The Abused Prude and His Morality
Vol. XVI, No. 17
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All schools of morality, if we may accept the unimpeachable testimony of the novelo-moralists, begin with a P. On one side there are the Progressives; on the other, the Puritans, the Philistines, and the Prudes. When the Progressives wish to be especially scathing, they call their opponents Prudes; and the name like a blast from the mouth of a nursery-dragon is supposed to strike the accused with a blighting flame.
No one doubts that a prude is a most unpleasant person. (Alliteration almost gets to be a habit.) A prude is cursed with an uncanny instinct for scenting out evil where evil is not. Given an equivocal situation, he always sees the base interpretation. His abnormally long nose is eternally poking among moral ill odors; his hands are always flapping in shocked surprise; and innocence itself takes a purple tinge in his presence. He never mentions birth save in a shocked whisper, while love and romance and innocent youthful gaiety he counts as cardinal crimes. The curse of the prude is his imagination which like a groundhog insists on boring. It twists good into evil and performs the metaphysically impossible feat of squeezing from every situation wrong which it does not contain.
But when the Progressive Moralists speak of
In consequence, when a man like the redoubtable Anthony Comstock fights his fight with the denizens of sewers, to save, if possible, some of God’s little ones, he is the sport of librettists, the scorn of the flippant editorial writer, a meddling old Prude. When groups of citizens risk the anger of the powerful by contesting the production of a drama which exploits and glorifies vice, or oppose the erection of an unclean monument, the cry that they are reactionary Prudes is flung to the winds. The plea for strict censorship of the “movies” is a hallmark of prudery. Any attempt to restrict the propagation of principles subversive of marriage and virginity is prudery, pure and simple. And the Progressive Moralists, who have at other times a contemptuous disregard for Christ’s desires, head their stories of sin with words taken from the lips of the Saviour and write upon their scarlet banners: “To the pure, all things are pure.”
Definitions are important things, and working from this definition of the Prude, Progressive Moralists class all defenders of the morality of Christ as Prudes. In fact, the more genuine a man’s Christianity, the more thoroughly is he in this sense a Prude. For a typical Christian holds no parley with sin and its apologists. He believes that moral evil can never be beautiful. He will not admit even a bowing acquaintance with immoral philosophies.
Yet in reality there is no one less a Prude than an intelligent Catholic. Everything save sin is the work of God and as such is a thing to be honored and admired. Mr. Chesterton complains that it is considered improper to speak of birth, though that is one of the really important things in life, one of life’s great adventures. If Mr. Chesterton lived in a thoroughly Catholic country or in times when Catholic customs still prevailed, he would not make such a complaint. Then birth would be regarded in the light of a fact quite as natural and commonplace as death, that other modern taboo. His good friend, Mr. Belloc, relates in his life of Marie Antoinette that before her birth, her mother, Maria Theresa, laid wagers on the possible sex of her child.
Prudery of the Victorian type is largely an outgrowth of English Puritanism, which made all things sin except gloom and melancholy and unbending severity. The religion which saw sin in laughter and dancing and Maysports, saw evil even in birth.
The Catholic does not shut his eyes to life as it is. He is keenly awake even to its most pitiful evils. But he does object to a literature which dwells with scavengers’ delight on the moral garbage of our alleys. He does not believe, as even Burke seemed to believe, that vice loses half its malice by losing all its grossness. He objects to the adornment by which immorality is made superficially attractive and to the philosophy by which it is made a virtue and an act of courage.
The modern exploitation of the social evil in books and magazines and plays has put into the current vocabularies words unheard in respectable homes ten years ago. The Catholic is called a Prude because with Agnes Repplier he protests against this “repeal of reticence.” Yet all the while the Catholic Church has recognized the presence of the evil and has been fighting the only successful fight against it. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd and the Sister-nurses in the maternity hospitals, calmly and with pure hearts and hands, have touched and healed moral wounds which all the blatant novelists and dramatists only render more raw and sensitive.
Yet these women are Prudes in the Progressive sense. They do not believe in the therapeutic value of the limelight, and they are convinced that the morally sound are not helped by constant visiting of hospitals for the unclean. Though no one faces the grim facts of life oftener than they, they would be shocked at a sex-novel; they would not tolerate one of our modern muck-raking magazines in their convents; and they would be quick to foresee the practical consequences of the philosophies of Galsworthy and Ellen Key and Margaret Sanger.
Then the Progressives who have built up their ethical code on a denial of Christ’s precept of indissoluble marriage and His counsel of chastity, cite in their own behalf His defense of the woman taken in adultery and His praise of the repentant Magdalene. It is quite true that Christ pardoned all sinners who sought His mercy, these among the rest. But the “sinner” of the Progressive type has no thought of repentance and at best a merely natural motive of amendment. We are not told that the woman taken in adultery heard the words of pardon at the conclusion of a brilliant defense of her fall. But we know that she had flung herself in the dust at the feet of Christ. It is not recorded that Magdalene pleaded her supersensitive nature and her need of sympathetic love as a reason for her pardon. But we are told that her tears moistened the feet of Christ and that her hair which had ensnared hearts was flung about the Saviour as a towel.
A prude, it must be repeated, is one who sees evil where evil does not exist. He is not, of course, the man who fancies that artists are beyond and above the natural law, or that the right of free speech entitles a writer to empty an unclean mind where children are wont to play. But, on the other hand, a man is not a prude who fights to preserve to our race a spotless womanhood and who sees in every man a blood-brother of the Virgin Christ. If he is, and the Progressive Moralists seem so to consider him, then Heaven grant us a large increase in the race of Prudes.