There we were, the four of us: me; an academic colleague of mine; a 60-something, salt o’ the earth, sarcastic Yankee pastor; and a smart Midwestern seminarian on the brink of ordination. The beer was flowing freely — into my glass, anyway — and we were having the kind of conversation laymen have with priests these days (which means that topics arose I’m confident never came up between clergy and laity in previous centuries). In contexts like this, I feel a little uncomfortable, constrained to somehow convey the following points:
I know you’re not one of the “bad ones.” Isn’t it a shame how a few pervy priests and a lot of feckless bishops put good men like you under a shadow?
I know you don’t say the traditional liturgy, but I hope you’ll consider it, since it really is a superior expression of the meaning of the sacrament to the Novus Ordo. Which is all you’ve ever said. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I’ve got a pretty good idea how thankless, lonely, and tough your job really is. We really do appreciate you guys. Here, let me pick up the check.
No, I don’t have a vocation. If we talked for another half hour, you wouldn’t ask.
In the course of the evening, a topic came up that rang certain alarm bells and almost got me pounding on the table. It was nothing doctrinal; the “heresy computer” that Rev. John Hardon hard-wired into my head when I sat in on his classes from 1979-82 didn’t register anything dangerous. (By contrast, when I went to the campus ministry in college, the dang thing kept going off like a Geiger counter at Chernobyl.)
Instead, the issue at hand was something pastoral and subtle. Normally that’s the kind of thing I’d miss. Indeed, as I’ve always said of my taste in art and apologetics: “Hulk no like subtlety. It confuse him. Then it make him MAD . . .”
Perhaps because it’s an intellectual mistake I’ve made myself — and paid for in tears and treasure — this error, however subtle, upset and alarmed me, like finding the head of a rat floating in my soup. It’s hard to just eat around it.
We were talking about the prevalence of abortion and its root causes in modern sexual behavior. Now, I’ve written here before on how it was women who got a raw deal in the Sexual Revolution, which touted for all and sundry the horndog drives of adolescent boys as the model of modern, “liberated” behavior — and how feminism was, in a sense, the bloody revenge. Legal abortion was the means by which young women could equal the field with men and minimize the consequences of promiscuity. And many of the women who contract with doctors to destroy their unborn children pay a terrible psychological price.
So far, so good. All four of us were in agreement. But then the seminarian offered this theory, which I’m paraphrasing as closely as I can.
“Women who have premarital sex, and abortions, were only looking for love. Most of them had poor relationships with their fathers, and they’re seeking substitutes for the paternal love they never had. And men take advantage of that. That’s why if we’re going to change the abortion culture, it’s going to have to be men whose attitudes we change. Men have to take responsibility for this, and they have to be the ones who learn how to say ‘no’ to premarital sex.”
This earnest, orthodox gentleman who studied in Rome and who’s willingly embracing lifelong celibacy and practical poverty to serve the Church — which is more than I’d ever do — had clearly been doing his reading. Indeed, he sounded like he was reading off a script from some pious text or other he’d been assigned at a pastoral seminar by well-meaning “pro-life feminists.”
To this I responded: “What planet are you from?”
Which kind of stopped the conversation cold. A good thing I was ready with a two-minute monologue, detailing all the many shades and colors of utter nonsense he’d just uttered. In sum, I said (less eloquently, I bet):
“Granted that there are women who blunder into premarital sex because they’re exploited by older or more sophisticated men who lie to them, who promise a lifelong commitment in return for a one-night stand. And some of those girls get pregnant, feel abandoned, and have abortions.
“But is that really the average profile of a woman who has premarital sex — a clueless, damaged damsel who isn’t driven by any sexual desires of her own, but instead is searching for pure and perfect love, dragged down by the grubby cravings of filthy men? Is the average unmarried American woman — who is, by all accounts, ‘sexually active’ — an emotional basket case whose father left her wounded, vulnerable to exploitation by heartless, Y-chromosomed hedonists? If so, she is barely culpable for any sexual sins — and hardly to be blamed for having an abortion. We should treat her purely as a victim, and not as a rational adult with free will who committed a sin. Why bother to absolve her? (Or, as the Church does ipso facto, impose on her — as on the doctor and anyone else directly involved — excommunication.) Is this the outcome of the pro-life position — purely strategic — that we never foresee any legal penalty for women who have abortions, only the doctors? If so, the price is too high.”
I asked the seminarian: “Have you ever dated? In fact, have you met any women? The ones I’ve known don’t fit that description — including the ones who don’t practice perfect chastity.
“In my limited experience, women have sexual desires, too. They are capable of making rational decisions, and should be held responsible for them — just like men. Why do they go out and have sex when they know they shouldn’t? Here’s a theory: Original Sin. And your idea of making men the gatekeepers, expecting that (since women are pretty much helpless) it’s going to fall to guys to be the new enforcers of chastity . . . Good luck with that one.”
The pastor turned to the seminarian. “Just wait till you hear some confessions,” he said, and went back to his soup.
And now you can see why I don’t get invited out to dinner very often. But at least I picked up the check.
P.S. My title isn’t original. It comes from a priceless book by Celia Rivenbark, who, because she is Southern, would have treated the seminarian much more tactfully than I did. She would have said, “Sweetie, you need to watch yourself some soaps.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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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.