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.