By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
One of the topics that comes up frequently on social media is the high school dances chaperoned by the nuns back in the 1950s and 1960s. You frequently see comments about how the nuns would roam the dance floor making sure that couples were not dancing too close during the slow dances, instructing them to “leave some room for the Holy Ghost.”
I am not sure if these comments are made good-naturedly in fond recollections of the innocent days of the past, or in criticism of the “prudish” attitudes of the nuns. Probably both perspectives are in play.
I must say, though, that when I see these comments, I can’t help but wonder what the people who are critical of the nuns’ strait-laced demands would say if they saw the grinding — “twerking” — that goes on at modern high school dances. I bet that they would want someone like “Sr. Mary Francis” patrolling the dance floor if one of their granddaughters was participating in the simulated sex.
The comments about the nuns of the past came to mind as I watched the liberals in the media react with disdain to the story that surfaced a few weeks back about Vice President Pence’s decision to never dine alone with a woman who was not his wife or to attend social functions where alcohol is served if his wife is not with him. Pence was raised a Catholic (he is now an evangelical Christian), but, from what I can tell, never went to a Catholic school run by nuns. So he probably has no Sr. Mary Francis in his background.
Even so, he and his wife are conducting themselves as husband and wife with the same frame of mind as the nuns of old. Which is why he has been the subject of so much derision from the mainstream press. There is a common denominator.
The Internet is filled with attacks on Pence for “not trusting” the women he works with, for assuming that they are “temptresses” of some sort; for denying women the career opportunities that would come from interacting with a prominent public figure based on medieval notions of propriety. Some commentators are insisting that virtue is more important than “strict rules.” Pence is being treated as a misogynist, a relic, a bizarre and unenlightened Bible Belter.
It is a revealing moment for the country, one that centers on conflicting views of human nature that are embedded in our culture. The nuns in the past and Mike Pence and his wife today accept the reality of original sin — whether or not they would use that term to define their understanding of the prudent way to deal with sexual drives. Pence’s critics hold to the conflicting secularist faith in the natural goodness of man.
The Church’s teaching has long been that all humans share an inclination to sin, to concupiscence, to the lures of the flesh — rooted in the fall of man recorded in Genesis. Mankind shares a temptation to behave promiscuously, and Christians have always recognized that moral training by parents and teachers and the lessons of uplifting literature are needed to overcome these urges. Also a legal system that makes clear the punishment that awaits those who transgress the bounds of decency in their behavior toward members of the opposite sex.
That is why the nuns of old thought it wise to urge restraint and a sense of propriety upon teenagers at social dances. They understood that even “good kids” can make bad judgments when faced with sexual temptation; that is unwise to enflame the passions. It is why the Church in the past would stress the need to avoid “near occasions of sin.”
It is this understanding that motivates Mike Pence’s decision to not put himself in situations where he may be tempted to do things that will dishonor his marriage. He is not casting aspersions upon the character of the women he encounters in his professional life. He is taking into account the effect of the scars of original sin upon his own moral core. No doubt, his years in politics have provided him with many examples of men and women whose “business lunches” with members of the opposite sex led to broken marriages.
Perhaps there are individuals who can sincerely say that sharing cocktails with a colleague of the opposite sex would never lead to compromising situations. God bless them. But my guess is that most of us would agree that it is playing with fire. It is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”
It is not necessary to hold that men and women are vile creatures unable to control their passions to agree with Pence’s view of marriage. (And Sr. Mary Francis’ urging students to leave room for the Holy Ghost.) The attraction of men and women toward each other need not be seen as evil to conclude that it is unwise for married men and women to place themselves in social situations that may prove a source of temptation.
Men and women are drawn to each other; the attraction is natural, and good. It is what leads to love and marriage and the propagation of the human race. It is God’s plan.
But it is also what leads to promiscuity. We cannot assume that we are immune to such behavior. This is why the human race from the beginning of recorded history has instituted rules, regulations, social niceties, and taboos that define how men and women should interact with each other. Mike Pence’s critics tell us we can ignore these guidelines; that we are Rousseau’s “naturally good” “noble savages,” men and women who can “let it all hang out,” “do our own thing,” and live by the maxim: “If it feels good do it.”
It seems to me that the turmoil that fills the lives of those who live that way tells us otherwise. Do you think Mike Pence is happier than Bill Clinton?
+ + +
Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The email address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.