It is many years since I first read David Lodge’s book How Far Can You Go? But re-reading it this month took me back to the 1950s and 1960s when I – like many others – was struggling with the issues which faced young and impoverished Catholic married couples. It was uncannily vivid and uncannily present to me as the old forgotten scars began to itch. The characters, in Lodge’s account, eventually came to some sort of terms by concluding that Hell did not exist. But that seemed to me to be a dangerous assumption.
The word which comes to mind is legalistic. The Catholic life seemed to depend on a switch: pressed one way – and you were en route for Heaven: pressed the other way and you were en route for Hell. While around this central notion there were ideas of holiness and virtue, these were negligible compared to the position of the switch.
For the sake of respectability we often argued in terms of missing Mass on Sunday, the inflamed area was of course sexuality – how far can you go? Not only were the temptations strong but the whole range of sexuality was the territory of intrinsic evil. From the immodest thoughts wilfully entertained through to, say, bestiality it was mortal sin all the way. Addressing some old school friends from Beaumont at a dinner a few years back, I told them that I had not so much entertained immodest thoughts as invited them in for the weekend. The burst of laughter told me that I was not alone.
Thankfully it wasn’t until later that I read Aquinas on the subject, and found that any “unnatural” interference with the sexual act was more reprehensible than adultery, seduction and rape. Hard to believe, but here it is, ST II II 154 Art 12. Here, law clearly took precedence over love of neighbour.
The dangers of legalism are manifest. First, any kind of spiritual growth is stifled, and the practice of religion can turn into a wasteland of anxiety rather than invitation to joy. Next comes casuistry – the manifold ingenious ways in which one might avoid the letter of the law. I remember repeating to my wife a let out I had picked up on the grapevine – that if you punctured a condom with a pin you were still very safe but you could not be accused of arresting the seed. My wife laughed like a drain – she was a convert from the Church of Scotland via Anglicanism so she still had an intact conscience, darn it. Even the get-out of full knowledge and full consent was empty. We knew what was identified as mortal sin (everything in the sexual area), and we had free will – together with the promise that we always had sufficient grace to resist.
Perhaps worst of all was that the vocation of love and holiness turned into a vocation of survival.
Looking back from what I believe to be a much more intelligent and constructive form of Catholicism, I wonder how much of the old attitudes I retain beneath the surface. The ruling document is JPII’s Veritatis Splendor(1993), a very full document covering the span of moral theology. The easiest way to summarise its drift is: no change. He systematically condemns the various developments, or – as he might say – betrayals, which some moral theologians had been favouring. We are back with the law, back with intrinsic evil, back with damnation at the elbow. There is certainly a more benign approach and a deeper understanding of the weaknesses of human nature, but beneath the surface the same rocks and shoals remain.
I am by no means repudiating the concept of law in the sense that it marks the points in which an action or a choice, regarded objectively, transgresses the boundaries of love. But it is the nature of law to be hard edged while our vocation to be perfect is admirable but vague. It is the law which bites.
Lodge’s characters decided that Hell did not exist. A solution for them but not for me. The Church’s position is much as it ever was. The lists of sins remain the same. The gravity of sins remain the same. The conditions which rule the guilt of sins remain the same. The punishment for sin remains the same.
Am I alone in this? Was it different for those of later generations? Does guilt still loom in the mind? I would like to know.