Notre Madame et le President by Anthony Esolen

Notre Madame et le President

There Was No Moral Common Ground

Well, the long-awaited commencement chez Notre Madame is past, God be thanked, with the father of the college and the father of our country fairly falling into one another’s arms in an ecstasy of mutual admiration and relief. I’ll leave it to the right people to express their feelings of betrayal—I mean the Catholics who have spent many years praying in front of abortuaries, passing out literature on abortion to their students in Catholic schools, donating time and goods and money to homes for unwed mothers, and fighting the patient and frustrating political fight one fence-sitting politician at a time.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the moral aphasia of our times. I don’t know how else to describe what President Obama said, and how it was received by faculty and students at the commencement on May 17—people who one presumes have had at least a passing acquaintance with moral philosophy. The President said—by way of holding forth what he believes is a compromise between his position and that of every Christian group before the last misbegotten century—that we should all work together to reduce the number of “unwanted pregnancies.”

And with a single phrase he showed, to anyone there who was paying attention, that there is no compromise possible between his position and the ancient Christian teaching.

American Roulette

Let us suppose I have a fancy revolver with twenty chambers. Suppose that we put one bullet in the revolver, in one of the chambers. Suppose also that I and my pal enjoy the frisson of terror and risk that rushes up our spines when we spin the chambers and hold the revolver to the other fellow’s head and pull the trigger. Of course, I do not want to kill my friend, and he does not want to kill me. But we are both willing to incur the risk of death to have that spasm of glee and fright.

Now, it won’t do to compare our actions to those of, say, a bridge-painter, who knows when he climbs up his ladder that there is a measurable chance that he will fall to his death (it is, I’m told, one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and therefore fabulously well remunerated). That is because the purpose of a ladder is that it be climbed, not that it be fallen from, whereas the very purpose of a gun is to shoot a bullet.

Suppose that my friend and I play this game of American Roulette once a year, on one of our birthdays. Now suppose that my friend’s number comes up, and I shoot him through the head. By law, and by the moral philosophy that undergirds the law, I do not get to plead that I did not intend his death. Perhaps I did not want him to die, but I certainly did intend the chance that he would die: I intentionally used a weapon against him, a weapon whose purpose it is to kill, and I used it in a way that would ensure his death, if the right chamber came up. It would be up to judge and jury to assess the correct punishment in my case, but as a matter of fact, I am a murderer.

Unbridgeable Chasm

Except in the case of rape, there are no “unintended pregnancies,” none. There are plenty of women who do not want to be pregnant, and plenty of men who do not want them to be pregnant, but in all those cases the pregnancies are the results of intentional actions that have pregnancy as their perfectly natural and perfectly predictable consequence.

Contraception does not change the nature of the act itself; indeed, it makes the actors more keenly aware that they are doing what makes babies, since otherwise they would not go so far out of their way (donning or inserting into the body uncomfortable devices, or flooding the system with pregnancy-mimicking hormones) to thwart the body’s natural functions. The “problem” in the case of Sexual Roulette is not that the body fails, but that it succeeds.

Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (, on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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