Published April 19, 2001
The Catholic Difference
Driving down a Washington thoroughfare recently, I was passed by a Metrobus with a stunning rear advertisement—so stunning, in fact, that I pulled in behind the bus at its next stop to copy the text.
The ad featured a young African-American teenager, male, poised somewhere between childhood and adolescence; if he had shaved twice, I’d be surprised. The large-print text read: “Gettin’ Busy? Be Safe, Get Tested.” The smaller print continued, “If you’re between 13 and 24, call to find out where you can get tested year round. It’s safe, friendly, and free.” The phone number was for a local AIDS clinic.
A week or so later, former NFL wide receiver Rae Carruth of the Carolina Panthers was convicted of conspiracy to murder his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, and sentenced to at least eighteen years in prison. In a television interview after his conviction, Mr. Carruth disputed the prosecution’s claim that he and Ms. Adams were well-acquainted in these chilling terms: “As far as Cherica and I are concerned, we never dated. We were never boyfriend and girlfriend…We slept together…There was no conversation.”
That is what “gettin’ busy” means. It means sex as another contact sport. There is neither safety, nor friendship, nor freedom in it for anyone concerned.
Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” and my interpretation of it in Witness to Hope, have been criticized for being impossibly high-minded, most recently by the distinguished biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in Commonweal. That Washington Metrobus ad, and Rae Carruth’s unintentionally revealing description of his non-relationship with a woman he regarded as a disposable sex-toy, raise an important question: if not John Paul’s “theology of the body” and its celebration of the gift of sexual love as a means for deepening a genuinely human relationship, then what?
The sexual revolution promised to liberate us from the shackles of prudery and repression and the dishonesty of sexual hypocrisy; its aims, advocates claimed, were profoundly humanistic. But what have been the results? Skyrocketing divorce rates. Epidemics of sexually-transmitted disease. The lowest birth-rates in recorded human history, in parts of western Europe. The abortion industry. A multi-billion trade in pornography. Wives traded-in for newer models, like cars, and men stuck in perpetual adolescence. Teenagers robbed of innocence and taught two contradictory messages: “gettin’ busy” is normal, indeed expected, and “gettin’ busy” can kill you. Is it any wonder that young people today travel in packs?
Telling a young man, of any race, that “gettin’ busy” is just the way things are is not realism; it’s cynicism of the most profoundly corrupting sort. It is to suggest that human sexuality is no different that animal sexuality, instinctive and impersonal. Not so long ago, we wouldn’t have called this “gettin’ busy,” as if it were the moral equivalent of studying algebra, learning to hit the curve ball, shaving without cutting yourself, or any of the other adolescent male rites of passage. We would have called it “rutting.” And we would have been right to do so.
Chastity, in John Paul II’s theology of the body, is what the Pope calls “the integrity of love.” It is the virtue that allows us to love another as a person, rather than to use another as a pleasure-object. It is a virtue that calls us, not simply to self-control (which is a psychological accomplishment), but to self-mastery, which is a moral and spiritual achievement, under grace. No one ever said, or ever should say, that this is easy. It isn’t. But what is more genuinely human? To challenge young men and women to lives of moral heroism, knowing that they will fall short of the mark—and then helping them seek reconciliation in order to try again? Or lowering the bar of expectation, to the point where the only response to “gettin’ busy” is a blood test?
The “theology of the body” is surely open to scholarly debate and critique. But until the critics have a better answer to that Metrobus ad and to the Rae Carruths of this world than complaints about papal high-mindedness, they won’t be part of the solution to one of the great human tragedies of our time.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.