In Defense of Purity 1


As promised, here is my first post on Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Purity: The Mystery of Christian Sexuality (originally published as In Defense of Purity).  It is probably longer than will be my other posts on the book.  We will see.  I thought there were some basic ideas about “shame” that I wanted to establish from the beginning.  Part of my work here will be to do a comparative study of von Hildebrand’s writing on Purity vis-à-vis John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

Book I: Purity; Part I: Sex; Chapter I: Sex Distinguished from Other Bodily Appetites

There could be no greater mistake than to explain the tendency to conceal sex as exclusively, or even primarily, an endeavor to hide something disgraceful or ugly (Purity 6).

Catholic tradition describes this tendency to conceal sex as “modesty.”  It is a certain kind of shame.  We would do well to understand what it is and what it is not.

The shame of English

In his book, Purity: The Mystery of Christian Sexuality, Dietrich von Hildebrand distinguishes between different kinds of shame.  Some kinds of shame are, in fact, a reaction against what is “disgraceful or ugly.”  Yet not all shame is so.   Some kinds of shame are a form of reverence.  For example the French word pudeur is translated into English as “shame”; however, it has the nuance of “holy bashfulness” for which there is no equivalent in English.

This limitation of the English language is an impoverishment of our ability to speak of this basic human experience in a precise philosophical way.  We call both the fear of the ugly and disgraceful and the awe of the holy and mysterious, “shame.”  In other languages this is not the case.

The particular problem with the English word is that it has a primarily pejorative sense.  Very few people would ever consider using the word “shame” in reference to a reaction which actually positive.   When, for example, we are caught an evil deed we might admit that we are ashamed of ourselves.  However, if someone complemented us in public unexpectedly, most of us would not say that we were “ashamed,” but “embarrassed.”  But even this latter word is ambiguous, because sometimes were are embarrassed also because we look foolish or out of step.

My use of the phrase “shame on you,” in a previous post was meant to underscore the limitation of our use of the English word.  Hence, among English speakers, when we are discussing our reaction to holy things, mysteries and aspects of our lives that are deeply personal and intimate we often use the words “modesty,” and “reverence.”

In matters of sexuality these ambiguities are particularly crucial because of the depth at which we experience our sexuality and, thus, because of the way in which the experience of sexuality, can have tremendously positive and negative values.   We might very well be “ashamed” of sex, because we are intuitively or meditatively aware of how holy and mysterious it is, or we might be “ashamed” of sex because our experience of it has been unspeakably debauched and profoundly disrespectful of God, ourselves and others.  We might also be ashamed of sex—it is true—because in our sinfulness we are no longer able to perceive its beauty and begin to project onto it the disorder of our own heart.  Or finally, we may be ashamed of sex, because we hold the heresy that sex and the body are evil.  Whatever our experience in this regard might be, our heart tells us that the matter in question is profoundly important.   We cannot afford to confuse these various experiences, because they are truly different and touch directly upon our practice of the virtue of purity.

Our Secret


In the first chapter of von Hildebrand’s Purity, he distinguishes sharply the sex drive from other bodily appetites on the basis of the depth at which we experience these various appetites.  Our other bodily appetites such as hunger and thirst are experienced on a relatively superficial level and ordinarily do not become the focus of our deep and serious attention, except when we they become a question of our survival (3).

It is one thing, for example to give one’s attention to the preparation of food in proportion to the general welfare of individuals, say a family and both its nutritional and social needs.  It is another to be obsessed with food and the particulars of its preparation.  It is still another to become profoundly aware of how dependent we are on food, when one is starving to death.  The fact is that we generally experience such bodily desires on a superficial level and only experience them deeply in a moment of crisis.

On the other hand, von Hildebrand says that our sex desire is essentially deep:

Every manifestation of sex produces an effect which transcends the physical sphere and involves the soul deeply in its passion. . .  The positive and negative values attaching to sex belong to a level far deeper than those which attach to the other bodily appetites.  Indeed, these sexual experiences are characterised by a specific character of mystery . . . (4).

Von Hildebrand says that the depth of sexual experience is established by two factors: the uniqueness of the manner in which body and soul meet in the experience of sex; “the particular intimacy of sex.”

In this chapter of the book, he focuses on the second factor and calls sex “the secret of the individual”:

It is something which the person concerned feels to be altogether private, something which belongs to his inmost being.  Every disclosure of sex is the revelation of something intimate and personal.  It is the initiation of another into our secret.  It is for this reason that the domain of sex is also the sphere of shame in its most characteristic sense.  We are preeminently ashamed to unveil this secret to others.  Whether and man is modest or immodest depends first and foremost on his attitude to sex (5-6).

It seems to me that von Hildebrand’s analysis accord’s exactly with universal experience of man and is so close to us that generally most people never examine the causes of our reactions.   But when we hear a wise man like von Hildebrand express the truth of it, we say, “Yes, that’s it.”

The fact is that our sexuality is tied to our deepest identity as a person and to the mystery of what it means to be a person.  We are vulnerable in our sexuality because we are vulnerable as persons who desire to love and to be loved and who never wish to be used.  We “expose” ourselves to others in the degree to which it is appropriate to communicate our person and we leave the most intimate revelations to a select few and in some cases to one alone.  Our secret is ourselves, and in the end it is the only thing we really can call our own.  It is the only real gift we have.

The Spousal Meaning of the Body

JPII cope

Dietrich von Hildebrand’s analysis seems to me to be in full accord with that of John Paul II, though the emphasis is different.  Von Hildebrand emphasized the positive aspect of shame relative to the mystery of the person, whereas John Paul II emphasizes the negative aspect relative to the danger of objectifying the person.

When in the Theology of the Body the pope writes about the “spousal meaning of the body” in the context of original innocence, in which man, male and female, were naked and felt no shame, he is speaking of the fact man, male and female, is created for love and is oriented by creation toward making the gift of himself to the other (14.5).  It is in this way, as Genesis tells us, that man is created in the image and likeness of God (1:26).  In other words the communio personarum (communion of persons) to which man is called is a reflection of the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinitarian communion of knowledge and love (9.1-3).

This truth is written in the human body, differentiated as male and female, and the bodily union to which man is called in marriage is a sign of the deeper communio personarum of spouses.  That deeper communion is charity and the conjugal embrace, as it was intended from the beginning, is not only its sign but through chaste love and sacramental living it becomes a particular means of achieving it (29.3; 131.2-3).

In the state of original innocence the deep meaning of the body was not distorted by the subordination of the gift meant to be loved to its use for selfish gratification.  The interiority of man shined outwardly in its entire splendor, with no confusion of its meaning.  Not only was the gift unthreatened by the tendencies of fallen nature, but we might also say that for that reason it was less mysterious and more radiant.

Veiling and Unveiling the Mystery

In terms of the importance of this appreciation for the state of original innocence relative to our own state of fallen nature, which we are offered in the Theology of the Body, it is necessary to define and understand the dimensions of the analogy which the Holy Father is using.  There is, of course, the sense that Adam and Even represent universal man, male and female, and are a paradigm for the relation of the sexes in general.   But there is also the sense in which Adam and Eve as two real persons are created male and female for each other personally.  In fact, Eve is specifically created as a person to be the helpmate of the only other human person, Adam.  So, it seems to me, that while the relationship of Adam and Eve can be used analogously to represent the relationship of all men and women in general, they are more properly an analogy of the relationship of husband and wife specifically.  The importance of this is relative to the origin of shame and, what John Paul II (prior to his elevation to the papacy, as Karol Wojtyla) called the “absorption of shame by love” (Love and Responsibility, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981. 181).

The consideration here is that is that prior to the fall there was only husband and wife, who were, in fact, called to that intimate revelation and communion of persons to which spouses are called.  While we might speculate on what the relationship of the sexes in general might have looked like had our first parents not fallen and then proceeded to propagate the human race, I think we are at somewhat at a loss to know what the lack of shame might have been relative to individuals who were not called to reveal the full mystery of their person to others, e.g. unmarried persons, persons relative to others who were not their spouse, persons called to virginity.

Or on the other hand, in a world before shame, were we all called to reveal ourselves completely to each other, even to others who were not our spouses?  Does the redemption of the body, then, mean that not only is shame resolved relative to the body but that we are also called now to not fear being vulnerable to a lack of privacy regarding our person?

John Paul II’s description of shame, resulting from the fall of our first parents, emphasizes the need to protect the value of the person and to defend it from being objectified.  Shame is, then, a kind of fear, and a “defense reflex” which arises out of our vulnerability caused by the effects of original sin.  Now, while John Paul II analysis does tell us what life would be like for spouses if that vulnerability were absent, it does not tell us what the relationship of the sexes would be like in general, since all men are not all spouses of all women.

By their vocation spouse are called to reveal their person and become an unreserved gift to the one to whom they have vowed themselves.  But that revelation and gift is not meant for everyone.  Since before the fall there were only two people, one male and one female and these two were, in fact, spouses, the state before the fall does not offer us a perfect paradigm for the relationship, say of men and women who are courting, or who may have no relationship at all but must treat each other with the respect of modesty.

While the human body always has a spousal meaning, that meaning as it pertains to my body specifically is not meant to be revealed in the same way to all.  And, therefore, a reluctance to reveal too much to the wrong person is merely defensive of personhood against one who might be disposed to use me; it is defensive of personhood toward one who does not properly belong to that level of intimacy.

Vindicating the Mystery of Personhood


In the Theology of the Body John Paul II seems to recognize that shame is not only a defense mechanism against the possibility of being used, but also a vindication of the mystery of personhood:

A person of developed sensibility crosses the limit of that shame only with difficulty and inner resistance.  This is clear even in situations that otherwise justify the necessity of undressing the body, for example, in the case of medical examinations or operations (61.2).

In no way does this spontaneous and intuitive “inner resistance” represent prudery or Manichaeism or an ignorance of the truths contained in the Theology of the Body.  The Holy Father says that this reaction is found in those of “developed sensibility.”  It is perfectly wholesome and compatible with great virtue.  In fact, in the context of defending this “inner resistance,” the Holy Father says that original shame “is a permanent element of culture and morality.  It belongs to the very origins of the ethos of the human body” (61.3).

According to the Theology of the Body, shame acts as a “veil” over the mystery of personhood in which man discovers himself as the guardian of that mystery and the defender of the “freedom of the gift” (19.2).  This action, it seems to me, is not primarily negative, because wherever something is defended against abuse, there is more fundamentally an affirmation of inherent value.

Interesting to note in this regard is that in Love and Responsibility, which is not a document of papal magisterium but is the work of the man Karol Wojtyla, we find more about this positive element of shame than we do in the Theology of the Body.  One reason for that may be because the specific context of his remarks on shame in TOB is the examination of our first parents before after original sin in the context of sacred scripture; whereas, in Love and Responsibility Karol Wojtyla reflects on human experience in general.

In Love and Responsibility, Wojtyla vindicates the preservation of privacy in certain matters and argues that the desire for this privacy is not primarily motivated by fear, but by a certain “fittingness.”  Fear, indeed, arises when that appropriate privacy is endangered, but it is indirect and secondary (174-175).  He says:

The essence of shame goes beyond such fear.  It can only be understood if we heavily emphasize the truth that the existence of the person is an interior one, i.e. that the person possesses an interior peculiarly its own, and that from this arises the need to conceal (that is, to retain internally) certain experiences or values, or else withdraw with them into itself (175).

Again, this seems to perfectly accord with what Dietrich von Hildebrand says about the interiority of the person, about sex being the “secret of the individual” and the tendency to protect that secret as one that perfectly corresponds to the mysterious and precious nature of the person.

Emotional Shame

Looking DownIn Love and Responsibility Karol Wojtyla makes the distinction between two kinds of shame relating to sexuality:  physical shame and emotional shame.  Physical shame seeks to conceal certain parts of the body to the extent that the value of the person is vindicated and defended from being used, while the sexual values are able to “still be a point of origin for love.”  Emotional shame seeks to conceal “reactions and feelings” that tend to move one to reduce persons to objects of use by way of their body and sexuality.  In particular, but not exclusively, physical shame is the province of women, while emotional shame is the province of men (187).

It is in regard to emotional shame that the popularization of the Theology of the Body has particular resonance, because it is men, more than women, who struggle with issues of sexual temptation.  Karol Wojtyla points out that

[t]his internal ‘shame of feelings’ has nothing in common with prudery.  Prudery consists in the concealing one’s real intentions with regard to persons of the other sex or with regard to sexual matters in general.  A prudish person intent on exploitation tries to make it appear that he has no interest at all in such matters—indeed he is prepared to condemn all, even the most natural, manifestations of sex and sexuality.  Such behavior is, however, very often not to be explained as prudery—which is a particular form of hypocrisy, a way of disguising one’s intentions—but by some prejudice or other, perhaps the belief that everything to do with sex can only be an object for use, that sex merely gives the opportunity for sexual release and does not open the way to love between people (188).

In order to understand what belongs to a healthy reaction of a man to the sexual values of a woman one must appreciate fully what Wojtyla is saying here.  Wholesome shame is to be sharply distinguished from prudery.  And further prudery is not the same thing as the Manichean tendency to devalue or repudiate the goodness of sexuality.

In fact, Wojtyla goes on to say:

True emotional shame cannot possibly be identified with prudishness.  Emotional shame is a healthy reaction within a person against any attitude to another person which disregards that person’s essential value, degrading him or her to the level of an object for sexual use (188).

All this points to the fact that the possible reactions of men to the sexual values of women are many and the psychology of those reactions are complex.  Certainly, there is nothing in the Holy Father’s writings that would suggest that the tendency to conceal sexual values or to practice custody of the senses relative to sexual values is prudery, or that it only belongs to a lower level of moral behavior.  Nor does seem to me that John Paul II says anything to encourage the students of the Theology of the Body to analyze individuals or make generalizations about practical behavior where the individual conscience must be the judge within its own domain.


phone camera

If I might be indulged for a moment for a bit of cultural commentary, I would say that our age is at particular risk of living shamelessly, not only because of the reduction of people to mere sexual values by so much of culture, but also because the general cultural tendency to keep nothing private.  We are almost constantly broadcasting with cell phones, email, instant messaging, text, picture and video messaging, Facebook, Twitter and reality television.  Is there anything about our persons that we choose not to broadcast to the world anymore?

Please, no angry comments.  This is not a condemnation, just an identification of a risk.

It would be a complex task to unravel the cause and effect relationship.  More than likely, the relationship of sexual shamelessness and, if you will, psychological shamelessness is reciprocal.  Whatever the case may be, the coincidence of these two aspects should send up a red flag.  We are culturally shameless.  I cannot help to point out that the cultivation of purity and a healthy, enlightened and exalted view of the body and sexuality will be undermining itself if it minimizes the role of wholesome and sensible shame.

Victorious Secret


In a book published much later (1966) than Purity, Dietrich von Hildebrand, writing the original work in English (Purity was original published in German), choose to speak about wholesome shame in with different vocabulary than he had in the past.  In Man and Woman:  Love and the Meaning of Intimacy he writes the following:

Shame wants to hide ugly things, whether they are physical or psychical.  We feel shame when others speak of our cowardice or our weakness.

But shyness, which is often confused with shame, reveals our reluctance to exhibit beautiful and noble things if they are intimate. . . . This shyness, referring to things which we hide not because we believe them to be ugly but because they are intimate and their specific value calls for secrecy, is absolutely the right response to the sphere of sex (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 1992. 58).

So, von Hildebrand opts for the use of the word “shyness” to describe that kind of shame which is protective of one’s secret.  That particular word does us the favor of eliminating the connotation of the word “shame” that is so easily identified with prudery and Manichaeism.

Abandoning this kind of shyness is like abandoning mystery.  True, one day the mysteries of God will be revealed, but never fully because they are infinite and eternity is not long enough to exhaust them.  For an even greater reason, then, are these mysteries to big to be fully revealed in this life.  Not even in the great saint, theologian and mystic, Thomas Aquinas, were the mysteries fully revealed, at least not in a way that could be expressed in speech or in a body of teaching.  After an extraordinary mystical experience St. Thomas referred to his great work of theology, the Summa Theologiae, as “so much straw.”

If the truth about sex is such great news, because it is so beautiful and sacred, then this is a reason for holy shyness, not a reason to take everything off in public.  Such unveiling certainly is not the answer to prudery as von Hildebrand writes:

So, we must understand that the true antithesis to Victorian prudery is a reverent attitude towards sex, seeing  in it something great, deep and mysterious, whose existence one should not try to deny, but which by its very nature is intimate, and has the character of a secret (59).

Sex is something deep and mysterious that touches the heart of what it means to be a person and to be called to love and be loved.  Holy shyness or modesty is the vindication of those values, or as Karol Wojtyla wrote in Love and Responsibility:

sexual modesty is not a flight from love, but on the contrary the opening of a way towards it. The spontaneous need to conceal mere sexual values bound up with the person is the natural way to the discovery of the value of the person as such (179).

Dietrich von Hildebrand and John Paul II are kindred spirits.


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.