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
GOD, SEX AND THE UNIVERSAL LONGING: AN EVENING OF BEAUTY AND REFLECTION ON JOHN PAUL II’S THEOLOGY OF THE BODY.
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.