All across America this Valentine’s Day platoons of men will stand at the counters of flower shops and grocery stores, clutching cards, chocolates, and roses to their chests, tokens of affection for their wives and lady friends (and sometimes, no doubt, for both). Their dilatory homage to the patron saint of love always brings a smile to my face, for before my wife died I numbered myself among them, a comrade who several times remembered late in the day that his beloved ranked this feast of hearts behind only her birthday and our wedding anniversary.
February also brings Mardi Gras, or Carnival, that pre-Lenten festival whose etymology stems from the Latin carne, meaning meat or flesh. We in the West, and particularly in these United States, have made a fetish of this holiday, obsessed as we are with carnal desires and deeds. We celebrate Carnival not only on Fat Tuesday, nor for a week or so previous, but year-round. Christian reverence for the Incarnation pales at the obeisance paid by postmoderns to Eros and the senses. On the altars of their imaginations, in movies and television, and on 10,000 pornographic websites, these carniphiliacs worship lips, tongues, breasts, buttocks, legs, and genitalia. In mimicry of Saint Paul, they say, “So flesh, lust, and sex abide, but the greatest of these is sex.”
Our 50-year-old sexual revolution has left us foundering. Our culture has demolished the old codes—chivalry, courtly and romantic love, Christian marriage—and has erected in their stead a perverse sexuality and a brutalized sense of personhood. The once-popular song “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” might serve as the anthem for our hardened hearts. Sexting and hooking up are only the most recent manifestations of our debauched infatuations. Even among my students, many of whom hail from strong Christian families, this twisted carnality prevails. Students quote the New Testament, but listen to the same ugly rap music as their peers; they go to church three times per week, but grind-dance at their prom; they stoutly defend Christian morality, but practice secular sexual mores.
When confronted by this doctrine of desire and sex, the Catholic Church, progenitor of “Theology of the Body,” blushes and blunders like a teenage boy fumbling at a cheerleader’s brassiere. Lately, the Church’s stammering and confusion has become my own. Last week, for instance, I met my friend Philip at the Bier Garden. “Caroline and I have gotten close,” he said after our first round of Heinekens. “Maybe too close. We’ve done some things. Not everything. I mean, we haven’t actually engaged in intercourse.” With embarrassment he looked from me into the mirror behind the bar. “Man, I sound like a biology textbook. Anyway, I went to Confession last Saturday and told the priest. Not the details—I mean, he knew what I was saying without the particulars. Finally, I finished, and the first thing he asked me was ‘Are you planning to marry this woman?’ I told him I wasn’t sure, but since then I’ve thought a lot about that question. What do you suppose he meant? Can Catholic couples sleep together if they’re thinking about marriage?”
On another occasion, having grown loose with wine, a Protestant named Amanda told me, “I have this thing for bad boys, dependent guys, you know.” Troubled by her promiscuity, and encouraged by a coworker, she attended a retreat at a convent. There she sought out a nun for counseling, one of those bulldog women who gave up a perfectly good habit to dress like a butch lesbian.
After Amanda had delineated her penchant for sex and men, the nun regarded her gravely. “Do you give these men pleasure?” she asked.
“I’m pretty sure I do,” Amanda said. (I’m pretty sure she does too, Your Excellency.)
The nun asked, “Do you give them love?” Amanda nodded. “Do you give of yourself?” Amanda nodded again. The nun smiled and said, “Love is the key. You bring love to lonely souls. As long as your ideal is pleasure and comfort for them, there is no sin.”
After telling me this story, Amanda added, “I’m ashamed to say I always thought Catholics were against f–king.”
In yet another incident, Sam, a lukewarm Methodist, confided to me at a New Year’s Day party that his Catholic girlfriend had laid down some ground rules between them. The essence of these regulations dictated that they might lie together naked as babes, caress each other, and even practice oral sex, but that intercourse was verboten until they became engaged. Sam then asked me if this convention was common practice among Catholics.
Your Excellency, I am confused. Is there some secret Catholic code of which I, a convert, am unaware? Did I miss something in the Catechism? Are some sexual acts permitted if marriage is in the offing? Was Philip’s priest implying a sort of lockstep between sex and love on the march to matrimony? Are there hidden rules resembling the old baseball analogy? (Casually dating players may advance to first base; serious players may head for second; courting runners may round third; engaged couples go all the way.)
Please answer these questions as quickly as possible. My friends depend on your wisdom and expediency.