Friday, July 23, 2010

The Intimate Sphere and Reverence

Dr. von Hildebrand continues her exegesis.
3. The Intimate Sphere and Reverence
These are certain truths of which  Dietrich von Hildebrand never lost sight of. Throughout all his Catholic writings, he insists upon humility and reverence: humility because nobody, except the Blessed One among women, Mary, is safe; and reverence because of the depth and mystery of this sacred domain—a domain Dietrich always believed called for veiling.

Fed on great Catholic literature from the time of his conversion, he also knew that this sphere should be baptized. This is why the Catholic Church (with the Orthodox) makes marriage one of the seven sacraments.
While distortions can be found in the history of Catholic understanding of sexuality, they should be recognized as just that—distortions, which are not representative of the core. It is simply false to claim that the Church has, until recently, been blind to the deep meaning and beauty of sex as God intended it: we need only turn to St. Francis de Sales to see how profoundly he understood the meaning that God gave to this sphere. He writes: “It is honorable to all, in all, and in everything, that is, in all its parts" (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 38).   It is simply not true to claim that, until recently, the beauty and meaning of this sphere had been totally obscured by Puritanism and Manichaeism. Many from my generation can testify—against those who misrepresent it today—that the education we received did not, on the whole (there are always exceptions)  present sex as "dirty".

What was communicated, with delicacy, was a sense of "mystery" for something great, that had to be approached with deep reverence, and which, when abused, led to very serious offenses against  God.
My general criticism of Christopher West is that he does not seem to grasp the delicacy, reverence, privacy, and sacredness of the sexual sphere. He also underestimates the effects of Original Sin on the human condition.

4. Tua Culpa, or Mea Culpa?
One of the many dangers threatening us today is the widespread tendency to put the blame on others. Christopher West resorts to this strategy in his book, Good News About Sex and Marriage, when he writes:
“I myself am frustrated by the fact that I didn’t learn about the richness and sensibleness of the Church’s teaching when I was growing up, despite twelve years of Catholic education. For the most part, the message was simply, ‘Don’t do it.’ So what did I do? The exact opposite, of course.

“Had I been taught how wonderful and beautiful the Catholic vision of sex and marriage actually is, perhaps I would have thought it something worth holding out for. Perhaps I would have been spared the pain I inflicted on myself and others.” (Good News About Sex and Marriage, revised edition, p. 69)
Here, West falls into a contemporary trap. The tua culpa [you are at fault] has replaced the mea culpa [I am at fault].   To assume that those who fall into sexual sin necessarily would have led a pure life, had one's parents or teachers been more “open” in their approach to the intimate sphere, is pure illusion.

Another mistake West makes is to assume that pornography is an understandable—if sinful and misguided—effort to quench the sexual impulse: “God gave us that desire,” he told an interviewer. “When we go to pornography to satisfy that desire, its like eating junk food. It’s not going to satisfy the legitimate hunger and need of the human heart.” (Legatus Magazine, March 2010). But here, West ignores an obvious fact, all too prevalent throughout human history: many people like “junk food”—in this case, pornography and illicit sex (this is why brothels will never go out of business)—and often prefer it, even when a healthy alternative—in this case, authentic Catholic teaching—is presented to them. That is because Catholic orthodoxy-as enriching as it is, and even within the context of a loving, sacramental marriage—entails sacrifice and self-control, rather than the “hunger” of self-indulgence.

The Old Testament has a great deal to teach us about this: the Israelites were constantly given gifts from Heaven—most famously, the “Manna,” for which they did not have to work, God having generously removed the burden of their sins (“thou shalt earn thy bread with the sweat of thy brow”). This  divine gift enabled them to survive the Exodus—and yet, even though that Manna was more than enough to sustain them, it didn’t cater to their selfish “hunger”; so many abandoned God’s law and went back to the ‘”junk food” of their time—the flesh pots of Egypt.  Thus, the Scripture teaches:  God shows us the way, and offers us proper food, and yet people willfully reject the Lord’s gifts and laws, using the excuse that they are  “hungry” for more. “Had I had the proper food, I would not have fed myself on junk food,” says the individual looking to avoid personal responsibility. Alas, junk food can be very attractive because it “flatters” our palate. But, in fact, pornography is not just unhealthy food. It is veritable poison, for it corrupts the mind and heart.


Anonymous said...

God has obviously blessed this dear woman with extraordinary gifts. I would have loved to have been a student of hers - can you imagine?!

This is an amazing essay and it cannot be read widely enough.

elena maria vidal said...

That is exactly how I feel, Kathy!

Enbrethiliel said...


Red flags should have come up for everyone when West first referred to pornography as "junk food." Dr. von Hildebrand is right to identify it as the poison it is!

And the "tua culpa" is definitely a mistake of our current age. I first heard it when "reverts" started blaming older members of the Church for not showing them how beautiful and wonderful the Catholic faith is. (Terry Nelson has some recent posts on another apsect of the same: young Catholics' unfortunate tendency to blame the boomers.)

On another note, I recently had a combox discussion elsewhere with someone who has a problem with this statement of Dr. Von Hildebrand's:

My general criticism of Christopher West is that he does not seem to grasp the delicacy, reverence, privacy, and sacredness of the sexual sphere.

According to him, delicate, reverent and sacred are precisely what the sexual sphere is not; and so such a statement reveals more to us about Dr. Von Hildebrand's own marriage than about the nature of sex.

Now, he is a good Catholic and a married man whom I've known for a while. Yet since I'm not married myself and have no experience to go by, I don't know whether to assume he is also just revealing something about his own marriage! =P

His other issue was that such a statement could only have been made in a culture where men are milquetoasts. I don't totally agree with that last bit, but my reading of Dr. Von Hildebrand's book The Privilege of Being a Woman makes me think she is happy to approach this subject from a decidedly feminine angle, which might not sit well with men who prefer a more hardy and bluff presentation of theology. And I can imagine this man reading that very book and thinking it should have "Hello Kitty" on the cover or something! LOL!

elena maria vidal said...

Oh, dear, I would not make any guesses about what goes on in anyone's marriage based upon what they may write about it. I don't understand how anyone could have any problems with what Dr. von Hildebrand says; it is so logical, clear and rooted in catholic teaching! I would love to have read your discussion, E., please send me the link!

Enbrethiliel said...


Certainly, Elena! I've just e-mailed you. =)

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