Why is it Difficult to Talk about Immodesty?

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks. It’s because I’m getting married. This isn’t something sudden; I’ve just always been reluctant to reveal very much about my personal life on the Internet. I can say, though, that my fiancé and I would appreciate your prayers. I promise to return to blogging by the end of June as a far better person.

I’m sure that Catholic Sensibility will flourish in my absence, especially since Todd has figured out that immodesty, even as the unillustrated topic of abstract theological discussion, will always attract visitors. And so my subject here is immodesty, a rather strange one given the upcoming nuptials. It seems that nobody who has commented here actually wears immodest clothing to church or encourages the practice. Furthermore, I choose to believe that all who have kindly graced our comments boxes would counsel those who wear blatantly immodest outfits to change their apparel, whether for the sake of protecting their own “intimate center” or to avoid presenting an “occasion of sin.” (There is also Umberto Eco’s interesting line, “Thought abhors tights.”) So, why so many comments about a matter that would seem to be relatively clear, at least in practice? Obviously, immodesty is not just about immodesty.

What is it about? I would like to cautiously explore this question, using some of the work of Tina Beattie. I trust that you’ll let me know if I seem misguided; I hope that I don’t unnecessarily offend anyone. We’ll begin with the observation, which I think will be uncontroversial if somewhat uncomfortable, that female sexuality can be a very tricky thing for males – especially Catholic males. Dr Beattie points out that our tradition includes a good many males who have envisioned their spiritual lives as a “highly eroticized love affair between the feminized soul and Christ.” Thus, the medieval mystic Richard Rolle, drawing on the Song of Songs, writes in The Fire of Love: “Let him kiss me and refresh me with his sweet love; let him hold me tight and kiss me on the mouth, else I die; let him pour his grace into me, that I may grow in love.” But this spiritual desire often means resisting sexual desire; one is lured away from the love of Christ by the temptations of a real female body. And so Rolle writes, also in The Fire of Love, “Loving women upsets the balance, disturbs the reason, changes wisdom to folly, estranges the heart from God, takes the soul captive, and subjects it to demons!” Needless to say, we are entering dangerous territory.

I suppose that many of you have not read Rolle (I probably would not have, if not for an undergraduate course with a rather interesting reading list). But we do see a similar dynamic in the late Hans Urs von Balthasar, perhaps the most influential (and erudite) twentieth century Catholic theologian. For Balthasar, the human soul is feminine before the masculine God, a theme very much reflected in John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem: “All human beings – both women and men – are called through the Church, to be the ‘Bride’ of Christ, the Redeemer of the world. In this way ‘being the bride,’ and thus the ‘feminine’ elements, becomes a symbol of all that is ‘human’ …” But, Tina Beattie says, for Balthasar, as with Rolle, “this entails the man having a spiritual capacity to transcend his sexual body, in order to mimetically adopt the feminine persona in his relationship with Christ.”

In a chapter entitled “The Conquest of the Bride” in his Heart of the World, Balthasar imagines Christ himself addressing the earthly Church:

Just as you, passionately, with throbbing pulse, cross over temptation’s boundary, so, too, have I crossed over the boundary of the flesh with a quivering heart, fully conscious of the danger. I dared to enter the body of my Church, the deadly body which you are … For your sake I became weak, since I could experience your being only in weakness. No wonder you realized your advantage over me and took my nakedness by storm! But I have defeated you through weakness and my Spirit has overpowered my unruly and recalcitrant flesh. (Never has woman made more desperate resistance!)

Tina Beattie says that, in this strange passage, “Von Balthasar’s Christ, like Rolle, is the spiritual man battling against the female body which reminds him of his own sexual vulnerability and weakness.” The feminine has here been metaphorically conquered and controlled by Christ, and, as the “bride of Christ,” the Catholic male must also struggle against the female flesh that still lures his own “unruly and recalcitrant flesh” away from his Bridegroom. I do hope that I am not being unfair to Balthasar, but it seems that, at the very least, this line of thought can lead to disturbing consequences.

I think we can speculate, then, that part of the reason why it is hard to talk about female immodesty is something unspoken – the presence of real and unavoidable female bodies compromises the language that some Catholic males use to make sense of their “feminine” relationship to God. The real female body is an imagined competitor to the soul’s longing for Christ. I think that this would be unfortunate.

But Dr Beattie helps us identify another very different reason that might explain why immodesty will always attract more than a hundred comments. We can begin by asking another, more basic question: What was unique about Christianity in the ancient world? Christians did not sacrifice. This refusal to sacrifice was also a simultaneous refusal of the violence that accompanied sacrifice. Beattie draws on Rene Girard’s theory of religious scapegoating to explain the nature of sacrifice. Here is Girard from a brief and useful First Things article:

When scandals proliferate, human beings become so obsessed with their rivals that they lose sight of the objects for which they compete and begin to focus angrily on one another. As the borrowing of the model’s object shifts to the borrowing of the rival’s hatred, acquisitive mimesis turns into a mimesis of antagonists. More and more individuals polarize against fewer and fewer enemies until, in the end, only one is left. Because everyone believes in the guilt of the last victim, they all turn against him-and since that victim is now isolated and helpless, they can do so with no danger of retaliation. As a result, no enemy remains for anybody in the community.

Christians do not sacrifice because the Bible “proclaims the innocence of mythical victims and the guilt of their victimizers.” The old myths – the ritual maiming and murder of Oedipus and Pentheus, for example – would disguise this making of peace through the death of an innocent (“no enemy remains for anybody in the community”). Oedipus has, the story goes, killed his father and slept with his mother, and his blinding and expulsion become a supposedly self-inflicted religious duty. In his classic text, Violence and the Sacred, Girard noted that “women don’t appear, for the most part, as the primary agents of violence,” but they very often play sacrificial victims in the mythical accounts of rape by the gods. The Virgin Birth, he says, is quite different from other myths because likely sacrificial victims – “the child, the woman, the pauper and domestic animals” – are in the foreground, but also because of the absence of sexuality, which “corresponds to the absence of the violent mimesis with which myth acquaints us in the form of rape by the gods.”

Many of the early Church fathers, Dr Beattie reminds us, were converts from paganism, and their opposition to the cults would go along with a deep wariness about the sexuality that was apparently part of its sacrificial violence – “perhaps the revulsion with which they recall their experiences of the cults is tinged with shame, for at the time they presumably experienced not disgust but arousal.” We can easily imagine a more explicitly sexualized version of the uncontrollable “bloodlust” shown in Augustine’s famous account of Alypius at Rome’s civic ritual – the gladiatorial show, “For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness–delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither.”

There is something very valuable in this. As Beattie says, “If sexual violence did not have the power to arouse, there would be no market in pornography, and media reports of sex crimes, rape and abuse would be considerably less voyeuristic.” But the connection between ritualized violence and the female sexual body can have destructive aspects, particularly if female sexuality is always seen as potentially pagan, and the only feminine ideal becomes transcendently asexual.

Once more, I don’t think that anybody supports immodest clothing for obvious reasons. But why does a discussion on immodesty increase blog traffic this much? I wonder whether the unveiled female body is seen as a sexual competitor to the soul’s longing for Christ, and if it is still very much associated with the “divine madness” against which Pope Benedict rightly cautioned us. I would worry about this. But perhaps I am being ridiculous.

Of course, I also worry that my fiancé will read this. I promise not to think about this subject for a very long while.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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