The Personalist Project

Here is a question I would like to see philosophers take up. “What is prudishness exactly?”

Without attempting to define it, I propose that it has to do with a fear or denial of the full incarnational reality of human sexuality. The prude wants to avoiding dealing with that reality (avoid the hard task of integrating it properly into his personality.) He also wants others to avoid dealing with it. He’d like the whole subject curtailed and contained within safe, “manageable” limits. He gets upset when others won’t toe his line.

It reminds me of that Newman sermon contrasting faith and bigotry:

True philosophy admits of being carried out to any extent; it is its very test, that no knowledge can be submitted to it with which it is not commensurate, and which it cannot annex to its territory. But the theory of the narrow or bigoted has already run out within short limits, and a vast and anxious region lies beyond, unoccupied and in rebellion. Their “bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it; and the covering narrower, than that he can wrap himself in it.” And then what is to be done with these unreclaimed wastes?: the exploring of them must in consequence be forbidden, or even the existence denied.

As the bigot cannot admit the reality that does not fit his own preferred theories and opinions, the prude cannot bear sight or mention or use of sexuality that transcends the narrow range of what he can easily manage with his will.

Am I on the right track?

Comments (1)

Scott Johnston

#1, Jun 6, 2009 3:32pm

Well, Katie, I hope I am not seen as simply a “yes man” to you :) But, yes, I think you are on track.

Is the following instructive to ponder in light of the subject of prudishness and American culture? Think of the example of the “Christian Temperance” movement of the early 20th century, which resulted in the (to me) very silly and ill-fated Prohibition laws banning alcohol. What does this show about the more fearful segments of (Protestant) Christian influence upon our culture? It seems to me that anything like Prohibition would have been considered absurd in any majority Catholic nation.

Wasn’t Prohibition roughly around the same time as a surge of Pentacostalism (born-again, spirit-led, Bible-only, morally heavy-handed) in America? (not to blame this on Pentacostalism alone)

American culture does suffer, I think, from its Christian roots being essentially Protestant (not denying that there are many good things in Protestant Christianity!). How? It seems to me (and I used to be one) that Protestantism has a very hard time seeing that potentially dangerous aspects of life do not have to be entirely walled up and kept at bay like dynamite, in order to remain safe. This is why Prohibition is instructive. Instead of realizing that one can—through a grace-assisted cultivation of virtue—use alcohol in a culturally healthy and beneficial, life-affirming way, one deals with its potentially dangerous aspects by simply banning it altogether. This is an approach that makes a certain sense if you have little understanding of the real possibility of the cultivation of supernatural virtues (together with ordinary virtues) in human life. It gets down to having a truncated view of the interplay of nature and grace in this life.

So, while a fundamentalist Baptist, for example, might shun things like gambling (in any context), drinking, and dancing, as too dangerous to handle, a Catholic—in moderation—does not fear a decorous use of alcohol and dancing and gambling because he has hope in the possibility of grace and human virtue uniting in such a way as to transform the use of these things into not only acceptable, but positively beneficial, culturally enriching, sacramental signs in themselves. 

Though I think many Catholics now do not have a sense of this, nonetheless, it seems to me from the example of human history that only believing, practicing Catholics have the fullest potential of attaining a firm hope for the possibility of baptizing many aspects of human culture in this life—a hope that flows from a healthy awareness of the power of grace-infused virtue to liberate culture from the severity of all types of prudishness.

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