The Immorality of Nice Fornication


The strongest case that Nice Fornicators make for themselves is that they are “committed” to one another in love, and that this commitment carries sufficient moral weight to justify their actions.

But this case cannot be taken seriously. For the couple either are committed to one another forever, or they are not.  If they are, what prevents them from marrying? The Justice of the Peace is a short drive away.  Man is the only creature that can make a promise, devoting his future to someone else, here and now. If he makes such a promise and rejoices in it, then naturally he should wish to make that promise public.

A private promise relies too heavily upon private feelings, and in the case of a dispute, involves one person's testimony and interpretation against another's. But when you make the promise publicly, before a delegated representative of the people or of the Church, then it becomes a solemn vow, and you are saying, "I make this vow, and I give you the authority to hold me to it." The "piece of paper" that some Nice Fornicators scoff at is a token that such a vow has been made before one's countrymen or fellow Christians, and that one submits to all the laws pertaining to that vow – for even the sexual revolution has not yet managed to eviscerate those laws entirely.

The "commitment" of the Nice Fornicators is, then, an equivocation. It looks as if it implies all that marriage implies, but it does not. The Nice Fornicators are lying to themselves, lying to one another, and lying to everyone else. Suppose they have set a date for the marriage. They either fully intend to keep the date, or they do not. If they do, why must they engage in sexual relations now? Why must they have the consummation before they have the marriage? 

An intention to make a vow is not the same thing as actually making the vow. Why should the act that makes for children precede the vow that provides for their being born within the fold of indissoluble love? Why should the act that says, in the language of the body, "All that I am belongs to you alone, forever," precede the vow that gives that language its sanction and its anchor in a community that upholds its truth? Is it only because the Nice Fornicators want to hold a party and it takes some time to prepare one, or because they want a "church wedding" (without, however, observing the commandments of Scripture)? Why not then remain continent beforehand?

Here we come to the nub of the matter. A consummated action is unmistakable, but a private intention is vague and shifting. The Nice Fornicators want to marry, eventually. But they want to fornicate now. Say to the Nice Fornicators who have set a date, "You must live apart from one another for the next year, and promise to be chaste." What are the choices? They may say, "We can't trust ourselves; we'd better go to the Justice of the Peace." Or, "What difference does chastity make?" – in which case they contradict themselves, because they have all along been claiming, implicitly, that the sexual act is a tremendous guarantee, one to the other, of unbending love, and now they wish it to be treated as something of small import, as if they were being required to abstain from going to the movies. Or they may agree. If they do agree, then why should they not have been chaste all along? 

Nice Fornication, then, is a strange mix of hedonism, genuine but compromised love, carelessness for the child that may be conceived, aloofness from the community, wishful thinking, and dishonesty. All that, and a violation of the word of God besides.

The reason is not far to seek. Nice Fornicators want to fornicate. They find one another attractive. They go out for a pizza, or catch a ballgame. They "make out." Soon one thing leads to another. The more scrupulous among them defer intercourse for a while, in the meantime engaging in plenty of actions that violate the letter and the spirit of chastity. They may be quite legalistic in their understanding of sexual morality: "We won't do that, until we feel we are really in love, and are committed.

They engage in sexual activity not because they love one another, but to discover whether they can love one another; it is an act not of free submission, but of trial. There are wheels within wheels. The Nice Fornicators say, "We are committed to one another," but since the commitment resides in the realm of feeling and intention, rather than of publicly enacted vow, neither one can be quite sure of what that commitment entails, either for himself or for the other. The body, in sexual intercourse, speaks: "This is a marital act." But the Nice Fornicator, at the height of sexual pleasure, registers a reservation, thus: "I am committed to discovering whether this would be acceptable as a marital act." The one partner may say, "If I do this, he will marry me," while the other says, "Unless she does this, I can't marry her." 

Nice Fornication, then, is a strange mix of hedonism, genuine but compromised love, carelessness for the child that may be conceived, aloofness from the community, wishful thinking, and dishonesty. All that, and a violation of the word of God besides.




Anthony Esolen. "The Immorality of Nice Fornication." The Catholic Thing (August 17, 2011).

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Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, where his classes are featured in the college's Western Civilization Core Curriculum. He is the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen has published many scholarly articles and essays, including several on Renaissance literature. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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