A challenge to conscience

America's conscience ought to be aroused by recent figures on the rise of illegitimate births in the United States. So casual and common have such reports become that they often induce only superficial concern among the public. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that the easy acceptance of sexual relations outside marriage and illegitimate births weakens society as much as any physical scourge or economic failing.Every citizen should be alert to the risks to the individual and to social order when observance of the moral code begins to break down.

The statistics are startling. Illegitimate births have risen so rapidly in the 1970s that one of every six children is now born out of wedlock. Blacks account for more than 50 percent of these, but - significantly - the black illegitimacy rate dropped in the past decade while that of whites rose. The number of abortions, too, has grown dramatically.

There is no question that this trend has been encouraged by society's more tolerant attitude toward sex and the increased pursuit of sexual pleasure - sometimes to the point of addiction - a trend reflected in and abetted by television and pornography. No longer, it is said, does a social stigma attach to birth out of wedlock. For some teenagers, having a baby - even outside marriage - has become a status symbol. Others are said to want a child in order to fulfill their lives.

A worrisome aspect of all this is society's general attitude. There often seems little focus on the moral and spiritual implications of the problem - or of the moral and spiritual responses to it - except by churches or church-related organizations. There are, to be sure, many social and other agencies genuinely trying to deal with the phenomenon. But so much of their emphasis is on sex education in the schools, providing birth-control information to young people ''before their first sexual encounter,'' or similar human solutions.

These may be helpful, of course, if provided with care and sensitivity. But the problems involved in and stemming from out-of-marriage sex and illegitimacy cannot be addressed outside an ethical framework. In this regard, we often seem to lack ability to communicate with young people on a level and in words they understand. Is this because parents and adults in general are embarrassed to talk about moral standards in such a secularized age? Because they do not know how to relate moral and spiritual issues to technological progress? Because they themselves have let their standards slip? It is saddening to read that the number of unmarried couples has been growing even among those aged 65 or over.

Periodically a society needs to take stock. Americans - indeed all peoples - need to keep up standards and vigorously resist practices and attitudes tending to pull down the whole tone of society. It is not a matter of depriving individuals of something worthwhile, of restricting their actions or freedom of choice. It is a matter of maintaining and enhancing those values that enable an individual to develop the best in himself or herself.

Why should this require celibacy outside of marriage? Because chastity, like other Biblical moral demands, helps free human thought of the purely physical and bring to light man's higher nature - the ''new man'' of whom the New Testament speaks. It has to do with what a person thinks himself or herself to be, and has the potential to become. No one, man or woman, wants to be a mere sex object - an unfulfilling role if there ever was one.

Most will agree that to experience life in the fullest sense requires disciplining thinking and action. Doesn't this also include bringing lust under control? Holding the physical senses in check? Significant in this regard are the signs of support for chastity coming from the medical and psychiatric professions. After the sex revolution fostered in part by Freudian and pseudo-Freudian teachings - such as the harm of sex repression - some voices now sound the dangers to mental and physical health of premarital sexual indulgence. It may be encouraging evidence of change, too, that some social workers now dare counsel teenagers to say ''no'' as the best method of birth control.

Much of the onus for reform rests on parents and adults, whose own integrity or lack of it influences young people. Giving a teenager a birth control device may prevent a pregnancy. But it cannot prevent the unknown inner agonies of youthful sex. On the other hand, religious training in the home, supported by the honest lives of parents, teachers, and other grownups, can do much to change the moral climate in which sexual excess takes place.

Surely Western societies should not be quick to discard or ignore the Judeo-Christian norms of conduct which have stood the test of centuries and serve as a binding and purifying force in human affairs. It is a renewed effort to instill and live these norms that is greatly needed now.

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