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.

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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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