Pope St. John Paul II capped the second cycle of his Theology of the Body (TOB) catechesis with a set of reflections on how a healthy sense of shame should govern our experience of the sexuality of the body through various forms of media (TOB 60–63). In particular, he highlighted the importance of shame in maintaining a proper respect for the naked body and in helping us recognize the grave disorders embedded in pornography. In 2015, the USCCB promulgated Create in Me a Clean Heart, which explicitly builds upon St. John Paul II’s catechesis and provides an excellent analysis of how these TOB teachings apply to the many problems of pornography.
This installment of the series summarizes how the TOB vision of purity of heart and sexual modesty emphasizes the importance of shame for the inner life of the human heart. It then applies the TOB understanding of purity, modesty, and shame to the issue of pornography and its connection to the problem of shamelessness.
The Importance of Shame
For St. John Paul II, the experience of shame relates directly to the experience of one’s own personhood or subjectivity and “the need for the affirmation and acceptance of this ‘I’ according to its proper value” (TOB 12:1). Instead of being some kind of guilt or embarrassment, in TOB, shame indicates an awareness of human dignity and a defensive reflex against attitudes and actions that degrade the body and the person. In the sexual domain, it includes a clear perception of how lust, impurity, and immodesty threaten our dignity. More precisely, sexual shame means an acute experience of the spousal meaning of the body (the truth inscribed in human sexuality that each person is someone with inherent value) and the rejection of all actions and attitudes that objectify the sexuality of the body as something with instrumental value to be used for egotistical satisfaction. Beyond simply cultivating purity or exercising modesty, shame denotes a strong inner conviction with which we instinctually and fiercely uphold the dignity of human sexuality.
When understood correctly, shame should characterize every human heart. We should all display this acute sensitivity to the enormous dignity of the sexuality of the body coupled with a consistent opposition to the threats posed by concupiscence and lust. On the other hand, shamelessness signals a disturbing blindness to our sexual dignity or a dangerous numbness to the degradation embedded in lust, impurity, and immodesty.
Along these lines, St. John Paul II is careful to clarify that prior to original sin Adam and Eve were “without shame” in a precise biblical sense: their experiences were completely devoid of any tendency to lust the naked body and thus devoid of any threats to their dignity. Before original sin, Adam and Eve had an “immunity to shame” precisely because the grace of their original innocence “made it impossible somehow for one to be reduced by the other to the level of a mere object” (TOB 19:1). Unable to lust, they could not manifest the defensive response of shame that impure attitudes should evoke. However, Adam and Eve did already have an intense experience of the core element of shame through their acute awareness of the dignity of the body expressed in its spousal meaning. They were “without shame” only in the sense that their hearts were so full of this experience of the spousal meaning of the body that no threatening attitudes toward each other could enter their hearts (TOB 12:2–13:1).