Recently I caught ten minutes of a ghastly television show called House. It’s a medical drama whose scripts, filming, direction, and acting cover the spectrum from dour to grim. The doctors were attempting to determine why an eighteen-year-old girl was suffering life-threatening convulsions.
One guess was that they were severe reactions to an allergen. “But she shows no signs upon her skin,” said one of the doctors. “Maybe,” came the reply, “the allergen is inside her.”
So the doctors approach her boyfriend, a tall mop-headed youth, standing beside his father. The boy is worried that his girlfriend may die.
They explain that she may be allergic to the boy’s seminal fluid. “When was the last time you had unprotected sex?”
The father glances from the doctor to his son, but says nothing. “I always use a condom,” says the boy. Message: I am responsible. The father seems satisfied. Nobody, of course, will acknowledge that condoms tear and slip, so that the reply is meaningless. No, the holy rubber must be honored. Thus must we fulfill all righteousness.
But the doctor presses. “For everything?” He is referring to what used to be called sodomy.
“Not for everything,” says the boy.
The scene shifts to the hospital bed. The girl says to her mother, “You aren’t upset with me, are you? After all, we’ve been going together for three years.” No, the mother isn’t upset about that. Three years, you know.
I turn the thing off.
Meanwhile, a Canadian Catholic weekly, Interim, reports on governmental bullying: that is, the government of Canada, and Ontario in particular, forbidding Catholic schools to be Catholic. One judge reads the section in the Catechism on homosexual acts. “You can’t do that anymore!” he shouts to a bishop in attendance. He means, “You can’t teach that that is wrong.” The deeds themselves are all right.
Morally and intellectually, the Canadian bishops are holding the full truth, a royal flush. The government is holding a pair of threes—and a gun. The bishops fold. What do we expect from them, martyrdom? Or do they secretly wish to lose?
Return to the hospital. No one asks the boy, “What are you doing having sexual intercourse with a woman to whom you are not married?” No one asks, “Why are you doing the child-making thing, when you are utterly unprepared, morally, to bring a child into the world?” No one asks, “Why are you saying with your body, ‘I am yours, all of me, forever,’ when if it were true you would have made that commitment before God and man?” Even the mother doesn’t demand an answer. Three years. That’s the answer.
What kind of answer is that? What does it imply? I see only two possibilities. One: after a certain respectable amount of time has elapsed, fornication is no big deal. How long? Nobody can say. Three years, sure. Three months? Three dates? The Georgetown law student who demanded that other people finance her fornication was upset when a talk show host (no Sir Galahad himself) said that she was calling herself a slut. What’s that? Nobody knows. The boundary shifts according to the individual’s opinion or mood. It is always set so that the individual remains safe, a few inches on the “good” side. “Sure,” says the fornicator, “I am going to bed with this girl, but it’s not as if I’m jumping from one to another.” People still make judgments against the sexual habits of others. But now their judgments are based on no objective standard. It is a simple function of their egotism. “Yes, I do this—but I would never do that.” Pharisees, who have dispensed with the Law.
The other possibility is compatible with the first. Three years; three long, weary years. Three years of doing everything but. The girl’s self-justification can be translated thus: “We were bored with abstinence, not that we were chaste, anyhow. What did you expect?” The bodies are still young and fresh, but the souls sag, and are printed with wrinkles. It isn’t enough merely to be in the presence of the person you wish (soon?) to marry; to dance, to sing together, to hold hands, to kiss, to enjoy together the company of brothers and sisters and cousins. The beauty of the person, the longing to be with and be for that person forever? Not enough. Been there, done that. The Sistine ceiling? A lot of paintings. Mozart? Too many notes. Eros in its fullest glory? Too demanding.
A pair of threes: that is what the World, the Flesh, and the Devil are holding. What do you do, if you know damned well that your opponent is holding a pair of threes? You call his bluff. You raise the stakes. It requires a spine somewhat firmer than overdone linguini, and, in the bishops, other accoutrements rather larger than peas. But it must be done.
So the bishops, knowing well what makes for real human happiness and a culture worthy the name, might say, “We must obey God rather than man. Let us be clear here. All genital intercourse between human beings must be open to bringing new life into existence, by the nature of the act and in the intent of the agents, within the haven of indissoluble marriage. Fornication is destructive of marriage, of the common good, and of the spiritual and emotional welfare of the fornicators themselves. It is a grave evil.”
And: “You have no coherent way to distinguish between virtue and vice in these matters. You thus supply your own arbitrary decision, and that is the action of a tyrant. But our view, not our own but what has been given to us by God and what ratifies the nature of sexual intercourse, is entirely consistent and rational. We assert that the giving of the whole body implies the giving of the whole person, which in turn implies the giving of one’s whole life. Since man is a social creature, this all-giving must be affirmed before one’s fellow men, and cannot remain a private decision, floating in the eddies of the moods and intents of the agents. Since man is made by God and for God, He too must be invited to the feast—He is the maker of the feast.”
And: “What do you people have to show for your apostasy from faith and reason? What has it gotten you? Your mass entertainment is a sewer. Your children are batted from mother to father or from foster home to foster home like tennis balls. Those are the children you have not murdered in the womb. You cannot walk the city streets at night. You have sown mistrust and transience at the heart of what should be the most permanent of human things. You plant lust, and are surprised when the weed comes forth with spikes and thorns and a system of roots that creep and branch until the whole garden is choked out.”
And: “You want to uphold the biological absurdity of a man ‘marrying’ a man. We will uphold the biological and theological truth that a marital act is a marital act, and what follows from that fact, the disorderliness and wrongness of sexual congress outside of marriage. We are going to insist upon it. Now you with your pair of threes can pretend all you want that you support marriage. We will affirm the whole of the Christian teaching.”
And: “You will see, of course, that you can no more graft homosexual pseudogamy upon this whole teaching, than you can graft the arm of an octopus upon an apple tree. Go ahead then—we dare you to keep bluffing. We dare you now to forbid us to teach the whole doctrine. We dare you to order us to bless fornication, divorce, abortion, contraception, onanism, unchastity, and all your miserable brew of temporary and local excitation to spice your perduring and spreading ennui.”
And: “You have nothing to offer. You are holding a pair of threes. We have everything to offer. We proclaim the holiness of the human body. We proclaim that the power of sex, male and female, cooperates in God’s creation; it is the means He has chosen for bringing into being a new human soul. We proclaim the mystery of the union of man and woman, a mystery that mirrors the very life of the three-personed God. We proclaim the fruitfulness of chastity, and its harmony with the other virtues: reverence, fidelity, generosity, humility, and courage. We hold up for young people the beauty of the truth. You hand them a pill and a pack of rubbers.”
What about it, bishops, priests, and laity?
Professor Anthony Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ironies of Faith (ISI Press, 2007); and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010). Professor Esolen is the translator of Dante.