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Gender and a Sacramental View of the Body Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Saturday, 04 January 2014

In a previous column, I pointed out that our culture, which has encouraged teens to think that they can become a different person by changing their brand of clothing, is now encouraging them to believe that they can become a different person by changing their body’s sexual organs – like you’d change a coat.

The way advertisers sell things to emerging adults is by associating their product with a certain persona:  beer with a certain easy-going, hip college kid persona; perfume or clothing with a certain sort of thin, urban socialite persona; a car with a certain sort of manly, well-dressed, sophisticated, urban persona.         

Ironically, emerging adults will often describe themselves as “expressing their individuality” with the things they buy when of course nothing could be further from the truth.  Making certain consumer choices rather than others is usually motivated by the desire to become more like the “hip” or “cool” model persona one aspires to be.  Thus, far from becoming “more individualistic,” teens are usually seeking to become more like others.

Such cultural practices reinforce the modern illusion that our identity is not something we receive (from nature, God, culture, or tradition), but something we create individually by ourselves alone.

Whereas in the past, young people might have seen themselves as being from (and thus, in certain respects, beholden to) a certain family, cultural or religious tradition, now, given the influences of modernism, young people tend to see themselves as self-creating.  Whatever their past, wherever they’re from, no matter who their parents were, they can make themselves anew: they can “be whatever they choose to be.”  It is their constant duty to be creating themselves, seemingly ex nihilo.

There is much that is good in this view, of course, given that the Church has always emphasized the importance of human free will. In a certain sense, we do make ourselves by the choices we make.

And yet something can be lost on this view as well: namely, the notion of one’s connectedness to and responsibility for others.  If I create myself ex nihilo, I am beholden to no one.  I am responsible only for myself and my own project of self-creation.  Granted, this might induce me to leave others alone to engage in their own projects of “self-creation” (although the cruelties of contemporary teen life would suggest otherwise), it might also (and this is more likely) cause me to disavow any responsibility to or for others.

When I teach about the way marketers appeal to America’s emerging adults, not infrequently one of my students will say something like this: “But Prof. Smith, you have to wear something.”  “Yes, you do,” I reply.  “But it would be better if, instead of seeing our consumer choices as expressions of a radical individuality, we could see them rather as expressions of sociability.  That is to say, I choose the clothes I do precisely in order to allow me to mix easily in various social situations.  I wear a suit and tie when it is appropriate to wear a suit and tie, but more casual clothing when the people around me would be made more comfortable by that.  My clothing is not meant to ‘define me’ precisely as being apart from and different from others.  It would be better seen as something I can use to help unite me with them.”

What, then, if we took a “sacramental” view of things, including the human body?  What if I saw my body (or my clothing) as something meant to serve as an instrument of my love of God and neighbor

John Paul II frequently pointed out that I cannot love others – I cannot reveal myself to them or make myself present to them – except through my body.  On this view, my body and all that which goes together to make up my “personality” is understood to be distinctly “mine” in one sense, but also from others and for others.  I shape my character in certain ways because I want to be of service to and able to care for others.

Just as modernity has caused us to adopt a notion of property as something essentially “mine” – something set apart from others solely for my use – so too we now have a notion of our bodies and identities as something that sets me apart from others not to be trespassed upon by others.  It’s telling that people now often speak of their bodies as though they were their “property,” to be used however they wish.

John Paul II suggested, to the contrary, that since we are made in the image of the Triune God, we find ourselves by a sincere gift of ourselves to others.  So he proposed that when we work, we work for ourselves, but also with and for others. And he also insisted on a notion of “private” property that is both “mine,” but also always for others.

The bohemian world of sexual license has always been tied ineluctably to the bourgeois world of laissez-faire capitalism.  Both are based on a notion of radical individualism and self-creation that the Church has always rejected.  It is for this reason that the Church’s authentic teachings on both sexual morality and social justice are always offending one side or another in the tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum debates between conservative individualists and liberal individualists in this country.  This is why “conservatives” and “liberals” are always trying to affirm one side of the Church’s teaching while avoiding the other, even though an authentic understanding of both sexual morality and social justice would insist that both are based on the same “sacramental” view of all created reality in which all created things, including our bodies and ourselves, are meant to be seen as “instruments” of God’s self-giving love.

“The real fall of man,” the great Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann once wrote, is to live “a noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world.”

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by diaperman, January 04, 2014
"The bohemian world of sexual license has always been tied ineluctably to the bourgeois world of laissez-faire capitalism."

Thank you for saying this. I agree completely. There is a long Catholic tradition of skepticism about the social and moral effects of laissez faire capitalism which is as old as the modern age. So why has this view become so dormant amongst center-right Catholics in the US? I doubt it is all because of the corrosive influence of men like Weigel, Sirico and Novak.

I can only conclude that it is either because such Catholics tend to be laissez faire capitalists themselves--far more suspicious of state intervention in the economy than anything else, or because such Catholics are in a political coalition with people in the GOP who do hold such views, or because the public airing of such views lends support to the presidency of Barack Obama.
written by AGS, January 04, 2014
I am not sure where you are coming from here, and I am probably missing your point, but any youths that I know are quite aware that their decision to dress as they do is to identify themselves with other youths who share the same sense of who they are. Hipsters dress like hipsters, stoners like stoners, jocks like jocks. They are not stupid. They know their sartorial expression serves as a means to communally bind themselves with one group while at the same time it draws distinctions between their group and others. 

Sameness and difference are two sides of the same coin. One cannot define oneself as who one is without at the same time defining oneself as who one isn't. If we all went around dressed like Chairman Mao there would be no individuality, but neither would there be true community. An individual comes to himself through participation in both community and society: in community he learns about how he is the same as others, in society he learns how he differs from others. Through participation in both, he learns of unity in difference and difference in unity.

Our current pope now wants to abolish the title of monsignor among the secular priesthood. He wants to create unity by abolishing difference. This is a mistake. The true eucharistic body consists of different parts, not an accumulation of instants of the same part. 
written by Avery Tödesuhl, January 04, 2014
I asked a question about Dr. Smith's last post which he left unanswered there: what is relation of the soul to the personality? Many people these days relate to themselves as "personality," not as "soul." Of course this is due to the dominant psychological way of thinking here and now. But is there a relationship between these two? Dr. Smith hints at it here:

"... my body and all that which goes together to make up my “personality” is understood to be distinctly “mine” in one sense, but also from others and for others. I shape my character in certain ways because I want to be of service to and able to care for others."

But this seems confused. Is my body really just a part of my "personality"? Of course personality depends on the body (closed head injury survivors who exhibit personality changes attest to that), but is the relationship one of part-whole or more simply causal? Even more confused is the introduction of yet a third term, "character" which often describes one's moral stance. Does personality equal character, and if so then does my character contain my body as a part? This just seems a very strange and idiosyncratic way of looking at this.
written by Avery Tödesuhl, January 04, 2014
Dr. Smiths posts are generally good. Thanks for this one as well.

I have to say though that although individualism is a problem in society, I really think it is an epiphenomenon resting on deeper cultural and economic movements in our global society. For that reason both Dr. Smith and his critic, AGS are both sharing pieces of the truth. At a deep level, most people are timid with respect to their freedom. Much of the flaunting of so-called freedom or "license" is simply copy-cat behavior of one form or another. Especially in the mode of commercial entertainment: Cyrus emulates Gaga emulates Madonna emulates Monroe/Mansfield emulates ... on back to the theatric temples of the ancient world. Contemporary "individualism" seen in this light is just one more attempt to evade our limited, but real, freedom. Limited freedom among others-with-limited-freedom entails social consequences for our every act, which makes most of us cautious about our actions. In addition, the dictates of synderesis cause us to be anxious about our free actions. To ease this burden, most often we join a group that will "redeem" our freedom so we can use it with an easier conscience.

Since some groups are better than others this can lead to disaster for humanity when the group harbors evil plans for those outside of it (e.g., Communist, Nazi or Islamist groups). If one joins the Roman Catholic Church, one has a better chance, but still not assured, of living a life of redeemed freedom. A holy life comes about through cooperation of the free will with divine grace, and so intimately involves human freedom
written by Jack,CT, January 04, 2014
Dr Smith,
I am probobly the only one but I
simply Do Not Understand and I say this with
all sincerity!
written by Randall B. Smith, January 04, 2014
The Author Replies:

One would be right, "diaperman," to be skeptical about the supposedly "corrosive" influences of Messrs. Weigel, Sirico, and Novak, because they are not at all proponents of laissez-faire capitalism. John Paul II speaks about the benefits of a "free market economy" in Centesimus Annus. And the Church has always supported the right to private property.

All of the men you mention understand the difference between what the pope was praising in Centesimus Annus and laissez-faire capitalism. If you have any question about that, I suggest you start by taking a look at "The Journal of Markets and Morality" published by Fr. Sirico's group, the Acton Institute.

To AGS, I would simply reply that, if what you say is true, then why do most advertisements appeal to teens to "express their individuality." I've never seen an ad yet that made the appeal: "Be like everyone else." Most of us live with a large degree of denial about the motivations that drive us to consume what we do. Not quite understanding the ways in which advertizers are manipulating you is not quite the same thing as being "stupid."

I used to ask my students to write answers to the following two questions:

1. Do you think you are affected in your buying patterns by advertizing, packaging, and branding?
2. Do you think your friends are affected in their buying patterns by advertizing, packaging, and branding?

Since I nearly always got back the answer "no, I'm not affected" to the first question and "yes, my friends definitely are affected" to the second question, I added a third:

3. If I asked your friends or parents whether you are affected in your buying patterns by advertizing, packaging, and branding, what would they say? And if they say that yes, you are, are they wrong?

The results have been, shall we say, instructive.
written by Randall B. Smith, January 04, 2014
To Mr. Todesuhl (my apologies for losing the umlaut):

The issues in your first post are complex indeed. Dealing with them would require more than mere definitions. But for now, let me say this. For Thomas, the soul is the substantial form of the body. The human person is a hylomorphic union of soul and body. What we call "personality" is a subjective sense of "self" unknown before roughly the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries. "Character" refers originally to someone in a play, but has also come, by extension, to refer to the relevant personality traits or "characteristics" of a person. Sometimes those relevant character traits are understood to be "moral."

To make things more awkward, "persona" was originally related to a mask worn by an actor in a play. We think of "personality" as something private, whereas classically one's "persona" had to do with his or her public role. Jacques Maritain is sometimes accused of using the word "person" in the modern sense of something "subjective" and "inward." This, I think, is false. For Maritain, a "person" is a social being, and a society is always made up of "persons": beings who are by nature social and relational.

I have no idea whether that helps you in your query, Mr. Todesuhl, but there it is.

So too, I'm sorry but I have no idea how to help "Jack CT," although I wish I could. You are undoubtedly not the only one who is unclear, which is why I wish you had asked a question so that I could at least begin to address the source of the problem. I have faith in your sincerity. I just don't know where I lost you. Either way, you have my apologies.
written by AGS, January 04, 2014
Dr Smith, 
What I would simply reply to you is (and it appears that I must reply simply to you):
1) name an ad that says "Be like everyone else"
2) name an ad that doesn't say be different from those who are not like you
3) name anyone who hasn't enjoyed an ad because it doesn't reinforce what he already knows
4) name anyone who tries to arrive at truth through questionnaires who doesn't arrive at the "truth" as he already believed it to be
5) name a "columnist" who has ever taken a negative comment on board?
written by Avery T, January 05, 2014
@Dr. Smith

Thanks for the clarification. After I posted, it occurred to me that I had read the sentence wrong and the conjunction of "... my body" AND "all that which goes together to make up my “personality” ..." was meant to join two distinct terms and not as including "... my body" IN "all that which goes together to make up my “personality” ..." Even here the hermeneutical problem raises its head!

Also it was good to read that you had a standard Thomist view of the soul and modernity's "personality". I have found Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" and "Sources of the Self" informative on how the notion of "self" and "personality" came to develop. Also interesting in this way is "The Unintended Reformation" by Brad Gregory. References to the peasant of the Garonne are always res laeta!

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