Sola Consensio and Elizabeth Bruenig

In the wake of the proliferating revelations of sexual misconduct, pederasty, and sexual abuse in Hollywood and journalism (politics too, though it’s old hat there), many people are asking themselves what it all signifies.

For liberals and feminists, the common take is that it’s the same old patriarchy, up to its usual tricks, all that is changing is a willingness on behalf of victims to speak up thanks to gains made by feminism in the social realm. The reactionary take is generally that Hollywood, and broader society, are reaping what they’ve sown visa vis their destruction of traditional sexual norms and values. With religion, family, and marriage derided and opposed at every turn, the makeshift sexual ethics of mere consent proving to be an inadequate substitute is hardly surprising.

Many on the Left attempt to shore up their feminist interpretation of these events, not by questioning the consent model itself, but noting how it is “problematized” by the dynamics of power and inequality. Can a young aspiring actress really even consent to the sexual advances of a Hollywood mogul, given their power disparity? It isn’t sola consensio that is the problem, rather consent needs to be qualified according to all the dimensions of power and privilege—gender, race, orientation, and wealth. The Oppression Olympics must make their way into the bedroom. Was some putatively consensual sexual encounter, muddied by the vagaries inherent in the nature of most sexual experiences, actually consensual? Let’s plug the variables into the Oppression Calculator and find out.

Of course, Christians and traditionalists ought to respond to this Sexual Marxism with withering scorn and rude condescension, rather than serious engagement. It’s a preposterously convoluted and arcane “solution” to a problem which they (that is, the Left) themselves are the architects of, and which simply not hastily discarding Tradition, but keeping it in place as a prime source of truth and wisdom would cure fully and simply. But if you’re one of those Christians intent on maintaining friendship with the world (cf. James 4:4), while simultaneously maintaining at least a pretense of fidelity, merely insisting on a return to a culture of Christian marriage just won’t do. No one wants to hear that. There must be another way.

Elizabeth Bruenig, member of the Catholic Left and new addition to Bezos’ Blog’s stable of columnists, seeks to map out this third way. Terrified of simply stating the rather obvious Catholic answer to the problem, and thereby becoming a dull, stodgy conservative, she instead grants credence to the secular consent model by saying that, while consent is insufficient alone, the model need only be modified. She similarly assents to the notion that weighing power dynamics is a critical aspect of sexual ethics. I’m not sure which scriptures, church fathers, canons, or popes she thinks could be marshaled in defense of this concession to postmodern secular sexual ethics, but there it is. After accepting the secular framing of the problem the question remains: how to rescue the sola consensio model from its obvious flaws?

Bruenig’s solution is to slather a thin paste of sexual consequentialism on top of the ethics of mere consent: “is the sex good for the other person?” As with consequentialism generally, this doesn’t actually advance thinking about the ethical problem but sets it back. Not only because appealing to “good” merely begs the question of what that is, and without guidance leaves the reader with whatever notions of “good” he brought with him (typically quite wrong ones), but because consequentialism is totally alien to Christian morality. Considering the good of others in our interactions isn’t the problem itself (that is actually an important practice), but it isn’t the lodestar of ethics. If we suspect our treatment of someone will yield good results for them, but it’s contrary to the law of God, for example, then our estimation is simply mistaken. Removing the law (whether revealed or natural) from the equation in favor of untutored, passionate intuitions as to what “good” might be is unthinkable for a Christian ethics of sex, and indeed is simply what nonbelievers already do. Yet it’s all Bruenig offers her readers.

Meanwhile, she coyly leaves herself room to claim she is still within the bounds of Christian sexual orthodoxy. She might, for instance, claim that the only times the conditions of both “consent” and “good for the other person” are ever met is in the context of marriage. But, in playing hide-the-ball with the specific, concrete solution of Christian marriage, and exchanging it for people’s own fallen guesstimates of what constitutes “good”, she effectively gives the culture a scorpion when it asked for (or at least needs) a fish. Desiring to engage in a hot topic of conversation among her lively Beltway interlocutors, and fearful that “lol go to (and get married in) church” would be seen as dogmatic, regressive or—heaven forbid—fundamentalist, she avoids these heinous accusations by not even mentioning the elephant in the room.

Her studious avoidance of marriage and its precipitous institutional decline in recent decades—late and rare marriage especially among the poor, still-rampant divorce, introduction of homosexual marriage—while supposedly addressing problems of our sexual culture, speaks much louder than anything she does say. And it says “please, please, please don’t hate me.”

It’s an especially grievous omission, too, because it’s such a comparably simple way to witness to a sick post-Christian culture. You can point to demonstrable social ills and the developing crisis of sexual ethics, evidenced by the recent explosion of confusion surrounding the issue, as a failure of secular sexual ethics to offer a robust replacement of Christian ones. All without ever even necessarily appealing to Christian revelation, just sociological facts. Some will be convicted, most will be upset, but crucially: you will have been faithful rather than evasive and cowardly.

To be fair, Bruenig intimates in the piece that she isn’t deigning to engage people like me, though it’s unclear why she refuses to. After bracketing the question of inveterate sexual predators (which makes sense), she goes on to insist that she’s not engaging with people “who feign confusion about consent or sexual ethics in bad faith to be bothersome or to criticize, in an indirect way, the project of improving our sexual culture.” That isn’t exactly me, but it’s clear enough she has people like me in mind. People who (she’s wrong) do want to improve our sexual culture, but without reference to neo-Marxist social theory, and who deny that consent is an especially complex topic while holding that there is a fairly straightforward answer to the problem readily available within the Christian tradition, specifically marriage and monasticism. Rejecting the architecture of the conversation happening between Catholic marxists and secular leftists puts normal Christians beyond the pale of engagement, apparently. Not, of course, because the traditionalist case has been defeated in intellectual combat but because it simply must not be named.

Sadly, this sort of tiptoeing around delicate secular-left sensibilities, while soft-pedaling the Catholic witness against their vices, is a common feature of Bruenig’s work. While making known her supposed pro-life bona fides, for example, her policy prescriptions in the realm are barely distinguishable from Nancy Pelosi. Being a “pro-lifer” who thinks the main problem with abortion is that there isn’t enough state welfare for mothers (despite a wealth of evidence that generous social welfare, even when specifically aimed at improving fertility rates, doesn’t work) is a quick way to earn yourself into the good graces of secular leftists. Indeed, it is difficult to locate any disagreement at all except an essentially private moral disapproval of the act, and even that is heavily qualified.

This same pattern of putting the “Left” before the “Catholic” is evident here. Rather than excoriating secular culture for its abandonment of God in matters regarding sex, and pointing to the consequences thereof, flatter it and “tweak” its approach. “Consider the good” can be very sound advice when given to a culture with a traditional foundation which has the means to receive and understand it. The same maxim offered up to our post-Christian, solipsistic, nihilistic culture is at best pointless, and at worst (and more likely) will simply confirm the culture in its self-referential accounts of “good”, which are anything but, and are indeed the entire problem.

Mainstream Christian punditry, and not only the sort on the Left, will continue to be bogged down in this sordid discourse, capitulating to the premises of secularism and modernity, so long as they value respectability. That byline at the Washington Post comes with a price. Better make sure it isn’t your soul.


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