Indecency: In the eye of the beholder?

My extended family is half Catholic, half Protestant. When the Catholics get together, there are numerous children and babies. As a consequence, there’s a lot of breastfeeding going on. A couple of the women have mastered the art of breastfeeding with one arm while walking around the kitchen preparing food. Others prefer to sit around talking, often with the men, while nursing a child. We’re discrete about it–not exposing more than necessary to get the job done, but most of us have lost patience with trying to drape nursing blankets over our breasts during a feed, or with spending thirty minutes separated from the action in another room. There’s too much to do.

My Protestant family members prefer to take their babies out of the room to nurse, into a quiet bedroom, alone–which may stem from modesty, or maybe from a desire to get a baby that is accustomed to quiet nap times to sleep. In any case, on one occasion when both sides of the family were together, I overheard a couple of my Protestant family members remark that they’d “never seen so many boobs! They just whip it out!” It was the first time I’d noticed the difference in attitudes, and over the years, I’ve tried to piece together the roots of the difference. Is it just cultural, or is it theological?

I’ve certainly known a handful of other Catholic families who aren’t as comfortable with breastfeeding as mine is. But by and large, the families I know who embrace Catholic teaching on sexuality, who use either NFP or ecological breastfeeding to space babies, are terribly, terribly comfortable in their skin. Too comfortable, some might argue, if they’ve ever stumbled upon a group of women discussing their signs of fertility in the same way they might discuss a recipe for chicken and noodles.

Over the course of my married life, I’ve been pregnant eight times. Six of those pregnancies, current one still pending, have gone to full term. Five times I’ve been obliged to perform the terribly unladylike and immodest behavior of disrobing in front of a room full of doctors, nurses and occasionally, a student or two, in order to push babies, and their byproducts, out of my nether-regions, which is one of the reasons I find it self-defeating when Catholics zero-in on the subjects of veiling and modesty, as though there are objective guidelines regarding the appropriate exposure of Christian women. It’s very possible to elevate our concept of the body too high above the earth on which it is supposed to dwell.

The gift of self that the Church requires of its members is not possible without at some point letting bodies–and all the fraught feelings in which we cloak them–go. God became man. He gave his flesh and blood (not just his soul or his essence) for consumption, and then he allowed his body to be destroyed. Our bodies become dust. Catholics aren’t precious. It’s one of the things I most appreciate about our faith, and without this understanding, it would not be desirable nor practical to live out its teachings on sexuality and openness to life. It’s through the gift of our bodies that we transcend them–which is not to say that our bodies are there for the taking by anyone who would have them, but that they are offered for the glorification of the Body of Christ.

Several weeks ago, I watched with interest an exchange between several of my fellow bloggers here at Patheos concerning the artist, Andy Warhol. For reference, Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic pointed out that Andy Warhol may have been gay, and a pornographer, but he was also Catholic, for better or worse, and attempted to live as a celibate.

Dawn Eden responded that just because Warhol was celibate, did not mean he was chaste, and that his production of pornography was in conflict with any chaste inclinations he might have had.

They’re both right.

Then Eden introduced “Theology of the Body” to the discussion, suggesting that a misunderstanding of TOB leads people to make apology for nudity in photographic art, and that Pope John Paul II, rather, warned that photographic artists are at risk of treating the subject of their work as an “anonymous object.”

She writes:

“Another very important point of John Paul’s catechesis that is often missed by those doing apologetics on behalf of images of nudity is that the pope’s entire teaching on the theology of the body is about how the body enables communion of persons–and that “Communion of persons” for John Paul, whether human-with-human or human-with-God is never defined as being “body to body.” Rather, the late Holy Father always describes communion of persons as “face to face.””

Eden has not provided an example source for the Holy Father’s intentional exclusion of a “body to body” communion, but from a human, artistic, and theological standpoint–if Pope John Paul II’s catechesis omits the possibility of communion of persons occurring body to body, it omits quite a bit. The very suggestion of a division between body-to-body and a face-to-face communion implicates the catechesis in a sort of dualism where the face (or the soul) is separate and elevated above the body as the only means of communion.

Did Christ offer just his face for the redemption of our sin, or the blood coursing through every extremity of his body? Do husband and wife offer only their faces to each other in the marriage act, or do they close their eyes and know each other in a more tangible way? Can a mother not bond with her child, body to body in the womb, long before they see each other’s faces?

The objectification of the body in any artistic representation certainly exists, as the Holy Father’s asserts when he calls the human body “a perennial object of culture” (The Human Body, Subject of Works of Art), but this artistic objectification does not negate the potential for communion of persons to take place.

Many years ago, before I had kids, I posed for an artist I respected, and whose work I admired. One of the things she taught me, is that communion of persons can take place through art and nude depictions therein, long after the model herself (or himself) has left the scene–especially when we’re talking about the communion one feels with the Body of Christ in recognition of our fallen (or redeemed) humanity as represented in paint or photography. This communion can occur even when observing a photographed torso, or a decapitated and disarmed body of Venus.

I don’t believe it was Warhol’s intention in his films, but there is a mindset where the nude model makes a sort of holy offering of oneself, and where the artist, in attempting to capture the wholeness of that person, body and soul, in a new medium, makes a holy offering in kind.

As my artist friend, Karly Whitaker, noted, “I have to believe that artistic expression can aim for the communication or representation of soul, although it must speak in the language of shape and form–or, in the case of writing, these clumsy words. In fact, that was the subject of my master’s thesis, on Thomas Eakins’ portraits—he wanted his students, after being well-trained in the matter of anatomy, to learn to capture the figure’s “centre line”–a unique, determining meridian, from which all else flowed.” (emphasis mine)

It is necessary for the artist to study the body for its object value when the body is the subject of any artistic medium. An artist might do hundreds of sketches of a disembodied breast in order to master the representation of its flesh consistency, poundage, and the wear of life and gravity on its appearance–and this must happen long before any symbolism can be ascribed to it, or said breast makes it into a completed composition. In this way, the “fine arts” (as opposed to photographic arts in Eden’s piece) are perhaps more oriented toward the treatment of the body as an “anonymous object” than the photographic arts.

But is this sexual objectification? Hardly. The body is, like all living things, a noun, an object, and one with a vast variety of significances.

Sexual objectification requires a certain tunnel vision, where an object is only one thing and nothing else–a means of sexual gratification. Hence, those who proclaim the indecency of breastfeeding in public and the modesty police who point out the errors in other people’s dress, calling people “whores” due to inches of flesh revealed–have fallen into the same sin, of sexually objectifying others, as the pornographer.

Some people may feel titillated by the flash of a breastfeeding mother’s nipple, while others fail to feel arousal even with exposure to hardcore pornography–because the disposition of the soul is conducive or not conducive to this tunnel vision.

Does this mean that Catholics should dress to incite lust, or that pornography is ok? Not at all. While I’m not prepared to make judgement on Warhol’s immortal soul, I agree with Eden that Warhol’s production of pornography suggests a failure of chastity in spite of his celibacy.

We practice chastity to prevent seeing ourselves and others through the purely sexual lens. The Catholic faith asks us to look further, to use the material around us, words, paint, film, and yes, even bodies, to see the image of God.

Thomas L McDonald says it better than I do, and takes issue with Eden’s assertion that Pope John Paul II has drawn a “Bright Line” between using images of the naked body in fine arts and photographic media.
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What Are Women For?
Strange Alliances
Called by Name: A Fierce and Fearsome Theology of Woman
Oh, Eden!
About Elizabeth Duffy