playing it safe

By Diogenes (articles) | May 04, 2005

Loyola University (CHICAGO's JESUIT UNIVERSITY, the promotional slicks remind us) has an on-line Student Self-Care page titled Playing It Safe. It begins with a curtsey dropped in the general direction of Mediterranean value-systems and within the space of a paragraph ends up flat on the floor:

Catholic faith maintains that sexual intercourse is to be simultaneously an act of the deepest intimacy and an act open to the conception of new life. Because of this twofold purpose, intercourse is to be engaged in only by marriage partners. Muslims and Jews share similar moral positions. The following information should be used within the context of one's own religious, moral, and ethical values about human sexuality. If you choose to be sexually active, consider your health and peace of mind by playing it safe.

How's that for a specimen of bracing moral guidance for a hormone-soaked 19-year-old? "Playing it safe" means picking up Loyola's unsubtle if-you-can't-be-good-be-careful hint so as to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. In addition to "low risk" practices -- among which wholesome acts of courtship and mortal sins are listed indiscriminately -- we get a roster of miscellaneous lab supplies conducive to "peace of mind," including jellies, creams, foams, and dental dams.

And dental dams. Here, at long last, we find the unsurpassably perfect emblem of the liberal Catholic project in general and contemporary Jesuit pedagogy in particular. Note that we're speaking of symbolism. I'd wager that never in the history of human endeavor has a man tempted to the act for which a dental dam is protective ever paused to protect himself thereby. Perhaps I'm deluded -- perhaps Chicago pharmacists will write to boast of their dam sales, insisting that "Jesuits are our best customers"; perhaps the campus ministry chaplains never leave home without a dam in their wallets ("just in case"). But I doubt it. The importance of the dental dam is its symbolic value as a white flag, a concession of moral surrender.

The point of any education is that you come to know something at the end of it that you didn't know at the beginning, and university education is intended to pass on wisdom: a comprehensive view of human nobility together with the knowledge that attends it. Loyola obviously despairs of the possibility of knowing that sodomy is bad -- i.e, of knowing it with the same confidence that it knows latex barriers lower the risk of disease. The latter it presents as evident truth, the former as an arbitrary option. We don't even find a link to a site in which the Catholic teaching is defended.

So what invitation does Chicago's Jesuit University extend to the world? What human good does it offer? "Don't fall off into the mindless labor pool. Come to us. Work weekends and summer jobs and dent your parents' savings. Sit at our feet, and study and write and argue for four years, six years, eight years. Throw yourself into history, logic, theology, ethics, metaphysics. Make the Spiritual Exercises. Earn a doctorate in theology or philosophy so as to learn how to order the human life, and at the conclusion of this ascent to the acme of earthly wisdom we can offer you ... a dental dam."

I spoke of the dam as a token of defeat, and it is. But it's no accident that Loyola's masters put it on the same page as what they call "dry kissing." The game is to level all amorous activities to a single plane of moral neutrality, thereby soiling innocent acts by making them blank counters in the same exercise of moral defeatism ("just another form of safe sex"). The dental dam is a white flag of surrender -- but in a war they want to lose. I don't believe that a doctor, seeing his son on the way out the door of an evening, ever tossed him a dental dam, with an injunction to "play it safe." Were he to do so, it would not be a gesture of fatherly concern but an act of hostility. For the same reason, I believe the Loyola latex lovers -- like those folks begging the Church to give condoms to Africans -- are moral nihilists moved by hatred of moral integrity. Having given in to sexual anarchy, they detest those who haven't. The vandal attacks the unbroken window, the un-splattered wall.

Richard Cross holds a doctorate in psychology, who has taught at the university level, including at Franciscan University. He is currently an educational researcher and consultant in the field of psychology and related disciplines.
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