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:
a nation strips off its conservative values
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!