After an inappropriately long break, we are continuing our moral analysis of romance. First post here, on the principle “distinguish between the passions of love, desire, and delight.” I am preparing some lectures on a related topic for some of my students – so I have these things on the brain a bit. I may publish some of those notes another time.
The second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.
We were talking about an analogy with food…
It’s not obligatory to finish the cheeseburger. We are much more masters over our own bodies in terms of regulating our self-preservation than we are masters over how to regulate the preservation of the human race. We can, for example, choose to eat more or less in one “instance” of eating. It is not exactly the same with the sexual faculty. It is true one can choose to engage in sexual activity or not, but it is not so true that one can licitly decide ahead of time to “half eat the cheeseburger,” or even “eat the cheeseburger and then spit it out.” Nor may one deliberately enjoy the feelings that come with “pretending to eat the cheeseburger,” as we have said in our discussion of morose delectation.
While the Council of Vienne declared that kissing is not intrinsically immoral (yes – this was an issue brought up at an ecumenical council, in the 14th century, due to the odd teachings of various beguinages), let’s read St. Thomas on this point (II-II:154:4), as he makes a helpful (but challenging) distinction, namely, that while not sins in themselves, kisses and touches can be mortal sins from their cause. Let’s carefully consider the following text (it is not a simple one, despite its appearance): “Now it has been stated above (I-II:74:8), that it is a mortal sin not only to consent to the act, but also to the delectation of a mortal sin. Wherefore since fornication is a mortal sin, and much more so the other kinds of lust, it follows that in such like sins not only consent to the act but also consent to the pleasure is a mortal sin. Consequently, when these kisses and caresses are done for this delectation, it follows that they are mortal sins, and only in this way are they said to be lustful. Therefore in so far as they are lustful, they are mortal sins.”
We have already unpacked a lot of this in the foregoing section. What this Article means is the following, at least on my reading of it (together with supporting texts, including the Article referenced – Article 8 of Question 74, which is rather complex)… After the first passion (love), the second passion (desire) begins soon enough. The third passion (delight) can then be taken in the second passion’s act itself. If this is willed deliberately, there is mortal sin, as the appetite has been conformed to a mortal sin, even though one is not actually committing the sin for whatever reason (others are watching, inconvenience, etc.). The more closely one is simulating actual sexual union, including by engaging in its accompanying acts, the more likely it is that one is taking delight in the desire for mortal sin, as evidenced by one’s clear intent to arouse the passion of desire for the sake of the pleasure it brings.
Thus we can start to get a grip on how to understand what is going on morally in various kinds of pre-sexual recreation (including, unfortunately, many things which go on at an average high school dance). Some amount of “kisses and touches” are indeed appropriate, especially given the societal context (our psychology being wired by our environment to expect courtship to contain certain signs of affection), but there are some more or less objective lines that we can draw. To reiterate, the more an action looks like it belongs to the marriage bed, the more dangerous it is, and one must also consider carefully the possibility of slipping into further acts – or occasioning this in the other person. Some of these lines are a little less clear.
What is certain, however, is that recreational simulation of sexual activity planned ahead of time with the intent to derive pleasure from the desire to “go further” is totally without excuse – they are acts that simply are lustful “from their cause,” as St. Thomas explains. One uses the other person for the sake of a sexual fantasy that he is conforming his appetite to by willfully enjoying the pleasure which that fantasy brings. These are also actions which have a definite trajectory – real sexual union, right now, and it is precisely this trajectory which makes them so enjoyable. They cry out to be finished, and we know from experience that playing with fire in this way eventually leads to being burned.
With married couples the case of “mere” kisses and touches is different, as there is at least an habitual desire and licit ability to finish the trajectory – however, looks, touches, kisses, etc. should be done in relation to this habitual intention towards actual sexual union, rather than done only for the sake of the pleasure of the moment. In other words, such things should be ordered towards building desire for an actually possible future sexual act, rather than simply as an isolated event for its own pleasures, lest it become autoerotic – for sure, to start the actual process of direct stimulation with the intention not to complete the trajectory would come under this unfortunate category. Thankfully, sincere and pious couples typically fall into this chaste mode of action rather naturally.
TL;DR: To try deliberately to have the feeling of anticipating sexual union (“desire”) is to want to have the appetite conformed to a mortal sin, which is mortal sin itself (morose delectation), and outward acts that cause this feeling (kisses, touches, etc.) must be treated very carefully, especially if they are very closely associated with actual sexual union (i.e. heavy petting). To “make out” or otherwise touch or even look at someone specifically to derive this pleasure of “wanting to go further”, with sufficient deliberation, is to use the other’s body to engage in the mortal sin of morose delectation of fornication (or whatever species of lust, i.e. adultery, an unnatural act, etc.).
This leads us to the third great principle – the emotions are not the body. We’ll explore that soon…
“How far is too far?” This is simultaneously the most popular and most wrongheaded question that star-crossed lovers can ask. And they are often given well-meaning but misguided advice based on intuitive but terrible or at least incomplete ideas. These latter are often dependent on a rightly developed sense of shame – guidelines like “Would you do this in front of x person” fall into this category.
I don’t think depending on such principles is all that bad for group talks with high schoolers, but it leaves much to be desired. It does not explain the “why” behind chastity’s concrete applications in courtship, and it is insufficient for a real examination of conscience; it is thus especially unhelpful for confessors and preachers trying to sort through these complex issues when souls are really on the line. We can do better by going to the heart of the matter, though it takes some work. Let’s take on the question in appropriate detail then, shall we?
In this series of posts, we will investigate 5 great principles for chaste courtship. They are:
Distinguish between love, desire, and delight (the three positive concupiscible passions)
Don’t start what you can’t finish
The emotions are not the body
Risks can be justified by proportionate rewards
If you can raise your mind, do that
First of all, the entire idea of “courtship” or “dating” is quickly being replaced by a bizarre imitator… Nowadays, one is either “hooking up” or going around in a group or just carrying on a “relationship” by text and social media. Men don’t care for the challenge and risk of a serious “pre-commitment commitment” by asking a girl out on a proper date – and unfortunately, many women don’t care to wait around for a man willing to do this. That’s a shame. But we’ll leave this aside and assume that we have two fine young people who are seeing each other regularly, alone, with romantic intentions clearly expressed, but without “benefits” being openly offered by either.
Those who dabble in the writings of the great moralists, especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori, might come away from their writings on chastity aghast – “Did he really just say what I think he did? He is SO out of touch!” Well, maybe he didn’t say what you think he said, and maybe his being “out of touch” with what is actually going on in your own life is why it’s difficult for you to grasp the point, as you are not his main audience (which was the confessors of their own times and places, though many points still stand). On the other hand, they do both lay down some hard (but freeing) truths, and sometimes being “out of touch” is just what one needs in order to get perspective on an issue – so maybe there is some wisdom to take from anyone who is “disconnected,” let alone from great saints who are geniuses of moral theology. Let’s dive in then, with these two saintly friends as guides… (I won’t quote much, but I will synthesize instead with just a few references.) NB: These are principles especially useful for courtship, but plenty would also apply for married life, albeit in a slightly different way.
The first great principle: distinguish between love, desire, and delight (the three positive concupiscible passions).
The paradigm of “love-desire-delight” is the road map for our appetites’ relationship with pleasant things that are easily achieved; love corresponds with the perception of a good, desire with the motion towards a good, and delight (also called “pleasure” or “joy” in some cases) with the possession of a good. (With unpleasant things, we have “hatred-aversion-sorrow.” And with difficult goods and evils, we have the passions of fear, despair, hope, daring, and anger, the passions of the “irascible” appetite.)
“Desire” is also sometimes called “concupiscence.” Both are words with diverse meanings. Here, by “desire” and “concupiscence” we mean the felt inclination towards a definite sensible good to be obtained by a particular kind of act.
Let’s go through these emotions – or “passions” – one by one.
I see the cheeseburger, and I know that it is a good thing to eat, full of juicy grade-A beef, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, and maybe even some bacon. “That looks so good to eat! I bet it’s delicious!” Maybe my love is so strong that my salivary glands start to work as well, and my stomach starts to make itself felt. This is love, in the sense we mean it.
When I start actively wanting to eat the cheeseburger, feeling myself impelled towards picking it up and sinking my teeth into it, I have desire, or concupiscence, towards the cheeseburger. In desire, (which passion is accompanied by pleasure St. Alphonsus calls “inchoate” to the act one is being inclined toward,) I actually begin to anticipate having its succulent and savory goodness. This desire is separate from the sensation of merely perceiving that the cheeseburger is a good thing to eat, and also even from some kind of remote preparation for eating in the future, should I be so lucky.
Finally, the glorious moment has come: I devour the cheeseburger, and I have the passion proper to possession of the good – delight. This is a unique sensation of feeling fully satisfied in relation to the cheeseburger. It is also distinct from the actual taste and feeling of the physical consumption of the cheeseburger. I enjoy the pleasures that come from eating the cheeseburger. This completes the passions’ arc.
It would also be possible to create an imaginary act of eating the cheeseburger, whether it was really in front of me or not. If I am attempting to derive the pleasures of eating the cheeseburger without actually eating it, even just by running it through my mind, I have moved into a kind of delight in its possession without actually possessing it. And I could physically mimic the act of eating the cheeseburger, even with the cheeseburger itself! My stomach will remain empty, but I have a kind of mental satisfaction nevertheless in enjoying the desire itself for the cheeseburger for its own sake, which feeling is spurred on by the imagined act of eating the cheeseburger – and this act might actually impel me even more strongly towards really eating the cheeseburger moments later, when I snap out of my food fantasy back into reality.
It’s also the case that I could simply have the pleasant experience of imagining eating the cheeseburger without feeling a real desire to eat it. This is a subtly different act, but it is important, as we will see.
Digestion deals with self-preservation. Sex deals with the preservation of humanity. So while eating is important for the individual, sex is more important for the whole community as such. As it turns out, we can map this paradigm onto sexual attraction quite easily. He sees and even feels the woman’s beauty… He feels various inclinations in anticipating the possibilities right in front of him that he is moving towards fulfilling… He obtains what he was looking for. It is certainly no problem to have love for sexual goods – in fact, it would be unnatural not to have a disposition towards the opposite sex as such, just as it would be unnatural not to want good food – but unlike food, sex is not appropriate for everyone to “possess,” or even to have the desire for (in the strict sense of the word which we are using).
Loving the cheeseburger is a good and natural act. However, when the circumstances do not call for eating the cheeseburger there could be a problem if this passion is allowed to remain very long – rather, one should move the mind away to other things, like work or study or healthy recreation. (To deny this passion’s movement entirely is typically not healthy suppression but unhealthy repression, which can cause neurosis and possibly even despair, ending not infrequently in giving in to all manner of illicit pleasures. To acknowledge that one finds the lettuce or tomatoes of the cheeseburger to look delicious could be fine once in a while simply to relieve mental pressure which keeps pulling one away from other considerations and tasks; this acknowledgement might cause an accidental and momentary swelling of love and even could begin a movement of desire. Even though an accidental movement of desire would still be venial sin if delight is taken in it without deliberation, it would not seem to be a sin to indulge in this psychological release in cases of acute pressure unless done frequently or, of course, if done for the sake of arousing desire. This is my own view on the basic dynamic of suppression vis-à-vis repression… Take it for what it’s worth. There are better ways to avoid such temptations, which should be used more frequently… of course, I am not talking about cheeseburgers.) When one starts actively “desiring” (not simply “loving”) an object of an act which is not allowed (and in this case, feeling that desire by an inclination towards an individual instance of that act), that passion needs to be suppressed or fought against somehow immediately, often by distraction, such as moving around, a short prayer, etc. When desire begins, one is already in venial sin. (See my other post on practical chastity here.) To be sure, the line between love and desire is a bit blurry, though love is mostly felt in higher parts of the body like the head and chest, while desire has a lower “center of gravity,” more around the stomach. Whatever the case, the motion of desire, which already contains a kind of “pre-delight,” can itself become the object of “delight,” namely, when one enjoys the feeling of anticipation of the exterior act, often by imagining the act or simulating it in some way.
St. Thomas calls this pleasant and deliberate attention to anticipation “morose delectation.” (See Articles 6, 7, and 8 – they are complex.) It’s one thing to take delight in the thought of a sin (a kind of “curiosity”), it’s another to delight in the sin which one is thinking of. Deliberately enjoying the “desire” for a sin is itself convertible with the commission of the sin which is being virtually enjoyed. Such a thought, to be clear, has to have been chosen with sufficient deliberation, more than a split second or two, somewhat depending on the person – and if we are honest, one can generally determine the moment when one really has the freedom to choose… it’s the moment where one has gotten over the initial intrigue or shock of the pleasant thing and realizes that he could stop if he wanted to but freely decides to simulate the immoral act as a kind of virtual-reality playground, actually wanting to do this act despite really refraining from it for whatever reason. (This arguably even extends to the reason, “Because it is immoral,” as one then shows a kind of contempt for the Wisdom of God which has ordered things thus – we are bound to want to follow the moral law because it is actually good for us. But it is a bit dubious – and this is a more complex discussion.) And given enough time, one will have forfeited the excuse for not driving away desire in the first place even without positive deliberate consent, which reduces to morose delectation. This feeling is also distinct from the actual physical preparation of the body, which means morose delectation is not the same as autoeroticism – though clearly, the one can lead to the other. It seems important also that the anticipation must be of a concrete or determinate exterior act, even if virtual (“not really going to happen”), and it needs to be considered without circumstances which would excuse the action (viz., being married to this individual). While St. Thomas balks on a strong position on morose delectation of mortal sin as being mortal sin itself (stating merely that it is the more common opinion and is more likely than not), with the distinction of determinacy and proximity to circumstance, we begin to see how to solve the puzzle. The more concrete the action is which one desires (i.e. “to go home with this person right now, and … etc.”), and the less one is concerned with remotely achievable circumstances (viz., marriage, which consideration will both quickly melt away and would not excuse from venial sin anyway), the more likely it is to be mortal sin, because the latter is more tied to the passion of desire inclined toward a real act which is (or would be) mortal sin. So, the average “impure thought” is venial sin, even if dwelt upon (barring the advertence to the danger of slipping further – which does need to be considered in a moral evaluation), as long as there is not desire which develops and then is deliberately taken pleasure in. That is my take, at least.
If you wanted a simple explanation, there really isn’t one. The passions are not simple things. But, as close to a shortcut as you can get might be to say that mere desire to sin, without deliberation, is “to want to sin,” while deliberately enjoying that desire to sin is “to want to want to sin,” and just enjoying thinking of something which would be a sin on account of its illicit pleasures is “to want to think about sin.” The first is venial, the second is mortal if it has a concrete goal and venial if it does not, the third is venial.
TL;DR: wanting sex in general is natural and good unless dwelt on too much, feeling the pleasure of anticipation of a real and illicit sexual act is venial sin, and deliberately enjoying that feeling of anticipation, especially including by simulating sexual activity, is mortal sin.
In the next post, we will explore the second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.
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In my recent post on introducing Canon 915, I had hoped to help bring some clarity to the discussion about “worthiness,” Holy Communion, and political life. Evidently, the Bishop of San Diego is not reading my blog. So, it is time for a pop quiz. See if you can spot what is wrong with this introductory paragraph in the Bishop’s May 5th article for America Magazine.
“In the six months since the 2020 election, a growing movement has emerged in the church in the United States that calls upon the bishops of our nation to publicly exclude President Joseph R. Biden and other Catholic public officials from the Eucharist. Those who support this action make a concise, three-part argument: The president supports positions on abortion that clearly depart from the teaching of the church on an extremely grave moral issue; the long tradition of the church requires personal worthiness to receive the Eucharist; and the persistent rejection of clear Catholic teaching extinguishes that worthiness.”
One might make a number of observations about this paragraph (and the rest of the article, which is overall a fine example of a bad argument made well), but there is a singularly fatal defect in these opening lines. It is not so much what is said but rather what is not said (and which is never mentioned in the article). What is it? What is the key principle that is lacking which sets up the rest of the Bishop’s case against what he calls a “theology of unworthiness”?
The answer is that Canon 915, which is the hinge of the whole discussion, is not a law binding recipients of Holy Communion in relation to personal worthiness, as is implied by the Bishop (who never actually mentions canon law at all, oddly enough) and which is even believed by many well-intentioned “conservative” clergy and laity. Rather, Canon 915 is a law which binds the minister of Holy Communion in relation to the possibility of giving scandal, in this case, a scandal of imitation. If a Catholic who publicly and obstinately supports or tolerates in principle the murder of innocent children can receive Holy Communion, onlookers can and eventually will infer that such support or toleration is not at odds with what is required of a disciple of the Lord, thus becoming liable to take up such behavior themselves. (And yes, this certainly would and should extend to other obstinate public support or habitual commission of grave intrinsic evils… even some kinds of racism!) The minister of Holy Communion then becomes a teacher of bad morals in the very act of distributing the Sacrament.
THIS IS THE BASIC PROBLEM. NOT PERSONAL WORTHINESS. Personal worthiness is the purview of Canon 916, and it involves a separate discussion.
Furthermore, there is a universal legal code the Church has which tells us all of this when read in its proper context in light of the interpretive tradition that accompanies it. So why there would ever be a need for a “national policy” on such things is, frankly, beyond me. We profess belief in a universal/catholic Church, not in a collection of national Churches. There is already a world-wide “policy” which is simply being misunderstood or ignored.
Not 100% of the issue could be solved by turning attention to what the law actually says… but it would definitely be a good start.
Naturally, being a moralist who is active in western society, I have encountered and thought a lot about various arguments in favor of the “pro-choice” position. Summarizing all of the arguments, we find that there are really only four; while they can be mixed together, they are nonetheless discernible in basically every argument ever made in favor of the “right” to have an abortion, or that abortion is morally acceptable. And yes, they are each erroneous. Let’s go through them: they are the physical (or biological) error, the metaphysical error, the ethical error, and the metaethical error.
The Physical Error
The first error is that the fetus is not a distinct living organism. Any biologist can debunk this. If the fetus is not a distinct living organism, there is no such thing. It is true that there is a physical connection through the umbilical cord, but first of all, the zygote pre-existed this stage, and second of all, we acknowledge that the cord actually connects two organisms, each of which exhibit the standard signs of biological life: homeostasis, cellular organization, metabolism, reproductive capacity (actual in the zygotic phase when asexual reproduction can occur, potential in the fetal stage as sexual reproduction), response to stimuli, growth, heredity… There is simply no argument to be made here. The advocate of abortion who is taken by this error would be forced to admit that a pregnant woman has eight limbs, two heads, and maybe male reproductive organs, which she then ceases to have upon delivering a child. There is no point in arguing with someone who will not budge on this. However, if we say this is a distinct living organism, we admit that to abort it is to kill it.
The Metaphysical Error
The second error is that the distinct living organism is not a human (or a person). The advocate will say that eventually the organism will become a human, based on certain actions or activated capacities – cognition (but usually excluding sleepers, for reasons inexplicable), self-reliance (of a high-level, let it be noted), capacity to be a productive member of society (whatever that means)… These are signs of humanity, it is true. However, to say that these are constitutive of humanity is quite problematic. First of all, most would agree that we are human beings, not human doings – that is to say, we can do human things because we are actually humans first. (Agere sequitur esse, as the axiom goes – action follows being.) Second, if we define humanity based on certain kinds of actions, we must ask, why is it these actions which are characteristics of humanity and not other actions? And why should it be actions at all? Why not “traits,” like race or sex or eye color? Of course, some do in fact say that something as arbitrary as “3 months” or “being outside the womb” in fact turns the very same living organism into a human being. Plenty will say that it is a “capacity to feel pain,” sometimes mixed with “capacity for memory,” which typically ignores folks with congenital analgesia – the chronic inability to feel pain – and is also simply based on the emotional discomfort coming from an empathetic impulse. Strange… We can see the problem – once we detach the definition of humanity from “being,” as a substance, we are left with arbitrary values leading to arbitrary norms. (A substance is that which is not predicated of another – we do not say “human” of anything, but we do say “cognition” or “race” of a human.) So, to the point: it is the same being (the same living organism!) which is thinking and feeling and “self-relying” that is growing in the womb. What changes are traits and actions – size, strength, organ development, mental activity, mobility, etc. The “being” does not change – it is the same substance. It is a human being who is simply not doing the most human-like things at this moment. This error is the most prevalent and most difficult to get one to see the problems of. But if we admit the metaphysical reality of humanity in the fetus, we are forced to conclude that aborting the fetus is murder.
The Ethical Error
The third error – and perhaps the most repulsive – is that one is never bound to suffer for another individual human being. We’ve shown that biology says that the fetus is not “my body,” but why not still have “my choice” despite that? “So, it is a human being, who cares? This person is inconvenient for my life.” Well, it could be true. However, if a mother is not bound to suffer for her own child, and, what is more, in the precise way that the woman exists as such, namely, to generate life and gestate that life within herself, one could hardly ever be bound to suffer for another. This seems to eliminate all moral responsibility of any kind, or it at least comes very close. In the case that the advocate bites this bullet, he is simply a terrible person and is unlikely to be persuaded by anything one can say. The problem with the ethical error is grasped intuitively by most – this error is therefore quite rare in its pure form. It does show up in weaker forms, however, in the context of diminishing the humanity of the fetus, as described above. It is much easier to argue that one is not obliged to suffer for a pre-human than for a human…
The Metaethical Error
The final error is the rejection of the possibility of real moral obligations altogether. (“Metaethics” is the branch of ethics which asks or studies “what do we mean by ‘ethics’ in the first place?”) The error here is to relegate all ethical norms to the dictates of individual wills (namely, one’s own, or perhaps the “will of the people/government”). The only question then is about strategy – how to get what you want. Plato’s famous thought experiment in the Republic addresses this head-on… The one who wears the Ring of Gyges could get away with anything (yes – exactly like the One Ring to rule them all). Do moral laws really apply to such a person when he is wearing the ring? Let’s say yes, it is still “good” to follow the moral law. Then we can ask with Nietzsche, “Why be good?” The entire meaning of morality collapses in on itself. “Autonomous” morality is no morality at all. This includes every kind of utilitarianism and consequentialism in the strict sense. Who gets to determine what counts as “utility”? And how would we even know how to reach maximum utility anyway? These are the first problems. (Consequentialism is worth its own post.) At the end of the day, we are left with one’s own values being imposed on others, with nothing to do but play power games to achieve what makes us feel warm and fuzzy by making “contracts” and playing nice. And the unborn are powerless.
These four arguments can be combined in various ways. But they are always there. For example, the famous “violinist” example of Thomson commits the ethical error indirectly. Perhaps we don’t have to suffer for a famous violinist who is artificially connected with our body – but a mother does have to suffer for her own child who is naturally connected with her body by the very fact of womanhood’s intrinsic order, namely, generation of new life within the body.
The point of ethics is not merely avoiding wrongdoing, it is fundamentally about achieving happiness through flourishing – which entails the faculties of human nature striving moderately in accord with the order of reason toward their proper ends. Killing innocent children does not lead to such flourishing, as we are intrinsically ordered towards life in community in a common pursuit of the truth – it is one of the primordial precepts of the natural law. Abortion is immoral, and it will never make a person truly happy. And we see this validated by the fact that so few parents regret having any of their children, while the opposite claim does not hold.
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If you haven’t heard by now, the Jesuit-run magazine America ran an article in praise of Communism (and a rather weak defense of its publication). There have been plenty of decent reactions. Being a fledgling scholar of socialist and Communist thought, here is a bit of what I’ve learned during the past few months in my deep dive into that world which could help the discussion… I welcome any corrections or criticisms in the comments.
If Marx were alive today, he would recognize no country on Earth as having achieved Communism. He would likewise recognize no major political party as Communist upon close inspection, including those which describe themselves as such. Any country with a “state,” with private property, with wage labor, or even simply with currency, would not qualify as Communist. And any party which is not explicitly – and sincerely – working toward this goal would not be truly Communist in the classical sense. Opportunistic power-grabs which use the language of Communism and impose an indefinite program of state-capitalism through authoritarian collectivization, whatever they are, are not what Marx had in mind. It could and should be argued that any kind of large-scale collectivization and planning is doomed (see Hayek), that Marx left some troubling ambiguities about the process of socialization and its final product (especially regarding the usage of words like “socialization” and “state”) which is in part what opens the door to such misunderstandings or willful manipulations on the part of his early disciples, and that the foundations of Marx’s economic diagnoses were flawed (they were)… But what he cannot be fairly charged with is designing what is popularly thought of as “Communism.” Instead, what he must be charged with is proposing something which is not reachable or is not worth trying to reach, either due to what must happen to get there, or due to the goal’s intrinsic undesirability.
No serious economist today is a classical Marxist, if for no other reason than that several prophecies of Marx’s did not come to pass. The middle class did not disappear. The age of the factory came and went without the revolution, and the revolution does not seem in sight anymore. The increased aggregation of capital has not tended to yield perpetual decreases in profit margins. This is to leave aside all theoretical questions about Marx’s version of the “labor theory of value,” which is integral to his moral critique of capitalism as being exploitative in itself, in addition to his scientific or deterministic predictions which rely on his labor theory of value. So all of this calls into question the legitimacy of the project, at least as expressed by its chief proponent.
That project’s historical foundations are deeply at odds with Christianity in their basic philosophical and anthropological commitments. The dialectical materialism of the classical Communists sets up human nature in place of Hegel’s evolving God (a theory enunciated first by Feuerbach)… Through various stages of mass economic development and conflict, humanity evolves to a perfect state. This process is altogether unavoidable (“scientific,” not “utopian”), and it ends with Communism. There countless problems with this from a Christian point of view; and ironically, the atheistic determinism, violent tactics, and Pelagian ethos rob Communist life of its possibility; that possibility is best actualized in religious life, where the wall primarily prevents one from getting in, not getting out, and where the love of a transcendent God Who heals an otherwise stable and broken human nature animates all work. This should give us real pause.
If there had been a successful global Communist revolution near the end of the 19th century as had been predicted by so many, we can assume safely that the age of innovation was over. The “glut” of capitalist production was seen as overwhelming at the time… We had everything we needed to relax and enjoy life, at last! And since innovation would no longer be rewarded by the accrual of wealth, it stands to reason that it would have been either only for the sake of making work easier (not necessarily more productive, but easier), altruism, or it would be done on accident. Consider what things we take for granted today that were not yet invented or mass-produced in the 1890’s. We would have been essentially stuck in that age had the revolution happened and innovation effectively ceased. What great innovations that otherwise await in the future would a successful revolution destroy today?
Socialization is a matter of degrees. I take this from an analogous insight offered indirectly by Ludwig Von Mises (in his masterwork on socialism, online for free here, along with tons of other Austrian-school economics books and articles) regarding democracy: in some sense, every state is democratic, insofar as a sufficient number of people are sufficiently satisfied with the prevailing state of affairs such that it continues. Put another way, enough people choose with enough commitment to go along with what is the established order of society so that a new order is not established. Incremental changes might happen even outside of a “formal” democratic structure or means (viz., voting on a ballot). Likewise, socialization exists insofar as property is under the control of the community. All kinds of ways exist for controlling “private property” and “private production” through the government or some other organ of the community. The question then is not whether to socialize property or the means of production, it is whether to increase or decrease the strength or directness or scope of the socialization which already exists (and which informs the society’s understanding of ownership and the private sector). This is an important hermeneutic when giving any critique of “socialism”; it is a complicated issue. Simple dismissals of “socialism” are therefore rightly met with equally simple counter-dismissals by those who know the history and contemporary literature. However, Communism, the highest form of socialization, is subject to special critiques insofar as challenges to socialism’s status as desirable, achievable, and sustainable are “turned up to eleven” when discussing socialism’s perfected form.
The scope of the authentic Communist movement today is very limited. The SPD’s Godesberg Program could probably be used as a singular indication of the global shift away from revolutionary Communism toward a milder and less-defined “socialism”; Marx and Engels were quite involved in the affairs of the SPD early on, particularly in opposing the influence of Lassalle’s revisionism, such as we see in the Critique of the Gotha Program alluded to in the America article. That revisionism is radically exceeded in Godesberg, the spirit of which informs the global socialist movement of today much more than an entirely unrealistic call for pure Communism. Under this hyper-revisionism, most “serious” contemporary socialists work for a humane administration of governmental tools in a mixed economy (partly socialist, partly capitalist), and many of them further envision a high degree of democratic participation in the planning of this administration – but NOT full public or collectivized ownership of the basic means of production, the classical definition of socialism. One will find this theme explored at length in the final work of Michael Harrington (also alluded to in the article – who was apparently a “Catholic Worker,” and yet, though we are not told there, was also a committed atheist), and any number of recent books and articles on so-called “democratic socialism.” (Connected but somewhat distinct ideas are “market socialism” and “participatory economics.”) These positions are sometimes subtler than one might think, even if they all ultimately fall prey at least in part to the same pitfalls as more classical Marxist theories (which, by and large, they do in my estimation). Whatever the case, while the old encyclical condemnations remain relevant, those written before 1960 are not necessarily the slam-dunk cases against contemporary socialism that many people think them to be, as they are addressing a more classical version under old global conditions.
So there you have it. In sum, classical Communism is Heaven without God, earned through a large-scale, unavoidable, Hegelian-style revolution due to class conflict, and history teaches us that, despite Engels’ optimism that the revolution only might involve force, is always incredibly violent, whether directly through the killing fields and gulags, or indirectly through creating famine and destitution. Is this what the folks at America think is worthy of discussing seriously with openness? I hope not. If it is true that Communism has a “complicated relationship” with Catholicism – and it is, simply because both are complicated things – perhaps another journal is more fit to handle the discussion.
There is an article at LifeSite about a controversy boiling at Notre Dame. Apparently, a mother wrote a letter to the editor of the school paper to express shock at the sartorial inclinations of some women at the basilica on campus. The letter was published, and a sensitive nerve was touched. I want to take the opportunity to sketch out the debate and offer some thoughts about deeper issues involved. For the first part, I’m going to use the quaestio format of the Summa Theologica. (You can read St. Thomas’ own blistering critique of immodest clothing here, though he is mostly talking about over-dressing.) For the second, I am just going to ramble. Bear with me.
Whether it is a
sin for women to wear revealing clothing in public?
Objection 1. It seems it is not a sin. For the man who lusts after such a woman does so from his own volition which the woman does not control. Thus does Our Lord warn against adultery of the heart: “He who even thinks lustfully of a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) But there is no commission of adultery by mere outward appearance. Thus, it is only the man who sins by his lust, not the woman by her attire which attracts his desire.
Objection 2. Further, modesty is a cultural norm which changes according to the tides of custom, which is easily proved by the fact that in two different nations the same attire might be looked at altogether differently. Given that more traditional restrictions of dress are more serious and burdensome for women, it is in fact laudable that these customs be gradually changed to bring about a more equal standard of modesty for men and women.
Objection 3. Further, just as it is natural for a stone to fall to the earth, so too are human beings inclined to seek what is most natural to them and thereby satisfies their God-given desires. But restrictive dresscodes contradict this tendency toward goods such as comfort, self-esteem, and the like. Therefore, whatever feels most desirable in itself ought to be licit to wear.
On the contrary, It is written (1 Timothy 2:9): “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” Since the Apostle identifies immodest dress with women in particular, it seems it is especially incumbent upon women to adhere to a strict standard of modesty.
I answer that, Modesty in outward attire, in the sense we are speaking of it, seeks a middle-path between two extremes – repression and vulgarity.
On the one hand, to subject women habitually to the total covering of the entire body even including the face, is illicit for at least two reasons, even though it would remove the occasion of lust. First, it is necessary for women to be able to attract husbands through means of their appearance, which is altogether impossible by such an arrangement, leaving some other method to take the place of self-determination. Second, identification of one person among many is much easier without exorbitantly restrictive coverings, especially of the face, which makes the public life of women and the men who interact with them much more efficient. Thus, the complete repression of individual identity and bodily features through extensive covering is undesirable.
On the other hand, the more one reveals the body, the more one tends to increase the occasion to lust through vulgarity. Therefore, if one is to incur the risk of scandal being taken by one’s attire, namely, lust, some proportionate good to that risk must be gained. Where there is only small potential of scandal being taken, only light reasons are necessary to avoid sin, such as serious inconvenience, moderate discomfort due to heat, and so on; where there is large potential of scandal being taken, only the gravest of reasons will excuse, such as the risk of one’s life. The offense will be in proportion to the similitude between one’s necessity and the risk of scandal. Given that men are more easily drawn to women by appearance than women are to men, women are especially susceptible to this vice and should guard against it most closely, which also promotes the common good by requiring men to seek them for their virtue and honor. Thus it is written, “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of robes, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Peter 3:3-4) Therefore, to safeguard morals and common decency among the sexes, which are graver motives than mere pleasantries of comfort and convenience, errors ought to favor the more restrictive vice.
All of this is especially important in sacred places. As the Psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in holy attire.” (Psalm 69:6) For what is moderate in profane spaces becomes immoderate in sacred spaces due to a lack of fittingness with the outward worship of God which the space is specially consecrated to. Thus is it licit to throw darts in a pub, but it is not licit in an oratory. Likewise, dress in churches or other sacred places ought to be especially reverent and safe from occasioning sin, lest men be drawn to lower their eyes from the worship of God toward the delectation of a woman’s flesh.
Reply to Objection 1. It is also written, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it is better that a great millstone was hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42) The argument in favor of individual liberty holds to the degree of custom which reason has communally decided upon, and regarding which one should make errors on the side of safety, as said above.
Reply to Objection 2. Custom cannot eradicate concupiscence, nor can it change the greater proclivities of men to delight in the appearance of women than women do in the appearance of men. Therefore, while custom may be altered, human nature will not be altered and must be adverted to.
Reply to Objection 3. Outward attire exists primarily for three reasons. First, to protect against physical harm, such as from heat or cold or blows in battle. Second, to mark or distinguish ourselves among other people in society. Third, to protect against lust and shame, as it is written (Genesis 3:7): “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” Therefore, these considerations hold primacy of place in the reasonable choice of outward apparel, and only afterward can other motives be evaluated.
Now on to the rambling.
Notre Dame has been plagued with “Catholic identity” troubles over the past few years. Without repeating them all, I will simply point the reader’s attention to another recent story there which broke when a large number of students asked for content filters for their internet connections to help avoid “inappropriate” content. The administration balked, and now we are seeing a rather vile backlash over a concerned mother asking young girls to dress for church better than they dress for the gym – as if it is any wonder. There are hundreds and hundreds of comments under the main story, almost all of them deeply critical.
No doubt, many of the people screeching wild accusations of bad parenting at this poor concerned mother and proclaiming the virtue of individual liberties are the same people who complain about a “rape culture” on college campuses. While there is no demonstrable systemic toleration or support of verifiable rape in universities in the West – and thus no “rape culture” – there is what one might call a “culture of promiscuity.” This is the toleration and support of every kind of sexual activity, as long as it’s consensual (with a few arbitrary exceptions, like student-teacher relationships and incest). What to say then about the high amounts of regretful sex and he-said-she-said cases of assault? One might say that it’s almost as if a climate of loose sexual mores disposes people to make dumb sexual choices, whether by not avoiding bad situations or by crossing over nearly invisible lines in the heat of already sinful passion. While wearing this or that trashy piece of clothing in public is not immediately inducing assault, the broad acceptance of such things is part and parcel of the larger paradigm of just not giving a hoot about any kind of sexual activity short of what suffices to call the cops.
What you wear (or don’t wear) in public, it should be noted, is not consensual… You make others see you as you are without their consent. It is almost never a reasonable argument to say, “They can look away if they want.” The problem with revealing clothing is precisely that many people won’t want to look away but should for the good of their souls, and for the good of your relationship with them. Heard of the phrase, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have”? How about this: dress for the respect and real love you want, not the respect and real love you have. Those who already respect you and love you won’t care about your appearance – only new people will, who still have to be won over to a special valuation of your personhood. The better a person you are, the less you will have to compensate by flaunting your mere appearance. And if you aren’t a good person, get to work on that first.
A lot of people don’t think about this topic much for one of a few different reasons. First, they don’t understand sin in general. This is a common and large problem requiring more basic catechesis and evangelization. Second, they are so hardened by sins against chastity that they cannot even begin to see the problem with revealing a little skin. To them I say, I am sorry for you – it must be terrible to miss out on all the little joys of physicality which come along with modest courtship. (See Prof. Esolen’s wonderful article on that here.) Third, they are out of touch with how men and women actually relate with each other, both in general and in today’s particular circumstances, for whatever reason. These could even include well-meaning people who are sincerely trying to be holy but who just for the life of them can’t see why wearing skin-tight leggings to church is such a big deal. My advice to them is to accept that holiness sometimes involves giving up things that you don’t see the harm of, even if it’s simply because other people find your behavior to disturb their over-sensitive conscience. (See St. Paul’s discussion of abstaining from food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8.)
Whatever the case, there seems to be a need to address this topic more seriously at Catholic universities. Perhaps a standard chapel dress-code, for men and women, could be implemented… Or asking some of the more committed Mass-goers to step up their fashion-game to help other people see that the church is not a gym, a dance floor, or a couch… Especially at universities named after Mary, the Mother of God!
End of rant. I didn’t even get to discuss 1 Corinthians
My mind has been abuzz with economic theory lately. I’ve chosen to do my thesis on socialism, given the continual barrage of headlines about it back in the States.
It was with great interest then that I read an article at NCR about the proposal of one particular “fresh face” of the DNC about the so-called “living wage.” The author (no relation) gives a quick tour of the main encyclicals that touch on the problem, concluding that Catholics ought to be in favor of the “living wage” because it secures the right of the employee to live, so long as he is actually doing his fair share of work.
There is so much to unpack, some of which is hinted at in the NCR article. I just want to offer a few lines of inquiry… I’m happy to take critiques in the comments or through the contact tab. Maybe this economics novice is getting something egregiously wrong. (And no, disagreeing with the general idea of monetary policy doesn’t count… But I’m still happy to discuss Keynes and all that, and I have plenty to learn, so bring it on!)
If a worker is not making a living wage, how exactly is it that he continues to live? And if he can’t afford to secure his family, he is not only likely to be distracted and stressed while working, thus becoming less productive, but he will also not provide workers to the future workforce… Not enough money, fewer kids. This second point is part of the argument of Adam Smith at least, in The Wealth of Nations. It is actually usually in the best interests of employers to ensure that their employees are well-funded. His point about kids later entering the workforce may not be as evident an effect to employers in the mammoth economy of the USA, but in developing countries or even just small countries it is more clearly important. In the long-term, it is important in both large economies and in small ones… Just look at the panic in some corners of East Asia about declining birth rates: soon, there will be no workforce!
If the living wage is to be paid, who decides how much it is, and who enforces it? This is quite critical and calls attention to the principle of subsidiarity. Socialists of the American variety would typically argue it should be the federal government. (And off to the races we go with the “central planning” which Hayek warned about so ominously in The Road to Serfdom.) Maybe some would say the state government. Suppose we tried this – are the living expenses at all the same downtown as in uptown? In this neighborhood of downtown as that one? In the city or in the countryside? Etc., etc. No. So the smallest possible unit ought to decide, if there is to be a decision at all. Given the possibility of easy transit today, it is just not feasible for even the most proximate governments (i.e. the county, the city council, etc.) to make a good analysis that won’t inevitably leave many people stuck without the relative purchasing power that was desired for all, or won’t destroy jobs by making employment altogether too expensive to continue at the current quantity.
Taking for granted an appropriate determination of a living wage for some circumstance, what is the effect on the prices of goods? If we allow the market to continue untouched outside of wage-regulation, and wages go up, it seems quite obvious that, over time, prices will rise to match the augmentation of wages. So in the best case scenario, there is a fleeting moment of prosperity, and then we are back to normal. Best case. Worst case, all kinds of price ceilings are implemented to control the purchasing market, and we have set ourselves up for stagflation, where everybody loses. Production will plummet, jobs will be lost, and the money made from that “living wage” imposed from on high will become increasingly worthless.
Is it possible to exploit workers unfairly at all through low wages? This question is the natural rejoinder to the foregoing analysis, wherein I’ve implied that the market should basically be left to itself to decide wages. I return to Adam Smith: sometimes, employers hold the cards, mainly during times of economic bust, when there is low demand for workers. Other times, workers hold the cards, mainly during times of economic boom, when there is high demand for labor. Workers and employers should both be free to form natural unions among themselves to negotiate wages and terms of employment. Left to itself, the market tends to find the right spot which assures long-term stability to the economy, avoiding the pitfalls of monetary policy and other artificial constraints imposed by far-away bureaucratic geniuses. So, if a person is willing to work for a low wage, it is a fair market price. Given all this, it is still possible to take unfair advantage of a worker’s desperation for income. (Something similar would hold for lending at interest, but we won’t get into that discussion here.) While it’s true that a low wage is better than no wage, there is a virtue involved in the act of employing people which requires a basic level of care for the employee, which we might annex to “beneficence.” (Attached to this would be a duty not to employ too many people under one master… The “order of charity,” which I have discussed elsewhere, is another big problem with socialist thought.) However, we cannot legislate against all immorality. Even though exploiting workers through unjust wages is one of the four sins which cry to Heaven for vengeance, it does not seem that civil law is usually the appropriate measure to take, as it can have such terrible unintended consequences. Instead, employers need to be shown that it is in their best interest to treat workers well, and workers need to help each other by forming charitable organizations, stable families and neighborhoods, and so on. These measures will either alter the market price of labor, or the latter will at least help provide a safety-net for when times get tough. Finally, following MacIntyre’s lead, this whole discussion would be helped by jettisoning the language of “rights,” which inevitably contradict each other, and to speak instead about virtues.
At any rate, we cannot build Heaven on Earth by government fiat. The government playing deus ex machina with economics typically leads to disaster. A freer market will tend to be a healthier market in the long term, even though some people will abuse that freedom at the expense of others. Let’s leave the vengeance to God rather than wage-planning to bureaucrats.
It just came to my attention this evening that the CDF has issued a response to a dubium about special cases of hysterectomy. It will likely be a controversial document. Unfortunately, the current milieu in the curia has led to a general distrust of “official theology.” But despite the seeming laxity of the response, to me it seems correct.
HERE is the document, and HERE is the 1993 document it makes reference to.
Here is my first go at a written breakdown of the issue of the removal of a gravid uterus rendered permanently incapable of sustaining pregnancy to the point of fetal viability. If it seems a little rushed, it’s because it is a little rushed. Apologies in advance. And if you see that I’m missing something major, let me know in the comments. (But despite the current climate in moral theology, we should still gently err on the side of going along with the CDF, lest we fall into sinful temerity.)
First point: gestation is not part of the procreative faculty. The document does seem to use this language at one point (“no longer suitable for procreation”), but it is easy to explain this as an indirect or qualified use of the expression. There is no magisterial document teaching about this precise point about which I am aware, but it seems quite plain that procreation is the act of bringing a human being into existence through the reproductive organs. The object of gestation is a human being so conceived. Therefore, procreation occurs prior to gestation in the womb. (This also has ramifications for the licit treatment of frozen embryos, but we will not get into that debate here.) The procedure is aimed at the womb precisely insofar as it is an organ of gestation.
Second point: the subjective psychology of the act of hysterectomy has a definitive moral significance in this case. What one really desires to achieve by the action matters, and so provided that the principle of totality is respected (meaning a sum good is done to the human being), doing material damage, even directly causing the corruption of an organ that is part of a faculty one foresees using in some capacity later, is admissible, so long as the corruption of the faculty itself is not intended as such and no greater evil is occasioned outside of that substance (viz. the person being operated on).
Third and most important point: the procedure does sterilize the woman, but it is actually a choice in favor of preventing vain gestation rather than in favor of sterilization. If the sterility of this same woman is presumed upon in any future conjugal act, accidental material sterility becomes contraceptive sterility. (In other words, permanently sterile people must still retain a willful openness to the possibility of life in each sexual act, regardless of its actual possibility through natural means, and so too must procedures which happen to cause sterility be done only for non-sterilizing reasons if one is presuming to use his or her sexual faculty in the future.) If we presume that sterility is not a motivating factor in choosing to do the procedure, but is rather just a side-effect, we are left facing the question of implantation… To make this clearer, suppose a woman somehow discovers immediately that she has conceived. The embryo begins to travel toward her severely compromised uterus, where it may implant but will certainly not come anywhere close to term, dying after just 3 or 4 weeks. In the few hours she has, it is possible for her to have the procedure. (Perhaps this is the scenario which we can consider as paradigmatic, or else we are liable fall into the trap of turning the procedure into an act of contraceptive sterilization.) The hysterectomy will indeed prevent implantation, saving the woman some pain and suffering, but it will also cause the child’s life to be shortened by several weeks. The child himself is not positively or actively attacked, as in a salpingostomy or craniotomy, but rather he is prevented from reaching the temporary safety of the uterine wall by that organ’s removal; an action is done to the woman which causes an indirect abortion, such as might occur in a salpingectomy done in response to an ectopic pregnancy. It is then merely a case of weighing the goods, provided sufficient certitude has been reached about the condition of the womb and there is no possibility of saving the child by some other means (like an artificial womb). So, which is worth more – the possible few weeks of preborn life of the child, or the possible inconvenience of the mother, who will be mentally tortured the whole time about the impending doom of her child, in addition to other pains and expenses? It seems usually that the hysterectomy has the stronger case.
A final point for further consideration of this case… The foreseeable possibility of baptizing the preborn child could potentially change the moral decision. But because of the lack of a clear timeline for the child’s preborn death, among other possible medical complications, it does not seem evident that it should be high on the list of considerations. This issue also brings up other soteriological problems which are too much to explore here, so this will be it from me on this question for now.
Keep your eyes open for discussion on this text… Many are likely to see it as something that it is not. You heard it here first.
“Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”
The words of a wizened St. Augustine, reflecting on the prayer of his younger heart, are deeply insightful. They reveal us to ourselves, no doubt, and they give us a hint as to the path forward in our own journey towards sanctity: we must become chaste now. Not next week, not tomorrow, not this Lent, but right this very moment.
Where to start? Well, first it will be helpful to recognize that lust is a sin which must be faced by getting away from the delight toward which the passion moves. As St. Thomas says, some sins must be fled from due to the sweetness of their object, while some sins must be faced by meditation on the opposing good (like how the slothful person should consider the goodness of spiritual things and thus be more drawn to them). All this is to say, the first step on the road to chastity is to step away from the cliff. In other words, remove the occasion of sin, or at least make the occasion as weak as possible. Here are just a few suggestions to consider.
Put the computer by the window, or in a common area, or use some monitoring program.
Take cold showers.
Avoid “attractive” people who are off-limits.
If you must associate with such people, don’t drink alcohol around them.
When tempted to unchastity, pray a rosary, or sing a pious hymn, and then make a decision about whether you still want to sin… You are quite likely to be repulsed at the thought.
Go to bed tired, but more importantly, get out of bed when you wake up. No lazing around.
Purge your life from things which remind you of or move you toward unchastity… images, books, music, etc.
But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes the passion creeps up, and the fire burns, and you’ve done nothing to occasion it. Then what? Well, run away. And I mean this quite literally. You see, the urge to the preservation of the species (the sexual urge) is strong, but the urge to self-preservation is much greater. To put it another way, make yourself uncomfortable by some kind of ascesis – recovering from pain is much more urgent than the pursuit of pleasure. The body will work to get back to “equilibrium” before reaching for a further good.
Fasting. The old penitential manuals recommend it as well!
Some other acute (but minor) self-affliction, like holding your breath, biting your tongue, etc.
Beyond moderate ascetic practices, generally making yourself (ideally keeping yourself) busy is helpful. Even simply getting up and moving around can distract the body and mind enough to drive out temptation. On top of this, here are some more “spiritual” remedies…
Laughter. As an overflow of a delight of the rational soul into the senses, laughter is an extremely effective cure for lust.
Cultivating humility with respect to an off-limits “person of interest,” such as realizing that they almost certainly don’t have the same feelings for you and never will, and that they would be horrified if they knew your desires. Seeing as the entirety of the natural “social” pleasure annexed to carnal pleasure is derived from the ego, this can be huge.
Frequenting the Sacraments, especially confession, addressing struggles openly and with special resolution to amend your life in this regard.
Prayer, especially placing yourself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, even in an urgent moment of temptation.
Resisting despair. One of the “daughters” of lust is a deadening of any desire for spiritual goods (which can become full-blown acedia in addition to serious violations of the 6th Commandment). The pursuit of chastity can also be very difficult, and therefore frustrating. This means that hope, as both the desire for the good of Heaven and the trust that the necessary help will be given to reach it, is a fundamental enemy of lust, and it should be cultivated through prayer, spiritual reading, healthy friendships, and an unwavering confidence in God’s mercy and desire to satisfy those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. We’ve looked at homosexual cliques and various kinds of cover-ups. Now we turn to the Second Book of Samuel to do some psychology.
2 Samuel 13
In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David. [Incest is wrong, in part, because a general allowance for it would cause such intense love so as to blind the lover – and the beloved would be too frequently present. And how blinded Amnon becomes.]
2 Amnon became so obsessed with his sister Tamar that he made himself ill. [The exterior illness is a sign of the interior illness. His repressed feelings, which have not been dealt with by appropriate counsel and prayer, physically hurt him. How will this tension be resolved? We shall see…] She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her. [Like the average creep, Amnon is a secret admirer, held back only by societal expectations. Unlike the average creep, his desire is for something particularly wrong in itself – relations with his half-sister. What does the perverse aspect of his obsession do but tend toward guaranteeing its severity? After all, perversion doesn’t usually “stick” with people who only dabble with it… They go “all in,” so that it might become normalized in their mind.]
3 Now Amnon had an adviser named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man. [As many therapists are, no doubt. But many times, therapists are sought when only God and His grace will suffice.]4 He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?”
Amnon said to him, “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.” [Confession of such deep, dark secrets can attach a person to the therapist. It creates an inordinate trust… Unless one is confessing to God, that is! But now, Amnon is in Jonadab’s hands.]
5 “Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said. “When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’”
6 So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.”
7 David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.”8 So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it.9 Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.
“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him.10 Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom.11 But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.” [An appropriate intimate social situation – which is reminiscent, we should notice, of the Mass, despite clear differences – is distorted and turned into an inappropriate sexual intimacy through a violent exploitation of the victim… Does this sound familiar?]
12 “No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing.13 What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.”14 But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her. [Tamar is the precursor to such saints as Maria Goretti – she is not only concerned for herself, but she is also concerned about the sin of the rapist and the glory of God in Israel, even going so far as to offer marriage as an alternative to this immediate gratification. She is a paragon of feminine holiness. Amnon’s desire is surely due in part to such devotion – and that goodness has been twisted in his mind from something to be enjoyed through spiritual friendship into a mere source of carnal and egoistic pleasure. The exertion of himself over Tamar is a pathetic and disordered attempt to revel in her own goodness and innocence.]
15 Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!” [Tamar’s presence now represents Amnon’s egregious sin to him. His fleeting pleasure has passed, and now he is faced with the shame he has brought upon her and himself – and he cannot deal with shame upon himself through repentance, so he becomes zealous for “appropriate separation,” shall we say. Those who wonder how a certain former cardinal could have led the charge against sex abuse – while working to make sure that bishops themselves were not included as being held accountable – can perhaps find here a similar psychological phenomenon at play.]
16 “No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”
But he refused to listen to her.17 He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.”18 So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore.19 Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went. [Here is a great symbol for victims of abuse, no doubt.]
20 Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.
21 When King David heard all this, he was furious.22 And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar. [There is perhaps excuse for delayed action, as this all happens within the same family… Whatever the case, the analogy fails with clergy, who are not closely united by flesh and blood but rather by common offices and mandates. The diocesan bishop does not take the place of King David – he does not let “brother priests” behave in this way – nor “brother bishops.”]
23 Two years later, when Absalom’s sheepshearers were at Baal Hazor near the border of Ephraim, he invited all the king’s sons to come there.24 Absalom went to the king and said, “Your servant has had shearers come. Will the king and his attendants please join me?”
25 “No, my son,” the king replied. “All of us should not go; we would only be a burden to you.” Although Absalom urged him, he still refused to go but gave him his blessing.
26 Then Absalom said, “If not, please let my brother Amnon come with us.”
The king asked him, “Why should he go with you?”27 But Absalom urged him, so he sent with him Amnon and the rest of the king’s sons.
28 Absalom ordered his men, “Listen! When Amnon is in high spirits from drinking wine and I say to you, ‘Strike Amnon down,’ then kill him. Don’t be afraid. Haven’t I given you this order? Be strong and brave.”29 So Absalom’s men did to Amnon what Absalom had ordered. Then all the king’s sons got up, mounted their mules and fled. [Things ultimately do not end well for Amnon, who never repented, it seems, but rather presumed to be in good standing with his brother, going for cocktails after not speaking with him for two years. And yet, should we think that Absalom’s tactics were justified? He took justice into his own hands and murdered his brother – a member of the royal house.]
King David mourned for Amnon, and then Absalom ran away and eventually tried to usurp the throne, ending with his own dramatic death. Those who are overly zealous to stamp out evil among their brethren are indeed running a similar risk as Absalom – to retaliate rashly, occasioning the swelling of pride and presumption which ends with spiritual ruin.
Thus ends our little series on “Scripture and the Crisis.” If you enjoyed, please subscribe and share! I will soon begin a similar ongoing commentary on the Gospel readings throughout the week – not necessarily Sundays, but just the ones I find particularly appealing to write on, specifically for the sake of showcasing the kind of theology which I am hoping to help revive and advance… Stay tuned.