Our Moral Edifice Has Fallen

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In a recent article at The Pillar, the estimable J.D. Flynn interviews a family in the Cleveland archdiocese whose son was preyed upon—through two years of utterly demonic enticement, spiritual blackmail, and cruelty—by a priest now serving a life sentence in prison. It is an agony to read, as it should be. The young man deserves our sympathy and needs our prayers. He did not create the horrors of the world he must live in. He did not take advantage of those horrors to prey upon the vulnerable.

Now, this priest glad-handed his way into the lives of his victims and their families, passing himself off as having a special ministry to people addicted to pornography. That should have been a red flag. There is something glaringly wrong with someone who boasts about his ministry to a cesspool—who is not reticent about it. Either something about the cesspool must attract him, or he has no clear idea of what he is getting himself into. 

Pornography is armed with the panoply of Hell. At the least culpable, someone who sashays into that battlefield without much severe preparation and a grave knowledge of the peril—without askesis and constant and rule-bound spiritual direction—is a fool. At the worst, he begins by thinking he can play both sides, and once he enters, he is lost.

Yet there is something else about the situation, something about the social world of the young people, priest or no priest, that I find unbearably sad.

What is it?

When I was a boy, the edifice of sexual morality was crumbling. I knew very well that there was such an edifice, and it governed what boys and girls did, and it set them up for marriage. I don’t know that I was aware that it was falling apart. I think I had a general sense that a lot of things were at risk, and that the future was murky. It is hard not to feel that way when assassinations and burning cities are regular features in the news, and when the graffiti you see is an expression of drug addiction, and the teenagers in your neighborhood seem to have been swallowed up.

The building was condemned, and rats were building nests behind the wainscot; but it was still standing. There were still dances everywhere, all the time, though the music was often dark and bitter—think of The Doors, and Jim Morrison’s merciless bass, singing Break on through to the other side. Boys and girls still went on dates, which in my case, in my last two years of high school, meant bowling, miniature golf, movies, picnics, restaurants, and a lot of what was called necking. The next bad storm would bring the building down.

People younger than I am will say the only thing left to them to say, now that the promises of sexual license have proved to be lies. They will say that people have always lived in the cesspool. If they mean that people have always been sinners, they are right, but only trivially so. 

The difference between a healthy culture and a sick culture is not that the former is full of saints and the latter is full of devils. It is that the healthy culture raises high walls against evil and consciously directs its young people to what is good and noble, faithful and pure, while the sick culture hardly raises any wall, and, worse than failing to direct the young, fairly pushes into some participation in wickedness the last few souls who are by nature most averse to it. 

In a healthy culture, the danger is pharisaism of the obvious sort: you look down upon those who have fallen. In a sick culture, pharisaism is more common and of a latent sort: you look down upon those who have not fallen. In the healthy culture, decent people avoid the peril of pharisaism by calling to mind their sins and remembering what close shaves they have had. “There but for the grace of God go I,” they say; and they mean it. But that sobering examination of conscience is not available in a sick culture. The pharisee in the sick culture, oppressed by a bad conscience, must subject the innocent to contempt. Misery demands company. Sin demands to spread the sadness around.

Here, then, is what stuns and saddens me about the world that is the backdrop for the criminal in question, and his prey. The boy in this tale of evil was persuaded to send, ostensibly to a girl classmate, nude pictures and videos of himself; and he did it because he was being bullied in school—he had been homeschooled before—and he wanted to fit in. Apparently, everybody does it. When Flynn asked him what he had learned from his experience, what advice he could give to other young people, he laughed and said, “Don’t send nudes! Don’t do it!”

That is how low we have fallen. Change the arena of the evil. Don’t rob a gas station at gunpoint. Is that a thing to take for granted, what everybody does, something not so much wicked as stupid? Don’t lace somebody’s garage with kerosene and then throw a lighted match into it. Everybody does it, but you really shouldn’t. Don’t surprise a stranger in a lonely alley and beat him to a bloody pulp. It’s a lot of fun, but it can get you into trouble, so you’re an idiot if you do it. Don’t take money from your business partner’s account and gamble it away in Las Vegas. Don’t spread lies about someone you hate for the pleasure of seeing him squirm. He’d do it to you if he had the chance, but you’re not likely to get away with it, so you’d better not.

I need not call upon fellow Catholics to testify against this sick thing we call a “culture” because we have no other name to call it by. The proponents themselves testify by their actions and by their evidently miserable dissatisfaction with the results. The cesspool does not make for happy people. Boys and girls do not like each other better now than ever before. They hardly like each other at all. Where is there a single social custom still thriving that directs boys and girls toward a wholesome appreciation for one another, boys for girls and girls for boys, and that is meant to prepare them for marriage? 

A healthy culture may breed a latent cancer here or there; a sick culture is cancerous all over, with but an outpost of sanity here or there. In the healthy culture, the boy walks up to the girl and, awkwardly and nervously, asks her for the next dance. In the sick culture, the girl demands a nude video from the boy, and because he does not want to look like a prissy idiot, because he wants to be like everybody else, he complies.

And we shrug. It’s the way things are, like the weather. We have grown accustomed to it. In a healthy culture, that school would be shut down by the authorities, just as if it had been a nerve center for trading in heroin, and only opened again once it had been cleaned out and put under new management. I say this not as a conservative but merely as a human being who wants to promote marriage and to protect, as far as is possible, the sacred innocence of the young.

What would a Booker T. Washington or a Dorothy Day or a Jane Addams do with such a place? As far as I know, the school has not come under scrutiny. The evil priest will spend his life behind bars. That’s no more than what he deserves. And what do the rest of us deserve, we who have turned a natural garden with its wholesome flowers and vegetables and its not so wholesome weeds and slugs into a sad pit of filth?

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

By

Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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