One of the constants within the writings of the saints is the idea that spirituality and morality are all of one piece. Every area affects every other area and all areas are important. Nothing may be deemed exempt.
Great spiritual writers go on to affirm that one cannot progress beyond a certain point of maturity if any one area of life, however small, remains unredeemed because of conscious exemption. John of the Cross uses an interesting image here. He states that the soul is like a bird and a bird is bound to the ground just as effectively by a light thread as by a heavy chain. In either case it can not fly.
There is a lesson in that for both conservatives and liberals alike, though, in this column for reasons that will be given, I will pick more on liberals.
Today, on both sides of the ideological spectrum we are invited, always it seems for the highest reasons, to designate some areas of our lives as exempt from moral scrutiny and religious importance. Worse still, sometimes contemporary moral and spiritual writers positively pit legitimate moral areas against each other, creating illicit dichotomies of every kind.
Conservatives do this in their tendency to see private morality, private prayer, and church-going as the critical religious and moral areas, with the curious concomitant affirmation that economic justice, racism, sexism, capital punishment, and the like, are not of the same importance.
Further, not infrequent, is the conservative who positively sets one of these against another one: A challenge to economic capitalism is a challenge to some of the essentials of Christianity. Feminism goes against family life. The list goes on, illicit dichotomies forcing false choice; morality set against morality, with certain areas important and certain areas exempt.
Liberals fare no better … and it is to one area in particular that I want to really speak in this column, namely, the liberal tendency to exempt from moral scrutiny and religious importance the area of private sexuality:
I am not sure how many times, but it is many, that I have attended lectures and workshops given by respected liberal theologians, good theologians all of them, wherein the impression was given that a concern for sexual matters, especially private sexual matters, is an unhealthy hang up that is positively blocking movement towards an ethic that is more justice-oriented. My dispute has never been with the premise that we are not focused enough on justice within our moral agendas, that I accept. My disagreement rather is with the following:
Where do we get this curious logic that one aspect of morality is enhanced when we denigrate another legitimate moral concern? How is justice moved forward if we are less attentive to the importance of our sexual lives? Is this not at least a little tantamount to the person who feels affirmed only when someone else is put down?
I suspect that I will lose any status I still retain within the liberal community by saying this, but it is the one point within liberalism, both ecclesial and secular, that has always made me uncomfortable and made me less than a full ideological participant. We simply cannot, for whatever reasons – ideological, historical reaction, personal rationalization – exempt one area, as if it was not important, and then hope to develop an ethic of justice and community that can transform the world. It cannot be done. The testimony of the saints and human experience suggest otherwise.It is noteworthy that you do not see this in truly great liberals. Dorothy Day, for instance, founded the Catholic Worker on a double principle: justice and private morality, including sexual morality. Those two principles, working together, is what made Dorothy Day and Catholic Worker great. My fear is that Catholic Worker will not survive, long range, at least not as anything that offers any real alternative to the culture, if it compromises, even a little, on either of those two principles.
Morality is all of a piece. No one part is enhanced when another is made exempt or denigrated. We need, liberals and conservatives alike, to have a lot more courage and wisdom in facing this if we hope to offer the world anything more than the inconsistencies with which it is already engulfed.