I’ve inherited from the library of a dear friend now deceased, Father J.J. MacDonald, a set of old textbooks from when he was a seminary student, circa 1950. We can tell something of the difference between our day and his from the language of the book I have before me now, Summa Theologiae Moralis, by Benedict Merkelbach, OP, which was translated from Dutch into Latin for use all over the world. Father J.J.’s marginal notes are to be found everywhere, in English and Latin; that too is remarkable. Most remarkable, though, is the unswerving realism of the author, the authors he cites, and the Church teachings he propounds.
It never occurs to Merkelbach that we should consult the feelings of usurers as to their usury, liars as to their lies, the irreligious as to their disdain for God, and fornicators as to their fun in bed. After all, most sins are accompanied by passion, and an evil man is not rendered harmless by his doing his evil with a will. Satan may whistle while he works; what of it? We need not go to Scripture to learn that passions can muddle the reason and cause us to do foolish or wicked things. We need only watch the madness of youth, or sit quietly in a room and be honest with ourselves for five seconds.
Nor does it occur to him to consult the opinions of highwaymen as to their robbery, monopolists as to their avarice, greasy politicians as to their graft, and sodomites as to their bituminous deeds. Every man on the verge of turning one bad deed into a habit becomes a moral philosopher, an advocate and a judge in his own case. Idiots and saints can fail to find cause to do the bad things they want to do; the rest of us are notably inventive in that regard, inventively blind. The world is what it is, and our deeds are what they are, but we will not see them, so we fashion for ourselves a fantasy world, where all the trees are green and the flowers in bloom, and all that I do for my pleasure is really, you know, perfectly harmless, indeed more than harmless, downright praiseworthy. There are Pharisees of vice as well as of virtue.
The reader will note that I have concluded my two lists of sins with the sexual. That’s not because I believe that sexual sins are worse than others. They are not; I accept Dante’s view, that if you are going to commit a deadly sin, the deadly sins between the sheets are less foul, less inhuman, than are the deadly sins you commit for money or power or hatred. That is like saying that dying of pneumonia is less horrible than dying of the bubonic plague; you are dead both ways. I’ve led up to the sexual sins because those happen to be the ones, right now, that are most celebrated, and that have made it nearly impossible for people to look at the reality right in front of their eyes. More: they have begun so thoroughly to corrupt our language and the thoughts that language enables, that we now dwell in a world of absurdity, wherein someone can say, without paroxysms of laughter, that a baby is “assigned” a gender at birth, or say, without being dragged away by men in white coats, that he can only be happy if he is mutilated, or say, without criminal charges, that she is having her son drugged to obstruct his natural masculine development, because he “really” is a girl.
It is a world of unreality, in which we pretend that a man can become married to another man, which he can no more do than he can marry a terrier, a hillside, himself, or a conic section. But reading the old book of moral theology is like a splash of cold, bracing water: Father Merkelbach appeals, again and again, to reality. For the God of Scripture is not an illusionist.
Take that sin of fornication. Against the notion that it is wrong merely because God has forbidden it, the author cites Thomas Aquinas:
Fornication simply understood is sexual congress . . . deprived of its natural order toward its end, that is, the raising of a child; rather it embraces a disorder that results in grave harm, not only for the child to be born from the act, but also to the common good and to human society, for many and most grievous are the evils that rush into it from the bad bringing-up of its members.
Fornication is a sin against the child and against society in general.
That’s because the raising of human offspring, what is owed to the child, requires a lasting society—matrimony. This is precisely what the fornicator denies, believing himself free to do as he chooses. He may leave his partner, refuse to acknowledge the child, not bother to care for him—or, these days, compel the child to endure a veritable chaos, a who’s who of shadowy relations passing into and out of his life.
The argument rests upon a couple of facts that we want not to see. The first is that sexual congress is the child-making thing. That’s what it does. The man’s seed enters the woman, where the egg awaits fertilization. We know more than Thomas knew about it, and pretend to know far less. We know that the union of each gamete (from the Greek gamein, to marry) produces a human being unlike any other who has ever lived. We know that the male bears, in his seed, the history of thousands and thousands of years of his ancestors before him, as does the female in the egg. We know that the information borne in the zygote is staggering in its breadth, complexity, and sheer quantity.
We know, as all people have always known, that the human person does more than float in time, as a fallen leaf floats down the river. We do more than remember by stimulus, as a dog remembers. We recall; we project; we reevaluate our past lives; we prepare for our children’s lives after we have gone; we are already dwelling in a state that partakes of both time and eternity. We admit as much by our fascination with genealogy. It is in our blood to care about our blood.
The child is that sort of being. It is irrational, it is an exercise in unreality, to pretend that such a being should be conceived in the aleatory union of fornication, and should then be made to grow up without who he is being nurtured in the haven of who his mother and father are, to him and to one another. It is a contemptible kind of robbery, stealing the past from a baby, sowing his present with disorder, and leaving his future no solid foundation to build upon.
But rather than own up to our failings and recover our sense of reality when it comes to the prolific act, the child-making thing, we have accepted one unreality after another. We must pretend that sexual dimorphism in man is mythical, and that the myth of a man trapped in a woman’s body is real—we must pretend not to notice that our myth is flatly contradicted by our denial of sexual dimorphism! It is as if we were simultaneously to claim descent from unicorns and to deny that unicorns exist: it is a madness without method, or its method is simply this, that we say what we say at the moment because we want what we want.
We must pretend not to observe anything about boys and girls, even though boyish habits are known all the world over, and girlish habits, the same, and so it has been for cultures in every climate and at every stage of technological development. You don’t have to live near a river to know Huck Finn. You needn’t have fought on the windy plains of Troy to have met Helen. So urgent has our denial of reality become, we drown out its claims by shaking the tambourines of the unreal, which we celebrate. A boy who shoots the rapids of puberty with his canoe intact and his oar held high—ready to enter manhood, to take a woman in marriage and have children by her, in the immemorial way of nature—he is lucky if he is merely ignored and not despised. But he would be held up for admiration by teachers and professors and actors and politicians and pelvic clergy if he were to dress as a girl, haunt their bathhouses, declare his intention to pump his body with estrogen, shack up with another male, and pay a poor woman in India to incubate a child for them.
I would like to coin a word, then, to describe our irrational rejection of plain reality. It has the virtue of alluding both to the body and to the way things are; to the material and the formal; it applies to the blade of grass and to the God who made it. Our English word be is cognate with Greek phuein, to bring into being, to grow. Hence I suggest that we are physiophobes: we are afraid of, or we detest, the way things are. We take no delight in the real. We do not revel in boys being boys and girls being girls, and their coming together in marriage, the real thing, to make children, real children.
Let those who believe in God be advised. You cannot long deny reality in one realm—the sexual—without becoming blind to it in other realms. Eventually you will slip from failing to recognize what is, to failing to hear the call of Him Who is. Clear your heads.
Anthony Esolen will join the faculty of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in the fall. He is the author of Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture and has translated Dante’s Divine Comedy.