothing meaningful to say.
 
What we don’t dare to realize is that human trust, promise-keeping, and a basic sense of concern for our fellow man are the glue that holds a free society together. (So Adam Smith taught in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.) The anarchy which arises in its absence is just too awful for people to tolerate, so in self-defense, they will even embrace a tyranny.
 
So tyranny creeps in. It offers to rein in irresponsible capitalists by empowering control-freak bureaucrats, to silence cruelty with speech codes, to medicate schoolyard bullies, to make it needless for anyone to ever really grow up by swathing the sharp corners of life with Styrofoam – anything, anything, rather than demand that we develop the natural virtues. That is the only taboo we really have left; just try talking about “virtue” at a cocktail party in Manhattan or a faculty lounge. Even more than yelling the “n word,” it is guaranteed to clear the room.
 
Attempts by Marxists, feminists, and other activists to clean up some of the mess we make by fixing “structural injustices” ring hollow to our ears; these people’s borrowed consciences rest on stolen Christian mores which their ideas eat away like acid. In fact, any ideology that focuses on power relationships (rather than love and justice) is programmed to liquidate every human value in the end. The Berlin Wall and the Gulag were planted like unkillable kudzu on the day Karl Marx shrank man down to a godless, economic animal. When Simone de Beauvoir adopted the ethics of her master, Jean-Paul Sartre, and decreed that women become as callous as the most solipsistic French playboy, she was building in her mind all the abortion clinics of the future. Ideas have side-effects.
 
John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of  The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the CatechismHe blogs at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall
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