Dignity & Theology of the Body

In the annals of TOB lore, there was a time when Christopher West and another Catholic theologian were on ashutterstock_25781500 local show, and a rather intense debate started.  The individuals were asked that if they managed to see another man’s wife naked (say walking in while one was in the shower or some other such situation where it wasn’t intentional), should we look away, or not lust?  It was a clever question, and they got the desired result in the answer.

When one answered “look away”, Mr. West  answered “do not lust”, and a pretty heated argument and discussion developed between the two.  Many of Mr. West’s defenders see this story as a clear case of how those who disagree with them are full of lust and slaves to concupiscence, completely bereft of “mature purity.”  To this day, I think they were talking past each other. 

Another story has it that in order to arrive at mature purity; we have to be able to look upon the naked body of a person as a good thing.  When we see it, we cannot lust.  To those who speak like that, I would like to propose a counterfactual.  The only way I, Kevin Tierney, can be sure that I have “mature purity”, is if I look at your wife naked and not lust.  When you say this to me, you are telling me that the only way you can be sure of “mature purity” is if you look upon my wife naked and not feel lust.  You never hear women make this kind of argument, but go ahead and put it in reverse.  To my female readers, are you comfortable with a man saying the only way they can be sure about mature purity is if they look upon you in your birthday suit like a stoic philosopher?  Do you think the only way you can be certain of “mature purity” is if you are able to look at the construction worker down the street with nothing on?

Have I made everybody uncomfortable yet?  Do any of you feel a rising anger within your heart when I speak about being able to look upon your spouse in such a fashion, no matter the circumstances or my intentions?  If I haven’t made you uncomfortable, I submit you aren’t being true to your emotions.  Now some will say this discomfort isn’t healthy, and it is a sign of deep wounds we must purify ourselves of if we are ever to live the Theology of the Body.  Such a thought is alien to a theology of the body, as any reading of John Paul II’s audiences will demonstrate.

While the Pope didn’t spend a lot of time talking about nudity (really, he didn’t, read the audiences for yourselves), he did spend enough to offer some incredibly deep insights.  First amongst those insights is that nakedness was meant as a sign of communion between man and woman, specifically communion in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. (General Audience 2/4/1981)  Before sin, this communion existed in a way that is unknown to us, what he calls “original innocence.”  We lost this innocence at the fall, and we never regain it.  Even though sin has wounded mans nature, the sense of communion nakedness implies remains.

Now we see the root of the anger.  I cannot look upon another person naked unless I have communion with that individual.  Otherwise, I am intruding on that person’s dignity to varying degrees, and I better have a darn good reason for doing so.   If I don’t have a good reason (and it better be because it was necessary), then I’ve committed a grave sin.  I’m trying to destroy God’s first rule in creating male and female:  they were meant for each other in marriage.

Now some will answer “if artists can look upon a naked model, or we can have art in our house which contains nudity, isn’t that the same thing as looking upon the naked body of someone not our spouse the same thing?”  The short answer is no, they are completely different.  The long answer is provided in the General Audience of April 15, 1981. There are situations in which this is acceptable, but they are not open ended:  restrictions are placed on them for good reason.  In this address the Holy Father makes the salient point that we do not look at “naked bodies”, we look at “naked people.”   If you prefer the philosophical version of this point:

We cannot consider the body an objective reality outside the personal subjectivity of man, of human beings, male and female. Nearly all the problems of the ethos of the body are bound up at the same time with its ontological identification as the body of the person.

When we say we look upon a naked body, we are treating the body as an object, not a person.  This becomes what the Pontiff terms “anonymous nakedness”, and it is incredibly dehumanizing towards men and women.  From this standpoint, we can never speak of someone’s naked body in the sense of whether or not we can look and have “mature purity.”  At that point, the person ceases being a person, and instead a test for you to pass or fail.  They don’t have a name.  The name is irrelevant.

In a sense, I can understand why people talk this way.  Mr. West is right; we really should not lust if we find ourselves in that situation from the beginning.  We need to have an understanding that a person is a person, not an object for whatever purpose we desire.  Yet we have to go further.  We still have to look away, because we are gazing on something that we do not have a right to gaze on.   To practice mature purity is to carry your body (that is, the human person) in “holiness and honor.”  (1 Thess 4:3-5)  Another way of saying it is “do not lust” (holiness) and “respect the dignity of the person by not looking upon what you do not have a right to look upon.”  (Honor)  If we do this, then we can create the “climate favorable to purity” that John Paul II says is mandatory if we are to live in accordance with the Gospel.  The problem with most commentary on this subject is that it exists in an ivory tower, divorced from reality, and divorced from how the Pope tells us to actually live out a Theology of the Body.

Kevin Tierney


Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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  • Kevin–some good points, but three immediate problems, in my view. You say:

    ” To my female readers, are you comfortable with a man saying the only way they can be sure about mature purity is if they look upon you in your birthday suit like a stoic philosopher?”
    First, the problem is that *nobody* actually says “the only way they can be sure about mature purity” is looking at naked people. No one. You frame it as though looking at a person’s nakedness is somehow THE big test that certifies the “maturely” pure. It ain’t so. And thus we would *agree* it ain’t so.
    People who are liberated from the domination of concupiscence don’t go around looking for naked people; they don’t seek to “be sure” they’re pure by looking at naked people; they don’t think the *only* way to “be sure” they’re pure is to look at naked people.
    And *nobody* has said or is saying that they do this or *should* do this.
    The second problem is the apparent perception that this is somehow a “man” thing but not a “woman” thing–but this perception is the result of getting problem #1 wrong first. Once we understand that the perennial call from Christ to a “mature” purity of heart is a call to “see rightly” and that there is no external “test” of looking at naked people attached to this call, the man vs. woman observation you’re making also dissolves.
    Third, when you say that we lost original innocence in the fall and cannot “regain” it, that is a truth that JPII qualifies: he insists that our hearts retain the “echo” of original innocence, which indeed continues to form the basis of the call to “see rightly” that we are all called to. Thus both the call to communion and the call to regain sight of the spousal meaning of the body that originated with Adam and Eve *does* remain the call of Christ to “historical man.” Without this “echo” of original innocence, we would, indeed, exist *beyond* the reach of grace and instead remain immersed in the confines of concupiscence, without hope of saying “yes” to the call in the face of the “accusation” that arises from the fall.

  • 1.) It doesn’t involve looking at naked people period. The test is simply a reductio ad absurdum

    2.) The man vs woman observation stands, for a simple reason. You never hear a woman talking about how to look at people when on a nude beach, like you did from James Simons. You never hear a woman say the important thing to do when you see a naked man not your spouse in the shower doesn’t involve turning away, as you did from Mr. West in the above mentioned story. You never hear a woman presenter talk about an example of mature purity as looking upon a male prostitute. You never hear a woman say that the way to see the whole person is to stare at organs which are unique to the man, as Fr. Thomas Loya did.

    And a woman certainly hasn’t said the following:

    “Is it “possible” to look upon someone naked not your spouse without lust? Not only is it “possible”–it’s “required” for purity of heart.”

    Even the female presenters I’ve disagreed with sharply (Sr. Marianne Loraine Trouve, Dr. Janet Smith, etc) never talk in this fashion. Why? Because women always get this stuff better than men intrinsically. We men get it as well (or at least we should), but women understand it at a far more instinctual level, so as a result, they just don’t talk about it. They get the great irony just by instinct: to “see rightly” involves sometimes not seeing.

    3.) The call to communion IS manifested through the spousal meaning of the body, which I talked about many times, and mentioned explicitly here, so I don’t really get why you focused on it.

  • 1) Well, good, then. We agree that *nobody* is claiming that the “pure” are supposed to be going around testing to be “sure” you’re pure by looking at naked people. It seems we’ve achieved consensus on this point.

    2) You’re creating a logical fallacy by arguing from silence to shore up a mistaken notion that this is somehow a “man” problem. Also, there is *way* more to the question of “seeing rightly” and “not seeing” than what you are proposing. Finally, if you’re going to quote my thinking, please quote me in *context*. Here is what I had said previously:
    ****Not only is it “possible”–it’s “required” for purity of heart. It’s *necessary* that we be able “see rightly” in this regard if ever we are to pass through the active and passive purgation of the senses and toward the deeper “illuminative way” of the spiritual life.
    Of course, I’ve *never* heard or seen *any* TOB presenter suggest that looking at the nakedness of others is something to be actively sought out by *anyone*. I’ve only seen the acknowledgement that when one faces an encounter of either immodesty or the nakedness of another, our call to purity of heart goes well beyond merely “looking away”–the call is to have the capacity to “see rightly” under any and all such circumstances.*****
    The “it” in my quote refers to the *capacity* to “see rightly” that is “required” for purity of heart. Since I keep saying over and over that *nobody* says going around looking at naked persons is “required”, I should think it obvious that the “nobody” includes me.
    3) I focused on the unqualified statement in your post: Before sin, this communion existed in a way that is unknown to us, what he calls “original innocence.” We lost this innocence at the fall, and we never regain it. ”

    We can’t “regain” original innocence, yet its echo continually calls us to reappropriate the call to a mature purity….

  • JMC

    Those same proponents of the “mature purity” position look at you like you’ve gone crazy if you look away from somebody’s “plumber’s crack.” Things like this are important to remember, especially when you’re trying to teach your teens about modesty and purity. The world is going to laugh at you and make your life miserable if you decide to maintain your virginity until marriage. I know. My parents didn’t warn me about that, simply because they didn’t know; it wasn’t an issue in the 1930s and 40s, when they were in their teens and early twenties. Most people today can’t even imagine the “culture shock” I had to endure when I finally left the all-Catholic neighborhood I grew up in.

  • Kevin–I’ve continued pondering your post through the day. It would seem we are largely on the same page, but I want to ask about this statement: ” I cannot look upon another person naked unless I have communion with that individual. ”
    Can you cite a text from JPII in which he expresses this idea like this?
    I think there is more to it. What I mean is that JPII makes clear that *everyone* is called to form a “communion of persons” with everyone else (what he refers to as the “reciprocal relations” of man and woman outside of marriage, regarding the “spousal meaning of the body” which is not limited to marriage, and also regarding the essential communion of persons among members of the same sex, too).
    In light of this I don’t see how we are to link being “in communion” with someone to seeing their nakedness. For example, I really have no ‘right’ to see the nakedness of either my brother or my sister, but we form a communion of persons. Or even among other men, my friends, there is no real correspondence between my communion with them and seeing them naked. I don’t consider them, for example, to have any communion-based justification for seeing me naked….
    The point is JPII’s explanation of purity of heart and the call to see rightly *always* presupposes the existence of communion among persons, a fundamental willingness and capacity to look upon another individual *as* a person and not an object. As such, the call to the “communion of persons” seems a *universal* call–one whose pre-eminent visible sign is the nuptial union of man and woman–so I don’t see how “communion” as JPII uses it corresponds precisely to the way you’ve framed things.
    So, can you explain what you mean by the term “communion” as a “condition” for seeing nakedness? Purity of heart *still* seems, to me, to be the determinant here–purity of heart creates real communion, while being dominated by concupiscence does not. In that sense, again, we would agree that “communion” is necessary for seeing rightly, right? Is that what you mean?

  • Kevin–good news! I found the interpretive key in JPII’s words that make it clear that we are actually in *agreement* on this thorny issue.
    You say that “communion” is necessary to be able to look upon the nakedness of another person without sin, and I’ve said that “purity of heart” is necessary for this.
    In TOB 55:6, JPII says: “This harmony, or precisely ‘purity of heart,’ allowed man and woman in the state of original innocence to experience in a simple way (in a way that made both of them originally happy) the unitive power of their bodies that was, so to speak, the ‘unsuspectable’ substratum of their personal union or ‘communion-personarum.’
    So, right there is the clear link–“purity of heart” is the basis for experiencing the “‘unsuspectable’ substratum” of the “communion” you mention in your post! Purity of heart is the root of the communion of persons. We’re basically saying the same thing then regarding what is happening “interiorly” regarding seeing the nakedness of others “rightly”. Much more to be said about this, but this seems to be an encouraging development….

  • Mr. Barquez,

    I would add onto (or maybe dig deeper into that one text you cite) to also point out that man was created as a family, as male and female, called to communion with each other because God is a communion, and as an earthly reminder of our eternal destiny of communion with God.

    If we can’t remember those two things, agreed, we probably should pack it up and just go home.

  • Ginny

    My intellectual response to this is: “Like”

  • And what is the “non-intellectual” response? 🙂

  • Here’s an observation, Kevin, based on the last line of your post: If you *really* want to “live out” the Theology of the Body, then doing so should start right here, right now. You should be making use of posts like these to strive for the very communion of persons that you acknowledge is essential to JPII’s message. While you have spent years writing in public and critical opposition to certain TOB students and presenters, named and unnamed, as you do here, all that has done is help continue the factionalism between/among the very few brothers and sisters in Christ who actually seem to have a real interest in the TOB corpus.
    Surely you would *prefer* to seek communion instead of ongoing separation and opposition? So why not pursue such opportunities when they arise? For example, instead of going silent regarding my evidence below, why not seek to build consensus where consensus presents itself?
    If it’s clear, as shown in the words of JPII below, that the assessment of “purity of heart” and “communion” *both* lie at the root of understanding the human response to lust and “nakedness,” and that therefore we basically say the same thing on this point, why not try to *build* on that agreement so as to dissolve any other perceived differences, for the *sake* of communion?
    Continuing to oppose folks like C. West (and myself) by asserting that we don’t really “get” TOB and aren’t faithfully presenting it will become unnecessary if you seek first to listen and find common ground so that we don’t end up “talking past each other”. In doing so, you’ll find that we are really in “communion” not only with JPII’s teaching but with each other as well.
    Are you willing to continually strive for this communion?