The Way of Ugliness

It has come to my attention that Christopher West’s multi-media event, “Fill These Hearts,” has been designed to up the ante in our dispute over the Theology of the Body. He talks at great length in his recent interview about the power of beauty to convey the truth, to “make the invisible visible” (his definition for both art and mysticism).  So “Fill These Hearts” is all positive energy, showing forth the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality.  Right?


No, Mr. West can’t get through the show without taking some pretty bitter swipes at the Church’s pre-TOB catechesis, in a rather ugly way.

I have not seen the show, but I have confirmed the accuracy of what is reported below.

“Fill These Hearts,” is a multi-media event that makes use of music, sacred art, video clips and, of course, Christopher West’s running commentary. Its tag line is


Art has the power of reinforcing ideas.  It is a particularly powerful tool for creating and perpetuating myth.  The meta-narrative of the American TOB movement is that chastity education in the United States prior to TOB was the product of “prudish Victorian morality,” and that this single corpus of Wednesday general audiences rescued the Church from the “Manichaean Demon.”  The treatment of TOB as a kind of self-contained panacea for the sexual revolution is justified on the basis of this mythology.

Myths make use of the fantastic in order to deliver their effect.  In them the good is idealistically perfect and the evil almost unimaginably infernal. Beauty must be juxtaposed with the hideously ugly in order to make its deepest impression on the imagination.  So perhaps a better version of the second part of West’s tag line might read:  AN EVENING OF MORTAL CONFLICT BETWEEN BEAUTY AND UGLINESS IN THE SERVICE OF PROMOTING CHRISTOPHER WEST’S VERSION OF JOHN PAUL II’S THEOLOGY OF THE BODY.

I am not arguing that the Church was without problem regarding chastity education, or that there was no excesses along the lines of prudery.  But this is the way that West consistently chooses to characterize the Church’s stance prior to John Paul  II.  This meta-narrative is necessary as a marketing tool for TOB. We are led to believe that prior to TOB the Church was simply crippled in regard to handing on the truth about marriage and sexuality.  West does not look for continuity, but for rupture, and he is willing to go over to the dark side to find it.  It is necessary, as a matter of the means adopted for a specific end, to harp on the defects of pre-TOB catechesis and to exaggerate them.

In “Fill These Hearts” he uses the following clip from the 1985 comedy-drama “Heaven Help Us,” a.k.a “Catholic Boys,” about an all-boys Catholic high school set in 1965 Brooklyn, New York.  Please be advised by this WARNING that there is sexual content.  Now, watch the dear Father Abruzzi put the fear of God into the boys and girls:

The movie is a gloomy, morbid look at Catholic life around the time of Vatican II.  Even Roger Ebert, who is no friend of the Church, was put off by it:

Because “Heaven Help Us” does not have the slightest ambition to be a serious movie about Catholic high schools, I can’t understand why the classroom scenes are so overplayed. As the sadistic teaching brother (Jay Patterson) slams his students against the blackboard, all we’re really watching is a lapse in judgment by the moviemakers. The scenes are so ugly and depressing that they throw the rest of the movie out of balance.

Ebert was more than willing to have a little fun at Catholics expense, but as the scene above developed he changed his mind:

The strange thing about the movie is the way the moments of inspiration raise our hopes, and then disappoint them. Take the scene where the school plays host to the nearby Catholic girls’ school at a dance. The boys and girls are lined up on opposite sides of the room, and then an earnest little priest (Wallace Shawn, from “My Dinner with André”) stands up on the stage and delivers a lecture on The Evils of Lust, gradually warming to his subject. The idea of the scene is funny, and it has a certain amount of underlying truth (I remember a priest once warning my class, “Never touch yourselves, boys” – without telling us where). But Shawn’s speech climbs to such a hysterical pitch that it goes over the top, and the humor is lost; it simply becomes weird behavior.

Weird behavior?  No, the priest in question is the mythical incarnation of quintessential prudery. He is obsessed with sex and and projects that obsession onto innocent children.  The only thing the actor didn’t do in the service caricaturing a priest with the 1960’s “Catholic attitude” toward sex is drool.

The writer of the film, Charles Purpura, in an interview from the early 2000s, revealed his sentiments in respect to the Church. He had previously been a member of a band, Front Porch, and had written a song called “Only You Lady,” which he said

is about Mary, the mother of Jesus. I think. It should be clear to you by now that at the time I was still heavily influenced by my Catholic upbringing. As the Jesuits say, ‘Give us their first seven years, and we’ll have them forever.’ In any event, I’m better now.

West’s meta-narrative will tell us that poor Charles Purpura left the faith and made an anti-Catholic movie for the same reason Hugh Hefner became the king of porn: because puritanical functionaries of the Church let them down and burdened them with hatred for their bodies.

Ugliness packs almost as much wallop as beauty.  But not quite as much, because it is only a privation of beauty.  However, when you put the two ideals in opposition, ah, that is the stuff myths are made of.

Some myths are true.  This one is not.

On another note, it appears that all Father Loya’s articles have been taken down from Catholic Exchange (check the links).  What’s up with that? It is not nice to break links and then not explain oneself.  Perhaps I should look on the bright side and believe that the TOB train is changing tracks. One may hope.


66 thoughts on “The Way of Ugliness

  1. This is a bit off-topic, but I find it interesting how even Wallace Shawn can look “priestly” while delivering his address on the evils of lust — because he is wearing a cassock.

  2. For all the “prudery””before John Paul II” or “before the Council” as if these were some sort of a breaking point, I’d direct anyone to check out (obviously) Dietrich von Hildebrand, the writings of Fr. Hardon in the 50s, Frank Sheed, Fulton Sheen, the book “Pardon and Peace” from the 40s, “Marriage and Morals” from the 1930s, and so on. There’s so much beautiful writing about the goodness and joy of the marital act in a Catholic context that was written well enough before the Council. If anything, the Holy Father was building on that – he just managed to express it especially well, and put it in more spiritual terms.

    Yes, I would imagine that in the 19th century and before, some attitudes were around that were probably quite damaging to a married couple’s ability to experience love properly (they had those blankets with the hole cut in it so the spouses couldn’t see each others’ bodies, for heaven’s sake!). But my point is that the Church itself tagged such things as erroneous long before John Paul II came along.

  3. they had those blankets with the hole cut in it so the spouses couldn’t see each others’ bodies, for heaven’s sake!

    Who had them, and where and when? That is what is important. If these things were widespread across all of Christendom, then West & Co. might have a point — about this one thing. If, however, they were found (say) in one small corner of Ireland among those infected with Jansenism, that is another thing altogether.

    Personally, I think anecdotes like this one (and Dr. Waldstein’s about Jesuits sprinkling their bathwater with coal dust) are apocryphal, or at best taken out of context. What if one spouse, for example, developed an aversion to feeling the other spouse’s skin on his or her own? A blanket-with-a-hole seems to me to be a reasonable short-term solution to the problem of how one with such an aversion could still fulfill the marriage debt.

  4. Mercury, who wrote the Catholic book you mention titled “Marriage and Morals”? The only one I see listed is by Bertrand Russell.

  5. Thanks for this update Fr. Angelo. I find this whole thing quite offensive really. Christopher and I are from the same generation, and maybe his experience was *truly* repressive. But I think it’s *grossly* overgeneralizing to say that pre-Vatican II (or, for that matter, pre-JP II) nothing good came from the Church with regard to marriage or human sexuality. One need only read the Fathers of the Church – both East and West (yes, even that old prude himself, Augustine) – to know that marriage and family have been held in high esteem from the Church’s earliest years. We have the saintly families (for example, Macrina the Elder and Younger, Basil and Gregory),and married saints. Not to mention Pope Pius XI’s Casti connubii and Pius XII’s Speech to Midwives. These are just a few examples.
    My catechesis in Catholic school was far from perfect, and there are so many things I think can be done better now, in hindsight. But I certianly did not experience the great repression – and almost hatred of the body – constantly expressed by West et al. Nor did my parents, as they would surely have passed that on to my brother and me. Did some priests/nuns not know or misunderstand the Church’s teaching (or have their own backage) and not always communicate it properly – or with finesse? Sure. But there are lots of examples of the imperfections of those teaching and forming us, in many areas of our lives. People do the best they can, and the Spirit informs us and lays the groundwork for conversion, and we all grow.
    There are enough attacks on the Church from without; do we have to keep knocking Her from within, too?

  6. Ann,

    It is the entire thing that you describe that got me involved in this stuff to begin with.

    Christopher West belongs to a school of thought (as does George Weigel, Dr. Janet Smith, etc) who are not content with simply stating they prefer the way things are now. They must defend current Church teaching by spitting on the graves of their ancestors.

    Crisis Magazine used to be the flagship for this sorta stuff, and West wrote there on not a few occasions. (This was the magazine which stated the entire Church before 1960 was on “spiritual training wheels” for example.)

    They are the crowd that listens to the liberal line of everything before Vatican II was evil, and reply “Yes! YES! IT WAS! But now it is so great!”

    It’s not the fact that they are divorced from tradition. Tradition is absolutely irrelevant and pointless to them, since they believe that everyone before their specific time was unenlightened. (For example, Fr. Loya stating that since the time of the Council of Trent until John Paul II, the Church lived in “unreality” and “darkness” on the truth of sexuality.)

    50-100 years from now, they will be dead, but their intellectual patrimony will be demonizing John Paul II as “unenlightened” on the latest “fad” to sweep through popular circles.

    Forgive me for being polemical, but people like Christopher West are “useful idiots” for the Playboy revolution and philosophy. They are the most useful because they aren’t idiots, but actually rather intelligent.

  7. There’s a book called “Marriage and Morals” on written by a guy named T.G. Wayne, which is a pseudonym used by a priest to write the book (he explains why).

    The thing about the blanket with the hole – that’s exactly what I meant, that it must have come from some corner of Christendom ridden with Jansenism. I saw it in a movie once, and I asked a priest about it, and he said something to the effect of “yeah, such things existed, but they were part of an erroneous folk understanding of things that exited in some quarters that didn’t really jive with church teaching at all”. And I have seen certain sedevacantist websites (I know, consider the source) that claims couples should wear as much clothing as possible and with as much darkness as possible when engaging in the “marital act”. These people are 100% wrong, but they usually have some saint quoted (perhaps out of context) to back them up.

    As far as I can tell, we shouldn’t so readily assume that the wonderful things the Church teaches about marriage and marital love were always taught so beautifully and clearly. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have St. Jerome saying the disgusting things he did, or Bridget of Sweden “envisioning” the things she did (a man who avoided hell because he didn’t have sex with his wife while pregnant, for instance) or doing some of the things she did (asking God to forget her husband upon his death so she’d never think of marital pleasure ever again). And God forbid we take the words of Tertullian or Clement of Alexandria – or St. Gregory the Great.

    Of course, we see the current teaching in embryonic form in Augustine, and of course, Aquinas – but also St. Francis de Sales and Alphonsus Liguori, and other moralists like Thomas Sánchez. My point was that the church had already recognized this hatred of sexual pleasure and joy a loooong time ago, and books on marriage in the Pre-Vatican II period clearly reflected this. John Paul II was writing within the boundaries of an already existing tradition.

  8. I think it also helps to remember the cultural influences around some of these individuals, especially the patristic ones. It doesn’t “excuse” the statements, but it does put them in a wider context.

    They were dealing with a culture that was far more obsessed with sex and sexuality than we were. In many pagan cults, sex was “intimately” connected with their religion, so sex was rampant. In many cases, it was also carried out in the most shameless way possible.

    As Christian culture began to spread, and influence not only the surrounding cultures but also heightened the understanding of the individuals (having a far more developed theology), they were able to explain other parts with far better clarity and precision, while not neglecting those true statements made in the past.

    West really should study patristics and how things develop. I think he would find the study illuminating.

  9. @Kevin,

    I think it is interesting that you mention pagan cults since Christopher Derrick — whom I guess to be one of West’s influences — argues that we ought to share the pagans’ attitude toward sex, only on a higher level.

  10. Thanks for continuing to try and keep this Theology of the Body Snatchers honest.I was busy on the day of the “show” and could not attend, though I had wanted to in order to be able to speak with more authority about its nuts and bolts. However, a friend who did go provided me with a program. It was very enlightening. Madonna (the singer, not mankind’s sole boast) is just one of the pop icons quoted in an attempt to provide a “worldly encounter” with the subject of sex and the divine. The “Heff”, paragon of virtue, is another. All I can say is the word pretentious comes to mind at once. This bizarre, carnal, barnstorming carnival from the West falls all over itself in an attempt to be artistic and “hip”. Catholcism isn’t about being hip, it’s about being true to the gospels, the Church and ultimately to Christ. This TOB tour smacks a tad of Jesus Christ Superstar. There were plenty of people who would say of that musical back in the 70’s that “if this brings the young people to the subject of Jesus and God, then I say let them listen to it. More power to them”. Judas gets the spotlight in the end, and well, gosh…Let’s not quibble over the heretical, blasphemous story line… that would be prudish and uptight. To this day I still meet lapsed Catholics who parrot the lyrics and consider THEM the gospel. “He was a great teacher…” they say. “Judas was actually good because he did God’s will…” they say. “Buddha, was he where it’s at, is he where you are? Could Mohamed move a mountain or was that just PR?” they frequently query in their objections to calls to practice their faith and reclaim their Catholic heritage. Something tells me the magical mystery tour that Mr West is on will have a similar long term effect; not in a direct refuting of, or argument with, the faith of our fathers, but rather in an indirect bending of its nature and the telling of its history. We can never underestimate the power of a glossy presentation, particularly when it is given the ultimate “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for the faithful: a direct diocesan invitation to come school the peeps.

  11. @dcs

    I honestly think people who argue that really don’t know what they are talking about. It’s kinda like Buddhism being the “in” religion amongst celebrities, or kaballah, etc. It sounds nice and catchy. Whether or not they actually practice it makes little difference.

    Likewise with the pagans, it sounds catchy to say that before Christianity and its prudishness, the pagan sex cults had the right idea. That is, until you actually research what they did, how they acted and viewed things, etc.

    For all of West’s demonization of the “prudery” of traditional Church teaching on sexuality, it was that teaching which made Western Civilization possible.

  12. The Fathers were not only fighting against fertility cult sexuality – they also in many cases adopted Stoic philosophy, which was very negative on any form of pleasure indeed (Clement of Alexandria forbids any variety or taste in one’s food for example). In some cases, entire passages were lifted form Stoic texts (see the Catholic Encyclopedia online). The Palestinian Rabbis of Jesus’ day were also heavily influenced by Stoicism.

    This is why, in context, Augustine was waaay ahead of his time, because he recognized that there could possibly be good and even holy uses of marriage that were not specifically directed towards procreation.

  13. Thank you, Father, for a most informative, erudite and engaging commentary on something that is going to be with us for a long, long time.
    I get rather peeved at the stereotype of the “bad old days”…yeah, there was Irish Jansenism alright…but there were also saints being made and wonderful men and women who loved God and knew how to love one another, according to God’s Plan.
    This ‘Manichean shtick’ has got to stop.
    Thanks for making the effort! Prayers!

  14. “As far as I can tell, we shouldn’t so readily assume that the wonderful things the Church teaches about marriage and marital love were always taught so beautifully and clearly. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have St. Jerome saying the disgusting things he did, or Bridget of Sweden “envisioning” the things she did (a man who avoided hell because he didn’t have sex with his wife while pregnant, for instance) or doing some of the things she did (asking God to forget her husband upon his death so she’d never think of marital pleasure ever again). And God forbid we take the words of Tertullian or Clement of Alexandria – or St. Gregory the Great.”

    I would be interested in reading more from these minds could you provide any specific source (book or website) or just accumulated knowledge.

  15. Jerome’s comments are very well known – I am not sure of the source. For Bridget of Sweden, just google her and you’ll find lovely stuff.

    Tertullian apparently said his wretched stuff (“marriage is basically fornication”) after he became a full-bore heretic.

    I think Clement of Alexandria’s list of prohibitions is in “Paedogogus” and I’m not sure where to find Gregory the Great.

    These were all great saints and they all also had wonderful things to say (though not about sexual love). I am not knocking them – I just wanted to point out that there has indeed been a development of doctrine though the centuries, and that the marital act itself was not always portrayed so beautifully as it has been in the last century or so. This is not news – I’m sure Fr. Geiger or someone who knows more than I do could explain things better than I could.

  16. @Mercury,

    I think if one is going to write such things about the Fathers of the Church then one ought to be able to cite them and in context. The fact that something is “well known” about the writings of St. Jerome does not at all imply that it is true. It could just be “common knowledge” that is passed down. What’s more, even if St. Jerome did say some awful things about matrimony, we can’t just take those things and “prooftext” them to determine what he actually thought of marriage — after all, St. Jerome was the second most prolific Latin writer of antiquity (after Cicero).

  17. dcs – I know all that. I am not trying to knock the Fathers at all. I cannot cite the text on Jerome (though I’m sure someone here can), but all I was trying to say is that there has been a development. It’s not like the Church Fathers would have understood the beauty of spousal love in the terms of Dietrich von Hildebrand or Pope John Paul II.

    My point is that some Fathers’ and other Saints’ opinions on things seem extreme to our eyes, and may have even been so sometimes, but that it doesn’t matter – that’s not how the Church sees it. We don’t need to pretend like negative views didn’t exist even among some of the greatest Saints.

  18. I’m guessing Mercury has in mind Jerome’s writings contra Jovian

    I think we need to remember a few things about this treatise before we even examine it in-depth:

    1.) Jovian was a heretic, and St. Jerome likened him to the “Epicurus” of Christianity. He stated that there really was no superiority of virginity as opposed to marriage, that abstinence was pointless (in food as well as in other aspects), etc.

    Jerome’s main argument is the superiority of virginity and celibacy (which the Church indeed teaches), and the importance of absintence even for those married. He begins his work by praising marriage, the marriage bed, etc.

    Which brings me to number 2.

    2.) Hyperbole was a staple of Jerome’s work. Jerome was known for his rhetorical excess (Just read Adversus Helvidius for a classic example!), and this was got him in trouble a few times (particularly against Augustine).

    There are indeed things stated in this particular work that aren’t really harmonius with Catholic teaching. Yet the main components are.

    So when we approach that work, we rememeber the overriding points and themes, and simply point out that other times, various cultural and other issues led to a coloring of the best way to present the truth he was arguing for.

    Not saying anyone disagrees with this, just giving a bit of background. Against Jovian is a fascinating work, even with its faults.

  19. One example outlining the general purpose of his argument:

    ” We know that in a great house, there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and earthenware. And that upon the foundation, Christ, which Paul the master-builder laid, some build gold, silver, precious stones: others, on the contrary, hay, wood, straw. We are not ignorant of the words, Marriage is honourable among all, and the bed undefiled. We have read God’s first command, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth; but while we honour marriage we prefer virginity which is the offspring of marriage. Will silver cease to be silver, if gold is more precious than silver? ”

    One must keep these statements in mind as well as the rhetorical excesses (some of them certainly deplorable) St. Jerome indulges in.

  20. Oh, I know. I also know the teaching that consecrated virginity is a higher calling. That took a while to understand, because it’s hard to understand that in terms of NOT denigrating marriage.

    But that’s not it at all – marriage is wonderful and amazing and a holy calling. But some people are called to an even higher one, objectively speaking. Not me – my calling is to something else,and my ‘job’ in the Church is different. But on a subjective level, it’s hard to say one is better than the other: Lots of married men would make terrible priests and monks, lots of priests and monks would make terrible husbands.

  21. “Lots of married men would make terrible priests and monks, lots of priests and monks would make terrible husbands.”

    Maybe so, but the best priests would have also made good fathers. But they “sacrificed” what was good for what was better.

    We have to be careful not to assume that just because people ended up married that it was better for them to marry than to be celibate. Often times, that is indeed the case – but sometimes that is because a childhood and adolescence (and sometimes a young adulthood) of sin and a lack of prayer rendered them ill-suited to religious life. As Dr. Hahn says, “if there was less sin and more prayer, there would be more religious vocations”.

    So “subjectively”, a lot of married people had the potential of embracing celibacy (God extends the invitation to the evangelical counsels to ALL and calls us ALL to at least consider it), but partly due to sin, partly due to a lack of prayer, partly due to selfishness, and yes, sometimes due to factors outside of our control, some of these never became priests or religious.

  22. Yes, but I have heard some traditionalists say that God condemns people very harshly who “could have” been celibate religious and didn’t go that route, or “missed the bus” and ended up married or just living as a single person – even if that person lives as a solid Catholic. You have no idea what this can do to a sensitive conscience.

    I am one of those people who lived a sinful adolescence and young adulthood. Perhaps if I had been open to God’s will in my life when I was younger – who knows what could have happened? As it happened, I got married, and when I pushed to live a married life more in line with Catholic teaching, my marriage fell apart. The way things are – I pray every day that my wife be converted and come back to God, either with me, or somewhere down the line without me.

    My number one hope is that my marriage be saved – and it would have to be miraculous. Barring that, if my marriage can prove to be null, I have no desire and no calling to the religious life – but I am desperately afraid that if I either hope to be a husband and father, or simply live life as a single faithful Catholic, than that wouldn’t be “good enough”.

    So does God really look down on people who choose silver? If I have to be celibate (esp. if my marriage cannot be annulled), I will accept it. Am I somehow wrong, or sinful, to want marriage and not celibacy? What if I “choose wrongly”? Will I face a God in jugdement who rebukes me cause I “could have been” a religious?

    Is marriage only for those who are weak or of lesser faith? I get the impression that lots of Saints have thought so.

  23. As one who will probably end up with silver, I hope that’s not the case!

    Silver is still pretty good. Many who chose marriage over celibacy will be saved, but their reward in heaven will probably not be as great as it could have been had they embraced the “higher call”. But that’s the choice we have all been given the freedom to make.

  24. I read a book by Fr. William Most one time, and he explained it like this: all in Heaven are completely fulfilled, but some people are like 4oz. glasses, some like 6oz., and some, like the great Saints, are like 12 oz. glasses. But no one will be jealous and no one will envy anyone else.

    When you think about it – who wouldn’t be happy with a fraction of Heaven? I’m not saying we shouldn’t “build up our treasure” there as much as possible, but I am making the point that it’s not “unfair” that some experience more than others.

  25. It’s not “unfair” that some experience more than others because those who “experience more” are able to do so because they were holier, they were more “spiritually greedy”, they made more sacrifices and did more to be deserving of “experiencing more” than those who “experience less”, and those who “experience less” realize this, agree with this, and accept this. They love the perfect justice of God that bestows greater rewards on those who responded better to grace than they did.

  26. Wade, this may be off topic … I just read your long critique of West, and I found it very good.

    But does is it really a sign of spiritual immaturity when a couple doe snot give up marital relations after childbearing years? I know that certain saintly couples have done this for greater spiritual goods, but is a couple who never reach this “ideal” or even decide not to pursue it – are they somehow sinful, or in spiritual danger?

    This seems to place a LOT of pressure on married couples striving to be holy. “You’re still having sexual relations in your 50s? You’d better watch out!” Or is this just another “good” vs. “better” situation?

    This is especially since most couples are not at the spiritual state that they would actually be abstaining for the greater good, rather than abstaining for fear that they’re sinning in their marital relations, and for some, complete abstinence may be destructive.

    So should older couples put such a pressure on themselves, or should they just “let it happen” as they become older and more mature? (which seems to happen naturally anyway) And of the old couples who stil enjoy the marital embrace – are they sinning or somehow spiritually retarded (I’m using this r word with its real meaning, by the way)?

  27. I would think it’s a “good or better” thing at work.

    Yet as always, one should make sure they are in regular discussion with their confessor/spiritual director.

    Any spiritual excercise, whether it be fasting, mortification, etc, should be undertaken under the careful direction of a trained spiritual adviser, precisely so the situations Mercury talks about don’t become a reality. (i.e. abstaining actually being destructive.)

    Which, I know Fr. Geiger has mentioned this before, but it deserves repeating again. West’s talks/books almost ignore the sacraments and the importance of a sound spiritual director.

  28. Keep in mind, Mercury, that less than 1 percent of Catholics embrace celibacy. But that doesn’t mean the rest can’t be holy. They just, all things being equal, won’t often be AS holy.

    Similarly, probably the same percentage of married couples will embrace perpetual continence after childbearing years. Once again, those who continue to have sex will be doing “good” and can certainly be “holy”, but those who abstain will be doing “better”. Read 1Corinthians 7.

  29. Thanks, Wade and Kevin. Yes, a spiritual director – quite hard to find for the average lay Catholic. I sometimes go and talk to an old Benedictine, but it’s not a real spiritual director sort of relationship, and I don’t know how to set something like that up.

    Wade – I have some other questions regarding your piece. If you don’t mind, I’d like to e-mail you (your address is at your blog) with a few questions – perhaps you’d have some short answers.

  30. “Thanks, Wade and Kevin. Yes, a spiritual director – quite hard to find for the average lay Catholic. I sometimes go and talk to an old Benedictine, but it’s not a real spiritual director sort of relationship, and I don’t know how to set something like that up.”

    If you talk to him on a semi-regular basis (for confession or general advice), one could say he pretty much already is your spiritual director. Yet I’d just ask him if he could become your spiritual director on a regular basis, or if he can know a priest who can be that to you.

  31. Thanks Kevin, I’ll see what I can do.

    This may sound stupid, but this whole thing makes me think: if my wife said “I want a gold necklace for my birthday, but the silver one is also okay”, I would be a stupid man indeed to buy her the silver one, and if I really loved her, I would work overtime to buy her the gold.

    But this analogy cannot hold, can it? Otherwise, it would be like saying that those who are married (or those within marriage who continue relations) are somehow only giving God what he will take, but not what he really wants, like the husband who doesn’t love his wife enough to go the extra distance for her. Somehow I find it had to believe that this is Tradition – if this is what God really wanted of everyone, the human race would die out (and yes, one poster on CAF actually suggested that this would be a good idea, since “most people go to Hell anyway” – o, Christian joy!)

    There’s obviously a beautiful teaching here (how could it be otherwise?), but I am somehow missing it.

  32. Mercury,

    I would recommend reading Jerome’s “Against Jovian” where he deals with that specific question.

    I think we need to remember that first and foremost, celibacy is a CALLING. It is indeed a special calling that comes from God. Note Christ says it is something one “receives.”

    We must discern carefully if indeed that is our calling. That’s actually the entire point of 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul says “better to marry than to burn.” In a rather hyperbolic way, he is stressing the importance of very careful discernment, as someone entering the celibate vocation for who it is not their calling, they are just asking for spiritual danger. The same goes vice versa.

  33. I am not sure how this thread got onto the question of celibacy within marriage.

    I would just like to say one thing. This is a very sticky point in spiritual direction, because it is very exceptional. I would never tell any married person in which the woman was beyond child bearing years that he or she would be doing better to remain celibate. “All things being equal” is a purely hypothetical formula, that makes no sense apart from an actual case. In my opinion casuistry is fairly useless here.

    The actual dynamics within an individual marriage are complex, but one thing is for sure, the ordinary and virtually universal way of living out the marriage vocation is not celibacy, even after the child bearing years.

    Furthermore, it is not untypical for pious women who have tired of marital relations, especially if the husband has not been the gentleman he should have been, to request of a spiritual director permission to ask their husbands for a celibate life. In my experience, ten times out of ten this request is rash and very irritating to the husband. It is harmful to the marriage, and often brings it to the breaking point.

    Even if the idea were brought forward by both parties, or was brought forward by the man, I would be very reluctant to sanction such a decision. In fact, I would tell them to get back to living in the real world and sanctify themselves in their ordinary life. In such a case I would be doing them a favor, and in the very unlikely event that they represented to me a real inspiration from God, I would be putting it to the test.

    The objective superiority of the virginal state and importance of periodic continence are entirely different matters from the question of celibacy within marriage.

  34. Fr. Angelo, thank you.

    Kevin, Jerome is not very helpful at all. I mean in the first few paragraphs, like the one you quoted above, I see how he’s helpful here.

    But in the 7th, this is where he got into trouble with even his own contemporaries: “If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one: for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. But if it be bad and the evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil. But surely a thing which is only allowed because there may be something worse has only a slight degree of goodness.”

    So, in other words, marriage is only good to prevent fornication? It’s only allowed because some people are too weak, and therefore, by this logic, no good Christian should ever want to get married.

    “Let him he says have and use his own wife, whom he had before he became a believer, and whom it would have been good not to touch, and, when once he became a follower of Christ, to know only as a sister, not as a wife unless fornication should make it excusable to touch her.” … again …

    “If we are to pray always, it follows that we must never be in the bondage of wedlock, for as often as I render my wife her due, I cannot pray.”

    “If we abstain from intercourse, we give honour to our wives: if we do not abstain, it is clear that insult is the opposite of honour.”

    I do not see how any of this actually honors marriage in any way. He starts off okay, but then it’s one outrage after another. This is what I do not understand: Wasn’t Jerome closer in time and culture to the early, Biblical Church? Is what he says here true, authentic, biblical Christianity? Because this kind of stuff is like nothing I have ever heard from any orthodox priest. I mean, what Jerome says about marital in this piece is the exact opposite of what Fr. Angelo said above. Is this really how people in the early Church were expected to live marriage?

  35. The more I read this work by Jerome, it seems that the prevailing notion in the Early Church was that a man should refrain from sexual relations with his wife IF AT ALL POSSIBLE, if he wants to be holy or prayerful (Jerome mentions at one point that one cannot receive the body of Christ if one is having relations with one’s wife).

    Was this really so widespread in the early Church? If so, how did it change? Which situation is more like how marriage is described in Scripture – ours or theirs?

  36. Bless you Father Angelo! Thanks so much for the clarity of your response, and articulating so well, what was in my mind and on my heart:-)

  37. Then again, when John Paul II was looking for a married couple to act as a model for marriage in the modern world, he beatified Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, who with their spiritual director chose, at age 45 and 41 respectively, to embrace perpetual continence. An interesting decision by the author of “Theology of the Body”.

  38. I am not so sure John Paul II looked for “a married couple to act as a model for marriage in the modern world,” or if rather he beatified the couple because their cause was proposed and successfully brought before the altar for his confirmation as the Vicar of Christ.

    I believe their continence does serve to underscore the true meaning of Theology of the Body, but as to whether this should be proposed as the better way irrespective of the concrete and individual circumstances is another matter.

    One might also argue that it would be better for everyone to be consecrated religious. In fact, I have heard it argued that everyone has a religious vocation and that only those who cannot manage it get married. One must be very careful with this line of reasoning.

  39. Fr. that’s the impression I got from St. Jerome. That marriage itself, and even sex within marriage at all, only serves a purpose of preventing the weak-willed form fornication. By that logic, no one should ever marry, and the married should always refrain if they can at all. He goes so far as to say a man who abstains honors his wife, and a man who doesn’t insults her. Ergo, anyone who freely makes love to his wife because he loves her is really only doing the bare minimum of Christian virtue, hardly above actually sinning.

    Is this Christianity or latent Stoicism?

  40. Mercury,

    I more had in mind what Jerome said in regards to how the human race would continue to populate itself:

    “But you will say: If everybody were a virgin, what would become of the human race? Like shall here beget like. If everyone were a widow, or continent in marriage, how will mortal men be propagated? Upon this principle there will be nothing at all for fear that something else may cease to exist. To put a case: if all men were philosophers, there would be no husbandmen. Why speak of husbandmen? There would be no orators, no lawyers, no teachers of the other professions. If all men were leaders, what would become of the soldiers? If all were the head, whose head would they be called, when there were no other members? You are afraid that if the desire for virginity were general there would be no prostitutes, no adulteresses, no wailing infants in town or country. Every day the blood of adulterers is shed, adulterers are condemned, and lust is raging and rampant in the very presence of the laws and the symbols of authority and the courts of justice. Be not afraid that all will become virgins: virginity is a hard matter, and therefore rare, because it is hard: Many are called, few chosen. Many begin, few persevere. And so the reward is great for those who have persevered. If all were able to be virgins, our Lord would never have said: Matthew 19:12 He that is able to receive it, let him receive it: and the Apostle would not have hesitated to give his advice—”

    In regards to the other statements, I’d reference the “qualifiers” I had above. One must have in mind the audience Jerome is writing to, and the rhetorical excesses he frequently engages in. It doesn’t “excuse” his remarks (on some of the things, he was indeed wrong), but I think there is some insight to be gleaned.

  41. Thank you, Kevin. I read that even Jerome himself felt bad about some of the things he said, and that “Against Jovinian” was one of the things that helped inspire Augustine to write “The Good of Marriage”, which is a much more balanced work. I gather that that is also because Augustine was a much more balanced kind of guy.

    I guess sometimes it’s helpful to remember that the great Doctor is often portrayed in art beating his breast with a rock for his imprudence and hot temper.

    It’s also helpful to know that Jerome (and some other fathers) was heavily conversant in the pagan philosophy of his day, which was itself even MORE negative about marriage.

  42. Mercury,

    The last reason you noted is why I always like to mention that West and other TOB “experts” really should study the Church Fathers. They see quotes from Jerome, and really lack any context.

    St. Jerome provided invaluable material, even with many of his faults, and they must always be understood within the times he made them. It also helps being able to trace the development, and comes in handy when one finally arrives to John Paul II and finds, sometimes shockingly, that he really didn’t teach anything “new” when it comes to TOB.

    (I’m sure you understand that, but West’s entire theology requires JPII to be an innovator.)

  43. Yes, but it seems clear that many Church Fathers considered sex in marriage as a necessary evil to a)provide children and b) avoid grave sin. Other than that, they seem to have thought that it should be overcome as soon as possible, as it was seen as not much better than fornication.

    They still saw it as impure, and almost never as in itself a good act that could be pleasing to God. “If you really love your wife, stop having sex with her” is a message Jerome seems clear about. This is not AT ALL what John Paul II said, nor even what moralists like Aquinas, Sánchez, or Liguori said, nor what men like Francis de Sales said.

    No one has been able to convince me that there has not been a quite RADICAL change in understanding this issue since the High Middle Ages (Aquinas, Oresme, Albert the Great). I do not think John Paul II came up with anything radical, and that the changes in attitudes had happened earlier in the century, but it still has not convinced me that the Church’s teaching has not changed, at least not as far as pastoral advice.

    I mean, could you imagine Jerome saying what Fr. Angelo said above? And I’d imagine Fr. Angelo’s advice is the most common opinion of spiritual directors when it comes to this. Or how many religious communities would even THINK about letting a married man leave behind his wife and family to become a monk (St. Bernard’s brother, for example) unless they could really, really truly make out that this is the will of God?

    Or could you imagine any of the Church Fathers saying that the marital act itself is one place where the spouses can grow in holiness? That it can help lead to sanctification? That God wills that they engage in it – and positively enjoy it – for their own sake and for the sake of their marriage?

  44. Did Jerome not also once say (paraphrasing), “I love marriage because it gives me virgins!” Good ‘ole Jerome – I love him:-)

  45. I hate to say it because I might get stoned for it, but I actually think there is some truth to that statement from Jerome. SOME truth. (Once again, it’s important to put it into context, as Kevin says).

    If the “true meaning” of Theology of the Body is perpetual continence, as Fr. Angelo said [see below, here–Fr Angelo], then the greatest fruit one could offer God and the Church/World through their marriage would be celibate sons and daughters. Not long ago (pre-Vatican II), parents considered it the supreme honour to have a son or daughter embrace priesthood or religious life.

  46. Mercury, I think a lot of the Church Fathers have gotten a bum rap from liberal Catholics in the last 45 years, and for some reason us orthodox Catholics have bought into their criticisms (which normally consists of dishonest proof-texting).

    Cormac Burke wrote an excellent piece which set the record straight on St. Augustine’s allegedly-negative views on marriage. Anyone who has bought into the liberal lie should read it:

  47. Please Wade, do not quote me, unless you get it right. The context of my remarks, taken with everything else I have said indicate nothing of the sort of words you put into my mouth.

    I think this conversation is going off the rails.

  48. Definitely off the rails! I”m not sure how we get from feeling it to be a supreme honor if a son or daughter becomes a religious to feeling it a supreme honor if a MARRIED son or daughter chooses celibacy!! Both husband and wife better be on board with that one …. my grandparents did that and from what I’m told it was NOT a good thing. My aunts and uncles all remember a very bitter father and a very miserable marriage after that point. Hopefully anyone reading this thread has read Fr. Angelo’s words against this advice.

    That’s perhaps where some of the prudery might come in that West is using as his reason for teaching TOB as he does. Honestly, I didn’t realize that people actually thought this way anymore.

  49. Just to clarify: I don’t recommend 99+ percent of married couples do this just like I don’t recommend 99+ percent of Catholics take a religious vow, lest they be miserable, like Jennifer’s grandparents. It is a very, very RARE call (John Paul II beatified one of those couples who had that RARE call). But it is a “higher” call nonetheless. Yes, West would call that “prudery”. Maybe Kevin and I are prudes??

  50. It depends on what one is “thinking.” For the most part, I agree with what Fr. Angelo has said on the matter.

    Yet I’m also an avid student of Jerome, the benefits and drawbacks, all of them. I try to put what is said into context.

    There’s no doubt that some of what Jerome said is indeed objectionable. Yet I think one needs to understand it pretty clear, that most of his views on the topic were indeed not the majority.

    One could find a completely different understanding from Tertullian in his days when he was in the Church for example, and even his contemporary Augustine portrayed things in a far more positive light.

    In an attempt to get this discussion back on the rails, Mercury, perhaps you could email me privately in regards to this. I will only part from it by showing a far more positive portrayal of virginity (I think), in that great master St. Cyprian of Carthage, who spent an entire treatise on Sacred Virginity.

    Being the eminent mind he was, he rejects the idea of comparing marriage and celibacy, simply extolling the benefits of the celibate state in and of themselves.

  51. Also, to clarify: if I was a spiritual director and a couple came to me and said they wanted to practice perpetual continence, my response would be IDENTICAL to that of Fr. Angelo’s. Most married couples who decide they want to practice perpetual continence are doing it not because God is authentically calling them but on the false pretense that it would be the “holier path”. I would tell them to give their heads a shake too.

    This is the kind of mentality that prompted St. Paul to write what he did in 1Corinthians 7. A number of people were choosing celibacy not because they were truly called, but because it was the “higher call”, and they wanted that! St. Paul made it clear: it may be the higher call indeed, but if you are not personally called to it, it is NOT going to make you holy.

    However, for those who were “truly called” to perpetual continence within marriage, they have chosen the “objectively superior” state. The majority of our married Saints were in Josephite marriages, and that has not changed with JP2 (the Quattrocchis were continent and the Martins were continent until their spiritual director convinced them to have children).

    Anyway, sorry for hijacking this thread and getting us off topic.

  52. I think rather than Kevin and I being prudes, however, perhaps part of the misunderstanding could stem from the fact that our generation really does not understand the dogma of the superiority of celibacy over marriage. Just mentioning that makes people cringe, and it could be that although we might agree with the dogma, we do not understand all the theology that underlies that dogma.

  53. Wade, I do not disagree with what you said in that last comment – that seems to make sense, and is certainly how I always understood it.

    But that is a FAR cray from what St. Jerome said, as well as some of the other fathers. One need not posit a “liberal spin” to come to the conclusion that many of them saw sex itself as impure and only slightly better than fornication (Tertullian says that it basically is fornication). Jerome says point blank that a man dishonors his wife by having sex with her. He also is clear that he thinks one cannot have a good prayer life if one has sex with one’s wife, and he also seems to imply that sex in itself makes one unworthy to receive the Body of Christ.

    I have read Msgr. Burke’s article, as well as most of his book on marriage. It’s very well-written. That same site hosts another excellent article on Augustine. I am willing to concede that Augustine was not the bogeyman people make him out to be – for his time, he was surprisingly “modern”.

    And I absolutely think that the greatest fruit of a good and holy marriage are the priests and religious which may come of that union. I think big families are also crucial to vocations. But I’m with Jennifer – I can only imagine how many of these “celibate marriages” do indeed result in spiritual and emotional disaster, which is a tragedy for the spouses as well as the children, and may even serve the purpose of driving them away from religion.

    But I do see that St. Jerome thought that giving up relations with one’s wife should be par for the course for serious Christians. I’m sorry, but he must be wrong on that point.

  54. I think the funny part of all this is that no one here is really disagreeing with one another, and everyone seems to agree that Christopher West is a bad joke. 🙂

    This has been a very interesting conversation, though!

    Kevin, I may e-mail you, thanks.

  55. Mercury, without references to Jerome, I cannot tell whether or not he was really teaching these things. But you can discuss that with Kevin privately.

    Tertullian wrote that after he became a heretic. He was no longer “Catholic” when he wrote that. It “doesn’t count”, so to speak.

    I think I will bow out of this thread, because if I continue, I am going to drive people back to Christopher West! Jennifer already might be thinking that maybe West is right after all!

  56. And Kevin – as much strife as some of Jerome’s points give me, he is an EXCELLENT rhetorician. He’s actually fun to read – I wish I understood Latin better.

  57. I own West’s CD’s and I do intend on listening to them. I also need to read JPII’s actual teachings. That’s a first. I do know people who feel very blessed by West’s teachings so I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water which is always so easy to do. However, I’ve read enough to know that West certainly has been given enough suggestions as to how to better clarify things that he seems to have refused to accept. Good ol’ foolish pride, seems to me.

    So, your discussions on celibacy won’t be what makes me think West is right after all! But I do hear a lot of what the Shakers believed in what you say … as we know, they’re somewhat of a dying breed for obvious reasons! It used to be those faithful Catholics (and now the Muslims) that filled the earth.

  58. West is indeed correct when he points to a fault mentality amongst certain patristics. There’s really no denying that.

    Yet I think he errs when he ascribes this as a majority (or a significant minority) viewpoint. And I think he errs even further when he tries to say this attitude was prevalent in mainstream Catholicism before TOB, instead just certain segments (those unduly influenced by Jansenism, which the Church was still coming out of in the Pontificate of St. Pius X, whose reforms did much good in this area.)

    As I’ve said a thousand times, West’s problem is that he accepts the characterization of the Church from the likes of Hefner and Kinsey.

    They talk about how evil and repressive the Church was, and West says “YES THEY WERE! But now its so much better!”

    All I can think of with such statements is “Had we been alive then, we would not have stoned the prophets”…….

  59. Kevin I think you are right. There HAS been a development of doctrine here, but like all such cases, it’s never a break with the past, but more of a refining and clarifying of previous tradition.

    It makes sense, seeing as the twentieth century saw (and this one is still seeing) perhaps the greatest offensive against marriage and the family, as well as chastity in general.

    Have you ever read what Fr. John Hardon had to say about marriage and marital love? Not “repressive” at all, and he was about as orthodox as they come.

  60. Hailing from right outside Detroit, we are very provincial when it comes to our priests, and the biggest we are “provincial” about is Fr. Hardon.

    Way I look at it, we can only promote him so highly as a way of attonement for giving the world Archbishop Gumbleton. 😉

  61. I went to the article. According to attendee Robin Blier, ““It is a call to holiness and Theology of the Body is a path to get me there. This new knowledge helps us get beyond our struggles and see God’s will for us and our family.”

    This “NEW” knowledge?

  62. Pingback: Compendium of TOB Posts « Mary Victrix

  63. Just stumbled across this thread. What we all have to realise is, regardless of what St Jerome said in the context of his time, or Turtullian in the context of his time or Christopher West in the ….none of these people is the Magisterium of the Church. Seek out what the Church actually teaches about these matters and read the opinions of others but it is what the Church teaches in her official documents which are all we have to take notice of.

    You might like to read: Jansenism the Liturgy and Ireland

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