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Prufrock, Peccology, Pessimism, and Paul Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 10 October 2011

Some years ago, I proposed to write a book: The Big Book of Sin: Being an Attempt to Separate Fact from Fiction about Human Error (and Including The Peccologist’s Dictionary). Very nineteenth-century, especially that coinage: peccology, from peccare, to sin, and –ology, of course. The scholar Ernest van den Haag scolded me: “You can’t put a Latin prefix with a Greek suffix!”

Anyway. . . .My agent couldn’t sell it. But I still have a box full of books, other references, and my own notes and such, and they haunt me. What I intended to do was principally an A-to-Z listing: from acedia to zoomorphism (cf., idolatry). I went looking – unsuccessfully (this was pre-Internet) – for English translations of medieval confessors’ manuals (summulae). Francis de Sales did one, although he’s a Renaissance figure. What I’d have found in such manuals, so the scholars tell me, is lots about sex. Plus ça change, eh?

More than once I’ve thought to revisit the idea. I recall what Msgr. Florence Cohalan told me about it: seven years to learn, seven years to reflect, and seven years to write. Now there’s a justification for writer’s block. But as I reflect upon it now (recognizing it would be much better done by a moral theologian), one thing is certain: the list of sins I’d developed wasn’t nearly long enough and my grasp of their pervasiveness and their illusiveness wasn’t very well developed.

Sin is everywhere, especially those sexual sins. I have had distinguished Catholics tell me they don’t consider masturbation to be a mortal sin, proving, perhaps, that darn few folks have read either Humanae Vitae or the Catechism. The fact is nothing is more degraded in modern life than sexuality, which has been sundered from its traditional associations with marriage and procreation, so much so that many (if not most) Catholics happily believe things are permissible that the Church never ceased to proclaim as prohibited – and not just outside of marriage, but inside too.

We are as a culture (and this probably includes all faiths) more “relaxed.” The headline on a story about a 2010 poll taken by the Irish Times reads:

Yes to gay marriage and premarital sex:
a nation strips off its conservative values
 
The Irish Times analysis suggests Ireland may have “cast off the shackles of Catholic guilt over sex,” and one can sense that behind such a clause is glee – a shrug at least. Folks are free to believe whatever they want. True enough to a point. And Sinéad O'Connor is free to be ordained a priest, and she’s surely not alone among the Irish in courting excommunication. But better that, apparently, than what the Irish jokingly refer to as “Rome Rule.”

And it’s no better here in North America. Thinking about this the other day it popped into my head: Nobody believes in sexual restraint.

I know: “nobody” is an exaggeration. There are devout believers for whom the current pageant of licentiousness is repulsive. But as I look and listen to Catholic acquaintances who feel free (and are free, after all) to speak their minds to me, even though they consider me not just “conservative” but also “judgmental,” I’m still waiting to hear just one say his or her life is a struggle to conform to Church teaching. Some are in open rebellion, others are deluded, and all are cheered by the fact that all their Catholic friends, save one, agree with them.


     T.S. Eliot, creator of J. Alfred Prufrock

Now and then I’m confronted with a direct question about masturbation or fornication  (“nice” or otherwise) or adultery or remarriage after divorce (same thing), and I quote G.K. Chesterton (this was to be the epigram for my book about sin): “Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even is everybody is wrong about it.”

My friends frown. We hardly ever get to the why.

Why not? There are many reasons. Your parish priest probably doesn’t say boo about sin. The idea of sin has been socialized and secularized: pollution and sexism are sins. And talking about sin is a real conversation stopper. So I’ve mostly stopped talking about either politics or sin: I’m tired of being in a room with ten people and being the only Roman Catholic classical liberal. (I won’t insist on that label: conservative will do.) I feel like J. Alfred Prufrock: S’io credesse che mia riposta fosse . . . I’m stifled by that yellow fog and smoke. If I believed what I say would matter . . .

It’s a bit of living hell to hear a divorced Catholic friend announce with joy her engagement and plans for a church wedding . . . and to be the one to tell her that it cannot be. And then, somehow, to be blamed for it. Does she imagine the pope would say different? For all I know she may find a priest who will.

I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
  So how should I presume
?

T.S. Eliot wrote The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in and around 1911 before he came home to Christianity, and the poem is filled with allusions (beginning with the opening quotation from Dante) to a vanished world of faith: Mr. Prufrock knows he’s lost, even suspects why, but can’t save himself. Neither, apparently, can many in 2011.

Am I to be St. Paul at the next cocktail party? O, Christ!

 
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. One of his books, The Compleat Gentleman, was published in a revised edition in 2009.
 
 
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Comments (13)Add Comment
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written by Martinkus, October 10, 2011
After telling relatives at a family get-together that our son, recently graduated from college, was in the midst of attending several weddings of his college friends, the general reaction ranged from surprise to disdain that people so young were getting married. It didn't occur to my relatives that these young people were Catholics who actually were choosing to express their love for each other according to Catholic morality. And these relatives go to Mass every Sunday! Notwithstanding the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the cafeteria remains open.
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written by Manfred, October 10, 2011
Brad: Thank you for a very interesting piece. Your references to writers and figures from literature to make your points always pique my interest.
For some time, both in TCT and in the Church, there has existed this dialogue on the dichotomy between the traditional v. the modern Church. Your piece today and Howard's The Spirit of Vatican II both give specific examples where the two religions(?)differ. Both sources of teaching cannot be true.
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written by Howard Kainz, October 10, 2011
The psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, in "Whatever Became of Sin?" traces the lack of consciousness of sin in recent generations to the change of attitude toward masturbation, which used to be considered a sin, but is now widely considered "normal."
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written by Jim Deken, October 10, 2011
Brad:

Thanks for writing that. I knew on some level that I wasn't the only one in that boat, but it's reassuring to have someone else actually stand up and say it out loud.

"If I believed what I say would matter . . ."
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written by Eddie, October 10, 2011
"Am I to be St. Paul at the next cocktail party?" Brad, of course you are. You know as well as I do that your knowledge, your faith, and your life are not your own...
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written by Michael, October 10, 2011
I studied Eliot's poem last year in an English literature class. Thank you for somehow managing incorporating it into this article.

In the poem, Prufrock seems unable to act or say or do anything whenever he's in the presence of his beloved. I guess in a similar way Catholics sometimes feel hesitant to call a spade a spade and to admonish someone who's blatantly committing a sin (even if admonishing and counseling someone not to sin is considered a spiritual work of mercy, if Catholics these days know what those are !!haha) Let the reform of the reform continue...
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written by Denverite, October 10, 2011
Therein may lay the rub - St. Paul was so rarely to be found at cocktail parties...

Excellent article! Mirrors much of my own sentiment and sorrow. I'll only add that my train of thought tends to arrive at a prayer for my ever deeper conversion - such that my life might be an ever more effective witness to faith, hope and charity. I continue to be, as you have put it, "struggling to conform my life to the teachings of the Church."

Thank you Mr. Miner.
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written by Andrew, October 10, 2011
I suppose, for the purist, you could talk about harmatology instead of peccology.
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written by Brad Miner, October 10, 2011
Andrew:
I thought about it (and even mentioned it in the proposal), but there were just too many familiar words and phrases (peccadillo, peccata mundi, etc.) not to stick with peccology.
-B
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written by Tony Esolen, October 10, 2011
I'm struck, when I read the medieval devotional literature -- like The Cloud of Unknowing, with its wonderful and humane prayer, "Sin! Sin! Sin! Help, help, help!" -- that the medievals were a lot more realistic about man's nature than we are, and that they held to a far higher standard of goodness than we do. Those things go together. If we lose the sense of sin, we lose also the sense of human excellence.
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written by Ben Horvath, October 11, 2011
Brad - as hard as it is to believe its likely that the people you know, despite the no doubt many credentials and accomplishments they have, are more completely ignorant of the basics of 'their faith' then a medieval peasant. Obviously this is despite having the ability to read, inexpensive books and stuff easily written down in the Catechism and elsewhere. By ignorant I mean they could not assent to any part of the creed (pick one) based on knowledge gained from study and prayer - real 'Catholic, day one' stuff.

While many baby boomers received catachesis as children, a lack of follow up over the years has dulled this for most, or at least they have not grown in the faith.

Younger people have not received any catachesis - trust me on this one. Take some crayons and draw a rainbow - that's the depth of knowledge and sophistication in the faith that we are talking about.

Older and younger people have both been cafateriarized by the 'Spirit of Vatican II' worshippers who seem to have so many jobs within the church (not just priests).

The important thing is not that people recite the right lines, it is that they know what they believe and accept or reject it. People can not have faith in someone or the One without knowing in whom they have put their faith.

I wish I could express myself better but here is the point in relation to your column: people will only live the moral life if they know Jesus, love Him and desire to follow Him on His road to the cross. Not knowing Christ will lead you on the road to the buffet table.
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written by Brad Miner, October 11, 2011
Ben,

I think you've expressed yourself well, and it got me thinking . . . I'm usually not given to such pronouncements, but I suspect the situation we're describing here is pretty much as Lewis explained it via Screwtape. Whatever Catholics (and other people of faith) may once have known about religious doctrine, demons never cease whispering in our ears: Don't worry about that, you're free to choose your own set of beliefs. God made us in His image, right?

It's the oldest sin of all — a lie as fresh as the day the Serpent first whispered it . . .
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written by Ben Horvath, October 11, 2011
Yes. Choosing your own beliefs is evil. Letting other people choose what you choose as your beliefs, which happens a lot nowadays, is just pathetic.

The goal of Christians must be to live holy lives after Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. This involves a positive process of disentangling ourselves from the traps of sin. Its positive rather than negative because avoiding sin which is poison to us is necessary to live or 'move towards' living the holy life.

When avoiding sin becomes more negative, like a taboo, it is nothing more than a social convention. Since our social conventions in America have become completely disassociated from enduring Christian doctrine (in other words, they are empty forms) people, as you've noted, will check the 'moral' box for the stuff they do, they'd like to do or that their friends do. Its sad to see so many Catholics who should know better trapped in this way of thinking.

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