The Catholic Thing
Of Prudes and Libertines Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 22 June 2011

During the Second World War, Peter Marshall, a brash young preacher at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, the toniest Protestant church in the nation’s capital, decided to let a newly married serviceman and his wife use a room on the church grounds for their wedding night. That brought some chagrin to a few of the elderly women in the congregation. It wasn’t proper, they said. Then Reverend Marshall had to deliver them a scorching sermon on the blessedness of married love.

I am thinking of that now because, whenever anyone says, “Those self-styled musicians on that cable channel should not be grabbing one another that way,” or, “Hotel chains should not be offering in-room pornography to boost their profits,” or, “Ten-year-old children should not be bullied into learning about sodomy,” the charge is simply, “You're a prude!”  I imagine that one of Nero's minions might have said more or less the same thing, should some lady of the senatorial class have bowed out of a public orgy.

What is meant, then, by “prude?” The easy answer is, “Someone who disapproves of something sexual that the people around him practice.” But that won’t do. The implied judgment is that the disapproval is evidence of a disordered personality. Prudishness, rightly understood, is a vice. Suppose a young man named Joseph, growing up in Nazi Germany, did all he could to avoid the company of enthusiastic members of the Hitler Youth. We would not then call him a snob. We would understand that there are objectively strong reasons for the avoidance. A man living among swindlers may earn their contempt if he pays his bills, but he should not earn ours.

The grumbling old ladies at the Presbyterian church were prudes because they could not look kindly upon something genuinely good, even blessed, because it had to do with sex. That prudishness of theirs may even have crossed the line and become Pharisaism. Most prudishness, though, is on the order of a pardonable deficiency in humor or good nature. Our bodies are not only beautiful. They are silly. There are times when we should honor their holiness, and there are times when we should be comfortable with the lumpy or skinny things they are.

        The Temptation (William Strang, 1899)

It’s good for a boy not to feel ashamed if two or three of his friends are jumping naked into the swimming hole. We enjoy the occasional merry joke at the expense of the body, and we’d feel that someone who did not appreciate the misdirected kiss in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” was missing out on one of the innocent spices of our social life.

The opposite of the prude, then, is not the cynical libertine. Indeed, there is a kind of convergence between those two. Neither one is given to mirth, and neither one appreciates what is holy. The first turns aside from things that are harmless, insisting that they are filthy, while the second turns to things that are filthy, insisting that they harmless. Neither one is capable of responding with amiable wisdom to the beauty of human sexuality, or with the natural hesitation of boys and girls before one another, or with the orientation towards the future that is implied in every instance of the marital act, whether the man and woman intend it or not.

Of the two, which is the worse? Another way to ask the question is, “Which of the two, the prude or the libertine, corrupts the more noble virtue, and to what degree does he corrupt it?” Then, it depends. Whenever spiritual pride is mingled into our vices – and there are libertines just as proud of their vice as some prudes are proud of theirs – then we are immediately in the realm of the diabolical. But short of that, I think we have to conclude that it is far worse to be the libertine. The prude errs in prudence – that is where the word comes from – while the libertine denies that there are any rules of prudence, or charity, or chastity, to be observed in sexual matters at all, so long as the sinners consent. 

We’re not talking here about people who fall prey to a temptation they recognize, but about people who have come to deny that there is anything to be tempted about in the first place. The difference is between someone who lies with a bad conscience, and someone who lies with no conscience; not the compromised, but the depraved. Change the object from sex to money, or political authority, or education, or military discipline. What kind of society could possibly be built upon the lawlessness of the libertine?

It is one of the crowning achievements of the evil counselors in our time to make prudes look good.

Anthony Esolen, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Manfred, June 22, 2011
An interesting column, Dr. Esolen, was it written recently?
The reason I ask is I do not believe I have met a prude in years. We await news whether there will be legal "same sex marriage" in NY and I thought that was where your column was going. I know you are a professor of English, but I confess that your column left me wanting more. It seems more generic than specifically Catholic.
written by Louise, June 22, 2011
Dear Dr. Esolen,

How wonderful to see you at TCT. I was wondering how long it would take. What kept you?

I still have in my bookmarks the first column by you that I read: "Victims Unseen", and I still send it out every now and then to people who need to hear it. Perhaps it could be reprinted here (barring copyright infringement, of course).

written by Lee Gilbert, June 22, 2011
Catholics and other Christians have been fleeing prudery for a long time now, with such success that many of our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews are libertines. "We don't smoke and we don't chew, and we don't go with girls who do. Our class won the Bible." This mocking lyric came from the graduating high school class of 1936.

For six decades now the television industry has been deliberately walking our morals down. How many times have we not thought of rising in righteous indignation and turning off the TV, but we did not want to be or to seem to be prudes. Besides the offending program was only slightly more racey or scandalous than the program the night before.

And so it goes, day after day. Now there is talk about the innocence of the fifties, but even if you listen to recordings of Jack Benny's radio programs in the 1940's, you will hear double entendres and allusions that we should never have sat through. We would not adhere to an absolute standard of purity. It would have been "prudish."

In an allocution on radio and televsion in 1949 Pope Pius XII quoted the pagan poet Juvenal, "Nothing impure in the home!" What would happen to the Sunday collection of the pastor who made that a theme of his homilies for the next year and seriously endeavored to pry the remote control from the hands of the fathers in his parish?

Nothing impure in the home? Not televised sports with their cheerleaders and salacious ads, not the Sunday paper with its materialism and sensuality, not the G rated dvds with their scatalogical humor?

We much prefer to be libertines.
written by Louise, June 22, 2011
Someone said, never take down a fence until you know why it was put up.

Maybe prudery is our fence and we just constructed it a little deeper into libertine territory than we needed to, but that's all right. They can stand to lose the territory between more than we can.. Given the choice, I would rather err on the prudish side.

You are right, Lee. There were a lot of double entendres in the '40s and '50s by comedians. However, in those days, nobody under 40 knew that they were double entendres.
written by Manfred, June 22, 2011
Perhaps Dr. Esolen and fellow readers can help me with a conundrum. I met at 4 PM today with a thirty year business client, Catholic, married, four children. He is a Eucharistic minister and right hand man in a one-priest parish. As I rose to leave I asked what he thought of the "marriage' proposal Gov. Cuomo is insisting on. He approves of "S.S.Marriage" He went to explain that the Church had to grow up, yadda, yadda. I took a phone pad from his desk and wrote"#2357 C.C.C." and told him to consult his 1992 Catechism. Is he a libertine and am I a prude? Your thoughts, please.
written by TeaPot562, June 22, 2011
The problem with jurisdictions establishing same sex marriage as a subject for civil rights and antidiscrimination treatment is the inevitability of lawsuits against any religious body that refuses to allow its physical facilities to be used for this purpose.
"Civil Unions" recognized by state & federal governments to handle issues such as inheritance, taxation and govt-provided benefits are not the problem. The govt deciding that it can override religious teachings about sin and evil is the problem - definitely a violation of the First Amendment.
written by ronthomski, June 22, 2011
A Protestant once told Fr. Groeschel, "if I believed that what you Catholics claim is the body of Christ were such, I would only enter a Catholic church on my knees." It often amazes me how Protestants have the good quality of seeing the implication of a belief. Catholics have no shortage of this inductive logic, even if at times it is occluded. If you really believe that a church is the house of God, then you would not give a room therein for a couple to use, married or not. In the middle ages, Catholics easily understood this. In homes and castles throughout Europe, private chapels possessing the right to reserve the Blessed Sacrament often butted outside the confines of the walls of the building like a bartizan or turret so that no person could be under or above the Blessed Sacrament having sex. That was the rationale for the chapel design, and it was not the result of prudishness, but rather Catholicity and the respect for God's presence that is logical and proper. The chapels were not so designed to prevent weaving yarn, peeling potatoes or picking your nose - rather the design was inconsideration of the proximity of the sexual act (the ceremonial law of Judaism, the forerunner of Christianity, is loaded with such prophylactic measures furthering respect for G-d). The marital act is not evil; it is good according to God's plan, but not all things good need be acted out in a church. Like American Constitutional analysis of the first amendment right to free speech, there are "time, place, and manner" considerations for what is proper in a church. A church is not the right place for the marital act. Nor is it the right place for peeling potatoes or picking your nose. That an act is morally good, or even morally neutral, does not mean it is proper to engage in such act in a church. Protestant "churches" do not have the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, nonetheless the Presbyterian ladies were on to something - they were in touch with basic human sensibilities regarding decorum vis-à-vis the house of God; in essence, they were in touch with Catholicism (and likely their pastor was not). As such, I do not fault them for their objection. BTW, Lee Gilbert and Louis are right on the money.
written by dymphna, June 23, 2011
Maybe the ladies at the church were unhappy to see their church being used as a hotel.
written by drustee, June 23, 2011
I have for some time felt that there is a link between those who insist that women should be covered with bulky denim and those who use pornography.

Both have an unhealthy approach to female beauty - one group fears it the other exploits it.

I take your point about the prude erring in prudence making it less objectionable.
written by Tony Esolen, June 23, 2011
I should have been more specific. The rooms in question were attached to the building, but were not what you would call "in the church" -- that is as I understand it. I will look it up tonight (though I have no internet access through the summer, and am replying from Canada at a local library).

I do wish people would go "behind" the SS marriage issue, first by insisting that it is an impossibility (as is marriage with a dog or a bedpost or a hyperbolic paraboloid or Vladivostok), and second by insisting that fornication is an evil. The only reason we are even talking about SS pseudogamy now is that we have bought the nonsense that fornication is harmless.

I'd say that prudery is a curdled form of modesty or what used to be called "shamefastness," which is a delicate (and these days rare) virtue. Prudery is to shamefastness as intransigence is to tenacity, or bluster is to affability; it's the vice that mimics the virtue. The virtue delights in what is good; the vice looks askance at what is good or at least innocent.
written by tsunamimommy, June 23, 2011
Anthony, you said a room on the Church grounds. I don't see what some are so upset was not the Church per se, but a room belonging to the Church. And it was during the War--shame on those ladies. As my grandmother would have said, they needed to mind their own business first.
Thank you for your article, I for one enjoyed reading it and hearing again the differene between virtue and vice--somethimes a finer line than we imagine, no?
written by Greg, June 24, 2011
Not only was it during the war, but Peter had just married them that day. The groom, who was being shipped overseas that day, wanted to provide for his (then) fiancee (through VA widow's pension) in the event of his demise overseas. As a fiancee of several years, she would get nothing. Aside from the natural human and sacred character of the marital embrace, consummation would ensure VA's response, which was otherwise doubtful. The room was in the pastor's business office attached to the church.
written by Louise, June 24, 2011
" it's the vice that mimics the virtue."

Thank you for that clarification, Dr. Esolen.

I looked up "shamefastness" in the "Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged", c 1966, published by Merriam that came with our set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1969). There was indeed an entry (shamefast) with the note [ME . . . more at SHAME, FAST}, but I couldn't fin any further reference--in or out of brackets.

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