Monday, January 9, 2012

"He's a Catholic guy": A concise summary of some important problems between dating and Catholics.

I would preface this note by fully and completely admitting that I am singularly not a living expression of the "average Catholic" who is in the dating realm.  In the first place (and I say this solely insofar as it may bear upon this post), I am actively pursuing discernment of a possible religious vocation, though I keep an open mind at the moment with respect to dating; in the second, my dating history did not start with a hookup, as is becoming something of a phenomenon in Western societies (and, I should add, even if the preceding link to MSNBC is not convincing, one must really examine how often they know themselves or their friends to go on "proper" dates. This is a universal experience.)  However, by the same token, I have no attachment to the school of thought that thinks these things are necessary or inevitable parts of the "dating life" of every young man. Frankly, I wouldn't call them dating.

Putting that aside, this post is not about the hook-up as such; it is about hypocrisy, and perhaps the most common hypocrisy one sees among college-age Catholics today.  I am referring here to the policy of identifying as Catholic even as one indulges the hook-up culture. To begin with: 90 percent of Catholic adults apparently, according to one Harris Interactive poll, support coverage of birth control as a health care policy. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that polls are flexible, and it does not immediately imply that they would personally use contraception, the immediate problem this presents to an educated Catholic is that those 90 percent of Catholics have turned against all the Church teaching on the matter.  This would manifest itself in several issues:

Canon Law 916 states that "anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, which includes the resolve to go to confession as soon as possible." Now, it is, in fact, a grave sin to use contraception; it is likewise a sin to support it knowing that it is wrong, because to support a mortal sin deliberately is to become an accomplice. Now, there is a clarification to be made here; one may not know that it is a mortal sin. But even in that circumstance there are other factors in play. Was someone willfully ignorant of the Church's teaching? Was their ignorance due to negligence, fully willful or otherwise? If so, even the lack of knowledge does not excuse them, because like the person who chooses to get drunk knowing that they may be tempted to drive and thus risk killing someone, they choose ignorance knowing that they may choose it to their own undoing. If these are the case, then such ignorance does NOT excuse the sin; thus, true ignorance is a much rarer bird than anyone might think. And when it is not present, one is then deliberately supporting something that one knows may be a mortal sin, and one is as responsible as a drunk man is for a murder or other crime he may commit.

Now, I have friends who are not Catholic, and a lot of them. They are very dear to me, and often tell me how their life is going; part of that involves the romantic. And many of them do not see anything wrong with hook-ups, or if they do, they tolerate the ill for some perceived further good. Occasionally, too, they meet someone who claims to be better than the rest, or to be part of a group that advocates for things which, if followed, would at least make someone trustworthy. Such a group would be the Catholic Church...if, that is, anyone who claimed to be Catholic followed her teachings. They say that the proof is in the pudding, but when one ruins a pudding of a certain sort, they still expect it to taste something like a burnt version of the sort of pudding they call it or intend it to be. Dating a Catholic who turns out to be merely nominal, not doctrinal, is like biting into a pudding only to discover that it is, in fact, mud with the word "pudding" inscribed into it with a child's finger.

People wonder why the Church has a bad name, and there are plenty of reasons, not all of them their fault. But if you want to see the most common, look to the everyday interactions between "small-c catholics" who claim to be "Catholics" even as they plot their next bedroom excursion in a bar where no Catholic should be wasting their time. Look to their life in relationships where, like the Pharisees, they wear coats of outward gold and inward lead. Outwardly, they present a picture of being in a culture of life and of respect. They present themselves to others as "the sane ones." Indeed, these are both things real Catholics can do, authentically. But the second they are tested, they fall; and they are not like those who have never been truly tested, who have some excuse; they are those who play their Catholicism as a gambler plays his cards, as tactics for their real end, the end for which they sell themselves cheaply.

To the non-Catholics, I would make this entreaty, one I have been forced to make many times before. I am not a lawyer (though, above, I may cite some Canon Law), but it is part of being a Catholic that one learns from difficult experience to advocate for the innocent. And as I am discerning that vocation, that I should live my life in service and love of the Church, it is perhaps good practice that I should ask you now: please do not blame her. The Church says not to engage in the pre-marital sex that has become the norm; people do it anyways, and to their own undoing, and a great many of the modern relationship problems are out of sex being taken out of context. The Church says, at the same time and together with the prohibition of premarital sex, not to use contraception; a schizophrenic application of this by misguided nominal Catholics or simply those too caught in the heat of an avoidable moment to care leads to children one (often, but thankfully not always) has no intention of loving, and its ignorance perpetuates the hook-up culture; and then the Church gets blamed because of the sin she prohibits. This frequently creates an occasion for abortion, which the Church prohibits in no uncertain terms; either one gets one and suffers both spiritually and physically, or one does not and blames the Church for a life that ought to be loved, prompted by a sin that child did not commit. Where in this is the Church's fault? Let's look instead to what dating a Catholic SHOULD look like, in precisely these situations.

Confronted with the temptation to premarital sex, the good Catholic recognizes it for what it is: the desire for a sort of knowledge which can only be properly situated in the context of a perpetual commitment to the other person, whereby one's own good can only be regarded together with that of the other person, where selfishness is not just antithetical to the commitment but emotionally painful in itself, properly understood. If she and I are one, regarding us as two should echo as a lie in the depths of my soul; if she is torn from me, it will be precisely that, a violent tearing, against my will; if she is gone, then so also is part of me; and if this is all the case, even that suffering is a reminder of the God who deigned to first bless our love to point to Him. That is the commitment of marriage, partially; I do not have the words or the experience to express its fullness, though many authors have plunged into that mystery. Dante, notably, remained mute; his marriage was not of that sort, but an alliance of convenience made by others. His lack of discussion of marital love in the Comedy was a mark of respect, not of distaste; and in other respects, he gave quite a bit of tribute to it.

Confronted with an occasion of temptation with regard to contraception, assuming that one has already given in to the resolve towards premarital sex, we are first dealing with the decision already made towards that resolve, which may be changed even until the moment of the deed. But assuming it remains constant, the contraception itself is the removal even of the greatest good of that communication, the possibility of producing a child, the Trinitarian virtue of sexuality. Intimacy is also a great good, but it itself is directed towards the production of the imitation of the Trinity in that act! If that direction intentionally fails, the intimacy itself is a ruse, which dissolves with the rising sun, and leads itself to further hate, further perversion, and mutual despair such as that Dante notes between Paolo and Francesca, in the first Circle of the Inferno. Contraception destroys the aim of intimacy; and if the purpose of the thing is destroyed, so also is the thing thereafter. A hammer is of no use without something it can be used for; and if hammers could be happy, they would be happy as tools, in being used, that for which they were made, because that would be their perfection. We are more than hammers; but we contain parts which are ordered as hammers are, and it is their greatness that we can allow them to do well, and our sickness (literally) that we can prevent them. But whether we employ their greatness or their sickness, what we do with them is our greatness or our sickness; and if we use their greatness or sickness badly, we become sick in soul.

And supposing the contraception fails, or supposing that one does not compound the sin of premarital sex with that of contraception, and a child results. Children are hope. One may have done horrible things that led up to their coming to be, but no child is ever truly a "mistake"; it is only our act that is the mistake, and the child its happy consequence. I say this because in children, if we have done ill, they are our natural shot at redemption; the movie Road to Perdition, with Tom Hanks and Jude Law, is all about this. If we have done well, they are our chance at our image and glory. And supernaturally, they are opportunities to once again and anew serve the God whom we may have betrayed in accidentally choosing the act that made them (in the context of the premarital sin.) A good Catholic who has nevertheless made bad choices will here buck up, take responsibility, and help to raise the child; ideally, they could make the choice to marry for the sake of the child, so as to situate the child's life in the commitment of two loving people which the child by their natural dignity should have. And if the spouses cannot always love one another as those spouses who fully freely do (personally, I would be profoundly surprised if many people who marry "for love" have such an idealistic connection as they think), they can certainly love one another for the sake of the child, who they can love even when they cannot stand one another. To think to murder this child, to abort this life, would ever be a good decision is to ignore the sheer good a human life possesses; to betray the very principle of wonder; to stick a knife into our own humanity, for once upon a time that could have been us. That it was not was luck; abortion, in fact, is the attempt to condemn someone to death for the accidental misfortune of their being conceived under an unhappy moon. And even if one cannot wax poetical thus (it is not, in fact, difficult, at least if we are sane) one can recognize that at no point was the Church responsible for the misdeeds committed under a false flag.

There are other misdeeds, of course. Disrespect of women through the sex act itself is only the most common. Other things, too, are horrifyingly common: going to strip clubs, encouraging immodest behavior, and what have you. Chivalry is not just jousting; at its heart, it is the way of being a Catholic human being; it is the imitation of Christ in the service of Mary, and vice versa. It is no surprise, in fact, that Paul says both "Husbands, love your wives," and "Wives, obey your husbands"; the first is a matrimonial analogy to the way God (God the Father, God the Son Who is called Jesus Christ, God the Holy Spirit) loves His Church (of which Holy Church Mary is precisely the Icon, the Icon of redeemed humanity), and the second is the way in which the Church obeys God in love. Marriage is a cosmological picture of salvation, in which the beloved (the Church) and the lover (God) become one in the marriage-feast that is the Song of Songs. The Church herself teaches this. But is it not the strangest phenomenon that someone who claims to believe this (the Catholic you meet on the street) should act in a way that in every particular denies it? That is hypocrisy; and a small-c catholic is no more Catholic than a hypocritical Pharisee is a holy man.

When you date, my friends, if you meet a Catholic, make sure they live up to the name. It should not be a wild card, but a badge of quality; it should be a seal upon their heart which disposes them to the seal that is marriage. The sign and character of this seal is the virtue of virginity: that quality whereby someone lives as though their purity is something that is part of their nature.


  1. I think that you should be wary of determining who is a "real Catholic" - particularly based on hypocrisy. We are all hypocrites, for we all sin and deny the teachings of the Church at one point or another. It is our Baptism that makes us Catholic, and thus it is God, not ourselves, who wills for us to be Catholic. And He meets us where we are in order to lift us to Him, and that includes seedy bars where no Catholic should be wasting his time. It is true, we should not engage in these sins, nor in any sin, and we should not live as hypocrites in this manner, but those that do are still Catholic for God has willed them so, and that should be cause for jubilation, not repudiation, for they have been infused with His supernatural virtues, by which their repentence and conversion might come to pass! And so for them, for ourselves as well whenever we sin.

    Perhaps a better use of time than such writings would be to visit some shady bars and talk with Catholic men about being Catholic men? I bet you could do an excellent Theology on Tap...

  2. Weeeell...there's a tacit distinction, I suppose, that I'm using. A nominal Catholic is one who professes the name but not the content; as the content involves actions, so you have "imperfect" and "perfect" Catholics contained under "real Catholics." The "perfect" is the one I used because incontinence is a sort of hypocrisy, but is oftentimes involuntary; and I made that distinction when I said "they are not like those who have never been truly tested, who have some excuse." In that sense, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, whereas for the nominal Catholic (the small-c catholic) the spirit is not even willing, and the flesh is still more unwilling (to do the right thing.)

    So when I say the "real Catholic" I do not mean to exclude the incontinent Catholic who is a sinner, especially because we are all that Catholic at times one way or another, but to highlight the one in the act, so to speak, of being authentically and perfectly Catholic. A saint, for instance. Saints are most definitely people we can say for sure were "real Catholics"; though even saints fall to sin at times, while it is understood that they nevertheless have true repentance.

    And far from repudiating them, I would invite them to be real Catholics, and even pray that they become so. But like Augustine in the first books of City of God, recognizing that they are not representative of the Church as they are, I am trying to explain why the Church cannot be blamed for their sins.

  3. (To clarify: the perfect Catholic is one who intends the revealed good according to virtue and does it; the imperfect one is one who intends the good but does not succeed in it; the nominal Catholic one who, while professing to be one of the former two, does not even intend the good, let alone perform it.)