On May 13, 1981, a day marking the 64th anniversary of Our Lady’s first visit to Fatima, Pope John Paul II was shot by a would be assassin just prior to giving his Wednesday Audience address. The attempt on his life, its connection to Fatima and Our Lady’s intercession has been well documented. What has often been overlooked however is the fact that he was in the midst of giving a series of catecheses that was to become the Theology of the Body. Had the assassin’s bullet found its mark, the Church would have been all the poorer without this great corpus on our the meaning of corporeal existence. It was more than just a great personal love for the man Karol Wojtyla that spurred Our Lady to guide the bullet away from every major organ in the Pope’s body that day. It was also motivated by her great love for all her children, especially those challenged by lust. For she had told the visionaries during their “visit” to hell that “more souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” She knew of the Pope’s plan for “creating a climate favorable to the education of chastity” (TOB May 6, 1981) and that by embracing that education many souls would be saved. It is no mere coincidence that the Pope had just completed an extended analysis of what is perhaps the greatest modern day challenge, pornography. It is as if the Pope’s near death was Our Lady’s exclamation point on the previous week’s teaching.
The Pope began his discussion of pornography by pointing out that the human body is a perennial object of culture. Because sexuality and the experience of love between man and woman is so deeply imbedded in what it means to be human, art and literature always find fertile ground in those two arenas. But the Holy Father was also aware that the world, especially in the West, was rapidly being (re)transformed form a culture of the word into a culture of the image. This resulted in a culture in which everything—from photoshoots to movies to reality TV shows to viral videos to hacked personal sex videos— finds its way to an audience. With virtually unlimited access, the idea that certain things should be surrounded by discretion is anathema. The Pope commented that even the use of the term “pornography” is a linguistic addition that represents a softening for what had previously been called obscaena, from which we get the word obscene.
The Puritanical Backfire
In many ways this represents a backfire of the puritanical approach that sought to keep even artistic representations of the naked human body hidden from sight. The Church had forgotten some of what it meant to be Catholic—embracing all that is good, true and beautiful in the world—and adopted this priggish approach instead. Men of the Church had even gone so far as to cover over nudes in Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel with unsightly loincloths. But John Paul II was proposing a different approach, namely learning to distinguish between the obscene and the aesthetic through the development of the ethos of the image. So committed to this approach was he that he would later remove those same awkward loincloths in Michelangelo’s masterpiece in order to show “the splendor and dignity” of the naked human body (Homily at the Mass celebrating the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, 1994).
At either extreme the problem remains the same. Without a guiding ethos, erotic art and pornography remain indistinguishable and we swing from license to prohibition and back again. The ethos of the image provides an escape from this merry-go-round, but only if we are able to grasp two important points.
True art consists in taking ideas and imprinting them in matter. It is the idea and the beauty with which it is presented that moves us. This excitement of our aesthetic sensibilities then moves us to further contemplate the idea. There is a certain universality of beautiful art as the particular is abstracted away. This power to move however can be abused when the artist attempts to move the viewer or the listener merely by exciting their aesthetic sensibilities. Now it is no longer the idea and the clarity in which it is presented that moves us, but the direct appeal to emotions.
The second point is related to the first. Unlike all other objects that appear as the matter of art, a person is an object that is also a subject. This means there is always a certain dignity attached to the human body as the subject of art which can never be lost, even if it is abused. Instead, according to the Saint, the offense comes in the intention of the artist. If the artist intends to present a nude body so as to convey some truth about masculinity and femininity then one should consider it erotic art. If, however, their intention is to present a body so as to excite sexual desire in the viewer then this would be considered pornographic. This may even include someone who is not fully naked. This is a favorite trick of Social Media and sites like FoxNews.com who like to present soft pornography in the form of “See such and such’s Beach Bod” or “Watch such and such’s Wardrobe failure” as click bait.
The Spousal Meaning
While there is a certain grey area between erotic art and pornography, there are far less than 50 shades. In fact John Paul II thought it rather easy to discern the intention of the artist—whether or not the spousal meaning of the body is violated. What this means practically is whether the work of art enables the viewer to more deeply understand the meaning of masculinity and femininity—of what it means to be a person. Just as the body reveals the person in the real world, so too should the nude body reveal that there is a person (even if the model is anonymous) there. As philosopher Roger Scruton puts it “The pornographic image is like a magic wand that turns subjects into objects…It causes people to hide behind their bodies.” They become simply objects of desire and nothing more.
Regardless of the intent of the artist however, the Pope was realistic in that we are fallen and prone to what he calls the “look of concupiscense” in which we may look at a beautiful nude and still be moved to desire. For that we must begin to develop what I will call a “spiritual aestheticism” as a corrective. This means that we develop a taste for objective beauty in all arenas of our lives. Only then will we see beauty in the human body and be moved to contemplation. Returning to Scruton he gives what I think is an excellent tool for self-examination. He mentions that the truly beautiful should stir our imagination (our bodily step towards wonder in our minds) and not fantasy. The moment we find fantasy rising in our minds we know we have crossed over.
George Weigel once called the Theology of the Body a “theological time bomb” that was set to go off some time in our century. Thanks to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary on that fateful May day in 1981, the fuse has already been lit. Please God that the first target will be the scourge of pornography—not just to remove it from the moral landscape but to free all of us to see the beauty of the human person in and through the body.