Difficult Commandment, The

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C.C. Martindale, S. J.         64 Pages - $5.95

Father Martindale’s is a truly helpful book on the study of sex psychology. The author shows a profound knowledge of his subject and discusses with much penetation, lucudity, and candor the difficult problem of control of the sexual instinct. It is refreshing to find among so many nauseatingly sentimental books on the subject, one which treats of sex matters with reverence and elevation, being, moreover, enlightening and constructive. Human nature needs intellectual and psychologic help as well as physical and spiritual, and these pages aim at inducing an intelligent understanding of difficulties encountered in the attainment of self control.

This publication first appeared in England and the USA between the World Wars. The language is typically British, but the principles remain the same. We at Loreto hope that the modern reader will discover in this little volume much useful material for helping the young man to find real help and joy in overcoming temptations against the sixth commandment.


CATHOLICS are taught that it is gravely wrong to take deliberate pleasure, outside marriage, in sexual thoughts or desires, and still more so, to perform sexual acts whether alone or with others. They are also taught that within marriage (a state that is not being spoken of, save incidentally, in this book) they must be faithful to their wife or husband, even in thought or desire, and that there are also misuses of the married relationship which are gravely wrong. Experience shows that this doctrine, which is implicit in the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” creates practical problems, and even theoretical ones, to many, especially young men, who loyally admit the Catholic teaching on the matter and would wish to act according to it. They often feel that they can’t act up to it, and they often don’t see clearly why any such teaching is given. It doesn’t seem sensible.

To start with, the subject is very seldom thrashed out as other subjects are. It is fairly easy to hold instruction classes, or to promote study circles, or to give lectures, dealing with any subject save this one. In schools there is, I know, a tendency to give franker instruction nowadays, to older boys especially, than was the fashion even a few years ago. But this is a difficult matter. Personally, I could not feel willing to give detailed collective instruction in class. For though I welcome simplicity and hate prudery, a simple-minded speaker needs, if he is not to do harm, a simple-minded audience. And this he rarely gets, even among the young. Boys are always self-conscious and wondering what the others are thinking. Also, they will talk about it afterwards, and there are always some boys of lower moral sense who will like to tell smaller boys, or lewd-minded boys, or just the inquisitive, what they have heard. This is less likely to happen when the instruction is given in a really friendly and personal way to an individual. His sense of honor and the knowledge that he is being trusted are aroused. But then, few older men in a school are able to enter into quite such intimate terms with many of the boys: especially an official, whether the head-master or another, can seldom know and deal with each individual as he ought to be dealt with. For no two boys ought to be talked to in quite the same way. If it be said that a boy’s father is the right person to give such instruction, that may be so; but the fact remains that most fathers are much too shy of their sons to embark on any such business, and also sons would often much resent their fathers speaking to them about this. Besides, even grown-up men are not necessarily very wise, nor have they always thought this (or any) matter out: their advice would often be very vague and usually confined to statements concerning exterior processes and warnings about disease and dangers (which are often depressing and even inaccurate, as when a boy is terrified by being told that bad actions—which he is not taught how to stop—will send him mad if he does not stop them); and anything to do with the strictly moral or spiritual side of the matter will be regarded by a layman, all too easily, as a confessional monopoly.

On his side, a priest in a confessional is often in a difficult situation. The confessional is amazingly impersonal, while this topic is, as I said, to be treated very personally indeed. Again, he has for principle that in this department he ought to say “less rather than more.” Further, he has little option in the matter, as he cannot hold up the next penitents indefinitely, partly because it is hard on them, partly because if he keeps a man a long time it suggests to everyone else that the man has a lot to say. Finally, a man who has a lot to say and requires real help, will probably go to confession but seldom, e.g., on the eve of a great feast, precisely when the confessional is crowded; besides, such a one will be only too anxious to get out without having had too much said to him.

The fact remains that the enormous majority of boys, to return to them for a moment, pick up their information haphazard: from other boys, from cheap magazines, plays, “health-books,” of which we know not a single one that is properly written from a Catholic standpoint. There are nauseously sentimental ones, and would-be bluff common-sense ones, and inaccurate religious ones, and usually demoralizing more-or-less Freudian ones; and even foreign Catholic ones would demand recasting before they would suit an English taste. How then can most of our boys act? Only a small percentage has the least chance of being instructed properly at school. Nearly all save one social class leave far too young. These are certain, you may say, to pick up their information “in the street.” On the whole, I believe that the best system in the concrete is to give as firm a religious training in general, especially in the use of the sacraments, as possible; to begin to instruct the mind as to self-control in general, with simple applications to the sex instinct (and frank replies to sincere questions, in private), and to try fully to instruct it later on. For one cannot guard against all dangers nor keep boys (or girls, for that matter) in glass cases; but one can help a growing boy at any rate to have as well-informed and as sensible a mind about this topic as about any other, and to develop his views about sex as accurately as about his job, and this sort of thing will probably have to happen after school. So this book is not meant for schoolboys, nor yet for grown-up men primarily, but on the whole for young men from thirteen upwards.

Personally, I think that the topic is usually dealt with either from the physical side merely, or from the spiritual side merely, and not enough from what may be rather pompously called the psychological side. I mean, boys are told to get up directly they wake; not to lie on their backs; to take a cold bath, etc., etc. That has its uses; still, there are plenty of boys who are quite healthy, who play a sound game of football; plenty of young men who keep themselves tough in spite of the difficulties of, say, a sedentary life like a clerk’s, who yet from time to time may go through absolute misery owing to their sexual “temptations.” Or again, they get told to “go to the sacraments”; to pray to our Lady; and that too is good. But there are thousands who are really earnest at their prayers and do go to the sacraments, and yet who cannot succeed in living as they should and really want to. At most, a sort of negative psychological advice is given—“Try not to think about it: don’t get into occasions of sin.” But anyhow, mere negative advice is never a very good way of dealing with anything; and, there are many to whom the whole of life is one recurrent occasion of sin, owing, for example, to the conversation and behavior of their companions in a factory, office, or club. They cannot become hermits: they have to earn a living and to go in for ordinary social intercourse and recreation.

There is apt to be, in the mind of such a man, a sort of cleavage between “what I’m told I ought to think,” and, “what I do think,” or, “what I find to be practically possible.” Now there is nothing like a clear mind for enabling a man to get his motives strong. If I am muddied about the means of achieving a thing, let alone about the thing itself, I find it far harder to tackle the matter. Human creatures need intellectual and psychological help as well as physical and spiritual.

In the following pages, I have tried to start by clearing the ground—getting rid of a certain number of confused ideas that may haunt the back of a man’s mind: then, to proceed from what an average man, just as man, naturally and from experience will admit as true, and thus gradually to move towards the more spiritual and finally the quite supernatural ideals, motives, and sanctions. Thus I trust to have been faithful at once to the full Christian revelation, and yet intelligently sympathetic with all that is in human nature as such and in the concrete—that is, devoid of those preternatural succors which God would wish us to have and that we would have were we not, as we are, a fallen race. And I wish to say not one word that sounds official or merely conventional. I know that in many matters it is best to start from some universal principle, or divinely revealed truth, and to argue downwards to the concrete: but in this very personal matter I think it is almost essential to start with the concrete, with ordinary experience, and to work up, thus, towards the only fully satisfying thing, namely the eternal truths, and the Law of God as shown in Jesus Christ.

I may add that only after obtaining a great deal of advice from persons whom I could not possibly neglect, have I resolved to publish these notes at all, and in this form. That a book is needed, I have long been quite convinced: whether this is the sort of needed book, I naturally dare not say, and cannot judge. It remains that men constantly ask: “Why was I not told all this long ago?” so that silence (especially now that these topics are everywhere discussed) would not seem to be the best policy: they say, “For heaven’s sake don’t fool me by telling me to take cold baths and play games: form my mind for me,” so that merely physical advice is seen to be often useless: and again, “Don’t please just tell me to pray. I can’t” (or else, “I do”). So that spiritual advice alone, may be inadequate. Besides, non-Catholics or agnostics are often just as anxious about this business as Catholics are, and require to have the best done for them that can be done in the circumstances. Nor do I believe in the “blackthorn method,” which I have heard recommended. Men are by no means as a rule just rebellious, but often are frightened, or miserable. And if any method has clearly failed, it is that one. Finally, there is not the slightest chance of the Catholic law concerning artificial birth restriction being observed, unless men have got accustomed to happy self-control from boyhood up. So with real humility, yet unable to pretend that these notes have not been dictated by experience, I offer them in this form, having tried to write not one word academically, nor one word uninspired by true human sympathy, nor one word that lowers the Catholic and divine doctrine and ideal.

Many readers of my first edition have found page vii inadequate. One schoolmaster (a layman) writes: “If all the boys are told everything, as here, in their first or second term, no secret is left, not even an open one: hence none exist to be mysteriously imparted from boy to boy.” Also, they get the facts right, and no harmful myths or mistakes can be suggested. There is much in this; add, that we have found that very good boys often discover sexual pleasure by accident (accidents connected with the gym, for example, or even cycling), and just because they are good, do not suspect there can be anything wrong about it. Thus habits are formed without guilt even at their inception, and it is these that, grown unbreakable later on, provoke the cry: “If only I had been told!” My private opinion might be that a boy should have all that concerns himself explained to him when he is quite small, not from the religious or even ethical end, or with the minimum of religious sanction introduced; and the rest when he goes to his secondary or public school or even earlier, again on the most commonsense basis. At the same time, as I add on page thirty-six, he should be trained to think of religion in “heroic” terms all round, so that “of course” he wants to be ready and even anxious to suffer something for, and with, our Lord, and to be “fit all through” to associate with Mary and to serve her.

It has been frequently remarked that this book contains nothing for girls. It was not intended to, and I do not believe that one book suitable both for young men and young girls could be written; nor could it be written by the same person. Women should write for girls. I hasten however to say that a book for girls has now been published (Into Their Company, by a medical woman). I have not elaborated here what suits little boys (such as how to instruct them, alluded to above), nor yet what suits married men, especially in regard of contraception. It has been planned to write a further, less colloquial book, for such older men. Nos cum prole pia benedicat Virgo Maria.

Rev. C. C. Martindale

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