Root of All Sin: Selfishness? UPDATED

My column at First Things today is about walking on The Diamond Path, a road some of us learned about as children, after a brazen caper:

Flashback, forty-some years: as my friends and I prepare to make our first confessions God is very much on all our minds, as are the notions of sin and shame and forgiveness.

Contrary to modern thinking, we six year-olds are not little dopes incapable of comprehending moral concepts. Knowing that we will soon be kneeling in a confessional and facing up to all of our smallish venial sins (“told a fib, fought wit’ my bruddah, used the good spoons for diggin’ up moss) we decide that for the whole exercise to be really worth while, we will need an honest-to-God mortal sin on our souls.

We settle on theft, anticipating additional penance for follow-up lies, and proceed to steal a large bottle of grape juice from Mrs. Garfinkle’s fridge.

We’ve stolen juice, and even as we drink it down under a shady tree we are preparing our lies. We know exactly what we’re doing, and how wrong our actions are. In fact, the knowledge that we are both stealing and planning to lie gives the whole endeavor an added patina of glamour and sophistication. We are edgy little mavericks, brazen in our purple-lipped defiance.

You can read it all here.

That was not the first time — nor the last — that I came to see how selfishness has a deep connection to all of our sins; it is a lesson I keep needing to relearn, unfortunately. Nosing around over at Deacon Greg’s this morning, I found another story that brings the lesson home, but I suspect it would be politically incorrect — or mean, or something — to mention selfishness in its context:

Laura Ashmore and Jennifer Williams are sisters. After that, their relationship becomes more complex.

When Ms. Ashmore and her husband, Lee, learned a few years ago that they could not conceive a child, Ms. Williams stepped in and offered to become pregnant with a donor’s sperm on behalf of the couple, and give birth to the child. The baby, Mallory, was born in September 2007 and adopted by Ms. Ashmore and her husband.

Then the sisters began to ponder: where would the little girl sit on the family tree?

“For medical purposes I am her mother,” Ms. Williams said. “But I am also her aunt.”

Many families are grappling with similar questions as a family tree today is beginning to look more like a tangled forest. Genealogists have long defined familial relations along bloodlines or marriage. But as the composition of families changes, so too has the notion of who gets a branch on the family tree.

Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. Some schools, where charting family history has traditionally been a classroom project, are now skipping the exercise altogether.

It is not a perfect correlation, of course. We stole the grape juice as a caper, but the fact is it belonged to someone else, and that person had plans for it; when she went to use it, it was not available to her.

Infertility is a painful reality for many people, and it would be ignorant not to recognize that fact. And because we live in a culture that doesn’t merely encourage us to pursue the things we want but insists that we must be denied nothing — that we’ve a right to “have it all” — questioning the morality or social impact of the complicated, unnatural and exorbitant (material and emotional) expense of acquiring a baby of one’s own, by any means necessary, is a no-no.

So, I suppose suggesting that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae more or less predicted days like this, would be a no-no, too.

Some will say that it was not selfishness but a mature adult’s quest for power and personal autonomy that made artificial birth control so popular. Really, it was the desire to enjoy sex without having to risk giving up anything of one’s life or one’s self. It was a “something for nothing” gambit that allowed men to use women, allowed women to consent to being used in the quest for personal empowerment, and opened the door for the casual abuse of abortion when the contraceptive failed.

Something for nothing is a sucker’s bet,
but we are prone to falling for it, because we are selfish, and we want what we want, and do not want to hear that perhaps we’re supposed to have something else. All that contraception, all that abortion has contributed to our current rash of fertility problems; there aren’t enough adoptable babies to go around, anymore — and everyone wants the baby/toddler experience (very few couples seek to adopt older children) — so artificial birth control spawns artificial birth, via borrowed uterus or busy petri dish. And to mention that is, I will be informed, a cruel thing. If God “loves us all into being” and these babies are conceived in this way, then God must sanction it, right?

I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But we do know that God loves life, and life wants to happen. Think of all the women you know who became pregnant while using birth control. But it is not always expedient. When we try to suppress life, it costs us something. When we try to force it, it costs us something, too.

Something for nothing is a trick; it is not real. The Catholic Church has been calling into the wind for decades now, trying to get people to slow down in their pursuits to “have” everything; she keeps serving up those outmoded suggestions that maybe each of us must do without something, and that not everything is coming to everyone.

The church has been consistent in this message, even though it’s difficult to hear in the tumult. Catholics keep talking about “calling,” and asking people to stop yakking about what they “deserve” long enough to seriously ask, “is it truly for me? Is it what I am called to? Is there a possibility that I am not supposed to have this, in order to open my life up to something else? What might that be? Am I being led somewhere I had not imagined?”

Those might seem like I-centric questions, but really, they are I-and-Godcentric. They are questions that suppose our lives are meant for more than we might allow; they open up possibilities that move beyond the conventional wisdom. Because they wonder beyond our own desires, they are the opposite of selfishness, and to ask them is not cruel; it is merely to invite enlargement.

Genies don’t go back into bottles. The only way people will end their harried pursuits for the perfect lives they’re convinced they’re supposed to have (and as recently as 60-70 years ago, no one believed their lives were meant to be perfect, or that they “deserved” perfection) will be if all of the avenues of contraception, abortion and techno-pregnancies are closed to them — which will not happen.

Selfishness has gripped the human heart since Eden. It’s not going away, anytime soon.

I wrote earlier that the correlation between the stolen grape juice and the tangled genealogies of expedited children was imperfect. But it might be better than I realized. When the woman wanted to use the grape juice, she found it was not there. After abusing and de-naturizing our means of reproducing, we find that when we want to use them, they are not available to us, either. In both cases, there was theft (from a homemaker and from God) born of selfishness, and no juice, when it was needed.

UPDATE: “Mum to have dead son’s baby”:

“A woman is set to fulfill her dream of becoming a grandmother — using her dead son’s sperm. [...]

But before his life slipped away the divorced 44-year-old controversially asked to harvest his sperm . . . Missy, of Austin, Texas, said: ‘I told the court that I wanted my grandchild. The judge gave me the sweetest look and nobody objected.’”

I can’t imagine the pain and grief of losing your child. But does that come to this? Are we become such slaves to sentimentalism that we all put a sweet look on our face and say, “aw, someone wants something, really wants it, so he/she should have it!”

Read it all here

Our sentimentalism is truly running amok

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • James

    You’re on a roll today Anchoress. A very good roll.

    “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

    - G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 9

    “At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to babes” – Matthew 11:25

  • momor

    It could have been worse. I was almost certain the mother was going to be impregnated with her son’s sperm or at least act as the surrogate. Nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to fertility.

  • Victor

    I recall having written somewhere in the past in so many words that there’s no way that a person could be too selfish when “IT” came to asking our GOD (Good Old Dad) for something cause I believed that the sky was the limit for GOD and He would never think that we were selfish in any way. Go Figure!

    I hear ya! What are your thoughts today Victor about “IT” now that you know that a grade ten is but a drop of education nowadays? :)

    In reality, I’ve learn that we must be very careful not to lead people in the wrong direction because SIN is more powerful then any human being who is only made UP of bone, blood and skin. Long story short, nowadays our sins actually believe that they are our god and have teamed UP as “ONE” to quietly and legally steal the daily gifts that our Heavenly Father give U>S (usual sinners) and most humans still today are not wise to “IT” at all. Kind of like the days of old when slavery was allowed but the only difference now is that “Black” is not the only colors “Satan”, I mean “Sins” are interested in these days and i won’t get into “IT” but I will sum “IT” UP with “Free Will”

    To make a long story short, all of my cells believe that someday they might get a chance to team UP with my soul and spirit, then round and round we’ll go again, where and when we’ll stop GOD alone knows.

    I better stop NOW Anchoress cause some of my gut cells, my mean feelings are telling me that I’ve said too much already. Go Figure! :)


  • Anna

    Having been on the infertility side of things myself (though we’re now expecting #3 with the help of the Pope Paul VI Institute), I can attest to the appropriateness of James’ quotation. Infertility testing and treatment, even when morally licit, is, by nature, invasive and intrusive and awful. It was so comforting to have Mother Church there to reassure us that the heart of our humanity and our marriage would not be violated if we stuck to moral means.
    And we were “forced,” in a manner of speaking, to keep our priorities in order. We could never say “we’d do anything to have a child” – though we ached to have a family – because we knew that statement wasn’t true. We couldn’t pin all our hopes for happiness and fulfillment on a child – a burden far to heavy for a child, or anyone, to carry – because we knew our hope had to be elsewhere.
    It’s so sad that the truth about immoral infertility treatments is considered unpastoral, because we found it to be one of the most pastoral things the Church had as we went on that painful journey.

  • Jack B. Nimble

    As a semi-retired attorney, I suggest that you, Ms. Scalia, are skating perilously close to libel here. You chose to post a knowingly false sub-heading stating that a mother was to be impregnated by the sperm of her dead son. You clearly knew otherwise though I as the reader had to go (via the link) to the Brit tabloid to get the true story.

    Are you that desparate for page views? In decency can you correct this, please. Otherwise you make some valid points, though as a non-RC I don’t share the contraceptive theology of your church. You are a skilled wordsmith and your readers deserve better.

    [I appreciate the heads up -- I was working very fast this morning and thought I had copied the headline word-for-word, didn't realize I had omitted the word "dead" -- that is corrected now. As to using the sub-header, I didn't see it as a subheader, I saw it as a bolded intro. Again, working faster, perhaps than I should have. It's all in quotation marks, now, but it is accurately reproducing the story. Thanks very much for your kind words, but I wonder why you had to immediately assume the worst of me, and that I was trolling for traffic or misrepresenting the story for same? All I did was cut and paste what's there, and it is accurate -- she's trying to become a grandmother, and using her dead son's sperm. I never suggested she was trying to be a mother as well. -admin]

  • CV

    The Brit tabloid is the one skaing perilously close to libel, since they are the ones that ran the misleading headline in the first place.

    I read “Mum to Have Dead Son’s Baby,” which is the exact tabloid headline, and thought the same thing as Momor…it sounds like a mother is planning to be impregnated with her dead son’s (harvested) sperm.

    Yes, the tabloid story spells out the facts but it’s a poorly written original headline (not Ms. Scalia’s fault, who is merely illuminating yet another dark corner of our brave new world with her commentary.)

    With all due respect, semi-retired attorney, I think your criticism is misdirected. Take your objections to The Sun.

  • Joseph Marshall

    A Sentimentalist cannot reconcile religious convictions—whether rooted in scripture, tradition or cultural practice—that do not correspond with his own considered feelings, which for him are both weighty and principled.~Elizabeth Scalia

    Unfortunately, you have either faith or doubt. There is no middle ground. If you have faith, the object of your faith is more important than you. If you have doubt, nothing is more important than you, because only you, in the end, can resolve your own doubt, if it is resolvable at all. The only guarantee that it is resolvable is the certainty of faith. And this is a vicious circle.

    One thing is worthy of note. If you have faith, you have the luxury of stating moral imperatives which will never happen:

    The only way people will end their harried pursuits for the perfect lives they’re convinced they’re supposed to have …will be if all of the avenues of contraception, abortion and techno-pregnancies are closed to them — which will not happen.

    If you have faith, you do not have to do the one thing that might bring any such moral imperative into doubt. You do not have to make the contrafactual assumption that it will happen, and examine the consequences for the world if it does.

    Examining the contrafactual assumption is by far the wiser choice, but no one can truly do that for you, so I won’t try.

    Truth In Packaging: my own faith is in Karma, Cause, and Effect, as well as in past and future lives.

    And my own moral imperative is: every last consequence of any serious action, good or ill, will follow you to your grave and beyond, even if the action is “morally good” and the incidental consequences are unfortunately bad.

  • John

    And why are we selfish?


    THAT is the root of all sins!