Bishop Peter Elliott’s highly readable account of the history of the sexual revolution, the ideas underpinning it, and its social effects over the past couple of centuries begins in the 1660s, not the 1960s.A bishop’s accessible and comprehensive history of the Sexual Revolution – Catholic World Report
Bishop Peter Elliott is well-known in the Anglosphere. He grew up in Melbourne as the son of an Anglican vicar and the older of two brothers, the younger one named Paul. His curriculum vitae reads like that of a typical son of the Protestant establishment – Melbourne Grammar, Melbourne University, Oxford. He has a childhood memory of getting into a scuffle with the children of C. S. Lewis’s wife Joy. (In Peter’s narrative, it was all Paul’s fault.)
Their father, the Rev. Leslie Llewelyn Elliott, occupied the Catholic end of the Anglican theological spectrum and so it was not a long way for Peter to swim when he decided to cross the Tiber during his Oxford years.
Armed with a very impressive academic record he went on to the Lateran University, completed the STD degree with a dissertation on the theology of marriage and was then deployed to work for the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family during the pontificate of St. John Paul II. During these years he travelled the world meeting the leaders of Catholic family movements and representing the Vatican at conferences sponsored by the United Nations. In 2004 he became the Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. He is the author of several well-regarded books on liturgy and the liturgical calendar.
This biographical snapshot is a preamble to saying that his most recent book, titled The Sexual Revolution: History—Ideology—Power, is based on decades of experience defending Christian conceptions of marriage and family life.
The work is not an academic treatise but a highly readable account of the history of the sexual revolution, the ideas underpinning it, and its social effects over the past couple of centuries. His history does not begin in the 1960s but in the 1660s.
In the first chapter the reader is given a tour of the study of sexual behavior as a sub-discipline of psychology. Elliott concludes that the trajectory of these studies was one of shifting the meaning of sexuality from something that happens with the body to something that happens in the mind. He also identifies a cocktail of ingredients that fuel the sexual revolution of the 1960s: leftist ideology, free love, birth control, neo-Malthusian eugenics, sexology, Freudian analysis, value-free sex education, radical feminism, easy divorce, occultism and drugs.
The second chapter examines the influence of the First World War and the twentieth century totalitarian regimes on social attitudes to marriage and sexual intimacy. In this chapter Elliott demonstrates his knowledge of Hollywood celebrity culture. On this subject he is well briefed by his niece and nephew, but I wish he had mentioned the role of Californian nuns in fueling the flower-power movement in the 1960s. For anyone interested in that piece of the social history there is a section in Mark S. Massa’s 2001 book: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day and the Notre Dame Football Team.
Chapter three takes a philosophical turn and explores three principles that become the building blocks of the sexual revolution: the rejection of an idea of God as someone who actually cares about what people do, a radical change in the understanding of the nature of the human person, and the separation of fertility from sexual intimacy.
The fourth chapter tracks the history of what might be called the first phase of the revolution (free love, abortion on demand, varieties of feminist ideology), while chapter five covers the current stage of gender ideology (“LGBTIQism”).
The sixth chapter explains how the confluence of all of these movements and ideologies is the principle of the elimination of the sexual identity of the human person. In this section Elliott notes that it is not only those on the ideological left (such as Frankfurt School social theory types who favour this development), but also the champions of corporate capitalism are behind it. He calls the latter types the “soft right”.
The seventh chapter it titled ‘the harvest of suffering’. It begins with a list of social pathologies fostered by the sexual revolution. These include: transsexual surgery for children and adolescents; men identifying as women who compete in women’s sport; increased sexual harassment; a higher incidence of rape and domestic violence against women, pornography addiction, sex education for small children too young to spell the names of the body parts they are forced to analyze and the general break-down of the institution of the family.
The final two chapters offer strategic advice to those contending with these personal spiritual and social pathologies. There are also lists of Church documents on these subjects collated into two appendices.
There are many books on facets of the sexual revolution written from a Christian perspective. The merit of this one is that it seeks to cover the field – all the milestones along the way and all the big names – but it does so at a level of expression that any intelligent teenager could follow.
For those of us who have lived through the decades of the 1960s and beyond, the material contained within the pages is familiar territory. But for those who are only now reaching adulthood books such as this are hugely helpful for explaining how Western culture got into the mess it is in. It would make a great present for intelligent teenagers and undergraduates but it will also be of interest to older Catholics who are simply bewildered by current social experiments.
The book is written in a non-alarmist tone. For the most part Bishop Elliott limits himself to simply presenting the facts of the social history. Even Marxists could read the first six chapters and simply say ‘yes, that’s right, that was our strategy and this is what happened’.
The saying “keep calm and carry on” got Londoners through the battle of Britain. It is a quintessentially English expression. There is something of the “keep calm” tone in this book. The overall message is: “Keep Calm and Remain Devoutly Catholic”. The alternative is the complete elimination of your sexual identity and the opportunity to become a guinea-pig in one of the most tragic social experiments of human history.
An American edition of the work is in preparation.
The Sexual Revolution: History—Ideology—Power
By Bishop Peter J Elliott
Freedom Publishing Melbourne, 2020
Paperback, 174 pages