Iconoclasm and the Sexual Revolution

Today’s lesson is on how to turn Catholics into semi-Catholics and non-Catholics.
If you would like to destroy a prevailing system of beliefs and values, there are two ways of doing it: Persecution is one way, seduction the other. In the century or so following the start of the Protestant Reformation, persecution often proved effective. Catholic regimes persecuted Protestants, Protestant regimes persecuted Catholics, and Protestants of one kind persecuted Protestants of another kind. England in the 16th century gives us striking examples of all these varieties of persecution. Henry VIII persecuted both Catholics and Protestants who did not adhere to his kind of Protestantism. Edward VI (or rather, the handlers and manipulators of this boy king) persecuted Catholics. Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary” — sometimes described as the only queen to be named after a drink) persecuted Protestants. Queen Elizabeth persecuted Catholics and Puritans.
But persecution is no longer fashionable — at least, persecution of the outright or downright type no longer is. Yet unless there is a great reversal of current trends, approval of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is likely to become greater in America as those of the older generation (cranky old men like myself) die off and are replaced by the exceedingly tolerant people who are now young. When almost everybody agrees that homosexuality is just fine and that same-sex marriage is a lovely thing, there will probably be a very mild persecution — hardly distinguishable from discrimination — of old-fashioned Christians who disagree with this. Mostly the persecution will be informal; that is, it will come in the form of a public opinion that is scornful and contemptuous of that irritating fraction of the population, Christians of the traditional type. But a certain amount of mild persecution will come from government. For instance, now and then a Christian schoolteacher will be fired because he or she let slip a word of disapproval for same-sex marriage.
Nonetheless, the age of persecution is over — at least in our part of the world, and at least (probably) for a few centuries. Persecution being ruled out, then, if you wish to destroy a system of beliefs and values, you’ll have to do it by means of the alternative option: seduction. What this means in practice is that you’ll have to provide the followers of the older system something that (a) they very much want but (b) the older system cannot provide.
Consider as an example the iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Roman (Byzantine) Empire had in the seventh century lost vast amounts of territory in Western Asia and North Africa to the Muslim Arabs. By the opening of the eighth century, the empire controlled no portion of Africa, and in Asia controlled only Asia Minor (corresponding to modern Turkey). The religion of Islam had a strong taboo against images, especially sacred images. It was profoundly blasphemous to represent God in an image, and by extension it was blasphemous to represent Mohammed or anything or anyone else that was holy.
Many Christians in the eastern part of Asia Minor — that is, the part of the Roman Empire that was immediately adjacent to the Islamic realm, and therefore most likely to receive cultural impressions from the world of Islam — came to feel that Christianity was made imperfect by its abundance of holy images (icons). The iconoclasm movement, a movement endorsed and even mandated by a number of emperors, gave these Islam-influenced Christians something that Catholic-Orthodox Christianity could not give them. Iconoclasm, in other words, seduced them.
Why could Orthodox-Catholic Christianity not accommodate these Christians who didn’t like icons? For two reasons: One, Christianity was a strongly traditional religion, and one of its greatest traditions was the display of holy icons, especially icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. For another, if Jesus Christ was what Christianity said He was, namely the God-man, then the man Jesus was Himself an image or religious icon of God. If Jesus in the flesh represented God, weren’t we in a sense imitating Jesus when we made images of Him, His mother, and His saints?
If Catholics of the eighth century could be seduced by iconoclasm, what seduces them today? The answer is sex — but let me hasten to add that I don’t mean sexual sin. Sexual sin has been around forever, and while it has seduced many Catholics from, say, their marriage vows, rarely has it seduced them from their religion. Often has it done quite the opposite. Having sinned, we seek God’s forgiveness, and this has been found through our Catholic religion.
No, it isn’t sexual sin that seduces today’s Catholics. What seduces them is the idea that many things once believed to be sinful are not really so. Those Catholics in the eighth century who lived close to the land of Islam came to believe that icons were bad. Likewise, those Catholics who today live close to the culture of secularism — and who doesn’t live close to it? — come to believe that Catholicism is wrong, either entirely so or partially so, in its condemnation of all manner of sex-connected sins: fornication, unmarried cohabitation, abortion, homosexuality, and so on.
I don’t mean that today’s Catholics necessarily wish to engage in these activities. There are vast numbers of Catholics who would not dream of having an abortion or living together before marriage who are nonetheless reluctant to disapprove of these things. They might disapprove for themselves personally, but they don’t want to disapprove of them for others.
These Catholics are seduced by sex, yes. But even more, they are seduced by the idea of sexual tolerance. To be sexually tolerant seems to be so much more up-to-date, so much more enlightened, indeed so much more Christian (for didn’t Christ tell us, “Judge not, that ye may not be judged”?). How like the eighth century, when being an iconoclast seemed so much more up-to-date, so much more tolerant, and so much more Christian.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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