The exchange always sounds quite reasonable. In so many different spheres of modern life, we are called upon to make concessions and sacrifices for the sake of larger conflicts, to give things up for the “greater good.” The environmentalism of previous generations, for example, introduced us to the concept of recycling. Now, for the sake of the climate, we are asked not just to make distinctions at the waste bins but major adjustments to our lives—our travel habits, our daily commutes, and even our diets have become the front lines of the war on climate change.

Oddly enough, the migration of this struggle from the periphery of our awareness to the unremitting focus of social and political discourse parallels the movement of other, similar conflicts from the margin to the centre. The rallying cry against mid-century racism was an opposition to “prejudice;” now, the imperatives of “anti-racism” are enforced in all the areas of culture connected to corporations with a Human Rights department. So too, homosexual activists once marched under the sign of “tolerance;” now, as the banners of the rainbow flag unfurl with further militant force every year, the tolerance for any moral opposition to the radical changes of the cultural LGBT juggernaut likewise shrinks.

The momentum behind these social movements is undeniable; there is no dissenting opinion permitted in the “wars” against climate change, racism, and bigotry, and the only acceptable questions to raise pertain to the urgency and necessity of the drastic changes these conflicts require. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, extremism in the opposition to the status quo is, in our moment, no vice, and the positions advanced (or represented) by the likes of Greta Thunberg, Ibrahm X. Kendi, and Dylan Mulvaney can, in polite society, only be qualified and not contradicted.

How strange, then, that at the very same time that scrupulosity about certain activities and behaviours is militantly enforced—from carbon consumption to micro-aggressions to our inclusivity more generally—there is another equal and opposite campaign underway. Social conservatives are being told to lay down their arms, parents are encouraged to be more permissive and less vigilant, church leaders are hectored for their prurient preoccupation with “pelvic sins,” and we are all invited to take a more relaxed attitude to the body, its pleasures, and the various proclivities to which it is prone.

On this logic, plastic straws need to be banned while a blind eye can be turned to the consumption of pornography. So too, clear preaching about the immorality of sexual acts and the values of continence, chastity, and modesty, we are told, need to be curtailed for the sake of public stances which are more welcoming, tolerant, and inclusive. We are, in other words, being asked to abandon every familiar arena of moral exertion and are being required, instead, to re-train our consciences, sensitizing ourselves to actions or outcomes (like carbon consumption) which are disconnected from the realms of traditional morality. It often seems as if the only serious ethical question surrounding sexuality which remains possible today is whether or not it is licit to have any children at all.

This new teaching is never framed as an explicit set of exhortations but, if it were, it would sound something like this: indulge the sexual drive in whatever form it takes; affirm obedience to it as a call of identity; oppose any traditional exhortation to restraint as not only outmoded but harmful. In other words, the very area of human life in which maturing moral agents learn to exercise self-control should be abandoned; and the parental instinct to protect teenagers from harm and corruption should be attenuated. When stated so baldly, one is hard-pressed to describe this attitude as anything but evil; nor is it any great mystery how and why the term “groomer” has, in recent years, entered our cultural lexicon.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx predicted that the “contradictions of capitalism” would cause it to collapse, but only in the 21st century, in the countries where economic liberty took root, is the ongoing slow-motion collapse of Western moral systems bringing Marx’s prediction to fruition. Indeed, if the West currently had an avowed enemy (like Red China) which was existentially committed to the triumph of Communism, and completely devoted to the destruction of the peoples and the sovereign states which opposed it in the previous century, such an adversary would encourage the disarming, defeating decadence that has caused obesity, drug use, the consumption of pornography, and incidents of abortion to skyrocket—and birth rates to plummet as well. Such an enemy would look kindly (even encouragingly) at the ravaging damage of various opioids and the exploitation of systems set up for asylum-seekers; but it would be arguably even more delighted to see sexual ethics completely abandoned. Countries with no self-control can easily be conquered.

But another enemy is well-satisfied, too. Satan laughs at the incontinence which he also encourages, as he re-enacts the victory over our first parents repeatedly throughout human history. His triumphs over human weakness are frequent—but never has he enjoyed so much support for his seductions in the organs of social discourse and moral deliberation.

To put this all bluntly, as R.R. Reno did in the pages of First Things, the focus away from “pelvic sins” or sexual morality, to systemic problems of climate change, racism, and bigotry, even poverty reduction, is to move the faithful away from those sins they have control over (and thus responsibility) to those they do not. And make no mistake about it: this reprioritization of sin, not only in the political sphere but by some misguided religious leaders, will lead people away from God as they excuse away the sins for which they are responsible.

When Christ saw the infiltrations, not of lust but of greed, polluting the place where worship should be rendered to God, He braided a whip and overturned the money-changing tables (Mt 21:12-17). We would do well to imitate this example, especially when our modern day temple stalls now seek to trade not currencies but ethical categories, and when the things which are being bartered away are our very selves, sovereign states, and immortal souls.