y wife-to-be is annoyed. She objects to a newspaper item about Spain permitting gay marriage. It’s unnatural. It’s wrong. The pope significantly omitted Spanish from the languages he used during his first audience. Good for him, she says.
I come to these arguments gingerly. It’s so easy to get it wrong. How, I ask her quietly, can a church proselytize endlessly when a democracy, even a poor one, concerns choice?
But that’s just it, she says: Choices should not exist. Making them available unseats natural law, and nature. The point of a democracy is to educate and inform. Correct education limits errant choices. Otherwise all falls apart. All turns relative. The German pope is right. Put an end to the relative.
That may be, I answer, but isn’t the limiting of choice once it’s been made available like trying to replace spilled liquid? The bottle tipped. The tablecloth is soaked. You can mop, you cannot rebottle.
The spirit of discipline, she answers curtly, depends on adhering to a system of beliefs. Consider the issue of gays. Deviance has always occurred and always will. But no state should legislate to permit it. Deviance is a failure to consider life with rigor, which only confuses our time on the planet. Choice itself is a failure because the human condition cannot be escaped; mortality does not permit choice, for or against. It mocks human whimsy, as it should.
I disagree. She glares at me, beautifully.
Ethics, all ethics, I say, are guidelines. They are not systematic. Ethics existed at the time of the Holocaust (revered in intellectual Germany) but were bypassed rationally to serve the needs of a nationalist state and government. Individual morality collected into outrage and evidenced the grotesque.
And if personal morality posseses breadth and depth, I add, then it also nourishes a private calling — which permits informed decisions about gay marriage, abortion, divorce, contraception. Personal morality depends on individual insight, and occasional wisdom. It has a private style and grace.
Private grace? She is outraged.
Choosing to abort a life after personal introspection is grace? Destroying a union because it’s inconvenient is insightful? Bringing together a couple that cannot truly couple or procreate is a calling? No, she says. What you’re doing is advertising a range of self-indulgence. I understand why you might. You come from a generation where feelings came first. Whatever you wrote was poetry. Whatever you thought was revolutionary. You came effectively from a time of lawlessness that was institutionalized as normal. But it isn’t. In the wrong hands it’s a recipe for the destruction of compassion. If you let people choose most will choose badly, and hurt themselves.
Our tempers are gradually flaring. We’ll later need time alone, or together.
She is categorical, I tell her. That serves her well. It neatly isolates good and evil. It dictates, for example, that Serbian war crimes are atrocities while untoward recommendations broadcast by the holy are suspended from reproach. When Pope John Paul II traveled to famished Africa in the 1980s, a white interloper into wildness, he preached with paternal conviction against contraception — in states where bone played the part of infants; where there was little food; where sexual mores indulged men to exaggerate.
But the wandering pope, buoyed by keening crowds, persisted against condoms, a persuasion tantamount to infanticide by omission. The Rome church later to deplore the “Culture of Death” mysteriously welcomed the bloated children as culpa morti, in the service of death. When the late German essayist W.G. Sebald wrote “we are a severely disturbed species,” inventions of this kind are likely what he had in mind.
I tell my wife-to-be that grace is the boldness to contest the prejudices of institutional teaching, particularly when fear’s comformist hysteria is recycled relentlessly. Skepticism is the fundamental condition of secular individualism. It avows responsible doubt without abrogating spiritualism. It entertains the rational and scientific without bribing their reassurances. It can believe in both miracles and mistakes. It asks, What sacrosanct rule protects the pope’s African gambit? None. What law supersedes common sense? A bad one. What hymn changes a tire? Few I know. You see a man on a cliffside: Do you respond impulsively to save him — though suddenly two, not one, are now at risk — or abandon his fall to a higher power?
She sighs, refusing the bait.
You are as always existential, she responds. It is, for you, about the terms of life on Earth, self-centered and self-involved. You are a Christian existentialist who insists belief has temporal scale of major and minor keys that can be written and rewritten to suit the romance of the tune. Life, for you, is a movie, and there are many movies, many genres. Of course life is unfair. Of course debate can enrich it. But limits must be placed on the debate to keep rules — even disagreeable rules — operating. You can’t adjust a spiritual message as you would a recipe, tailoring one text for the poor and another for the rich. To hope means to hope, and hope exists whether you rear a child in desperate poverty or in a wealthy suburb of Madrid. Begin to differentiate and the singularity of belief is marred. The door is open to say, “Yes, well since they are in North America we will make an exception.” And faith does not admit exception. It cannot. Individual and state failure are the product of human, not spiritual, flaws.
It’s nearly time to leave.
I’m sorry, I tell her.
I’m just what she says, a Christian existentialist. I fathom people, not souls. I see actions and their consequences; I cannot fathom a road without turn-offs, a plan from which there is no return, an unyielding method. This is, I admit, a matter of temperament, and perhaps a brand of contrived optimism. We are devised by our yearnings. Destiny is dull and idle unless subject to revision, because life is dynamic, negotiable, thrilling. Whether you love a man or a woman you still love. If you abort a child, this too can be an act of love. So can terminating a life that exists in objective agony. Grace is a child of tolerance and reflection, from which vision is born. No pope gains it from piety.
Will people choose wisely given choice? Perhaps not. Frequently not. But they will know not to believe one voice alone. There is no one voice, only a confusing swell of attractions and justifications. Humanity is a wondrous, terrible chorale, too often demoralizing.
Unoriginal thoughts, and futile ones, she whispers, averting my gaze.
I look into the mirror.
She is me. She is gone.