April 20, 2005


A Group at Princeton Where 'No' Means 'Entirely No' (IVER PETERSON, 4/18/05, NY Times)

Yet another alternate sexual lifestyle is being promoted by a group of Princeton undergraduates: one of chastity and abstinence outside of marriage.

Members of the Anscombe Society maintain that campus life has become so drenched in sexuality, from the flavored condoms handed out by a resident adviser to the social pressure of the hook-up scene, that Princeton needs a voice arguing for traditional sexual values. Traditional, at least, from the days before their parents went to college.

Their aim is not to pass moral judgment, they say, only to inform.

"Even though morality does factor into it, we want to enrich the discussion of sexual issues and family," said Cassandra Debenedetto, a sophomore from Stow, Mass., who was one of the founders of the group last fall. "So we also present sociological data and medical research. We want to bring all of those issues in."

The group is named after Elizabeth Anscombe, the Cambridge University Anglo-Catholic whose 1977 essay "Contraception and Chastity" is famous among conservative Roman Catholics for setting out a philosophical defense of the papacy's strictures on sexual behavior. She died in 2001.

For the Princeton students, the idea is simply to be heard in an atmosphere that not only condones sexual activity among young adults, but, they maintain, expects it.

Geez, there was no club for it when I was in school.

Contraception and Chastity (Elizabeth Anscombe, 1977)

There always used to be a colossal strain in ancient times; between heathen morality and Christian morality, and one of the things pagan converts had to be told about the way they were entering on was that they must abstain from fornication. This peculiarity of the Christian life was taught in a precept issued by the Council of Jerusalem, the very first council of the Christian Church. The prohibition was issued in the same breath as the merely temporary retention of Judaic laws prohibiting the eating of blood - no black pudding! - and the prohibition on eating the flesh of animals that had been sacrificed to idols. And in one way these may have been psychologically the same sort of prohibition to a pagan convert. The Christian life simply imposed these peculiar restrictions on you. All the same the prohibition on fornication must have stood out; it must have meant a very serious change of life to many, as it would today. Christian life meant a separation from the standards of that world: you couldn't be a Baal-worshipper, you couldn't sacrifice to idols, be a sodomite, practice infanticide, compatibly with the Christian allegiance. That is not to say that Christians were good; we humans are a bad lot and our lives as Christians even if not blackly and grossly wicked are usually very mediocre. But the Catholic Christian badge now again means separation, even for such poor mediocrities, from what the unchristian world in the West approves and professes.

Christianity was at odds with the heathen world, not only about fornication, infanticide and idolatry; but also about marriage. Christians were taught that husband and wife had equal rights in one another's bodies; a wife is wronged by her husband's adultery as well as a husband by his wife's. And Christianity involved non-acceptance of the contemptible role of the female partner in fornication, calling the prostitute to repentance and repudiating respectable concubinage. And finally for Christians divorce was excluded. These differences were the measure, great enough, of the separation between Christianity and the pagan world in these matters. By now, Christian teaching is, of course, known all over the world; and it goes without saying for those in the West that what they call "accepting traditional morals" means counting fornication as wrong - it's just not a respectable thing. But we ought to be conscious that, like the objection to infanticide, this is a Jewish Christian inheritance. And we should realize that heathen humanity tends to have a different attitude towards both. In Christian teaching a value is set on every human life and on men's chastity as well as on women's and this as part of the ordinary calling of a Christian, not just in connexion with the austerity of monks. Faithfulness, by which a man turned only to his spouse, forswearing all other women, was counted as one of the great goods of marriage.

But the quarrel is far greater between Christianity and the present-day heathen, post Christian, morality that has sprung up as a result of contraception. In one word: Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be. [...]

The trouble about the Christian standard of chastity is that it isn't and never has been generally lived by; not that it would be profitless if it were. Quite the contrary: it would be colossally productive of earthly happiness. All the same it is a virtue, not like temperance in eating and drinking, not like honesty about property, for these have a purely utilitarian justification. But it, like the respect for life, is a supra-utilitarian value, connected with the substance of life, and this is what comes out in the perception that the life of lust is one in which we dishonour our bodies. Implicitly, lasciviousness is over and over again treated as hateful, even by those who would dislike such an explicit judgment on it. Just listen, witness the scurrility when it's hinted at; disgust when it's portrayed as the stuff of life; shame when it's exposed, the leer of complicity when it's approved. You don't get these attitudes with everybody all of the time; but you do get them with everybody. (It's much too hard work to keep up the fa├žade of the Playboy philosophy, according to which all this is just an unfortunate mistake, to be replaced by healthy-minded wholehearted praise of sexual fun.)

And here we're in the region of that constant Christian teaching, which we've noticed, that intercourse "merely for the sake of pleasure" is wrong.

This can mislead and perturb. For when is intercourse purely for the sake of pleasure? Some have thought this must mean: when it's not for the sake of getting a child. And so, I believe, I have been told, some Catholic women have actually feared the pleasure of orgasm and thought it wrong, or thought it wrong to look for it or allow oneself to respond to feelings of physical desire. But this is unreasonable and ungrateful to God. Copulation, like eating, is of itself a good kind of action: it preserves human existence. An individual act of eating or copulation, then, can be bad only because something about it or the circumstances of it make it bad. And all the pleasure specific to it will be just as good as it is.

A severe morality holds that intercourse (and may hold this of eating, too) has something wrong about it if it is ever done except explicitly as being required for that preservation of human life which is what makes intercourse a good kind of action. But this involves thoroughly faulty moral psychology. God gave us our physical appetite, and its arousal without our calculation is part of the working of our sort of life. Given moderation and right circumstances, acts prompted by inclination can be taken in a general way to accomplish what makes them good in kind and there's no need for them to be individually necessary or useful for the end that makes them good kinds of action. Intercourse is a normal part of married life through the whole life of the partners in a marriage and is normally engaged in without any distinct purpose other than to have it, just as such a part of married life.

Such acts will usually take place only when desire prompts, and desire is for intercourse as pleasurable; the pleasure, as Aristotle says, perfects the act. But that does not mean that it is done "purely for pleasure". For what that expression means is that sensuality is in command: but that one has intercourse when desire prompts and the desire is for pleasure, does not prove, does not mean, that sensuality is in command. One may rightly and reasonably be willing to respond to the promptings of desire. When that is so, the act is governed by a reasonable mind, even though no considering or reasoning is going on. The fact that one is thus having intercourse when, as one knows, there's nothing against it, makes it a good and a chaste marriage act and a rendering of the marriage debt.

There is indeed such a thing in marriage as intercourse "purely for pleasure"; this is what the Christian tradition did condemn. Marks of it could be: immoderate pursuit of, or preoccupation with sexual pleasure; succumbing to desire against wisdom; insisting against serious reluctance of one's partner. In all these cases but the last both parties may of course be consenting. For human beings often tend to be disorderly and extreme in their sensuality. A simple test of whether one is so is this: could one do without for a few weeks or months in case of need? For anyone may be faced with a situation in which he ought to do without; and he should watch that he does not get into a state in which it is impossible for him. But we ought to remember also, what isn't always remembered, that insensibility and unjustified abstention is also a sin against moderation, and is a defrauding of one's partner.

Well now, people raise the cry of "legalism" (one of the regular accusations of the present day) against this idea which I have taken from the old theologians of "rendering what is owing", the giving the other person this part of married life, which is owing. It embodies the one notion, I would say, that is honest, truthful and quite general. People would rather speak of the expression of mutual love. But what do they mean by "love"? Do they mean "being in love"? Do they mean a natural conjugal affection?

Either of these may be lacking or onesided. If a kind of love cannot be commanded, we can't build our moral theology of marriage on the presumption that it will be present. Its absence is sad, but this sadness exists, it is very common. We should avoid, I think, using the indicative mood for what is really a commandment like the Scout Law ("A Boy Scout is kind to animals" - it means a Boy Scout ought to be kind to animals). For if we hear: "a Christian couple grow in grace and love together" doesn't the question arise "supposing they don't?" It clears the air to substitute the bite of what is clearly a precept for the sweetness of a rosy picture. The command to a Christian couple is: "Grow in grace and love together." But a joint command can only be jointly obeyed. Suppose it isn't? Well, there remains the separate precept to each and in an irremediably unhappy marriage, one ought still to love the other, though not perhaps feeling the affection that cannot be commanded. Thus the notion of the "marriage debt" is a very necessary one, and it alone is realistic: because it makes no assumption as to the state of the affections.

Looking at the rightness of the marriage act like this will help in another way. It will prevent us from assuming that the pleasant affection which exists between a happy and congenial pair is the fulfilment of the precept of love. (It may after all only be a complacent hiving off together in a narrow love.) We ought absolutely not to give out a teaching which is flattering to the lucky, and irrelevant to the unhappy. Looked at carefully, too, such teaching is altogether too rigorist in a new direction. People who are not quite happily married, not lucky in their married life, but nevertheless have a loyalty to the bond, are not, therefore, bound to abstain from intercourse.

The meaning of this teaching "not purely for pleasure" should, I think, have a great appeal for the Catholic thinking of today that is greatly concerned for the laity. We want to stress nowadays, that the one vocation that is spoken of in the New Testament is the calling of a Christian. All are called with the same calling. The life of monks and nuns and of celibate priesthood is a higher kind of life than that of the married, not because there are two grades of Christian, but because their form of life is one in which one has a greater chance of living according to truth and the laws of goodness; by their profession, those who take the vows of religion have set out to please God alone. But we lay people are not less called to the Christian life, in which the critical question is: "Where does the compass-needle of your mind and will point?" This is tested above all by our reactions when it costs or threatens to cost something to be a Christian. One should be glad if it does, rather than complain! If we will not let it cost anything; if we succumb to the threat of "losing our life", then our religion is indistinguishable from pure worldliness.

This is very far-reaching. But in the matter in hand, it means that we have got not to be the servants of our sensuality but to bring it into subjection. Thus, those who marry have, as we have the right to do, chosen a life in which, as St. Paul drily says, "the husband aims to please his wife rather than the Lord, and the wife her husband, rather than the Lord" - but although we have chosen a life to please ourselves and one another, still we know we are called with that special calling, and are bound not to be conformed to the world, friendship to which is enmity to God. And so also we ought to help one another and have co-operative pools of help: help people who are stuck in family difficulties; and have practical resources in our parishes for one another's needs when we get into difficult patches.

The teaching which I have rehearsed is indeed against the grain of the world, against the current of our time. But that, after all, is what the Church as teacher is for. The truths that are acceptable to a time - as, that we owe it as a debt of justice to provide out of our superfluity for the destitute and the starving - these will be proclaimed not only by the Church: the Church teaches also those truths that are hateful to the spirit of an age.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 20, 2005 11:44 PM

Or, at least, the club didn't advertise.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 21, 2005 7:22 AM

But a member, nonetheless?

Posted by: Rick T. at April 21, 2005 10:05 AM

I happened to be speaking to 6 (3 male/3 female) Princeton seniors last weekend. They were all very mature, well-spoken and attractive (the girls were certainly cuter than I remember them being when I was there 20+ years ago). They asked me if when I was in school there students "dated." When I said "yes", one of the girls said, "you know what we mean, right? Where a guy and a woman are boyfriend and girlfriend and hang out and go to parties and movies and do stuff together?" I then assured her I knew what "dating" meant. The girls all sighed and said they wished there were dating now at the school. So I said, "You don't date? So I assume this means that you have some male friends you occasionally hook up with for sex, and the you don't talk to him for a few days afterwards and there's awkward moments when you see him in class or the eating club." And they giggled and said that's the way it is now.

Posted by: Foos at April 21, 2005 10:22 AM

Was D&D around back then?

Posted by: Mike Beversluis at April 21, 2005 1:20 PM

Rick: I was at the University of Chicago. On the other hand, that's where I met my wife.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 21, 2005 2:16 PM

Tell them about the "Lacivious Costume Balls" that were held in Ida Noyes Hall, or is that after your time? (And I will refain from further comments so as to not get banned...)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 21, 2005 3:53 PM


...is that before or after your time?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 21, 2005 3:55 PM

It may be 'faulty moral psychology' (I agree that it is), but that is exactly what we were taught at Cardinal Gibbons High School.

'Mutual masturbation' was the charming term for sex for fun.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 21, 2005 4:34 PM

Funny to hear you always badmouth your upbringing but claim you're an unusually moral person. There couldn't be a connection....

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2005 4:47 PM

David, did they hawk t-shirts reading "Make Love Not Law Review," "Hell *Does* Freeze Over" and "Where Fun Goes to Die" when you were there?

Posted by: Random Lawyer at April 21, 2005 5:33 PM

Raoul: It was my time (80-86).

Random: No. I wish they had.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 21, 2005 6:14 PM