“Men who had slept with more than 20 women lowered their risk of developing [prostate] cancer by almost one third, and were 19 per cent less likely to develop the most aggressive form,” report researchers from the University of Montreal. The news for chastity gets even worse: “Men who said they had never had sexual intercourse were almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer as those who said they had.”
The usual reaction of Christians to this kind of story, or at least my usual reaction, is that it can’t be true. It just can’t. Virtue must be rewarded. It should work for our good in this world as well as in the next. Being chaste should help you live longer. It should not threaten you with cancer. Sleeping around, that should make you sick. Catholic morality, we feel, should work on the most purely material level.
It’s a feeling emphasized by the way Christians of all sorts tend to try to sell Christianity to others. It’s worse in the Evangelical world, buried under dozens of bestselling books with titles like (I make these up) 10 Biblical Principles for Health, Wealth, and Great Absolutely Fabulous Sex or God Wants You to Beat Wall Street. I would not be all that surprised if out there on the bookstore shelves is a book with a title like God’s Plan for Your Prostate. I’m not googling it just in case there really is.
We have a goodly number of those books in the Catholic world and I suspect some of them are good, but the effect is to make us think that virtue always works for our obvious, this-worldly good. You may believe in theory that virtue is its own reward, as the old optimistic saying goes, but you’d really rather have a much more concrete and immediate payment.
The effect of promiscuity on the prostate cancer rate, by the way, doesn’t apply to men sleeping with men. Sleeping with 20 or more men doubles the risk of getting prostate cancer. Their risk of getting the less aggressive form of prostate cancer was 500 times greater than that of men who’d slept with only one man. That is as it should be, we think. Not, I hasten to say, because we wish active homosexual men ill. We simply expect sinful behavior to have real consequences.
Yet for the chaste man, his chastity can cost him. The single man who avoids all the temptations the world throws his way, and pays for it with loneliness, finds himself sick because he did so. The married man, faithful to his wife for decades, also avoiding the temptations the world throws his way, and paying for it in different ways, finds himself sick because he did so. The lecher who hops from bed to bed stays well. No one but God knows in any individual case, but thanks to the scientists at the University of Montreal, we know this happens overall.
But no, we think, it can’t be. The idea that virtue works is deeply embedded in our minds. Or at least, as I say, in mine, though I think I am the typical middle-class American Christian in this. Our lives go well, and better than those of anyone else in the history of the world. We experience death and loss, but the death is usually of someone old or far away, and many of the losses can be regained. We can easily find reasons to dismiss other people’s suffering — the man who has lung cancer smoked, the man who lost his job didn’t work hard enough, the woman whose husband left her was a difficult person to live with. We may be talking through our hats, and unkindly, but it’s the comforting story we tell ourselves.
The world is, however, fallen. The whole thing, including men’s prostates. The point of the Fall is that things that should not be, are, and things that should be, aren’t. The reward for sacrificial virtue may be pain, even a lot of pain.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, referring to Genesis and Romans, in this world, “Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject ‘to its bondage to decay.’” Alien and hostile: It’s not the cheery vision of life to which affluent Americans are used. Even your prostate might be out to get you.
People like to talk about life as a journey, or as “the journey” (said in the happy breathy voice of a travel agent), and they think of that journey as a pleasant walk through the woods. Christianity tells us that as we stroll happily down the road, up ahead somewhere is a guy hiding behind a tree with a baseball bat. And quite possibly behind him another, and beyond him another.
Things do work out. They just work out beyond this world. We get the profit we expect from virtue but the payment often comes after we are dead. Here, living as virtuously as we can may cost us a lot. You may live your life according to the moral law and for doing so your prostate may kill you.
It is a reason to say at Mass, with more conviction than I usually feel, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Nature has to remind us that nature is not all there is.