Message from the Apostolic Commissioner of the FI

Tarquinia, August 31, 2013.
Dear young people,

In the Bible one reads two episodes happily matching up with what you will celebrate in the church of your Institute at Tarquinia.

The first took place on the banks of the Jordan, when, after their endless journey in the desert, Joshua told the people to choose whom they would serve: “Do you choose the Lord or the foreign gods, the gods beyond the river?” (Joshua 24,15). Know that in choosing the Lord, you choose the liberator, the savior, the one who is close to you, because you are the people He has received and whom He cares for without cost, for whom He wants true freedom. If you choose Him, know, however, that He is a jealous and demanding God: He ensures loyalty, but asks of you fidelity.

The foreign gods, those across the river, are not demanding. They don’t disturb the life of ease and quiet. They promise a cheap happiness, roads open wide in front of you. Later, however, you will discover that a cheap and easy happiness is illusory, that it is a new form of slavery, more painful than the one known in Egypt.

The second episode we read in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, referring to what occurred more or less near the same waters of the Jordan, which for the Jews sprang, as it were, from Heaven. It speaks of Jesus witnessing many of His listeners turn away from Him because, according to them, He used a language that was too hard. He then asked the Apostles: “Will you also go away?” (Jn 6:67). It is as if he said: make your choice! Peter, who was not expecting that question, looked at the apostles standing near, and before anyone could give a reckless or wrong answer replied: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, we have believed and know that thou art the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69).

My dear young people , Peter responded on behalf of all, and therefore in your name also, since you have chosen Him who has called you with eternal words, who reveals that to walk in the footsteps left by the Holy One of God is the most beautiful of all of life’s decisions.

The religious profession that you will make, which you have prepared for with the seriousness proper to your Institute, is in fact a response to a choice. It is a generous and demanding choice, because you choose the Lord, who is All, the Supreme Good, endless beauty, the absolute truth, nothing more beautiful or greater that one could desire. I said “response” because you know better than I that it was not you who chose the Lord, but He who chose you, because he loves you with a wholly particular love, a love of predilection, a love beyond all human imagination. The “yes” that you will pronounce with the formula of profession is a response to God’s initiative.

You have decided to follow Jesus in the way of chastity, obedience, poverty and the Marian vow . You want to be so united to Him as to imitate Him in these fundamental options of life. With the vows that you will profess you pledge to be transparently His, revealing his chaste, poor and obedient face. Those seeing you must be able to see Christ: Christ who is chaste, because one loves with a pure and unreserved love unto the gift of self; Christ who is obedient because one abandons himself to the liberating will of the Father; Christ who is poor because true wealth is not found in material goods, but in the values of the Kingdom. The Marian vow because you have chosen to go as missionaries which was the particular desire of St. Maximilian M. Kolbe.

Blessed Giles of Assisi, the third companion of St. Francis, summed up this idea in a popular saying coming from his simple wisdom: “He who loves more, longs more.” By this it is intended that the more ones love God, the more one desires his riches, which, according to what St. Bonaventure wrote in The Journey of the Mind to God, are “fruits that no one comes to know if not received, nor received if not desired, nor desired unless inflamed by the Holy Spirit.” The religious vocation is one of those fruits that mature with the profession you are about to make.

Allow me now to mention the Institute to which you will belong. I know that it arose at the doors of the third millennium as a response to the conciliar Decree Perfectae Caritatis that invites religious to “return to the sources.” In addition to the Rule of the Order of Friars Minor, you also profess the Marian Traccia of Franciscan Life which is it’s Marian expression, whose spiritual legacy you have accepted fully and live out within the Marian Houses and in the Houses of the Immaculate, engaged in the use of modern means of communication (television, radio), and in religious-priestly activity and that which is missionary.

Very well, I am pleased with all it all. You too are witnesses to the variety of charisms mentioned by S. Paul (1 Cor 12:4 ), poured forth by the same Spirit, and which therefore cannot contradict each other. Consecrated life and new ecclesial subjects are living forces of the Spirit of the Church; forces that appeal to the youth because of the freshness of their phenomena, the authoritative presence of the founders, and because of the agility of organizational structures not as yet so complex . However, I am reminded of the words of the Blessed John Paul II on May 30, 1998, adressed to the leaders of the new forms of consecrated life: “The emergence of new institutes and their diffusion has brought to the Church’s life a newness that is unexpected and sometimes even disruptive. This has given rise to questions, uneasiness and tensions, at times it has led to presumptions and excesses on the one hand, and not a few prejudices and reservations on the other. It was a period of trial for their loyalty, an important opportunity to verify the authenticity of their charisms. Today a new stage opens in front of you: that of ecclesial maturity . This does not mean that all the problems are solved. It is above all a challenge, a road on which to travel. The Church expects the fruits of communion and commitment.”

One of the central issues, in my opinion, is the threat of a certain self-reference, that is, the desire to emphasize at all costs one’s own distinctive characteristics. Instead, I believe it is a certain proof of maturity to try to overcome this attitude, recognizing with a humble and Franciscan spirit that the edification of the Church is the ultimate reference point of one’s particular charismatic experience.

The theologian von Balthasar in an essay on spirituality (Verbum Caro) sustained that when a religious and ecclesial reality is essentially preoccupied in distinguishing itself from others by setting their own convictions as the only excellence to be referred to, it is a sign of closure that can only be of harm to the future of the Church. As also can be, I might add, a certain confusion between the ends and the means, whereby the texts, suggestions, attitudes or words of the founders can be considered more decisive than the teaching of the magisterium and even than that of the biblical texts. In this case, a movement that officially professes to be a mediator for a new form of evangelization, becomes the substitute.

Listen to this anecdote: a father was watching his child one day trying to move a very heavy flowerpot. The little child one was trying, puffing, growling, but could not move the flowerpot even an inch.

“Did you use all your strength?” asked the father.

“Yes,” replied the child .

“That is not true, said the father, because you did not ask me to help you.”

Dear young people and dear confreres : let us all, together, move this flowerpot toward the light of God in order to understand that which it is in need of, and to cause an explosion in various colors of it’s flowers swollen with heavenly nectar.

P. Fidenzio Volpi, ofm cap
Apostolic Commissioner

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.

Shame on You. Amen.

13779-christ-giving-his-blessing-hans-memlingI think the title of this post should be a prayer of blessing.  Well, I am being facetious . . . sort of.  Or perhaps I have caught a bit of the Christopher West shock-jock bug.  In any case, three cheers for good old fashioned shame.  Hip, hip, hurray, etc.!

During my hiatus from blogging here I have been busy about many things a la St. Martha.  One of those things has been a fruitful discussion at The Linde on The Personalist Project’s web site.   Cupuches off to Katie van Schaijik who runs that blog and gave me the opportunity to defend my views.

The Holy is Shameful

There is a shock statement for you that has real apologetical punch, and yet it is perfectly true.  Unfortunately, the masters of the anti-prudery crusade, the TOB shock-jocks, just don’t get it, so I need to use my own shock-term in order to make the point to them.  Shame is not only embarrassment at what is ugly, it is also modesty and humility in the face of what is holy, beautiful and mysterious.

I am currently trying to get my hands on Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s work, Purity:  The Mystery of Christian Sexuality (Steubenville, Ohio: The Franciscan University Press, 1989), originally In Defense of Purity, 7th ed.  In the comments on The Linde, Dr. Josef Seifert made reference to this work in which Von Hildebrand distinguishes between different kinds of shame.  Dr. Seifert notes that both Karol Wojtyla and Von Hildebrand (as well as Max Scheler) speak highly of sexual shame and “have distinguished it sharply from prudishness.”  He points out that whereas Wojtyla commended shame as a way of protecting persons from being objectified and the body from irreverent and lustful attitudes, Von Hildebrand stressed the positive aspects of shame of the beautiful and holy.  According to Dr. Seifert, Dietrich Von Hildebrand distinguishes

between shame of something ugly or evil and the shame of something beautiful but so intimate that it belongs to the personal mystery of persons. This is the authentic sense of positive sexual shame which does hide from others those mysteries of love and of the body which only spousal love ought to see or unveil because of its beauty and depth and intimacy. Also in the religious life there are feelings, thoughts or experiences of Saints so sublime that they did not wish to expose them to everybody. . . .

This shame is noble and just as opposite to prudishness (which regards the beauty of the body ugly) as it is to the shame we will and ought to feel when we are seen to perform impure acts or watch porno movies or to act in bad immoral and dishonest ways.

hildebrand-1Another commenter, Steve B., quoted Von Hildebrand on the subject of shame from The Devastated Vineyard:

. . . We should experience shame when someone praises our virtue and brings it out into the open, or when we ourselves make public things which are by their very nature intimate. All kinds of being ashamed are deeply human, classical attitudes, especially the shame which encourages us to keep intimate things out of the public eye. It is a stupid mistake to interpret this latter kind of shame, which is especially related to the sexual sphere, as prudery, as contempt of this sphere, as a sign that one views it as taboo. True and noble shame towards the sexual sphere, with which even the pagans were acquainted (just think of the gestures of the hands of many of the Venus figures, which covered the breasts and the pubic region), is a classical human characteristic, an adequate response to the mysterious intimacy of this sphere (28-29, emphasis commenter’s).

The more I engage with people of good will who are understandably enamored of Christopher West’s ability to make a difference in the lives of many thousands of people who are struggling with sexual sins and a lack of peace with their sexuality, the more I am convinced that this wholesome, humble and intelligent kind of shame is under serious attack.  That attack, in my view, is all the more serious because instead of directly denying the existence of good shame, it simply minimizes its usefulness on the grounds that apologetical exigencies are more important.  While this might sound to some like a valid argument, the result, in my opinion is insidious.

The TOB America Train

Runaway TrainApologetics has the curious quality of being compelling precisely because the apologist has simplified the argument and presented an immediate and clear reason to change one’s judgment, and has done so in an enthusiastic and rhetorically effective way.  But while this ability and approach has obvious assets, it can also have real liabilities.  Sometimes the most compelling argument is an over-simplification, and the most rhetorically effective and most enthusiastic presentation is an expression of zealotry, which because it is based on an oversimplification is by definition reactionary and misguided.  In other words, sometimes the most immediately effective apologetical approach is tantamount to an unbalanced crusade, like a down-swinging pendulum, it has far too much momentum to find equilibrium.

In a sense, I wish I could jump on board the TOB America Train, because I really do think that prudery is a problem.  However, when in the interests of providing a powerful argument the apologists for this version of TOB minimize essential distinctions, they shoot the whole effort in the foot, because they begin calling good responses “prudery” so that in the end their effort is transformed from a crusade against prudery into crusade for a fascination with sex.

They say that if we were really on board the train and understood the beauty of sexuality we would want to strip everything and everyone naked as much as possible.  This is truly unfortunate, because the result of all this is that the pendulum ends up swinging back and forth.  When those truly inclined to prudery hear West & Co. criticize every reaction against stripping they just dig their heels in deeper.  And in a sense, why not?  Why should we prefer one error over another, especially when our choices are between prudery and sexual over-exposure?

The Sex Crusade

Crusading Zealot

Real prudery—it is true—is unresolved lust.  However, the crusaders misappropriate it to every and all reactions of shame.  They tell us that anytime one acts with shame in respect to sexual matters it is because they have hidden lust in their hearts and are not being honest about it.  Hence, West always gives the following recommendation to those who object to his habit of stripping everything:  “Look into your heart and ask yourself why you are uncomfortable with this.”

Unfortunately, this approach is doomed because there are real distinctions between Manichaeism, Jansenism and scrupulosity.  The later is not hatred of the body, but pride of judgment and fear of responsibility.  All three things can overlap, but they don’t necessarily.  The apologetic gurus of our age, I must presume, do not read souls.  They should not pretend to.

Likewise, there are real distinctions between shame of sinful things, shame of holy things and lust dressed up as shame (prudery).  They are not the same thing and cannot be treated as the same thing without misrepresenting the faith and misleading souls.

As I say, I would like to join forces with the crusaders against prudery, except that I don’t want to be a zealot and I don’t want to shoot my efforts in the foot by engaging in over-simplifications and encouraging a reactionism that will inevitably result—as it has already—in the opposite extreme, namely, an obsession with sex.

I recently read an interview with an actress who was asked about her willingness to take on roles that had a great deal of sexual content and nudity.  She defended herself by saying:  “it’s kind of an American thing to be uptight about naked bodies.”  This is precisely the confusion I am referring to, and in my opinion, the only difference between the crusader’s argument and that of the actress is that the former is dressed up in piety.  I even encountered someone apparently favorable to West defending the soft-core pornography of Father Andrew Greeley.

The Real Thing

So what about real prudery?

GenuineI believe where it exists among Catholics it is usually found in people recently converted who formally lived immodestly and unchastely, or who previously took matters of chastity lightly and went along with the pornified culture.  Now reacting against it, not wanting to be an occasion of sin for anyone else and desiring to give good example (especially parents to children), they are inclined to the zealotry of modesty–to their own kind of reactionism.  Thus, they place nearly all the emphasis on modesty of dress, manners and eyes, rather than give due attention to custody of the heart.

This is not far from the Islamic ideal that presumes that men are pigs, but that women are really at fault for being shaped like women.  Of course, no one would put it that way, but isn’t that the nature of prudery?  It cloaks sinister ideas in a mantle of piety and strictness.

The problem is that genuine prudery is in reality the wormy apple.  In truth, the genuine article is holy shame, that is, modesty, and it can be easily be confused with rotten prudery by an untrained or superficial eye.

In one or another of my comments on The Linde I brought up the need to cultivate prudence among the faithful as an integral and necessary way to make this discernment.  The reasons seem clear to me:  1) because there is a real difference between Manichaeism, Jansenism and scrupulosity; 2) because there is a real difference between shame of sin, shame of the holy and prudery; 3) because without it we oversimplify and promote reactionism and zealotry; 4) because it belongs fundamentally to the nature and practice of true modesty.

Prudery or Prudence

I think that West and his supporters would do well to give this serious consideration, because it seems to me that both forms of zealotry minimize the role of prudence.  Those inclined to prudery place all their trust in hard and fast rules that can be measured and enforced with uniformity.  They are agitated by intellectual independence and by virtually all diversity within Catholic culture.  They do not give due regard for the fact that our counsels are not certain in many areas of  life and that good men can disagree about many things, including many things that are important to them.  But even this may have more to do with ordinary unresolved scrupulosity than it does with Manichaeism or Jansenism.

PrudenceOn the other hand, the anti-prudery crusaders also minimize the role of prudence, precisely because they pretend to be able to size-up those who disagree with them and label them with Manichaeism, Jansenism and prudery, when, in fact, they really have little or no idea with whom they are really dealing.  They also are inclined to say that modesty is purely relative and is almost exclusively a matter of custody of the heart, and in so doing disregard many of the particulars that make up modest or immodest behavior.

For example, the TOB crowd often brings up the African women who live topless nearly all the time. (Although our community works in Nigeria, Benin and Cameroon, I cannot comment intelligently on how prevalent this custom remains in Christianized Africa.)  They say the men think nothing of it and that the women have no shame about it.  It is all quite innocent and wholesome.  No need here for the cultivation of any kind of shame.  By this logic one would have to surmise that the customs of pagan Africa are more in keeping with the redemption of the body than our own. This is supposed to be evidence that the external aspects of modesty are all relative.

But the fact is that wherever Christianity has sunk its roots deeply, over time these customs have been given way to what Paul VI called “higher expressions of the mind.”  And even if Maria Lactans is a venerable visual tradition within the Church, it is because there is a mean by which prudence can justify limited exposure in appropriate circumstances.  It is no justification for the sexualization of culture or the disparaging of natural shame.


In fact, the anti-prudery crusaders are arguing for their own kind of uniformity and lock-step thinking.  This is one reason, I think, that some were so inclined to interpret a challenge to West’s ideas as a personal attack.  There is no room for divergence and diversity among those who are truly enlightened.

Rules of Thumb

Before I conclude, I want to underscore the importance of prudence in this matter, because I know the tendency to oversimplify and ride the wave of indistinct enthusiasm is much stronger than my abilities to defend prudence.  Though I am sure I will not be as convincing as a real soapbox rhetorician, I will give it my best, boring attempt.

Everyone schooled in the fundamentals of Catholic moral theology knows there are three things that are required to make a moral act good:

  1. The object of the act must be good, that is, the act itself cannot be intrinsically evil, like stealing, but must be good in itself, like praying, or at least objectively indifferent, like walking.
  2. The intention of the one acting must be good, that is, the act must not be directed by mind and will to an evil end or with a malicious purpose.  Thus, even praying could be evil, if one was knowingly asking God for something sinful.
  3. The circumstances surrounding the act (time, place, manner, etc.) must be such that the one acting may reasonably judge that the act is appropriate to do here and now.  Hence, praying is not pleasing to God if one is doing so in a way that prevents him from fulfilling the obligations of his state in life, even though praying itself is good and the person’s intention might be upright.

If any one of these three requirements is not in possession, then the act is not good but sinful or at least imperfect.

In particular, the last point regarding circumstances is the domain of prudence, and this is precisely what we are dealing with when we try to distinguish modesty from immodesty and shame from prudery.  If you don’t want to teach people about prudence then never mind talking about prudery, or modesty for that matter, because your listeners will be unable to define them in practice.


Incidentally, this is why rules of thumb have typically been part of the Catholic tradition of moral catechesis.  For instance: “the Eucharist is present within a communicant for 15 minutes after receiving communion”; “stealing is a mortal sin when it equals the value of a man’s daily wage”; “a dress isn’t modest unless it extends well below the knee.”  It does not seem to me that any of these rules were ever intended as absolute moral imperatives, but neither are any of the questions they are intended to resolve purely subjective and relative.  They are rules of thumb precisely because they are to assist us in the cultivation of prudence.  The solution is neither to absolutize the rules of thumb, nor to absolutize the relativity of the questions.  Absolute uniformity of behavior is neither required nor desirable, because both are based on false premises and concern matters which in some measure are the domain of each man’s prudential judgment.

This is not to say that modesty is purely relative or subjective (in Christian cultures women don’t go topless because of natural, wholesome shame), only that in those matters where good Catholics may disagree the solution is not going to be found in crusades for uniformity (whether in dress or undress) but in the freedom to make independent judgments that are ever more enlightened and generous.  In this way, we acknowledge and respect the rightful place of ordinary shame, the higher and objective standard of Christian modesty, the holiness and beauty of both the body and of sexuality, intellectual freedom, a measured diversity of culture, and the legitimate differences of personality, temperament, history and mystery that belong to individual persons created in the image and likeness of God.  This is the opposite of zealotry.  It is just plain common sense.

Stopping the Pendulum


This approach has the added advantage of pulling that rug out from under reactionary tendencies which are just aggravated by the propensity to use the labels such as prude or skank. More disturbing to me and more frequently occurring than a modesty crusader calling a woman dressed in a trashy outfit a skank, is that same crusader shabbily treating a decent woman or girl who does not meet their standard of uniformity.  Both instances offend the dignity of the human person and welfare of souls, but in the second case, the estimation entirely inaccurate.

But this is not only a problem with the modesty crusaders.  The anti-prudery crusaders are just as inclined to size people up and examine their consciences (even publicly, as West does).  Without having any real idea what is going on in the conscience of someone else, they suggest that ordinary and sincere reactions against unveiling every aspect of sexuality is prudery.  What they are looking for is a whole new standard of enlightenment by which they can measure the authentic response to the sexual intuition, and they have their own set of rules that they wish to impose by way of the invocation of authority.  Hence, John Paul II is used as the unquestionable authority for all kinds of things he never recommended.

Either way it is shabby treatment and positively anti-personalist behavior.  In fact, no one is inclined to change their view of things when they are measured with oversimplified and plainly bogus standards.

Real Men

John Wayne

Finally, I want to speak directly to men on the question of shame and modesty.  John Paul does say that a special burden is placed on the man to see to it that a woman is not made an object (TOB 33.1-2).  In this regard men should not project onto women their own disordered desires.  Not every woman whose manner of dress a man finds provocative is trying to be provocative.  However, that does not mean she is not being thoughtless and a bit selfish.  Sometimes women just want male attention.  They know exactly how to get it, and sometimes act accordingly, even when their purpose is not lustful.

So there is a mutual burden in this regard, but men with sensitive consciences in matters of purity should not take the depersonalization of women to a new level by projecting onto them their own lust, and like Muslim men expect women to look like something other than attractive and then blame women for their own lack of custody of heart.  Again, this is not to say that women’s fashions today in general are not objectively immodest, but it is to say that the preoccupation with the standards of modesty are not altogether helpful to men and the transformation they need to undergo.

In this too, the facile, enthusiastic and clever apologetical argument may be effective but it has also some serious liabilities.  The often told story of the two monks who approach a stream and find a damsel there unable to cross is a good example of the problem.  Supposedly, one of the monks decided to do the chivalrous thing and carry the girl over the stream.  Once across, the monks and the damsel bid their adieus and went their separate ways.  After a long time of walking along in silence, finally the other monk said:  “Brother, I can’t believe you picked up that woman and carried her over that stream.  What were you thinking?”  The offender replied:  Brother, I put her down a long time ago.  It seems you are still carrying her.”

This story, in fact, illustrates something very true, but something that needs to be considered carefully.  The second brother’s scandalized heart presumably had lost its peace not because of an offense against God or because of the spiritual peril of the other brother, but because of its own preoccupation with matters of sexuality.  The scandalized monk was, in fact, projecting his own problem onto his brother.  However, this is no argument that the first monk actually behaved in a prudent fashion.  The sword cuts both ways.  Modesty is not just a matter of custody of the heart, and while the scandalized brother may well have been a prude, the circumstances of the damsel’s predicament and the monk’s station in life, as well as his own personal story and baggage may have dictated a much different solution.

If as West and his followers suggest the redemption of the body is a matter of self-mastery, why does that mean that ordinary, wholesome shame must go out the window along with prudery?  There may be several answers.  One is perhaps that in some circumstances souls reach a state in which they attain something akin to original innocence.  But West says he is not suggesting that anyone is going to attain that kind of purity.  So if prudery is jettisoned and self-mastery is obtained, why does the wholesome shame of holy things have to go as well?  In my opinion, it is because the real argument in all this in not about prudery, but about the assertion that the Theology of the Body mandates a new and holy fascination and fixation on sexuality. Unfortunately, this is an invention,  and one produced, not by John Paul II, but by Christopher West.

Real Hope

The road to self-mastery is not going to be won by trying to convince the world by flashy but superficial arguments that the Church is not anti-sex when it really never has been.  It is not going to be won by teaching men, who need to learn to fight, to seek the path of unrestricted, cushy-soft and allegedly holy eroticism. The road to self mastery is the narrow and difficult road of trial and error, of nuance and distinction, of high ideals and knowledge of one’s weakness, an appreciation for goodness of all that God has created, spontaneity in action, and shame of the ugly and of the beautiful and holy.  Men must fight for their chastity.  Yes, the message of the Church about sexuality is good news, but it is not a false and shameless hope.

May we all be blessed to see the truth of it.  Shame on you.  Amen.


The Art of Feminine Chivalry


A woman should be able to drive a stick shift, fire a Springfield Arms XD accurately, do the family tax return, throw a football 20 yards, and barbecue steaks. However, when men are around, she should allow men to do things for her, even if she can do them better herself. Men should always be asked to do dangerous tasks (shoveling snow, killing spiders, etc.), and they should never be criticized about their performance in front of other people, only in private.

Great post on the art of feminine chivalry.

Click of the heels to Dawn Eden.

Encampment Gallery, Summer 2009

Twain’s Joan III


There’s an illustration, gentlemen – a real illustration,” he said. “I studied that girl, Joan of Arc, for twelve years, and it never seemed to me that the artists and the writers gave us a true picture of her. They drew a picture of a peasant. Her dress was that of a peasant. But they always missed the face – the divine soul, the pure character, the supreme woman, the wonderful girl. She was only 18 years old, but put into a breast like hers a heart like hers and I think, gentlemen, you would have a girl – like that.”

The humorist looked toward the door, and there was absolute silence – puzzled silence – for many did not know whether it was time to laugh, disrespectful to giggle, or discourteous to keep solemn. The humorist realized the situation. Turning to his audience he came out of the clouds and said solemnly:

“But the artists always paint her with a face – like a ham.”

This quote of Mark Twain is taken from an article published in the December 31, 1905 edition of The New York Times, Pictorial Section, which covered a dinner at the Aldine Association, sponsored  by the Society of Illustrators which Mark Twain had been the guest of honor. Knowing as they did, the great respect  which he bore toward the Maid of Orleans the men of the society had prearranged to have a model dressed in the garb of the saint, including armor to enter and approach Mark Twain at the head table.  The article says it looked as though he had seen a ghost; but I wonder if it would be more proper to say, especially given his remarks above, that he looked as though he had seen a vision.

The Times article is reprinted in a recent post at News for Growing Christians by Stephen K. Ryan, entitled “What the Atheists don’t want you to know about Mark Twain’s secret.” I have written on this subject before (see “Twain’s Joan” I & II); however, I was not aware of the incident recorded by the Times, nor of the 1904 essay Twain wrote, singing the St. Joan’s praises to the heavens in which he did not believe.  In the Maid, he was a believer:

Taking into account, as I have suggested before, all the circumstances — her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment, and the obstructing conditions under which she exploited her high gifts and made her conquests in the field and before the courts that tried her for her life, — she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.

Stranger yet is the fact that what we might presume to be the case, given his well known dispositions, is in fact not true,  namely, that his interest  in the girl was purely due to the fact that she did not fit his determinist ideology and that somehow nature had been kinder to her than to the rest of us.  There is not even a hint of the secularist sneer in the following words of praise:

She was deeply religious, and believed that she had daily speech with angels; that she saw them face to face, and that they counselled her, comforted and heartened her, and brought commands to her direct from God. She had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not any threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart. She was a beautiful and simple and lovable character. In the records of the Trials this comes out in clear and shining detail. She was gentle and winning and affectionate, she loved her home and friends and her village life; she was miserable in the presence of pain and suffering; she was full of compassion: on the field of her most splendid victory she forgot her triumphs to hold in her lap the head of a dying enemy and comfort his passing spirit with pitying words; in an age when it was common to slaughter prisoners she stood dauntless between hers and harm, and saved them alive; she was forgiving, generous, unselfish, magnanimous; she was pure from all spot or stain of baseness. And always she was a girl; and dear and worshipful, as is meet for that estate: when she fell wounded, the first time, she was frightened, and cried when she saw her blood gushing from her breast; but she was Joan of Arc! and when presently she found that her generals were sounding the retreat, she staggered to her feet and led the assault again and took that place by storm.

Twain is a good example of the skeptical age.  It’s full of contradictions.  I would have to believe that the Maid came to his defense as she did even to the enemies of France:  “on the field of her most splendid victory she forgot her triumphs to hold in her lap the head of a dying enemy and comfort his passing spirit with pitying words.” One may hope.

But no man can afford these kind of contradictions.  The Maid could not abide them.  France was not England.  She would have none of the hand-wringing vascilation or refined duplicity of her age, and I am sure she would have none of the cynicism of ours. We shouldn’t either.

Seven in the Heart, One in the Hand


One commenter pointed out that in my exposition of the Blessed Mother’s courage (“Damsels in Distress“), that my distinction between the masculine courage of action and the feminine courage of suffering, according to St. Bonaventure, did not sufficiently take account of the many biblical images, nor of the great Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse.”  She is right, of course, that discussion about passive courage does not do enough to account for the Blessed Virgin’s active role in the redemption of mankind, or of women in general throughout history.  I have no disagreement with the commenter.

In fact, I have have written on the subject Our Lady’s presence in “The Ballad of the White Horse” in a paper I delivered at our international symposium on the Coredemption in England, 2001, entitled “Seven in the Heart, One in the Hand:  The Mediation of the Immaculate in the Poetry of Hopkins and Chesterton” (Mary at the Foot of the Cross II:  Acts of the International Symposium on Marian Coredemption, New Bedford:  Academy of the Immaculate.  395-439).  I am attaching here a pdf of the complete paper for those who are interested.  Also, FYI, there is an excellent reprint of the 1928 illustrated edition of “The Ballad of the White Horse,” published by Ignatius Press, that also includes a very helpful introduction and endnotes by Sister Bernadette Sheridan.

Since I have been studying the Theology of the Body lately, I would like to suggest that one of John Paul II’s insights–one that is thoroughly traditional–would be helpful here.  There is no question that man is characteristically the “giver” (“the one who loves”) and woman the “receiver” (“the one who is loved”; cf. TOB 92.6); however, the Holy Father also  says:

The two functions of the mutual exchange are deeply connected in the whold process of “gift of self”: giving and accepting the gift interpenetrate in such a way that the very act of giving becomes acceptance, and acceptance transforms itself into giving (TOB 17.4).

By way of analogy, I think we can say that the “giver” is also the “defender,” and the “receiver” is also the “defended,” but this does not preclude a mutuality, though the courage of action in a woman, such as in the case of Judith or St. Joan of Arc is particularly marked by empathy and uniquely maternal characteristics.

I think of St. Joan, in particular, who received the ability to ride a horse, to formulate military strategy, especially the placement of artillery, as an extraordinary grace.  She was not merely a figure head of the French army; nevertheless, she never raised her sword against a man.  It was merely enough for her to get to the enemy castle and touch it with her banner.  I also recall how she nursed the dying, including the English, and shed tears over them.

I include below an apropos excerpt from my paper.  Without burdening this post with too much back story, one should at least know that at the beginning of the ballad, King Alfred, who is leading the Saxons against the invasion of England by the Danes, receives a vision of Our Blessed Lady in an hour when he has all but lost hope.  In desperation he asks Her:

“When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?”

Her answer is paradoxical:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

Alfred then goes onto gather his chiefs and army in order to enter into a battle and quest in which he is offered no promise of victory.  Here is the excerpt from my paper:

King Alfred, after an initial victory in battle (Book V), and then the eventual slaying of all three of his chiefs (Book VI), was left in a predicament very much like the one he had been in when he had seen Our Lady, although his later doom and England’s was far more imminent.  The Battle of Ethandune was all but lost.  In a long speech Alfred convinced what was left of his army that “death is a better ale to drink” (bk. 7, 119) than to drain the cup of surrender to heathendom.  Convinced by their captain, the soldiers “stood firm” and “feeble” (153).  Alfred blew his horn calling his men to the hunt, and “The people of the peace of God/ Went roaring down to die” (184).  But in the desperation of the situation the Immaculate was present in Her causeless joy and hopeless faith:

And when the last arrow,
Was fitted and was flown,
When the broken shield hung on the breast,
And the hopeless lance was laid at rest,
And the hopeless horn was blown,

The King looked up, and what he saw
Was a great light like death,
For our Lady stood on the standards rent
As lonely and as innocent
As When between white walls she went
In the lilies of Nazareth.

One instant in a still light,
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was queen most womanly–
But she was queen of men.

Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand;
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart–
But one was in her hand. (185-205).

In the moment of supreme sacrifice, the Mother of God interceded on behalf of Her children.  The seven swords of Her own heartfelt sorrow, became one which She wielded in hand on behalf of those for whom She suffered:  In the first vision of King Alfred Mary had said to him:

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save” (bk. 1, 250-53).

Thus we are shown how this intercession of the Immaculate in temporal war is also connected to a greater war for the salvation of souls.  These wars hardly won and souls hardly saved are remarkably juxtaposed in another of Chesterton’s poems whose theme is along the same lines, viz., “The Queen of the Seven Swords.”  That poem is actually the introduction to seven monologues delivered by seven saints of Western Europe, who, as Chesterton notes, “have no connection with the historical saints” that “bore their names,” but rather are types of the different nations, viz., St. James of Spain, St. Denys of France, St. Anthony of Italy, St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. David of Wales and St. George of England.  There, in “The Queen of the Seven Swords,” Chesterton records a dream in which he saw Europe as a waste land, and after surveying the panorama of desolation said:  “There is none to save.” It is obvious from his descriptions that the wasteland is typical of moral desolation.  In the gloom, however, he saw a source of hope:

I saw on their breaking terraces, cracking and sinking for ever,
One shrine rise blackened and broken; like a last cry to God.

Old gold on the roof hung ragged as scales of a dragon dropping,
The gross green weeds of the desert had spawned on the painted wood:
But erect in the earth’s despair and arisen against heaven interceding,
Whose name is Cause of Our Joy, in the doorway of death she stood.

The Woman who had asked of Alfred “Do you have joy without a cause?” is in fact the Cause of His Joy, and this as She stands in the “doorway of death.”  Thus we begin to understand that the doom of Alfred is not a joy strictly without cause, but one without any natural explanation, for his joy has its source in the Heart of the Queen of the Seven Swords.  Chesterton goes on in “The Queen of the Seven Swords:

The Seven Swords of her Sorrow held out their hilts like a challenge,
The blast of that stunning silence as a sevenfold trumpet blew
Majestic in more than gold, girt round with a glory or iron,
The hub of her wheel of weapons; with a truth beyond torture true.

That truth which is beyond torture true is that faith which saves, not in spite of suffering, but because of suffering.  Hence we understand what the Lady meant when She asked Alfred “Do you have faith without a hope?”  Not a natural hope, or a conviction that things will get better, but a conviction that God is faithful to His promises.  In “The Towers of Time,” Chesterton says that “the heart of the swords, seven times wounded,/ Was never wearied as our hearts are.” And in the poem “In October,” honor is due to Mary, because Hers was “The broken Heart and the unbroken word.” Is this not why in his Encyclical, Redemptoris Mater, the Holy Father compares the Blessed Virgin to Abraham, saying with St. Paul that in hope believed against hope, She is blessed for Her unwavering faith?

Damsels in Distress


I started on this post more than a year ago and have come back to it from time to time.  While I am up at Mount St. Francis, hiding in my cave and working on my paper for our Coredemption conference in July, I thought I would finally knock it out.  I shot a video on the same topic  a while back.


As one interested in helping to bring about a revival of Christian Chivalry, I have thought fondly of the image of the “damsel in distress” as being both iconic and inspiring of the chivalric ideals. I was horrified, then, to see such an honorable term being disparaged by those otherwise promoting the ideals of chivalry. Call me naive or nostalgic (or worse), but I cannot for the life of me see anything wrong with it.

I will admit, if we understand “damsel in distress” as it is caricatured, for example, by the film image of the pretty woman being tied screaming to the train tracks by Dastardly Dan and then being rescued by Agent Jim West, then there is much to be disparaged. The poor helpless thing is abused by one womanizer only to be rescued by another, and all the while is oblivious to everything but the attention she is getting. The ideals of chivalry have always been partially obscured by the cult of “courtly love.” There is nothing new under the sun.

Television and film have that curious ability of turning unalloyed gold into lead, and contrariwise, of cultivating a fondness for the most obvious absurdities. We have learned to despise feminine vulnerability and celebrate the wonders of the Bionic Woman.

So what is the “damsel in distress,” and why should her place in the venerable history of womanhood be preserved and honored? To answer this question we must first examine the contemporary feminist trend to idolize the Amazon.

Continue reading