“When I was young and stupid,” said George W. Bush, and we have no reason to doubt him on it, “I was young and stupid.” It is a double tautology. He might as well have said, “When I was young,” and left it at that.
When I was young, back around 1989, I believed that if only homosexual men were permitted to “marry” by law, and if only the Church could see her way clear to blessing such arrangements, then the force of custom and legal expectations would take effect, and the men would be domesticated. They would take their part in society with everybody else, with neat front lawns to mow and lemonade for Wally, and everything else.
Indeed, that is what Catholic sentimentalists hope will happen. Nobody wants to come out openly in favor of a sexual free-for-all, and everybody wants to assume that marriage implies exclusivity, fidelity, and even—though liberal Catholics may view this one with a hang-dog look—perpetuity. So we pretend; and if homosexual men are loosey-goosey about extramarital affairs, as homogandists like Dan Savage say they are going to be, recommending adultery for everybody else too—well, boys will be boys, and after all, don’t many normal men do bad things also? Nor will we listen to those who, like Michelangelo Signorile, frankly declare that the aim is to destroy marriage itself. We will tame the beasts that can be tamed, and the rest will retire to their caves, or to Seattle, whichever has the better dining facilities.
This is not going to happen.
Recently, I was asked to write an essay commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae, which affirmed the 2,000-year-old-Christian condemnation of contraception and induced abortion, and which predicted, in the wake of the Pill, various calamities that would strike the relations between men and women, and society at large. If Pope Paul’s prophecies can be faulted, it is that they were insufficiently pessimistic, for not even he imagined how fissiparous our concepts of sex would become, with genders multiplying faster than persons, and those staunch little braces for quick and easily comprehensible discourse—I mean pronouns—crushed to powder. He could not foresee the day when hideous drag queens would be invited to public libraries to tell sparkle-stories to children, in a kind of secular Sunday school. Pornography was not quite everywhere in Pope Paul’s time. Now every other child has seen things that would make the creepy boy of old behind the barn blush like Mrs. Grundy.
It was not supposed to be so, according to the Pope’s disloyal opposition. The Pill was supposed to bring on the maturity of the layfolk, an increased reverence for sex and marriage, responsible cooperation between the sexes, and la-di-da. A colossally and laughably incorrect prognosis, that. And so I came to wonder what distinguishes a reliable from an unreliable social prognosis. My conclusion is simple. Granted that human affairs are subject to the skitters of accidents, your prognosis is likely to prove true if it is least like a prognosis at all. That is, if you base your guess about the future upon the constants of human nature, the precedents of history, and (to a lesser degree, because human beings are unreasonable) the playing out of the logic of accepted premises, then your guess is highly likely to be accurate. If, however, your guess presumes a change in human nature, if it has no historical precedent, and if it merely extrapolates from some current trend that you notice or think you notice, then your guess is likely to prove embarrassingly wrong.
The sexual innovators in the time of Pope Paul were laying their bets on the Age of Aquarius. Well, there never has been and there never is going to be a time in which that most powerful drive in the human animal, the sexual, will be peaceful, meek, respectful of persons, kindly, and rational, rather than dangerous, bold, often selfish, often cruel, and almost always irrational. Shakespeare:
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
And sure enough, when most of all we need such frank talk about this nitroglycerine of belly and groin, sentimental and strangely puritanical (though not virtuous and godly) patter from the feminists about how lust and the desire for power are antipodal motives will make it impossible for us to begin the conversation. Such feminists combine the immorality of a whore with the severe hypocrisy of an old maid leering at the girls having too much fun, and without knowing or caring overmuch to know what the opposite sex is like.
The scandals among Catholic clergy, overwhelmingly homosexual in nature, provide a good opportunity to see what is at stake, and from them I will venture a prediction, in the line of Pope Paul’s. I suggest that we are in the midst of the flip of a switch. For 2,000 years, the Christian understanding of marriage has been forming the Western consciousness, touching it with what I dare to call supernatural characteristics, and elevating it (slowly, haltingly, with much confusion, but with a certainty as regards the destination) toward the natural—not as in brute nature, but as in fallen human nature redeemed and on the way to purification.
For 2,000 years, men and women in the West have been learning the hard and slow but liberating lesson that sexual desire is not for individual persons whether they consent or not, but for the common good, and is oriented toward marriage and the rearing of children. For 2,000 years, they have been trained to believe that the murder of children is evil. For 2,000 years, they have been trained to believe that woman, the physically weaker vessel, and the sex less likely to produce geniuses in arts and letters and technology and great leaders in battle, is the equal of man in the sight of God. They have learned that, aside from the Redeemer, the most perfect human being to walk the earth was a woman, Mary. They learned that adultery defiles a man as it defiles a woman. They learned that men are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, laying down His life for her. They learned to pray for the intercession of female saints—and where else has the human race known the like?
Hypocrites you will always have with you, for the simple reason that men and women like so much to strut and fret upon the stage. We hear that sexual sins are no more common now than they were in the past, because in the past they were hidden, but now we flaunt them. Lay not that flattering unction to thy soul, O contemporary man and woman! The hypocrites of times past paid lip service to continence, purity, and the high calling of a Christian married life. Thus were they raised, despite themselves, to more or less natural and ordinary evils. We hypocrites now no longer pretend to that high calling. We are at least as censorious as gossiping women and high-minded prelates were in time past, only we have narrowed the range and lowered the level of what we are censorious about. Now, for instance, we are dream-ridden prudes and gimlet-eye legalists when it comes to deciding, in the heat and mire of passion, what qualifies as full consent and what does not, and we—sinning sexually with careless abandon—are shocked, shocked to find that homosexual priests put the moves on teenage boys and young seminarians.
“Abuse of power!” cry those who want desperately to believe that sexual evil was something other than sexual evil. Of course it was abuse of power, and sacrilege, too. But you cannot have half a jungle, dear people. You cannot have the veneer of Christian reticence and respect for others, while indulging in the glee of pagan lust. The switch does not go halfway. The reason why the priests did what they did, and I am including in my analysis acts of full consent, was that they were in that regard pagan and not Christian. Their highest aim was the natural, and so at the worst they fell far below it, as we do now and will continue to do, and worse. Aim at heaven, said C.S. Lewis, and you get earth into the bargain. Aim for earth alone, and you lose both. Or, as Chesterton said, the quickest thing you get when you begin to worship nature is an attraction to the unnatural. Which is what happened to the Greeks, said he.
The Greeks hand us the answer in plain sight. I have in the past said that you have two choices when it comes to tending to the garden of male friendship. You can proscribe homosexual activity so effectively that nobody assumes that a good man will engage in it or be tempted to do so; and then men can express their affection for other men in the carefree way that baseball players—who are athletes and therefore protected from suspicion—do. Or you can make it a way of life, a normal rite of passage, as they did in ancient Greece, and then in the Roman world generally, and as was also customary in samurai Japan. You cannot have half of one and half of the other, just as you cannot have half of a nude beach. A beach on which half of the people are nude is a nude beach, and not all the pretending in the world can alter the fact.
Let the poets advise us. Here is Lucretius, with his lubriciously material vision of sexual desire:
And so whoever is shot by the arrows of Venus—
Whether pierced by the womanly limbs of a young boy
Or a lady darting love from her whole body—
Strains toward the archer, shudders with joy to come
Close, to shoot into that body his body’s juice.
Silent desire gives hints of that wild joy.
—On the Nature of Things, 4.1043-48
Wild joy, not the smug satisfaction of being a bishop hobnobbing with other bishops from the Cities of the Plain.
Here is Petronius, whose main character, Encolpius, is experiencing some difficulties in the subtropical regions. The girl he is mad for, Circe, writes him a “forgiving” letter, telling him that though she has no cure for him, she has no doubt that all will be well. “In my opinion,” she says, “you will recover your manhood only if you avoid sleeping with your friend for three days.” The friend is Giton, an effeminate teenage boy and slave. Encolpius has described a night with Giton in these terms:
O gods in heaven, what a night we kept,
How soft the bed! Together warmed, we slept
So twined in love, so crossed upon a kiss,
It seemed his soul was mine and mine was his.
Lest this seem too awfully sentimental, the same Encolpius, at his wits’ end to figure out how to flog his sluggish steed, stations himself as a voyeur outside of a bedroom, where a con artist and sexual swindler is engaged in a thumping marathon with a teenage girl. But she is not the only child in the family. “Meanwhile,” says Encolpius, “fearing that my long inactivity had left me out of shape, I approached the brother who was eagerly following his sister’s gymnastics through a chink in the door. Sophisticated boy that he was, he made no objection, but once again the god’s hostility frustrated my rising hopes.”
These are among the milder scenes in the Satyricon, some of which are downright scabrous. My editor and translator, William Arrowsmith, says that the work is composed “with wonderful candor and sensual gusto by a man of exquisite taste and observation, combining in one person the comic realist, the satirist, and the poet.” The sexual antics of these citizens may be observed as natural oddities, to behold with
detached amusement much as you might watch a pair of crocodiles copulating: after all, it is odd in a familiar sort of way. And if you happen to be a satirist, what better way of reporting the lovely, natural, human chaos of this vivid world’s insanity than through the prejudiced eyes of a first-person pederast?
Do the post-Christian moralists of our time, incoherently angry at other people’s sexual sins and celebratory of their own, have an adequate answer to Arrowsmith’s implication that what Petronius describes is the world, or is what would be the world if it were not for the Christian morality they have abandoned two minutes after abandoning Christ?
That is Petronius, who was a rake, but the same pederastic desire may be found in the meek and mild Virgil, as Byron salaciously notes:
But Virgil’s songs are pure, except that horrid one
Beginning with “Formosum pastor Corydon.”
Or we may think of the frankly erotic statue of Pan, snuggling up to a naked boy and teaching him how to play the pipes. Or of Caravaggio, that tormented Christian soul with the guilt of a pagan, who painted his Cupid as a pretty and mischievous boy, almost pubescent, with the muscles of a man-to-be and the soft flesh of a woman-still. And then there is Plato’s Symposium.
Peculiar to that period in the ancient world, I have thought. I wish it were. Anthropologists have hit upon the notion of “neoteny” to explain protective behavior in adult mammals, including man, and to suggest that our ideals of beauty are bound up with our wish to care for what appears to be young and fresh. Women will, naturally, not always decide to marry the boy they find most beautiful, because women long for protection, too, and so the male who is ugly but powerful will often have an advantage over his prettier rival. Think here of the cheek rough with stubble, the thickening of the jaw, the bone-ridge that develops and becomes prominent over the grown man’s eyes, the deep and potentially threatening voice, the thick hair, and the visible hardening of the muscles as the 15-year-old boy becomes a 25-year-old man—undergoing a change far more drastic than that which his sister will undergo during the same span. But men do not need protection.
To put it as bluntly as possible: Men who want to do sexual things with other males will want to do them with pubescent boys, because such boys exhibit that neoteny. They are, let us roll our eyes here, beautiful in their own way, as their voices are like neither men’s nor women’s. I am not saying that all such men will do those things; societal disapproval is still strong, though it is not based on any logically or anthropologically sound foundation. But they will be aroused by the possibility, even if they do not take advantage of it. Any analogy with heterosexual males and underage girls does not really work, because the girl offers the man the same kind of beauty as does the woman, only not so much of it. Teenage girls are less attractive in the same vein than women are, and they are sillier. But the boy, for those societies I have named, was held to be more attractive than the man, and lost his attractiveness when his body grew hairy. Greek men who were interested in other grown men were despised. Effeminacy was a jest and a scandal.
Once the Church and other institutions representing Something Else, something that is not pagan, have been soaked of funds for just reparation, the Western world will lurch back into the old ways, as it already has here and there. But this lurching backward will have no guardrails left, not the severe ancient pagan sense of civic virtue and manliness, which directed the boys in the gymnasia toward soldierhood and responsible participation in the polis, nor the Christian fear of sin and a just God; nor will there be any aim for sexual desire besides its gratification. The natural will return with a vengeance. So will the unnatural natural.
Boys and girls, meet the tiger.