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The Acts We Perform; the People We Become

August 5, 2011


From the 1950’s through the late 1970’s Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) was a professor of moral philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland, specializing in sexual ethics and what we call today “marriage and family life.” He produced two important books touching on these matters, The Acting Person, a rigorous philosophical exploration of Christian anthropology, and Love and Responsibility, a much more accessible analysis of love, sex, and marriage. These texts provided the foundation for the richly textured teaching of Pope John Paul II that now goes by the name “theology of the body.” As was evident throughout his papacy, John Paul had a deep devotion to young people, and he wanted them to see the teaching of the church in regard to sex, not as a burden, but as an invitation to fuller life. In the context of this brief article, I would like to develop just one insight from John Paul’s rich magisterium on sex and marriage, for I share the perennial concern of older people that too many young people are treating sex in a morally casual way. 

Karol Wojtyla taught that in making an ethical decision, a moral agent does not only give rise to a particular act, but he also contributes to the person he is becoming. Every time I perform a moral act, I am building up my character, and every time I perform an unethical act, I am compromising my character. A sufficient number of virtuous acts, in time, shapes me in such a way that I can predictably and reliably perform virtuously in the future, and a sufficient number of vicious acts can misshape me in such a way that I am typically incapable of choosing rightly in the future. This is not judgmentalism; it is a kind of spiritual or moral physics, an articulation of a basic law. We see the same principle at work in sports. If you swing the golf club the wrong way enough times, you become a bad golfer, that is to say, someone habitually incapable of hitting the ball straight and far. And if you swing the club correctly enough times, you become a good golfer, someone habitually given to hitting the ball straight and far. 

John Paul put his finger on a problem typical of our time, namely, that people think that they can do lots of bad things while still remaining, deep down, “good persons,” as though their characters are separable from the particular things that they do. In point of fact, a person who habitually engages in self-absorbed, self-destructive, and manipulative behavior is slowly but surely warping her character, turning herself into a self-absorbed, self-destructive, and manipulative person. Viewed from a slightly different angle, this is the problem of separating “self” from the body, as though the “real person” hides under or behind the concrete moves of the body. Catholic philosophy and theology have battled this kind of dualism for centuries, insisting that the self is a composite of spirit and matter. In fact, it is fascinating to note how often this gnostic conception of the person (to give it its proper name) asserts itself and how often the Church has risen up to oppose it. 

Now apply this principle to sexual behavior. Study after study has shown that teenagers and college students are participating more and more in a “hook-up” culture, an environment in which the most casual and impersonal forms of sexual behavior are accepted as a matter of course. As recently as 25 or 30 years ago, there was still, even among teenagers, a sense that sexual contact belonged at least in the context of a “loving” or “committed” relationship, but today it appears as though even this modicum of moral responsibility has disappeared. And this is doing terrible damage to young people. Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician and psychiatrist, explored the phenomenon of the hook-up culture in his book Why Gender Matters, a text I would warmly recommend to teenagers and their parents. He described that tawdry moral universe in some detail, and then he remarked that his psychiatrist’s office is filled with young people—especially young women—who have fallen into debilitating depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Dr. Sax theorized that these psychological symptoms are a function of a kind of cognitive dissonance. The wider society is telling teenagers that they can behave in any way they like and still be “good people,” but the consciences of these young people are telling a different story. Deep down, they know that selfish and irresponsible behavior is turning them into selfish and irresponsible people—and their souls are crying out. Their presence, in Dr. Sax’s waiting room, witnesses to the truth of John Paul’s understanding of the moral act. 

I might sum up John Paul’s insight by saying that moral acts matter, both in the short run and in the long run. For weal or for woe, they produce immediate consequences, and they form characters. And so I might venture to say to a young person, tempted to engage in irresponsible sexual behavior: please realize that, though you may not immediately appreciate it, the particular things you choose to do are inevitably shaping the person you are becoming.