By Michael O’Brien

“Grace never casts nature aside or cancels it out. Rather it perfects it and ennobles it.”
– John Paul II, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women

October 8, 2008 ( – I’ve been pondering recently, as I have so many times over the years, what Our Lady meant precisely in the messages of Fatima when she spoke about the offences through the clothing fashions that would develop in the years following the apparitions. Appearing to Blessed Jacinta Marto between December, 1919 and February, 1920, she said, “Certain fashions will be introduced that will offend Our Lord very much.” And “Woe to women lacking in modesty.”

Clearly, Our Lady is neither a repressive puritan nor a prude. It goes without saying that neither is she a libertarian. She is beautiful in heart, mind, body and soul. She is without sin and thus she is subject to neither unholy shamelessness nor to personal shame. She is prudent, modest, and wise about human nature. She loves with the fullness of indwelling divine love, which means that she loves with an eternal motherly heart, concerned above all with the ultimate good of each of her children.

Much of current fashion, especially for women, is an assault upon the ultimate good of those who wear such clothing. It is cunningly designed for attraction, enticement, and seduction, reinforcing the great lie which dominates modern consciousness. This lie tells us that the body is simply an object which we possess as our own, to do with as we like.

Semi-nudity has become commonplace on magazine covers, advertisements, at swimming pools and beaches. Total nudity is becoming more frequent in media such as television and film, and is rampant in the vastly more popular “private” cultural consumption of the internet. Juxtapose with these near-universal phenomena the fact that more than sixty percent of marriages now end in divorce or separation, that self-denial and sacrifice have become widely discredited concepts, and that the pursuit of happiness through the avenues of sensual satisfaction have produced a profoundly disordered society. No people in history has been so richly rewarded with pleasures, and no people in history has ever been so unhappy.

The great lie tells us, in essence, that we have no eternal value, that our value is to be found only within the limited span of our lives, and especially in the most vital years of youth when we are strongest, most attractive, and most productive. We are, supposedly, what others tell us we are. We are worth as much or as little as they decide we are worth. In a society that is increasingly focused on sensual pleasure, this means we will be as valuable only so far as we are considered sensually attractive. Attractiveness, of course, is a subjective thing, and thus most people will find themselves objects of interest to others at some point in their lives. Generally this means they will be objects of desire. And desire’s first “interface,” if you will, is the body.

Nudity or Nakedness?

As an artist I have often had to ponder the moral questions which arise from nudity in art. Theorists maintain that there is a basic difference between nakedness and nudity, a distinction which I have never quite been able to grasp, though I know the arguments well. Every year legions of fresh-faced young art students and medical students are confronted with the same problem as they encounter for the first time the unclothed human body in all its glory and poverty. The theory has it that they are drawing or dissecting a specimen, a form detached from its personal identity. According to this theory, these young professionals will not be troubled by disorderly attractions because they are engaged in disinterested acts of education-the pursuit of knowledge and skills which will benefit mankind. I might agree, were it not for the fact that human nature isn’t quite so cut and dried. I hazard a guess that no matter how firmly people cling to the principle in their minds, no matter how detached they think they are, there will be a struggle in the emotions. The naked human body will always be for us something about which we cannot remain absolutely neutral-precisely because this “something” is not a thing, and never will be, no matter how determined we are to make it so.

In former generations there was a good deal of unhealthy fear of the body, a kind of wound caused by the errors of puritanical sects or the heresy of Jansenism. It is said that severe repression of our natural fascination for and attraction to the body had merely driven the passions underground, only to erupt in desperate, sometimes bizarre forms. Whether or not this is so, it is certainly not the problem in our times. Far from it. I am convinced that the modern harping on the supposed repressiveness of the past is really no more than a symptom of our current obsession with sex. If we were to plunge back a century or two, I think we would find that while our ancestors’ manner of dress was indeed more formal, and at times even constricting, most people still wed and had children and made happy marriages with startling frequency-and with an enviable rate of success. Compare that to our own dismal, liberated era, in which the image of the cavorting human body is thrust at us a thousand times a day from the pages of the tabloids at the supermarket check-out counter, from chewing gum commercials on television, home computer screens, and from what is being worn on the beach and at church. Modesty has gone out of style.

It is sometimes asked, usually whenever sexual morality is being argued: “Are Catholics prudes? “

“If only we were!” sighs many an exasperated parent, wishing we could go back to a time when sexual temptations of the most extreme kind did not assault the young at every turn, to a time, moreover, when our present state of affairs would not for an instant have appeared to be normal. Of course, the longing for an age when Christian morality was the norm in society is to some degree a hankering for a golden age that never really existed. It was never perfectly lived by any Christian society. Yet in those older and wiser periods of Christian civilization, whenever individuals violated moral law they knew that there was a law, and they had some sense that this law was an unshakeable truth based in the divine order, the very structure of reality itself. Even as recently as a generation ago, the extent to which our present culture has become a pornographic one would have been unthinkable. Though sex has always been in the atmosphere, my parents’ generation could not have imagined whole peoples consumed by obsession with sexual pleasure as if it were the most important element in existence. In my youth, my peers may have been tempted to pore over certain sections of the Sears catalogue, or to rifle through the National Geographic magazine in search of articles about hottest Africa, or to pursue their academic interest in Art (at the age of thirteen) by familiarizing themselves with the pictures in well-thumbed volumes on Greek sculpture which our parents thought harmless. But my children are now living in a society where anything-simply anything-can be seen with the tap of a computer key.

From the perspective of middle age, father of six children and husband of a beloved wife, I have come to believe that Western man is still missing the mark, still lost between the poles of two disorders. The libertarian, obsessed with the passions, thinks that our problems are caused by repression and that these will be relieved when we toss out inhibitions. The prude or puritan, hating or fearing the passions, believes that our problems stem from altogether too much of the senses, and wishes to cram them back into the shadows of his being. Neither of these are Christian views of the body.

John Paul II’s “Body Theology”

From September, 1979, to April of 1981, Pope John Paul II gave a series of sixty-three talks which became the foundation of what is now known as his “Theology of the Body.” In them he reflected on the meaning of the human person, sexuality, and Christian marriage. He taught that the second and third chapters of Genesis reveal the truth about man, for written there are “original human experiences,” which “are always at the root of every human experience.” We are made in God’s own image, he says, yet we do not know who we are unless we know who God is.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s love for each other was a mutual gift of their whole beings, a “self-donation” of their personhood made through free acts of their wills. The giving of their sexual powers, their masculinity and femininity, was in harmonious submission to this mutual giving. They desired, more than anything else, the good of their spouse, the good of the other’s entire being. It was total love.

“And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed,” says the author of Genesis. The Pope points out that these passages do not express a lack but, on the contrary, “serve to indicate a fullness of consciousness and experience.”

Shame came into existence only with the advent of sin in human nature, and at that point our first parents had not yet sinned. Nakedness was a state of freedom in which they could express love perfectly through their bodies as one of the “languages” of the heart. But with the entry of sin into the world there came what the Holy Father calls a “fundamental disquiet in all human existence.” There was a “constitutive break within the human person, almost a rupture of man’s original spiritual and somatic [physical] unity.”

It is well-nigh impossible for us to experience nakedness as our first parents did. We experience shame when naked, a phenomenon which bears a kind of witness to the disorder in us caused by original sin, and which at the same time prompts us to reflect on how things should have been. When one considers that every other creature on earth is completely at ease without clothing, human embarrassment is all the more startling. This sense of embarrassment is connected at root to the knowledge of good and evil, the fruit which we tasted at the Fall. Before the age of reason (the age of knowledge of good and evil) children are rarely concerned about modesty. The toddlers in our family, for example, display an innocent disregard for modesty, and are fascinated with their own bodies. The sexual organs are as interesting (or not) as the toes and fingers. But by about the ages five to seven, with hardly a word (and in some cases with no word) of prompting from their parents, our children begin to be rather fussy about pajama time, bathing, or scampering around the house looking for underwear. They want to be “private.” Of course, this does not reflect an undeclared anxiety that they are in danger of sexual exploitation-for they do not even know of the existence of overt sexuality at that age. Operative here is a profound instinct which is rooted in the Fall, a latent sense of danger to their personhood which began with that original sin. At a very deep level each of us knows that we can be loved only for who we are as persons, and that to be valued or not valued according to our sexual qualities is to be loved in an incomplete, even a deformed manner, which is, in fact, to be not loved.

In 1960, Karol Wojtyla, wrote a book titled Love and Responsibility, in which he discussed the universal human instinct to conceal our sexual qualities from the eyes of others. Man hides these aspects of his being because “the spontaneous need to conceal sexual values bound up with the person is a natural way to the discovery of the value of the person as such.” He adds that “the feeling of shame goes with the realization that one’s person must not be an object for use on account of the sexual values connected with it . . . and with the realization that a person of the opposite sex must not be regarded (even in one’s private thoughts) as an object of use.” Of course, he did not mean by “shame” any morbid sense of self-negation, horror of the body, or puritanical attitudes. Quite the reverse, for “shame” properly understood is a way of protecting and valuing the dignity of the person. It is those who no longer value themselves who become “shameless.” Married couples pass beyond shame in an entirely different way, because they have chosen each other and have committed their whole beings to each other, and thus do not feel embarrassment upon being seen naked by each other.

Believing the Lie

In the beginning, Adam and Eve had the ability to express their personhood perfectly through their bodies. There was no inward tug-of-war between their wills and the desires of their flesh. The devil could not tempt them through sensuality, as he so persistently tempts us. He did not seduce Adam and Eve by descriptions of the delicious tastes, sights and textures of the fruit of the forbidden tree, for such an approach would not have touched our first parents in the least. The evil one’s only hope of success lay in an assault against their intellects, in their understanding of the proper order of creation, by inserting a radical doubt into their minds: “Did God really say that?” he suggested.

This deceptively simple question has riddled and ruined believers ever since. “Did God really say that?” is expressed in various forms in countless situations, all of which repeat the first fatal flaw. It is an ancient device of the enemy, and a favorite one, because it is so productive for him. Where the flesh cannot be enticed, pride usually can, and the world’s first exegete knows it well.

The primeval seduction had two fronts: the undermining of Adam and Eve’s understanding of who God is, and the distortion of their understanding of themselves. The serpent told Eve that she could become like God if she ate the fruit God had forbidden her and Adam to eat. The subtlest and most horrible part of the lie was the inference that God did not want them to eat this fruit because he did not want to share his lordship over creation. That Adam and Eve had already been given a lordship over creation, naming and knowing all things in love, seems to have escaped them at the moment of temptation. Perhaps the great conjurer blinded that perception before implanting the falsehood.

When they said yes to the lie, darkness entered them. The harmony of their inner life began to break down until heart and mind and body became separate parts of themselves, out of harmony, working against each other, fractured, struggling to reunite and completely unable to do so. Adam and Eve looked at each other and they no longer liked what they saw. They looked at each other’s minds and saw minds that had believed a deception, minds which could no longer be trusted. They looked at each other’s hearts and saw hearts that had turned away from the great Love who had made them. And then they saw flesh and touched it and to their surprise it was still pleasurable.

And so lust entered the world. Although it felt good to the senses it left that mysterious center of their being, which was their personhood, feeling cold and apart. Their pleasure was henceforth to be taken in the midst of an agony of loss, the anguish of remembering what they had once been. This truth became too hard for them to bear and they fled from each other in the dark. Only the powerful magnetism of the senses drew them back. Then they looked at each other again and they lusted again and when they knew they were loving with only a fragment of what they had once been, with only a remnant of the great love they once had for each other, they were ashamed. Genesis records that “they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin-cloths.” John Paul II points out that, “This passage speaks of the mutual shame of the man and the woman as a symptom of the Fall.”

When God asked them for an accounting of what had happened, they were ashamed again, for they saw that He knew what they had done. They were afraid, and fear had driven out love of Him whom they had known and walked with in the Garden, long ago in the time of original unity. He had made them for himself, and they had abandoned his love in favor of an artful deceit. They no longer shared the life of paradise. And so they were expelled from Eden. No doubt it was an angel who drove them forth, just as the Scripture says, but even without that angel they would probably have fled from Eden, for this was the home of their original unity, now so ruined, so betrayed. They and their descendants would thereafter be strangers and sojourners on the face of the earth, always yearning for a true home, never quite finding it; always longing for union and communion, and never quite finding it; always subject to the cravings of the flesh, ever slipping away from consciousness of the full meaning of each other; self-absorbed, selfish, swinging from humiliation to pride in an unstable trajectory through time. This alienation, this disintegration, this lack of control over their bodies, was certainly a just consequence of their choice. It was important that they who had wished to rule over creation by achieving equality with God realize that they could not even rule their own flesh. In their very blood and marrow and feelings they would know the effects of their seemingly abstract disobedience.

After original sin, the mind and will could no longer master the body. The body was in opposition to the will-and it was often the stronger. Even to this day when a man or a woman is dominated by lust, the gift of love becomes almost impossible. Rather than a self-donation, as John Paul II calls it, the person compelled by the lust of the flesh seeks self-gratification through use of the other as an object of pleasure. He seeks to find in a fragment the missing whole-which is, I think,  a working definition of idolatry.

One of the most curious things to happen during the period in which John Paul II gave his discourses on the “Theology of the Body” was the reaction of the world’s media. For the most part journalists simply ignored what he was saying, and this, sadly, included much of the Catholic media as well. However, at one point in his talks he maintained that if a husband looks upon his wife with lust he is guilty of a grave sin. The world media suddenly went into an uproar. The Pope’s statement seemed to them so completely absurd that many commentators found it more comedy than error. This reaction was an indication of how poorly people understand their own natures. They could not grasp the difference between the selfish use of a spouse on one hand, and passionate sexuality flowing from a foundation of generous love for one’s spouse, on the other. The Pope was not for an instant suggesting that sexual desire is sinful in itself. He was saying that sexual acts or attitudes which render the spouse into an object to be used are sinful. He was asking married people to consider the motives of their hearts.

Am I in my Body?

During the past few centuries, the full meaning of the human person has steadily shrunk in social consciousness, and strangely, this has occurred in direct proportion to man’s exaltation of himself as the lord of creation. Man without Faith sees himself, consciously or subconsciously, as the master of all that he is and all he surveys. The body is considered no longer as an integral dimension of his whole being, but as a thing which he possesses, like any other piece of property. Ironically, this view rarely bestows self-mastery.

Even we Christians have not resisted such errors very well, partly because of an undeveloped theology of the body, a gap which the Holy Father is attempting to fill. I suspect that most of us have a vague notion of the body as a container and ourselves inside it-something like those poor captives my children bring home from time to time: fireflies or butterflies fluttering around in a bottle.

“Dad,” each of our children has asked me at one time or another, “Am I in my body or am I my body?”

The look of puzzlement and intense curiosity on their faces when they ask this is a sign that ultimate questions are working their way up from the soul to the consciousness. But how do you explain it to a six year old, or a twelve year old, or a fifty year old? Of course, the body is not a container, nor simply a biological organism, nor is it a machine. It cannot be owned, manipulated, used, bought, sold or violated without something drastic and negative happening to one’s well-being. Which is why the Pope was so insistent about lust in marriage. The body is part of the gift of life from God. We are in exile and weakened, but we are beloved of God and capable of sharing in his divine love. We are made in his image and likeness. We are damaged but not destroyed. Since the Incarnation an added significance has been given to our flesh, for we are now temples of the Holy Spirit and Christ dwells within us.

Saint John of Damascus once wrote that when man first sinned he retained the image of God but lost the likeness of God; and since the coming of Christ we are freed to be restored to the original unity. Thus, any diminishment of this truth is an offence against God; any harm inflicted on our bodies or the bodies of others is ultimately an act against Love. In his encyclical on the family, Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II teaches that God calls man into existence through love and for love:

“God is Love, and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation and thus the capacity and responsibility of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being . . . Conjugal love involves a totality in which all the elements of the person enter: the appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affection, aspiration of the spirit and will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, the unity that beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive self-giving; and it is open to fertility.”

Freedom and Responsibility in Cultural Choices

In Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla pointed out that the scientific rationalism of modern man has obscured the sacred order of creation, and this makes it difficult for us to understand the principles on which Catholic sexual morality is based. He says that the order of creation, which we call Natural Law, has its origin in the divine will of God the Father. It cannot be tampered with. To alter the order of existence is a right that belongs only to the Lord himself. When Christ walked on the water, multiplied the loaves and fishes, and (most significantly of all) rose from the dead, he was exercising his divine right. The Apostles understood this and worshipped him. Only the Creator, who holds authority over all creation, can suspend the laws of creation. But even in his omnipotence God never violates the moral order of the universe. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus always acts with total responsibility.

Scientists all too frequently study human biology as if it were divorced from moral order. Since the body is a revelation of the meaning of the human person, the study of human biology should always be an effort to understand the whole mystery of the human person. In this light, sterilization, contraception, abortion, mutilation, fetal experimentation, and the proliferating fields of bio-engineering are revealed as acts of violence against humanity and as insults to God. The physician, for example, should not be merely a technician, a kind of mechanic tinkering in the motor of naked human flesh disassociated from its ultimate meaning. He must serve the patient with attention to the full significance of his being, as God intended it to be “from the beginning.”

Similarly, if an artist paints the naked human figure, he must portray it in a way that contributes to our awareness of the whole truth about man-an example of which is Masaccio’s “The Expulsion From Paradise.” Though the subjects of this painting are naked, their bodies are not the primary focus. Rather the truth of their interior condition is revealed. While prudence demands that such scenes be depicted with a certain restraint, there is a place for them as long as the ultimate meaning and dignity of the human subjects is primary. To make of the body an end in itself is lust, which can be a form of idolatry.

The Church maintains that in every act of freedom, whether it is in the realm of creativity, marital love, scientific research, fashion design, et cetera, there must be a parallel responsibility, responsibility to the whole truth about man. In all the fields of human endeavor, we must reverence human dignity, that of others as well as our own. For example, a young woman who considers wearing provocative clothing should think twice about the effect this would have on the eyes of young men-for to deliberately provoke them in this manner does more than offer them an occasion of sin; it is also a veiled insult, and an insult to herself as well. A scientist who would destroy a child for research purposes, arguing that his increased knowledge will benefit other children, has in effect devalued all children. A film-maker who graphically portrays sexual intercourse in the name of “realism” damages the broader context of the Real by undermining the moral foundations on which truth is built. When the Church condemns such activities, she is not for a moment being unscientific or prudish or anti-culture, for she is ultimately concerned with freeing us to know ourselves as we truly are, and to value ourselves by a measure that is the highest and most eternal. She also protects us from those theorists who wish to recreate man in their own images-the perennial temptation of those who have knowledge and power- “You shall be as Gods.”

Back to Eden or Forward to Paradise?

It is impossible for us to return to the state of original innocence. The Fall of Man was not simply an unpleasant mistake, best forgotten, as if we could clear up the whole matter by pretending it never happened. (This, in effect, is what residents of nudist colonies would like us to believe). It doesn’t work. It’s a lie. The gates to Eden remain resolutely shut. The mistake was made and a lesson is being learned about the state of the universe and what goes on in it. Yet God in His infinite mercy and justice has sent His only-begotten Son to redeem us from the tyranny of lies. Jesus allowed himself to undergo the humiliation of being stripped naked, and through this moral agony combined with his physical agony he bore the pain of our evil choices. In the process he accomplished the redemption of every aspect of our being, including the body. He atoned for all the disorders to which the flesh is heir.

We cannot return to Eden, but Christ has opened the way to restoration of the original unity we were blessed with before the Fall. He calls us to struggle at every moment to act in conformity with God’s original intention so that we may one day come into the inheritance of our true identity. “For what we are to become has not yet been revealed,” says St. John (1 John 3:2-3). Yet we know in part, for we are told that in Paradise after the “resurrection of the flesh” we will be blessed forever with new and glorified bodies. Until then, the Lord assures us that his grace is sufficient for us. He wants our bodies to express our complete personhood, either in the celibate life or in chaste spousal love. By supernatural grace dispensed through the sacraments of the Church and invoked through prayer, it is possible to learn to love fully, to know what we once were and what we can become.

In Christ the marks of our ancient defeat are transfigured. They are icons of the blessed unity which is waiting for us, and for which he paid the price. Our task is to cooperate with grace, to bear a part of the cross every day of our lives, to struggle against the very forces that stripped him naked and degraded his flesh. In this struggle, modesty guards our personhood like a wall around a palace, and shame functions like an invisible watchman at the gates. Shame also begets repentance. Repentance breaks the grip of selfishness, and permits the work of real love to begin. And when Love has completed its work there will be no more shame.

We must not underestimate the urgency of this call to struggle, nor should we forget that our adversary is described by Scripture as the most subtle of all creatures. Christ calls us to stay awake and watch, maintaining a calm vigilance about the devil’s tactics, especially his particular interest in our children. The temptations usually begin subtly with “small” compromises, but we should realize that the enemy’s purpose is to gradually ease us toward greater ones. The massive pressures of an immoral society make it difficult for us to resist, because it is in our nature to want our children to be happy. And the young can behave most unhappily when their desires to be in fashion with the times are resisted. But we must take the long view. God our Father wants our children to be happy eternally, and so we must keep their true happiness always before the eyes of our hearts.

The times are very ill, indeed they are nearly sick unto death. “The culture of death,” the Holy Father calls it. And by this he means far more than the death of the body. Within the short space of a century, Western society has degenerated from a Christian culture to a despiritualized one, and from there it has further degenerated into a dehumanized one. The next stage is the diabolization of culture, a process which has already begun. At this moment in the great war between good and evil, we must turn with renewed confidence to Our Lady, asking her for the particular graces of wisdom, prudence, and modesty for our young people. Daily we should invoke her protection against the spirit of the world and the spirit of our ancient adversary. If we do, she will help us see the areas of our lives where we have been deceived. She will help us find a better way, if we respond to her outpouring of graces. Then our children will learn to love more fully. And they will be loved for who they truly are.


Pope John Paul II’s collected addresses on his theology of the body can be found in Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis and Blessed Are the Pure of Heart: Catechesis on the Sermon on the Mount and Writings of Saint Paul, Saint Paul Editions, Boston, Ma., 1981, 1983. I am also indebted to Fathers Richard Hogan and John LeVoir. The foregoing article draws upon insights in their book, Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul on Sexuality, Marriage and Family in the Modern World, Doubleday & Co., Image Books, Garden City, N.Y., 1986.

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