Some of our hierarchs speak as if the moral law as regards sex, marriage, and family life were a bitter constraint, to be acknowledged perhaps, but also to be transcended in the name of Christian liberty and charity.
It is as if they believed what Nathanael Hawthorne himself did not, that our society is a step away from that of the grim hypocritical Puritans who pinned the scarlet A on the breast of Hester Prynne.
We, of all people — a fractious collection of dispirited hedonists, who channel what should be hatred of sin into hatred of people who commit the few sins we still recognize, or of people who fall afoul of "laws" we have invented to separate right-thinking sheep from wrong-thinking goats.
Such hierarchs have an unreal interpretation of the moral law. They are nominalists and voluntarists, perhaps without knowing it. They speak as if God has happened to declare, let us say, that fornication is wrong, but that there is nothing in the nature of the act that makes it wrong, and that must hurt or ruin the person who engages in it and the society that shrugs at it or, worse, promotes it.
We Catholics, however, are supposed to have a realist view of sin and moral health, just as we have a realist view of disease and physical health.
Nothing is good or bad, says the skeptical Hamlet of our time, but thinking makes it so — thinking, or the latest theological fad, to be picked up at a bargain from ever new and improved Catholic journals, Catholic theological societies, and Catholic hierarchs themselves. "But Daddy!" cries the petulant daughter, showing off a skirt that is more air than cloth, "It's all the rage in America!"
We Catholics, however, are supposed to have a realist view of sin and moral health, just as we have a realist view of disease and physical health. Lung cancer does not magically vanish if we call it a chest cold. Clogged arteries do not magically open if we say we are blessed with an alternative form of circulation. The good doctor loves his patients in his implacable opposition to cancer and heart disease. The timid doctor doesn't.
I am not talking about what will happen to the person who dies without having repented of grave sins. I am talking about what does happen to him, inevitably, as surely as bleeding follows from a thrust of the knife. Nor is he the only victim. You cannot hurt one member of the body without hurting the others. It baffles me that those hierarchs friendly to socialism in politics and economics do not see this.
If I were a saint, I could say with the psalmist that I love the law of the Lord for its own sake and meditate upon it day and night. That would be like gazing upon the sun. But I can say that I love the law of the Lord for the lovely things it illuminates. I love it for the world it makes possible, if we confess it as a people and try to follow it as best we can.
Again I am doggedly realist, with an incarnate imagination, as I believe the faith and the Scriptures instruct me to be. Jesus says, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven." What Christian heart does not glow warm to hear those words?
But I am fool enough to believe that they imply that a life rich in children is a life most blest. I like children. I like to see them running and shouting about the streets and in the fields and down the trails in the woods. I want them to play on my grass. I am moved by their innocence.
But we have no chance, none, of enjoying that child-rich world unless we acknowledge those salutary laws that protect marriage and family life. Nor do we have that world now. We have silence, empty fields, and all manner of disease put before the gaping eyes of children — their imaginations raped, and never, on this side of the grave, to be whole and pure again. .
Jesus says that all of the law and the prophets may be summed up in one commandment: "You shall love the Lord God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself." I am again too much of a realist to conclude immediately that the law implies support of a foreign policy objective regarding a nation ten thousand miles away.
The moral law kept men and women from their worst impulses. It protected them from themselves and from each other.
Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't, but it surely implies the goodness of neighborhood. Where am I going to learn to love my neighbor, if not among those who really are near me? But how can I do that, unless there are real neighborhoods, full of people who know one another, because they see one another all the time?
And how can that be, unless marriage is stable and nearly universal and prolific, so that you get to know not only the people who live near you, but some of their kindred too? Where are all the people, most of our daylight hours?
Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a wedding feast, such a feast as witnessed his first miracle; such a feast as is the mysterious climax of Scripture itself. I am fool enough to believe that it is a sign of a gravely sick society that marriages are so late and so prone to dissolution.
What should we have expected? The moral law kept men and women from their worst impulses. It protected them from themselves and from each other. Obliterate the law, and what do we see? No one really knows what a man is, or a woman, or that they are for one another. The joy is gone. The perception of the beauty of each sex is gone. What else should we have expected?
Hierarchs — I do not like the gray and impersonal and bitter and child-poor world you seem to have accepted. It is no foretaste of heaven.
Anthony Esolen. "Dogged — Catholic — Realism." The Catholic Thing (October 28, 2020).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: from Christ Blessing the Children by Lucas Cranach the Younger (and workshop), c. 1545-50 [The MET, New York]. This image is the centerpiece of that art work: our loving Christ and a child.
Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, 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. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2020 The Catholic Thing
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