Problems with ‘hook-up’ culture Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

From the 1950s through the late 1970s, Karol Wojtyla (St. 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 St. 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.

Building up one's character

I would like to develop 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.

We see this principle at work in sports. If you swing the golf club the wrong way enough times, you become a bad golfer, habitually incapable of hitting the ball straight and far. If you swing the club correctly enough times, you become a good golfer, habitually given to hitting the ball straight and far.

Separating 'self' from body

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."

In fact, a person who habitually engages in self-absorbed, self-destructive, and manipulative behavior is slowly but surely turning herself into a self-absorbed, self-destructive, and manipulative person.

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 dualism for centuries, insisting that the self is a composite of spirit and matter.

'Hook-up' culture

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, in which casual and impersonal forms of sexual behavior are accepted.

As recently as 25 years ago, there was still, even among teenagers, a sense that sexual contact belonged in the context of a "loving" or "committed" relationship, but today it appears even this modicum of moral responsibility has disappeared.

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 recommend to teenagers and their parents.

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 society is telling teenagers they can behave in any way they like and still be "good people," but the consciences of young people tell a different story. They know that selfish and irresponsible behavior is turning them into selfish and irresponsible people — and their souls are crying out.

I might sum up John Paul's insight by saying that moral acts matter, both in the short run and in the long run. They produce immediate consequences, and they form characters.

So I might venture to say to a young person tempted to engage in irresponsible sexual behavior: please realize that the particular things you choose to do are inevitably shaping the person you are becoming.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at