Of the seven areas of life where Jesus spoils our fun, the subject of sex is one where He actually does least harm. Wistful, liberal Catholics like to point out that Christ spent much more time on earth denouncing the smugly rich than the randy. As usual, these people are missing the point: When it came to sexuality, Christ didn’t need to make matters much worse for us poor, fallen primates. Now, the light of the Resurrection — the high beam that the Church, it seems, doesn’t know how to shut off — does show up the shabbiness of man’s very best sexual shortcuts, like divorce, polygamy, and fantasy. We squint a bit, zip up, and stare down at our shoes.
But Creation was already painful enough; Redemption simply tightened a couple of screws, so we couldn’t squirm out of the dilemma posed by sex: We want it to serve our day-to-day personal happiness, and it wants to do something else entirely. In the “fallen” state that we received this hand-me-down, the sex instinct is less like a tool we use to build our home than the tectonic plate that rumbles underneath it.
I know, the standard account of what moralists have always (through clenched teeth) described as Lust is that it’s the inordinate, excessive, or misdirected desire for sexual pleasure. Okay, whatever. That sounds like it only applies to the kind of guy who spends his days downloading videos of Japanese girls in Catholic school uniforms, or to slick lotharios who run around breaking hearts and “home-wrecking” trophy wives. If those were the only people whose cravings were “inordinate,” the rest of us could kick back and find happiness doing what comes naturally.
Yeah, that works real well. See you in Family Court. (I can’t wait for the long-delayed launch of EWTN-2, its entertainment channel. I’ve applied to produce their first reality show, Annulment Court. “Live from the Roman Rota . . .”)
What’s more, the old, moralistic account understates what we seek from sex. If what you want is short-term pleasure, ecstatic moments of seamy bliss — hey, it’s out there. But not even teenage boys are long satisfied with that. Neo-Victorian chastity advocates are fooling themselves when they claim that women look for love, but their quest for lifelong tenderness is frustrated by men. (Who, by the way, are beasts.) If that were true, then the sexes really would be natural enemies, doomed to mate — cobras and mongooses who called an occasional truce so they could “hook up.”
No, we’re looking for something much more elusive than pleasure. What we want is Happiness — day-to-day satisfaction, order and quiet, leisure time, regular bouts of pleasure, and peaceful companionship. That’s what we “lust” for — and battle nature, tooth and claw, trying to get.
Now, those of you who are happily married, with a sexual relationship that’s satisfying and untroubled, who find no difficulty balancing the fleshly cravings and fathomless feelings of two human beings . . . well, I’m not talking to you.
Y’all who put the Theology of the Body into practice, who cheerfully welcome the gift of new life whenever it explodes into your home — or who find it painless, for “just and rational reasons,” to practice natural family planning . . . well, why don’t you just skip this article, m’kay? Just go on back to your houseful of little von Trapps and teach the kids to sing another Mozart opera, or build a miniature Chartres in the yard out of popsicle sticks. Go on, scoot!
For some of us — for instance, a goodly slice of unmarried males — when we hear chipper sermons that call sexuality “one of God’s greatest gifts,” we smile thinly and try not to snark back: “Where’s the counter where I can go exchange it? Like, for a sweater?”
I don’t think I’m lapsing into Gnosticism when I say that, for much of mankind, sexuality is less like a big, shiny present left for us by a loving Father than a dose of poison ivy that lasts for decades — and it’s a mortal sin to scratch. In the modern West, most of us mature so slowly that marriage before the age of 30 seems almost suicidally rash. You can’t support a family on one income, and children need decades and decades of expensive education before they can move briefly out of your home — then return to live on your couch while they “figure things out.”
Things weren’t always so impossible. Some of the problems here are the side-effects of technology — by which I mean machines that help us do what we want. Which frequently blows up in our face, since what we want — and let me emphasize this, because it seems to be essential to understanding Creation — is entirely beside the point.
The natural order is blithely unconcerned with our happiness; our bodies are built with the family’s — and, hence, the species’ — best interest in mind. So, by nature, we barrel bedward with all the zest of salmon swimming upstream to spawn. With the same results. Have you ever seen the battered state of those fish at the end of their selfless, frantic fight against the current, over rocks, up hills, and over dams — their tattered skin, broken fins, and glassy stares? They look like parents emerging, drained and dazed, from Chuck E. Cheese.
No wonder modern man, having figured out biological means to skip that whole, exhausting slog, prefers to live in a fish farm. We’d rather subsist like those shiny, bloated salmon that slurp around in corporate hatcheries, chowing down on niblets of corn, staying healthy with regular doses of hormones and antibiotics, and using red dye No. 2 to keep our flesh nice and pink. We may not build up all those healthy Omega nutrients that the authorities say would make us “better fish.” Our offspring are fewer, but fatter. We might not turn out as complex, or courageous — but our “effort to pleasure” ratio is a whole lot better.
In the “old days” — and still today in countries that don’t have air conditioning or bear examining — we didn’t face this tempting choice. Nor was unassuageable sexual frustration the normal state for men and women, for decades running. People’s sexual maturity pretty much launched them into a state historians refer to as “adulthood.” People got randy, so they got married. Children worked from a young age at tasks on the farm or in family shops and learned skills that put them in good stead to feed and house the little ones they would soon enough be producing. Parents saw in additional offspring extra hands to help around the household, whose labor would more than compensate the cost of their upkeep. What is more, the children they raised would be their mainstay and support when they grew too old to work. Sure, sometimes boys and girls would get into mischief before they were married — but that’s why God made shotguns.
Men were still disposed by their fallen nature toward polygamy — but most of them could barely support a single wife, so the point was moot. Divorce entailed disgrace, but men and women alike knew that a wife’s chance of dying in childbirth was one in three — so each had some reason for hope. Fertility was pretty much out of our hands, but it was kept in balance by the old-school method of natural family planning: infant mortality.
It’s true that the women aged pretty quickly. (In the blue-collar neighborhood where I come from, brides still seem to gain 50 pounds at the reception.) But on a diet of turnips and potatoes, spiced with the occasional slow-moving weasel and washed down by vodka, the men didn’t exactly mellow like Paul Newman, either. Indeed, by age 25, pretty much everyone looked like something out of a Brueghel painting, and by 30 they became a lot of Bosch. Five more years, and most of them died. So it all worked pretty well.
At least, there was a certain harmony between the desires of the average man, the culture in which he lived, and the natural order (the needs of the species). The whole structure of things — from regular famines to periodic invasions by Asiatic hordes — made clear to nearly everyone just how high in the cosmic hierarchy his own desires ranked.
It’s not surprising that, as soon as we could figure out how to rebel against such an arrangement, we would. And, as usual, we didn’t know where to stop.
As late as 1920, contraception was mostly used by prostitutes. By 1968, it was the norm among married Catholics. This wasn’t so much an explosion of unfathomable evil as a giddy attempt to tame biology and make it “play nice” with our desires. And now we’re finding out that, as usual, nature wins — if only by default, as wild salmon outbreed us farm-fed fish. In 50 years, demographers predict, Europe will be largely populated by Muslims — who, I predict, will by then have a birth rate of 1.2.
There are plenty of cultural conservatives, and many Catholics, who’d like to see us return to a more natural way of life. They urge us back to the land, to renounce not just contraceptives but Botox, iPods, and maybe Novocain. But most of us won’t go willingly. If it turns out that the geniuses running our banks and bureaucracies really have plunged our continent back to the status quo of, say, 1492, I will make my final pilgrimage back to the Holy City. I’ll climb the stairs of the Chrysler Building, bring along my laptop, and I’ll keep on watching YouTube till the Wi-Fi flickers out.
John Zmirak is author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.
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Here’s the full list of John’s reflections on the Seven Deadly Sins.
The Joy of Sloth
Lust for the Suburbs
Massive, Disproportionate Retaliation
God in the Belly
Greed Is for the Good
The Few, the Proud, the Damned
Envy: I see You in Hell