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Advice or moral malpractice?


by James Hitchcock
December 13, 2002

Abby and Ann, sisters who for almost fifty years dominated the advice columns of American newspapers, have passed from the scene, Abby now replaced by her daughter, using the same pen name.

Unhappily, this changing of the guard has made little difference in the columnist's basic philosophy, which remains essentially a watered-down version of the cultural revolution of the l960s, tempered only by concerns about health. Drugs are therefore bad but, as if in compensation, almost any kind of sexual expression is good, so long as the individual accepts the one remaining sexual moral absolute -- contraception!

A fundamental flaw in the advice-column format is the obvious fact that the columnist does not know if the letter-writer is telling the whole truth. It requires no unusual degree of cynicism to assume that advice-seekers almost always offer a version of their story which is self-serving and that they hope to get the columnist to endorse their own view of their situation.

Recently a woman wrote to Abby with a sad tale. She and her husband are locked in a "loveless" marriage, her husband completely unable to show affection. But alas!, the writer explained, both she and her husband have strong religious principles, which will not allow them to terminate the marriage.

 Again, it takes no unusual cynicism to suspect that the husband might have a different story. Perhaps he thinks of himself as very loving, and perhaps his wife wants to terminate the marriage for other reasons. But the advice format will not even allow this possibility to be considered.

Abby's solution was a classic instance of the magician's trick of distracting the audience from the thing which is about to disappear. Without so much as a bow to the idea that there might be such a thing as religious principles which transcend personal feelings, Abby simply banished them. "Follow your heart" was in effect her exhortation.

To confirm the wisdom of this, Abby subsequently printed letters from two members of the clergy, a man and woman, both of whom assured the troubled letter-writer that leaving her husband was the right thing to do. One assured her that "your marriage, it is clear, was never sanctioned by God", while the second was equally certain that the woman in question actually had a duty to leave her husband, since the marriage was "sick" and "it is never God's will for any of us to be sick, especially in our hearts."

Clergy are often denounced as self-righteous when they presume to interpret the will of God. But that is only when the will of God turns out to go contrary to our own desires. When clergy tell us that God wants us to satisfy our "needs", that same clerical presumptuousness is taken to be wisdom, never mind that it goes against most of the traditional wisdom of the great religions of the world, none of which has ever taught that happiness, as we ordinarily understand it, is the purpose of life.

There also seems to be an issue of professional malpractice here. What responsible expert -- doctor, lawyer, counsellor -- would undertake to pronounce judgment on the basis of an anonymous letter, without having access to all relevant information?

I assume that Abby has enough sense to realize that her clients may not be telling her the whole truth. If pressed she would perhaps say that she printed the letter merely to illustrate a hypothetical problem. I think it is also quite possible that the letter was sent not by someone who is actually suffering but by someone who wanted to make a point.

But the very fact that Abby chose this letter, along with the sequels from the two ministers, illustrates something even more significant -- the relentless effort by some people to discredit the authority both of marriage vows and of religious teachings, an effort in which even some of the anointed representatives of religious faith are eager to join.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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