We No Longer Talk about Such Things

Anthony Esolen: We are witnessing the complete societal dismissal of any norms regarding sexual behavior between consenting adults, and the refusal to own up to the consequences in human misery.

So the Catholic, trying hard to be faithful in a faithless time, is now to be dismissed – according to a Certain Person in Rome – for being obsessed with sins “below the belt.”  Whether that includes a kick to the groin is not clear.

How about above the belt – in the eyes and in a mind scorched by the evils of a world that has rejected the most fundamental truth about sex?  It is the truth that our Lord affirmed, that “in the beginning God made them male and female,” and “for this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.” (Mt. 19:4-5)

You may reject that truth initially because you want to have your forbidden pleasure, but the fruit soon disappoints, the inheritance is squandered, the famine strikes, the swine are fat, and you are hungry.  Then to be grappling to the evil is a sin not of intemperance, but of stubborn pride and rebellion; and the common victims of it are staring at a screen, frying their imaginations, with no prospects for a normal family life.

Let me make the distinction.  In “An Incident at Krechetovka Station,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the usual trip for a military transport train overseen by a gentle lad named Gaydukov, who has seen action in the field, and it is that action and his own gentleness that makes him play loose with the rules.

People try to get on the train, and though it is against regulations, Gaydukov cannot bear to see them freezing in the cold and running like mad to catch up with it.  So he lets them on in exchange for some food or drink – for the soldier boys inside are hungry too, and they will let girls on for free, hoisting them up while the train is hurrying along.

Once inside, the girls talk to the boys, they cook some food for them, one of them washes their shirts, and then they huddle on the bunks to sleep and to keep warm, “and some of today’s young women who, like yesterday’s, had not long ago seen their husbands off (and some of the girls too – few could resist it) would lie down and make love to the boys in the shadows away from the lamp.”

That isn’t a good thing.  It is a sin “below the belt.”  But it is at least an understandable human thing, born of frailty, lonesomeness, and the extraordinary circumstances.

Another, and more dubious case.  The film Fanny by Gaslight (1944; also named Man of Evil) features a young woman, Fanny, whose parents run a brothel, but who have at least a twinge of conscience about it, so they send her away to boarding school once she is too old to risk having her see what they are doing.

Fanny ends up being caught between two worlds, the raffish and seedy world of the high-class brothel, where her girlhood friend ends up as a prostitute, and a world of moral uprightness or at least the appearance of it.  She falls in love with a young member of Parliament whose career is on the rise, and he wants to marry her, but his snobbish family intervenes, and Fanny is made to know that she will ruin him by a marriage.

So she ends up becoming his mistress.  That is not, however, the end of the story; it will end with Fanny at the bedside of her lover, who has been shot in a duel and whom she brings back from the brink of death by telling him that she will never leave him, and that they will marry and have a house and children.

We have no war here, but the pressure of evils from various directions, including that same old human frailty, but the evil is not excused, much less held up as admirable.  This too is a sin “below the belt,” but also in the pocketbook and at the posh club where only the right people are admitted.

We no longer talk about such things.  We are talking, again, about the complete societal dismissal of any norms regarding sexual behavior between consenting adults, and the refusal to own up to the consequences in human misery, especially to children growing up in chaotic and often fatherless homes, and to the materially and educationally poor, who are surrounded by what is less and less a society than an inhuman amalgam of individual wills pursuing what they desire.

These are not sins of a warm but misdirected heart.  They are sins that burn hot and then cold, ever colder.  The “hookup” culture is no culture at all.  It is far from the merriment of Shakespeare or Chaucer.  It is grim and angry.

Why should we be surprised?  Sin will always disappoint.  A commitment to sin in principle is no longer weakness but a trade, a business, and the people so committed lock themselves up in what becomes a hedonistic intellectual prison, and when they mock those outside the prison, they toss the key away.  Perhaps they are conscious of tossing it away.  That would then be the definition of mortal sin: to choose a prison you know you can never escape from.

These are sins of an intellect gone bad.  They include a certain malice toward others, too.  For the consequences are everywhere, in loneliness, childlessness, family disintegration, and blood.  To continue upholding the evil principle, then, is to will that those consequences continue; to purchase your pleasure, such as it is, at the expense of a vast and smothering unhappiness; to say that these tens of millions of children will grow up without fathers, because you want your habit, which does not seem to give you much pleasure in any case, and that is that.

And we who have been fighting for those without a voice are told we are obsessed with sins against the Sixth Commandment.  Rather against the Eighth, the Fifth, and the First.

You may also enjoy:

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On the “Enduring of Evil”

Pope Leo XIII’s The true origin of marriage (from Arcanum, 1880)


Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.

EDITORS NOTE: This Catholic Thing column is republished with permission. All rights reserved. © 2023 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info@frinstitute.org. The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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