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Are You a Fornication-Denier?

Drew Belsky

Last week, X (formerly Twitter) gave me this pearl of wisdom:

The implication is that [bad thing] is not a big deal, so why does the Church remain so hung up on it? And we can refine this complaint in an age where sexual continence is under attack even at the highest ecclesiastical levels: “Why are those mean old fun-hating conservatives so hung up on it?”

Let’s clear a few things up. First, the loathsome term premarital sex. How can we be so confident as to declare this sex “pre-marital,” preceding marriage? “Extra-marital” might be more accurate, though that is a euphemism for something else, now euphemized even harder as “irregular circumstances” or, worse, “an irregular marriage.” So the classic term, fornication, seems most sensible. It’s still called that today, but no one wants to admit it, nor that it is a mortal sin—meaning the sort of thing that will send unrepentant and fully-knowing practitioners to hell. I suppose the Church is still “in denial about” it in that way, albeit quietly and with some embarrassment.

Next, “denial.” Is anyone really in denial that the vast mass of Americans of marriageable age are fornicating? At the very least, every television show and movie and elementary-school curriculum throws it at us daily. Even C.S. Lewis, a towering icon of “mean old conservative” Catholics, declared to his 1940s-ish “conservative” 88-percent-fornicating readership that “the sins of the flesh . . . are the least bad of all sins.” Tell that to Sr. Lucia, Clive—but suffice it to say that I’m not sure anyone’s been in denial about the prevalence of fornication for a long, long time.

Next, the stats. How does a voyeuristic pollster go about ascertaining that “95 percent of Catholics have premarital sex”? Does he ask them, and expect them to tell the truth? More likely, he skates by with a “representative sample.” What does such a sample look like? Does it include people like me, and then the innumerable categories of people better-looking than me? Does it include the elderly, the socially awkward, the cloistered nuns? I could go on and on.

Suffice it to say that when we break down this tweet, and the sentiment it represents, we see that people really aren’t in denial about an ill-defined thing that in fact may or may not be happening to a greater or lesser degree. In short, it means nothing. It’s smoke, in elaborate, meaningless designs, all translating to the basic and brute phrase “I WANT.”

But finally, let’s take the smoke for granted, if only to attack the WANT. Maybe, stats or no stats, (almost) everyone really is fornicating just beyond your field of vision, like in that movie Amélie. If that’s the case, it is a grave evil, the sort of thing holy people weep over. If it’s true, millions are at risk of eternal damnation, and deepening their commitment to that risk, making themselves ever more entrenched in it, every day. To put it bluntly, that’s a bummer, man.

But here’s where the dumb premise of a dumb tweet can be right: we should be “in denial about all this,” in the sense that we should be in denial about all dubious sweeping polls and their foul output. The guy who wants more fornication uses them as base propaganda. We, who want less fornication, do best to shrug our shoulders. Our lot is not to fix the (possible) fornication problem of (maybe almost) the whole mass of the United States. Not now, and not in the 1940s, though that would make for an entertaining time travel movie. Our power lies in reforming our own discrete lives. I can’t make X stop fornicating, but I can stop myself . . . and from lying, and defaming, and contracepting, and reading X.

Should the Church change its position on fornication because everyone’s fornicating? No, not any more than it should change its position on murder because everyone’s murdering. Nor should you. Rather, let’s remember that 2,000 years of wisdom probably has something to it. Then we can recommit ourselves to that wisdom, and not worry so much about the throes of social media.

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