A Mother’s Shame and Notre Dame

Eamonn Clark

There is an article at LifeSite about a controversy boiling at Notre Dame. Apparently, a mother wrote a letter to the editor of the school paper to express shock at the sartorial inclinations of some women at the basilica on campus. The letter was published, and a sensitive nerve was touched. I want to take the opportunity to sketch out the debate and offer some thoughts about deeper issues involved. For the first part, I’m going to use the quaestio format of the Summa Theologica. (You can read St. Thomas’ own blistering critique of immodest clothing here, though he is mostly talking about over-dressing.) For the second, I am just going to ramble. Bear with me.

Whether it is a sin for women to wear revealing clothing in public?

Objection 1. It seems it is not a sin. For the man who lusts after such a woman does so from his own volition which the woman does not control. Thus does Our Lord warn against adultery of the heart: “He who even thinks lustfully of a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) But there is no commission of adultery by mere outward appearance. Thus, it is only the man who sins by his lust, not the woman by her attire which attracts his desire.

Objection 2. Further, modesty is a cultural norm which changes according to the tides of custom, which is easily proved by the fact that in two different nations the same attire might be looked at altogether differently. Given that more traditional restrictions of dress are more serious and burdensome for women, it is in fact laudable that these customs be gradually changed to bring about a more equal standard of modesty for men and women.

Objection 3. Further, just as it is natural for a stone to fall to the earth, so too are human beings inclined to seek what is most natural to them and thereby satisfies their God-given desires. But restrictive dresscodes contradict this tendency toward goods such as comfort, self-esteem, and the like. Therefore, whatever feels most desirable in itself ought to be licit to wear.

On the contrary, It is written (1 Timothy 2:9): “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” Since the Apostle identifies immodest dress with women in particular, it seems it is especially incumbent upon women to adhere to a strict standard of modesty.

I answer that, Modesty in outward attire, in the sense we are speaking of it, seeks a middle-path between two extremes – repression and vulgarity.

On the one hand, to subject women habitually to the total covering of the entire body even including the face, is illicit for at least two reasons, even though it would remove the occasion of lust. First, it is necessary for women to be able to attract husbands through means of their appearance, which is altogether impossible by such an arrangement, leaving some other method to take the place of self-determination. Second, identification of one person among many is much easier without exorbitantly restrictive coverings, especially of the face, which makes the public life of women and the men who interact with them much more efficient. Thus, the complete repression of individual identity and bodily features through extensive covering is undesirable.

On the other hand, the more one reveals the body, the more one tends to increase the occasion to lust through vulgarity. Therefore, if one is to incur the risk of scandal being taken by one’s attire, namely, lust, some proportionate good to that risk must be gained. Where there is only small potential of scandal being taken, only light reasons are necessary to avoid sin, such as serious inconvenience, moderate discomfort due to heat, and so on; where there is large potential of scandal being taken, only the gravest of reasons will excuse, such as the risk of one’s life. The offense will be in proportion to the similitude between one’s necessity and the risk of scandal. Given that men are more easily drawn to women by appearance than women are to men, women are especially susceptible to this vice and should guard against it most closely, which also promotes the common good by requiring men to seek them for their virtue and honor. Thus it is written, “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of robes, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Peter 3:3-4) Therefore, to safeguard morals and common decency among the sexes, which are graver motives than mere pleasantries of comfort and convenience, errors ought to favor the more restrictive vice.

All of this is especially important in sacred places. As the Psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in holy attire.” (Psalm 69:6) For what is moderate in profane spaces becomes immoderate in sacred spaces due to a lack of fittingness with the outward worship of God which the space is specially consecrated to. Thus is it licit to throw darts in a pub, but it is not licit in an oratory. Likewise, dress in churches or other sacred places ought to be especially reverent and safe from occasioning sin, lest men be drawn to lower their eyes from the worship of God toward the delectation of a woman’s flesh.

Reply to Objection 1. It is also written, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it is better that a great millstone was hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42) The argument in favor of individual liberty holds to the degree of custom which reason has communally decided upon, and regarding which one should make errors on the side of safety, as said above.

Reply to Objection 2. Custom cannot eradicate concupiscence, nor can it change the greater proclivities of men to delight in the appearance of women than women do in the appearance of men. Therefore, while custom may be altered, human nature will not be altered and must be adverted to.

Reply to Objection 3. Outward attire exists primarily for three reasons. First, to protect against physical harm, such as from heat or cold or blows in battle. Second, to mark or distinguish ourselves among other people in society. Third, to protect against lust and shame, as it is written (Genesis 3:7): “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” Therefore, these considerations hold primacy of place in the reasonable choice of outward apparel, and only afterward can other motives be evaluated.

Now on to the rambling.

Notre Dame has been plagued with “Catholic identity” troubles over the past few years. Without repeating them all, I will simply point the reader’s attention to another recent story there which broke when a large number of students asked for content filters for their internet connections to help avoid “inappropriate” content. The administration balked, and now we are seeing a rather vile backlash over a concerned mother asking young girls to dress for church better than they dress for the gym – as if it is any wonder. There are hundreds and hundreds of comments under the main story, almost all of them deeply critical.

No doubt, many of the people screeching wild accusations of bad parenting at this poor concerned mother and proclaiming the virtue of individual liberties are the same people who complain about a “rape culture” on college campuses. While there is no demonstrable systemic toleration or support of verifiable rape in universities in the West – and thus no “rape culture” – there is what one might call a “culture of promiscuity.” This is the toleration and support of every kind of sexual activity, as long as it’s consensual (with a few arbitrary exceptions, like student-teacher relationships and incest). What to say then about the high amounts of regretful sex and he-said-she-said cases of assault? One might say that it’s almost as if a climate of loose sexual mores disposes people to make dumb sexual choices, whether by not avoiding bad situations or by crossing over nearly invisible lines in the heat of already sinful passion. While wearing this or that trashy piece of clothing in public is not immediately inducing assault, the broad acceptance of such things is part and parcel of the larger paradigm of just not giving a hoot about any kind of sexual activity short of what suffices to call the cops.

What you wear (or don’t wear) in public, it should be noted, is not consensual… You make others see you as you are without their consent. It is almost never a reasonable argument to say, “They can look away if they want.” The problem with revealing clothing is precisely that many people won’t want to look away but should for the good of their souls, and for the good of your relationship with them. Heard of the phrase, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have”? How about this: dress for the respect and real love you want, not the respect and real love you have. Those who already respect you and love you won’t care about your appearance – only new people will, who still have to be won over to a special valuation of your personhood. The better a person you are, the less you will have to compensate by flaunting your mere appearance. And if you aren’t a good person, get to work on that first.

A lot of people don’t think about this topic much for one of a few different reasons. First, they don’t understand sin in general. This is a common and large problem requiring more basic catechesis and evangelization. Second, they are so hardened by sins against chastity that they cannot even begin to see the problem with revealing a little skin. To them I say, I am sorry for you – it must be terrible to miss out on all the little joys of physicality which come along with modest courtship. (See Prof. Esolen’s wonderful article on that here.) Third, they are out of touch with how men and women actually relate with each other, both in general and in today’s particular circumstances, for whatever reason. These could even include well-meaning people who are sincerely trying to be holy but who just for the life of them can’t see why wearing skin-tight leggings to church is such a big deal. My advice to them is to accept that holiness sometimes involves giving up things that you don’t see the harm of, even if it’s simply because other people find your behavior to disturb their over-sensitive conscience. (See St. Paul’s discussion of abstaining from food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8.)

Whatever the case, there seems to be a need to address this topic more seriously at Catholic universities. Perhaps a standard chapel dress-code, for men and women, could be implemented… Or asking some of the more committed Mass-goers to step up their fashion-game to help other people see that the church is not a gym, a dance floor, or a couch… Especially at universities named after Mary, the Mother of God!

End of rant. I didn’t even get to discuss 1 Corinthians 11!

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

The double-effect gauntlet has been thrown…

Eamonn Clark

John Finnis has published the first part of a two part series on capital punishment at the Public Discourse.

It is wrong.

I will wait for the second part to appear to launch a full critique, but note now the startling assertion that he makes: all intentional human killing, of any kind, is forbidden by the 5th commandment.

For those unfamiliar with Finnis, he and Grisez (and to a lesser extent, Boyle,) were the chief architects of what is widely now considered to be a failed normative ethical project called “New Natural Law.” Its arch-proponent, Dr. Grisez, was a long-time professor at my own undergraduate university. He died only a few months ago.

NNL has its rhetorical advantages, but it suffers serious theoretical problems. I won’t explore those any time soon… Except for one, which I just did my thesis on. It centers around NNL’s vision of the so-called “principle of double effect.”

Without getting into it too much – and hopefully without spoiling the possibility of publishing my thesis in some form in the future – suffice it to say that Finnis and friends face “unintended consequences” of their own when they take the line that “intention” reigns supreme in the way they suggest.

Note that NNL theorists, while typically opposing the death penalty, would also support the use of craniotomy. (Don’t google it. It’s essentially medical abortion necessary to save the life of the mother.) This debate extends back into the 19th century, when Cardinal Caverot of Lyon inquired of the Holy Office about the matter, and Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore wrote against the procedure in his moral theology handbook. This sparked a round of debates which has swirled for more than a century. Eschbach, Pennachi, Waffelaert, Avanzini… and on and on until we have the three camps of today, one represented by NNL theorists, one represented by the teaching of the Holy Office and most Catholic moralists, and then finally one represented almost exclusively by Fr. Martin Rhonheimer.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Briefly, however, the paragraph in the Catechism about the 5th commandment and war which Finnis proof-texts (2307) is either simply poorly worded (although it does use “intentional destruction” rather than “intentional taking,” for what it’s worth), or it is just a lacuna.

lacuna1

More to come… Stay tuned and be sure to subscribe.

CRISPR: The Eugenitopia is Here

Have you heard of CRISPR? No it’s not a breakfast cereal… It’s a fast, accurate, and cheap means of changing DNA. It stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.

If you haven’t heard of it, then you need to: this is a HUGE deal.

There is a protein in bacteria called Cas9 which helps defend against viral attacks. (Yes, bacteria get viruses, too!) The bacterial DNA can take the viral DNA and store it in a special place (CRISPR). When the virus attacks a second time, RNA loads Cas9 with the viral DNA. The loaded Cas9 scans the bacteria’s DNA to find the new viral DNA that has infiltrated it, and it cuts it out – a little like a DNA antibody. Personified, that means the cell says, “I’ve seen this change before, it’s a mistake, I need to replace the change with the original information.” Then it sends a message to the Cas9 protein with the bad DNA sequence to modify, and off we go.

The Cas9 protein can be taken out of bacteria, be given a DNA sequence from any kind of living thing, be injected into any other living thing, and it will make changes in that organism based on the information it was “programmed” with.

Got that? You give Cas9 a DNA sequence you want to modify, inject it into an organism, and it will make the changes. It is fast, it is accurate, and it is CHEAP.

Okay, this is a bit of an oversimplification. There’s more to it, and no you can’t just walk into the right lab and get a shot that will make you grow wings… yet.

There are obvious benefits to this kind of procedure. CRISPR might provide us with a cure for cancer, AIDS, any number of genetic diseases, and could help us generally keep healthy (like by increasing our metabolism or improving our eyesight). Once it is really nailed down, it is very likely that a couple of $12 shots at the minute clinic will be able to get rid of your asthma, or Alzheimer’s, or cerebral palsy… forever.

But… With great power comes great responsibility.

uncleben
Thanks, Uncle Ben. Wait a minute – was Spiderman CRISPR’d?

Unfortunately, the 21st century West is not very responsible. Where might CRISPR go wrong?

Well, what color eyes would you like your child to have? Should we bump up his IQ while we’re at it? Hey, you’re an athlete, maybe we can give him long legs and enhanced muscular growth as well, so he will be sure to be athletic too. Just an extra $300, please. Oh, you’d like him to have Shiva arms and a third eye, because you’re into that kind of thing right now? You’ll have to go down the hall for that.

Anti-aging cream? Psh. Take the right injection, and your body will actually start DE-AGING. As long as you don’t get hit by a truck or something, you’re good to go for another hundred years… a thousand years… indefinitely, perhaps. Or at least we will try.

Let’s say you’re running a poor nation and, well, need things to go more “smoothly.” So you put something in the water to make all your citizens have a defect that only you can provide the fix for. And you will only provide it to a person if his taxes are paid on time, he doesn’t have too many children, and he votes for you again. (This could be done now, but not with nearly the same ease and dramatic effects.) Meanwhile, you are pumping your soldiers and police full of testosterone 2.0…

halo-mccjpg-bc17eb_1280w
It’s only cool if he’s on your side. You might look like an alien once the Great Leader poisons you.

And once such genetically modified people reproduce (whether they have been helped to be healthy or have been “upgraded” or “downgraded” somehow), those screwed up genes get passed along. At that point, there’s no stopping it. And we have no idea what that will actually mean.

Here’s a video helpful for understanding more:

This technology is developing very quickly. The Church needs to get ready with a response, ASAP. Where is the line for modification, and why? If life is a good thing and death is to be avoided, is anti-aging wrong? What is to be done in terms of people who have already changed themselves by addition – how far does the obligation extend to have such a thing undone? Is this technology really worth the risk of irreversible changes to the gene pool which we don’t even know the danger of? Could there be an obligation to use this technology to prevent certain kinds of diseases? These are the kinds of questions we have to begin asking.

Get ready. It’s coming. And once it comes, it is here to stay.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Cas9 in the Apo form

Main image source (modified): By Ben.lafrance – Template:Own rendition of the crystal structure solved by M Jinek et al, published in Science 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37224108