Sins of Malice, Sins of Passion: of Jerry Falwell and Marilyn Chambers

Conservative Catholic blogger Francis Beckwith is annoyed with what he sees as a media double standard in the coverage of the passings of porn star Marilyn Chambers (who died this past week) and conservative Christian activist and preacher Jerry Falwell, who died in 2007. Beckwith:

…the Rev. Falwell founded a university, started a social movement of great influence, pastored a church of several thousand for several decades, led many, many people to Christ, and as far as we know was a loving and devoted husband and father. (He was a person that even Larry Flynt called “friend”!) On the other hand, Ms. Chambers, who died young (as is the case with virtually everyone in her “profession”), is portrayed as a cultural trailblazer who enlightened our culture to the “blessings” of anonymous, promiscuous, widely diverse, and videotaped, copulation. For this reason, you will hear no lamenting of the innumerable lives on which her example made chic the infliction of countless miseries. You will not hear of the unborn children killed, the addictions borne and nurtured, the marriages decimated, the offspring abandoned, the spouses betrayed, or even the diseases contracted—spiritual, mental and physical—that her “trailblazing” facilitated.

We live in an age in which we know precisely what recycle bin our newsprint and soda bottles belong. But we have no idea what a human being is, what it’s supposed to do, or who or what it is permissible to sleep with. So, this is the lesson of our time: the “good” man is the one who treats his garbage with greater care than his own soul. This is why, for our cultural gatekeepers, Ms. Chambers is an icon and the Rev. Falwell did not die soon enough.

It wouldn’t have occurred to me to compare Falwell and Chambers, but I’m struck by Beckwith’s little post. Though it’s an obvious strawman to suggest that the left was uniform in its glee when Falwell passed (I was rather charitable, myself, or so I thought), it’s certainly true that many progressives were not overtaxed with grief when the founder of the Moral Majority gave up the ghost. It is also true that without bestowing upon Marilyn Chambers any particular degree of veneration, those of us fascinated by recent cultural history note her central role in elevating adult movie actresses to the status of pop icons. And we can disagree, as we do, about the degree to which pornography is responsible for the litany of ills which Beckwith, channeling Chesterton, provides.

Both Falwell and Chambers came to prominence in the second half of the 1970s; they became household names in the Carter Administration. Falwell was the ardent culture warrior, while Chambers was a symbol — at least for folks like the stout Baptist preacher — of the moral decay against which a coalition of indignant Christians ought to stand. But in one sense, a genuinely Catholic one, it may well be right to speak more gently of Chambers than of Falwell.

Many, many years ago I thought seriously of becoming a priest; I briefly flirted with the Dominicans at Berkeley. (That last verb has many meanings in this context and others.) I read my Aquinas like the good medievalist that I was; I read my Dante. And I was struck in college by what I was struck by again when I read Beckwith’s little diatribe: that Holy Mother Church, in her excellent wisdom, distinguishes sins of malice from sins of passion. (Pace, my Protestant friends who insist that all sins are equally grave offenses against God; Catholics do rank sins, and have for centuries.)

In Summa Theologica (Q.78, Art.4), Aquinas makes the case that sins of malice (which the church traditionally defines as “hatred”) are worse than sins of passion or incontinence. It is a case made by Dante too; in his hell, as most of us know, those who gave in to lust rank far above those who betrayed friends or committed conscious acts of cruelty or exclusion. And I think a case can be made that if Marilyn Chambers is noteworthy for any particular sin, it is that of passion (however commercialized or even feigned that passion may have been). The primary sin which she encouraged in those who saw her films was lust. Those who are addicted to pornography may be incontinent on account of that addiction, but if it is a sin at all to lust, it is not the gravest or most heinous of sins.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines malice as hatred, and it defines hatred thus: Hatred in general is a vehement aversion entertained by one person for another, or for something more or less identified with that other. Falwell, who was by all accounts a fine husband to his wife, and a good pastor to some, built a career on well-documented and public enmity towards gays and lesbians. (Googling about will provide a host of examples.) Falwell had evident difficulty distinguishing between what he saw as sinful behavior (homosexual sex) and active dislike for gay and lesbian persons. (To be fair, Falwell did go out of his way to reach out to some leaders in the GLBTQ cause, such as his old friend and colleague Mel White. It would not be accurate to lump Falwell in with Fred Phelps.) And Falwell’s followers were not always as nuanced as he; time and again, he incited hatred and rage against homosexuals.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that lust is a sin. I have no idea if Marilyn Chambers felt lust while shooting porn movies, but from a conservative Catholic perspective, there’s little doubt that she invited others to feel that sin of lust, of misdirected passion. Let’s agree that hatred — malice — is a greater sin still. I don’t know if Jerry had personal hatred towards gays and lesbians (his friendship with Mel White is perhaps illustrative), but there’s little doubt that his very public diatribes against “degenerates” served the same stimulative function as Marilyn’s very public copulations: each aroused the desire to sin in the hearts and minds and bodies of those who watched and listened to them. And if Aquinas is right, and sins of malice are worse than sins of passion, then it follows that inviting others to be hostile to gays and lesbians is worse than inviting folks to masturbate. Hence, from a conservative Catholic perspective, Jerry Falwell is more deserving of post-mortem opprobrium than is Marilyn Chambers.

10 thoughts on “Sins of Malice, Sins of Passion: of Jerry Falwell and Marilyn Chambers

  1. Good post, Hugh. (And I’m afraid I’m childish enough to get a giggle from “the sin of incontinence.”)

  2. I have no idea who Chambers was. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of porn.

    But I do know who Jerry Falwell was and the pain he caused lots of people.

    There is another more important reason to be more critical of Falwell, and that is that Ms. Chambers (and please correct me if I’m wrong) never had the ear of a president. She was never the leader of huge movement of people who sought power of any sort. Falwell did, and that’s why he’s actions deserve a harsher light.

    I can’t say I’m glad he’s dead, but I can’t say I’m exactly unhappy that he’s stopped spreading his hate, either. Ms. Chambers death is, an unfortunate non-event for me; other than I feel sorrow for those who knew her.

  3. Hugo,

    I think that the better argument is that Ms. Chambers was, most likely, more a victim than a perpetrator, as is the case with many women in the porn industry. I pity here more than I condemn her, the more so because she apparently came to repent at the end of her life; she sinned greatly but she also appears to have suffered greatly. If it was a male porn _producer_ though I’d happily condemn him and spit on his name. I don’t view Hugh Hefner as better or worse than Jerry Falwell. Indeed, you could imagine a bit of hell where those two were condemned to tear away at each other forever….:)

    Dante, you’ll remember, made clear that some forms of sexual sin are more than just sins of passion. He classified sodomy along with blasphemy and moneylending as sins against God and nature. (Yes, I’ll allow that he was wrong on the merits, as he didn’t know what we know now, that there are many people _naturally_ attracted to the same sex). And he classified panderers and seducers even lower than the homosexuals, in the circle of the fraudulent. Aquinas did the same, he separated ‘natural’ sexual sins from ‘unnatural’ ones.

    Now you can argue (and I’m even inclined to agree) that we know enough now that we have to slightly tinker with the concept of ‘sin against nature’. I wouldn’t include homosexuality among them. But I think it would be a bad idea to do away with the concept entirely. I do think that there are some sexual sins that dismantle the idea of an integral human couple and an integral sexual relationship so far that they do become, in a real sense, sins against nature. I’d include prostitution in that category, and pornography as well, and maybe some of the more extreme and self-destructive forms of promiscuity, both gay and straight. Those things are wrong in a deeper sense than the occasional, single, one-night stand.

  4. I, too, am no connoiseur of porn. But I seem to recall reading an interview with Chambers somewhere, many years back, and she was asked about feminism–and she dismissed the current feminist leaders as “so ugly” they couldn’t get laid and so complained about everything else. If my memory is true, then, she was certainly malicious, at least once. I don’t know if she eventually mended her ways or not–I didn’t stick around to find out.

  5. I’d urge you to read this eulogy for Chambers by Charles Jay, a political activist who knew Chambers very well and considered her an inspiration. It’s a remarkable piece for its ability to go beyond the media stereotype of Chambers to celebrate the human being that was Marilyn.

  6. Just to make it clear, I’ve never watched pornography in my life, and wouldn’t know Marilyn Chambers from Eve.

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