Monday, July 28, 2008

Can there be any doubt at this late date?

“…a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner who he should surround with care and affection.”

— Pope Paul VI,
Humanæ Vitæ

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Sin of Presumption

I would like to begin with four examples:

• Wife-Mate used to work in an office with an older woman who was very “fashion conscious.” This woman was always buying clothes, wearing them once or twice, and then giving them away to her co-workers. She gave Wife-Mate things from time to time which she would accept politely and then never wear. Finally, after giving her a black scarf covered with perfectly hideous orange and tan polka-dots, she asked why Wife-Mate never wore any of the things she gave her.

Trying to be diplomatic, Wife-Mate answered, “I usually wear black.”

“But everything I’ve given you has black in it!”

It was only then that Wife-Mate explained that it wasn’t so much that she liked black, as that she hated being colorful.

• When we were first married I caused quite a number of spills in the refrigerator. I would reach over the things of the front of the shelf and grab something, like pickles, by the lid, lift it up, and then the lid would come loose and there would be pickle juice all over the shelf. Each time this would happen I would curse Wife-Mate for being too lazy to screw lids on properly as I cleaned up the mess.

Finally, one day, Wife-Mate asked me why I screwed on jar lids so tight that she could never get them loose.

• One dark winter evening about two years ago, I was leaving work. As I went up the stairs, I could see a young black fellow hanging around the front entrance to my building. He was probably trying to sneak into the building so I began to think through how I was going to get out the door without letting him in. I figured that I would open the door just a crack, slip out, and tell the fellow that he would have to be buzzed in by using the intercom. However, this fellow proved to be quite bold. As soon as I opened the door a crack, he yanked it right open and tried to bolt in before I could stop him. I was about to block him, when I realized that it was Barack Obama. He was there to see a political consultant whose offices were in my building.

• I go to anti-war protests as often as I can. Usually, in fact almost always, there are protestors with signs along the lines of “Keep Abortion Legal.” If you confront these people and ask them why they’re bringing abortion signs to an anti-war rally, they will usually answer something like, “The same people who got us into this war want to oppress us at home by taking our rights away!”

What’s going on here is a sin we don’t often think of: the sin of presumption. When we act on assumptions about other people’s intentions and motivations we fall into venal sin even if these assumptions are correct. Presumption is a sin against charity when we assume the worst of people and at this point becomes a mortal sin. This is a tricky situation, because we often need to act upon assumptions and are not in a position to discern the truth. Sure I tell my kids to keep away from strangers, and yeah my guard is up whenever I’m approached by young black men, because that’s the prudent thing to do. But it is also not the Christian thing to do. The best we can usually hope to do is to assume the best motivations for our friends, give the benefit of the doubt to strangers, question our stereotypes before we act upon them, talk things over whenever possible, and remember to confess this sin frequently.

POSTSCRIPT: A few years ago there was a peace march down State Street. Before we began, I confronted a woman about her “Keep Abortion Legal” sign and she called me a hypocrite for “.. pretending to be for human rights when you’re not against patriarchy!”

At that point I let it drop. But later two older black women who were walking down State Street pointed at the home-made sign I was carrying that said: “Christian morality cannot justify a war with Iraq!” — Pope Benedict XVI.

One of them came over to me and said, “I like your sign!”

So I pointed to the abortion sign and asked, “What do you think of that sign?”

She just made a nasty scowl and shook her head.

I guess I just presumed she would, huh?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Post-modern Vignette #1

When Ed Sullivan heard there was a nun who had gained some popularity singing in Brussels, he was on the next plane over. He brought back Janine Deckers, an actual Dominican nun known as Sœur Sourire (“Sister Smile”) who played folk guitar, sang in French, and got about Brussels on a motor-scooter. After appearing on the Sullivan Show, Sister Sourire’s “Dominique” became a hit-record, peaking on the pop charts at #1 during Christmas week of 1963. That year she won a Grammy award for “Best Gospel or Religious Recording” and later Debbie Reynolds portrayed her in a film biography.

But the same year the film was made, Deckers become disenchanted with religious life, leaving the Fichermont Convent (before having taken final vows) in October of 1966. Though she claimed to have donated all of her royalties to her convent, the Belgian government nonetheless held her liable for as much as $63,000- in back taxes. Now recording under her own name, Deckers tried vainly to duplicate her earlier success, producing such oddities as “Glory Be To God For The Golden Pill” and an updated electronic version of “Dominique” twenty years after the original.

Having faded into obscurity, Sister Sourire made headlines once again in March of 1985, when she was found dead of a massive overdose of barbiturates and alcohol in her modest apartment in Wavre, Belgium.

Anne Pecher, for twenty years the lesbian lover of Janine Deckers, was found with her.

Also dead from an immense quantity of goof-balls washed down with booze.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Janus Face of Marriage

The other day I was in the smallest room in the house, awaiting developments, and the only thing in the room to read was my oldest daughter’s magazine: Jane. I don’t know exactly what sort of magazine Jane is supposed to be, but I gathered that it’s for women who are less slutty and career oriented than those that read Cosmo, but looser and more materialistic than those who read Redbook. I flipped around looking for something that might hold my interest. As I am not interested in “coordinating my summer look,” nor in “break-up etiquette,” I finally settled on “tips for your wedding.” I got married once — that’s something I can relate to.

Of course it was all froth. All about dresses, caterers, snazzy new drinks you could serve (as if the cocktail was not perfected with the Rye Highball). Nothing about what sort of service one might have (Novus Ordo, Tridentine, or Sarum Rule), information about N.F.P., nor even a ringing denunciation of pastel tuxedos.

All of this lather was interlarded with quips “from real brides.” One of these was almost shocking in its physiognomic truth:

“Keep the dress on as long as possible. When you take the dress off, the magic day is over.”


This statement sums up so much of what I hear about marriage today. The overwhelming sentiment of new wives seems to be that they “feel trapped.” I hear it from my friends, read it in women’s magazines (though not girl’s magazines like Jane), listen as it is discussed by so-called experts on T.V,. Men too, complain about the effects of this, saying that their wife “isn’t the girl I married,” “isn’t fun anymore,” and in general has a vague discontent that cannot be addressed nor got rid of.

And why shouldn’t this be the case? Marriage is the end of something now. It is the end of freedom, and sexual variety, and having your own way. Instead of gaining a companion, women feel as if they have forever compromised themselves, must ever afterwards take into consideration the opinions of another, until the end of their days have to fight to preserve their autonomy as persons lest they be sucked into the trap of becoming a “dependent woman.” And they chafe at this. They hold back at the consummation of this commitment, delaying children sometimes for years after marriage. Finances, the real power in a capitalist society (and we are a capitalist, not patriarchal society), are kept strictly separated. Modern women keep their own names, as if “Jones” or “Williams” were more special than “Johnson” or “Weinberger”. They dedicate themselves to their work, as if these pathetic jobs constituted a “career.” [For the record: I have a job, my wife has a job, Plácido Domingo has a career.] Except for the indulgence of allowing themselves to become fat, very few women seem to find any tangible benefit to actually being married. If they marry reliable consorts, they lament that he is “boring,” yet if the fellow is creative and fun-loving, then they complain that he won’t “settle down.” If he tries to be the head of household, then he is “domineering” and this breeds resentment, yet if he concedes this role to her, then he is unworthy of her respect.

Am I painting a familiar picture?

But in times past, marriage was the beginning of something. It was the beginning of life’s two great adventures: sexuality and family formation. It was most definitely the end of innocence and the coming into a woman’s estate. Life — with all of it’s burdens, joys, tribulations, suffering, and satisfactions replaced the sweet innocence of youth where the worst mistake one might make would be to wear the same dress to prom as your rival.

Virginity is made fun of now as being a naïve affectation, and yet it had its rewards. Never, would the virgin bride be able to compare her husband to another lover as our modern bride undoubtedly does. (Men are even worse about this, as they crave variety in a way that women don’t.) Sex isn’t anything new on most wedding nights now, in fact it is usually something quite old by then. And, when it isn’t any better after the wedding, there is bound to be a sentimental disappointment. Marriage demands that your spouse be everything to you, but how can that be when he is simply one among many?

Of course, in the traditional Christian understanding of marriage as a life-long commitment, monogamy was not a trap, but a system for keeping the couple together. No relationship nor person is perfect, and even the most compatible couples are bound to quarrel from time to time, but you can’t stay mad at the only person in the whole world who can give you sexual bliss. Pretty soon, you have to make up, the sexual urge forces you to reconcile, and reconcile with a passion. Once love and commitment are dissociated from sex, then sex cannot force the reconciliations that every relationship must need from time to time.

Fortunately, there are still some bright spots out there. My friend Moira will be getting married in August. She rejoices that her husband will never have another woman to compare her with, that she will be all and everything to him. She has waited chastely for a long time and says this chastity has made her realize just how much she loves her betrothed. When I read to her the comment about the magic being gone when a bride takes off the dress, she just laughed out loud and said: “When I take off my dress — that’s when the magic begins!”

Monday, July 7, 2008

Why You Should Carry a Rosary: part 2

Four more reasons to carry a Rosary:

1] It is an effective façade when you need to be alone. Last Sunday I went to confession and had to do penance, so I went out on the front steps of the church, pulled out my Rosary, and began to pray. The prayers actually had nothing to do with the Rosary, I just knew that if I were fingering a Rosary and looking off into the distance, that no one would come up and bother me. I have found this to be very effective: pull out a Rosary and people will leave you alone. I often use the Rosary as a smoke-screen when I simply want to be left alone with my thoughts.

This doesn’t work with my little Bean-Girl however, as she will simply come up and say the Rosary with me.

2] It is a symbol of Catholic solidarity.
A few years ago, a local newspaper published a particularly nasty anti-Catholic cartoon and so the Blue Army organized a protest. There were about sixty of us gathered on the street opposite the paper’s offices, several speakers addressed us, and then we ended with the Rosary. Let me tell you that it felt really good to be able to pull out my everyday Rosary (a nasty pink plastic thing that has the crucifix re-attached with a safety-pin) and pray with them. Almost everyone had a Rosary too and I’ll bet the people that didn’t felt a little out of place, kind of like they’d dropped the ball.

When my daughter was stuck in traffic behind a car crash with Mrs. Hamilton, and Mrs. Hamilton pulled out her Rosary to pray for anyone who might have been hurt, Bean-Girl knew to pray along. And when traffic began moving again, Bean-Girl counted the decades on her fingers for Mrs. Hamilton.

And if, God forbid, I should be the poor fellow in that traffic accident some day, I trust that someone will find my Rosary in my pocket and know to call for a priest.

3] It offends the right people.
I know this is a bad reason, an uncharitable reason, perhaps even an un-Christian reason, but you and I both know that there is a certain kind of Catholic-hating Protestant out there who is really bugged by the Rosary. I live right by Moody Bible Institute and I often used to be approached by earnest young Evangelicals asking if I had made Jesus my “Personal Savior.” That stopped when I began taking my Rosary walks through their campus from time to time.

4] The Rosary as a Lullaby.
My sweet friend (and new mom) Maggie Lee left me a message about the Rosary and I think it’s worth repeating here:
Praying the rosary is so satisfying. And it will lull a baby to sleep after all else fails. I walked Michael up and down the floor many nights when we first came home and would say the Rosary after even the tried and true "Sh-boom" wouldn't get him to sleep.