In C.S. Lewis’ “Perelandra,” the protagonist, Ransom, encounters on that planet, where sin has not yet ravaged nature, a yellow gourd — a single draught from which delights beyond all expectation and satisfies all hunger and thirst. The pleasure it affords is so intense as to be almost spiritual. As Ransom reaches instinctively for another, however, he has the sense that this needless repetition would be a spoiling vulgarity, and he desists.
I thought of this when I read a passage from “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive” that states: “Our failure to embrace limits, our stubborn insistence on our appetites, fuels many spiritual and material problems in our world today” (No. 120). For that, certainly, is the way things are on this sin-ravaged planet.
When God created our world, he subdued chaos with order, set boundaries, gave the gift of particularity and so of variety — and all this he declared good. Humans, whom he made to be free and under their own power, do not discover their freedom by rejecting limits, but rather by embracing them. Laws and limits, as St. Irenaeus taught, direct us toward freedom rather than away from it.
All of the evil from which our world suffers has made its appearance precisely by way of our refusal to acknowledge the goodness of limits. And it is indeed our appetites and passions, taking advantage of our disordered wills, that encourage us to ignore proper limits.
While accepting limits leads to life, ignoring limits leads to death — that most unwanted of limits. But Christ has ransomed us from sin and death, which have no more dominion over us. We ought therefore to show ourselves (as Ransom did) willing to embrace limits, out of respect for our Maker.
Take contraception, for example. What is it to contracept if not to erase the limits that God, by combining the unitive and the procreative into a single act, has built into our sexuality? Contraception does not display but rather obscures our freedom and power to receive the gift of sex by exercising a “responsible mastery” over it (No. 127). The same can be said of other sins. Lust begets lust. Greed begets greed. Lack of responsibility in one area leads to lack of responsibility in another. And darkness is multiplied.
Later in Lewis’ book, Ransom encounters another earthling on Perelandra, who is there to tempt its inhabitants, like Adam and Eve, to transgress the limits set for them by God. This “Un-Man’s” downward slide began with a secularist philosophy like social Darwinism that sees man as ascending out of the darkness of religion into the light of science. While that style of philosophy may seem dated, we are confronted today by a “relativist pluralism” (No. 115) that also encourages us to think we are making progress when we abandon the moral and religious strictures that bound previous generations. The main justification for this abandonment is that we must respect the autonomous choices of others. Our corporate morality can be summed up in a single word: tolerance. Tolerance is the only virtue; intolerance the only vice.
This confuses many just because it has the appearance of respecting limits. In the much-misunderstood words of Pope Francis: Who are we, collectively, to judge? And shouldn’t the state, especially, remain neutral in matters of religious and moral judgment? Is that not how it respects its own limits?
This is the muddled thinking that leads to same-sex marriage. We must not insist that marriage is between a man and a woman, or that marriage is a discipline for the sake of the offspring of a man and a woman, because that it is to impose our morality on others. So we try to hold what the Church teaches as if it were a private truth rather than a public one.
It is the tempter’s role to confuse, and relativist pluralism is an instrument of confusion. For, in the name of variety and limits, it rejects variety and limits. The virtues are reduced to one: to tolerance, which seems to impose no limits. Humanity itself is reduced to one: no longer differentiated as male and female.
But the consequences of this confusion are many and serious. They lead not to the flourishing of man but to the un-manning of man.
Professor Douglas Farrow is the Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies at McGill University.