Sex and the Liberal Scribe: There is No Shame

“Let him who is without sin . . .

Early in the Gospel of John we are told that Jesus “could tell what a man had in him” (Jn 2:25). He knew the heart of man; and in his talks on marriage and love, Pope John Paul II tells us that Christ appeals to the heart of man — “he calls upon it, he does not accuse it.” (Dec 10 1980) In Redemptor hominis,  he makes Christ and the heart thematic: “Christ, the Redeemer of the world, is the one who penetrated in a unique unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his ‘heart’.” §8 Speaking the language of the heart, Christ challenged the scribes and Pharisees; they were usually befuddled, for they were literalists and legalists who could not comprehend such a language or respond honestly to an appeal to the heart. It was thirty years ago that Pope John Paul II was near the half way point of his catechesis on marriage, love and vocation, now known as the Theology of the Body. John Paul develops a series of profound meditations on the human heart.

There have been some efforts to commemorate this great achievement of JP2, and a few liberal Catholics are finding that they must lash out at the Pope and his Theology of the Body. For example, liberal scribe Eugene Kennedy just posted a diatribe against Cardinal Rigali’s recent praise of Pope John Paul II. It is not only lacking in charity (it is quite vicious), it especially lacks intellectual honesty. You may find Kennedy’s “Rigali’s old time religion” here.  Kennedy is like the scribes of old, a literalist who apparently mocks the language of the heart. He seriously distorts the Pope’s teaching on love and lust, ignores standard Church teaching on concupiscence, and pushes some version of a therapeutic “sex without shame.”

What is going on here? Pope John Paul II took three years working through biblical texts, philosophy, Church tradition to develop a probing and innovative account of marriage, sexuality, and state of life. Not surprisingly, the theology of the body defends and explicates the teaching of Humanae vitae and Gaudium et spes. He spent of a year of the talks on Mt 5:27-28: “I wish to develop the following statement of Christ, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Mt 5:27-28).” He deftly uses his sources to come up with some remarkable insights and explanations of the nuptial meaning of the body and marriage as a communion of persons. He works at distinguishing love and lust and integrating eros and ethics. It is an intellectual tour de force. So why does Kennedy work so hard to distort it and to demean the man who wrote it?

The reasons for the hatred I do not understand and I shall not attempt to explain, other than the reference I make to the befuddlement of the scribes and pharisees at the language of Jesus. He uttered hard sayings. After hearing the teaching on property and riches the apostles exclaimed, then who could be saved? Perhaps after hearing the teaching on adultery — if a man looks with lust on a woman, then he has committed adultery already — an honest response should be the same. Who can be saved? Who is innocent? Well yes, that was Jesus’ response to the crowd who wanted to stone the woman caught in the act of adultery. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. But with God all things are possible. Does the vehement and vitriolic response derive from the difficulty of the saying combined with a despair over the grace of God?

The intellectual distortions are easier to mark.

  • he is incredulous that a “disinterested love” could transcend pleasure seeking
  • he attributes the teaching on concupsicence to be a peculiar quirk of Augustine and the “tortured” John Paul II
  • the “divided model” of the person is also a quirk of JP2
  • he says JP2 claims that desire in an “unacceptable element” in sexual love
  • he says JP2 claims real love is the “antithesis” of emotional desire
  • he finds problematic that the pope would say desire should be subordinate to love
  • Kennedy says healthy human passion should “overwhelm all else”
  • he mocks the notion that the will should combat sexual urge and the that the desire to possess the other could be contrary to the order of love
  • he says that JP2 teaches that desire “limits and reduces” his “idealized control”
  • he seems to find it strange that there may be erotic sensations that are not rooted in true love
  • he says John Paul II teaches that there is shame for having a body

The notion of disinterested love is that of benevolence, or good will. Is it inconceivable to Kennedy that someone could act consistently or habitually for the good of another person, particularly a beloved? Concupiscence, the disorder of desire after the fall, is taught at Trent and in the Catechism  of Vatican II (see §§405, 418). It is not an aberration of Augustine and now John Paul II. Does Kennedy deny that there is a disorder in the soul of man that affects sexual desire, as well as other passions of the soul? Is he a Pelagian who thinks that human good will suffices for love (if there is benevolence after all); or better yet, shall we adopt Rousseau and simply acknowledge the goodness of natural passion? The divided model of the human person is prominent in Gaudium et spes — “They are therefore divided interiorly. As a result, the entire life of women and men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness. People find that they are unable of themselves to overcome the assaults of evil successfully, so that everyone feels as if in chains.” §10

John Paul never claimed that desire in unacceptable or that real love is its antithesis. I used a word search to examine the Wednesday audiences on the theology body. I could not find these claims. With proper explanation and qualification there is something like that — but it begs the question to put it so simply. What he does say is that desire is a “substratum” for love or lust, depending on the person’s response to the call to communion of persons:

already in the mystery of creation, that which constituted the natural, somatic and sexual substratum of that attraction, fully expressed the call of man and woman to personal communion. After sin, on the contrary, in the new situation of which Genesis 3 speaks, this expression was weakened and dimmed. (July 23, 1980)

John Paul II’s argues precisely that desire may be deformed by lust and that it must be transformed by love. The major problem about lust is not that it limits self-control, but that it limits and restricts the “nuptial meaning” of the body. Kennedy does not mention this key idea in the teaching about the theology of the body. Lust reduces the person and weakens or dims the good of communion with the other.  Thus Christ warns his hearers about lust, as equivalent to adultery, because of this limit and reduction on spousal love. (See his audience of September 17, 1980) Christ does not condemn, he appeals to the heart and conscience of each man, i.e., each man who can (still) feel shame and acknowledge that they are not innocent in these matters (scribes and pharisees did not hear this appeal):

The heart has become a battlefield between love and lust. The more lust dominates the heart, the less the heart experiences the nuptial meaning of the body. It becomes less sensitive to the gift of the person, which expresses that meaning in the mutual relations of man and woman. Certainly, that lust which Christ speaks of in Matthew 5:27-28 appears in many forms in the human heart. It is not always plain and obvious. Sometimes it is concealed, so that it passes itself off as love, although it changes its true profile and dims the limpidity of the gift in the mutual relationship of persons. (July 23, 1980)

 Psychologists like Kennedy apparently wish to eliminate shame from the realm of sexuality in favor of natural spontaneity. JP2 did warn us in his talk that “The biblical and theological meaning of desire and lust is different from that used in psychology. For the latter, desire comes from lack or necessity, which the value desired must satisfy. As we can deduce from 1 Jn 2:16, biblical lust indicates the state of the human spirit removed from the original simplicity and the fullness of values that man and the world possess in the dimensions of God” (May 28, 1980). Lust imposes a reduction of the fullness of love and created order. Shame is the recognition that one is not simple in love, but guileful, and that one is alienated from the fullness of communion. The manifestation of lust is usually a reduction to the value of physical attractiveness and sensual satisfaction, at the expense of communion with the other, good will, and procreation. This is not an abstract rumination, as Kennedy claims, this is real life, everyday experience of men and women. Most simply put, “lust is a deception of the human heart in the perennial call of man and woman—a call revealed in the mystery of creation—to communion by means of mutual giving.” Let him who has ears to hear  . . .

The scribes and pharisees had their own measure of reality, taken from their compromises or legalisms. In the very first talk on this topic Pope John Paul II explains that Christ does not condemn us but appeals to our heart to “realize the very meaning of being a man” and to “enter into the depth of the norm.” He says, “to reach it, it is not enough to stop at the surface of human actions. It is necessary to penetrate inside.” (April 16, 1980). In the remarkable series of talks he has done just that, and for this legacy we should be grateful. But to follow him on this journey of discovery, and to follow Christ, we must be ready to enter into our own heart: the words of Christ “demand that man should enter into his full image. The man who is ‘flesh,’ as a male remains in relationship with woman through his body and sex. In the light of these words of Christ, this man must find himself again interiorly, in his heart.” (April 23, 1980).

1 Comment
  1. Very good post. Mr. Kennedy's observations on shame reminds me of the following:

    "What does your conscience say?- 'You should be come who you are.'

    Where lie your greatest dangers?- 'In pity'

    Whom do you call bad?- Him who always wants to make a ashamed.

    What is to you the most humane thing?- To spare anyone of shame.

    What is the seal of freedom attained?- No longer to be ashamed of oneself." F. Nietzsche The Gay Science

    Granted some persons are made to feel shame erroneously. I am thinking here of children who have been abused and feel shame for things that have are not there fault. Yet, the abuse of thing not invalidate the thing itself.

    Robert Spaemann says in a essay that shame is the recognition that (I am paraphrasing) "I am the sort of person who could do so." Nietzshe's desire (and Kennedy's too?) is to remove this barrier. Once shame is gone I acknowledge that there is no approbation to my behavior beyond my own need for desire fulfillment. If my own desire fulfillment becomes magisterial then whomever I come into contact with have value to the extent that they figure into my calculus. In fact, Nietzsche recognizing the trajectory of his thought goes on to claim that if we no longer have shame we no longer have the need for accountability to another person. To extinguish legitimate shame is to make permissible the eventual debasement of one person by another.

    Not a few social scientists want to live in a "never-never land", where people freed of repressive shame, will live in perfect accord with one another. In the utopia of hygenic mental health autonomous adults do whatever they wish without the possiblity of hurting another. At least Nietzsche is honest in saying accountability to others has to go once shame is dismissed. But for persons, who follow Kennedy's advice, wanting to abolish shame but retain accountability, they must eventually come to Sartre's understanding that hell is other people.

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