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A bishop’s accessible and comprehensive history of the Sexual Revolution

Bishop Peter Elliott’s highly readable account of the history of the sexual revolution, the ideas underpinning it, and its social effects over the past couple of centuries begins in the 1660s, not the 1960s.

Bishop Peter Elliott is well-known in the Anglosphere. He grew up in Melbourne as the son of an Anglican vicar and the older of two brothers, the younger one named Paul. His curriculum vitae reads like that of a typical son of the Protestant establishment – Melbourne Grammar, Melbourne University, Oxford. He has a childhood memory of getting into a scuffle with the children of C. S. Lewis’s wife Joy. (In Peter’s narrative, it was all Paul’s fault.)

Their father, the Rev. Leslie Llewelyn Elliott, occupied the Catholic end of the Anglican theological spectrum and so it was not a long way for Peter to swim when he decided to cross the Tiber during his Oxford years.

Armed with a very impressive academic record he went on to the Lateran University, completed the STD degree with a dissertation on the theology of marriage and was then deployed to work for the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family during the pontificate of St. John Paul II. During these years he travelled the world meeting the leaders of Catholic family movements and representing the Vatican at conferences sponsored by the United Nations. In 2004 he became the Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. He is the author of several well-regarded books on liturgy and the liturgical calendar.

This biographical snapshot is a preamble to saying that his most recent book, titled The Sexual Revolution: History—Ideology—Power, is based on decades of experience defending Christian conceptions of marriage and family life.

The work is not an academic treatise but a highly readable account of the history of the sexual revolution, the ideas underpinning it, and its social effects over the past couple of centuries. His history does not begin in the 1960s but in the 1660s.

In the first chapter the reader is given a tour of the study of sexual behavior as a sub-discipline of psychology. Elliott concludes that the trajectory of these studies was one of shifting the meaning of sexuality from something that happens with the body to something that happens in the mind. He also identifies a cocktail of ingredients that fuel the sexual revolution of the 1960s: leftist ideology, free love, birth control, neo-Malthusian eugenics, sexology, Freudian analysis, value-free sex education, radical feminism, easy divorce, occultism and drugs.

The second chapter examines the influence of the First World War and the twentieth century totalitarian regimes on social attitudes to marriage and sexual intimacy. In this chapter Elliott demonstrates his knowledge of Hollywood celebrity culture. On this subject he is well briefed by his niece and nephew, but I wish he had mentioned the role of Californian nuns in fueling the flower-power movement in the 1960s. For anyone interested in that piece of the social history there is a section in Mark S. Massa’s 2001 book: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day and the Notre Dame Football Team.

Chapter three takes a philosophical turn and explores three principles that become the building blocks of the sexual revolution: the rejection of an idea of God as someone who actually cares about what people do, a radical change in the understanding of the nature of the human person, and the separation of fertility from sexual intimacy.

The fourth chapter tracks the history of what might be called the first phase of the revolution (free love, abortion on demand, varieties of feminist ideology), while chapter five covers the current stage of gender ideology (“LGBTIQism”).

The sixth chapter explains how the confluence of all of these movements and ideologies is the principle of the elimination of the sexual identity of the human person. In this section Elliott notes that it is not only those on the ideological left (such as Frankfurt School social theory types who favour this development), but also the champions of corporate capitalism are behind it. He calls the latter types the “soft right”.

The seventh chapter it titled ‘the harvest of suffering’. It begins with a list of social pathologies fostered by the sexual revolution. These include: transsexual surgery for children and adolescents; men identifying as women who compete in women’s sport; increased sexual harassment; a higher incidence of rape and domestic violence against women, pornography addiction, sex education for small children too young to spell the names of the body parts they are forced to analyze and the general break-down of the institution of the family.

The final two chapters offer strategic advice to those contending with these personal spiritual and social pathologies. There are also lists of Church documents on these subjects collated into two appendices.

There are many books on facets of the sexual revolution written from a Christian perspective. The merit of this one is that it seeks to cover the field – all the milestones along the way and all the big names – but it does so at a level of expression that any intelligent teenager could follow.

For those of us who have lived through the decades of the 1960s and beyond, the material contained within the pages is familiar territory. But for those who are only now reaching adulthood books such as this are hugely helpful for explaining how Western culture got into the mess it is in. It would make a great present for intelligent teenagers and undergraduates but it will also be of interest to older Catholics who are simply bewildered by current social experiments.

The book is written in a non-alarmist tone. For the most part Bishop Elliott limits himself to simply presenting the facts of the social history. Even Marxists could read the first six chapters and simply say ‘yes, that’s right, that was our strategy and this is what happened’.

The saying “keep calm and carry on” got Londoners through the battle of Britain. It is a quintessentially English expression. There is something of the “keep calm” tone in this book. The overall message is: “Keep Calm and Remain Devoutly Catholic”. The alternative is the complete elimination of your sexual identity and the opportunity to become a guinea-pig in one of the most tragic social experiments of human history.

An American edition of the work is in preparation.

The Sexual Revolution: History—Ideology—Power
By Bishop Peter J Elliott
Freedom Publishing Melbourne, 2020
Paperback, 174 pages


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About Tracey Rowland 14 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a Member of the International Theological Commission. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), and Catholic Theology (2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017), and Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (New York: Angelico Press, 2019).

4 Comments

  1. for over 50 years the Church has refused to actively address the culture and the culprits behind its destruction because of so-called ecumenism. While recalling the history is useful, unless some proactive steps to resolve the issue are taken nothing will change. Sadly I don’t see that happening in the near future.

    • I’m curious as to what ecumenism, which is the desire for and work toward authentic unity among Christians (see Unitatis redintegratio, has to do with the sexual revolution, etc. And, in fact, the Church has addressed the culture in many ways (the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI are full of examples, even if the success of those efforts can be rightly debated).

  2. Autopsy well done by Bishop Elliott offering classic cause, mode, and manner of death. Metaphorically the corpse in this writer’s comment, not unrelated to Bishop Elliott, is moral behavior as Christ taught. Cause is complex. Tricky. Often difficult to determine whether cause or symptomatic of something else. Tracey Rowland may give the clue, the California nuns who promoted flower power. Reason is we approach the source. Faith. Flower power passive resistance to war then VietNam suggests moral passivity, the free spirit of the flower people. Recall the beautiful song’s lyrics, If you come to San Francisco, wear a flower in your hair. Many many young girls smitten by a religion of the body, sentient morality often offered simply as a favor. Peace, sharing everything. A seductive faith in a god of unfettered love. It’s Catholicism, Christianity in toto that more closely identified the malaise of a collective distancing from Christ’s good news of salvation. Salvation realized by frequent heroic practice in the very denial of the sentient or sensuality. A seductive lethal infection that now made its entry into religion evident. Whether any of us can put the finger on why this occurred is highly doubtful. We may only admit Man due to his fallen nature requiring constant infusions of grace in time fell once again true to that corrupted nature. A student of Bergson prior to Aquinas, I follow his thought in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion that one good man, indeed one good woman, could change the entire course of history toward the better.

  3. Informative article, dear Tracey, on an interesting book, on a topic of much interest. Yet, it seems neither the eminent author nor the eminent reviewer get a grip on what could have been done to divert or dilute the so-called ‘sexual revolution’.

    In my absurdly ignorant boyhood, I was supremely blessed with a Marist sister who gently taught us to understand Moses ten commandments (Deuteronomy 5) and their perfecting by Jesus (Matthew 5, 6, & 7). It became clear that God’s rules were truly wonderful gifts to us all, not impositions. A VERY good start to my faith walk.

    Disturbingly, the following seventy years revealed many clergy (including senior academics) who DID see God’s guidelines as impositions and who were eager to grab as much sex as they could get-way with.

    Far too many RE teachers and priests either ignored God’s commands or distorted them into ‘feel-good’ generalities. One sweet local priest is a follower of Yogi Baja’s 3H organization and it’s Hindu/Buddhist syncretistic: “Be happy, be healthy, be holy” ‘commandment’! That is typical of the ‘faith education’ given to thousands of school students and parishioners, under his authority. This tepidity is widespread.

    Surely ivory-tower Catholic ethicists must sometimes feel the incongruity of laying down rules about sexuality for humanity at large whilst apostasies flourish and orgies rage-on in their own front parlors?

    Right-living is best taught by example. For many years our Church, in general, has offered the world a gigantic example of hypocrisy. Catholic kids have often been raised in an environment that teaches them to ‘double-speak’. They’ve been soft targets for the sexual revolution. We now need more discussion, not on what could have been done, but on what can be done.

    My own humble effort has been to research towards an ethical ontology worldview that doesn’t disregard basic Christian Catholic moral guidelines (as is common in the ‘élan vital’ based, panentheistic worldviews of Henri Bergson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and their prolific acolytes).

    I’m happy to correspond with any who are interested (m.rice@griffith.edu.au).

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