“Get thee to a nunnery; why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”
The line from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, is spoken by Hamlet to Ophelia. In a curious and acerbic exchange, Hamlet creates some confusion about his professed love for Ophelia. He has either feigned love or been deeply wounded by it—and Shakespeare gives us a tragic discourse on the nature of men and women, and marriage. Hamlet proposes the complexity of the original wounding of human nature by sin, and the despondency of a heart seeking comfort in self- adulation and revenge.
Hamlet is a character full of doubt, deprived of beauty, forgiveness, and truth. He spurns virtue and then proclaims his “honesty” as that indifference which is moral. He surrenders the virtue of hope in order to possess “honesty.” Hamlet broods upon what theologians might call the “mutual recriminations” which distorted relations between men and women changing the divine gift into a “relationship of domination and lust” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1607).
Hamlet was right about sin, but wrong to let his doubt destroy beauty and to succumb to the regime of sin with cynical resignation. For poor Hamlet, love is an instrument of manipulation, and marriage is born of misery.
Nuptial Love, Marriage in the Lord: Cleaving to God
Politics and marriage have been strange companions, historically. Marriage devolved into a political instrument of power and greed for the monarch of the Tudor dynasty, King Henry VIII. Marriage is a divine institution, which reflects the sacrificial and spousal love of Christ for his Church. The blessed perfection of creatures is at the heart of Christian marriage and family life.
Saint John Paul II wrote Theology of the Body as a vision of Christian spousal love, the fruit of ordered relations in a communion of persons. He was deeply dedicated to the idea of man’s freedom to choose the good. The Communist regime which St. John Paul II knew in his own time, has since passed; but its long cultural shadow is still cast in societies which deny God as the author of of man’s freedom: “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him” (CCC 1730).
Totalitarian ideology subverts the right of a person to “attain his full and blessed perfection” in God. If ever there were an authentic pronouncement on freedom, it is found in #1730 of the Catechism. We are free to cleave to God or refuse God. God leaves us to our own counsel, paradoxically, so that we may freely seek His.
The Christian Life in Modern Culture
In Catholicism, love is nuptial and ordered by God’s design—marriage is not a human institution. The rights and responsibilities of all married persons originate in the divine life of God. The profound root of Christian life is spousal: “The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church” (CCC 1617).
Marriage and family life is “an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence” and a sign of God’s sacrificial love. A view of human sexuality, which rejects divine order and married life, misunderstands relational intimacy, chastity, and marriage—because it rejects the author, it rejects the divine order. In the Church’s understanding, there is no relationship apart from Christ’s love for his Church. Christ’s love for his Church, for persons, is love for all of humanity and for each individual as a person. For Catholics, love is not an ambiguous idea—it is the person of Christ.
Divorcing God from the Culture
Totalitarian thought denounces Christ and the spousal love of Christ for his Church, in an effort to distort the relationships of persons to God by redefining meaning, distorting language and symbols, and, criminalizing Christian expression. It attacks the family to divorce God from the culture.
In an episode of his vintage TV program, “Life is Worth Living” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen spoke of the propaganda which perverted the Holy Cross in what was then Soviet-Russia. He discussed the Russian word “strast” (“suffering”) originally understood by Slavic peoples in the light of the Cross. The word was then perverted by tyrants in order to acculturate and propagandize society to the mass “suffering” under totalitarian oppression as a duty of their citizenship. Tyranny is opportunistic in its mimicry of Christianity—as Sheen noted, without the paternity of God, “it is brotherhood without fatherhood.”
In totalitarian ideology, Christian witness and authentic liberty are estranged, if not divorced from the culture. History reveals that “every reactionary is protesting against the last liberal” (Communism and the Conscience of the West, Sheen 20). This is the conundrum Sheen identified: subjective relativism and the mere passage of time as determinants of moral conduct result in the decay of reason. Sheen wrote that it is characteristic of a decaying civilization to be “unconscious of the tragedy.”
Jargon and ‘The Philosophy of the Future’
Sheen wrote of the post-Renaissance dogmas regarding freedom, that the intellectual mind (the enlightened mind) failed to distinguish between “the right to do what man ought” and “the right to do whatever man pleases”. Thus, a determination of freedom should provoke inquiry in objective truth.
Sheen described the dialogue from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, when the fictional character Wormwood is instructed on how to move a soul away from God:
“Jargon, not argument is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about” (28).
In the modern jargon of equality, especially as it concerns bathroom bills, proponents affirm that the deprivation of privacy is a duty of citizenship. The ‘philosophy of the future’ does not permit inquiry, certitude, objectivity, or reason—the future is about jargon and mischaracterization. John Muggeridge wrote in his forward to Sheen’s The Life of Christ, “The trouble with certitude these days is that it looks outdated.” Has reason gone down the drain? (Read Walt Heyer’s post for perspective on the ‘bathroom directive’).
The Legacy of “Jargon” and the Culture of Death
A major cause of death in the 20th Century is ideology. Reportedly, it claimed the lives of 100+ Million, and this number does not include the lives lost to abortion, genocide, and war.
Archbishop Sheen noted how the decline of family life negatively influences society, and promotes the overreach and growth of the “bureaucratic machinery” which claims more power for itself as it usurps the right of conscience, and Christian expression:
“There is no doubt that the State will claim more power for itself as the family declines, but the state and society are not identical. As the vital energy of society goes into a decline, the mechanized bureaucratic machinery grows by leaps and bounds” (152).
We are born into family life. It is not just an institution by which we are prepared for relationships, and encounter with the world—it is the foundation for a civilization of love. In Gratissimam Sane, JP II wrote:
“Human fatherhood and motherhood, while remaining biologically similar to that of other living beings in nature, contain in an essential and unique way a ‘likeness’ to God, which is the basis of the family as a community of human life, as a community of persons united in love (‘communion personarum’ ) (6).
We need to belong to a clan.
The Clan and the Clique
G.K. Chesterton differentiated between the clan (the relationships we are born into), and the clique (the relationships we choose), arguing that the institution of the family knows “more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men” establishing the mature development of persons in emotional maturity and sociability. “Sociability, like all good things, is full of discomforts, dangers and renunciations.” (95) If we can live with and love people we did not choose—there is the hope that we will be sociable and adaptive, and charitable—accepting truth, and the imperfections of ourselves and our neighbor.
“There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique…But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.” (95)
Sheen, just before his death in 1979, had spoken to his friend, Malcom Muggeridge, “Christendom is over, but not Christ.” He wrote of historical liberalism, that it is “like a sundial, which is unable to mark time in the dark.” It “can function only in a society whose basis is moral, where the flotsam and jetsam of Christianity are still drifting about the world” (Sheen 21).
Christian witness mourns the loss of grace and souls, as it drifts about in the world—unlike Hamlet’s view, it refuses the suggestion that men are doomed to sin, proposing instead, the hope of Christ and the beauty and dignity of human persons. Hamlet’s virtue is perverted—his “honesty” justifies his resentment that he finds his imperfect existence full of nuance, complexity, disagreement, and what Chesterton terms “uncongenial surroundings.”
Chesterton acknowledged the vanity of “supercilious moderns” who despise “uncongenial surroundings.”
“To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance. Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the variety and poetry of life, the family is the most definite and important. Hence it is misunderstood by the moderns, who imagine that romance would exist most perfectly in a complete state of what they call liberty.” (102)
Marriage and family life are a great adventure for the truly romantic, the brave of heart. If we are to build a civilization of love, then we should be daring and bold in proclaiming the love of God. We were ‘born into a romance’, created by the lover of souls. “Love is demanding,” JP II wrote, and because it is demanding, it is the source of its beauty (GS 14, emphasis mine). He also wrote, “The family is the first human setting in which is formed that “inner man” of which the Apostle speaks” (GS 23).
I think Hamlet would be called a ‘hopeless romantic’. His weakness was more pronounced than Ophelia’s—he sought his own perfection outside the “inner man”. Christians are hopeful romantics, in the truest sense of the term.
Ophelia’s response to Hamlet’s admonition, is poetically accurate—about a person who loses not only love, but reason:
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown”…
“O heavenly powers, restore him!”…
“Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;”
(Hamlet, III. I. 117-167)
Or, (with a heavy sigh), “Lord, have mercy on us.”