The Personalist Project

A friend sent an email with some thoughts that technical difficulties prevented her from posting. Here is part of her note:

A sense of innocence is a good thing [A]lthough I supported all the wonderful, life-changing good he [another chastity speaker] did, I wouldn’t want my (then) 11 year old son attending his presentations. When asked why, I said I had been very innocent going into my own marriage (I had, maybe, once seen a naked woman; I know I had never seen a naked man, or even knew what to expect), and I wouldn’t have wanted all the distorted, diseased photos of human anatomy which [this speaker] shows his audience for shock value to follow me into the honeymoon suite. And he said he had never thought of it that way before (i.e., that a teenager in today’s world could still be that innocent), and that I had very legitimate point.

I think so too. And a week ago I would have agreed with all of it without reservation. I must say, though, this whole discussion has caused me to reconsider somewhat. I am wondering, specifically, whether such “extreme innocence” might not be hindering the Christian witness in the world in which we live? I mean, might there be such a thing as too much innocence? Might it (for instance) cause us to hold ourselves too aloof from the culture around us? I ask because I’d like to hear others opinions on the point. My own is unsettled. But I am thinking of St. Patrick. Suppose that to protect his own chastity he had chosen to stay in England rather than return to hedonistic Ireland, saturated as it apparently was in sex and the occult?

Comments (19)

Scott Johnston

#1, Jun 13, 2009 1:55pm

I think what stage of development toward adulthood—and toward spiritual maturity—a person is at is extremely relevant to this, Katie.

It is one thing for an adult, strong in the faith, close to God, availing himself frequently of sacramental grace, to prayerfully decide that he should enter the vileness of the world more directly than he ever had before for the sake of charity toward his neighbors. It is quite another thing for an adolescent, still very pure and unexposed to sexual depravity, to be forced by adults (even with good intentions) to view things and be made aware of things that would be shocking to an innocent teen’s sense of the dignity of the person.

Katie, I think that if you are talking about adults, you may have a point. Perhaps, in the interest of striving to be leaven in the dough, there is such a thing as “extreme” innocence. But, isn’t it the case that when speaking of a child not yet adult in their maturity, level of spiritual strength, etc, that this does not apply? At lest not in the same way?

There are religious orders of women (not all of them do this) that will only consider virgins as candidates for entry into their community (and of course, being unmarried, this means they are not open to women who have had the experience of fornication or adultery). There is something special about the innocence of someone whose vision of the world has not been stained by sexual sin of a certain level of seriousness. “Holy virgins” have the potential for a special intimacy with Christ that I’m not sure is entirely possible for anyone else.

And I wouldn’t necessarily restrict the potential spiritual value of a high degree of sexual innocence only to women entering certain religious communities. Isn’t there a great benefit for their spiritual lives, as well, for an engaged couple if on their wedding night they can become physically intimate with each other for the first time with neither of them being plagued by past experiences of distorted and perverted sexuality? What a great gift to each other and for the entirety of their married life (and of their ability to witness purity to their future children)!

Yes, by a certain age, one’s own fallen imagination can supply any number of impure ideas by itself. But, there are sexual depravities out there, of wide variety, that an innocent mind’s tendency to lustful thoughts would likely never imagine on its own. This is a precious thing, and, in my opinion, should be guarded with vigor.

And I say this as someone who, as a young adolescent, relatively naive and innocent up to that point, became (without my planning it) exposed to pornographic images of women as a boy, completely without the knowledge of my parents (through peers—one friend in particular whose home had piles of pornographic magazines). And I can tell you in hindsight that this inflicted gigantic damage upon the way I regarded girls and women from that point forward. Any lustful thoughts I had before then would never have inflicted the incredible damage those images did. There is literally no going back in one’s mind once that line has been crossed. Now, there is a difference between pornography and graphic discussion among adults that has a good purpose. But, to some young souls (especially males, I think), even with things that are not pornographic but are sexually graphic for a good reason, if exposed to too much at too young an age, temptations can be roused in a young soul to a greater degree than any adult should ever knowingly want to be a part of.

Also, I think the subject of personal vocation ought never be far from a discussion like this. Different souls—even in the highest state of innocence and sanctity—have different abilities to tolerate the different sorts of depravities of the world in a direct way. One particular soul, even very pure, simply because of his personal constitution and sensitivities and weaknesses, might know he would be risking grave harm by getting involved in something like ministry to former prostitutes. Another soul, similarly pure, again because of his own personal constitution and strengths (and Providential indications), might reasonably decide to take part in the same ministry. Prayerful discernment, with humble and deep self-knowledge, help indicate to each person doors that he should walk through and doors that he should not. Which doors are which will vary for each person according to his personal vocation.

Personal vocation is very important here, and it goes very closely with self-knowledge. We should be careful not to force a person to be exposed to things that, in his own prudence, knowing himself, he would decide might be a serious danger to his own chastity. Another person might reasonably conclude that the very same things would not be a serious danger to his chastity. But, that decision should be up to each individual person. It is playing with fire to presume to make that decision for others . . . “Oh, well, they should be able to handle such and such.” Well, not so fast. If some could and some couldn’t, then could we include it and still say we are acting with the charity we are obliged to have for all our brothers and sisters?

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 14, 2009 11:14am

Scott, I endorse everything in your post. 
1. Innocence is proper to childhood, and those who interfere with it commit a moral crime.  The situation of children is significantly different than that of adults and adolescents (which are also different form each other).
2.  NO ONE, no matter how mature, should be forcibly exposed to impure images.  Children should be guarded from graphics they don’t have the maturity to handle.  Adolescents should be introduced to sexuality in a way that leads them to associate it with self-giving love, with marriage, and with new life, rather than self-gratification, violence, and abuse.
3.  Personal vocation matters.  The same “exposure” that may be an essential step on the road to Christian maturity for one soul could mean falling off a cliff for another.

But, all that said, and as I’m sure you agree, “the devil is in the details.” 

My question implicitly sets aside the case of children and assumes the distinction between innocence (a state) and purity (a virtue). 

Let me give a handy concrete to focus our discussion.  The other day, on the Personalist Project forgiveness retreat, we watched the great and wonderful double movie, “Jean de Floret” and “Manon of the Spring.”  This movie (which I can’t recommend highly enough)  is a modern version of an ancient Greek tragedy—full of beauty and power, poetry and depth of meaning.  The second half includes a moment or two of nudity.  It is in no way gratuitous.  It is meant by the film-maker to show the stunning beauty of a young girl “ripe for love”, as the Scriptures puts it.  Her beauty elicits in a villainous onlooker two reactions, both brilliantly captured and portrayed.  On the one hand, he is tempted to rape her.  On the other hand, he is moved by her beauty to a kind of love and devotion he has never before experienced.  Previously, he’d had no interest in marriage.  He visited prostitutes once a month “to clear his mind”, and considered that sufficient for his needs.  Why should he marry? 
Now all he could think about was this girl.  His only desire in life was to win her over. 
So, here’s my question.  Suppose I were watching this movie with my teenage children.  Should I fast-forward that scene?  Or make them cover their eyes?  Or should I let them watch it and absorb its moral lessons?

Scott Johnston

#3, Jun 14, 2009 2:15pm

This sounds like a very interesting movie.

And your question about this specific example is a tough call, Katie.

One question to ask yourself might be: Is there something which the video images—in the scene you mention—portray for the viewer that could not be expressed adequately for a teen, without also seeing the images for themselves? In other words, could you describe the scene, along the lines you did above in writing, without actually showing it and still have a valuable discussion?

I think whether to show it or not depends very much on the particular level of maturity as well as the susceptibility to temptation of your own children. And I might offer, in the case of this specific hypothetical situation, that there would be, perhaps, more concern for the possible effects of such a scene upon a male teen than upon a girl.

In the case of a boy, nude scenes of women, even if not pornographic and not gratuitous, can be occassions of very high temptation. It really depends on how much virtue a particular boy has already developed of being able to order and control his passions, whether or not such an exposure would be unwise. Unfortunately, in my own case, after the age at which I had been exposed to pornography, I can’t imagine myself into the mindset of a boy viewing images such as you describe with his innocence still intact. Once one’s mind has been tarnished by images that deliberately objectify women sexually, it is all too easy (especially for a teen who is inexperienced in dealing with this) to then perceive even non-pornographic nudity as likewise a sexual objectification—even if it was not intended that way by the artist. So, if a boy has not been tainted in this way, I think, at least in theory, it is more likely, and assuming a certain level of maturity and purity, that he could view such images and not be excessively tempted. But, I stress it would be very important to have an open and peace-filled discussion soon (immediately) after the movie, bringing into the discussion these two inner movements that the film portrays—the tension between lust and reverence for a woman in fallen man’s heart, and how with grace, the latter can triumph over the former, and that this is the path to true manhood.

So, I cannot give a blanket endorsement to such a hypothetical situation. Only if I actually knew well the particular boy in question could I do so. I would also want to see the film myself before making any recommendation. And, I would say that in such matters, it is better to be over-cautious than to be overly-liberal.

In the case of a teen girl, the concerns are different. While inciting temptations to lust are probably not a danger, it would be a concern as to whether or not a particular sort of innocence should not yet be interrupted. The sort of innocence I mean, is an innocent girl’s relative lack of awareness of the level and intensity of sexual objectification of a girl that a man in the clutches of lust can engage in. If too young, I think this could have the potential to instill in a girl a fear of the lusts of men that could be damaging. Would she then be excessively preoccupied with how her own body is seen by others? For this not to happen, she would need to be at a certain stage of confidence (not only intellectually, but in lived experience) in the redemptive power of grace to heal and transform the fallen soul of mankind.

This is a delicate thing. In the case of either a boy or a girl, one doesn’t want to be overprotective or, by an excessive fear of the power of sin, send a message of uptightness and prudishness that is counterproductive. It may be better to carefully permit an exposure to a controlled amount of graphic material in a careful context and with an accompanying and thorough discussion, than to have such exposure happen outside one’s home in a context that would present a greater danger to temptation. The devil loves secrecy and hiddenness. Openness, and frank discussion of the dark corners of the human condition, in a carefully controlled, tasteful way, dampens the power of satan to use explicit material to grab hold of a person’s soul and lead it to sin.

But, again, this does not apply unless there is a certain maturity and virtue already present, and this is always a very particular discernment based on the state of a particular boy or girl’s soul. And in the case of a boy, I would put into different categories a boy who is relatively innocent (in terms of not having been exposed to pornography) and a boy who is not. His experience of even tasteful non-pornographic nudity is going to be different, there being a greater danger for a boy whose vision of the opposite sex has already been colored by porn.

Hope this is not too vague! Oh, and I would say as well that prayer, in some (not overly dramatic or uptight) way, should be incorporated in a natural fashion into an experience where the scene in question is viewed and discussed.

Oh, and for both a boy and a girl, I think ideally, the viewing of such a scene would be most helpfully discussed if both parents were part of the discussion. In both of their cases, the teens know instinctively that their same-sex parent has a personal experiential understanding of what they may be experiencing internally that the other parent doesn’t have in the same way, and thus discussion involving both would be especially helpful.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jun 14, 2009 4:13pm

I am not so much looking for personal advice as trying to use the particular example as a way of considering the general question.  Here you have a case that excludes images of nudity that are perverse or deliberately titillating.
If the only concern were avoiding temptation, the answer would be easy.  But that is not our only concern.  We are also concerned (and even, I submit, in the case of adolescents, primarily concerned) with helping them achieve a mature attitude toward sexuality. 
Because our society is so awash in explicit and perverse sexual imagery, it seems more and more clear that if parents focus too exclusively on maintaining their childrens’ innocence, their children will almost inevitably first encounter images that are bound up with immorality, making the goal much more difficult to achieve.  I wonder now (I have only just begun to think this way) it may not be better for parents to find ways of initiating their children into great knowledge of the intimate sphere than has been typical of earlier generations.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jun 15, 2009 10:53am

PS Dear Scott, your thoughts are always worthwhile to those who know you, but, in my role as your friendly Linden hausfrau, let me beg you to try to be a little more concise!  Otherwise I’m afraid your interlocutors, seeing your long entries, will become too discouraged to carry on the conversation. :)

Scott Johnston

#6, Jun 15, 2009 10:57am

Thanks, Katie!  :)

Scott Johnston

#7, Jun 15, 2009 11:03am

Perhaps religious images like Maria Lactans, without being over-emphasized, but simply by a discreet presence in one’s home, along with occasional reference to it in the home (e.g. on a certain feast day), would indeed be helpful in establishing over time in one’s home an attitude toward sexuality that is both tasteful and discreet, but also not prudish. Perhaps these sorts of devotional images can help to form an attitude toward human sexuality that is healthy and appropriately open without being crass or casual.

Did you know that the first Marian image to be set up in a devotional chapel in what would become part of the future United States was an image (from Spain) of Mary nursing the child Jesus? It was in St. Augustine, FL. There is a replica chapel there near the ocean where the original shrine had been set up with the statue of Our Lady of La Leche from Spain. Personally, I find this a fascinating item of our American Catholic history.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jun 15, 2009 3:32pm

I’m all for having such images in the home, but I don’t think they’d suffice for the task I have in mind, which is about teaching a boy who is teeming with desire that his desires are good and made for love.

Matt Chominski

#9, Jun 15, 2009 3:56pm

I am not sure if innocence is synonymous, or essentially united, with never having seen a naked body. Though like Scott alludes to, the subjective situation that an individual finds themselves in may make this perfectly fitting.

I once read a biography of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. There was a remark made by his sister to effect that his purity was illustrated by his ability to look upon nude paintings with innocence and not cross the border into lust.

Of course her interpretation of those instances could be incorrect, but the example struck me in relation to this post.

I too am not entirely settled like Katie on this issue, but thought I’d contribute this desire for clarity and story. I could have a wrong impression of what innocence entails and am open to correction of this impression.

But I do not know if there is such a thing as too much innocence, as if there could be too much meekness. Cowardice may be mistaken as too much meekness, but this cowardice is certainly not a stripe of meekness. Being overly sheltered is not too much innocence, though it may give that impression (I am not insinuating here that the author of the quoted email was or is too sheltered, but speaking generally).

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Jun 15, 2009 4:07pm

You’re right, Matt.  Lots more distinctions are called for here.  Just in conversation with Jules last night, he made several.  There is innocent in the sense of “not guilty of sin.”  In this sense, would that we were all innocent!  Then there is innocent in the sense of freedom from impurity, like you describe in Bl. Pier Giorgio’s case.  This is something every parent must hope for in their children. Then there is innocent in the sense of naive or not-knowing.  This is the kind of innocence that I think can be a fault or at least a problem.

Jules van Schaijik

#11, Jun 19, 2009 12:41pm

Perhaps a further and distinct meaning of innocence is suggest in the term “original innocence”, the state we were in while in Eden, but to which we can never return.

This meaning of innocence would be closest to Katie’s last, but it is in no way a fault or even a problem.  Would that we had never lost it!

Bill Drennen

#12, Jun 20, 2009 5:21am

Katie, In general I’d say you hit on the tension between evangelism and building the Christian culture again, similar to one of my original comments (which you liked I think).

I know the conversation evolved beyond your comment regarding Patrick but I picked up on that first.

I am critical of evangelistic efforts that compromise the highness of our Christian tradition and culture. I believe we must first protect, feed and build our internal culture, the City of God before we can effectively reach out with it. If the church continually undermines it’s superior culture in efforts to reach the world then it will be left with less and less to give away. Its also a matter of calling but if, back in Patrick’s time, everyone in the church went out into pagan territory there would have been a real danger of eroding the faith and life (culture) of the church.

This is also as we know one of the main conflicts in Vatican II which has lead to much criticism. In opening wide the doors of the church to the world, what have he let come in and how has it eroded the tradition and culture of the church? What we need is a philosophical discussion on “Gaudium et Spes”. How can we authentically live out the pastoral exhortation of this document while also building up our church and protecting it?

My perspective of the philosophers role is to discover, love and enrich what is true and to build it up in all it’s forms culturally. To help the church become living examples of purity or justice or beauty. This, I feel should be of first concern to the philosopher, not the pursuit of “spreading a message” or achieving any functional or measurable goal. Laudable goals for the evangelist like Patrick or Paul but for the philosopher, the further he steps away from first principles, the more philosophy becomes ideology. The artist and philosopher are engaged in a work of creation and if distracted, the creative task of the artist becomes compromised by the utility of the times. When this happens, the evangelist no longer has the deep wells of the Christian culture to draw from.

I vote that it is impossible to have too much innocence. The best most effective evangelist I can imagine would be the blessed mother herself, whom if she appears converts masses by the sheer beauty and purity of her radiance and not by any persuasive argument or engaging program. Beauty and truth attracts by itself like no other evangelical tool can and in no way hinders the Christian witness. “Extreme innocence” by my definition is not naïve. It is extreme in its innocence out of a depth of genuineness and not by any lack of integrity.

Regarding children, our approach has always been to protect innocence as much and as long as possible thereby making them as strong as possible before they do encounter negative influence. I don’t get parents who want to compromise early on this. Its harder yes, but why then fight less, we should fight and guard all the more if the opposition is more. Exposure too early is almost as bad as the negative influence and does undermine their innocence which they deserve to have as long as possible. No matter how it is couched it is more often then not, unnecessary in my view if they are protected and taught to protect themselves. I still believe this is possible. Contrary to our culture We believe less is better not more.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Jun 20, 2009 8:52am

Bill, this is the stuff of several conversations.  But let me at least make a start. 

By drawing so sharp a distinction between “philosophers” and “evangelists” I think you perhaps set up a false alternative—as if “the truth” is something philosophers simply have and must cherish, rather than something we must, in each successive generation, seek and fight for and forge, in a way—partly through vigorous engagement with the prevailing ideas of the day.

As to my innocence question, you seem not to really address it.  If you begin by calling it compromise and premise that it happens “too early”, then how can any parent favor it?

Scott Johnston

#14, Jun 20, 2009 3:47pm

It’s interesting to recall the way in which Socrates practiced philosophy—walking about the city and prompting philosophical discussions through his questioning. Here was a very public philosopher, very engaged in contemporary society.

But, of course, this is definitely not the method of philosophers today.

I remember Dr. White at FUS lamenting that much philosophy today has become of little relevance to life—that it rarely anymore takes up the most fundamental questions, the most meaningful questions, about life (at least, the predominant strand of professional philosophy). This is a sad state because philosophy should of all disciplines deal with the biggest and most fundamental questions we can ask as human persons.

Katie van Schaijik

#15, Jun 22, 2009 12:09pm

Yes.  It’s what the Personalist Project is all about.  One of our mottos is “bringing philosophy back to life.”  :)  John White is one of our advisers.

Bill Drennen

#16, Jun 22, 2009 12:44pm

“Engagement” and “extreme innocence” both needs to be further defined.

Christ is obviously the best example for each. He had dinner with prostitutes but he did not engage them in compromising ways. Takes the Holy Spirit to know when and how to engage and when and how to reject. There are many prevailing ideas of the day that are rather like drunkards in the street that can not rationally be engaged. Better in these cases to present the stark contrast of sober goodness.

Christ also had extreme innocence but was wise to all the snares and false promises of evil at the same time. How is your adjective “extreme” a negative?

Katie van Schaijik

#17, Jun 22, 2009 12:48pm

Let me try to give a sense of what I mean by engagement by giving examples of its opposite.  A refusal to read any modern philosophers, for instance, on the grounds that modern philosophy is dangerous and full of error would be an example of not-engaging the culture.  The Amish live their lives almost entirely not-engaged with the culture and society around them.  If Christians were to eschew politics because “power corrupts”, that would be another example.
By “extreme innocence” I am speaking of innocence in the sense of “not knowing”.  Take girls who are not told about menstruation, so that they are completely unprepared when it comes.  Or brides who have never seen a male body, even in art, and have no idea of what is involved in the conjugal act. 
What I wonder is whether parents—perhaps especially parents of boys—don’t need to be much more deliberate and open about human sexuality with their sons, so that they learn to interpret their desires in the light of love and service rather than appetite and satisfaction.  My concern is that if parents shy away from this task, boys will be irresistibly drawn to explore it in places outside the parental zone of influence, which means it’s all but certain that they’ll encounter it impurely.
I wonder whether there isn’t an analogy with alcohol.  Having the drinking age 21 means that all teenage drinking takes place outside of responsible adult supervision.  To me, the European way is much more sensible.

Bill Drennen

#18, Jun 22, 2009 1:21pm

Those are positive examples of engagement I certainly would agree with. These have to be balanced with the other side. Here are some negative examples. Welcoming a couple living in sin into the prayer meeting to pray with them to receive God’s blessing, Listening for 1 second to a drunk man’s rantings, or how about what Obama is doing right now with Iran, for the sake of “engaging” them when GW’s cold shoulder seems much more just and productive to me. The Amish do have a positive side as well. Remember our own tradition of monastic fortresses when the outside world was dark.
The innocence of children part of your post I’ll leave alone as, alas, I have no sons. I appreciate your perspective here but also value maintaining and protecting the mystery and innocence, especially of girls. I question the value of having knowledge before discovery necessarily. I think a lot too much emphasis is put on that. So what if they don’t know, or know only a little? Are we assuming some harm will happen or that the man will be a bruit? Adam and Eve had no instruction did they?

Katie van Schaijik

#19, Jun 22, 2009 1:40pm

Of course, Adam and Eve were “naked without shame.”  Whether they had instruction I don’t know, but I do know nothing was hidden, as our sexuality must be now. 

Perhaps because you’re a man, Bill, I don’t suppose it’s easy for you to imagine how horrified and miserable an extremely innocent and protected young woman might be on her wedding night.  Testimonies of this abound.

I don’t think we need assume harm or brutishness in arguing for greater knowledge.  For example, I think every engaged couple should learn how to use NFP.  They may never need it, but in case they do, it’s good to have learned it before childbirth and breastfeeding make it more difficult to chart your cycle.  In order to learn how to use NFP, a couple needs a fairly detailed and explicit knowledge of the way the woman’s cycle works.  They need to be able to hear terms like “coitus” and “cervix”.

I do not argue for all-engagement-all-the-time.  It’s a question of prudence.  But part of prudence is asking ourselves whether as a group we don’t tend to err too much one way or another.  There is a lot to admire in the Amish.  I’m glad they’re there.  But I don’t think they represent the model Catholics should follow, as I know you don’t either.

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