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The Only Way to a Clean Heart

In a recent conversation, I said to someone that the introduction of the Pill into the relations between young men and women raised the sexual stakes to a precarious height. All the healthful and practical delays between a friendly greeting and a night in bed were swept aside. And neither sex knew any longer what to expect from the other.  The result, I have been saying for many years, is loneliness for everyone who does not play the game, and all kinds of moral and personal wreckage for those who do. And perhaps, in the end, an even deeper loneliness, involving a complete alienation from the opposite sex.

How could we have failed to see it coming?  How could Catholics, and theologians and philosophers in particular, have failed to see what pagans like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno the Stoic, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius saw, that setting up vice in fancy-dress would no more alter its effects than would sugar on a dish of poison?

My interlocutor was taken aback, and said that if the Pill had been available forty years before, the people then would have done the same things as the people later on did.  He wanted to suggest that my grandfather’s generation was just as weak, selfish, and rotten as was the generation that took the Pill.

I replied that we cannot judge people by what we guess they would have done, but only by what they did.  He admitted then that the oldsters were better about courtship, but they also smoked cigarettes in elevators with children present.  To which I might reply, “I’ll see you their cigarette smoke, and I’ll raise you our public obscenities, our sleazy entertainment, and our ubiquitous pornography, all with children present, and, for the first two, often encouraged to participate.”

We must make distinctions.  Human nature does not change.  The German people who became Nazis might have been pillars of the community had they grown up in another place and time; or any one of us, especially those among us with a taste for high-minded movements and scapegoating, common enough among mankind, might have become a Nazi.

But perhaps we are on surer ground if we say that the thought experiment makes little sense.  It is perhaps like wondering what you would be like if you were born as a member of the opposite sex.  That would involve your having a completely different body: but there is no “you” free-floating somewhere, apart from your body. 

I can imagine, or guess, what the already-existing person who I am might have done had I not taken a certain course at Princeton that changed my life, or had I not met my wife Debra, but even then, I feel I am on thin ice.  Maybe, when we guess what we would have done in a certain set of circumstances, we are basing the guess on what we have in fact done in circumstances that are similar.


For example, people who take delight right now in slandering others or in setting their words or actions in the most invidious light would then have made excellent informers; or, to take matters in a better way, people who right now assume that sex is for a committed and exclusive relationship, aimed toward permanence (as deeply deluded as they may be about what they are doing), would then have kept themselves chaste or continent before marriage.

Still, what we do, we do, and our actions become what we are.  John C. Calhoun treated his slaves in a kindly way, but he was still an owner of slaves, and that did more than leave a mark on his soul.  The sin ate into the soul and assimilated it to itself, and to such an intimate depth that when he was an old man Calhoun no longer felt any shame for owning slaves, but he set it down as a positive good.

I make no judgment as to his eternal disposition.  God is the judge.  But what we do see, we may declare.  Sin deforms, and sinning with what you feel is a clear conscience, as it seems Calhoun did, will deform you all the worse.  Thus the prostitute who wept before Jesus was healthier than was Simon the leper, sinning in his pride, with a conscience as clear as day.

Sin is to the soul as disease is to the body, but with a crucial difference that makes the sin more insidious.  The body may fight off disease by its own resources.  The soul cannot fight off sin that way.  That is, again, because the sin is more than an invader.  “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” cries Saint Paul, when he describes the plight of one who knows what the good is, and who even wishes to choose the good, but chooses the bad instead.

The plight of someone who no longer recognizes the good is worse still.  It should be clear that no effort of the soul can avail, because the dross of the sin is thoroughly mixed up with the ore.  There is no vantage from which the ore can drive out the dross; it is, for the soul, all one.  Only the operation of grace can avail, with the word of God that cleaves between the marrow and the bone.

Hence also the dire need to preach the truth.  We are not told that God will judge a fiction of ourselves under other, imaginary circumstances.  We are not told that he must save the same percentage of Nazi camp guards as of Amish carpenters.  We are all sinners, and all have fallen short of the glory of God.

We must turn to God and say, “A clean heart create in me,” a bold thing to ask, for the re-creation of one soul is a greater wonder than was the creation of the world.  We must not say, “Judge what I might have been,” but, “Forgive what I am, and make me new.”


*Image: Satan and Death with Sin Intervening [1] by Henry Fuseli, 1799-1800 [Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

You may also enjoy:

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s Understanding Mortal Sin [2]

Elizabeth A. Mitchell’s The Road of Merciful Love [3]

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.