One thing I need to be clear about right from the outset is that Alice von Hildebrand is arguing in good faith. It's always tempting to accuse someone who comes along with an argument that seems to tell us that we cannot do what we want to do of arguing in bad faith. This is not just because we get childish and churlish when we are being denied. It's also simply true that arguments like hers are often made by people who simply like running other people's lives.
That is not the case with Hildebrand. She is making an argument she holds deeply. An argument she loves and she obviously spent many years loving this argument as personified by her husband the late Dietrich von Hildebrand. She is not malicious, she is only wrong.
I also should say that I hold no brief for Christopher West. I've long thought, to put it crudely, that Christopher West should just shut up and I think Hildebrand puts her finger right on the problem when she identifies West as being wrapped up in a kind of religious enthusiasm. We might even say he is "raptured" up by it.
What Hildebrand is doing, and doing quite consciously and openly, and doing wrong in this essay is to maintain an Augustinian position on sexual ethics. The Augustinian position is one that she feels a deep attachment to. There is nothing wrong with that. We all do things like that. I feel a deep attachment to arguments of Aquinas, MacIntyre and Wittgenstein that I use over and over again.
But the Augustinian argument on sexuality comes with a special problem. Augustine argued that Original Sin is transmitted through sex and he was wrong. This is not just something I say, it is a view that the Catholic Church has firmly and unequivocally condemned as false.
Hildebrand knows this. What she hopes is that much of the rest of what Augustine says about sexuality can be salvaged. She hopes that his claim about sexuality and Original Sin is more like a headlight than a steering wheel—because you can still drive a car with a missing headlight but you can't go anywhere at all with a missing steering wheel.
Not surprisingly, then, one of the first things she wants to establish is that there is some sort of special connection between Original Sin and sex. Not the specific connection that Augustine makes but a special connection.
Because the intimate sphere differs radically from other bodily instincts, it was bound to be deeply affected by Original Sin. Corruptio optimi , pessima. The ugly harvest of sins committed in this sphere is large. We need not go into details, but no one can deny that it is a domain in which the Devil (the master of ceremonies) has had a field day since the onset of Original Sin, and still does.For those of you wondering, Corruptio optimi , pessima, is one of those lovely and indispensable Latin phrases meaning roughly "the corruption of the best is worst of all." It's a lovely phrase but we might wonder what it is doing here. In the context here the only thing the "best" that is corrupted here can mean is sex but that is precisely the move the church has condemned. The thing that is corrupted by Original Sin is me and that affects everything I do not just sex or even especially sex.
And you can see the sort of moves here that we all make when we don't really have an argument but want to go to the place an argument would take us if we did have one. She assumes the thing she wants to prove. She asserts sex is radically different when that is the thing she needs to convince us of.
Yes, the ugly harvest of sins committed in the sexual sphere is large. But so is the ugly harvest of sins committed in classrooms, kitchens, on the highways and on blogs. Yes, sexuality is a domain in which the devil has a field day. He certainly had a field day with me once upon a time. But the devil has a field day everywhere he goes on earth and he also faces defeats everywhere he goes and that includes the bedroom. Sex is something you can do without sinning it's not a game of Snakes and Ladders with hidden booby traps that were put there just to trip you up.
One of the consequences of the Augustinian view is to make sexuality into a minefield. It becomes a special area that we should never go into or only go into if absolutely necessary because there be monsters here. And from this comes the odd view that one could avoid sinning by never having sex. This is patent nonsense. Virginity is not chastity. I could never have sex even once and still live a monstrously unchaste life.
In closing, I'd like to note an odd strategy that Hildebrand and West share: Corruptio optima. They both have a tendency to elevate sexuality in order to tear it down. As if it were a sacrament and needs to be elevated just as the priest elevates the host. It isn't a sacrament. Marriage is the sacrament and while sex is a part of marriage it is only part.
And here we get the odd contradiction that runs through Augustine's thought to both Hildebrand and West. Sex is both elevated to make it a sacred thing and yet is so totally invested with the presence of sin as to make it the Diabolus musica of life. It is good in the abstract but seemingly always a sin in reality.
The next post in this series is here.
*The Diabolus musica is the only five note interval in music that is perfectly symmetrical (in all the others the central tone, or the third, is either closer to the root note or the top note) and yet it is not "perfect" because it is a dissonant tone and all the other possible five note intervals are harmonic. In the C scale, this is the interval between B and F. In solfege, the easiest example is from to to fa.