who holds a Ph.D. from Yale University, is a professor of
government and philosophy
at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the
author of several books, including The
Revenge of Conscience
to Stay Christian in College
, The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as
Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction
, and What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide
recently spoke with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report
, about his most recent book, On
the Meaning of Sex
CWR: I’ll begin by playing the devil’s advocate,
as it were, and ask: Why does the world
need another book about sex?
Budziszewski: There are a lot of books about sex, aren’t there? Recently mine ended up on a list of the 10 “most
provocative” books about sex of the month. Of the month?
I think it must have been put on the list by
accidentthe others had titles like Dirty Minds, and discussed things
like the supposed delights of sex with multiple partners. But maybe that
answers your question about why the world needs yet another book about the
subject. It needs another kind of book about the subject.
CWR: And why are Catholics so obsessed with sex
when they are so obviously frightened by it as well? Have you written the book
to destroy the joy of sex? (While you answer, I’ll remove my tongue from my
Budziszewski: The world has already worked pretty hard to destroy the
joy of sex. One of the books on the list that I mentioned promoted sex “marathons.”
Does that sound like fun to you? To me it sounds like work; it has an air of desperation.
And what about all those broken relationships and families? Does that seem
joyful? One seems to see a terrain of unutterable sweetness, despoiled by
unmentionable pain. What interests Catholics like me is the prospect of
redeeming the unutterable sweetness.
CWR: The opening chapter, “Does
Sex Have to Mean Something?”, highlights the sexual schizophrenia that pervades
the dominant culture, especially since the so-called “sexual revolution.” What
are some of the symptoms of this problem? And how does it lead to a profound
cognitive dissonance when it comes to the inherent meaning of sex?
Budziszewski: One of my students insisted that sex doesn’t have to mean
anything. Yet when he read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, he was
disgusted because the people of that dystopia made babies in factories, without
parents. Now that shouldn’t have bothered him unless procreation is something
that ought to take place in the
loving embrace of the parents. If so, then in the depths of his mind, didn’t he
recognize that sex means something after all? We try to make sex
meaningless in the delusion that meaningless sex will be happier. It isn’t.
CWR: Throughout the book you
draw upon your experience as a professor. What are some of the changes in
attitude and perception toward sex that you’ve seen among young people over the
past 25 or 30 years?
Budziszewski: In the 80s, if I suggested in class that there might be
any problem with so-called sexual liberation, my students said that everything
was finewhat was I talking about? Now if I raise questions, many of them speak
differently. They still live like libertines, sometimes they still talk like
libertines, but it’s getting old. They are beginning to sound like the children
of third‑generation Maoists. When I ask them what happiness is, they have a
difficult time defining it as anything but the absence of pain. My generation
may have ordered the sexual revolution, but theirs is paying the price.
CWR: Are there signs of hope?
Budziszewski: Sure. Some young people are beginning to recognize their
unhappiness. That’s a great sign of hope. On campuses all over the country,
including my own, Anscombe Societies are popping upstudent organizations
interested in the intellectual case for sexual purity. I think they are catching
glimpses again of what happiness might mean. Fifteen years ago that would have
been almost unthinkable.
CWR: What are the biggest challenges facing the
average 21-year-old when it comes to having a proper, mature understanding of
Budziszewski: Probably the biggest challenge is the disorder of their
own families; so many of them have no models of mature and faithful love, but
only models of failure. What does it do to a child when his family breaks up
because dad has found someone new, then breaks up again because mom has? What
is it like to be passed from step-parent to step-parent to step-parent? What is
it like to grow up knowing that you would have had a sister, but she was
aborted? A young man remarked in one of my classes that he longed to get
married and stay married to the same woman forever, but because his own parents
hadn’t been able to manage it, he was afraid to get married at all. Small
wonder that young people no longer look forward to growing up.
CWR: Why are so many people obsessed with
insisting men and women are not different in any meaningful way?
Budziszewski: One of the reasons is the notion that if men and women
are different, then they cannot be equal in dignity. Another is that they haven’t
yet caught on that identicalism is a con game. When someone insists that men
and women are just the same, what he usually means is “the same as men.” Why
must men be the standard for women? It is as silly as making women the standard
for men. That is not a way to affirm the equal dignity of womanhood; it’s a way
to deny it.
CWR: What are the most difficult modern
misperceptions and post-modern mythologies about sex to address? Do you address
Budziszewski: They are all difficult, and yes, I do. The various
chapters of the book discuss the meanings of the sexual differences, of sexual
love, of sexual beauty, of sexual purity, and so on. In each case I’ve had to untangle
mythologies. One has to be careful, because to avoiding one mistake, people
often flee to the opposite mistake. For example, to keep clear of viewing
themselves as nothing more than male and female beasts, they may view
themselves as sexless angels, but I’m afraid angelism distorts human sexual
nature just as much as materialism does.
Some writers spend all their time on mistakes
and misconceptions, in the hope that as they are gradually chipped away, the
pure image will emerge from the marble. Although I’ve spent some time on them,
I’ve tried to take a more positive approach. The more clearly we see that
beautiful image, the more easily we can see what isn’t part of it, what needs
to be chipped away.
CWR: You argue that by nature
we desire commitment, and that “vows are love’s native language.” How can that
Budziszewski: Depends on what you mean by demonstration. That vows are
love’s native language isn’t the conclusion of a syllogism. But the mind can be
presented with considerations that lead it at last to say, “I never thought about
that before, but somehow I knew it all along.”
Erotic love is a mode of what Christians call
charity, charity in the old-fashioned sense, not in the sense of dropping coins
in the Salvation Army collection bucket at Christmastime. Considerif I delight
in someone’s existence, then I must want something more for her than just her
existence: I must want her to experience all the good that she can, to exist
well and beautifully. Good itself seems better because of her, and I want it to
seem better for her too. I want her to be and to live, I want good things for
her, I want to do good things to her, I even want to do good things because
of her. This is charity. It isn’t just a feeling, but an activity of the will,
something I decide and resolve. So vows are love’s native language because love
is a commitment to the true good of another, and vows are how commitment is
CWR: What role does romance,
or romantic love, play in the bigger picture of lifelong, marital vows?
Budziszewski: Let’s make a few distinctions.
We were just talking about charity, the attitude that exults in the sheer
existence of the other person, and which entails a permanent commitment of the
will to the other’s true good. Erotic charity is the mode of charity that
is particularized toward a single person of the polar, corresponding sex, and
consummated by the union of their bodies. Romantic lovethat is a
particular mode of erotic charity in which the beloved seems heavenly
and flawless. Is this a sheer illusion? In the case of certain emotional infatuations
that are often confused with it, yes. But in the real thing, no. With his
ordinary eyes Dante sees the everyday girl on the Florentine street well
enough, especially her sharp temper. Yet with the other set of eyes, he has a
clouded but true vision of the same girl in glory, of her beatific self as
distinct from her everyday selfas she would have been in Eden, as she is,
potentially, in Paradise. That is romantic love. It is a state of having a
The really important
thing is erotic charity. The mode of it that we call romantic love is
wonderful, and in the book I say a great deal about it. But not everyone is cut
out for the romantic mode of it, and they shouldn’t think there is something
wrong with their love if they aren’t. What one promises in marriage is erotic
charity. One cannot promise that this music will always be heard in the
romantic key. If you practice erotic charity, romantic love may come. If you
obsess about romantic love, you may never know erotic charity.
CWR: You note that we live in
a time when sexual purity is hardly known or understood. What is true sexual
purity? And how can it be rightly lived and guarded?
Budziszewski: In our day sexual purity is hardly known at all. It is like
a lovely blue planet orbiting a faraway, undiscovered star. Considering it
important is regarded as the first symptom of a dirty mind.
There are two modes of sexual purityfor
unmarried persons, continence, for married ones, faithfulness. People mistakenly
think of purity as though it were merely negative, a no or not
lacking character of its own. Not so. Certainly, continent singles refrain from
sexual intercourse, and faithful spouses from adultery. But by living as they
do, they are pursuing goods of beauty and integrity that impurity undermines
and sullies. Faithfulness isn’t merely added to married life, as raisins may be
added to bread; faithfulness is intrinsic to married life, as flour is
intrinsic to bread. Exactly the same sort of thing is true of singleness. If we
think of continence merely as not-being-married, or not-having-sex, the insight
escapes us. Think of it instead as the flour of a different kind of bread.
CWR: In the concluding
chapter, you write that “human love makes sense only in the light of divine
love,” and insist that moral love is meant to awaken us to the greater love,
God himself. Why have Catholics, specifically, generally failed to both
understand and present this truth to the world? How can we better witness to
this profound truth about the meaning of sexuality and marital love?
Budziszewski: That’s a difficult question for me, because I’m a convert,
and it was from Catholicism that I gratefully came to learn these things. If so
many Catholics have failed to understand them, I would say they need to recall
their own traditions. The Holy Scriptures emphatically place mortal love in
relation with divine. Think of how Christ called himself the Bridegroom, remember
how St. Paul said husbands must love their wives as Christ loves the Church, recall
how the Apocalypse of John speaks of the wedding feast. Scripture even speaks
of transgression against divine love in such terms, for the prophets compare
idolatry with marital unfaithfulness. In his commentary on the Old Testament
poem called the Song of Songs,
Bernard of Clairvaux quotes the line, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his
mouth.” Bernard asks, “Now who is this ‘she’? The bride. But why bride? Because
she is the soul thirsting for God.” That is just how it is with us.
You ask how we can
witness to this truth. I think that if we only learn it, the witness will take
care of itself.