In his latest book, A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ’n’ Roll, Mark Judge reinterprets the sexual revolution through the looking-glass of its most dominant institutional contributors and critics. Judge argues that undergirding the sexual revolution was a germ of truth that preexisting cultural patterns were impotent in preventing. That is, the deep sexual communion of the couple—its unique power—reveals the self to itself and to the beloved in unimaginable ways. Eros demands that it be accounted for by those who participate in it. Perhaps America had prevented this accounting for too long, or the preexisting cultural, religious, and legal norms were themselves mechanisms that productively and safely channeled this overwhelming feature of human experiences. Judge correctly notes that the sexual revolution was actually set to begin four decades earlier in the roaring 20s but was forestalled by economic devastation and World War II, not to mention the New Deal policies which strangely reinforced the nuclear family of the industrial age.
The first engaging question that Judge entertains is why the once commanding prohibitions of bourgeois America lost their purchase on sexuality in the tumultuous 1960s. Moreover, why did the Catholic Church (the institution Judge is most concerned about) commit two paradoxical acts? In the opening round the Church loudly proclaimed its timeless understanding of the purpose-driven sexual life, namely that it occur within marriage and be open to life, i.e., free from contraception.
The Church, Judge observes, struggled to explain the underlying beauty of this understanding (on this point, more anon). Strangely, the Church then adopted, in America and other Western nations, a soft, if not accepting, approach toward the sexual revolution as it unfolded. Judge recounts from both personal experience at Georgetown Preparatory School and wider historical evidence, how the Church in its low decade of the 1970s—the period when most of the priestly abuse cases occurred—chose to ape the revolution and mediate its own lighter understanding of it. Thus did rising baby-boomers, the most healthy, well-fed, and richest generation in America, raised in relatively peaceful circumstances, confront two widely disparate approaches to sexuality. As Judge seems to contend, the fight between prohibition and more free-floating notions of sexuality was never really a fair one.
The strength and freshness of Judge’s argument is its assertion that events could have taken a different course. Burning white hot in the closing years of the 1960s, this revolution rearranged in large measure the self-understanding most Americans had of human sexuality. One communicated its explanatory power in the booming rhythms of rock ’n’ roll, and the other found itself literally tied in knots, unable to communicate its own vision. The Church’s particular inability to speak in original voice to the forces of Rousseauian sexual emancipation Judge counts as an unnecessary casualty.
The author provides strong evidence that best contemporary Catholic thinkers understood well the sexual discontent of the 1960s. He observes that the Church’s failure issued from its own lack of imagination in revealing the truth about human eros. The irony, however, seeps even deeper. Many of the thinkers Judge approvingly cites like John Paul II, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Hans Urs von Balthasar, to name a few, were judged with a certain skepticism by Church authorities. While not challenging the moral theology of the Church, the reformulation of certain teachings by Karol Wotjyla, Joseph Ratzinger, or von Balthasar—now regarded as one of the greatest Catholic intellectuals in Church history—was striking. Of course, if the official Church was unsure of what to do with these men, the Catholic-lite mentality that enshrouded much of the American Church in the 1970s closeted and then subverted their ideas in seminaries, schools, and parishes across the country. Judge suggests that if they had been listened to, if their thoughts on human sexuality had been the Church’s main currency, the conversation would have been joined in a more powerful way. Maybe.
Another aspect of Judge’s analysis is his nuanced understanding of rock ’n’ roll and the contribution it played in this particular dance. The power of rock music is not really in its rebellious tones, Judge notes, but in its love, or the way it gathers love in and then tells us about it. Plato famously observed that music’s strange power can form the young into dishonorable and untrustworthy citizens who miss the truth of their being. Judge’s book helps us evaluate such phenomena in our recent past. He observes:
I soon realized that love—and its loss—is the great theme of popular music, from Louis Armstrong right down to Justin Timberlake. Popular music was exploring the initial ecstasy Adam felt when he first saw “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” Whether it was the Supremes declaring there ain’t no mountain high enough, the Beatles heralding the good news that she loves you, or Van Morrison whispering about a marvelous night for a moondance, this great desire to return to our original union with God—including the conjugal union between Adam and Eve that preceded the Fall—is the urge that launched a thousand hits.
For Judge, the love-drenched nature of rock music is a sign that points to our deep-seated need to give and receive love. The musical performer reveals this capacity to us in a unique form. In these observations Judge takes issue with the common labels rock music has received.
The received narrative of rock music as an extended exercise in rebellion is as old as the boomers themselves. One told by the fading denizens of this generation for their own precious esteem as much as for its truth in actually explaining the events that transpired. Judge implies that we should look within rock ’n’ roll and separate love’s wheat from rock’s angst-ridden chaff and apply the recovered insights to the truth of the human person. As Judge states, “To put it in theological terms, the music made the connection between agape, the love of God, and eros, physical desire. At night . . . Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers . . . would serenade me with the wonder of love.” On Van Morrison, Judge observes that his music is sacramental, a sign pointing the soul towards truths beyond the material world of experience. Indeed, Van Morrison’s signature song “Into the Mystic” has long been observed as one where the music and words emerge out of time in perfect harmony. The seeker within its lyrics wants spiritual truth amidst his own romantic love for the woman of the song. This is the abiding truth and connection between rock ’n’ roll and the agape love of the Christian trinity that Judge is making in his book.
Serenading the author much later in his journey were the writings of a Polish churchman who became Pope John Paul II (Karol Wotjyla). Judge recounts how this Polish mystic, strangely loved by many young people, while disliked, if not disdained, by boomer Catholics, made his own contribution in this field. In his doctoral dissertation on St. John of the Cross, Wotjyla observed that spousal love could only be understood as a complete gift of the self, “the most-uncompromising form of love consists precisely in self-giving, in making one’s inalienable and non-transferable “I” someone else’s property.” Indeed. But does the rock music analyzed by Judge, even in its loftier insights on love, go this far?
Lurking in the interstices of the comparisons Judge makes between lyrics from U2 or the Rolling Stones and the mystical writings of John Paul II, or poems from John of the Cross, or the Old Testament’s Song of Songs is an understanding of eros that the sexual revolution may be unable to finally grasp. As the Bride states in the Song of Songs:
My beloved is mine and I am his.
He pastures his flock among the lilies.
Before the dawn wind raises,
Before the shadows flee,
Return! Be, my beloved,
Like a gazelle,
A young stag,
On the mountains of the covenant.
On my bed, at night, I sought him whom my heart loves.
Such love, as Allan Bloom once noted about his students, themselves raised in the broken homes produced by the sexual revolution, and participating in casual sexual culture, may itself be the first victim of the revolution. Sexuality that embodies nearly limitless capacity and desire may be unable, paradoxically, to even contemplate this most carnal of passages from scripture. The notion of gift and completion within the sexual act collapses under the imposition of a sexuality with no purpose beyond the physical stimulation of the human body and its inner-desiring self.
Not explored by Judge is to what extent this failure of moral imagination he identifies may have inexorably resulted from a social-cultural order unable to speak to these deeper loves of the human person. Does a political order predicated upon productivity and stability have the resources to account fully for the person and these manifestations of our strangeness and homelessness? Or does America’s shocking religious reawakenings and sexual revolutions actually reveal far more about who we are not as Americans but as members of the strangest group of all, humans? Perhaps our bursting out in these capacities is an important clue to who we are and how we should live. Love within the full giving of the person, bound with a promise, and commercial life actually pursued in light of higher loves and virtues and not led by a mindless utility, maybe this is the adventure we are really afraid to make?
The problem with sexual liberationism was its refusal to account for the elements that make sense of and ground eros. This quickly led to its sheer moral license and the dismal consequences that continue to extend outward. Forgotten was commitment, or the desire we have to locate our love within the person and not a body. The consequences for the rupturing of love are enormous in light of this inescapable reality. We also demand a return of the love and the gift we make of ourselves.
Beyond commitment is God, the being who has given us something as strange as love. We are alone among the animals in self-consciously possessing and participating in this mystery. Romantic love is part of the dignity of the person. We are designed physically and spiritually for it. Come the revolution’s end we will once again instantiate these truths in our collective understanding. Years from now, the teachings Judge references of Dietrich Hildebrand, John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on human and divine love will still shape the religious and moral formation of many young people and even adults. Lady Gaga, et al., will be the period piece studied for insight on how deranged we once were.
Richard M. Reinsch II is the author of the recently released title Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.