The Catholic Church’s retreat from anything resembling clarity about sexual morality does not surprise me. It’s been a long time coming. Catholicism and other forms of establishment Christianity in the West tend to take the form of bourgeois religion. That term denotes the fusion of church culture with the moral consensus held by the good, respectable people who set the tone for society as a whole. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, that consensus shifted. For a long time now it has been socially acceptable to divorce and contracept. Soon thereafter it was OK to cohabitate, and then the good and responsible people who run things adopted an affirmative attitude toward gay sex. During all this, the same consensus became hostile to those who say otherwise. It became “cruel,” “hateful,” and “bigoted” to call something wrong that the bourgeois consensus now deems right. In this way, the good and responsible people did not just accommodate themselves to the sexual revolution; they took ownership of it.
Amid this change, most Catholic bishops and priests have been disoriented. Not too long ago, they were happy chaplains of the bourgeois, the good people, who tended to affirm the moral code that the Church taught. As the sexual revolution worked its way through elite culture, bishops and priests were eager to sustain their place as chaplains of the establishment consensus. Unfortunately for them, the Catholic Church has a rigorous tradition of moral philosophy and theology. This closed off the broad, well-traveled avenues of revisionism used by mainline Protestants. Do the loving thing! This noble and conveniently vague imperative offers wide latitude. In the smug and self-complimenting culture of the bourgeois, that meant pretty much anything they did was by definition loving. These sorts of people are always seeking to do what’s best!
... Reconciling the Catholic Church with the sexual revolution is necessary in order to preserve Catholicism as a bourgeois religion. Unless this is done, more and more of the good and responsible people will come to regard the Church as a regressive, harmful force in society, a source of repression and bigotry that is antithetical to the spirit of inclusion and affirmation that promotes human flourishing. This is especially obvious in the controversy surrounding divorce, remarriage, and communion. These are good, sensitive people trying to make the best of a difficult situation! How can the Church deny them communion? The same is true for those who use artificial means of contraception or who are committed to another person of the same sex—which is why it’s reasonable to think the pontificate will seek to muddy the Church’s teaching on those issues as well ...
Christianity orients us upward and toward the divine. Bourgeois religion is horizontal. It takes its cues from the consensus of the moment, the opinions of the good and responsible people. This reduces Christianity to a political religion organized to buttress the status quo. The Francis papacy largely follows this pattern, making it quite predictable. We can count on Pope Francis to talk about the poor in exactly the same way that people do in Berkeley, which means with great earnestness and little consequence.