Shortly after Prep-Comm III, the Third Preparatory Commission meeting in anticipation of the 1994 Cairo World Conference on Population and Development, one of those “Senior Vatican Officials” who like to remain nameless told me an enlightening story. For his sins, the SVO had been condemned to attend Prep-Comm III and try to prevent it from calling for a universal human right to abortion on demand, which would then be formally declared at the impending Cairo conference. His tale of what unfolded during his week of Purgatory remains quite relevant, despite its age. In fact, one moment from Prep-Comm III sheds important light on recent events, including the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood wars and the Obama administration’s determination to compel employers to provide contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization “services” those employers find morally abhorrent.
Like other U.N. circuses, the diplomatic circus of Prep-Comm III, held in New York, was accompanied by a parallel circus of international non-governmental organizations; and to that sideshow activists from around the globe flocked in their thousands, united in their commitment to lifestyle libertinism. The formal diplomatic proceedings in Prep-Comm III were harsh enough, with the Vatican coming under verbal assault from U.N. bureaucrats and European politicians for its principled opposition to “reproductive rights” that included abortion on demand. (The ineffable Gro Harlem Brundtland, then prime minister of Norway, dismissed the Holy See as “a small state with no natural inhabitants.” And that was on the mild side of the assault.) But it was in the INGO meeting that things really got down and dirty — and clarifying. There, as the Senior Vatican Official told the story, a somewhat scruffy Dutch activist got up and announced to all and sundry, “Let’s stop fooling around here. What we’re talking about is our right to f*** whoever we want, however we want, whenever we want.”
The Dutchman’s formulation may have lacked elegance, but it certainly didn’t lack precision. For that was precisely what was at issue 18 years ago, and it is precisely what is at issue today: Will the sexual revolution, which reduced sex to a recreational activity of no moral consequence, be protected, advanced, and indeed mandated by the coercive powers of the modern state?
There is irony in the fire here, of course. What began as a movement to liberate sexuality from the constraints of moral reason, custom, and law has become a movement determined to use the instruments of law to impose its deconstruction of human sexuality and its moral relativism on all of society. That is what drives those who urged the Obama administration to issue its “contraceptive” mandate, which is of course an abortifacient and sterilization mandate. That is what drives those who loosed the furies (including such viragos as Senator Barbara Boxer) on the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which had had the temerity to suggest that Planned Parenthood actually provide the mammograms Komen’s grants were paying for. It’s all about Leviathan as enforcer of the sexual revolution.
Anyone who doesn’t understand that — from Catholic bishops to upper-class foundation executives with previously immaculate reputations — is going to get rolled over by Leviathan. For Leviathan cannot be met at some mythical 50-yard line of “accommodation.” Leviathan can only be beaten.
This fierce determination to use Leviathan to make sure that that Dutch INGO delegate’s libidinous desires are requited might be tolerable if its effects were confined to those who want to, well, you know: whoever, whenever, however. But they are not. The sexual revolution distorts everything that gets in its way; and in due course, it will persecute anything that gets in its way.
To take one current example: The threat to religious freedom posed by the administration’s “contraceptive” mandate is not the kind of inadvertent political faux pas that Joe Biden and Bill Daley would have us believe it was. Rather, the order to religious institutions and employers to re-arrange their convictions to suit Leviathan’s pleasure is of a piece with the administration’s dumbing-down of religious freedom in its international human-rights policy. On numerous occasions, the secretary of state has declined to speak of “religious freedom,” but has referred to “freedom of worship.” Thus religious freedom is rendered a kind of privacy right that can be upheld so long as what happens religiously takes place out of the public square. This is manifestly absurd on its face: For if religious freedom is simply freedom of worship, then there is religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, so long as Christian or Jewish prayer takes place behind closed doors (and no one snitches to the Islamist purity police).
But to make matters worse, Secretary Clinton and the administration have linked this dumbing-down of religious freedom to their ramping-up of what they frankly call the “LGBT agenda” as a priority concern of U.S. international human-rights policy. On the one hand, religious freedom is hollowed out, abroad and at home. On the other hand, the LGBT agenda — the logical endgame of the sexual revolution’s gnosticism and antinomianism — is given priority in the human-rights agenda of the U.S. government around the world, while other planks in the libertine platform are imposed by coercive state power at home. Leviathan is nothing if not consistent.
Then there are the sexual revolution’s cultural impacts. At the risk of salaciousness, go back to that scruffy Dutchman’s claim in 1994, ponder it a moment — and then see if it doesn’t become piercingly obvious that there is a direct line of connection between that vulgarity and the implicit claim in much of the Komen/Planned Parenthood and HHS-mandate brawls: namely, that the transmission of human life is a disease to be “prevented.” Which, of course, means that children are not the fruit of love and a precious gift to be received with gratitude, but another lifestyle choice to be indulged at the whim of the imperial autonomous Self.
Where this is all leading is not pleasant to contemplate. But if Leviathan is to be confronted, and defeated, in his attempt to impose the sexual revolution by brute state power, a critical mass of morally serious minds have got to get clear on one crucial point: The invention of the oral contraceptive was, with the splitting of the atom and the unraveling of the DNA double helix, one of the three world-historical scientific developments of the last century — scientific accomplishments that have within themselves the capacity to change culture and history in fundamental ways. By effectively sundering sexual expression from procreation, modern contraceptives have done something their less-effective predecessors were unable to do for millennia: They have created a contraceptive culture that identifies fertility with disease and willful infertility with “health.” Those who celebrate that culture are not interested in compromise: They are interested in having everyone pay for what they want, and in levying serious penalties on those who won’t truckle to their will.
The issue, it might be added, is not family planning. The Catholic Church, for example, teaches that all couples have a moral responsibility to plan their families. The question at issue is one of means: What methods of regulating fertility are congruent with the dignity of human beings and especially the dignity of women? That, in fact, is the question that ought to have been posed to that vulgar Dutch activist 18 years ago. It remains to be pressed home today.
One final point. At the beginning, the 2012 election was about jobs, jobs, and jobs. The culture wars have now reshaped the race, and the stakes, as Iran may eventually do in another sphere of policy. But what the Komen/Planned Parenthood and HHS-mandate battles ought to have made clear is that 2012 is, domestically, an election about the survival of civil society. Will Leviathan continue to trample the institutions of civil society at the behest of the champions of lifestyle libertinism? Will such institutions as marriage, the family, and the Church be permitted to exist only insofar as they become wards of the state, or simulacra of the state?
That, and nothing less than that, is the question the past several weeks have put before the American people.
— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.