We are not told why the younger brother in the parable went to the far country. If younger brothers in the days of Jesus were as they have been everywhere else, maybe he grew weary of tending sheep with his father and his elder brother. Maybe life seemed to him to have ended before it had begun. The old homestead was a prison, and traditions were its fetters.
Young men do not leave home intending to squander everything and to return embarrassed, impoverished, and exposed to all the sour looks and shakes of the head from family, neighbors, and servants. They leave home, as they believe, to make a name for themselves in the world. They will get rich. They gaze upon new and strange wonders. They will open up like flowers before the sun. They will not grow stagnant, dull, and disease-ridden.
The younger brother knew no such luck. We may say that the grace of God dispelled his dreams, so that when the famine struck and he was starved for bread—and we should keep in mind that “not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”—he returned to a home he had never really known before. His development, then, was by way of that return.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Yet he could not simply resume his old place. Too much had happened in the meantime. And to insist upon his share of his father’s estate was to wish that the old man were dead already. That was to cut himself off from his trunk and expect to live on his own. But when he came back, when he was, to use Paul’s words, renewed in the conversion of his mind, he was alive again, and, I think we may suggest, alive in a new way. He was not resuscitated. He was born anew.
Now, let us suppose that God had not blessed the boy with famine. Suppose, instead, that he had plenty to eat and that he had made a go of it with his money. He had seen pagan temples, Roman galleys, silks from the East, steam baths. He had met dark-skinned men from India and the fair blonds of the far north. He had coupled with many a woman of the world. He had bread—the kind you tear between your teeth and the kind you shell out from your purse.
We need not suppose he was happy. Hedonism requires a lot of rouge and eyeshadow to mask the disillusionment. Nor was he wise. Yet he prided himself on his progress. He looked back with contempt on his father and his elder brother, imagining them yoked to the same old plow, penning up the same stupid sheep, never thinking a new thought (and by “new thoughts” we must understand the fashionable things that everybody around him said, without considering what they meant). They would be as staid and smelly as the mud they had to slog through in the rainy season and as dry and lifeless as the dust of summer.
So, I can see him writing back to the poor slobs, inviting them into his new world, pretending to a happiness he did not feel, boasting a sophistication he did not possess; secretly envying them, and wishing to destroy what was old, lest it show up the flash and glare of what pretended to be new.
I have a book from that far country. I keep it in the attic, out of the way. It is an excruciatingly embarrassing work called Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (1978). Its authors do not enter into a more and more specific appreciation of what it means to be male or female. Sex is resolved into the vague notion of “sexuality,” precisely so that the specifics of what the bodies male and female are for may be eluded. All actions that promote “creative growth through integration” of human faculties are to be considered licit. This was progress, they thought.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, thankfully, did not sign on, and Franjo Cardinal Seper, head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to commend them and to specify some of the fundamental errors the authors had made. I use the word “errors” advisedly, for its inner sense of straying, wandering, as opposed to the bold pioneering the authors implicitly claimed in their title. When you err, you may be always on the move, but you get nowhere. You are, at best, like somebody unwittingly traversing a circular path in the wilderness. At worst, you are descending a more and more precipitous path, until, exhausted and unable to take another step, you find yourself at the brink of the pit.
“The authors,” wrote Cardinal Seper, “nearly always find a way to allow for integrative growth through the neglect or destruction of some intrinsic element of sexual morality.” The language of progress, we see, is called up to justify sexual inclinations and actions that are as old as the hills. The individual, who alone is supposed capable of judging how far he has come toward integration, grows not by pursuing what is objectively good.
Rather, things are defined as good or licit by what is taken to be their tendency, for the individual in question, to integrate the various facets of his personality. But such perceptions, as Cardinal Seper noted, are inherently subjective, dependent upon feelings and customs, so that “it would be next to impossible to single out definite criteria of what exactly integrates a particular person or contributes to his or her creative growth in any specific sexual activity.”
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In this far country we live in now, people are so dis-integrated that they have often no love for the bodies God gave them but, instead, must have them mutilated, just as their families so often have been. Even by 1978, one might have thought that intelligent Catholic theologians would have noticed the misery-making about them in the surge of divorce and unwed motherhood and the sewage backwash of pornography. They ought to have come to their senses, as the young man in the parable did. But perhaps university life was a bit too comfortable still, and likewise the delight of securing the esteem of your colleagues at the high-end saloon.
That is not to say that the authors of Human Sexuality encouraged everything. They had better taste than that. Had the younger brother become what the world calls successful, he surely would not have broken the commandments of God in every conceivable way. But the authors have nothing other than their own feelings, their taste as it were, to go by.
If some forms of sexual conduct are disapproved, it is only because of the supposed absence, generally expressed in the form of a doubt, of “human integration” (as in swinging, mate-swapping, bestiality), and not because these actions are opposed to the nature of human sexuality. When some action is considered completely immoral, it is never for intrinsic reasons, on the basis of objective finality, but only because the authors happen not to see, for their part, any way of making it so for some human integration.
I am sure that many people now proficient in such behaviors would step forward to instruct the authors in how to see the light—the ultraviolet light, and beyond.
Exactly what has happened since 1978 that should excuse anyone for taking New Directions as new directions? It is not the case that the recommendations of the authors were set aside. The authors were registering the common talk of people around them and dressing it up in theological garb. The whole culture—if it can be called a culture—was going down that road, and the authors went along.
To justify the sexual “liberation” of New Directions now is to stagnate indeed, but always with the impression of boldness, newness, courage, and so forth. Meanwhile, the very failures of those aims and the immense social wreckage have caused some theologians to say, “What fools we are! There is bread enough and to spare in our Father’s house.” And these have done the work of true progress, which is to turn back from error, to hold fast to the truth, and to delve into that truth more and more deeply, appreciating more fully the great gift of sexual being, male and female, each beautiful in its own right but incomplete without the other, for which each was made.