Boule de Suif

We all know the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite ignore the man lying damaged in the road, only the Samaritan (a member of a despised group) stops to help the wounded man. We are being told that the action of love, not an individual’s status, is the measurement of love.

Fewer perhaps know Boule de Suif, a story by Guy de Maupassant – perhaps his most famous. A coach of French bourgeoisie is escaping from the Hun lines. In their number is Boule de Suif — a prostitute. The other passengers deplore her presence, though they are quite happy to share her food. The Huns capture them: their price for escape is the willingness of Boule de Suif to sleep with them. She refuses, she hates the Huns. The passengers all demand that she should pay this price for their liberty. Under enormous pressure she eventually agrees, and they are released. On the rest of the journey they do not share their food with the prostitute and continue to regard her as dross.

We might imagine that, a few miles, further on, a Hun shell hits the coach: everyone is killed. Now, for the next five minutes, you are God. How will you judge the coach load? Do you favour the bourgeoisie – religiously orthodox and given to correct behaviour? Or do you prefer the whore who, even in her good intention, employs an activity which is evil in itself and directly against the Natural Law.

I am talking about love. On several occasions in the New Testament we are reminded that the Law exists because it is the basis for love. The Ten Commandments, and their extension to the whole web of morality, tell us how we must express our love – through positive and negative choices. And we are continually reminded that to breach the law even if the ultimate intention is loving cannot be excused. To take two obvious examples: first, the Allies’ destruction of civilian towns in WWII; second, a homosexual who enters a committed relationship with another homosexual, and believes it to be marriage.

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Boule de Suif

  1. Hock says:

    These questionable examples are just variations on the age old question of ” Can an all powerful God make a stone too heavy for him to lift?”
    Jesus mixed with prostitutes but still found them in need of forgiveness. Each case is decided on its merits. The moral maze can lead down many alleys of endless examples.

  2. galerimo says:

    Thank you Quentin. No, I had not read the story of “the Dumpling” until you pointed to it. It is a gem. Thank you. A wonderful frame for your question. Can the end, justify the means?

    And Jesus’ own story too, if nothing else is a beautiful piece of literature. And cleverly framed within the context of His legal inquisitor’s trap.

    The context of the Law being given to God’s people in the form of the 10 “words” also deserves it’s context for the sake of your topic.

    As I recall, the people of Israel had already been liberated through all of the events of the Exodus
    Before receiving the Law. God freed them first, then later came the law.

    Freedom, the purpose of the law was then, as it is now, the free gift of a loving God who ultimately sets us free.

    The purpose of the law too is to guide us in a way so as not to lose this gift of liberty. Showing us the ways we relate to God and to each other, the law helps maintain our freedom.

    But the law cannot always guarantee freedom. In fact, it can even be used to obstruct it.

    Other significant points in Jesus’ story; firstly, in it the legitimate authorities were carrying out their obligations correctly under the law, secondly, they did not ignore the victim, because they “saw him” (Lk 10:31), and thirdly, they remained “on the other side” (Lk 10:32).

    The Samaritan scoundrel did not maintain distance “when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him…(Lk 10:34-34).

    So Jesus points to a shift in position. A crossing over to the other side of what is safe and even what is proper.

    So when a person says, “in the New Testament we are reminded that the Law exists because it is the basis for love” they can appear to be putting le carriage before le cheval.

    I would argue that the basis for love is our response to God’s own liberating love for us – a response that incorporates our lives into the Trinitarian life of God.

    So for me the law, rather than being seen as the basis for love is better understood as its directional support.

    The law abiding and good Levite and the good and holy priest failed to rise to the challenge of compassion.

    There will be times when our crossing over to the other side of the law and culturally approved conventions will be doing the “likewise” (Lk: 10:37) that Jesus would do and expects us, as his good one, to do as well.

    Where God is the end, then the End will always justify the means.

    • milliganp says:

      Galerimo, I like your concept of ‘directional support’. I often think that Jesus’ parables are a sort of moral Rorschach test where we tend to read them to justify or confirm our own imperfect faith and limited capacity for selfless love.

  3. G.D says:

    Office of Readings for Wed second week of lent ….
    St Irenaeus ….. ‘ For forty days Moses was engaged in remembering the words of God, the heavenly patterns, the spiritual images, the foreshadowings of what was to come. Saint Paul says: They drank from the rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. After speaking of the things that are in the law he continues: All these things happened to them as symbols: they were written to instruct us, on whom the end of the ages has come.
    Through foreshadowings of the future they were learning reverence for God and perseverance in his service. The law was therefore a school of instruction for them, and a prophecy of what was to come.’
    and the …
    Responsory
    ℟. The Law was our tutor, bringing us to Christ, to find in faith our justification;* when faith comes, then we are no longer under the rule of a tutor.
    ℣. Until faith came, we were all being kept in bondage to the Law, waiting for the faith that was one day to be revealed.* When faith comes, then we are no longer under the rule of a tutor.

  4. ignatius says:

    Galerimo writes:
    “I would argue that the basis for love is our response to God’s own liberating love for us – a response that incorporates our lives into the Trinitarian life of God.
    So for me the law, rather than being seen as the basis for love is better understood as its directional support..”

    If you imagine a runway laid down and a man, running down it, desperate to fly as he knows he should, frantically flapping his arms but getting not very far.
    The Runway is the Law, the desire to fly is the knowledge of God deep within and imprinted on our hearts. The inability and lack of wings is our fallenness. The Runway (Law) shows the man what he must do but cannot. Only the spirit of God can grow wings, this is impossible for any earthbound being to manufacture..
    The Law is as St Paul says, a schoolmaster to christ…it gives direction along the line of our divine destiny but cannot achieve it for us and we cannot make ourselves fly. So we cry out to God in our awareness of our brokenness..and God answers us with wings.. wings that seem only to sprout feather by feather over a lifetime..but as long as we keep trying they keep sprouting..though we cannot, of our own violition, make a single feather grow.

    (any other better offers of allegory welcome)

  5. Geordie says:

    If I were God for five minutes, the first thing I would do is condemn the religiously orthodox to hell for inciting a woman to perform as a prostitute. They should have known better but they wanted to save their own skins and did not care a fig for the woman’s immortal soul.
    Then I would invite the prostitute to share in eternal life. Our Lord told the pharisees that prostitutes would enter heaven before them. I never understood this completely until I watched the TV series about Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies. Those young, rather dim young women (like most prostitutes) were manipulated and abused by the rich and powerful . Because of the mitigating circumstances, I can see why they will enter heaven before many of us. I don’t mind this as long as I am good enough to follow them into eternal glory.

    • milliganp says:

      I’d be a little slower to condemn. Alongside their lack of charity, the French bourgeoisie also feared for their lives. If we move from the obvious evil of the Third Reich and instead look at Petain’s France, there seems to be much evil otherwise decent people will do to survive. Perhaps the ultimate sin is fear of death, either because we aren’t sure God exists, or for fear of God’s judgement. Given the current panic over the corona-virus threat we are close to that point in our own society. I am not optimistic we will see a mass outpouring of love and solidarity.

      • David Smith says:

        milliganp writes:

        // Perhaps the ultimate sin is fear of death, either because we aren’t sure God exists, or for fear of God’s judgement. Given the current panic over the corona-virus threat we are close to that point in our own society. I am not optimistic we will see a mass outpouring of love and solidarity. //

        Yes, it seems likely that an important cause of the hysteria is an outsized and unthinking fear of disease and death. Also, there seems to be a widespread ignorance of historical context. Western secular culture is experiencing a sort of emotional meltdown. It puzzles me. This seems to have come to a boil almost overnight, and I don’t see a clear bundle of causes.

      • FZM says:

        I think the existence of legalised prostitution and brothels in France was partly due to the teaching of the Church in the first place. There are various passages in Aquinas and Augustine where allowing prostitution to continue in a regulated form is recommended to avoid what these fathers saw as the proliferation of worse vices among men; sodomy and bestiality. I had a Spanish book which looked at the issue in depth because there were debates in the Franco era about the status of prostitution (mostly legal until the 1950s) and different opinions in the Catholic tradition were drawn on heavily (there was an abolitionist position among moral theologians as well which seems to have arisen after the 18th century.)

        I can’t remember the details of Boule de Suif but seem to remember that the reason the Prussian officer detains the group in the first place is to use the others as ‘leverage’ on Boule de Suif.

        The worst aspect of Vichy is that it empowered hardline French anti-semites, otherwise it is hard to judge because it was a reaction to the 3rd Republic, whose government and military hierarchy had led France to unimaginable military defeat and collapse in a matter of weeks in summer 1940. Before May 1940 France was seen as the most powerful and capable military in the world. French communists (who were a powerful social and political force after 1945) had also been actively undermining the allied war effort in 1939-40, literally following orders from Moscow, because Stalin and Hitler had signed the Nazi-Soviet pact and at that time were in a weird kind of alliance. Like Leninists across Europe they tactically forgot that after 1945 when they were active in attacking Vichy.

  6. Geordie says:

    milliganp

    Just as well I wasn’t God for five minutes.
    However “Boule de Suif” was written (1880) after the time Bismarck’s German invasion (1869-70) so it was long before the Third Reich. Bad enough but not quite as bad as the Nazis.

  7. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // Now, for the next five minutes, you are God. How will you judge the coach load? //

    Well, they’re people, and people are by nature both confused and quarrelsome. But they mean well. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. They all go to limbo, and once there, they go to school and learn to be wise. Once wise, they go to heaven.

  8. ignatius says:

    Yep, that about sums it up…I’ll see them all in purgatory no doubt, as we are being madde wise an hoping for heaven.

  9. John Nolan says:

    The Church has always had a soft spot for prostitutes (or, as they are now euphemistically called, sex workers). That most austere of popes, St Pius V, wanted to drive them out of Rome altogether, but had to compromise and give them their own red-light district.

    Ah, Guy de Maupassant … a great short-story writer whom we read in French at school, and whose tales were dramatized by the BBC back in the 1960s.

  10. milliganp says:

    I’m never happy with the term ‘sex worker’ as if prostitution was a chosen occupation. Almost all women in this position have ended up there because of difficult circumstances, which might be why Jesus did not condemn them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s