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Human Physicality and the Near Occasion of Sin

July 13, 2016


Pornography, as well as puritanism, are both deeply flawed visions of the human body.

Is it possible to display an image of a human form in such a way that it is not to be construed as simply a near occasion of sin? From Michelangelo’s ‘David’ to Bernini’s ‘St. Teresa in Ecstasy’, erotic presentations of the human form are not necessarily intended to be pornographic, but rather are ways to express the body as a divine gift. The sculpture of David invites the viewer to envision more than just a body, rather it represents the body of the young Israelite as an expression of the status of the human person as being made in the image and likeness of God. Bernini’s ‘St. Teresa in Ecstasy’ suggests that her body is not something leading her away from divine union, but instead it is to be understood as the intertwining of erotic gratification and agape devotion as the height of mystical experience. It seems today that in both of these types of displays, we find what pornography and Puritanism both lack: an integration of the eros and agape that fulfills the divine purpose for the body.

How can we intentionally keep ourselves balanced in the area of the display of the human body? Biblical revelation presents the human person as representing the pinnacle of Creation. In its expressiveness of the divine image and likeness, and in its integration of body and soul, the human body is beautiful. This beauty is ratified in the Incarnation, in which God accepts, as his own, a body. The Incarnation corrects the skewed perception of the human body that happened as a result of original sin. Yet both pornography and puritanism express the lingering effects of the original sin and resistance to the revelation of the Incarnation. 

In pornography, the divine purpose of the body is subverted by the desire to make the body means to an end. In puritanism, the beauty of the body is undermined because it is believed the body inhibits humanity’s transcendent potential. Both deny the body can be, as the Incarnation reveals, a genuine route of access to God. The Incarnation resists these nonsensical abstractions and beats within the heart of dynamic, Catholic humanism, where human sexuality is embraced and expressed without the fear or sin. 

Both pornography and puritanism are essentially dualistic. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity” (364). Have you ever considered that each and every cell in your body suggests the transcendent orientation of the human person? When we develop or deconstruct the human body, the soul is affected. Our physical nature is not a shell, or just a container holding back the integrity and full potential of the soul. For this reason, when we commodify the human form as in pornography or the fear-filled denial of puritanism, there is an injustice against the human person and against the Incarnation. We cannot disconnect the reality that the soul and the body are one. When the body does the opposite of the soul, this is sin. We are tearing away the very essence of the soul when we subtract the body or conceive of body and soul as in an inherently dualistic relationship. 

We must be aware of the sensuality of Catholicism. 

The Catholic Faith has alwyas seen the physical reality of creation as means towards the fulfillment of the Church’s mission. Incense provokes our sense of smell and vision. Music and chant invites our vocal expression. The body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ in the most holy Sacrament of the altar, is consumed as real food and drink, enlivening the senses of taste and hunger. The work of artists serves the Church by providing visual representations of heavenly forms. 

Faith by necessity involves matter and spirit integrated as a total experience. Grace elevates nature; it does not conceal or subdue it. The enrichment of human physicality is meant to bring the entire person into a closer relationship with Christ. God in Christ intends the experience of faith to be embodied in physical realities. It is through the physical that the divine purpose is realized. 

Now, this leaves the question of whether displaying the human form, like that of Michelangelo’s David or Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Teresa,’ is an occasion of sin because of the erotic implications of both works of art. To answer this we must take a look at the underlying metaphysic of creation, which is a participation in the transcendentals, particularly the transcendental of the beautiful. The human body is beautiful, not because of standards imposed by culture, but because its essential form is a participation in the beauty of God. Unlike any other object in the created order the human body has the ability to enliven the senses, feelings, and awe more than anything else. In a manner that is akin to the assent to belief described by John Henry Newman as ‘Real Assent’, concrete forms that evoke beauty are a route of access to God. The beauty of the human body is an evocation of the beauty of the Lord. Truly great art aims to achieve a deep awakening of the human form as a glimpse into eternity. Just as the sun gives light to the moon, the light and image of God radiate through beauty. The artist suggests this radiance concretely in the representation of the human body as beautiful, and this suggestion expresses that the human form can and should be a means by which we come to know God. 

The human form as a route of access to God is given its expression par excellence in the Incarnation of Christ. It is Christ, “the form of God” incarnate in a human body, “born of a woman” naked, and in nakedness displayed on a cross. It is the totality of this Incarnation, God in a body, that draws humanity into the divine life. 

Now, I am not suggesting that humans ought to display their bodies without some sense of modesty; modesty is a genuine and necessary virtue. However, perhaps what St. John Paul II sensed when he had the loin cloths removed from the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel is true, that the human form goes much deeper than a superficial display of skin. It reveals the very soul of humanity as created in the image and likeness of God, refuting the claims of both the pornographer and the puritan.