Dawn Eden’s Thesis and Defense

The following is cross-posted here from Dawn Eden’s blog.

My master’s thesis is now available for purchase

Today, in response to requests, I am making my master’s thesis available for purchase by the general public as an eBook. At the same time, it is available for free to priests, seminarians, and lay catechists who work in an official capacity for the Church (e.g. for a parish, diocese, or religious order).

It is titled “Towards a ‘Climate of Chastity’: Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity.” (I had made it available briefly before, but decided to pull it until after making my defense, so that I might revise it to incorporate the official readers’ suggestions.)

The 81-page, heavily footnoted thesis is a critique of Christopher West’s presentation that reveals the substance behind recent criticisms of his approach, contains new information (including how the fathers of Vatican II condemned the Jungian phallic interpretation of the Easter Candle ritual), and makes positive suggestions for improving instruction on the TOB.

Those who qualify for a free copy of my thesis are invited to write to request one to be sent by e-mail. Others who would like to read it are asked to donate $10 or more to a fund I have created to finance my doctoral studies in moral theology at the Catholic University of America this fall. Click here to donate, and I will e-mail you the eBook (PDF file).

(Some requests for free copies have come in from people who do not work for the Church, but are “starving students.” I ask them to consider prayerfully the possibility of aiding this “starving student”‘s education by donating the cost of a pizza in exchange for her hard work.)

I greatly appreciate the support of those who read this blog during the years when I maintained it, and of all who have encouraged me in my studies. Your prayers and encouragement keep me going as I begin the long road towards a doctorate and, Deo volente, my further goal of teaching at a small Catholic college.

Following is the speech that I delivered when defending my master’s thesis at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2010:

Good evening. I am here tonight to defend my master’s thesis, which is a critique of Christopher West’s presentation of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. By “Christopher West’s presentation,” I mean not only his own personal presentation, but also, more generally, the presentation that he promotes through his Theology of the Body Institute, which trains priests and lay catechists to teach his particular interpretation of John Paul II.

I chose this topic, first, because the issues it encompasses—the promotion of the Catholic vision of marriage and family—are close to my heart, and second, because it is highly topical, given that West’s presentation has recently been the subject of public debate among theologians.

In fact, after I completed my thesis, the subject became even more topical with West’s unexpected announcement at the end of March that he was taking a six-month sabbatical, effective immediately. The Theology of the Body Institute, which is the nonprofit created to promote his presentation of the theology of the body, stated that West was taking this leave “to attend to family needs, and to reflect more deeply on fraternal and spiritual guidance he has received in order to continue developing his methodology and praxis as it relates to the promulgation of the Theology of the Body.”

This is noteworthy because it marks the first time West has ever publicly affirmed a willingness to reflect upon his presentation, something that his critics have asked of him for nearly ten years.

My thesis is titled, “Towards a ‘Climate of Chastity’: Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity.”

The first half of the title, “Towards a ‘Climate of Chastity,'” is a reference to Humanae Vitae. In that encyclical, Pope Paul VI called attention to “the need to create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded.” That passage was a key text for John Paul II in his Wednesday catecheses on the theology of the body.

The second half of the title, “Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity,” refers to a central point of my thesis. Christopher West asserts that the theology of the body is “revolutionary” because “previous generations of Christians” grew up under the burden of a “repressive approach” to sexual issues. His intention is to counter a popular myth—the idea that the Church is, as he puts it, “down on sex.” However, in countering the one myth, he inadvertently fuels another—the idea that, in the wake of Vatican II, we are “building a new Church,” a Church that is fundamentally different from that which preceded it. His praise on Pope John Paul II is predicated on the repeated assumption, sometimes explicit, that the preconciliar Church was stodgy and prudish. While he no doubt intends to promote charity and unity, his approach effectively encourages division and disdain for our past.

That is why I argue that his presentation on theology of the body needs to be reconciled with the “hermeneutic of continuity.” That expression is drawn from the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, which stressed that the Second Vatican Council “must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the church, and at the same time we must receive light from the Council’s own doctrine for today’s Church and the men of our time. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils.”

Having said that, the very use of the words “hermeneutic of continuity” in my thesis title reflects a paradox inherent in applying theological analysis to popular catechesis and apologetics. West himself almost never resorts to language as obscure to non-theologians as “hermeneutic of continuity.” He directs his words to the ordinary people in the pews. The one who dares to critique him on an academic level risks pretentiousness or even self-parody–like the Times of London music critic who praised a song from the Beatles’ first album for its “Aeolian cadence.”

Nonetheless, I am willing to take that risk, because Christopher West does not present himself as a mere apologist, seeding the ground for faith via rational arguments. Nor does he present himself as merely engaging in catechesis, which, as the Holy See has stated, consists of “transmitting the Gospel, as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways.” Rather, Christopher West presents himself as the definitive interpreter of teachings of John Paul II—teachings which, as I will explain shortly, he claims “will lead to a dramatic development of thinking about the Creed.” He is essaying apologetics and catechesis and theology itself. As such, his approach merits serious critical analysis by theologians—especially in light of its overwhelming popularity.

Along with West’s undeniable talent as an author and speaker, there is an element of marketing genius at work. As I noted, he presents himself as the definitive interpreter of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Until last year, when his then-ordinary Bishop Kevin Rhoades and Cardinal Rigali issued a public endorsement of his work, the main evidence that he offered for his teaching authority was that he was fulfilling an imperative laid out by George Weigel in his 1999 biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope.

Weigel wrote that the theology of the body was a “theological time-bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences … perhaps in the twenty-first century.” He added, “John Paul’s portrait of sexual love as an icon of the interior life of God has barely begun to shape the Church’s theology, preaching, and religious education. When it does it will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed.”

From the start of his public career, Christopher West has marketed himself as carrying out this mandate. One sees this most recently in the promotional material for the upcoming TOB Congress sponsored by the Theology of the Body Institute, which was formed to promote West’s presentation. The promotional material states that the conference is “building on the words of papal biographer George Weigel—that this teaching ‘will affect every major theme of the Creed.'” The congress’s workshops are structured around that same premise; the one on catechesis is actually titled, “Catechesis and the Creed in Light of the Theology of the Body.” The overriding implication in that title—and with West’s entire presentation—is that that the Creed is something to be viewed in light of the theology of the body, rather than vice versa.

Having explained why Christopher West’s presentation of the theology of the body merits a theological critique, I will now summarize my thesis.

Chapter One begins with some biographical background on West. As mentioned, a foundational point of his presentation of the theology of the body is that John Paul II’s teachings are “revolutionary” because “previous generations of Christians” grew up under the burden of a “repressive approach” to sexual issues. Because he uses his own experiences to support this point, it is relevant here to explore those aspects of his upbringing that informed his understanding of the attitudes he believes are ingrained in “most Christians.”

West’s understanding of what constitutes a normative Catholic upbringing may be shaped from his experiences during his late teens and early 20s living with his family in the Mother of God Community, a Catholic community in Gaithersburg, Maryland. At that time, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the community’s leaders exercised puritanical control over members’ lives—including their dating. Eventually, in 1995, James Cardinal Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington, would order reforms to the community to correct its abuses of power. But those changes came too late for West, who, during his time in the community, was subject to its strict rules.

Christopher West told the Washington Post that, after spending years living in the community and submitting to its leaders’ control of his social contacts, his work, and his studies, he realized, “It’s a cult. I’ve been living in a cult.”

Now, one certainly doesn’t have to grow up in a cult to appreciate the dangers of a puritanical approach to sexuality. However, I have found in my research that West’s experiences in the Mother of God Community appear to come into play in his interpretation of John Paul II’s teachings on continence. I will return to this point when I describe the particulars of West’s presentation.

The rest of Chapter One is taken up with a list I compiled, comprising ten major themes of West’s presentation of the theology of the body. In Chapter Two, I examine the criticisms that his presentation has engendered, as well as his responses to those criticisms, and add my own critique. I conclude my critique in Chapter Three, identifying the aspects of West’s presentation that I believe are in most serious need of modification, and recommending specific positive correctives.

I will now briefly list the ten major themes of West’s presentation that I identify in Chapter One:

1. The TOB is an all-encompassing theology that requires theologians and religious educators to recontextualize “everything” about Christian faith and life.West says, “Indeed, a ‘holy fascination’ with our bodies as male and female is precisely the key that opens the holy door to the divine bridal chamber, allowing us to experience what the mystics call ‘nuptial union’ with God.” He also says, “Sex plunges us headfirst into the Christian mystery.”

2. The “sexual revolution” was a “happy fault.” West praises the sexual revolution because, as a reaction against generations of repression and prudery, it “got us talking about our hunger.” What Pope John Paul II did was redirect the discussion in the right direction. So, West says, “The Church looks at the sin of Adam and proclaims, ‘Oh happy fault that won for us so great a redeemer.’ We can look at the error of the sexual revolution and say ‘Oh happy fault that has won for us so great a theology of the body.'”

3. “Dumpster” vs. “banquet.” West likens using pornography to eating out of a “Dumpster,” whereas the joys of sex according to the theology of the body is the “banquet.” West says, “Why was [Playboy magazine founder] Hugh Hefner a successful ‘evangelist’?” West asks. “Because eating fast food is a lot better than starving to death.” Whereas Hefner was “just going to the wrong menu to feed the hungry,” the TOB offers “the banquet of love that truly satisfies.”

4. The nuptial analogy is the primary means by which the faithful should understand their relationship to God—and “nuptial” is to be envisioned in sexual terms. This leads to—

5. “[T]he whole reality of the Church’s prayer and sacramental-liturgical life is modeled on the union of spouses.” In participating in the liturgy, “we are called to deep, intimate, ecstatic joys with Christ the bridegroom.” The faithful who “have eyes to see” are called to be “inebriated,” getting “drunk in the Spirit” on the “new wine” of the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” “In this ‘blessed death’ of holy intoxication, sexual desire passes-over [sic] from lust to an immeasurable love.”

In this regard, West says that the Paschal Candle is intended to be a phallic symbol. I write, later in my thesis, that I was unable to find any source for this in Tradition. Since completing my thesis, I have found evidence that this interpretation is of secular origin and was condemned by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. [N.B. The revised edition of my thesis that I have made available contains background on the Council’s condemnation of the Paschal Candle “phallacy.”]

6. “The joy of sex—in all its orgasmic grandeur—is meant to be a foretaste in some way of the joys of heaven.”

7. “God created sexual desire as the power to love as he loves.”

8. “Mature purity” enables “liberation from concupiscence.” I will have more to say about this assertion shortly.

9. “The Song of Songs is of great importance to a proper understanding of Christianity.” It shows “[h]ow we come to see the sexual embrace, the deep intimate erotic love of husband and wife, as a passageway into deep transforming intimate union with God.”

10. The meaning of marriage is encapsulated in “intercourse.”

These themes, taken in their entirety, imply that God’s spousal love for His Church should be envisioned by the faithful in an explicitly sexual manner.

Now, there are certain elements of truth in these interpretations that cannot be ignored. To use a favorite phrase of John Paul II—”in a certain sense”—the liturgy is spousal. Likewise, in a certain sense, the sexual union of spouses may be said to image Trinitarian love. If West’s theology stopped there, one could enter into discussion with him over the extent to which, in this day and age, it benefits the faithful to have explicitly sexual imagery introduced into their prayer life. One could also discuss how, in comparing the sexual union of spouses to the beatific vision, one might avoid the risk of either overselling sexual pleasure, or underselling heaven.

The problem, as I see it, is that West doesn’t stop there. He believes that the true message of John Paul II’s theology of the body is that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God.

The key word here is “necessarily.” I am not denying that sexual desire can mediate desire for God. For West, however, there is no other way. This is why University of Dallas Professor Mark Lowery, back in November 2001, wrote in the National Catholic Register that, while West’s intention clearly was to convey the truths of the faith, “his overarching lens or perspective” led to “the lurking danger of conveying that Christianity really is all about sex.” In other words, as Lowery put it, instead of Christianizing sexuality, West risked “sexualizing Christianity.”

The implication that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God is an undercurrent throughout West’s oeuvre. One sees it particularly in his repeated insistence that every opportunity to sublimate sexual desire is an opportunity for holiness. I cover this in detail in my thesis. The Church has traditionally stated that chastity education should include instruction on avoiding occasions of sin. West states, by contrast, that mature purity is found only in those who are willing to “risk” concupiscence so that they might reap the benefits of “union with Christ and his Church.” By “risking,” he means specifically that men who struggle with lust should practice looking at beautiful women so that they might learn to raise their thoughts and feelings from lust, to joy at encountering the image of God in female beauty.

Now, borrowing a page from West himself—who is known for quoting classic rock songs in his talks—I would call this the Harry Nilsson approach to overcoming lust. Nilsson wrote and sang the hit song “Coconut,” in which a woman puts the lime in the coconut, drinks them both up, and then calls the doctor to complain of a bellyache. The doctor’s prescription is to put the lime in the coconut and drink them both up. The cause is the cure. So it is with Christopher West’s prescription for men who lust after beautiful women: Look at beautiful women.

West’s implication that sexual desire necessarily mediates desire for God also appears clearly Heaven’s Song, his 2007 book that is directed primarily toward aiding the reader’s “sexual healing and integration.” There, West insists “sexual love is the earthly key that enables us to enter into heaven’s song.” He elaborates, “[T] he road to holiness passes by way of sexual healing and integration. The way we understand our bodies and the union of man and woman has a direct bearing with the way we understand Christ’s body and his union with the Church. Hence, if we are to enter in to proper union with Christ and his Church, the diseased images and ideas we have about our own bodies and sexual union must be healed. It can be a long and painful journey—and there is no detour.”

What concerns me is West’s insistence that the “long and painful journey” of sexual healing and integration has to precede holiness. As Mark Lowery noted back in 2001, sexual healing comes from grace—not the other way around.

Moreover, in a point also made by Lowery, grace does not always heal us of everything from which we would like to be healed. It is not a zero-sum game. Self-control is possible with the gift of the Holy Spirit, but, as Paul learned, God does not remove every thorn in the flesh.

A major concern of my thesis is the divergence between West’s presentation and John Paul II’s teachings with regard to continence. I mentioned earlier that West says mature purity is found only in those who are willing to “risk” concupiscence so that they might reap the benefits of “union with Christ and his Church.” To underscore the importance of taking this “risk,” he attacks the notion that an engaged couple wishing to stay chaste should “never spend any extended time alone together.”

Now, the concern that engaged couples may be too chaste seems anachronistic in the wake of the sexual revolution. But remember that West spent his late teens and early 20s living in a community where engaged couples were in fact barred from spending time alone together. So this is a very real concern for him, and he is understandably eager to point out that Catholic teaching permits individuals a certain amount of latitude to responsibly exercise their freedom.

Unfortunately, in his desire to counter puritanical attitudes, West ends up promoting an ideal that has the net effect of promoting puritanism. I discuss this in detail in my thesis, and explain how it is based upon a misinterpretation of both John Paul II and St. Thomas, whose theology is the basis for John Paul’s discussion of the virtue of continence. Essentially, West says that not only must an engaged couple be continent, they must possess the virtue of perfect chastity prior to marriage. That is, they should have no fear of being alone together, because they should have no lust for one another. West said in a talk just last year that an engaged couple who are merely continent cannot be called virtuous because “[t]here is no magic trick on the wedding day that suddenly makes what you do that night an act of love. If you could not be alone together the day before you got married and not sin, there is no magic trick, there is no waving at the wand at the altar, that suddenly makes your sexual behavior beautiful, true, good, lovely, and pure.”

What is wrong with this picture? As I explain in my thesis, what is wrong is, (A) the implication that continence is an insufficient preparation for marriage, and (B) the claim that the sacrament of marriage in no way affects the development of virtue. In fact, the Church does not expect perfect chastity of couples before marriage, precisely because she recognizes that the grace of marriage is what enables couples to transform their imperfect virtue of continence to the perfect virtue of chastity. All that is required of an engaged couple is that they control themselves “in holiness and honor,” as St. Paul writes in First Thessalonians.

By raising the bar so high, to the point where any feeling of lust is proof that one is not ready for marriage, West is effectively promoting the very angelism that he decries. In an age when Catholics—along with singles in general—are marrying later and later, such a misinterpretation of Church teaching has real pastoral implications. I see them when speaking on chastity to young adults. Twice when I have spoken in Manhattan, someone in the audience has asked me, “Why are Catholics in New York City so afraid of dating?”

I was last asked that when I spoke at Columbia University in March. The questioner added, “Catholics here in the city think that they can’t date before marriage—they can only be friends. And these are Catholics who know the theology of the body.”

Young Catholics who are told that they are not ready to marry until they have not only continence, but perfect chastity, are simply avoiding the rituals of courtship. I have since discussed this problem with others, including a priest who is a vocations director, and am confirmed that it is a genuine pastoral issue.

Towards the conclusion of my thesis, in suggesting positive correctives to West’s presentation of the theology of the body, I emphasize the need for catechists to incorporate into the theology of the body the Church’s teachings on suffering. Pope John Paul II himself said, in his final Wednesday address on the theology of the body, that catechesis on the topic would not be complete without addressing “the problem of suffering and death.” If catechists do not account for this—if they present a vision of married life that is all about couples’ sharing in Trinitarian communion, without articulating how they also share in Christ’s sufferings on the Cross—then their words will be like those in the parable of the sower, that fall on rocky ground. As Our Lord said, “Those on rocky ground are the ones who, when they hear, receive the word with joy, but they have no root; they believe only for a time and fall away in time of trial.”

I think it is significant that in 1984, the same year he would complete his catechesis on the theology of the body, John Paul produced his great Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.” In that encyclical, he wrote, “The eloquence of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and of the whole Gospel, is especially this: every individual must feel as if called personally to bear witness to love in suffering.” It is the task of the catechist to seek out the connection between that witness to love mandated by Salvifici Doloris and the witness to love mandated by the theology of the body.

Would you like to read my entire thesis? Please click here to donate $10 or more towards my doctoral studies, and I will e-mail you the eBook.

Father Peter Damian Fehlner on Ratified, Non-Consummated Marriages

Posted supplementary to my two previous posts (1 and 2):

When are the sacramental graces of marriage received?  It has recently became fashionable to state, categorically, that no such sacramental graces are received until a sacramental marriage is consummated, as though a non-consummated marriage is not fully a sacramental marriage.  This is simply false.  The essence of a sacramental marriage consists in the contract, both as to the celebration of the sacrament and to the permanent state following on that celebration.  The first is known as marriage “in fiere” and marriage “in facto esse”.  Use has nothing to do with constituting the essence of marriage.  This is certainly very logical, whereas the new proposal is hardly that.  The conferral of sacramental graces is a presupposition for the holy fulfillment of marriage rights and duties, including use of the marriage act or sexual intercourse.  Hence, it is only logical that it be conferred before use of the marriage act.  If the sacrament is celebrated worthily, viz., the spouses are in the state of grace, an increase of sanctifying grace follows immediately on the administration of the sacrament, together with the effecting of the marriage bond with the rights and duties which this entails.  It is the marriage bond or “vinculum” which is the essence of the marriage state or permanent marriage contract, not the use of the marriage rights.  The right to actual graces in order to carry out the duties of the married state which are many besides the use of the marital act is rooted in the vinculum which constitutes a kind of proximate disposition for their conferral at the appropriate time and circumstances.  This is clearly the teaching of St. Thomas and is concurred in by St. Bonaventure.  Although a few modern theologians consider the vinculum a kind of quasi sacramental character, the majority of theologians prefer to abstain from the use of this terminology.  (Cf. F. Sola, SJ. Sacrae Theologiae Summa, volume 4, Madrid 1953, pp. 837-843 for magisterial and theological authorities.)  The principal magisterial authorities for this teaching are Leo XIII (Arcanum divinae sapientiae) and Pius XI (Casti Conubii).

Why is the petrine privilege limited to sacramental marriages “ratum sed non consummatum”?  A recent opinion claims that this restriction is related to the relative imperfection or incompletion of such a sacramental marriage.  Only the consummation of a sacramental marriage makes it fully sacramental, so the theory goes.  But this contradicts the long standing explicit teaching of the Magisterium for over a millennium.  Any marriage, but especially a “matrimonium ratum”, if intrinsically and fully indissoluble.  Intrinsically means that those united permanently by the marriage bond cannot end that bond, nor can the existence of spiritual or psychological frustrations on the part of the spouses, sometimes described as the “death” of a marriage, effect a dissolution of bond.  But this has never been meant in the teaching of Christ and of the Church to exclude the possibility of dissolving or ending a marriage by legitimate authorities apart from the spouses.  This authority belongs to God because he is the one who instituted marriage and defined the nature of the contract.  His authority extends to all marriages, sacramental or merely natural, all of which by his disposition end with death.  In one instance, that of the so-called “Pauline privilege” he has when certain conditions are fulfilled decreed the end of a natural marriage “in favor of the faith” in one of the spouses who converts to belief in Christ and is baptized, but the other refuses to live in peace with the converted spouse.

In some special cases Christ has conferred on the successors of St. Peter to dissolve non-consummated sacramental marriages in particular and relatively rare instances.  The reason for this delegation is to be found, not in the incompleteness of such a marriage as marriage, but in the imperfect clarity of the sacramental sign, the same rationale underlying the Pauline privilege, the only difference being that in the case of the Pauline privilege the dissolution is effected directly by God himself  (no delegation for this has been given either to civil or ecclesiastical authorities).  The rationale is this: in these cases the sign value of marriage is either not clearly present (natural marriage) or only partially in the case of a non-consummated sacramental marriage.  According to the teaching of Casti connubii, this sign value is twofold: that of Christ with the Church and by extension with souls (a spiritual union) and that of the Divine Word with his human nature (a physical union).  The first is realized immediately on celebration of the sacrament, the second only with consummation.  The vicarious power to dissolve the bond granted by Christ to the Pope in regard to non-consummated sacramental marriages is limited to those instances where “spiritual death” has occurred (e.g., solemn profession in a religious order) or where this is postulated by the spiritual need of one or the other spouse.  But with consummated sacramental marriages the sign value is such that Christ reserves all questions of dissolution of the bond to himself because of the perfection of the sign.  Evidently the perfection of the sign is not the equivalent of perfection of the marriage, which must be decided on other criteria, particularly when the virginal marriage of Mary and Joseph is taken into consideration. (cf. the treatise cited above, pp. 826-827; 830)

Sexing up Canon Law

In response to my last post, “Christopher West: Sexualizing Christianity,” one of his supporters posted a lengthy comment, defending the sexy assertion that the sacramental grace proper to marriage is not confered through the wedding vows but through the act of the consummation of the marriage, so that no sacramental marriage really exists until the spouses engage for the first time in the marital embrace.  He (or she) also claims that sacramental grace is also conferred every and each time the spouses engage conjugal act “in a human fashion.”

Since this is so interesting and crucial to the argument, I have chosen to reproduce the comment here and answer it below. Continue reading

Christopher West: Sexualizing Christianity

I recently became aware of an exchange between Dr. Mark Lowery and Christopher West that took place in around the turn of the year 2002.  Dr. Lowery’s assessment of Mr. West’s work was fair.  Like many today, he commended the Theology of the Body apologist for his flair getting across to audiences around the country the reason why “the bedroom needs the Church.”  And like many today, he expressed his reservations about the way in which West “sexualizes Christianity.”  Lowery intimates that a kind of inversion has taken place in West’s understanding of the relationship between sexuality and Christianity:

Put another way, so clearly does he see how sexuality must be taken up into Christianity that he can give the impression that Christianity has been taken up into sexuality.

Continue reading

A Response to Christopher West

In his long-awaited reply to his critics, West honestly admits that he did not want to say anything until he had received the all clear from the bishops, a boon given in abundance by Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Rhoades.  While the bishops’ endorsement is significant, it does not mean that West’s teaching is magisterial or that it is on the level of those who themselves hold the teaching office of the Church. Even a theologian who has gained the endorsement of a pope, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar or Cardinal Walter Kasper, is not considered above respectful criticism when he articulates views that may legitimately be shown to be difficult to reconcile with the Church Fathers and Doctors.

West is gracious for thanking his supporters, but his reference to the “profound consolation” proffered by the faithful is a bit off-putting.  He has chosen the path of controversy of his own volition, and for him that it is a matter of truth.  Speaking the truth has its consequences, as does making mistakes as a teacher.   It must be difficult to the focus of so much criticism, so I do pray for him. Nevertheless, he is considered, the authority on Theology of the Body, even more so now that he has been so strenuously defended.  Constructive criticism is in order.

The Pivotal Obfuscation

In my opinion, his concentration on the question of concupiscence is, for the most part, a straw man.  It seems evident that since Cardinal Rigali has blessed his entire work without qualification, West considers it is sufficient to reply to what he considers the central issue of contention.  Thus, he conspicuously omits any discussion his crusade against prudery or of any of the practical matters that have been dealt with at length by the critics (e.g. the phallic symbolism of the paschal candle, his treatment of interlocutors, his interpretation of his writings of the saints).  I will even grant that the question of concupiscence is central to the discussion.  However, West mischaracterizes the objections of his critics. Continue reading

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.


In Defense of Purity


Thanks to Therese, I am now reading Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Purity:  The Mystery of Christian Sexuality, originally published under the title In Defense of Purity by Sheed and Ward in 1938. I have decided to blog a bit on the book as I read it.  I thought I might publish a post on each chapter.

In fact, I believe that von Hildebrand’s contribution is extraordinarily important for the proper understanding of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  When I received von Hildebrand’s book, I was elated to find the following endorsement on the back by Dr. Josef Seifert, who helped to clarify some points about shame when I was engaged in a discussion on The Linde several weeks ago:

When first published, von Hildebrand’s books on marriage and purity rediscovered the essence of the true Catholic understanding of sexuality and thereby revolutionized the dominant view of sexuality, which was almost 2000 years old and which was often negativistic and puritan.

Today, von Hildebrand’s thoughts on the spiritual meaning of sex and love are also a key to understanding Pope John Paul II’s grandiose and audacious theology of the body.

This book opened the eyes of countless young people to the mystery and fulfillment of spousal love—and to the horror of impurity which desecrates the mystery.

Together with the theology of the body of Pope John Paul II, von Hildebrand’s writings on purity and sexuality may merit for the Twentieth Century the title of greatest century in Church history with respect to the philosophy and theology of marriage.

Von Hildebrand’s lively and fascinating analysis of love and sexuality will strike you by their beauty and depth, as much today as when the young von Hildebrand wrote this book, which already has made Church history.

If you are looking for an utterly positive understanding of love and sex, which throws into light the great virtue of purity and the greatness of marriage as love-community, this is the book for you.

Interestingly, Dr. Seifert acknowledges and revolutionary quality to both the work of von Hildebrand and John Paul II.  However, of course, the meaning of the word “revolution” as it is used here can only be understood in a Catholic sense, as I am sure Dr. Seifert meant it, that is, in the context of the development of doctrine or the hermeneutic of continuity.  This is an important point and it is essential for the understanding of the difference between virtue and vice relative to human sexuality and between true modesty and prudery.  I am looking forward to a prayerful reading of this masterpiece of a pure and reverent mind.

I will be reading from the 1989 edition, published by Franciscan University Press, Steubenville, under the title Purity:  The Mystery of Christian Sexuality.  The work is divided into two books, the first having three parts, the second, two:

Book I:  Purity

  1. Sex (3 chapters)
  2. Purity (3 chapters)
  3. The Attitude of the Pure in Marriage (3 chapters)

Book II:  Virginity

  1. The Nature of Consecration (2 chapters)
  2. Why the Virgin is the Bride of Christ (6 chapters)

Of particular note, von Hildebrand gives his reason for considering purity and virginity in the same work:

The reason for uniting in one study purity and virginity is of a practical nature.  Although virginity represents in its significance and value something completely new and autonomous with respect to purity, its inmost nature is only intelligible when we have understood that of the person, which is also the decisive factor for purity.

I will provide parenthetical references to page numbers in my posts.

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.


Mystics, Martyrs and Rhetoricians

Soap BoxOr the Theology of the Soapbox

What follows in another one of my long expositions on the Theology of the Body.  I have to give a loud content warning at the outset.  There is some frank talk here about sexuality, or rather, my complaints that there is too much frank talk about such matters.  I would have asked Dawn Eden to publish this one, but she has very courageously retired from blogging.  I have to commend her on her decision; however, it is not without regret on my part.

I again want to let those I disagree with know that my intentions are honorable and I do not question their integrity or commitment to the faith.  I can take my lumps if I deserve them.

In a recent apologia for Christopher West, Father Thomas Loya makes grand assertions:

Christopher West is a bit of a mystic—in the best sense of the word. His work, which seems strange to some, is actually that of a pioneer. And like all pioneers, West is taking a lot of arrows for his courage. In the face of much resistance, West is courageous enough to invite all of us to do just what John Paul II invited us to do: to think and talk in spousal categories. Continue reading

John Paul the Great and Hugh Hefner the Magnificent

puzzled-manOkay, I am glad that a Catholic apologist gets some major exposure in the mainstream media, and I want to repeat again that I believe that those who are popularizing the Theology of the Body are good people and well intentioned.  Nevertheless,  I take exception to the presentation of Christopher West in this latest interview, precisely for the reasons given in my last post on the subject.

One commenter on that post asserted that the “naked without shame” doctrine contained in the popular catechesis of TOB is really only a “marketing hook,” and that very few, if any, believe that TOB is being proposed as a means of reclaiming original innocence, as suggested by the article I linked to by Father Brian Mullady.

In yesterday’s interview posted on the ABC News website Christopher West compares favorably Pope John Paul II and Hugh Hefner, founder and publisher of Playboy Magazine:

“I actually see very profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II,” said West.

And it’s not just the red slippers?

“No, it’s not just the red slippers.” Each man in his own way, West insisted, rescued sex from prudish Victorian morality.

On Hugh Hefner: ‘I Understand His Ache’

“I love Hugh Hefner,” said West. “I really do. Why? Because I think I understand his ache. I think I understand his longing because I feel it myself. There is this yearning, this ache, this longing we all have for love, for union, for intimacy.” Continue reading