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Are Sexual Sins the Least Bad?

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis (along with John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley). Faithul Christians of all stripes recognize Lewis as a modern giant of apologetics: a standard by which other attempts at simple, lucid, and charitable explication of Christianity-contra-modernity can be judged. Millions more know him as the author of popular fantasy and sci-fi novels. (And an unlucky few have only seen him woo Debra Winger in the sentimental Shadowlands.)

Catholics, true, tend to have mixed or divided opinions about Lewis. Some speak of him in the same breath that they do Chesterton; others dismiss him (as a Traditionalist seminarian did to me once during a conversation in a Catholic bookstore) as a Protestant fundamentalist. In between these extremes there’s room for Catholic admiration of Lewis, as well as criticism: of some of his pop-theological notions, of his attempted marriage with divorcée Joy Davidman, and of his apparent inability to shake anti-Catholic habits from his Ulster upbringing (which would contribute to the cooling of his famous friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien).

Another area that deserves to have a critical light shined on it is Lewis’s take on sexual sin. In Mere Christianity he asserts:

[T]hough I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who regularly goes to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.

At first blush, Lewis’s words may seem consonant with Pope Francis’s recent warnings against reducing the gospel to a small set of controversial moral teachings. To the degree that they are, of course, there’s much truth to them. Sex is not the center of Christian morality. If in our age it sometimes seems to be, it’s because our age made sex its central obsession first.

But this “least bad” business, this division of the “Animal” and “Diabolical” self, smacks to me faintly of Gnosticism—of an insufficient appreciation of the spiritual dimension of sex. Elsewhere in Lewis’s writings he does affirm the goodness of sex and of the body, but here, in what may be the best-known part of his best-known book, he seems to stop short of the full truth.

Now, it’s true that, subjectively speaking, sexual sins may in some instances be less grave than others. The Catechism, for instance, affirms that due to personal factors, moral culpability for the grave evil of masturbation may be lessened or even “reduc[ed] to a minimum” (CCC 2352). Temptations, habits, personal circumstances could likewise, it stands to reason, lessen culpability for other kinds of sexual sins, despite their serious objects.

But that’s not Lewis’s argument. He’s asserting that sexual sin, by its nature, is less bad, because it is purely “animal.”

And yet, if sexual sin is purely animal, then sex itself must be. If sexual sin is the least bad of evils, then sex is the least good of goods.

This is not the Catholic understanding.

A fully Catholic understanding of sex places it high among earthly goods. Sex is the core of conjugal union, which is so important that Christ made it a sacrament: a fleshly sign of his love for the Church. In creating life out of love, sex imitates the creative love of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it does not just imitate but cooperates with God’s creative power; God blesses, ratifies, and elevates the “animal” act by causing a new spiritual, eternal soul to come into being by it.

Given the high regard that God himself accords sex, how can offenses against it be the “least bad” of sins?

One is tempted to play armchair psychoanalyst and say that Lewis—starched Cambridge don and nearly lifelong bachelor, who in his few writings about sex sometimes apologizes for even bringing it up—simply lacked a personal frame of reference for giving sex its full due. Whatever the reason, though, I think it’s manifest that this oft-quoted passage from Mere Christianity is at best a half-truth. It’s important to put Christian sexual teaching in right context, but not at the expense of the power, sacredness, and inviolability with which God chose to endow the marital act.

Catholic Answers affirms the critical importance of sexual morality, and recognizes the personal and cultural chaos that has resulted from its abandonment. Accordingly, chastity education will always be an integral part of our mission of apologetics and evangelization. Look for a freshly revamped website, coming soon to a computer screen near you, as one sign of that commitment.

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