Sunday, July 25, 2010

Love and Pleasure

Dr. von Hildebrand explores dualism and language issues and how they relate to the intimate sphere.
2. Other Issues of Language

Love and Pleasure

The prevalence that certain words have in a text give us a key to the author's approach to his topic. Those acquainted with Dietrich von Hildebrand's books on purity, marriage, sex etc. will immediately notice that the key word he utilizes is "love". He tells us, explicitly and repeatedly, that it is love which gives meaning to the intimate sphere, and that the beauty of the union between the spouses is proportionate to the tenderness of their love.  It is love that "baptizes" pleasure, and brings it to a much higher level; for pleasure can be experienced by animals, but the sweetness of human pleasure, fortified by love, is altogether different: the word "pleasure" is then no longer adequate. We need a richer vocabulary to refer to it; there is joy, there is gratitude, there is happiness. Isolated pleasure (which by its very nature, does not last, and cannot last) is totally incapable of  giving a faint idea of what this "baptized" pleasure is; and is something, of course, denied to animals.

 It is, alas, possible to experience intense pleasure, even while the heart is cold. This sheds light on the attraction of brothels: a dark den in which love is banished, and self-centered pleasure is sought for its own sake . . . and paid for. Since Original Sin, this possibility has always existed.

Limitations of English

One of the challenges of speaking about sex from a truly Catholic perspective has to do with something often overlooked: the limitations of the English language. English is a great language, perhaps the richest language on earth. (Relata refero.) But it is, philosophically, relatively poor; and this emerges in any discussions involving the human body. German, in contrast, distinguishes between the word Leib (the body of a person) and Koerper—the body of animals. It makes it clear that a human body should be personified, and that every single bodily activity of Man should be elevated to a degree of nobility not given to animals.  This is a powerful incentive to oppose the "cult of the body" so prevalent in our decadent culture.

Another difficulty: English does not distinguish between shame in the negative sense (response to what is ugly, disgusting, repulsive, filthy) and shame that is positive (in the sense of personal, private, intimate, mysterious). This lack of distinction certainly explains certain "simplifications" and “misunderstandings” about human sexuality which punctuate the work of Christopher West.

After our first parents discovered they were naked, they were ashamed. This shame had a positive, instructive purpose, because it made them aware that they had stripped themselves of the beautiful “veil of innocence” God had given them, before they sinned. These profound truths  should be embraced and highlighted by Christopher West,  not minimized or ignored.

Part 3: Particular Problems Related the Treatment of the Intimate Sphere

1. Dictatorial Relativism and Pornography

Dietrich von Hildebrand and Post-Christian Society

One of the gifts God gave to Dietrich von Hildebrand was to perceive the call of the hour.  This gift opened his eyes to the poison of Nazism in the early 1920s, as well as the 1943 treason of Yalta, when both Roosevelt and Churchill practically "delivered" half of Europe to another political demon, Stalin (with the tragic consequences that we know). This gift enabled Dietrich to perceive, in the wake of Vatican II, that something had seriously derailed in our beloved Church. For this reason, he interrupted composing his lifelong work on love to write The Trojan Horse, and other publications (including many articles) to warn people of the danger.

If Dietrich von Hildebrand were alive today, I have no doubt he would be waging war on the most insidious evils of our time:  abortion, above all, but also the philosophical assumptions that underlie it, which produce other evils. He would devote all his talents to make people realize that dictatorial relativism, to quote Pope Benedict, and all its wicked offshoots–especially abortion and pornography-- are manifestations of Satan's attacks on our post-Christian society. They form a kind of trinity of evil, in fierce opposition to the Holy Trinity  of Christianity.

Puritanism, Yesterday and Today

Dietrich would also have recognized the red herring of “modern puritanism.” Born and raised in the house of a great sculptor, puritanism was unknown to him. Granted that in Victorian society, to take one example, it was a deplorable tendency, characterized by the fact that the intimate sphere was dubbed "shocking." But today, in our sex-saturated society, to concentrate all of one's efforts on this deplorable deformation, is to beat a dead horse.  Anyone who reads Christopher West’s books, or listens to his talks, cannot help but notice one thing: he  is obsessed by puritanism. Indeed, one might believe, listening to him, that it is the one great danger of our time.

But West is exaggerating, if not “crying wolf.” Puritanism was never the universal problem he imagines (in the Church or outside it); and today it is barely a speck on our cultural landscape. It would be interesting, for those who love statistics, to find out how many people today put coal in their bath water to "cover" the shame of their intimate organs (to refer to a comment of my friend, Professor Michael Waldstein).  I grant that it has been done in the past, for grotesque ideas about the human body have always existed... and  always will. God has set limits on man’s intelligence, none on his stupidity. It shows the wisdom of Spanish proverb: bicho malo, nunca muere (a nasty beast never dies). But puritanism, to the extent it was a problem in the past, no longer is; and it is farcical to rally an army to fight a tiny battalion, which is no longer a threat.

In the sexual sphere, pornography, not puritanism, is the cancer destroying our society. It is so widespread that it is practically impossible to protect one's children from its venom; it is on the internet, on television, at malls, in department stores, in book stores, at the A&P. Serial rapists often confess that they have been fed on Playboy since they were teenagers. This is where our main concern  should be focused. This is why Christopher West’s praise of Hugh Hefner on ABC’s Nightline, linking him with John Paul II, was deplorable:  “I actually see very profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II,” he said. (ABC News, May 7, 2009). West’s subsequent attempts  to “clarify” his remarks, which he insisted were taken out of context, only  underscored the imprudence of making them in the first place.

Not only is any rapprochement between a successor of Peter (now called Venerable) and the founder of Playboy, to be condemned, but a distinction should be made between Hugh Hefner as a child of God, made to His image and likeness, and deserving our love of neighbor, and Hefner as the father of modern-day pornography  (a multibillion-dollar business). West  downplays, to the point of meaninglessness, these fundamental distinctions.

To poison souls with pornography, especially the young, is a sin that cries out to Heaven. Let us not forget the fearful words of the Gospel about anyone who scandalizes "the little ones": a stone should be put about his neck and he cast into the sea. These are words we should take very seriously.

Hugh Hefner, Tarnished Gold?

At a lecture on June 3, 2009, sponsored by the Personalist Project, Christopher West announced, “For those with the eyes to see, we can look at a person like Hugh Hefner and see gold”—a comment that  defies description. Then, catching himself, he qualified it to “tarnished gold.” Granted, we are indeed "tarnished gold," if by that we mean we are created in the image of God, but wounded by Original Sin (except the Blessed One among women); it is equally true, according to Catholic teaching, that there is a huge hierarchy of moral evils: starting with small imperfections, and venial sins, that we can find even among the saints, to quite serious  offenses, mortal sins, which separate us from God. Left unrepented, those mortal sins would condemn souls to Hell at the moment of death. Once again, as developed in Dante's Inferno, there is a huge scale. All sins can be forgiven, if confessed, and yet there are sins, which will not be forgiven either in this world or in the next: the sins against the Holy Spirit.

In speaking about human beings flawed by Original Sin as being "tarnished gold," it would have been desirable to make this elementary distinction. But there is another facet of the question, which should have been mentioned.

A man who is the founder of Playboy definitely commits a mortal sin (if there is also full knowledge and full consent), but apart from the personal sin, comes the fearful responsibility of inducing millions of others to engage in the same sin. A thief can, in principle, restore the money stolen; but a murderer cannot bring his victim back to life. Let us suppose that at the moment of death, Hugh Hefner deeply repents his sinful life. God, the God of Mercy will forgive him.  But Hefner  cannot save the millions of souls, including children, that his activity as a pornographer has victimized.

This is why West’s comments about Hugh Hefner were dangerous and misleading. Never, absolutely never, would Dietrich von Hildebrand have made such an error, even as he would have prayed for Hefner’s conversion.

2. Dualism Properly Defined

One of the strange things happening today is that any hint that the intimate sphere should be marked by a caveat, tempts some people to accuse West’s critics of playing Cassandra, and of "being a dualist". The problem is that “dualism” can have a number of meanings, and not all of them are contrary to Catholic belief.
Today, many thinkers use the word as a condemnation to hurl at people who deny the essential union of man's body with man's soul. This is indeed a grievous metaphysical error: for it is clearly indicated in Genesis that man is made up of a physical body and an immaterial soul.  To be made up of two essential parts that are metaphysically so different is the reason why I dub man "a divine invention" (the title of my latest book, from Sapientia Press).  To quote Pascal, man is the most mysterious object in nature.

From the very beginning, the Church—the "pillar of truth” has rejected Gnosticism and any form of Manichaeism. Nothing, however, is easier for man than to fall in his reason.

The human mind, wounded by sin, has the uncanny tendency to go from one error to its (apparent) contradiction, while in fact errors are usually first cousins. A case in point is Nestorius, who claimed that there are two persons in Christ: the divine one, and the purely human one. Mary, therefore, is not “Theotokos” (Mother of God); she is only the mother of Christ, the man. This heresy, condemned by the Church, was soon followed by another one by Eutyches, who claimed that Christ had only one nature: the divine one-- the consequence being that Christ’s human nature had been totally absorbed by the divine one, and that it is only the latter that has suffered for the salvation of the world. “Anathema sit” was the prompt response of the Church.

Today, the condemned "dualism” just referred to, has become for some a kind of philosophical obsession. They detect "dualism" in the writings of thinkers who totally agree with them in rejecting a false dualism, but, in obsessing about this point, miss a larger one, and the necessary distinctions. Man is indeed made up of body and soul, but the mystery is that the body is physical, material, occupying space, visible, divisible . . . and mortal.  None of these characteristics apply to the soul, which is spiritual, does not occupy space, has no sensible characteristics such as color, and is immortal. The union of body and soul in man is such a mystery that many thinkers would dub it the most complex of philosophical problems.

Body and Soul

It is tempting, like the materialists, to claim that man is just a body and that what is called soul, mind, and spirit are only epiphenomena of the body. It is also tempting to angelize him, and discard the body. It is easy to go from one extreme to the next, in this case, materialism to radical idealism. Hegel, guilty of the latter, claimed that “being and thought are identical”—triggering Kierkegaard’s witty retort about Hegel and marriage: “as impersonal as his thought.” In other words, if being and thought are identical, to get married is to marry a thought (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 268).

Rather than face a difficult question, many thinkers choose an easy solution. This was the point made by Chesterton: the materialists keep the easy part (the body), deny the difficult part (the soul), and go home to their tea. Once again, we must marvel at the facility with which people go from one error, that of radical idealism, which says everything is mind (Hegel), to another, that of radical materialism, which says everything is matter (Marx).

The philosophical difficulties involved here should never lead us to  lose focus, much less faith. Following Cardinal Newman, we can say that ten thousand difficulties do not justify a single doubt.

We cannot doubt that we have both a body and a soul. The words of Our Lord—“Do not fear those who  kill the body, but cannot kill the soul” (Mathew 10: 28)--are abundantly clear. Some claim that the union of body and soul is for the benefit of the soul: without sense organs, man's mind would be condemned to blindness.  It should, however, also be said that the union of body and soul is very much to the benefit of the body: for the soul  “personifies” the body, that is, it clearly separates us from animals.

The organs of many animals are much sharper and better than ours: eagles have amazingly sharp eyesight; a dog's sharpness of hearing is very many times better than ours; bears have a sense of smell that informs them that food is to be found miles and miles away.  But eagles do not perceive the beauty of a sunset; dogs cannot appreciate the sublimity of a Beethoven quartet. It is thanks to our unique nature, and the union of body and soul, that God exalts the body of the human person,  above other creatures. This has great importance for our topic.

In truth, both the soul and body have full reality, and they are essentially united, though nevertheless distinct. This is why the soul can survive the death of the body, even though it suffers from "widowhood" and longs for the moment when it will be reunited to its own body. The admirable dogma of the resurrection of the body is another divine invention.

But in order to survive the death of the body, the soul clearly must possess a substantial reality of its own; if it were just an "aspect" of the body or an "accident " of the body, it could not be immortal.  When the body dies, the soul is a "widowed person".

To accuse of "dualism" (which, to the accusers, means Gnosticism) those who, like St. Augustine, endorse this position, under the pretext that they are denying the essential union of man's body with man's soul, is simply to make a serious philosophical confusion between two very different meanings of dualism. One is to be rejected; the second is deeply incorporated in Christian thought.

Cartesian Dualism and Theology of the Body

Some interpret the key message of Theology of the Body as a healing of the dreadful dualism for which Descartes is the great culprit.  Whether Descartes deserves this radical condemnation is not our concern.  All we wish in this context is to clarify that the word "dualism'" is ambiguous, and can refer to an un-healthy anti-Christian view, or one that is deeply Christian—and fully orthodox
Generative vs. Unitive

Christopher West is convinced that prior to Theology of the Body—which he terms a “revolution”—Catholic teaching had presented "sex" as essentially dirty, betraying the true Christian understanding of sex.  This is a thought Dietrich von Hildebrand would have strongly rejected.  Accidental errors should never be identified with the Church’s essential teaching. Every epoch has its dangers, which need to be addressed, but always in a way which remains faithful to Catholic tradition.

Dietrich understood this principle well, when he challenged certain excesses (not fundamental truths) of Catholic teaching regarding marriage. Early in his days as a Catholic, he noticed a weakness: the whole emphasis was on procreation; the unitive dimension of marriage was either not mentioned, or not properly highlighted. Procreation was often given too much prominence because, in paganism, sensual pleasure had absolute and complete priority. Dietrich’s work on marriage helped redress the balance, by acknowledging (and fully supporting) the traditional teaching on procreation, while rediscovering the importance of love between spouses. This is an example of what we might call the “pedagogical” mission of the Church. She must constantly “sense” what Catholic truth needs to be highlighted, at a given time, and adjust the emphasis on Her holy teaching accordingly, but never fall prey to the fashions of the times, and remain faithful to the sacred deposit of faith.

4. Contemplating the Body

Fixated, as he is, on the supposed plague of “Puritanism,” West promotes defective ideas to fight it. He recommends, for example, that we should stand naked in front of a mirror until we truly liberate ourselves from any feelings of “shame.”  This is a piece of advice at which Dietrich von Hildebrand would have recoiled. Let me mention some reasons.

The Meaning of Shame

First, is the contemplation of one's body ever the "theme", that God calls  upon us to pursue at a particular moment?  Because of the philosophical poverty of the English language, mentioned before, Christopher West confuses "shame" in a negative sense (ugly, disgusting, repulsive, morally repugnant) with pudeur—the aforementioned French word which refers to the reverence we should have toward what is personal, mysterious, private, or sacred. West is wrong in assuming that prior to Theology of the Body, Catholics were taught to be ashamed of their bodies. Belonging to the older generation, I am in a position to disclaim this. We were taught reverence in front of something "mysterious"—counsel which, if not followed, could lead to serious sin.  We knew that, when God completed the creation of the world, He saw "that is was good". But we were also reminded that since Original Sin, we should always be "alert" and awake to the dangers of this world.  Reverence and humility were always regarded as keys to maintaining our purity. The idea of trying to be  “naked without shame”  was never  contemplated, and for good reasons.

Destructive Vanity

Any psychologist will tell you that anyone contemplating his own body exposes himself to certain dangers: one being narcissism. If our  bodies are artistically perfect, inevitably we will experience vanity.  If, on the contrary-- and this is mostly the case-- we discover flaws, we shall be tempted to "remedy" the situation by cosmetic surgery. This explains why, according to Dr. Phil, 300,000 thousand American girls, between the age of 15 and l8, have undergone surgery to change the size of their breasts. 
Christopher West should know that we live in a society, which is radically materialistic, characterized by a cult of the body. Do we need encouragements to idolize what St Francis called "Brother Ass"? Christopher West puts too much emphasis on the body in a culture in which everything is body-centered.

The Two Bishops

And this brings me to Christopher West's oft-told story of the “two bishops."  He writes:
“The following story illustrates what mature Christian purity looks like. Two bishops walked out of a Cathedral just as a scantily clad prostitute passed by. One bishop immediately turned away. The other bishop looked at her intently. The bishop who turned away exclaimed, ‘Brother bishop, what are you doing? Turn your eyes!’ When the bishop turned around, he lamented with tears streaming down his face, ‘How tragic that such beauty is being sold to the lusts of men.’ Which one of those bishops was vivified with the ethos of redemption? Which one had passed over from merely meeting the demands of the law to a superabounding fulfillment of the law?” (From West’s Theology of the Body Explained, revised edition, p. 215).
Apart from the fact that nobody, except God is in a position to judge, for He alone knows the motivation of the two men—and that West completely retools the historic account of Bishop St. Nonnus to suit his purposes—important remarks are called for. In In Defense of Purity, Dietrich von Hildebrand remarks that some men are "insensitive" to sex. Whether it is a temperamental disposition, or whether it is caused by hormonal problems, it is obvious that, if someone who happens to have this condition looks peacefully at a prostitute, without experiencing any sexual attraction, he is certainly not a pure one. He is not impure; he is not pure.

Avoiding the Occasion of Sin

On the other hand, a humble awareness of our fallen nature creates a strict moral obligation to fly from temptations. Never, absolutely never would a saint say, "I am beyond and above temptations of the flesh".  Never would a saint declare that, were he to see a naked woman,  his acquaintance with the Theology of the Body would  guarantee that he wouldn’t be subject to temptation. As Monsignor Knox points out, to believe a Christian, however faithful, can place himself in spiritual danger and never fall prey to it, is a common error among religious enthusiasts. The Beghards come to mind: Thus these enthusiasts “looked upon decency and modesty as marks of inward corruption, as the characters of a soul that was still under the dominion of the sensual, animal, and lascivious spirit, and that was not really united to the divine nature. This was the account they themselves gave of their promiscuous lodging, and the nudism practiced in their assemblies.” (Enthusiasm, 1950, p. 125) Such people, writes Msgr. Knox, believed that once “they yield their bodies to the Holy Ghost,” they ”would never sin again.”  (p. 567) In the presence of a living woman, he continues, the enthusiast, is “ trained to feel as though he were standing by a wall of stone. His eye must be rendered cold, his pulse must be kept calm.” (p. 573). But this is to commit the sin of presumption.

It must be remarked, however, that there are situations in which a priest can find himself in dangerous situation "without being endangered": for example when a slightly clad prostitute  is struck by a car, and calls for help. It is the duty of a priest to respond to this call: God will give him the grace to concentrate exclusively on his mission,  bringing the dying person to God. Professional grace is also given to doctors: otherwise, no doctor should accept  operating on a very beautiful female body because, instead of operating on a sick patient, he would be preoccupied with sexual fantasies.


Why is asceticism so stressed in religious orders and in authentic Catholic tradition, be it hair shirts, abstinence, the discipline, or the limiting of one's sleep to a minimum? Is that ever mentioned by Christopher West? Does he not know that John Paul II himself engaged in acts of self-mortification? And yet, that fact might be of great importance to teach us how to love, and it is love, which is the key to sex.

In one of his columns about a pornographic play by radical feminist Eve Ensler, often performed at college campuses (whose very name is too graphic to mention), West wrote that he saw it as “tragic,” not filthy. Does not West realize that “Satan revels in filth” and this is how he seduces unsuspecting people? Once again, the very serious difference of approach between him and Dietrich von Hildebrand comes to the fore. Let us recall that in In Defense of Purity, my husband reminds us that this sphere can be the kingdom of the evil one. It can be diabolical. Filthy is then the proper word to refer to the perversions in which men and women are so inventive.

Moreover, the body is meant to be a gift to one's spouse in the sacrament of marriage. One should never make the "gift" the object of self-contemplation.


Enbrethiliel said...


I can't believe the "Hugh Hefner is gold" comment wasn't enough of a red flag for everyone who heard West say it!

Now it embarrasses me to admit this, but I can't remember if it was C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton who said that one thing the devil likes to do to distract us is to make us crusade with all our might against a certain evil at precisely the time when that evil is least in danger of drawing thousands to perdition. (Hmmmmm. Maybe it was Lewis in The Screwtape Letters?) And he seems to be making some headway in our "porned-up" culture, as we seem to hear lecture after lecture on the dangers of puritanism.

Oh, and that standing in front of the mirror to look at your own body thing is seriously twisted. (That's one thing about West I hadn't read until now.) The next thing you know, we'll be advised to revel in the texture of our own skin, and will just get more and more sensual. But it will all be okay--because our bodies are God given and appreciating them is a way to praise and give thanks to God. Which is silly, of course. This isn't theology; it's rationalisation.

elena maria vidal said...

I am realizing how more and more how seriously twisted West's philosophy is. When I see his how disciples continue to attack Dr. von Hildebrand for her prudent and utterly Catholic exegesis, I am now convinced that there is genuine evil at work.

Related Posts with Thumbnails