From the Publisher: Seven Is Not Enough

To protest the wearing of furs by marching, not barefoot, but shod in the skin of animals may be taken as a symbol of our time. Cultists of nature are in full cry, and if they are unable to see the people for the trees, they have, as the mad often do, their reasons. Indeed, one might see in this celebration of the given, of nature, a degenerate form of the natural law tradition. “Man is born nude, but everywhere he is in clothes.” For the nudist there is something bogus about apparel, and life lived in bare bodkins, as it were, is the essence of life lived well. The real ecomaniac sees people as the problem. The solution is that we submit ourselves to nature.

It is not the appeal to nature that is wrong. What is needed is a consistent and coherent appeal to nature. Unborn humans are slaughtered daily while animal rights are passionately argued for. Plugs are pulled and suicide assisted with impunity at the same time that Special Olympics receive enthusiastic support. Homosexuals inveigh against the manifest point of genitalia while invoking their own nature as excuse for what they do. The Discovery Channel provides marvelous films of the purposive deeds of beast and bird, but if you mention teleology you will be accused of “creationism.” Of course, it is not always the same people who are on both sides of these dichotomies, but it is noteworthy that nature is increasingly, if somewhat murkily, invoked as guide to conduct.

The split between Fact and Value, Is and Ought, Nature and the Good, has long since seeped into the popular culture from the rarefied discussions of philosophers. At a time when it is a commonplace that one’s moral judgments have no basis in the way things are, the appeal to nature is at once odd and welcome. But one has to be clear how complicated an appeal it is. If it is natural for humans to be naked, it is also natural for humans to clothe themselves. Men are not born free, but helpless, unable to survive if they are not cared for by others. We can only survive if we are born into a family. The family is a natural institution, the most natural institution. If the family is in trouble, as we are daily told it is, it is because of confusion about nature. Any defense of the family as merely one lifestyle among others is worse than an attack.

All this is fanfare for some thoughts on my own family, prompted by an unusual Christmas gift. A former student of mine, Pat Guinan, has taken up bookmaking, by which I mean she sets type letter by letter, prints by hand-press, and binds the result. Oddly enough, in this age of desktop publishing, laser produced camera-ready copy, and the mushrooming of instant printing, there is a growing interest in the book as artifact, and at the University of Alabama a program trains students like Pat in these all but lost arts. Pat, who is also my goddaughter, asked if I had any manuscript I would like printed as a Christmas gift for my wife, and I chose my first published story, “The First Farewell,” which appeared 25 years ago in Redbook under the pen name Ernan Mackey.

I could go on about the result of Pat’s efforts: this lovingly produced little book was easily my wife’s favorite Christmas gift. As for myself, I was glad to see this story published at last under my own name and relieved that it seemed to have weathered well as a piece of fiction. Writing for the popular magazines, at first under pennames — Ernan Mackey, Harry Austin — was my apprenticeship as an author. The main prod to my imagination was life with Connie and our children. Thus, my first story was based on a quite real event. On a Fulbright Fellowship in Belgium, we enrolled our two oldest daughters, Cathy and Mary, in a pre-school conducted by the Soeurs de Marie in Louvain. Because it would appear pseudonymously, I used our real names, and this first story, like many others I wrote in the mid-1960s, now evokes for me the time when our children were growing up and the house teemed as it now does only on holidays and special occasions.

Only a short time ago, the family — mother, father, children — was a prominent and unquestioned feature of popular culture, fiction, television, movies. For Connie and me, as for all of our friends, save those with religious vocation, to marry and have children was an unquestioned purpose of being alive. It was the rule rather than the exception for faculty colleagues to have large families. To suggest that this was one of the baneful effects of the Church’s moral teaching on artificial contraception is libelous. A separation or divorce was as unthinkable as that a priest or nun would abandon his or her vocation. A pregnancy was a cause for rejoicing. We have seven children and did not think this a large number, nor was our family of unusual size in the Notre Dame community.

I doubt that one would now find in the popular magazines stories about families in the traditional sense, anymore than one does on television. During the last quarter of a century there has been a kind of campaign against the family, what is somewhat ominously called the nuclear family. The family is the natural institutionalization of sexuality, and things have gone bad for it because of the separation of sex from its purpose. The contraceptive society became the abortive society and is now on its way to becoming a society in which euthanasia and assisted suicide are commonplace. Religious belief has not sufficed to protect the family. The betrayal by our moral theologians, their rejection of Church teaching, has had its predictable effect. Catholics now seem as confused about the family as everyone else, regarding it as one of several possible “sexual orientations.” Separation, annulment, divorce seem as frequent among us as in the wider society. Recognition of the evil of abortion has remained fairly firm, thank God, but how long will this remain true if we are taught to think of it as a private “value judgment” without objective warrant?

I feel little inclination to hug trees, but I am willing to listen to Brigitte Bardot about Canadian seals, to tolerate talk about animal rights, and to save the whales if this helps to restore our sense that the way we live must be guided by reason and reason in turn must be guided by nature. Moral judgments about sexual behavior will necessarily link it to its only licit exercise, in the family, between husband and wife, with openness to new life.



Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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