Many are the strange things going on in the Unreal Hotel.
In Room 101, a man and woman are lying together, and in more ways than one.
In Room 102, it is a man and a man.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In Room 103, a fellow named George, who has grown weary of his life, is meeting surreptitiously with his physician, Dr. Felix, to determine what will be the best medicine for him to take to bring his days to an appropriate end.
In Room 104, two teenagers, drunk with terror and glee, spin the nearly empty chamber of a revolver, while their friends look on and place bets.
In Room 105, a young girl, her boyfriend looking on from the corner, dials the nearest women’s health center to make an appointment to snuff out the life they have begotten.
In Room 106, Mr. and Mrs. Mobile sit anxiously by the telephone, waiting to hear whether their boy, whose ultrasound image they have seen, possesses a certain chromosomal anomaly which will instantly transform him from the prospective Michael, Junior, to an unfortunate object to be discarded.
In Room 107, a caseworker from an adoption agency writes “approved” below the application of two women for a baby boy, and “disapproved” below the application of a married couple, adding the explanation, “too fat.”
In Room 108, a lobbyist hunkers over his desk, writing up new regulations for his employer’s industry, regulations which will effectually drive many of his employer’s competitors out of business. When he finishes with this, he takes from his briefcase a speech on economic freedom, to correct the grammar and add incendiary flourishes.
In Room 109, an Education Czar chats with his colleagues about the need to center education upon the personal needs of the child, and also to ensure safety in schools whose students number more than a thousand.
In Room 110 – but I need not go on.
It is common for me to hear that the moral teachings of the Catholic Church, whereof I am a grateful member, are “unrealistic.” By this opprobrious term is meant, I gather, “absolutely impossible to abide by.” It is, then, considered impossible for John, or Mary, to remain chaste. It is impossible for Roy to refrain from abusing himself with another man. It is impossible for George to live out his days. It is impossible for teenagers to find enjoyment in what is true and good and beautiful. It is impossible for Dr. Felix to concentrate on healing rather than on destruction. It is impossible to bear a child. It is impossible to be honest. It is impossible to treat children as human beings. Beneath all these impossibles is the bald insistence of a spoiled soul: “What I do not want to do, that I cannot do.”
And yet realism is precisely what the Church’s teachings presuppose, and upon which they build. Consider the case of John and Mary in Room 101. They are not married, but they have removed their clothes. In doing so, they have quite literally divested themselves; their being naked to one another says, “There is nothing I withhold from you. I am entirely yours.” When they “make love,” as they call it, what is actually happening? Each body possesses within itself precious strands of human history: all the generations that have resulted in their physical beings are, as it were, ready to emerge again to the shores of light. They are doing the baby-making thing. They are doing what no human being can do on his own, nor can two members of the same sex do it. They are forming “one flesh,” organs cooperating in the complex interplay that is oriented towards the future. The seed of the man is being sown in the field of the woman’s womb, where it may well bring forth fruit. That is what is going on in Room 101.
John and Mary may object, “But we have taken a precaution. We have sown the field with salt beforehand. We have set a plastic guard under the soil.” All that does is to complicate the lie. It does not change the nature of the act itself. John and Mary, with their very bodies, are saying, “I give myself wholly,” and the organs are responding as if the gift were entire, yet the pleasure they experience is shot through with the self-contradiction. “I can rely on her,” John considers. “She’ll know better than to make too much of this.” Meanwhile a wave of sweat washes over Mary as her eye lights upon a white pill on the nightstand.
The core of all Catholic moral teaching is that good and bad are determined by the real nature of what we do. Our guiltiness – that subjective evil that dwells in the heart, which only God can see perfectly – is another matter. No Catholic can claim to know how God will judge John and Mary, or the teenagers at their roulette, or the blind educationist. But not all the lying in the world, not all the shrugs and ducks, not all the evasions, not all the precious intellectual pirouettes, can alter what is real.
Consider Room 102. If we look upon the bodies of the two men as essentially unreal – that is, though they are possessed of a certain physical composition, we say that there is no nature to the body, nothing that makes it this sort of thing rather than that – then we can pass no moral judgments whatsoever upon what they do. For there isn’t any “what they do”; it is only what they say they do, or what they will to do, or what they imagine they do. And this will satisfy most people now, because most people are comfortable inhabitants of Unreal City. Yet what is really happening to the seed? What is happening to this or that part of the body not meant for penetration? The Catholic teaching, frank and clear, begins with the command, “Respect reality. Notice what this body is, and what it is for. Notice what this masculine nature is for.”
The gun is for killing, not for a game. The teenagers are in fact committing, in law at least, reckless endangerment of human life; in morality, murder. But that is also what Dr. Felix is doing. All we need to do is to call the lethal toxin a “medicine,” and we see the lie, the adamant refusal to abandon Unreal City. For the toxin does not medicate. It does not heal a disease, or restore an organ to proper function. It does not even soothe pain. It eliminates the subject of the pain. Such “medicine” is analogous to a political program to stamp out poverty by eliminating the poor. It does not matter, either, that George wants Dr. Felix to administer the toxin, as it would not matter if a poor man were to say, “I give up, take my life.” The teenagers in Room 104, after all, are quite full of a desire to be where they are, playing their deadly game. Consent does not alter the act’s reality; it merely adds a conspirator to the killing.
As it turns out, the boyfriend in Room 105 has a ready answer for us. “It is only a blob of cells right now,” says he, having picked up the phrase in health class at Unreal High. But a blob of cells is precisely what the developing child is not. A blob may have a more or less spherical shape, but that is not what makes it a blob. A germinated seed may have a more or less spherical shape, yet it is certainly no blob. A blob is an undifferentiated mass. It is lifeless, unless it comes flowing from the ball return at the bowling alley in a bad movie. But the embryo is already a self-integrating organism. It is a living thing. It is human – not canine, not equine, not porcine. It dwells within the mother’s body – and she is, eo ipso, not a mother-to-be, but already a mother. But it is not a part of the mother’s body. That is flat biological fact. It possesses its own genetic makeup: neither that of the mother nor that of the father. It has begun to exist in time, like all living creatures. It not only has being; it is a being, and it is the sort of being that we all once were, and still are. It is not analogous to an acorn, or a sperm cell, or a grain of pollen. It is analogous to a seedling. We look upon the serrated three-lobed leaf on its tiny stem, poking up from the earth, and we say, correctly, “There’s a maple tree,” though as yet it possesses neither bark nor xylem nor sap. And the girl on the telephone knows this, because she had dearly wanted the boyfriend to say, “You’re carrying my child!”
The case of Mr. and Mrs. Mobile is fascinating. They are dwelling in a place we might call Unreal Square: an unreality upon an unreality, an unreality in an additional dimension. For until they hear the word from the laboratory, they can neither say “He is Michael, Junior, our son,” or “We should do away with it.” It is bad enough to suppose that a he can be transformed into an it by an act of imaginative will. It is bad in an altogether novel way to suppose that, until the decision is made, the developing child exists in limbo, neither child nor not-child. It is unreal to affirm that two and two make five. It is far more complexly unreal to affirm that one cannot know yet whether two and two will make four or five or any other sum.
The duelist says, “I was defending my honor.” The Church says – not needing to thumb through sacred Scripture, but only to respect reality, “No, you were an aggressor, putting a bullet through your neighbor’s heart.” The slaveowner says, “I am taking care of these people.” Bartolomeo de las Casas says, “No, you are treating them as chattel for your own profit.” The eugenicist says, “I am helping the poor.” Chesterton says, “No, you are passing around devices so that there will be fewer of the poor for you to ignore.” The polyamorist says, “I wish to love several women at once.” Pope John Paul says, “Alas, poor ignorant man, you do not even know what married love is, or you would not have so foolishly contradicted yourself.” The Pharisee says, “I am praying.” Jesus says, “No, you are praising yourself. The publican over there, who respects the reality of his sin, he is the one who is praying.”
If we would but adopt the Catholic position, that of acknowledging the being and the goodness and the integrity of what is, then we might find ourselves doing more than elementary moral reasoning. For it is pretty elementary, to determine that a healer is supposed to heal, and the baby-making act makes babies, and a male cannot mate with another male. We might, with toddling steps, come round to treating more subtle questions involving prudential judgments. We would not hold forth about education, until we had asked about realities. What is a child? What does it mean to know the truth? Why should we love the truth? We would not hold forth about economics, until we had asked about realities. Where are true riches to be found? For whom, and for what, do we work? What is a household? What makes for happiness in that household? We would not hold forth about politics, until we had asked about realities. What are people for? What is a community, anyway? What does the common good look like?
The faith I treasure in my heart has meditated upon these things for two thousand years, and its teachings are tender and subtle, rich and glorious. But one cannot begin to breathe that good air, unless one has taken those first stumbling steps out of the lies and the fog of Unreal City.