by Norman St. John Stevas
THE phrase "The Permissive Society" is an emotive one which evokes strong reactions from virtually everyone, either of praise or condemnation; but what exactly does it signify? I would define it as a society where law in relation to morals and especially sexual morals plays a minimum role and withdraws altogether in a number of spheres.
Whether we applaud or condemn it, this type of society is dominant in the Western world today and seems likely to continue to be so in the forseeable future. What ought our attitude to be towards this type of society and what judgment should be passed on it from the Christian point of view?
It seems to me that a "blanket" approach of approval or condemnation is inappropriate. The Permissive Society has some good features and some bad ones and we should try to identify them before passing moral judgment. Individual issues should be judged on their merits and not from a doctrinaire approach.
Christians need to recognise that for better or for worse religion is no longer the common bond of society and simple deductions applying religious rules to legal problems are not especially helpful in a modern secular society. Christians need to link up their own moral insights with those prevalent in the community if they are to exercise any influence upon it.
Let me take the law governing marriage and divorce as an example. From the Christian point of view marriage is an indissoluble sacramental union but one cannot conclude from this that a secular society should not allow divorce. The Christian approach cannot be enforced by law in a society where the majority no longer accept its doctrinal suppositions. Yet the sacramental approach to marriage is not an arbitrary one based on doctrine alone : behind the doctrine can be found
certain basic human needs on which the religious approach is based. There is first of all the need of human beings for a permanent commitment if they are to achieve the fullest personal development. In a relationship as intense and demanding as the love relationship in marriage, exclusivity is needed not because of religious demands imposed from the outside but because of the very nature of the relationship itself.
Furthermore there are the needs of the children to be considered who need a stable emotional framework if they are to be able to develop as mature individuals. Society accordingly has an interest in stability of marriage and its permanence.
The old law of divorce based on the matrimonial offence was not in practice very satisfactory but it did have the theoretical merit of preserving the idea that marriage was a contract for life, dissoluble only in certain specified instances. The Church of England, aware of the drawbacks of the system recommended a new approach, namely that the matrimonial offence should be abolished and that there should in future be only one ground for divorce in English law, namely, breakdown of the marriage. This proposal had much to recommend it as a rational improvement on the then existing law but unforunately it was not adopted by Parliament. Today we have ended up with the worst of both worlds with a divorce statute which pays lips service to the idea of marriage breakdown but requires that this be proved by establishing one of the old matrimonial offences. In addition the law provides that divorce should be allowed after a two years' separation if both the parties consent and after five years' separation at the unilateral request of one of the parties.
The stability of marriage has been subordinated to the immediate personal desires of the married partners or one of them. Christians as citizens are fully entitled to he critical of these arrangements and to seek to have them amended.
Homosexual law reform is another feature of permissiveness which arouses strong feelings. In fact the withdrawal of the law from this field was recommended not only by the Wolfenden committee but also by a special committee appointed by the late Cardinal Griffin to consider the whole matter. The committee concluded that the intervention of the law in this sphere as far as adults are concerned does more harm than good. This approach does not of course entail an approval of homosexual conduct, as some people erroneously suppose, but a judgment that the law cannot he effectively and equitably used in this sphere. Censorship of books, plays and films has been relaxed in our permissive society and some have strongly condemned it; but such a relaxation seems to me inevitable in a society which has ceased to have clear ideas about morality in the sexual sphere. In such a society the law of censorship has to have limited goals unless it is to become ridiculous, but it should not be abolished altogether. It should be directed towards preserving certain minimum standards of public decency and the privacy of the home.
There is a great difference in my view in allowing pornography to be sold in certain bookshops and allowing it to be sent unsolicited through the mails to citizens in their own homes. There is a difference too between the media of the cinema and television precisely because the latter is viewed in a domestic setting.
The question of permissiveness then is not a simple but a highly complicated one. The rights and freedoms of the individual have to be balanced against the needs of society as a whole and each issue has to be carefully examined on it sown merits. An outburst of moral indignation condemning "permissiveness" and all its works and pomps may act as a relief to certain people's feelings but it achieves little else.