The Catholic Thing
Polluting the Waters Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Monday, 19 September 2011

In my last essay, I showed one way Nice Fornicators hurt themselves: they lose the incomparable good of total and irrevocable self-donation to one person and one alone, before God and man – and not simply to one person after a series of half-gift, false marriage, and “commitment” with reservation.

Then it’s not hard to show how they harm everyone else, too. For they make it nearly impossible that anyone should ever again enjoy that good. They help to pollute the waters we all must drink.

It might help here to consider the widespread acceptance of a different vice – graft, let’s say. Now there are such things as Nice Grafters. One was mayor of Providence, RI for many years.

The Nice Grafter is not in politics for the money. He is genuinely concerned for the welfare of his city. He works hard to attract new businesses and tourism. He cleans up shabby neighborhoods. He uses all of his many contacts to get work done. And he skims some money for himself on the side. Not a great deal, mind you, because his first love is still the city.

On the whole, aside from the crime, he is an extraordinarily effective mayor. But by that crime he brings about, as far as it lies in him to do so, a culture of graft, wherein contractors will expect that bids are mere shows, and that who you know will weigh more heavily than what you can do.

The Nice Fornicators, as far as it lies in them to do so, bring about a culture of hedonism, which is by its nature antithetical to something as self-sacrificing as marriage. Yes, it is true that a determined and highly principled young man or woman can, even in such a culture, reach the altar still innocent. So too can a politician in a culture of graft slog and fight his way to the mayoralty.

The point, though, is that the exercise of a virtue that should be available to everyone – continence before marriage, or an ordinary honesty in political dealing – should not require heroism. Most people are not heroes. Most people are frail in one important way or another.

That’s why the army, for example, must cultivate so obvious and so strict a culture of obedience. Left to themselves, most soldiers would say, “I’d rather not storm that hill, thanks,” or “So what’s the big deal if the barracks is sloppy?” That’s not because they’re notably wicked. They aren’t. They are simply human, and frail.

If a young man solicits his sweetheart, the woman he’s been seeing for two weeks, for sexual intercourse, in the culture of Nice Fornication there are not many ways for her to reply if she doesn’t want to.

She may utter a flat ‘no’, and risk giving him the false impression that she’s not smitten with him. She may say, “Let’s wait a while,” kicking the can down the road a few yards, but also committing herself to giving in, and sooner rather than later.

She may say, “I believe we should wait until we’re married.” If he asks why, unless she’s deeply religious, she’ll be at a loss. If she is religious and she does explain why, he may not understand; after all, he has been raised in a culture of hedonism, and any religion that runs athwart that hedonism must be relegated to the realm of private preferences, like a quirky hobby, or an inexplicable habit.

But what if she is not a regular churchgoer? She feels that something is wrong, but her culture cannot tell her exactly what it is. She can’t retreat to common knowledge, saying, “It’s just wrong, and you know it,” or “Is that the kind of girl you think I am?” or “It hurts me that you put me in this position.”

We have taken away his expectation that an honorable man does not do that to a good woman, and her expectation that an honorable woman does not yield to such a request, and should expect better from the man she loves. The language has changed for everyone.

I’ve described one situation, but when the water is polluted, the sour slick doesn’t stay confined to one convenient spot. It spreads everywhere. A young man of natural modesty, who in a different age would have considered his sex as a holy gift to be given in marriage, finds his modesty checked or derided at every turn.

If he goes to a school “dance,” he watches his classmates simulate sex acts on the floor in view of everyone. If he goes to the drug store, his eye catches the magazines blaring their tips for “better” sex. When he checks his mail on the computer, he discovers messages inviting him into a world of pornography that is unspeakably vile.

He is attracted to girls; his body is like every boy’s, and his blood runs as red. How long do we expect him to hold out against the onslaught? After a while, will he even remember his tentativeness, his sense that there was something deeply and disturbingly wrong here?

No sin is Nice. But how often does man ignore the harm until it is too late?

Anthony Esolen 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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written by Dave, September 19, 2011
Thank you, Dr. Esolen, for a critically important article. We live in a pornographic age, to be sure: twenty and thirty years ago magazine ads and billboards were showing the effects of Nice Fornication; now television ads themselves are "nicely" indecent. The effect is clear: whereas before, the onslaught was directed against those who willingly bought the magazines, now the innocent are subjected to stylishly presented sleaze at the earliest ages and their innocence is corrupted: a very sad state of affairs.

A propos of this column, our parish priest yesterday preached that a recent poll shows American teenagers have virtually no sense of right and wrong: beyond the sense that violent crimes such as murder and rape are wrong -- though with little capacity to articulate as to why -- they have no sense that stealing, lying, etc. are wrong. Consider this too an effect of Nice Fornication.

The hope I hold to is a remark, whether in a sermon or a conversation I do not recall, by a priest friend of mine many years back, who said that when we go to Confession, our Lord restores innocence to our souls. Church history is full of rakes who converted and went on to live chaste, holy lives whether as celibates or married men, and of fallen women who recovered their virtue because of their love of Christ and because of his grace sacramentally administered. Indeed, as Confession restores innocence to the soul, it strengthen or re-establishes the theological virtues and the natural virtues too, making the peninent faithful, hopeful, loving, prudent, just, brave, and temperate.

What is wanting in our culture, and in the Church's general catechesis, is instruction in the beauties of the virtues, in the kind of strong lives that they create, and the ways and means of acquiring them. Such instruction, I am told, was widespread before the Second Vatican Council. It is still available, though harder to come by: one must know what to read and whom to seek. The classics of the Faith are still available, in print and on-line; and there are priests and some ecclesial organizations, too, dedicated to this apostolate. Pray God they remain faithful to their task, and pray He make us bright beacons of virtue and men and women whose hope shines forth as lights in the darkness -- for as the loss of virtue inevitably leads to the loss of hope, the acquisition of hope inevitably leads to an increase in virtue. There's no silver bullet here, but a deeper and more widely spread practice of Confession will lead to an increase in both.
written by Yezhov, September 19, 2011
You sure have succeeded in destroying my imagination!
written by Lee, September 19, 2011
It is certainly true that we should think seriously about the harm sin does. But I wonder whether the writer overestimates sin's effects and sin's "victories." After all, why would all of Heaven rejoice -- as Our Blessed Lord assures us it indeed does -- when just one sinner repents? This article could be read to suggest that Heaven should not rejoice in such a case at all, but should instead hold a grudge against the harm caused by that sinner while he was still sinning! If read in that way, the elder brother in the Prodigal Son would wholly concur with this article. I would respectfully suggest that one light is enough to extinguish the darkness, as any experiment with darkness and light at home will confirm. One who is pure and chaste -- particularly in this hedonistic age -- is a strikingly rare phenomenon that often instantly evokes intrigued curiosity at a minimum, if not outright admiration. The novel Quo Vadis illustrates this very impact at work. It's true that it could also evoke rejection or ridicule, but did not Our Lord say of such cases "Blessed art Thou"? Those who would fret over "losing" the "affections" of another if they are true to Christ and His Church have their priorities and values out of balance. Did not Our Lord assure us that if we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, everything else shall be added unto us? That our Heavenly Father knows our needs before we even ask and that we should not worry? These are admittedly hard things to do but they are the way we must walk. As Mother Teresa so beautifully phrased it, "God does not require me to be successful; but he does require me to be faithful." To be faithful is ultimately to be successful in the only realm that really counts.
written by Tony, September 20, 2011
Lee, you are correct. But you should reconsider what the word "scandal" means in the letters of Saint Paul. It denotes a stone or some other obstacle placed in the path of one's brother, something that may trip him up. We have an obligation, as far as in us lies, to bring about a society in which the cardinal virtues -- the natural and even pagan virtues -- can thrive. When the younger brother returns home in the parable, of course he is forgiven! But that does not mean that he has not in the meantime hurt many people. My sins have done so too. The closer we draw to the Lord, the more keenly we see that we are bound one to another. That has implications both for our good deeds and our sins.

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