Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Mary guards a truth at once profoundly repugnant and profoundly attractive to our culture: the truth that purity is fruitful.
Mary’s purity reflects and signifies the purity ofthe Church, the bride without wrinkle, spot, or blemish. Chesterton, in one of his typically insightful remarks, noted that heresy has always tended to identify purity with sterility, while Catholic teaching “always connects purity with fruitfulness; whether it be natural or supernatural.” This is seen not only in ancient forms of false teaching that tried to scrape spirit clean of all contact with icky disgusting matter, but in more modern heresies as well. For example, it’s one of the strange contradictions of our age that the cultural apostles of sexual insanity constantly declare that “sex is nothing to be afraid of,” while at the same time desperately urging everyone to have “safe sex.” By this, they mean sex that is something like the Roman vomitorium, where you get all the pleasures of a bodily act, but none ofthe consequences. With perfect tone-deafness, the emissaries of”safe sex” thereby set themselves squarely against the only two things sex is actually for: union with the beloved and fruitfulness. For that’s precisely what God is saying when he tells us that the two shall be “one flesh” and then bids us to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28; 2:24).
Sex is the pledge of one’s total self to another. It is, as Pope John Paul II has pointed out, a kind of language that says, whether we admit it or not, “I give all of myself to you.” Sex is the only human activity that creates people—other beings in the image of God. Even a moment’s contemplation of these facts reveals the sheer idiocy of saying sex is nothing to be afraid of. One may as well say walking through a dry forest with a lit torch is nothing to be afraid of. And, if we’re honest, we are afraid of it—and none more so than the timid creatures who try to keep all the commitments sex implies—promises to husbands, wives, and children —at bay with a thin layer of latex (give or take a few hundred million abortions, STDs, ruined hearts, and broken lives).
We fear fire enough to keep it in the fireplace, but we’ve lost the elementary knowledge that God has ordained the fireplace of marriage for the fire of sex. The problem is not with wanting the fire, but with not wanting the fireplace. So our culture avoids the blessing of sex and makes it a curse instead. And we do it by making sex artificially virginal and virginity artificially sexual.
The artificial virginity of contraceptive sex boils down to the permanent attempt to strip mine the gold of pleasure from the sacramental union of love and fruitfulness, enthrone autonomy and pleasure, and declare love and fruitfulness “optional” rather than what revelation declares them to be: the very heart of reality. It is the attempt to replace love with power. But as power exalts itself over love, it naturally preys upon the weak, which leads to the artificial sexualization of virginity. For the simple fact is, a culture that despises virginity is a culture that despises children, who are both its weakest members and the last images we have of both purity and virginity. A culture that dedicates all its psychological resources to despising virginity is a culture ready, willing, and able to make war on childhood. The most obvious manifestation of this is, of course, abortion. But less obvious (and more insidious) is the insistent sexualization of children with clothes, media, and music urging them at ever earlier ages to be “bratz,” “studs,” and even to “explore same-sex attraction.” So, for instance, a fairly typical story fished at random from daily headlines tells us:
Push-up bras. Thong underwear. Eyeliner and mascara. Skirts up to here and shirts down to there. Bare bellies and low riders. Sexually explicit rap lyrics and racy adult television shows.
They’re not just the domain of young women anymore. Before parental anger forced them off the shelves, Abercrombie & Fitch marketed a line of thongs decorated with phrases such as “wink wink” and “eye candy” to youngsters. In a recent survey, the steamy adult series Desperate Housewives ranked as the most popular network television show among kids ages 9 to 12.
Prime-time television, with its ubiquitous commercials for Viagra and Cialis, tells youngsters about erectile dysfunction. Nielsen ratings show that 6.6 million children ages 2 to 11 watched Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during [2004’s] Super Bowl. The Internet offers kids a whole new source of information on sex, including pornography. Even the children’s film Shrek 2 contains scenes in which the honeymooning Shreks are making out, clearly preparing for sex.
Constantly bombarded with sexual images and lyrics, girls today seem to be going straight from toys to boys, without a stop at the tween years.
“The idea of girlhood as being a time of playfulness seems to have gone away,” says Jill Taylor, who teaches in the women’s studies department at Simmons College. “I think the culture is pushing them to grow up faster. You see the girls and they’re 12 going on 16.”
Last Halloween a group of 13-year-old girls in Brockton dressed up as prostitutes, with fishnet stockings, tube tops, miniskirts, and high heels. “We’re ho’s,” one girl told the local newspaper. The news that a 15-year-old girl at Milton Academy performed oral sex on five older boys has prompted a wide discussion about sexualized behavior among kids. And it’s not just sex—girls today, on average, take their first alcoholic drink at age 13, according to the American Medical Association.
Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescent girls, says cultural forces are causing girls to grow up fast today. “We’ve really lost what used to be called middle school years,” says Steiner-Adair. “It’s almost like kids go from elementary school to teenagers. There’s no pause.”
This sickness has only one cure: the return to making sex sexual and virginity virginal. That is, a return to honoring the sacrament of marriage, which can only be fully honored by honoring the even higher call of virginity. It’s the only medicine that will heal and, therefore, it’s a medicine that will provoke a violent reaction for the reason summed up by Chesterton long ago:
The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote.
In few places is this truer than in the reaction of contemporary culture to virginity. On the one hand, the horror of our sex-soaked, sex-marinated, sex-obsessed, sex-enslaved culture at the thought of any restraint is palpable. The sheer loathing directed at Christ’s virginity (in, for instance, The Da Vinci Code or the play Corpus Christi’s portrayal of Jesus as an active homosexual) hits you in the face like the heat of a furnace. The same is true for Mary as she endures the “honors” the world has ever bestowed on Christ’s faithful ones (such as Chris Ofili’s painting “Holy Virgin Mary,” which features a clump of elephant dung on one breast and cutouts of genitalia from pornographic magazines in the background).
Yet at the same time the world rings with longing for true love and total self-giving. People paid a billion dollars to watch Jack save Rose from the Titanic (albeit after the obligatory Hollywood sex scene in the backseat of a car). They bawl their eyes out at a woman who loves a man so much she will risk death with him, and at a man who loves her so much he undergoes a baptism of death in the icy deep to save her “in every way a person can be saved.” People pay billions more to songwriters to assure us either that such love exists and will find us or that the terrible pain we feel when it doesn’t is something we will laughingly crush by our own power. There is a massive hunger for pure self-sacrificing love —and a terrible devouring fear of it, whether it comes in the form of marriage or virginity. Karl Stern describes that confrontation between burgeoning hope for self-sacrificial love and the primal terror that goes with it. He noted that:
esides a thousand natural obstacles, besides the fear of cowardly betrayal, besides the anxiety of isolation, [there is] something else; there is a seemingly invincible horror, something which reaches deep down beneath the social and biological strata of the personality, something that seems to arrest the pulse and make the blood curdle in the veins, there is a cosmic fear, a panic of death and dissolution.
And with good reason: in a fallen world, love and death are alike. They are both forms of self-sacrifice and, in the mystery of Christ, therefore inseparable. So we have only two choices: live our lives trying to get love without death, or else find the courage to take the plunge, however ineptly, and die to ourselves for love. We may think we’re only trying to help a co-worker who needs a little time off, or cutting grandma some slack, or being nicer to that irritating neighbor. But if we continue down any road that starts with the attempt to love, we will sooner or later discover that we did not build the road, that Jesus has walked it before us, and that the little voice that prompted us to take that first step, and all the steps after that, was his, however faint it may have been. And should we continue to walk that road, we will discover it leads to still more calls to sacrifice until we reach the sacrifice of our lives. For as the great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
St. Teresa of Ávila, confronted with this painful truth after falling from a horse and being unceremoniously dragged through the mud, was told by the Lord; “This is the way I treat all my friends.” To which the plain-spoken saint responded, “Then, Lord, it is no wonder you have so few.”
No wonder indeed. In fact, it’s a wonder that the terrible and frightening goodness of God found—in at least one of the Church’s members—a welcome at all when it came to earth. But it did—in Mary. And the welcome continued, even when she was warned that the one her soul loved was “set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)” (Luke 2:34–35).
That was a miracle of grace as well: a miracle that planted some of Christ’s own holiness in the very heart of the Church as a kind of outpost or colony to assure that, no matter how weak, sleazy, or lukewarm the Church’s members became, Mary would always be a sign that the Church was, in her deepest being, holy by the grace of Christ. And that would be the ultimate fruit of the virgin who was given the singular grace to be “younger than sin.”