Okay, I am glad that a Catholic apologist gets some major exposure in the mainstream media, and I want to repeat again that I believe that those who are popularizing the Theology of the Body are good people and well intentioned. Nevertheless, I take exception to the presentation of Christopher West in this latest interview, precisely for the reasons given in my last post on the subject.
One commenter on that post asserted that the “naked without shame” doctrine contained in the popular catechesis of TOB is really only a “marketing hook,” and that very few, if any, believe that TOB is being proposed as a means of reclaiming original innocence, as suggested by the article I linked to by Father Brian Mullady.
In yesterday’s interview posted on the ABC News website Christopher West compares favorably Pope John Paul II and Hugh Hefner, founder and publisher of Playboy Magazine:
“I actually see very profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II,” said West.
And it’s not just the red slippers?
“No, it’s not just the red slippers.” Each man in his own way, West insisted, rescued sex from prudish Victorian morality.
On Hugh Hefner: ‘I Understand His Ache’
“I love Hugh Hefner,” said West. “I really do. Why? Because I think I understand his ache. I think I understand his longing because I feel it myself. There is this yearning, this ache, this longing we all have for love, for union, for intimacy.”
Now I know this can be read a number of ways and that West’s remarks could be easily taken out of context. I am not suggesting that West is encouraging men to look at pornography, although, undoubtedly this is how it will be taken by some. I am asserting, however, that fair-minded people know that his words will be taken out of context, precisely because they lend themselves to be so taken. I have argued before that that the abuse of a thing does not vitiate its use, but in my humble opinion, the favorable comparison between John Paul II and Hugh Hefner, for marketing purposes or otherwise, crosses the line. Yes, I know it is an interview on ABC which will be read by more non-Catholics than otherwise, and that is precisely why the comparison is bound to be misinterpreted. Perhaps West said more to clarify, and perhaps it will come out in the televised portion; either way, the effect will be the same.
I have never seen a TOB apologist argue for a return to original innocence in so many words, but the now famous anecdote told by West of the two bishops and the prostitute is not merely an illustration of an extraordinary purity granted to an individual holy person, but of a general state produced by the promulgation of TOB. West says that the story illustrates what “mature Christian purity looks like.”
If that is true, then any man who might have a difficulty looking upon feminine voluptuousness is immature or impure or both. I think this kind of reasoning is facile and grossly misleading.
I agree with John Paul the II that prudery is a problem, but in our sex-saturated society, it is also facile to point to prudery as the real culprit and name someone like Hefner as a savior from sexually related hang ups comparable to the likes of John Paul II. The real problems are the extremes to which people are inclined, whether it is to pornography, on the one hand, or to an excessive reliance on the strictest practical rules for modesty in dress, on the other.
I am perfectly willing to critique the more traditionally minded crowd on this matter. Too much attention, I think, is paid to the way women dress and not enough to the ordinary demands of masculine discipline. The fact is that a man can be tempted by a female under any circumstances and that in today’s culture exposure to immodesty is inescapable. By means of the sacraments, prayer and mortification–and an exalted view of sexuality–men are perfectly capable of controlling themselves. I think too much attention paid to controlling women’s fashions which just leads to a kind of negative preoccupation with sexuality that does err on the side of prudery.
In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way, the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the Risen Christ, and even before by Christ on Mount Tabor. We know that the Transfiguration is one of the main sources of Eastern devotion; it is an eloquent book for mystics, just as for St Francis Christ crucified contemplated on the mountain of La Verna was an open book.
Truly, works like that of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine chapel do hearken to a state where man was and might be again naked without shame, but to translate the above general statement, spoken in the context of a very sophisticated presentation of human sexuality (John Paul II’s corpus on TOB) into general advice about the difference between admiration of human beauty and lust, will necessarily lead to confusion and to misinterpretation. Father Mullady’s critique is fully justified. Mystics like St. Francis achieved what appeared to be a state of “original innocence” only by way of radical and mystic conformity to Christ Crucified. During his earlier life St. Francis threw himself into a rose bush to extinguish the fire of concupiscence, which since then continues to miraculously bloom without thorns. At the end of his life he was a living crucifix, and nearly always in a state of supernatural ecstacy. The path to extraordinary innocence is a path of asceticism, mystic suffering and contemplation, not a seminar on TOB.
In West’s commentary on the Sistine Chapel remarks of John Paul II he quotes Dr. Michael Waldstein, who says:
“Some images [of the naked body] push us to concupiscence, others do not… . Going to the Sistine Chapel and looking at the naked women on the ceiling is for this reason a very different experience than watching a pornographic movie. It is not presumption, but the experience of many men, that one can look with purity at Michelangelo’s nudes and take delight in their beauty. Michelangelo himself must have looked at his naked models in a pure way in order to be able to paint nudes in that pure way…. Of course, if one does feel a slide into concupiscence when looking at Michelangelo’s nudes, it is a good idea to look away. That need to look away should also be a trumpet blast for recognizing… that one is in need of a serious transformation.”
This line of thinking, in my opinion is “original sin light.” I don’t dispute his defense of the portrayal of the human body in art. The fact is that the human body is the most perfect and beautiful of all God’s visible creations and therefore has always been considered the proper object of art. But to argue that anyone that might have a problem in practice of reconciling that with the workings of concupiscence is merely immature or in need of some particular “serious transformation,” and that more mature Christians are not, seems to me to be presumptuous and bordering on the arrogant. (This is not a matter of questioning the good doctor’s intentions. I merely critique his ideas.) As advice to the general populace, this line of reasoning is terribly misguided.
Who are the good doctor and Christopher West to judge when the spiritual faculties of an individual are fully developed or not? And how are they able to analyze the dispositions of divine providence relative to the interior workings of individual souls? Is one who finds it difficult to look on the form of a woman’s body without concupiscence being inappropriately stirred to conclude that they simply have not yet grasped the Church’s teaching? Or that if they cannot sublimate pornographic images and transform the phantasms associated with them into a regard for beauty that they simply are simply spiritually underdeveloped? This is simply a facile line of reasoning one that is bound to lead to the opposite extreme.
Yes, we are living in an age–and really it’s nothing new–when some Christians are overly preoccupied with matters of chastity. But our age is more particularly characterized by a lack of conscience in matters of human sexuality. I would guess that the vast majority of people, even the majority of Catholics, would laugh at the idea that a person can sin mortally and go to hell for impure thoughts. What is needed is more virility in matters of discipline and virtue. Men need to be encouraged to fight their wayward concupiscence, not merely to sentimentalize their regard for women.
I am not arguing for one pole against another. A more exalted view of human sexuality is needed and a preoccupation with the sinful nature of inappropriate sexuality should be avoided, but in this age when men have been so feminized and have so often recoiled from duty and consoled themselves in soft and lazy sensuality, they do not need to be encouraged to think about sexuality more, they need to be encouraged to mortify themselves, to be men, to be soldiers for Christ.
Hugh Hefner, during the earlier years of the publication of his girly magazine, serialized an apologetic for the “Playboy Philosophy,” in which he presented a sophisticated defense of his outlook on men and human sexuality. In some ways, it is an argument from the “principle of totality,” which in fact can be validly applied in order to distinguish art from pornography. The principle is more properly applied to moral questions concerning the mutilation of the body, for example, the amputation of a limb in order to save the life of a patient. Here the principle is applied so as to justify the removal of the limb in order to save the whole organism. Applied analogously to art, the idea is that a questionable element needs to be regarded within the context of the whole work, whether the work itself is wholesome and whether the questionable element contributes or can at least be reconciled with the presumed good end of the work. I think this argument is valid, for example, relative to works like the Sistine Chapel. But Hefner’s argument is sophistry. All the cultural, political, artistic and human interest content of his magazine merely provides a rationalization for lust. Hefner did not save sexuality from “prudish Victorian morality.” His critique of prudery is a pretext for lust, pure and simple.
Hefner has been sleeping with multiple partners for his whole career. His playmates are exactly that, and he has never grown up. The man, now in his eighties, is sleeping with women that are barely legal. Hefner is quoted as saying “The interesting thing is how one guy, through living out his own fantasies, is living out the fantasies of so many other people.” That’s the fact and those fantasies are concupiscence run wild and fueled by a soft and effemninate indiscipline and by a very sophisticated and gnostic rationalization. God forbid that the association of John Paul II and such a “playboy” should end by promoting a religious version of that effeminate gnosticism.