What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.

About

What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Correcting the biases of old books

C. S. Lewis tells us, in his lovely, brief introduction to an edition of St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation, that it is valuable to read books from other ages to challenge the biases of our particular age. He is even generous enough to say that reading the books of the future might have this salutary effect if it were only possible.

Since I am in fact living in the future vis a vis Lewis, I intend, though with some trepidation, to mention a passage in Lewis's own writing that has been abused (within my own experience) and that lends itself to misunderstanding.

The passage occurs in Mere Christianity, pp. 94-95 in my edition:

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.

Let us begin, in understanding how this passage lends itself to misconstrual and misuse, with the overstatement, regarding sins of the flesh, "[T]hey are the least bad of all sins." It was this statement that was particularly abused in the conversation I have in mind. My interlocutor quoted it as incontrovertible fact and compared wild, unrepented sexual promiscuity to gossip, to the advantage of wild, unrepented sexual promiscuity. Dante also came up in this discussion. Dante, I was told, also considered sexual sins to be the least bad of the sins.

Well, not exactly. If we're going to start ranking sins, and especially if we're going to start mentioning Dante, there's one word we might want to put in there: Mortal. "Least bad of the mortal sins" just doesn't quite have the same ring, does it? Lewis might have done well to remember it, and perhaps to moderate his statement accordingly. "It is better to be neither" hardly sounds as clear or as alarming as, "Either can send you to hell for all eternity." (Though in the case of a prostitute, we might first want to ask whether she is being literally coerced into her profession. Lewis, presumably, is assuming that this is not the case for purposes of his example.)

When it comes to contemplating the diabolical vs. animal discussion, we should consider that Lewis was a great rhetorician and simply found this a convenient way of talking for the moment. It was also Lewis himself who approvingly paraphrased (more than once) Denis de Rougement as saying that Eros "ceases to be a devil only when he ceases to be a god." So sexual sins are then not merely the expression of some "animal" nature which is quite different from the diabolical. They have, rather, the potential to be diabolical as well. And Lewis knew this but chose to speak differently for purposes of effect in writing that paragraph in Mere Christianity.

If the perspective of sixty-seven years in the future (Mere Christianity was published in 1943) tells us anything about untamed Eros, it is that its diabolical nature has become more and more apparent and that the damage it has done to society and to millions of individuals has been simply appalling. And these individuals include, of course, the millions of unborn infants murdered in the womb in the name of sexual freedom.

We can also apply a corrective from the past (vis a vis Lewis) to his downplaying of the relative importance of sexual sins. St. Paul also makes a statement about sexual sins and all other sins, but it sounds rather different from Lewis's:

Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid....Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? (I Corinthians 6:15-19)

It is interesting to ask ourselves how it came about that Lewis felt not only constrained but also, in a different sense, free to make these particular comments about the relative seriousness of sexual sin. Lewis was extremely conscientious about the possible effects of his words. Why did he not worry that he was encouraging sexual license in this passage by saying that all other sins are worse than sexual sins and by ignoring the particularly devastating consequences--both individual and societal--of sexual sin? Why did he not realize that moral comparison--even moral inversion--is a very common tool of those wishing to promote a particular type of sin? We all know the version of this that goes, "I'm not so bad even if I do cheat on my taxes; after all, I haven't murdered anybody." But, to put it mildly, it isn't any better to say, "I'm not so bad even if I do cheat on my wife; after all, I don't engage in backbiting, and I'm never patronizing."

From the perspective of 2010, all of us who try to defend traditional morality are sick unto death of sermonette after sermonette from the left (whether in a collar or out of one) along exactly the lines of "there are worse sins than sleeping with anything that comes along." We recognize such talk for what it is--the continual wearing, as of water on a stone, upon whatever might be left of traditional moral values and sensibilities in our culture. It is rather discouraging, to say the least, to have someone quoting in our faces our favorite author, a man of the past of great wisdom, sounding uncomfortably like Rev. Easy-Going preaching the superiority of the sexually promiscuous over the pharisaical.

I think there is an answer to the question of Lewis's apparent carelessness here. I believe that Lewis was counting on the cultural capital around him. He was speaking to an age which, while hardly as chaste as nostalgia might want to make it (WWII was a great encourager of unchastity), was certainly much farther up the slope in terms of public morality than America and Europe in 2010. Such comments seemed to him safe, and since he was sincerely concerned about non-sexual sins of the sort he discusses, he let himself speak hyperbolically in order to counter the impression--especially for his non-Christian audience--that Christians are prudishly obsessed with sex. In hindsight, I think it was an unwise passage to write.

All of this only confirms Lewis's own point about the books of the future. Hindsight is always 20-20.

If no one has ever thrown this passage in your face before, at a minimum this post can forewarn you of its existence so that you can prepare your own preferred answer. Mine is going to have to be some variant on "Even Homer nods." But if a thinker as great as Lewis could thus slip, how much more reason is there for us to think carefully about what we write, especially now when our every comment will be preserved as long as hard-drives spin, and longer?

Comments (66)

Lydia,

A great post and I'm glad you mentioned the Lewis paraphrase of de Rougement -- the argument about Eros having both an animal and spiritual nature reminds me of this classic G.K. Chesterton quote:

"Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God."

As for the question of whether Christians should be concerned today about sexual sins, I think we can all agree the evidence keeps piling up that our culture is very sick indeed:

http://www.socialcostsofpornography.com/

Given that Lewis was an Anglican, he was writing from a tradition that has historically lacked the language of venial and mortal in talking about sin. Even if Lewis accepted some form of that venial/mortal distinction himself, the language wouldn't be common currency among his readers, so it's really no surprise that he doesn't use it.

Solid post, other than that (fairly minor) point!

Peace,
--Peter

Lewis was, indeed, not infallible, nor, to be fair, would he have claimed so. His failure to condemn, in this same book, was probably his biggest failure. Had he lived to 1980, he probably would have seen that.

One (or at least me) has to wonder how much of his blase attitude about sexual sins can be attributed to his typically English middle-class libido, i.e., the absence thereof. He knew, of course, intellectually, about the power of eros to demonize just as well as animalize (and, of course, to humanize); but, being single most his life and engaged so thoroughly in intellectual pursuits, it was perhaps a doctrine to understand in practice.

Ack, his failure to condemn: contraception, in this same book... [must proofread... must proofread...]

I have a speculation about Lewis's reasoning behind that point.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis talks about growing up in the British public school system (so named, as the joke goes, because the public wasn't allowed to go) and how there was a practice wherein older boys would take younger boys as their, well, paramours. Lewis said that of all the abused that happened in the school, this was the least bad, as only in this instance was there any affection shown.

Let us assume he is right, that most of the time or even all of the time there was affection shown by the older boy to the younger, and let us also suppose that the other things that went on in his school were indeed worse in emotional effect than that. I wouldn't be shocked if this had a big influence on how he came to view sex.

(Note: in Surprised by Joy Lewis claims that he was never a victim of or a participant in this practice.)

Good point, Peter. And I'm probably even more low-Protestant than Lewis was, so it's perhaps surprising that I should bring in the "mortal sin" phrase. Perhaps it was the mention of Dante (by my interlocutor in the discussion I mention) that first made me think of it. Plus there is the fact that Lewis always presents himself, especially in Mere Christianity, as in a sense speaking for the Christian tradition, and he does so in this passage as well. It certainly wouldn't have been necessary to use the actual phrase "mortal sin" to get the idea across, and Lewis was a master at translating such concepts into universal language. To say that either type of sin would send you to hell, for example, would have made the same point without sounding especially "Catholic."

But Lewis's attitude towards sexual vice and his special concern to "up-play," to coin a term, other sins in relation to it is evident in other books as well. In The Great Divorce (perhaps my favorite of all his books) he has a character who is what I suppose we today would call a sex addict. It is implied (though without detail) that his vice is an interest in highly perverted activities, but that he is a slave to that vice. He is very sympathetically portrayed, and he is the only character in the whole book whom we actually see freed from his sin and transformed--able to go to heaven. The other characters who come from the "grey town" either return there or are still considering when the book ends. Lewis and the George Macdonald character expressly discuss the fact that this man's sexual perversions are less of a block to his salvation than a different character's all-devouring maternal love.

(Note: in Surprised by Joy Lewis claims that he was never a victim of or a participant in this practice.)

Bobcat, you make a good point. Even if Lewis was never a primary in such activities, simply living in a mini-culture where it is treated as normal would tend to modify his sensibility to it. I would imagine that becoming accustomed to seeing older boys distort and deform the sexuality of younger boys would tend to make him less sensitive to the degree to which that behavior really does distort the personality (of both boys). Which would lessen the sensitivity to seeing sins of lust as being as grave as they are inherently.

there's one word we might want to put in there: Mortal. "Least bad of the mortal sins" just doesn't quite have the same ring, does it?

Lydia, are you sure you aren't picking up some Catholic notions from all the outspoken Catholics that hang around here? :-)

Bobcat, I had thought of bringing up that very thing, though I was going to bring it up as another example of Lewis's opinion on these types of issues. I think that in general what Lewis saw was the practice of individual sexual vice, often secretly, within a culture as a whole that (for the most part) discouraged sexual vice--not a culture that incessantly celebrated it, as ours does. Not having much experience of such vices (as Steve Nicoloso points out), and being given to an analytic turn of mind, he noticed what he mentions in the rather brutal public school and also looked around him and _didn't_ see sexual vice wreaking havoc on the world, and he analyzed this all out in terms of a generalization to the effect that this type of sin was less bad than others. It's worth noting that in _Surprised By Joy_ he uses terms and phrases regarding the activities in his school that any present-day activist would regard as infuriatingly "homophobic"--I don't have the book in front of me but they were terms like "perversion." In other words, he _assumed_ traditional moral categories for evaluation; it never occurred to him to do anything else. But then he tried to place this within a hierarchy of sins while explaining how it had seemed to him (drawing the proud "bloods," the bullies of the school, out of their own selves, etc.).

It's perhaps an interesting thought that the myth of sexual sin as a "victimless crime" is one that can be kept up better in a traditional society than in a liberated society. So much is done secretly and privately that it's easy to think it's really just an "individual" matter. That, after all, is how the liberated society got started: "It doesn't hurt anyone else" sounded a lot more reasonable in 1943 or even 1953 than it sounds today. You have to get a certain critical mass of people all engaging in these supposedly "purely private" activities for it to become evident to any thinking person that "It doesn't hurt anyone else" is a lot of baloney. Of course, the betrayed children, wives, and husbands have known it all along.

Lydia, are you sure you aren't picking up some Catholic notions from all the outspoken Catholics that hang around here? :-)

The person really to "blame" here, Tony, is the person I was arguing with who inspired this post. The mention of Dante, of all people, as agreeing that sexual sins are the least of the sins got me on my "Catholic knowledge high horse." And I do actually think that it is possible to lose your soul as a result of such sins.

(By the way, doesn't it make you grind your teeth when people misquote Dante? I saw the blogger Pamela Geller a week or two ago ostensibly "quoting" Dante to the effect that the darkest circles of hell, or some such phrase, are reserved for those who remain neutral. Huh? The neutrals are in the vestibule of hell. The lowest circles belong to traitors. Do people actually _read_ Dante before they make such statements?)

From C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (I think):

"You can get a large audience together for a striptease act–that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?"

"One critic said that if he found a country in which such strip-tease acts with food were popular, he would conclude that the people of that country were starving. He meant, of course, to imply that such things as the strip-tease act resulted not from sexual corruption but from sexual starvation. I agree with him that if, in some strange land, we found that similar acts with mutton chops were popular, one of the possible explanations which would occur to me would be famine. But the next step would be to test our hypothesis by finding out whether, in fact, much or little food was being consumed in that country. If the evidence showed that a good deal was being eaten, then of course we should have to abandon the hypothesis of starvation and try to think of another one. In the same way, before accepting sexual starvation as the cause of the strip-tease, we should have to look for evidence that there is in fact more sexual abstinence in our age than in those ages when things like the strip-tease were unknown. But surely there is no such evidence. Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage and far safer outside it than ever before, and public opinion is less hostile to illicit unions and even to perversion than it has been since Pagan times. Nor is the hypothesis of ’starvation’ the only one we can imagine. Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations."


Yes, PB, that's an interesting thing, too. On the one hand, Lewis made comments like the one I quote in the main post. On the other hand, he definitely believed that the sexual appetite is fallen, and he sometimes defended this belief by odd arguments, too. I forget if it is in a letter or a book that he argues expressly that the sexual appetite is fallen from the fact that if a child were conceived by every sexual act which a man wishes to engage in, the world would be over-run with people. That's just not a very good argument for that particular conclusion. His acceptance of the idea of over-population (even of actual over-population) is evident in Out of the Silent Planet, where he presents as ideal (ideal even from a human perspective) a race of beings (the hrossa) who have sexual intercourse only for two years out of their entire lives. So in some ways he was almost, shall we say, "down" on human sexuality while in other ways he excused serious sexual sins.

Based on my experience as a man, sexual sin is worse insofar as it is more personally corrosive. It certainly can harm others, but the "sins of the spirit" as Lewis calls them can be more destructive to others around them. For example, a loose woman can bring several innocent men into disrepute when they've literally done nothing wrong by accusing them of sin with her and gossiping about it.

I'll also add that the "sins of the spirit" often incite feelings like hatred, and hatred, being spiritual related to murder, is quite serious. It is easy for these sins to lure people into despising others, risking their own spiritual lives, when in reality, nothing has even happened to justify it.

Do people actually _read_ Dante before they make such statements?

What, and spoil a perfectly good ignorance with facts? Reading Dante, or reading any book for that matter, is an activity best left to the technorazzi (as is designing bridges, making TVs, and fixing your plumbing), not for the opinion-making class. The opinion-making class can't read this stuff, then they would start to have knowledge instead of opinion.

People in Lewis's time were not sexless! Even Oxford dons. I'm sure that Lewis, working at a college, was quite aware of sexual escapades of all sorts (whether or not he indulged in any). It seems clear to me that in this case Lewis is talking about the traditional understanding that people are often carried away by passion and related emotions when it comes to sex, and they are not carried away in the same sense by an urge to cheat or lie. So in some sense many sexual sins are more "excusable" because they are less deliberate and calculating, and are often mixed up with a distorted sense of love (as opposed to the sort of sins he was contrasting them with, which are mixed up with hate and envy).

Today we face a different category of sexual sins -- those that are deliberate and bound up with a different sort of hate or self-hate. These include months or years of cohabitation without any intent to marry (on a mass scale -- of course people have always done it), artificial sterilization, and a schizophrenic sort of separation of sex and procreation that was never possible before even if it was desired. In previous years, say, a man might have taken a mistress without any desire for having children, because he didn't like his wife, or because he desired a woman of a lower class, or because he was a randy sort of person. But today huge numbers of people treat each other like mistresses with no notion that they're doing anything strange, and kill the children that they can't prevent being conceived. That is sexual sin on a whole different scale and of a whole different kind from what Dante or Lewis were talking about.

I wouldn't be so sure about Dante. He gives me, at least, the impression of a person who had seen a lot in his time. But I agree that the sheer social scale of things is different.

Ridiculous.
You dare to criticize someone who in the midst of World War II with 60 million casualties, the Holocaust, GULAG, starvation, insane ideologies etc. notices that unchastity may not be the supreme vice??
That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. So true.

You dare to criticize someone who in the midst of World War II with 60 million casualties, the Holocaust, GULAG, starvation, insane ideologies etc. notices that unchastity may not be the supreme vice??

Grobi, you are probably (?) not Catholic, but I will let the private revelation of the Virgin Mary at Fatima (given at the end of WWI) speak to this:

More souls go to Hell because of the sins of the flesh than for any other reason.

That is why Lewis was short-sighted.

The Chicken

Okay, I am Catholic, and I don't see any reason to disbelieve Our Lady of Fatima's statement (although remember it is not a doctrine of the Church), but at the same time I think this post and some of the comments are being unfair to Lewis. The implication that he encouraged anyone to be sexually promiscuous by writing the (incontrovertibly true) statement that unchastity is not the supreme vice is offensive, not to say absurd, and you'd better be prepared to back that up. Is there any evidence whatsoever that anyone has ever, consciously or subconsciously, used Mere Christianity to justify his sexual misconduct? I can't imagine it.

As for Dante, we must differentiate between mutual, "normal" heterosexual sin and other sexual sins which reflect deeper perversions. The former are indeed the least serious of sins in Dante's theology (the sins of the flesh being the least serious kind of sin, and. It is not only at the top of hell (except for Limbo, whose inhabitants have not sinned), it is at the top of Purgatory. The dichotomy between mortal and venial sins made by Ms. McGrew is false. Any sin can be mortal when it reaches a certain degree, and can send you to hell if unrepented. Any venial sin you might care to think of - gossip, lying, petty cheating, uncharity of various sorts, arrogance, a prideful attitude, etc., can be found in Dante's hell, all of them farther down than Paolo and Francesca.

I don't think Lewis lacked foresight. I'm glad he had the prescience to see that the decline of sexual morality which was already under way in his time would lead too many good Christians to become sex-obsessed in their preaching. Teens in particular desperately need to hear his message that there is more to morality or a lack thereof than sex.

Sorry, the truncated sentence above should read "The former are indeed the least serious of sins in Dante's theology (the sins of the flesh being the least serious kind of sin, and lust being the least serious of the sins of the flesh)."

CSL had his own sexual issues. His early letters reveal him to be an aficionado of 'the pleasures of the rod.' Thus, he was neither prudish nor ignorant. I've never taken his statements on sexual sin to mean that he was downplaying them; it has always seemed to me that what he was getting at was the fact that Christians, at times, have so emphasized the sexual sins that other serious sins have remained unremarked upon.

I too don't believe Lewis lacked foresight. Who, other than Pitirim Sorokin, really predicted the Sexual Revolution? And that was in the mid 50's. When we read Lewis, we are looking back through a lens that he didn't have.

Likewise, the contrasting of CSL and St. Paul seems inapt. The Apostle was writing in a time where Christian morality had not yet taken any sort of cultural hold. And he was writing to former pagans. Lewis, on the other hand, was writing in a culture which had been at least nominally Christian for centuries, and which still took most tenets of Christian morality for granted, however much they were actually followed.

"More souls go to Hell because of the sins of the flesh than for any other reason."

As an Orthodox I don't put much stock in Fatima, but I'd agree with this sentiment, with one caveat: Sexual sins are not the only sins of the flesh. The ascetical writers of the Church often link sexual sins with gluttony, which is equally soul-destroying, but which you don't really hear much about these days.

The implication that he encouraged anyone to be sexually promiscuous by writing the (incontrovertibly true) statement that unchastity is not the supreme vice is offensive, not to say absurd, and you'd better be prepared to back that up.

He didn't merely say that it wasn't the supreme vice. He said it was the least of all the sins. That's not the same thing.

The misuse of Lewis to which I refer was made by a person who is the parent of young people in their teens and twenties. I could not disagree more strongly with the statement that a message young people need to hear is that gossip is worse than sexual promiscuity. Talk about going along with the spirit of the age. Your son goes into the military or off to a secular college: "Hey, son, let me explain something. Some of these conservative Christians out there are just so darned sex-obsessed. Let's get this straight: If you hook up with girls every weekend, that's the _least_ of the sins. It's not so good, but really, just be sure you don't backbite or gossip or patronize anybody, okay?"

I would add that the Gentile culture Paul was addressing was probably more like our own in this particular area than British culture circa 1943.

Of course sleeping around promiscuously is worse than gossip. But are imprudently passionate kissing and hugging worse than gossip? Is dressing or talking immodestly worse than gossip? I don't find those questions so clear. And what if we're talking not about mere gossip, but about a serious, deliberate attempt to destroy someone's reputation by spreading lies? What about preventing someone from getting a job you want by leading the employer onto false evidence that he is criminal or incompetent? What about prosecuting someone falsely for the sake of vindictiveness or revenge? What about destroying someone's marriage by making his spouse suspicious of him out of spite? Are those things preferable to sexual promiscuity?

"Patronizing," okay, avoiding that will give one little credit to weigh against a life of promiscuity. But suppose a patronizing attitude blossoms into a set, unexamined but unshakable belief that no or few other persons are good enough or intelligent enough to engage with as human beings. Imagine Lewis's "cold, self-righteous prig" to the nth degree, someone who cares nothing for public opinion not because he has a humble reliance on God, but because he considers others beneath his notice. Will that person be pointing a condemning finger at prostitutes on the judgment day? I don't think so.

My point is that it's unfair to compare serious sexual sins with small sins in other areas. Gossiping, backbiting, patronizing, or anything along similar lines can develop into a sin as much worse than sexual promiscuity as Moloch is worse than Bacchus. Jesus was gentle toward prostitutes and tax collectors; it was the Pharisees he subjected to thundering denunciations.

It might be answered that most people are more likely to fall into sexual promiscuity than into the other things I describe. That's probably true, but that is all the more reason not to make more of it than it is. As a Catholic, I think of cases where people committed sexual sins, not unusual ones, and then left the Church because they were unwilling to mention such things in confession. There are certainly similar cases of non-Catholics who commit sexual sins and then think it must be all up with them as Christians. It seems to me that a clear recognition that lust, not perhaps in the number of souls it claims, but in its effect on an individual soul, is the least deadly of the deadly sins, would help prevent that.

Also, while it may be too late to bring this up again, I don't remember that the small amount of sexual activity of the hrossa was presented as "ideal from a human perspective". At any rate, I know he once wrote to a child something like: "I admit I made the birth rates of the hrossa a bit too low, but you must remember I was picturing a world in its extreme old age."

As a Catholic, I think of cases where people committed sexual sins, not unusual ones, and then left the Church because they were unwilling to mention such things in confession. There are certainly similar cases of non-Catholics who commit sexual sins and then think it must be all up with them as Christians.

Then they obviously don't understand Christianity. Redemption and forgive, as long as it is genuine, would cleanse them of these sins.

If I understand your system of measurement, you seem to be saying, that it is better for people to be Christians who don't play by the rules, than it is for them to be Non-Christians. If they can't deal with people being critical of there actions, when they are obviously Un-Christian, then it is unlikely they will remain Christians no matter how you treat them or try to address the issue with them.

It seems to me that a clear recognition that lust, not perhaps in the number of souls it claims, but in its effect on an individual soul, is the least deadly of the deadly sins, would help prevent that.


Through doing this you are essentially saying that the acts themselves are not sinful but there effects are. But according to Christianity the acts are sinful regardless of there effects. And also you can be critical of there specific actions without going over board with it, you can show empathy and understanding towards there fallibility or weakness, while explaining to them, that there behaviour was wrong, and pointing out that there actions were harmful towards them as well.

First, to clear this out of the way, yes, he expressly says something to the effect that the hrossa embodied "human ideals," words to that effect. The low birthrates are in some ways a separate issue from the strictly limited time period of sexual activity. Birthrates have to do with how many children are conceived during that time period--with fertility, in other words. And the time period could have been extended (to, say, five years) while still presenting the rather odd view of a "utopia" in which sexuality is a normal part of marriage for only a _very_ limited time. The hross expressly tells Ransom that if it were not so they would have an overpopulation problem. Obviously, Lewis decided that he wanted to portray a world in which the hrossa were dying out, a world of _under_-population, but he also really believed that if (human) sexuality were not limited in some fairly draconian way, overpopulation would result (and, indeed, had resulted).

Moving on, I don't agree with your unfairness argument, for several reasons. First, one could as easily turn it around and say that it's unfair to compare imprudently passionate kissing to setting out to destroy a person's career.

Second, if Lewis said things like "bossing" and "spoiling sport" (of all things) I think we should take him to mean "bossing" and "spoiling sport." Exaggerating "backbiting" to a concentrated campaign of bearing false witness with the intent to destroy another person just misses the whole rhetorical problem with the passage in _Mere Christianity_. You have more or less acknowledged that it would be, shall we say, problematic to teach young people as a general rule that gossip is less bad than sexual sin. I would go so far as to say that if one told a group of young people that, one would have to look out for the millstone-fitting crew. One would be in serious danger of causing "offense," in the formal sense of possibly leading others into sin. And you can fill in "spoiling sport" of "bossing" and get the same effect, if not a stronger effect. (For some reason the Catholic term for causing offense in the sense of leading another into sin, which I've always liked, is escaping me at the moment.) Why not just admit that Lewis got on a rhetorical roll, perhaps motivated by a desire to warn people about the dangers of the "sins of the spirit" he mentions, and overstated his case?

Third, I think the passages about Jesus and the sinners are often themselves gravely abused. The whole point of those passages (which Jesus himself is pretty explicit about) is that those people were seeking his help, that they were repentant, and that the Pharisees weren't. Look at the case of Zachaeus: He is expected to repent and recompense those he has cheated. The woman taken in adultery is told to go and sin no more. Again and again Jesus makes it clear that the "sinners" are doing better than the Pharisees insofar as they are turning from their sins. Indeed, it could be argued (and seems pretty clear in the passages) that it is _because_ their sins are so obviously bad that they realize their need of forgiveness. The sin of the Pharisees is rejecting Christ, rejecting forgiveness, and not admitting the sins that they do have. Nowhere in any of these passages is it implied that unrepented sexual sins are "less bad" in and of themselves than, say, pride. The contrast is always between the repentant sexual sinner (or tax collector, for that matter) and the unrepentant Pharisee.

There were, of course, Pharisees who became Christians--St. Paul, for one. He admitted that he was a very great sinner, because he persecuted the church, and he was forgiven.

And, as I've already pointed out, St. Paul himself in writings that are part of Holy Writ is particularly hard on sexual sin. Again and again one finds a special emphasis on sexual sins in the Pauline epistles. "It is a shame even to speak of those things that are done...," etc. Those who don't like the particular place Christian tradition has given to these sins should argue it with Paul, not with me.

Let's try to look at this from the perspective of a Christian parent. Imagine a Christian parent who takes the passage quoted from Lewis strictly literally, internalizes its message, and brings it up spontaneously in conversation about public figures engaging in _unrepented_ sexual promiscuity. How likely is such a parent, who takes this passage so literally and so seriously, to warn his 20-year-old son earnestly of the dangers of sexual license and to take with sufficient seriousness the problems of our present sex-saturated culture vis a vis that son's future life and happiness?

I think we would do well to leave off this "ranking" of sins altogether. It can lead to what Mark Shea calls Minimum Adult Daily Requirement Christianity; what's the least I can do to be saved? Our object shouldn't be to just commit the least bad sins. We should avoid all of it, but if your pet sin is one of the "little ones" you lose some of the incentive to stop it. You can always look over at the tax collector and say "I'm not as bad as that guy."

'Fraid I can't agree with you there, CJ. The trouble is that, earnest and pious as such urgings to "leave off ranking altogether" may be, the insistence that all sins really are equal in weight (which I know you didn't actually say) has some really problematic consequences. Consider it from the perspective of public policy, for example. If murder really is _no worse than_ snubbing your neighbor, then why should people be locked up for it? Consider it from the perspective of church discipline. If all sins are equal, how do we decide when a person should be excommunicated? Consider it from the perspective of qualifications for the ministry. If all sins are the same, do we then disqualify a man from the ministry for being overweight as readily as for committing regular fornication? Consider it from the perspective of parenting. If all sins are the same in gravity, how do we structure the Christian formation of our children? Do we teach _them_ that all sins are equal in gravity? And if we do so, do we not risk their _downplaying_ those sins that are actually likely to ruin their lives and the lives of others, because they know that some other sins aren't all _that_ heinous and assume that the equivalence implies that the ruinous ones are also not that bad? Do we punish our children the same even for all of their own childish sins--the same for carelessly breaking the dishes as for lying about it?

You see, the idea that we must never make rankings and judgments about relative severity is not only false to obvious common sense but, for that reason, is totally impractical. Whether we like it or not, we _will_ be making rankings, and I'm afraid that the self-conscious statement that we aren't doing so will only make our rankings less thoughtful than they would be if we admitted the necessity.

I think I remember a line: "He who delivered me unto you hath the greater sin." Or something like that.

I also think a lot of folks are underestimating the true nature of lust.

Thanks for this illuminating discussion, Lydia, especially your comment at 4:58.

Thanks much, Sage. :-)

Okay, I might as well say something. First of all, Lewis is right, but for the wrong reason. When he says:

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual

He is absolutely correct. St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica (First Part of the Second Part, Q. 73, Art. 5) says the following:

Article 5. Whether carnal sins are of less guilt than spiritual sins?

...On the contrary, Gregory says (Moral. xxxiii, 11) that carnal sins are of less guilt, but of more shame than spiritual sins.

I answer that, Spiritual sins are of greater guilt than carnal sins: yet this does not mean that each spiritual sin is of greater guilt than each carnal sin; but that, considering the sole difference between spiritual and carnal, spiritual sins are more grievous than carnal sins, other things being equal. Three reasons may be assigned for this. The first is on the part of the subject: because spiritual sins belong to the spirit, to which it is proper to turn to God, and to turn away from Him; whereas carnal sins are consummated in the carnal pleasure of the appetite, to which it chiefly belongs to turn to goods of the body; so that carnal sin, as such, denotes more a "turning to" something, and for that reason, implies a closer cleaving; whereas spiritual sin denotes more a "turning from" something, whence the notion of guilt arises; and for this reason it involves greater guilt. A second reason may be taken on the part of the person against whom sin is committed: because carnal sin, as such, is against the sinner's own body, which he ought to love less, in the order of charity, than God and his neighbor, against whom he commits spiritual sins, and consequently spiritual sins, as such, are of greater guilt. A third reason may be taken from the motive, since the stronger the impulse to sin, the less grievous the sin, as we shall state further on (6). Now carnal sins have a stronger impulse, viz. our innate concupiscence of the flesh. Therefore spiritual sins, as such, are of greater guilt.

The problem is that Lewis is wrong in classifying, "the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred..." as spiritual sins. Classically, they are carnal sins, since their object is their relationship to their neighbor. Thus, the gravity of lust and the sins Lewis mentions as spiritual sins may be more or less equal depending upon the act, object, and the circumstances.

That having been said, lust, as all of the vices, admits of a ranking. The highest disorder is that which is opposed to both reason and nature. Thus, bestiality is the highest form of sexual disorder, whereas fornication is the least form. As St. Thomas points out (Second Part of the Second Part, D. 154, Art 12):

Therefore, since by the unnatural vices man transgresses that which has been determined by nature with regard to the use of venereal actions, it follows that in this matter this sin [beastiality] is gravest of all. After it comes incest, which, as stated above (Article 9), is contrary to the natural respect which we owe persons related to us.

With regard to the other species of lust they imply a transgression merely of that which is determined by right reason, on the presupposition, however, of natural principles. Now it is more against reason to make use of the venereal act not only with prejudice to the future offspring, but also so as to injure another person besides. Wherefore simple fornication, which is committed without injustice to another person, is the least grave among the species of lust. Then, it is a greater injustice to have intercourse with a woman who is subject to another's authority as regards the act of generation, than as regards merely her guardianship. Wherefore adultery is more grievous than seduction. And both of these are aggravated by the use of violence. Hence rape of a virgin is graver than seduction, and rape of a wife than adultery. And all these are aggravated by coming under the head of sacrilege, as stated above (10, ad 2).

The point is that Lewis is muddled in his thinking. He is right that sexual sins are of a lower order than spiritual sins, but he then goes on to misidentify the spiritual sins.

All of this being said, in modern society sexual sins are much more pre-dispositive of the other sins than any other sin. People do not, generally, today, grow up thinking that it is alright to punch everyone they disagree with in the mouth, but they do grow up thinking that anyone who consents to sleep with them removes them from any contamination with sin. More than that, they grow up thinking that viewing pornography is a hidden activity that hurts no one. They do not realize that there is an objective order to life. Sadly and ironically, many people who hold these disordered views about sex are among the intellectual class, those who spend their lives defending an order of nature for their particular discipline, but seem to ignore this for anything else in life.

St. Thomas mentions four "daughters" of lust that affect the mind: blindness of mind, rashness, thoughtlessness, inconsistency, and four daughters that affect the will: increase in self-love, hatred of God, love of the world, despair of a future world (Second Part of the Second Part, Q. 153, Art. 5):

I answer that, When the lower powers are strongly moved towards their objects, the result is that the higher powers are hindered and disordered in theiracts. Now the effect of the vice of lust is that the lower appetite, namely the concupiscible, is most vehemently intent on its object, to wit, the object of pleasure, on account of the vehemence of the pleasure. Consequently the higher powers, namely thereason and the will, are most grievously disordered by lust.

Now the reason has four acts in matters of action. First there is simple understanding, which apprehends some end as good, and this act is hindered by lust, according to Daniel 13:56, "Beauty hath deceived thee, and lust hath perverted thy heart." On this respect we have "blindness of mind." The second act is counsel about what is to be done for the sake of the end: and this is also hindered by the concupiscence of lust. Hence Terence says (Eunuch., act 1, sc. 1), speaking of lecherous love: "This thing admits of neither counsel nor moderation, thou canst not control it by counseling." On this respect there is "rashness," which denotes absence of counsel, as stated above (Question 53, Article 3). The third act is judgment about the things to be done, and this again is hindered by lust. For it is said of the lustful old men (Daniel 13:9): "They perverted their own mind . . . that they might not . . . remember just judgments." On this respect there is "thoughtlessness." The fourth act is the reason's command about the thing to be done, and this also is impeded by lust, in so far as through being carried away by concupiscence, a man is hindered from doing what his reason ordered to be done. [To this "inconstancy" must be referred.] [The sentence in brackets is omitted in the Leonine edition.] Hence Terence says (Eunuch., act 1, sc. 1) of a man who declared that he would leave his mistress: "One little false tear will undo those words."

On the part of the will there results a twofold inordinate act. One is the desire for the end, to which we refer "self-love," which regards the pleasure which a man desires inordinately, while on the other hand there is "hatred of God," by reason of His forbidding the desired pleasure. The other act is the desire for the things directed to the end. With regard to this there is "love of this world," whose pleasures a man desires to enjoy, while on the other hand there is "despair of a future world," because through being held back by carnal pleasures he cares not to obtain spiritual pleasures, since they are distasteful to him.

Now, if one gives into lustful thoughts because one has been told that they are not sinful, then one increase his love for the world, which, in turn, increase his desire to do what will gain him the things of this world, such as lie, cheat, and steal. There is a very grave connection between the economic perversions we have seen of late and the perversions in the sexual area that have been called normal. For this, I blame, first of all, the clerics, who, having the light of God, substitute their own human lights and lack of faith to arrive at conclusions that relax God's law and make the light less accessible; I blame psychologists, who have no idea how the mind works, but feel they have the right to make pronouncements in areas relating to ethics and morality based on their primitive notions of how the mind works; I also blame the population biologists who have no faith that God knows many more things than they and that over-population is not going to happen; I also blame the legislators, who have progressively relaxed the rules of sin in society; I also blame parents for not using their God-given common sense and the graces of marriage (where the marriage gives grace - this is not certain, any more) for not making sure that their children learn that all people have an inherent dignity that must be preserved; I blame young people for not listening to the wisdom of their elders, when they are right (and especially when they are sad). Lastly, I blame myself for not speaking out more strongly in a matter worth dying for.

Lewis may have been muddled, but the way for us is not muddled - it is positively run over with the tire tracks of our own relentless pursuits of pleasure. It is the Pill which has caused most of this damage. The Pill is a response to the concupiscience in man. It is the result of science, but it the science of the Devil. Did you know that the angels play in laboratories?

I hate the way sex is in the modern world. How many marriages could have been saved, how many marriages could have been prevented, how much more happiness would there be in the world if men and women regarded each other with the dignity of human beings? I am not married, but I tell you, in truth, if someone were ever to be stupid enough to marry me, I would kiss their feet every night, nay, I would wash them, simply for the privilege of touching a woman in the most dignified way one man can touch a woman - in a the relationship of a sacramental marriage.

I really wish that the idiocy of modern sexual opinions could be seen for what they are - death, wrapped in a smooth touch.

I have gone on too long, but there are days when I have contemplated quiting higher education because just walking into a modern classroom can be a near occasion of sin (and more and more, as I get older, the thought of a sudden death makes these situations more and more immediate and serious). When Jesus said that anyone who looks lustfully at a woman (what moralist call morose delectation) has already committed the sin in his heart, I imagine that most people think the sin is primarily on the one who looks. I say this forcefully (perhaps too forcefully), but not without a bit of sadness, as well: there are unknown prostitutes everywhere, today.

I, being the weak individual that I am, do not need the temptation. I need to be surrounded by virtue. Oh, sweet virtue, doesn't anyone pay attention to you, anymore?

The Chicken


If I may be so bold, I'm a bit inclined to disagree with this statement by the Angelic Doctor:

Wherefore simple fornication, which is committed without injustice to another person, is the least grave among the species of lust.

Perhaps it depends upon what he means by "simple fornication." If, for example, we are talking about a couple that definitely intends marriage and is carried away by desire prior to the marriage, his words may well apply. But what about today's "hook-up" culture or even a "boyfriend and girlfriend" who are entirely uncertain about a marital commitment or even definitely intend no commitment at all? It seems to me that in that case one could argue that even with full consent (whatever exactly that means), they are in some sense doing an injustice to one another. Seduction (in either direction) would add another degree of injustice by lessening the full reality of consent.

Chicken, if I may say so, I found your comment of 5:13 incredibly powerful and enlightening. However, I don't understand your statement that the sins Lewis mentions are carnal sins "since their object is their relationship to their neighbor." It looks to me like the passage from the Summa above that says just the opposite: that spiritual sins are committed against God and neighbor, and carnal sins only against oneself. In fact, at least the first two of the reasons St. Thomas gives for the lesser severity of carnal sins seem to apply only to literal, physical sins of the body. Most if not all of the "spiritual" vices Lewis mentions are forms of the sin of Pride, which really is the supreme vice, and certainly a spiritual one. However, there are certain passages in Lewis's writings which show he understood that when St. Paul refers to "the flesh", that includes the unredeemed spirit.

Lydia, which part of TA's statement do you disagree with? With the parenthetical remark that simple fornication involves no injustice done to the partner, or with the main idea that it is the least serious form of lust? If the former, you're probably right; if the latter, while the reminder that casual fornication has serious consequences is very apropos, I don't see how we can get around the fact that it, alone among the sexual sins, constitutes doing "the right thing at the wrong time" and not a gravely disordered action.

As regards the Pharisees: it's true, their problem was not that their sins were so horrible in contrast to the nice whores, but that they were unrepentant. But the connection between that and the nature of the sin itself is closer than you acknowledge. "Simple" sins such as unchastity are (relatively) easy to repent, because the person is always aware on some level that they are doing wrong. The horror of being a Pharisee (in the sense of a hypocritical and self-righteous legalist) is that the deeper one falls into the sin, the more pleased he becomes with himself. That, ultimately, is why patronizing and backbiting, if persisted in and developed, may be of more concern than sexual immorality, and that is why the sex addict in The Great Divorce is the only one whom we see repenting. However, I will admit that Lewis made a mistake in comparing major sexual immorality to faults that amount more to minor personality flaws ("spoiling sport" indeed) than serious sins. But neither will I let go of my point that these things, when the seed is fully grown, do indeed become deadlier sins than lust. I suppose the difference between you and me is that I see his mistake more as poor word choice than a fundamental error.

As regards the Pharisees: it's true, their problem was not that their sins were so horrible in contrast to the nice whores, but that they were unrepentant. . . . The horror of being a Pharisee (in the sense of a hypocritical and self-righteous legalist) is that the deeper one falls into the sin, the more pleased he becomes with himself. That, ultimately, is why patronizing and backbiting, if persisted in and developed, may be of more concern than sexual immorality

I'm not sure even about this. There's at least a case to be made that pharasaical sins are simply worse than sins of impurity.

I wonder if anyone in this discussion has read Tom Jones? it's practically the theme of the whole book that unchastity together with earnest good will is infinitely preferable to chastity together with maliciousness and treachery.

Of course people should be warned about and be on their guard against impurity, which is a great danger to many souls; but this is because of its prevalence in our times and because it's the class of sins many of us are most inclined to fall into - not because such sins are simply worse than something like treachery.

The distinction between the spiritual and the carnal regarding sins is false:

All sins are spiritual -- as are all things without exception. All sins are sins against God, and because by every sin we commit we injure ourselves -- and because by injuring ourselves we also injure our neighbor -- the God and neighbor distinction invoked is false as well, especially because in Christ God Himself has become our neighbor, One Who died for the sins of the world, that is, the sins of all his neighbors. He is the good Samaritan, the real neighbor, of all those racked by sin.

Further, all so-called venial sins, unrepented, are mortal. All sins, whether the so-called venial or mortal, if unrepented, destroy the soul. Repented and forgiven, no sin is mortal, including those called by that name. Yet, because He died for the sins of the world, all sins have proved mortal to Christ, and all sins, the so-called venial included, will prove mortal to us if they are not covered by his blood. If there are distinctions to be drawn, then the one that counts most is the distinction between sins that are repented of and forgiven in Christ, on the one hand, and those that are not, on the other.

TA has his sin system, indeed, but it is one I reject almost in its entirety as an exercise in false distinctions. These are not distinction he learned from Christ, the prophets, or the apostles. These are later inventions. One distinction TA needs to learn is the one between discovery and invention. He's often far better at the latter than the former. This is a case in point.

Pachyderm:

"Simple" sins such as unchastity are (relatively) easy to repent, because the person is always aware on some level that they are doing wrong.

But this just isn't true. You and I both, I'm sure, know lots and lots of people who have not the slightest conscience problem about being unchaste. They may even be proud of it and utterly contemptuous of sexual chastity. (When Dawn Eden went to a Catholic high school in Canada and called for a "shout-out" for those who were still virgins, she got no response, and you would not believe the nasty comments those high schoolers wrote thereafter about her visit, her person, and her message.) Living together before marriage has become practically a norm for non-Christians, and they would be incredibly puzzled if you told them it was wrong. Would probably no longer be friends with you. The big distinction in the secular world now is between the "old-fashioned" unchaste who want a girl to commit serial fornication with a set of boyfriends with each of whom she has some sort of temporary romance and the "hook-up" unchaste who have no problem with young people's going to bed together while insisting that they "don't have a relationship." That's the world we live in. These people are "aware that they are doing wrong" only in the entirely technical sense that _any_ sin one commits is culpable because at some level one is "aware that one is doing wrong." But that technical sense could apply to being unkind, to treachery, etc., as well. It applies in no special sense to sins of unchastity and indeed, in our own times, probably less to them than to many others.

In answer to your other question, I was referring first of all to TA's assertion that there was no injustice done to the other in "simple fornication." Again, it may be that I just don't know what he means by "simple fornication," but I can think of plenty of kinds of fornication (heterosexual fornication, involving the temptation of physical passion) that do indeed involve injustice to the other. Now, if that is his _reason_ for classifying simple fornication as he does, and his reason is incorrect, that would seem to have implications for his classification at least in those cases of "simple fornication"--as I said, particularly those involving seduction, those involving no intention of commitment at all, those involving a settled intent to have sexual intercourse over a long period without marriage, etc.

Classically, the spiritual sins are those that violate the first three Commandments (Catholic/Lutheran formulation). They are a turning away from God. The carnal sins are four though ten. These involve a cleaving to self. I suspect that this is what St. Thomas meant by carnal sins, but I would need to cite more examples to prove it.

As for St. Thomas inventing things, this seems to be a disagreement on doctrinal issues and is not a topic for me to comment on in this post. The distinction between mortal and venial sins is Scriptural, although I realize that different Christian groups have their own interpretations of the passage.

The Chicken

Lydia,

By simple fornication, St. Thomas may mean masturbation. I an not familiar enough with Scholastic terminology to be sure, however.

Man, I hate this topic, although I realize it is an important one. My question, not to be too pessimistic, is, can we do anything to bring society back from the bottom of the pit or will we simply have to wait for this generation to die out?

The Chicken

My question, not to be too pessimistic, is, can we do anything to bring society back from the bottom of the pit or will we simply have to wait for this generation to die out?

Get married, have children, and home school them.

That will help the children who are homeschooled and is for the future. Can we do anything to change the people within society as they are, now?

The Chicken

It seems hard to clarify what exactly were the views of St Thomas on sexual conduct. If this next link is right, some of his views would maybe seem rather liberal to us.

Here's a link that I think is correct in its analysis of his views:

http://www.illinoismedieval.org/ems/VOL13/13ch4.html


According to the link, the term "Simple Fornication" means: "Sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman which hinders "the due upbringing and advancement of the child" once it is born and is called the lust of "simple fornication."


From the article:

"In the next question Aquinas specifies the distinct kinds of lust. He notes that all six kinds of lust are determined on the basis of the woman and not the man. His reason is that in sexual intercourse the man is active and a woman is passive and so since she is the one most affected, the species are determined by her material passivity. Reiterating that lust entails "seeking venereal pleasure not in accordance with right reason." Aquinas notes that this discord with right reason can be of two types: the pleasure sought is "inconsistent with the end" of sexual intercourse, or the sex is consummated with the wrong person. Given his stipulation that the end of sexual intercourse is preserving the human race, Aquinas states that the pursuit of venereal pleasure can violate this end in two ways. One type of sex entails "hindering the begetting of children" and pertains to every sex act which cannot result in generation. He calls this form of lust the "vice against nature" or "unnatural sins."29 The other type of sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman hinders "the due upbringing and advancement of the child" once it is born and is called the lust of "simple fornication." What is interesting to note is that Aquinas feels that sexual intercourse's end of preserving the human race entails not only physical procreation but also the rearing of a child."

"The other form of lust consisting of sex with the wrong person is divided according to persons that one has some familial relationship with or the persons under whom a woman is placed. Where there is a relationship of "consanguinity or affinity," the lust is incest. If the woman is "under the authority of a husband," the lust is adultery; if under the care of a father and there is no violence, the sin is the lust of seduction; and if there is violence, the sin is the lust of rape."

"A further specification is made by Aquinas in the case of sacrilege, where intercourse occurs with a woman who has made a vow to God to refrain from sex. Aquinas includes this case under adultery as a "spiritual adultery" since the woman had a form of marriage with God. Aquinas also notes that a husband "who is too ardent a lover of his wife" and who uses her indecently may be considered an adulterer and even more so than if he were this way to a woman not his wife. His reason is that even though the husband is not unfaithful to his wife in this case, nonetheless he is "breaking the marriage faith which is due between husband and wife" by the way he is treating her. The six types of lustful acts are, then, vices against nature, simple fornication, incest, adultery, seduction and rape. Though a case can be made for including prostitution under adultery, Aquinas places prostitution, which he also refers to as whoredom and intercourse with harlots, in the category of simple fornication. There are few direct references to prostitution in the works of Aquinas. He does note that prostitution is filthy and against the law of God, that it is something unlawful, a shameful occupation that it is venal and forbidden by the sixth commandment. But Aquinas does not go into any depth concerning the evil of prostitution except in the discussion of simple fornication. What Aquinas has to say about simple fornication directly applies to prostitution and how he views the morality of the practice."

"Given this strong condemnation of fornication and prostitution, it would seem obvious that Aquinas would want to engage every force against them, especially civil law. Oddly enough he does not. Instead he notes that the state should allow fornication and prostitution to exist for the sake of the common good. Relying on the well-known passage from Augustine's De ordine, Aquinas advocates tolerance of prostitution by noting: "Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain evils be incurred: thus Augustine says [De ordine 2.4]: If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.'" If these social practices were to be suppressed, the public reaction might be such as to threaten the peace of society. Remember, Aquinas already maintains (1) that prostitution is a species of lust that is one of the capital vices that wreak the greatest havoc on the human soul and leads to other sins; (2) that it is a mortal sin that threatens the proper rearing of children and by extension threatens the common good of society; and (3) that it violates the natural law and matrimonial union. How then could one tolerate such an evil, particularly a natural law thinker such as Aquinas? Is Aquinas compromising on his principles or playing utilitarian?"

"To answer questions such as these requires a look at Aquinas's understanding of the function of human law in society which is discussed in the "Treatise on Law" of the first part of the second part, in questions 90-108, more particularly question 96 on the power of human law. First off, Aquinas is not a theocratic thinker advocating a union of secular and ecclesial powers in one religious figure. Though human law is founded on natural law, they are not identical. Nor is the human law an application of divine law in everyday living, since the purpose of human law is the temporal tranquility of the state, whereas the end of divine law is eternal happiness."

"Secondly, Aquinas makes a distinction between interior and exterior human acts. Exterior acts are those observable by another, while interior acts, such as intention and knowledge, are not directly observable. Human law is concerned with external actions and so is not able to punish or forbid all evil deeds. There are some areas of human affairs that human law cannot direct and so it should not meddle with these matters. Aquinas is not troubled by this limitation in human or civil law because the eternal law can direct what human law cannot. So he notes that human law permits certain things to occur in society which it cannot control. However, such permission is not equivalent to approval of such behavior."

I've heard peoples say that St Augustine believed Prostitution was necessary quoting his line "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust." I'm not sure if people are corrupting his words and teachings, or if they are correct in there point, because I don't have enough knowledge about the topic to know myself.

In this Catholic Forum discussion I seen this:

http://catholicforum.fisheaters.com/index.php?topic=3427618.0

"Today almost every virgin is seduced/corrupted before marriage, yet prostitution is illegal. I'd much rather have a system where most women remained chaste and those men who fornicated did so with paid whores. It's not perfect, but it is better than the alternative. In such a system, public shame is preserved to a greater extent than when fornication is accepted as natural. And if that cultural shift required the legal tolerance of prostitution, so be it. Better 10 open prostitutes in a city than 10,000 girls corrupted on prom night. And yes, there are situations in which this would be preferable, if only because we are *not* going to have a perfect world."

So I'm not sure what the Catholic view on these topics is, from a modern or historical stand point.

Some of this is slightly off topic, but I think it may add to the discussion.

By simple fornication, St. Thomas may mean masturbation.

That seems improbable, since St. Thomas held the intentional spilling of seed to be a violation against human life based on the science of the time (little people in there), as well as a greater perversion of the natural law than rape or incest. I think he means what we would mean, i.e., that in "simple fornication" there is no offended (harmed) spouse. Of course, there may be some day.

Couple of points: first, prostitution in St. Thomas's day, I think, probably did not partake of the human trafficking aspect that it does today. Now, prostitution usually includes a kind of direct slavery (not just the slavery to sin that is implicit in lust). So today toleration of prostitution in its current form has a graver evil attached.

Secondly, St. Thomas apparently uses St. Augustine's reference to toleration of prostitution as an example, not as direct support of that specific thing to tolerate. One can easily see St. Thomas saying that in some social situations, prostitution ought to be tolerated, whereas in others it should NOT be tolerated - it just depends on the other goods to be gained or lost thereby. Therefore, it pertains to political prudence to determine which.

It is obvious that in an ideal society prostitution is not tolerated. But in a society such as ours where fornication itself is commonly viewed as a matter outside the legitimate boundary of law, it is almost impossible to make an argument that a law against simple, old-fashioned prostitution would have any hope of being enforced effectively. And it is always a bad thing to have a law that cannot be enforced. Yet it is quite another thing to tolerate slavery and trafficking, which compound the evils of prostitution.

Phantom, if there was a realistic prospect of turning public opinion against the common, everyday fornication going on by permitting legal prostitution, I think you would get a fair support from some church leaders. But the problem is that human nature generally doesn't go in that direction: the vices opposed to self-restraint in terms of pleasure are not effectively countered by turning one form of the vice toward another form of the same vice, but toward something intrinsically free of vice, or at least capable of being free of vice. You would need to promote a return of chivalry, or something else that actually holds up reasonable self-restraint as laudable, to make real inroads on the culture of easy sex.

Actually, simple anti-prostitution laws not only still exist but also are a primary way of fighting sex slavery. Legalization is a green light to slavers, whatever may be said to the contrary notwithstanding. And I've gotta admit that I really find it hard to believe it wasn't going on in St. T.A's time. Maybe he just didn't know. Hosea had to _buy_ back Gomer. She'd run off from a marriage to a good guy and gotten herself enslaved by a pimp. Dumb girl. Of course, that was ancient Israel, but did it really just magically die out in between? I doubt it.

Tony, I think your last point is correct. I should just clarify though. I wasn't endorsing that as an idea.

I wasn't really making any specific point, its just that the conversation happpened to turn to the views of St Thomas on sex and I remembered that article.

I was just showing people the information and ideas without really inserting my own views into it.

I think Lewis's point was the wickedness of "spiritual" vices rather than the innocence of the sensual.

I think Lewis's point was the wickedness of "spiritual" vices rather than the innocence of the sensual.

While that may be true, Lewis did not, properly speaking, name spiritual vices. These would include things like idolatry, blasphemy, etc. The pleasure of backbiting goes to bearing false witness, for example, which is not a spiritual vice. These may affect spirituality, but they are not spiritual vices, per se. Lewis is not comparing apples and oranges, but Macintosh to Golden Delicious. All of the sins he names are, properly speaking, carnal.

The Chicken

Lydia, When you say that you disagree with St. Thomas, do you mean that you disagree with a)his classification of simple fornication as the least grave of the sins of lust, or with b) his classification of simple fornication as an act 'committed without injustice to another person'? If you mean b), I don't think you should read him as saying that simple fornication is 'sex without consequences'. The harm done to future offspring (lack of proper home, upbringing, etc.) would be included under his category 'with prejudice to future offspring', and the simple fornicator does act in a way that is prejudicial to future offspring (this would cover those in the 'hook-up culture', etc.). But unlike the rapist, say, the simple fornicator doesn't act with 'injustice to another person' - which means that he doesn't violate, say, the woman's moral claim not to be assaulted, which is due to her in justice (in a similar manner, the adulterer violates the moral claim of the husband to be the sole sexual partner of his wife (or vice versa), which is due to him (or her) in justice). Hence, we might say that he who rapes sins twice. The only point I'd want to make here is that a man who seduces a woman who is initially unwilling to commit fornication is probably worse than a man who fornicates with a willing woman, as he is guilty of perverting her will.

Tony W., I answered that specific question in the last paragraph of this comment:

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2010/07/correcting_the_biases_of_old_b.html#comment-126429

I certainly agree with an ordering that would make rape (much) worse than seduction and seduction worse than hopping into bed with someone entirely willing. I make yet further distinctions in the paragraph. But I continue to maintain that people who have sex with each other with no commitment or with no intention of making a commitment for some lengthy time to come are committing a significant injustice _against each other_, not simply against possible offspring. They are, in a word, using each other. This is actually quite important. I see no reason to have the concept of "injustice" entirely track the concept of force, coercion, or pressure on the will. It seems to me that there should be a recognition of injustice in the fact of using the other as a mere sexual plaything, even if this use is being done in the other direction as well.

Lydia, as Michael Bauman pointed out, all sins of whatever sort damage the sinner, and in doing so also damage his or her relation to neighbors, and so damage society. And any sin that is directed at a social effect also damages society. So all such sins have elements of "injustice." But we do not normally speak of all these sins as being sins against justice.

While I agree with you that an act of fornication, freely and willingly entered into by both man and woman, does imply a way in which the man treats the woman badly, and the woman treats the man badly, is this aspect fundamentally different from the sort of "injustice" I mention above? I am not too clear on it.

Seems to me that the distinction St. Thomas is making is about the primary, or direct, elements in the constitution of the sins of lust. For example, today we understand that the sin of rape often or even generally includes an element of power: the man relishes having power to make the woman fear and beg and cringe, the power to cause pain and suffering. This sort of evil presents a vastly different upset in the order of justice than the way in which willing fornicators present an injustice to the other.

By the way, the evil of hooking up is not, I think, the same as simple fornication. Simple fornicators (both willing, let us assume two lovers) want the pleasure of the marriage bed without marriage, without the permanent commitment to children that marriage includes. But they DO normally intend the unitive aspect of the marriage bed, insofar as that unitive aspect is found in physical relationship: the mutual giving and receiving of pleasure for and from the other so that the pleasure is really and truly mutually shared - the delight of one increases the enjoyment of the other. But in hooking-up, (as I gather it), the act is really a matter of using the other person's body in a sophisticated and complex form of masturbation. Therefore, there is no unitive intention at all. (As is seen from the fact that it explicitly denies any sort of lasting relationship at all.) Hooking up deprives sex of BOTH its unitive and pro-creative ends, and makes it purely selfish gratification.

Mr. Bauman, while TA may have introduced an unnecessary level of complexity in the ordering of the sins of lust, I fear that your approach does away with necessary distinctions between sins. For example, I don't think that your account of mortal and venial can be squared with the Letter of James at all. Is your account suggested by any more authoritative source than yourself?

"Is your account suggested by any more authoritative source than yourself?"

Tony:
It's not about me. It's about sound exegesis, which works against the views of Thomas on this issue, both in James and elsewhere.

It's not about me. It's about sound exegesis,

Indeed. And yet, since the Bible comes from an Authority other than myself, I always take caution when I find that my own exegesis is quite far separated from that of all others who have gone before me in faith. Especially when my exegesis is opposed to that of giants in the faith.

Tony, if you're saying that in the "boyfriend/girlfriend" situation, there is at least the claim that the two people are in love with one another, I certainly agree with you that this makes it less bad than the explicit denial of any relationship in the hook-up culture. On the other hand, if even the people in love with one another intend no lasting commitment, there's something going on there that I _think_ could be described as injustice, though vastly different, as you say, from the injustice of violence and horror perpetrated in rape.

Actually, simple anti-prostitution laws not only still exist but also are a primary way of fighting sex slavery. Legalization is a green light to slavers, whatever may be said to the contrary notwithstanding.

Given the way that the states and federal government criminalize the entire process of committing a crime (hence new crimes like "possessing a firearm while possessing X amount of drugs"), I find it hard to believe that they could not creatively crush sexual slavery by thoroughly applying that process to sexual slavery.

But I continue to maintain that people who have sex with each other with no commitment or with no intention of making a commitment for some lengthy time to come are committing a significant injustice _against each other_, not simply against possible offspring.

I know his words on their face seem invite another interpretation, but I can't imagine Thomas quarreling with this. When he says "which is committed without injustice to another person", it's in the midst of comparing "simple" fornication to other more perverse forms. That there is no injustice vis a vis the matter of consent or compulsion, does not mean there is no injustice at all. A lot hangs on "simple." It may have carried a meaning not familiar to us.

Lydia, all I was pointing out is that in simple fornication, even if the boyfriend and girlfriend don't intend any kind of long-term commitment, they do intend that element of the conjugal act by which each party takes delight in the act of pleasing the other, which belongs to the unitive aspect of sex (although is only one small facet thereof). Which minimal good isn't even present in hooking up.

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong.


I think Lewis was making a necessary corrective there. In a lot of peoples minds, Christian and non-Christian alike, sex does play an exaggerated role in Christian theology.

You seem to suggest that Lewis downplays sexual sin too much. If you read the chapter to which the passage you take issue with is the conclusion, you will see that your suggestion is mistaken.

I've read the chapter many times, SM. That's one of the reasons that I say that Lewis got on a rhetorical roll in that one passage and overstated his case and that his other writings are a corrective to it. However, it was that passage that was used as it stands in the discussion that prompted this post. And, frankly, the passage lends itself to that use. One can use a phrase like "taken out of context," but Lewis _does_ overstate. Backbiting, "bossing," and "spoiling sport" are _not_ worse even than fornication, much less seduction, adultery, or homosexual acts.

Lewis was a fluent and quick writer, despite the fact that he wrote everything by hand. In another age, and if he could have learned to type, he would have been a blogger, though I think that would have been bad for him. This extreme fluency rather annoyed his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who took a long time to write everything. I think that in this case Lewis's quickness and fluency betrayed him into writing something incorrect that could understandably be taken and used over sixty years later to justify downplaying blatant, unrepentant adultery as one of the "least of all the sins." Sorry, no dice.

he would have been a blogger, though I think that would have been bad for him.

Okay, you just convinced me to quit blogging.

Don't you dare, Bill!

The idea that spiritual sins are worse than sins of the flesh is one which crops up repeatedly with Lewis, this passage is not a one-off. It's not a completely new idea by him - pride has long been considered the deadliest of the sins. Lewis splits off all the spiritual sins - anger, envy, despair, and so on - into a separate category from lust and gluttony. I see where he's come from. If self-regard - pride - is the greatest of sins then gluttony and lust are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They are a craving for something outside oneself. From a Christian POV that's a good impulse, it just needs to be directed at the proper object.

Not all sex out of wedlock falls under the heading of "sins of the flesh". Rape is a manifestation of anger, for instance. Many affairs are the result of boredom or Acedia rather than true lust. If I may put words in CSL's mouth, I think he'd say that if we address the sins of the spirit first the sins of the flesh become much easier to deal with. But if we try to address the sins of the flesh as if they are detached from the spirit, we are doomed to failure.

"since the Bible comes from an Authority other than myself, I always take caution when I find that my own exegesis is quite far separated from that of all others who have gone before me in faith. Especially when my exegesis is opposed to that of giants in the faith."


Tony,
The Bible does not come from the "Authority" you seem to think it does. There was a Bible long before there was a Catholic church. Jesus, for example, read it and referred to it. Neither He nor the Jews of his and earlier days needed the "Authority" to which you refer in order to have and to understand the Bible. The marks of inspiration are not invisible to all but the "Authority." That is true of both Testaments.

Proper exegesis is a matter of precise verbal understanding, not claims to authority.

Further, you are being rather selective in your invocation of the exegisis of the so-called giants of the faith.

Ahhh, Michael, the Authority I was referring to was at a somewhat higher pay grade than the Church here on Earth, the ultimate source of the Bible. Sorry if that was unclear.

Proper exegesis is a matter of precise verbal understanding,

Sure, I agree that it starts there. But it doesn't end there. It takes study, prayer, and humble submission to the Spirit that inspires the whole of Scripture.

Further, you are being rather selective in your invocation of the exegisis of the so-called giants of the faith.

Do you mean that there are giants that explain the passage in just the way you did? Great. Let's have at them. Who, where, can you give us the passages? That's what I was asking for to begin with.

I just now saw Bill's comment. Bill, you can't get off that easily. You would never be tempted to be careless in your writing because you were blogging. Taking care over your writing has been too much burned into you by your past training and work. So, sorry, you can't get out of blogging that easily. :-)

Post a comment


Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.