Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sodomy laws and billy clubs

I'm in the middle of working on a book about post-modernism, and one of the ideas that I'm necessarily dealing with in the process is the notion of pluralism. Those who have read Sexual Authenticity will know that I'm not a big fan of state interference in the private lives of citizens -- my belief in Catholic sexual morality does not lead me to believe in sodomy laws, for example. I think that there is an on-going tendency for people to believe that somehow public legislation will be able to cure private vice, that you will be able to help people to shake off the shackles of sin by throwing them into prison, torturing, interrogating, intimidating, etc. This kind of love wears a uniform and carries a billy-club (or, in contemporary society, a taser). This is not to say that I don't believe in the rule of law, but rather that I don't believe that the rule of law has any right to intervene in private life. I think it makes sense to illegalize drug trafficking, for the same reason that it makes sense to legally control or prevent the sale of any dangerous substance, but that it does not make sense to criminalize drug addiction. That it makes sense to prosecute pimps, but not to prosecute prostitutes (nor, for that matter, to prosecute men who resort to prostitutes.) That producing and marketing pornography should be illegal, but that using it should not be.
The difference has to do with the kinds of offenses being committed, and the purposes for legislation. If someone is committing a sin because he/she is hoping to make money off the deal, then legislation makes sense: provided you impose stiff enough penalties that a cost-benefit analysis will lead people to choose a more productive lifestyle, you will probably convince at least the more rational members of society to behave themselves. Sins of weakness, on the other hand, are a completely different matter. People do not, for the most part, frequent prostitutes, view pornography, have gay sex or abuse drugs because they have sat down and made a utilitarian calculation, and have come to the conclusion that when all is said and done the pain-pleasure balance comes down in favour or their addiction. Stiffer penalties, jail-time, fines, crack-downs and so forth will not change people's behaviours in these cases, on the contrary, I think that usually they will end up having the opposite effect: a person who is using some sort of addictive behaviour in order to deal with stress, loneliness, fear, etc. will find that the ever penetrating eye of big-brotherly social concern produces greater paranoia, greater fear, greater loneliness, greater stress -- and the vicious circle will tighten itself predictably around their throat. Real methods of helping people in these situations involve much more delicate instruments than those available to the state (even in its most paternalistic, soft-pedaled, compassionate-society forms). Real relationships, trust, support, understanding, genuine personal compassion, and the deep humility necessary for us to understand that we are not helping from a position of superiority, but as fellow sinners; these are required in order to lead people out of private vice. They are necessary to penetrate the barriers of secrecy without violating the sanctity of personal privacy. They are the responsibility of every Christian, and it is a responsibility that cannot be fobbed off on police and government.


  1. In case you aren't aware of it, I thought you would be interested in this passage in which Thomas answers the question "whether it belongs to the human law to repress all vices" by saying "the law for children is not the same as for adults, since many things are permitted to children, which in an adult are punished by law or at any rate are open to blame. In like manner many things are permissible to men not perfect in virtue, which would be intolerable in a virtuous man. Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue."

  2. Thank you for this post. One of the hardest things for me to reconcile with right now are not the Churches teachings on sexuality itself, but the attitude of the people that believe them. Religion should not dictate politics. I wrote about my stuggle with this mindset recently on my own blog.

  3. I would be interested in your views on abortion laws then. As I see it, you would criminalize anyone who was providing an abortion, not those seeking them? Or would you not criminalize it? It seems it would have to be criminalized to end the practice.


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