Britain’s national broadcaster, being funded by the taxpayer, can afford a ban on commercial advertising. But that particular form of ritual purity did not stop the BBC from running, on Easter Monday, a five-minute interview advertising one of its own products – a three-part television series called “Sex and the Church”.
This series, as the promo on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme confirmed, will be a highbrow expose of the idiocy of orthodox Christian beliefs about sexuality and marriage, presented by Oxford University historian Diarmaid MacCulloch.
Under the guise of current affairs, presenter Sarah Montague allowed MacCulloch to prattle on unchallenged as he expounded his historically dubious opinions on why orthodox Christians have got it all wrong about sex and marriage. Montague herself summed up BBC bias in a nutshell: Christians she said, struggle to deal with society’s preoccupation with sex; how can the Catholic Church and the Church of England, learn to deal with our increasingly tolerant and liberal world?
Got that? Anyone who opposes sexual permissiveness, is, according to the BBC, intolerant and needs to learn to be more accepting. Never mind the family owners of a small-town pizzeria who are facing financial ruin and death threats for honestly answering a hypothetical question on local TV about their religious beliefs regarding same-sex marriage. No, it seems that their predicament is a just punishment for their “bigotry”, not the result of ideological intolerance. And a professor of church history is just the person to convince us that it’s all because Christians are so historically ignorant.
For all his credentials, though, MacCulloch seems to have a tenuous grasp on history, coming to a conclusion and then going in selective search of the evidence. He contends that the idea of Christian marriage is an illusion, since at one stage people didn’t actually go to church to get married. But he omits the fact that marriage ceremonies were an important part of the Jewish culture from which Jesus came.
Contradicting himself within the interview, MacCulloch stated that there was no such thing as a church wedding in the first 1000 years of the church’s history, but he went on to claim that before the eleventh century, church weddings were uncommon and probably only began around the 6th century. So one minute they did not exist for a thousand years and the next they did, but were very rare! MacCulloch further undermined his cherished hypothesis that there was originally no Christian notion of marriage by noting that Christ’s only teaching in this area was to prohibit divorce, which would surely be peculiar in a society which had no fixed understanding of marriage?
The logic of this escaped Sarah Montague I would have asked Professor MaCulloch what he thought happened at the wedding of Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle, if there is no evidence that marriage, as the church conceives of it, existed back in the time of Christ. I’d also be interested to learn where Professor MacCulloch got the evidence for his assertion about how common weddings were prior to the eleventh century, as not much in the way of statistics exists.
Theorising that Christian ideas surrounding celibacy and virginity are derived or imported from Platonism, as MacCullough did in his interview, ignores the existence of the epistles of St Paul, which historical consensus dates as being amongst the very earliest of church documents, pre-dating the Gospels, and having very definite things to say on these matters, and, indeed, on homosexuality. Such glaring omissions are alarming coming from a professor at one of the world’s top academic institutions.
The fact is, that marriage, as understood by both Christians and Jews, finds its template at the very beginning of the Bible, as God gives the man and the woman to each other and commands them to increase and multiply. The lack of a formal Christian wedding ritual is not evidence that marriage did not exist.
One of the things that marked out the Jews and Christians as different and, indeed, scandalized the prevailing Roman society, was precisely their attitude to matrimony. Tertullian, one of the earliest Christian authors pointed out in the second century that, unlike Roman and Greek culture, Christian marriage entailed sexual exclusivity: “All things are common among us but our wives.” Tertullian seems to have been happily married and a loving, respectful husband to his wife. For him, married life is a partnership, not only in the material matters of daily life, but in the Christian service carried out through the household.
Such edifying details of the Christian tradition seems to have escaped MacCulloch’s notice altogether. In his interview he preferred to recycle familiar attacks on Catholic Church teaching regarding contraception and same-sex marriage. It is simply untrue that all Catholics reject these teachings as he claims. UK Catholics who attend Mass regularly overwhelmingly reject same-sex marriage and support the campaign against it. In any event, neither Catholicism, nor any religion has ever based its tenets on popular opinion.
The Catholic position is very straightforward: marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman for life, and the only context in which sex should occur, free from contraception. It is true that we live in an increasingly sexualised society, but the idea that the Church is obsessed with sex is pure projection by the liberals who populate the media, and who want, for their own reasons, to validate sexually permissive mindsets and lifestyles. This seems to require the discrediting of Catholic doctrine and a re-education of believers.
Catholic doctrine obviously bothers the BBC enough to have commissioned a three-part TV series attacking these beliefs and, by implication, those who hold them. We await with bated breath a similar series on the sexual beliefs of Islam, which are far more formidable that those of Catholics since they are enforced and defended with terror, persecution, torture and killing in many regions around the world. Will the Beeb and its pet university dons be brave enough to tackle the Qu’ran and the imams?
Finally, we have to ask: Who really is obsessed with sex? Writing in this week’s Crisis magazine, Rachel Lu reports on the finding that the Millennial generation of Americans (those aged 18 to 35) are less sexually libertine than is widely supposed. They are more in step with church teaching than with MacCulloch or the BBC, because 40 percent of them condemn sex between adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship.
Lu lays the blame for the prevalence of campus rape culture at the door of “bad hook ups”, because when rape is the only recognised sexual taboo, it is expanded to include all sexual wrongs. The blame for this ought not to be laid at the door of the Millennials, but of those adults who ”failed to teach their children anything of note about the meaning or purpose of sex, or offer any useful guidelines as to when to engage in it”.
A 2013 national survey by University College London found that Millennials are having sex, on average, 4.9 times a month for men and 4.8 times for women, compared to 6.2 and 6.3 respectively a decade ago. Whatever the reasons foe Christianity. It rather goes to show that if anyone is obsessed with sex it’s the generation of 50- to 70-year-olds to which MacCulloch belongs, and who appear to be out of step with the youth of today.And when research is demonstrating that married Catholic couples have better sex than any other demographic, against the backdrop of a culture which paraller this, one can hardly claim that it’s thanks to the influence of conservativls the sexual profligacy of ancient Rome, perhaps the sexually obsessed BBC ought to sit up and take note.
Caroline Farrow is a columnist for the UK’s Catholic Universe.