The 1970s were hard years on churches. Altar rails, statuary, reredos, stained-glass windows, and elegant ambos were torn out with wild abandon, while churches-in-the-round, modernist statues, and felt banners replaced them. There’s been a recent surge to return older churches to their former glory, replacing wreckovation with true renovation.
Art historian Liz Lev explains a sad phenomenon in the art world, known in Italian as “chapucismo,” or “a sloppy cob job,” where works of art are destroyed irreparably. The Ecco Homo is perhaps the most well-known example, striking both sorrow and the funny-bone because the finished product is such a caricature.
The destruction of churches and art is strikingly similar to another area where beauty is under attack: women. Women have been made to be beautiful and have been the subjects of great art for millennia for good reason. It was International Women’s Day yesterday, but sadly, since the 1960s and 70s, true feminine beauty has been transformed into raw sex appeal. New trends in third-wave feminism and its fourth wave, the LGBTQ+ movement, have maintained high-pitched sexuality, but also splintered off into a different direction – the rejection of the feminine entirely and the embrace of genderlessness.
It’s human nature that, as women, we’re susceptible to trends. It’s seen as a virtue to be breezily trendy or to look as if you stepped out of a fashion magazine. But trends aren’t limited to fabric colors and hairstyles. They extend deeply into patterns of thought and behavior.
One well-documented current trend – a sort of social contagion among high-school and college women – is to venture into the world of testosterone injections and gender-fluidity. Planned Parenthood has pivoted to accommodate the new demand for body-altering hormones. One employee expressed how deeply conflicted she feels seeing the degree of casualness with which young girls are now seeking such dire physical alterations. It’s not unusual for girls to head there in groups, much like they did to get their ears pierced thirty years ago, but this time motivated by deep pain and confusion about who and what they are.
Other trends beyond hormones and selective hacking off of body parts include looking butch, piercing as many body parts as possible, and covering oneself in tats. Here is a 2018 slideshow of before-and-afters of young girls’ transformations (warning, includes explicit images). The saddest part about these trends is that, unlike renovating a church, many of these changes can’t be undone – it is very difficult to reset a female body after years of male hormone therapy and breast-removal surgery. It is also a challenge to heal the trauma from the lifestyles that often accompany these outward changes.
One might object, “If this is what makes these women happy, why not?” There likely is a spark of excitement or relief that comes from heading herd-like to a Planned Parenthood clinic, receiving affirmations and encouragement of friends and employees, not to mention the ability to be regaled as a hero by the elite. Fashions and trends of dress and thought are like that – there’s a type of satisfaction in joining the crowd and appearing to be “in,” particularly for the young and impressionable. But these are not the prelude to true happiness.
Studies show that, as we continue to “progress,” there is not an uptick of happier women – the metrics tell their own story: increases in depression, STDs, suicides, and substance abuse point to some very unhappy women. This isn’t rocket science, but something that social science, tradition, and sweeping cultural mores have been telling us for centuries.
The heart of the ideology that wrecked churches and women is the idea that there is no objective notion of beauty and that human nature can change, merely by willing it. But human nature doesn’t change. Just because we will away dated concepts like chastity, virginity, and monogamy, doesn’t make them less necessary or important to the well-being of women.
One may argue that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” There are, however, concrete ways to recognize it. St. Thomas Aquinas had three criteria to evaluate it: 1) integrity or wholeness; 2) proportionality and symmetry; and 3) clarity or a type of radiance. These elements provide a guide without being constricting. They are elastic enough to apply to a church, a piece of art, or the female body and soul.
Our recent confusion didn’t start with what was beautiful, but over questions about function and what something is. If we spend decades telling women that the feminine is a useless construct, then it should come as no surprise that the masculine form is idealized. If we spend years denying the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and trying to make our churches into happy meeting-places where no one ever sins, then the building will reflect that too. We have been trying to rip the heart and soul out of these vital vessels and finding, regretfully, that the heart and soul of civilization has been ripped out along with them.
Theologically, the Church is feminine, she is the Bride of Christ. In romance languages, a church is a “she.” The Church and churches are feminine. They are the places we go to be nourished, forgiven, formed, loved, and known – naturally and supernaturally. The feminine is all about embracing, holding, nourishing, and improving. And these are the gifts women have in spades – to nurture, to help form, to be dialed into the needs of those we love, and to know and love them just as they are, freeing them to become more.
That’s what St. Edith Stein meant when she said, “A woman’s soul is a shelter in which other souls unfold.” The same, altered a bit, could be said of the Church, “She is a shelter in which souls unfold.” When looked at together, perhaps it isn’t an accident that The Church, churches, and women have all experienced a similar kind of damage – the last fifty years truly have been an assault on the feminine. It is high time we restore both to their glory.
*Image: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent, 1892 [National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh]