Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Eikon.
While he is little known among Protestant Christians, the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce was one of the most perceptive late-twentieth-century critics of both secularism and the sexual revolution. Indeed, his most important work is arguably that which drew an intimate and necessary connection between these two phenomena: the abolition of Christianity as a dominant cultural force and the transformation of sexual morality. While one may question whether the idea of Christianity as a dominant cultural force was an unmitigated good, given the way Christendom could often be little more than worldly concerns expressed in a religious idiom, the current contested status of religious freedom certainly points to the problematic political consequences of its rapid decline.
Del Noce’s basic thesis is that in the twentieth century the political left came to see the dismantling of traditional sexual codes as the means by which Christianity could be destroyed. Of course, sexual morality and religion were not novel targets of social radicals. The demolition of the normative status of lifelong, monogamous marriage was something that William Godwin, among others, had attacked in the early nineteenth century. Human freedom consisted, in large part, of sexual freedom. Marx assumed the validity of Feuerbach’s materialist critique of religion as alienation and drew the political conclusion that demolition of the illusions of religion was thus a vital part of preparing the proletariat for revolution. What Del Noce saw was that the left had brought these two ideas together in a potent way that meant the sexual revolution of the sixties and beyond was both deeply political and deeply anti-Christian not only in its effects, but also in its intentions.
Del Noce saw two key moves facilitating this, both connected to the rise of the New Left. First, the New Left reconceptualized oppression as something with a significant, even central, psychological component. While the traditional Left had regarded oppression as essentially economic, certain Marxists in the 1930s had drawn on Freud’s anthropology to move oppression into the realm of psychology. Second, again drawing on Freud, these thinkers had sexualized psychology and thus made oppression something that was intimately connected to sexual codes.
Del Noce presented his argument most pungently in a 1970 essay, “The Ascendance of Eroticism.” Here he identified Wilhelm Reich as the key intellectual progenitor of the modern philosophy of politicized sexuality, as expressed in his 1936 book, The Sexual Revolution. Reich transformed Marxist thought by replacing the categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat with advocates of repressive morality and advocates of sexual freedom. The class struggle of classical Marxism was still there, but now it was seen in competing approaches to sex and sexuality. Traditional sexual codes were the ideological tools by which the bourgeois world could be naturalized and thus maintained. The political revolution must therefore have a central sexual component because liberation from oppression is most obviously manifested by liberation from bourgeois sexual morality. The process by which this is being achieved is what Del Noce calls ‘the ascendance of eroticism,’ which is constituted by the placing of sex at the center of public life and the subsequent repudiation, not simply expansion or revision, of concepts used to guard traditional morality such as modesty and chastity.
There is much that could be said about Del Noce’s response to Reich and the appropriation of his ideas by the New Left and the advocates of the sexual revolution, but three points, in particular, are of note for Christians in the present time. Del Noce lists them as follows:
1. The question of eroticism is primarily one of metaphysics.
2. It is linked to a politics devoid of any sense of the sacred.
3. Any attempt to dialogue with the advocates of sexual freedom is pointless because of 1 above.
The truth of the first point is easy to establish. The purpose of sex in terms of Christian teaching is unitive, in that it is the seal on a unique relationship between one man and one woman, and procreative. Both are connected to a transcendent or sacred. Sex mimics the creativity of God and so reflects the image in which we are made; and unites one man to one woman in a manner analogous to the union between Christ and his church. Its meaning is to be found not simply in the intrinsic act itself but in deeper structures of relationship. To understand sex to mean something else — or to mean nothing at all — is to deny the dependent, creaturely status of human beings which is as significant a metaphysical move as it is possible to make.
The second point is an implication of the first but also points to the wider imaginative world in which the sexual revolution can take place. A de-created world is a world with nothing beyond itself to justify it, nothing which transcends the current instant. And indeed anything which makes a claim to any such transcendence is simply an ideological mask hiding a bid for power. We see this perhaps most clearly in the iconoclastic attitude to history which the sexual revolution manifests. The history that gave us the repressive sexual codes is itself repressive and needs to be overcome, not considered a source of wisdom. Politics thus quickly defaults to immanent and indeed immediate concerns. And even at a domestic level, this can start to play a role: marriage is only useful as long as the contracting parties are happy; children function as therapy or status symbols, not as ends in themselves or as establishing the future beyond the lifespan of the parents.
The third point is perhaps the most disturbing: no dialogue, no reasoning between Christians and sexual revolutionaries is possible because there is no agreement on the basis of which any dialogue could take place. We see this today: the Christian objects to gay sex; but the gay person hears that as a denial of his identity. The Christian sees abstinence as the answer to STDs; the sexually liberated sees that as the last resort, given that such inhibits freedom; far better are the technical, amoral solutions such as contraception, antivirals, and antibiotics.
While Del Noce’s analysis of the sexual revolution is far more wide-ranging than these three points, these are enough in themselves for us to understand his central idea: the sexual revolution is not simply a matter of behavior; it is a matter of profound political significance because it is of profound metaphysical significance. It offers an answer, exclusive of all others, to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” And it has ramifications well beyond the sexual realm. The futility of dialogue, resting as it does upon the metaphysics underlying the sexual revolution, is something we see all around us today, whether it is on matters of abortion, race, euthanasia, and other such matters. It also helps us understand why traditional virtues such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion have suddenly become vices. A world where dignity is grounded in the notion that humans are made in the image of God is very different from one where dignity is grounded in individual autonomy.
The Protestant world is increasingly familiar with and often grateful for the analyses offered by thinkers such as Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. We should familiarize ourselves with the work of Augusto Del Noce too. Like them, he can help us see the method in the madness that characterizes too much of our late modernity.
Carl Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College.
You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.