Wednesday, August 22, 2007

...the less sin

At a meeting of lay Catholics, in David Lodge's comic novel The British Museum Is Falling Down, Adam explains the casuistry of sin relative to birth control:
"The trouble with using contraceptives, from the point of view of practical moral theology," Adam went on, wondering what conclusion he was going to reach, "is that it's necessarily a premeditated sin. You can biff someone on the head or seduce someone's wife at a party, and go to confession and say, 'Father, I was overcome by my passions,' and be sincerely sorry, and promise not to do it again, and do the same thing a week later without being a hypocrite. But the other thing is something you commit, in the first place, in cold blood in a chemist's shop; and once you start you have to go on steadily, or there's no point."
      "That's very well put," said Maple, as Adam recovered his breath. "But what can we do about it?"
      "The only thing I can see is to get contraception classified as a venial sin," said Adam, with sudden inspiration. "Then we could all feel slightly guilty about it, like cheating on the buses, without forfeiting the sacraments."
      This proposition seemed to take the group by surprise, and a long silence ensued.
      "Well," said Francis Maple at length, "that's a novel point of view certainly. I don't know if there's any machinery for classifying sins...But there's a general consensus which can be modified, I suppose."
      At this point the door burst open, and Father Wildfire entered.
      "Ah!" said Maple, with relief. "You come at an opportune moment, Father."
      "Why, somebody dying?" said the priest, with a boisterous laugh.
      "No, it's just that we're getting into rather deep theological waters. Adam, here, thinks that the birth control problem could be solved if contraception were just considered as a venial sin."
      "Isn't it?" said Father Wildfire, with feigned surprise. The group laughed delightedly, but discreetly, as if they were in church. "Is there anything to drink?" asked the priest, unbuttoning his coat. This was a rough serge jacket of the kind worn by building labourers. Underneath it he wore a red woollen shirt and brown corduroy trousers. The Dominicans appeared to have very liberal regulations, of which Father Wildfire took full advantage, concerning the wearing of the habit. Adam often thought that if, as seemed likely, he was eventually de-frocked, no one would ever know it.
      A cup of coffee was passed to the priest, who extracted a small flask from his pocket, and poured a generous measure into the cup. "Seriously," he said, "this venial sin–mortal sin business is old hat. Something the scholastics thought up to while away the long winter evenings. All sins are mortal sins. Or, to put it another way, all sins are venial sins. What matters is love. The more love, the less sin. I was preaching at a men's retreat the other day, and I told them, better sleep with a prostitute with some kind of love than with your wife out of habit. Seems some of them took me at my word, and the bishop is rather cross."
      Adam wanted to ask if it was better to make love to your wife using a contraceptive, or not to make love to her at all; but somehow it did not seem an appropriate question to ask Father Wildfire. He lived at the frontiers of the spiritual life, where dwelt criminals, prostitutes, murderers and saints, a territory steaming with the fumes of human iniquity, from which souls emerged, if they emerged at all, toughened and purified by a heroic struggle with evil. In contrast, Adam's moral problem seemed trivial and suburban, and to seek Father Wildfire's advice would be l ike engaging the services of a big-game hunter to catch a mouse. [pp. 70-72]

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