Sex, Sanity, and Eternity

An interview with J. Budziszewski

J. Budziszewski, 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, How 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. He recently spoke with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his most recent book, On the Meaning of Sex (ISI, 2012).

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 accident—the 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 cheek.)

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 fine—what 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 up—student 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 sex?

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 them?

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 be demonstrated?

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. Consider—if 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 actualized.

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 love—that 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 self—as she would have been in Eden, as she is, potentially, in Paradise. That is romantic love. It is a state of having a certain vision.

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 purity—for 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.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.